Patriot Act

Nashville hangs tough for the American homeland on USO-sponsored business venture

Patriotic Country is a compilation brought to us by the energies of BMG, the charity label Music for a Cause, and the USO. A notice on the back reads, "A portion of the proceeds from the sale of each album will benefit the USO, our active-duty troops, and the families of fallen soldiers." Inside, Lee Greenwood is identified as the project's "official spokesperson" as well as "one of the most acclaimed country artists to be associated with American patriotism." The Dixie Chicks—slated to join Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M., Babyface, and others on the ambitious "Vote to Change" tour beginning later this month—do not appear.

Greenwood, of course, is the scratchy tenor best known for "God Bless the USA," a handsomely melodic piece of literal Americana swiftly embraced by the Republican Party after the song's appearance in 1984, during Greenwood's brief reign as a Nashville radio king. Sure enough, "God Bless the USA" begins the sequence. Given Greenwood's intense yet hardly superhuman voice, the track has always profited from the absence of the faux-regal; it's an anthem sung by a totally committed Mickey Mouse. The half-hat, half-muscle-shirt Montgomery Gentry spin out of Greenwood's ratty splendor with "My Town," between its folky verses and hotshot choruses as rousing a redneck rock throw-down as Nashville has managed lately. Then follow appearances by Brooks & Dunn and Martina McBride, the compilation's two most commercially potent acts. The former contribute "Till My Dyin' Day," a funked-up strut about living zestfully and forever with one's beloved. McBride, the sweet multiplatinumist with the Kansas-sized soprano whose technique is stultification itself, has come a far piece from her 1993 breakout "Independence Day," which advocated preemptive arson and equated Fourth of July fireworks with freedom for battered women. Here she vies with Kate Smith for the irredeemably square "God Bless America." Then Aaron Tippin, rarely encountered outside the hardcore country world, gets real with "Where the Stars and Stripes and the Eagle Fly": "I pledge allegiance to this flag/And if that bothers you, well, that's too bad."

Despite its Brooks & Dunn and McBride star power, today's country fans may find Patriotic Country moldy and undefinitive. It does not include pop music's most masterly response to 9/11, "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)," where Alan Jackson secured for Nashville the distinction of best communicating the creeping unreality of that event, of how sick an intelligence failure can feel in the middle of the night. Nor does it include Toby Keith's nuance-free "Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American)." But then, the kickass sentiments of that hit represent the brand of extremism that, according to some reports, the Republicans hope to keep under wraps as they mount their convention this week in New York. Among the 13 other tracks, Hank Williams Jr. offers "America Will Survive," a blues that rejects the Republican conceit that New York and Main Street hate each other. It's a properly rowdy and discursive Hank Jr. version of "America Will Always Stand," where Randy Travis, the greatest living under-50 male country singer, aestheticizes patriotism into a gospel-hued tapestry of a ballad after the style of the greatest living over-50 country singer, George Jones. Jones's "50,000 Names," about the Vietnam memorial, didn't make the cut. Maybe John Kerry can use it.

Patriotic Country is a kind of compilation that only could have come from a music center as business-determined as Nashville. None of the many Nashville or Texas or California country-music progressives over the years has ever managed to marginalize the tradition of Roy Acuff in Nashville the way Clive Davis marginalized Mitch Miller at Columbia 40 years ago. Conservatism is a part of the culture there, as intractable as the Ohio State Buckeyes in Columbus. The compilation brings back memories of a decade ago, when Garth Brooks suddenly delivered country to a national audience. But as that boom fizzled, the field went back to talking to itself.

Patriotic Country nods to Austin singer-songwriter ways via David Ball's "Riding With Private Malone," even climaxes on "Homeland," a unification-minded mid-tempo sung by Hollywood Democrat Kenny Rogers. And Dusty Drake's extraordinary "One Last Time" dramatizes, with a kind of pop-operatic skill inconceivable without the formal example of the outsized Nashville tearjerker, a husband who telephones his wife from an airplane going down; it proves the silliness of thinking conservative music styles lack what rockers think of as passion. But in the main, and especially taken as a whole, it's an on-message document of the kind of Republicanism Nelson Rockefeller spent his life fighting. During a time when America should be engaging with the whole wide world, Patriotic Country digs in its heels and reassures NASCAR dads that "This is the way we are, we don't change." Which is no way to keep the pickup trucks zooming down the freeways.

 
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