The thing about channel flipping is, you have to be persistent. For years now I’ve included CMT in my cable-flipping sequence, never expecting hit country music to be anything but the lame, useless crap it’s been during the pre-Garth, all-Garth, and post-Garth epochs (hat eras #11, 12, and 13, so the historians tell me).
But OK, now my radar’s up; has been since New Year’s, when I started taping big blocks of CMT for scrutiny. Shania Twain is queen dork of the universe, three fuckin’ fiddle players, Jesus—somebody put a bag on her head to stop that insane smirk/grin of hers. Ten million people love you, Shania, but I think you are the daughter of SATAN. Still, it sounds to me like the Shania crossover monster has Nashville’s lemming-writers in a very melodic, pop-influenced period. So what are you doing wasting your time watching MTV or VH-1? Get with it Jack, join the party! ‘Cause who knows, it could end in as quick a nanosecond as it seems to have started.
The song that grabbed my ear four months ago like the proverbial bat outta heck was Claudia Church’s “What’s the Matter With You Baby,” pure girl-group pop and pure 1963. Us really old folks might reference it to the sublime Skeeter Davis “I Can’t Stay Mad at You”; you young people might just say, “Hey! Great pop song!” (For a while, though, I was confusing it with Faith Hill’s more-than-worthy 1998 “This Kiss,” which keeps popping up in “recurrent” rotation.)
Moving up to April, “Single White Female” by Chely Wright might be two notches further up as the flat-out best song of the year, all genres. Steve-o Miller’s “The Joker” riff/tempo (I’ve heard pop-country do this before, aka Kim Richey’s brilliant “I Know” two summers ago) mated with “Mr. Big Stuff” Jean Knight vocals, straight white r&b of the highest order—Bonnie Raitt never had a tune this strong.
Kenny Chesney’s “How Forever Feels” is a huge hit that is as catchy as “Sweet Jane” on a good day, and better to dance to. (Yo, cousin Jenny—how ’bout goin’ on a date with cousin Kenny? Now that is one hunka papa, girl! Don’t have too many babies, y’all hear? Sorry, his parrot don’t come with the deal.) Other male hits that fit in this package: Shane McAnally’s “Say Anything” (poppy Buddy Holly–type tune that also really rocks, silly fun video); Toby Keith’s “Getcha Some” (hooky, and the rugrats in his video are pretty funny the first time you see it); and the case that proves my suspicion, Dwight Yoakam’s “Things Change.” Now, Mr. Y. has been a big zero-not-a-hero to my ears his whole damn career—can some body trade the guy a voice for his whine? But “Things Change” has edgy 1964-English-Invasion guitar chords over a very solid, Orbison-dramatic folk-rock base. Might just be a killa; ask me in three weeks.
Trisha Yearwood used to be lame, too (massacred “When You Walk in the Room”); when did she get good? She does the high-lonesome take-me-back-baby sound on “There Goes My Baby,” and it’s solid. Her old 1997 award-winning hit (in this style, but rockier and edgier) that popped up in my CMT ’99 research, “Believe Me Baby (I Lied),” is amazing hard pop: cool Fender guitar sound, vocals and simple lyrics as great as anything Jackie DeShannon ever wrote/recorded ’63–’65.
Another girl (girls being the crux of this thinking-out-loud piece): Lari White is tiny, can she sit on my bone? Nope, her SAT scores aren’t high enough, sorry babe…but her “Take Me” is neat, understated white r&b that 1960 Billboard magazine might have called “a soulful rockaballad.”
Really, though, the song that epitomizes this little Nashville pop mini-explosion is Lila McCann’s “With You.” At first you think, “Fiddles playing pop hooks, how cute,” and “Hey, I can dance to this!” (For white people, basic bunny-hop hully-gully moves still count as “dancing.” I have a solid empty 12’x15′ in the middle of my living room, used for both sissy-slampit and dance space; it’s a valid testing area.) Then the 10th, 15th, and 25th times you hear it, Lila’s song just sounds better and better. She’s a high school senior who’s an actual Tacoma cheerleader on a squad that enters serious competitions—last fall someone totally dropped her in a pyramid mishap, and she completely broke her hand. She gets no status at high school (it’s outside of Seattle, ha ha!) for being a “country singer” (first LP and two hit songs in 1997); went through a “grunge clothes”/Smashing Pumpkins phase in the eighth grade! She’s a real sweet, non-anorexic kid. (Her almost-next-door-neighbor Shannon, at fab Web page hometown.aol.com//ollylover, says, “I live like 15 minutes away from her and have had nothing but sweet run ins with her.” Which doesn’t affect her music one damn, but it lends the broken-hand story that much more, uh, what’s the 59-cent word…verisimilitude?) Lila’s a natural—sings pop-country like no teenage female since Brenda Lee. I’ll take one of her as a daughter, no problem. Now go on tour and earn yo’ family some money, honey!