Semantically Uncorrect

A kickass performer and expert mudder puts us on

To find fault with a short, spoken introduction to a hidden track is to pick something smaller than nits, but I hate Gretchen Wilson's sotto voce intro to her cover of Billie Holiday's "Good Morning Heartache":

"Four players . . . one microphone . . . one voice . . . one take." I haven't heard such a pompous setup since, let's see, I guess it was three weeks ago in a jazz club. But hang on: The press kit says the version of "Good Morning Heartache," allegedly hidden—like a hippo behind a phone pole; I'm warning you, chief, don't get me started on bonus-cut semantics—was the third take! Two takes more than one! People, if we accept lies from our country stars, soon we'll be letting our political leaders deceive us, and then what?

Now, I'm on Wilson's side—she's a kickass performer, a force of cultural good, and an expert mudder. I'll even forgive her for Tom Frank's new least favorite anthem of rightist victimhood, "Politically Uncorrect," on which she and the fighting side of Merle Haggard hold fast to currently marginalized stances such as supporting the Bible and the American flag. But quite often she's shamming us, and I'm not talking about giving the people what they want—her sops to all branches of her base are both calculated and sincere. She's putting us on, though, every time she ramps up to a wail. All that hollering is straight-up Star Search. And though in theory I'm glad she's inching away from Tanya Tucker toward George Jones, "One Bud Wiser" is all camp and no fun, and "He Ain't Even Cold Yet" is all waterworks and no pathos. In fact, all her ballads are dubious, though the Brook Benton-ish "Raining on Me" starts off well.

Expert mudder, approves of Skoal
photo: Kristin Barlowe
Expert mudder, approves of Skoal

But for now it's OK that she struggles when going deep; her trifles, mostly co-written with John Rich, say a lot. "Skoal Ring," for one of several, isn't just class pride at its smartest and funniest; it's the best mass-cult celebration of everyman ass since the cover of Born in the U.S.A. And yeah, Jacked contains a few shadowy rewrites of Here for the Party tunes, but the players this time are more in sync with the star—the music is louder, beerier. Those who knock the album for being a quickie cash-in have things all mixed up. Wilson and her collaborators are best when they grab a hoary chord change and an inspired joke and commit to them body-and-soul, worst when they're thinking about the hall of fame. The problem isn't that some of these songs were written in 10 minutes; it's that more of them weren't written in nine.

 
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