Uncertain Strength


Rodney Atkins does Nashville’s pop-rock country thing, and does it well. He sticks mainly to the love-romance cycle (before, during, after—sometimes happily ever, often not); he declares himself an enemy of complexity but actually presents himself to the ladies as someone they can discover depths in, a strong man but with more inside. So in his vignettes he not only instructs gals how to discern this inner sensitivity, he instructs guys how to display it. Though his CD’s title song, “Honesty,” starts from the absurd premise that a man undergoing a divorce will hear from his wife for the first time that she wants him to show her more attention, it touchingly conveys his dumbfounded and uncertain sense that he’d like to do just that, and her faith that he can.

His persona runs close to that of the similarly named Trace Adkins: manly but vulnerable, not bigger than life—in fact life is bigger than he is—but reliable, man enough to take it. Like Adkins, Atkins has an easy baritone, but he’s far more flexible, can lift his singing up to light soul in the higher register. He’ll sometimes put a wah-wah-like vibrato in his voice, almost psychedelic, just for fun. Both sound and words promise comfortable yet joyous sex—he’s a solid guy, but he likes to play. “We’ll get tighter than your grandma’s girdle.” He likes to be played, too: “Baby likes to steal the covers and tell me she’s still cold.” The music could be called “soft rock,” but it’s really sharp hard rock done at low volume.

Lee Greenwood is more a soul-pop balladeer, though he’s not managed to cross from country to the adult-contemporary goldmine. His voice uses the rough I-am-a-man-in-the-throes-of-sincere-emotion melisma that—as Simon Frith has pointed out—was introduced into mainstream pop by Ray Charles. Greenwood’s lyrics, like Atkins’s, belong to the romance cycle (in fact Atkins wrote a song for Stronger Than Time), but they lack his social details. Atkins’s LP will specify that a love note is written on a luncheonette napkin, that a man gave up his truck and VCR in a breakup (and then Rodney asks, “What’s left of me?”). Greenwood’s follows soul-pop conventions by sticking to a more generalized stream of emotion.

The sentimental ballad isn’t my favorite style, but I gave a listen to Greenwood out of curiosity. His one real commercial breakout was “God Bless the U.S.A.,” a rather unimaginative patriotic song that hit back in 1984 and that he reprises here. It honors the people who died to keep us free, calls out place names—Detroit, Houston, New York—but lacks purple mountain’s poetry or ribbons of highway. Although it’s not inherently offensive, its patriotism scares me anyway, fallout from my Vietnam-era adolescence when I’d assumed that someone with a flag decal on his car would want to beat the crap out of me. Nothing in this song encourages such behavior or indicates that Greenwood might be such a person, but I nonetheless have trouble hearing songs of this type without sensing an accompanying “love it or leave it, you faggot commie.”

Strange lyric in the chorus: “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.” At least? Seems rather tentative. And interestingly, this LP has (as one of its few nonromancers) a song in which the narrator remembers from his childhood the wisdom of an old black neighbor who’d worked hard, survived the Depression, and “watched the crosses burning in a time when freedom didn’t ring.” Standard stuff, and Greenwood didn’t write the song, but by association it adds depth and decency to the patriotic number: Some of those people dying for freedom weren’t killed by foreigners, maybe? Maybe freedom isn’t snug in our heartland but something we could lose down home? Maybe strength requires uncertainty and sensitivity? I’d like to think that these guys think so.

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