Judging by the album charts, the most popular men in country music this past winter were EMF, INXS, and Don Henley. Oh, and can’t forget the Outhere Boys, them of “Boom Boom Boom” fame (y’know—”Girl, your booty is so round/Let me lick you up and down”). All those aforementioned gents were present on the megaplatinum Coyote Ugly soundtrack, a collection of clunk rock like “All She Wants to Do Is Dance” and “Unbelievable” (I suppose those pass for disco in some parts) spiked with “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” and just enough LeAnn Rimes tunes (three, all written by Diane Warren, one of which was an actual hit) to qualify as a country record. (Who decides that sort of thing anyway? Joel Whitburn, please advise.)
So it’s not a comfy time, is it, country men? With the Dixie Chicks, Lee Ann Womack, and Faith Hill commanding an already contracting market, only a few male exceptions, like genial mainstay Alan Jackson, are guaranteed hitmakers. But Mars and Venus would seem to be crossing signals down home. While cowgirls are fantasizing about dancing on bars to remember-the-’80s sleaze, the men in Nashville are convinced them high-stepping hussies are out to domesticate them. Well, nobody said being a man in the post-Garth wilderness would be easy, after all. The contradictions that pudgy superstar was able to keep in orbit with the gravity of his stardom—illuminating the tension between monogamy and restlessness with a garish flush of heightened emotion—have, in the wake of his megalomaniacal implosion, gone flying off in all directions. And it’s a mess out there.
Unsurprisingly, the fellow who torpedoed the recent female chart dominance, settling at No. 1 for a recent month or so, is the stud most willing to stake his iconic status on exploring this Garthian tension. Tim McGraw didn’t become the most famous husband in Nashville by acting the American Badass, but deep down in his restless heart Mr. Faith Hill knows that basking in his contentedness is a surefire way to become as vestigial a pop consort as Bobby Brown. So instead McGraw kicks off Set This Circus Down (Curb) by struggling manfully with “The Cowboy in Me,” a lurking demon that makes him say and do all the wrong things. (“There ain’t a line you’ve drawn I haven’t crossed,” he shrugs to his strong-but-forgiving woman.) And lest you imagine such heck-raising is all fictional, recall that McGraw’s facing charges of tussling with the po-po after pal Kenny Chesney allegedly swiped an officer’s horse. (Top that, Jigga!)
But for all his ornery protestations, McGraw rarely stirs up much trouble on his new CD. He’s an outlaw for the same reason he’s a hunk—he looks the part. But scratch that dusty surface and there’s a real henpecked simp underneath, offering up, on the lead single, “Grown Men Don’t Cry,” the most irrelevant foray into socioeconomic observation to leave the nation’s conscience unsullied since Phil Collins’s “Another Day in Paradise.” (Tim’s sorrow is plucked by the sight of a single mom with “Years of bad decisions running down her face.” Then he drives off in his Suburban.) Familiar with the sensitive Fogelbergian whiner who’s secretly a passive-aggressive bully? Well, McGraw is the opposite—a dutiful breadwinner looking tough (but acting sweet) so gal fans can safely indulge their bad-boy fantasies. He presents the illusion of rowdiness (must be the black hat) without the danger of him actually getting drunk and smashing stuff. No surprise, then, that the best track here is the convincingly understated “Forget About Us,” a regret ballad that tips its hat stylistically at Springsteen, another real-life wuss who played at rebellion, and one who also had a hard time making great music out of living happily ever after.
Hot-shit duo Montgomery Gentry are more traditionally manly—on Carrying On (Columbia), they work a hybrid variation on the demented wildass abandon of Hank Jr. and the compulsively regretful hell-raisin’ of Waylon. “She Couldn’t Change Me” is about an uppity honey what gets sick of Montgomery “sittin’ on the porch in my overalls” and hits the road. But the pull of his scruffy country charisma is just too strong—she turns around and heads back in the end. Just to be fair, though, the second-catchiest thing here, four tracks later, turns the tables. When Montgomery hooks up with a gal who’s “Hellbent on Saving Me,” he winds up on his knees, asking the Lord to change him “just enough” (rhymes with “to keep her love”).
Being a tough redneck in the New South means never having to crack a joke, but the guitars here clang hard enough to propel MG past the tight-assedness of their models. The title track is as hard a Skynyrd shuffle to make it past Today’s Country’s squeamish quality control. (Protests Gentry, “It ain’t nobody’s business what kind of flag I fly.” ” ‘Cause that’s my right,” Montgomery chimes in.) Granted, “Ramblin’ Man” isn’t an Allmans cover and wouldn’t necessarily be any more welcome if it were, but “My Father’s Son” is a dynamite sequel of sorts to last year’s class-conscious hit “Daddy Won’t Sell the Farm.” Now that Paw has literally bought the farm, Gentry’s got to fight off the foreclosure. And “Cold One Comin’ On” tweaks a great trope, referring to either a barroom brew or an empty bed, and to heartbreak either way.
Brad Paisley, on the other hand, likes jokes. He thinks marriage is funny. Same goes for heartbreak and breakups and all other affairs of the heart. Two of his standout tracks on Part II (Arista) find Paisley resigning himself to domesticity with assured good humor. “Wrapped Around” (as in “I think it’s time to put a ring on that finger I’m wrapped around”) does the adult rock and roll trick of making commitment sound daring, while “Come on Over Tonight” is a lesson in apologizing from an expert at swallowing his pride.
Again, you wouldn’t get this sense of Paisley by listening to country radio, which has predictably seized upon the ballad “Two People Fell in Love,” which insists that “love” is what makes babies. (One more reason not to let your kids learn about sex from the airwaves.) Paisley is marketed as an avatar of neotrad authenticity, and his band has the facile bluegrass licks to back that up. But what matters is that he possesses the sort of warm, lived-in voice that fleshes out an “I’m Gonna Miss Her” (his honey threatens to walk out if he heads down to the fishin’ hole) without drenching the jokes in unlistenable Hee Haw corn.
The five industry chameleons of Lonestar, on the other hand, are shameless. Beyond Garth shameless. Beyond Bellamy Brothers shameless, even. We’re talking Alabama shameless. Yet I’m Already There (BNA) leads off with two sure shots. “Out Go the Lights” is a pop-rock-with-fiddle wait-till-I-get-you-home heavy-breather that recalls Garth at his most desperately randy. And that’s topped by the loopy “Unusually Unusual,” which gets even better than its title. An unconventional (verging on insane) cutie named Amy (“call me Caroline for short”) announces “I just moved in three doors down, so I wouldn’t be the girl next door” and wonders “Hey man did you know somebody left the grass out in the yard all night?”
And is either one of these Lonestar’s latest hit single? Nope, instead they hit you upside your wallet with the goopy title track, which is all too much at home alongside “Not a Day Goes By” (” . . . that I don’t think of you,” natch), which made me wonder for the first time in years what became of Peter Cetera. Not that pedal steel doubling as orchestral swell can’t be effective in spite of itself, as these lads proved with their gargantuan cornball in the lump of America’s throat, “Amazed.” But is there an unwritten Nashville rule that heart songs should be blanched of all lyrical imagination—not to mention seductive purr? And whose interest does that serve anyway? I mean, sure, sometimes your honey just wants a little sweet talk before you both turn in. But let me tell you, boys, the thing with these modern wimmin, sometimes they really do want their booties licked up and down.