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D-Dang-A-Dang Me

In fact, a similar process has now been under way for a while. For instance, in Shedaisy's "Lucky 4 You" from a couple years back the Osborn sisters don't just sing country's unison harmonies; they also sing multivocal countermelodies and "dit-dit-dit" syllables that derive ultimately from the black vocal-group tradition but are now standard pop (e.g., Backstreet Boys) and so don't come across as "r&b." So pronunciations and musical modes that would have marked off noncountry from country 45 years ago no longer register to the ear as a big difference. Nowadays it's the general emotional sense of the music, rather than this or that musical element, that determines whether it gets onto country radio. So the session guys on the Montgomery Gentry LP can rock their butts off as long as the singers hang a sign around their neck that says "roots," Garth and Tim can take account of the fact that they and their fans all grew up listening to Kiss and James Taylor, and Shedaisy and Shania and Jo Dee Messina can put music together in new combinations as long as their innovations signify "pop" rather than "innovative." And the Martina McBride song I referred to above is, despite its silly attitudes, rather sweet, not just in its sentiment ("love's the only house big enough for all the pain in the world," whatever that means) but for its tunefulness, which derives from '60s pop-rock like the Left Banke and the Tremeloes; and since the attitudes denote "country," the music is therefore free to take care of itself. Oddly enough, the women singers from the "pop" end of country are making the music that sounds freest, maybe because—at least musically—they're flying beneath the alienation's radar.

Still, I want people to challenge the alienation, or at least to disregard it—people whose sense is that the countryness of country could take them who knows where. Country should have the same right as hip-hop to be a mess. My money's on the Dixie Chicks. "Goodbye Earl" should have made my Top 10 last year, not so much for the movie-of-the-week theme of killing an abusive hubby but more for the fun they seem to have in doing it: the merrily sarcastic snap of Natalie Maines's vocal, and the way the whole song rides the Dylanesque organ. The Chicks seem to have created a social space that allows them to play banjos and go retro without appearing retro (because they're the young blond babes and can do whatever the fuck they want) and go progressive and go pop, and they have the clout and the appeal to carry their audience with them. The crucial thing is that Natalie Maines has a voice and has the instinct to let loose, and seems to have a personality that appeals to moms and teenyboppers and wiseasses: a flamboyant girl-power, fun-power thing. She's not necessarily more empowered than (say) Loretta Lynn, but more casually and gleefully empowered. Maines's voice is strong, piercing, wailing, humorous, depending on what she wants it to do. Adult, secure in herself, no matter how sassy. Whereas the image I've gotten from her interviews is that she likes to come off as a bit of a brat, the short feisty one who might say anything just to see what will happen, but the one who can't keep her figure in line, is fighting weight fluctuations.

A secure sound with an insecure personality can often mean personal disaster, but it also can mean artistic restlessness with the chops to pull it off. (But don't take my word for it; this is what StarIQ.com has to say: "In Natalie's extraordinary chart, we find her security and fears [Saturn], her opportunities and philosophical leanings [Jupiter], and her style of communication and thinking [Mercury] all in intuitive, emotional, complementary water signs [a wide grand water trine]. Her Mercury in Scorpio is particularly highlighted in her work with her musical partners, and reveals itself in her powerful, emotional singing, her chin-out, 'Don't Mess With Me' attitude, and her fearless forays into the very heart of love and relationships.") My guess is that the restlessness won't take her much beyond Lilith Fair and singing with Sheryl in Central Park, but we'll see. The social space seems open for women singers to treat their image as an experiment, while for guys in country the choices are fewer. Maybe that's because for women the fucking-up and fucking-around role is new, while for men it's the same old drag.

Street survivors Montgomery Gentry, sans overalls
photo: Sony Music
Street survivors Montgomery Gentry, sans overalls

So my question: What would be a new music nowwhere the vanguard elements are country elements, where the future isn't added to country but derives from country, or at least gets embraced as country? If the next Dixie Chicks album were Dixie Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, what would that album sound like?

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