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Like on a lot of recent country albums, the sound choices are rich enough on Nobody’s Got It All, the new John Anderson LP: soul horns on the first track, which he sings with the blues feel of a gospel- or soul-based blues singer like Bobby Blue Bland or Magic Sam. There’s a song about tent revival meetings that (the song, not the meetings) starts with guitar feedback—gentle, tonal feedback, rather than a dragon screech, but feedback nonetheless—and goes into a basic drone and steady thud-thud-thud-thud push-push-push-push of the drums, not unlike the Yardbirds-Kinks-Velvets back in the day. Anderson’s got a nice voice—a beautiful voice, though one that doesn’t always reach me. Sometimes it’s too thick and chewy. In any event, I keep getting depressed by this LP. Maybe I’m depressed at it. (Can one get depressed at something? Is that grammatically legitimate? “I had to leave the room because she kept getting depressed at me”?) His lyrics here about mom-and-pop stores giving way to malls or about suits coming in and selling out your farm from under you—these just don’t interest me. Such lyrics could interest me if they were done as more than just clichés. Back on Anderson’s second album he had a song (Norro Wilson’s “July the 12th, 1939”) about a poor boy who got fingered for a rape that had actually been committed by a rich boy. That song, like the new ones, was about how the world mistreats a type of people—but it was also a story in itself, with vivid details, whereas the current lyrics just symbolize an attitude.
I like the song that goes, “I miss her a lot, but at least she took the little Chihuahua”—that’s just attitude too, but it’s funny. Otherwise, I’m fed up with this album’s attitude. (I don’t seem to mind the similar attitude last year in Merle Haggard’s “Wishing All These Old Things Were New”—maybe because it’s his kids, not the suits, who represent the new world; and they’re bugging him to give up smoking. And he’s sitting around watching Cops and seeing some guy get hauled off to jail, and Haggard’s getting pissed at the TV crew for making a display of someone else’s misfortunes—”and they show it all on TV just to see somebody fail.” So he’s presenting a vivid world of sitting on couches and smoking cigarettes, not just the fact that they symbolize “real life.”)
What depressed me while listening to Anderson was how he seemed only to be looking out at something when he talked about the world, without believing that he could shape the world. The world isn’t a result of his life. The world is something that’s been done to him.
Of course, you could say that this attitude permeates the whole genre. Country is the most alienated and defensive music in existence. Even—or especially—all the “new country” happy-romance songs and boy-meets-old-girlfriend songs, I sat behind you back in geometry class, etc., which have the sense of “I’m a normal person portraying what life is like for normal people,” “these are our experiences (as opposed to those of people not like us),” the sense of trying to fend off alternatives—for instance, Tim McGraw’s “Something Like That,” Phil Vassar’s “Carlene,” and Martina McBride’s “Love’s the Only House,” all of which sound good, have interesting lyrics, but still the air of “here I am embodying a particular point of view.” No doubt you can say the same about half a million hip-hop songs, and punk songs, and heavy metal songs. Nonetheless, the alienation in country seems more entrapping. When alienation doesn’t recognize itself as such, portrays itself as normality or realness or deep-rooted moral wisdom or the life of the common people, it gives me the creeps. And maybe the gangstas and punks and metalheads are every bit as self-deceiving, but at least they know that their roles are roles, are problematic—and imagine they’re creating rather than just defending those roles. (Maybe the fact that the roles are being played for shock effect also makes them “fun,” like, “Wouldn’t it be fun to come off as a gangsta-punk-metal monster?”)
McBride’s “Love’s the Only House” contains the heartfelt (and to me utterly hilarious) line: “We got teenagers walking around in a culture of darkness living together alone.” The thing is, in the song it’s not her culture, her teenagers, her darkness.
I don’t know that country’s alienation has a bad effect on the music, however. It constrains the music, but constraints aren’t always bad. For instance, the Carrying On album by the duo Montgomery Gentry rocks even harder than Anderson’s while, like Anderson’s, calling out to the country tradition; and again like Anderson’s it wallows in the same alienation, to the point of being proud of itself for its dumbshit attitudes. Strangely enough, I like it a lot, and it irritates me a lot less than Anderson’s, despite having lyrics that are far more reactionary. Maybe its obviousness, and the simplicity of its moral incoherence, makes it less irritating—makes it funny, actually. Really, a Madison Avenue hack could’ve come up with a lot of their words. Like, OK, we’ll sit him there in his overalls, and when the girl gets too hoity-toity with her pink Chablis we’ll send her on her way, and she’ll go out West and listen to some “hip-hop mess” (sipping Chablis with her homeboys in Compton?); then we’ll bring her back when she finds out her country boy is the best. Then we’ll do some rote ambivalence about a wild-drinking boy tryin’ to stick with a church-goin’ babe. Then some blank lyrics about him driving his love away. Then stuff about how happy they are not to be in an urban life and its gang wars. Then stuff about good ole bootleggers, stuff about broken hearts and whiskey, stuff about stayin’ with the plow, keepin’ the country life.
Song titles I’d like to see: “She Got Bored With My Wild, Wild Ways” and “When I Get Drunk I Get Vague.” (Montgomery Gentry lyrics are strategically abstract when it comes to any actual wildness, getting no more specific than “I’ve cheated undertakers/I’ve dang near met my maker.” Compare to the standard hip-hop mess, e.g., metal-rappers Rehab from their new album: “You ever wanna swerve into the oncoming lane/Leaving nothing but body parts, wrecked cars, and brains?”)
But actually, vague though they are, Montgomery Gentry sound so rambunctiously redneck, they get such a kick out of these roles, that the roles come off as playthings. And the music’s quite good. It’s rock all the way through, blistering hard rock when necessary. Some of it is Southern rock boogie circa 1970, slide guitars instead of pedal steels, loud solos, fuzz guitars, organ wails. And the track—”My Father’s Son”—where the guy’s proud to be plowin’ the same old ground, doesn’t plow the same old ground musically. Rather, it’s a hard bluesy version of an ’80s rock-pop-type melody, one that Pat Benatar or Kim Wilde or Richard Marx could have sung. And it’s very good. Another favorite is “Cold One Comin’ On,” which wails like “Angel of the Morning.” And even though its lyrics come from Basic Theme No. 4 in the Country Handbook (she left me and I’m getting drunk), I like the metaphor, his contradicting the weather report: It claims warm and mild, but he feels a cold one comin’ on.
That said, and despite this album’s rock sound, and despite my finding it exhilarating where I found the Anderson depressing, and despite rocking as hard as any rock of the last five years, it still stops short of rock ‘n’ roll. And this is not because it’s staying true to “country” in some interesting way, but rather because it has put itself into psychological and intellectual shackles. All art has forms, limits, but there’s a restraint here that’s neither form nor artistry but simple evasion: Let’s not figure out what we’re talking about; let’s not see where this music can go.
Is the genre at fault here, or is that just an alibi? Maybe there’s an unwritten rule, honored on both sides of the traditional versus new country divide: “We’re country, so we don’t push.” But not everyone adheres to it. Some country music kicks—even the relatively placid Haggard kicks, though “kick” may not be the right word for him. He’s steady rather than exciting, but his steadiness drills right into you.
When has country itself been considered a vanguard, the doorway to lead us into new sounds, into the unknown future? I’d say that Western Swing was the last time. After that, no matter what its actual influence or innovations, country wasn’t perceived as representing the future. Rock ‘n’ roll was the cutoff. Country could have decided that Elvis was expanding the country sound, and embraced him as a further development of the music; country could have heard Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” and said, “My God, hear that honky-tonk music, this man is one of us.” Country could have heard the Stones’ “Satisfaction” and said, “Listen to that bass and guitar; interesting, they’re doing those country lines with fuzz instead of twang; we ought to try it too. And let’s do gigs with these guys, next time they tour.” So I think there’s a choice that country makes, to defend a faith rather than to develop one, to react rather than to act, to be done to rather than to do—or at least to perceive itself this way. The reason it can’t perceive itself as the vanguard is that it doesn’t want to be the vanguard.
I suppose that in the 1950s country couldn’t have maintained itself as an adult music while embracing rock ‘n’ roll, but this doesn’t mean it couldn’t have had parallel innovations. The music changes a whole lot, but it has a strange attitude toward this change—as if there were no inherent forward motion to country as a genre. The changes are something done to country; the new musical elements come from elsewhere and pull the music into the future (or into decline, depending on your point of view). Which is to say, you don’t read a lot of commentary about a country artist (Shania Twain, say) using arena-rock technology to make interesting country music, or about a country artist (e.g., Jo Dee Messina) using an interesting chord progression to develop the genre. What you read, pro or con, is that they don’t make real country records; they make pop records, instead.
Interestingly, now that blues-based rock is old hat (so to speak), it not only becomes part of the basic vocabulary of country, it finds itself aligned with the traditionalists.
Even though country hadn’t embraced rock ‘n’ roll, in a parallel universe it could have followed rock ‘n’ roll blueprints for how to use r&b and pop in new ways, and so country could have done the same, using r&b and pop in country ways. For instance, take the Marcels’ doo-wop version of Richard Rodgers’s “Blue Moon.” The Marcels simply wrote an altogether different r&b song in the same key as Rodgers’s, a bunch of doo-wop syllables and the phrase “blue moon” running up and down and all over; then they inserted the Rodgers song itself but kept singing the r&b song too, in the background, with its famous “bom-b-b-bom b-bom-b-bom-bom” vocal fills. The thing is, there’s no reason that this second song and its fills couldn’t be a country hoedown, with the fills done on banjos or guitars or with country voices, “d-dang-a-dang-dang” easily being transformed into “t-twang-a-twang-twang.” So you could have countrified the song in the same way that the Marcels had rock ‘n’ rolled it.
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.
So my question: What would be a new music now where 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?