Despite their inveterate waving of populist flags, most critics have flinched at the specter of country music. They’ll nuzzle the slick buttocks of pop manufactured to genre specs in Orlando, in Los Angeles, in Gangsta’s Paradise, but for some reason, Nashville is the ass that cannot be licked. And now even more so, with idiot politics cutting a wider swath than ever through cee-dub. As a critic wondered elsewhere, amidst a weeklong summary of 2003, “Question of the year—country aside, why did so few musicians address the war or the administration?” Just as notable as the question was that tiny dismissal—”country aside” was the genre’s only mention. For god’s sake, don’t look at it! Especially if it’s wildly and widely beloved, and doing the interesting thing! Progressive shame trumps populist pretensions every time.
But for whatever it’s worth (I mean, it was also a great year for suicide bombers), it was a great year for country music—specifically, for tossed-off singles by non-canonical guys. Country-boyism thrives on certainty—not certainty discovered out of doubt, like gospel, just straight-up cocksureness. It’s a good time to be cocksure in America; the heat of combat does not favor the doubtful, the nuanced, the dialectical. No shit Bruce Springsteen wasn’t up to the challenge. He’s an ambivalent artist. This is a guy who wrote, “I just can’t face myself alone again . . . you ain’t a beauty, but hey you’re alright.” That was the best, but he’s no wartime consigliere. The best lack all conviction, but Music Row is filled with passionate intensity.
I don’t mean songs directly addressing the events and aftermath of 2001; those stories want a little human subtlety, and most of the blustering crap failed its test utterly. The great country singles weren’t about it (with the partial exception of “Beer for My Horses”), they were in the spirit of it. We have a frontier again, and it’s everywhere! Swagger and assholery and the charming, sick smile of the guaranteed winner—love it and hate it, but the New No Regrets brings out the best in the new good ol’ boys. Just like late-’90s irrational exuberance buoyed global-pop zeroes to infinity and beyond, the combination of aw shucks and awe shocks lifted a tide of B-listers and one-hitters into the heavens alongside the genre’s stars. Same stoke, but more American. Toby Keith’s “I Love This Bar,” Dierks Bentley’s “What Was I Thinkin’,” Mark Wills’s “The Crowd Goes Wild,” erstwhile Tim McGraw’s “Real Good Man,” and Blake Shelton’s title of the year, “Playboys of the Southwestern World,” were all premised on so much American confidence that nothing could go wrong that nothing did, even when Shelton inexplicably borrowed the chorus from “Brown-Eyed Girl” to scam brown-skinned girls when he and his pal, with rollos of “American cash,” weren’t busy mixing it up with all of, uh, um, “Mexico.” Pat Green–whoever–had a moment he’ll never have again with a redemption song so overkilltastic it lost track of the difference between spiritual porn and the real kind: “It came upon me wave on wave.”
All these songs are in the key of 9/11. It’s the right mode for Nashville’s talents. Montgomery Gentry, in the most chutzpah-having, this-world-is-my-world, take-yer-bootleg-and-shove-it invention of the year, set the spiraling rhymes and separate-but-equal stories of “Hell Yeah”—about a Johnny Cashlovin’ faded redneck and a Bruce-lovin’ junior executive—over the musical bed to “Back in Black,” replayed by the band in a country way. The moment you understand what’s going on—it takes a minute—is the moment you remember that popular music is going to recycle every bright thing you ever loved and still surprise the fuck out of you. That is to say, it reminds you why you stay alive. That happened on country radio.
What didn’t happen on country radio was the country song of the year, and also the song of the year, period. The Man in Black’s cover of “Hurt” stood as a rebuke to every one of those country hits, to each swagger and grin, a song of frightening beauty and fragility that regretted everything—as much regret as “All Apologies” or Edith Piaf, standing on the edge of a blackness reaching back quite a bit further than three Septembers.