Leading George Strait’s Somewhere Down in Texas, “If the Whole World Was a Honky Tonk” is a he-man fantasy in which stepping outside replaces “big expensive trials,” a bottomless tip jar replaces taxes, and “the king would be George Jones.” A decade ago, the song would have been a minor annoyance. Now it’s straight outta Crawford, a red-state manifesto. Toby Keith’s Honkytonk University promises a return to musical basics from Nashville’s loudest lynching fan, but there in the title track swaggers the “red, white, and blue blood graduate of Honkytonk U,” entertaining his “boys in Afghanistan and Baghdad City” onsite, not in the roadhouse they deserve. And here comes this huge-voiced 19-year-old from near Tacoma named Blaine Larsen: “I don’t get all this hip-hop country music/Have you seen the way they dress on CMT/I think what we need is more Alan, Brad, and George.” And in addition to hating on hip-hop, Larsen thanks God profusely, another red flag.
But maybe you would too if She’d granted you the pipes of a male LeAnn Rimes, and though I can live without the teen-suicide tearjerker the kid didn’t write, half of his debut Off to Join the World is as fresh as the Ponys or the Willowz. I’m especially partial to “The Best Man,” about the live-in boyfriend his mom found three years after his biological father took off—eventually they tie the knot, and Blaine’s the best man, and he plays with the phrase—and “In My High School,” the most telling use of the theme since Radish’s “Failing and Leaving.” “In my high school we separate the rich from the rest,” it begins, then goes on to respect “the kids with different dreams.” But stopping there would be too easy—his realism as precocious as his baritone, Larsen lays out the future the cliques all share, struggling with jobs, husbands, and wives instead of boyfriends, girlfriends, and math.
Although Larsen could turn out any number of ways, his tolerance seems ingrained—his mama got him started by living in sin. He’s from the bluest part of purple Washington, right near alt-rock’s Olympia-Seattle hotbed. Yet though he’s a talent even bigger than (oh hell, I’ll say it) Death Cab for Cutie, his aesthetic is straight Nashville. Which ought to remind us that Nashville’s not always as straight as Northerners think. You might even smell some ferment there. Maybe pop’s Republican stronghold is feeling a power surge. Maybe its triumphalism has gone to hell like Baghdad. Or maybe—probably—causation is a red herring. The music goes on, following personal, cultural, formal, and historical logics no one can sort out. “Alan, Brad, and George,” for example, obviously doesn’t refer to King George Jones. As a new traditionalism ripens, George is none other than George Strait. Alan is Alan Jackson. And Brad would be 32-year-old Brad Paisley, who bowed with 1999’s Who Needs Pictures and on August 16 will place his fourth album back near the world music section of Virgin with the rest of the exotica.
Paisley’s Part II came out just before September 11. Mud on the Tires, which arrived almost two years after, was an improvement that neither wallowed in patriotic gore like Keith nor rose to moral candor like Jackson. It just ignored the whole business, bearing down on what made Paisley a pleasant surprise to begin with: felt variations on the standard tropes with a special knack for domestic intimacy, plus one where he lands in jail in an insurance scam involving Cuban cigars, and for a closer the old hymn “Farther Along.” The new Time Well Wasted is even more focused. I’d worry that the first-rate courtship and breakup songs are his where the superb domestic-intimacy song “Waitin’ on a Woman” was farmed out, only I got distracted by “Alcohol,” which if his marriage is indeed in trouble will take care of Paisley’s alimony for as long as he lives. Balancing the pros and cons of Nashville’s and humanity’s favorite drug with a pro’s sobriety and a con man’s assurance, it promotes moderation without preaching it and avoids abstinence like it was patriotic gore.
A big reason Paisley is a role model is that he eschews not just hip-hop but anything citified, like rock. That this approach guarantees nothing is exemplified by new guy Dierks Bentley, who’s made his dent with a smarmy variation on the roving letch model helpfully entitled Modern Day Drifter. Of course, macho men like Montgomery Gentry have taught us that rock Nashville style guarantees even less. Though new guy Keith Anderson has more Charlie Daniels than Steve Earle in him, his preemptively entitled Three Chord Country and American Rock & Roll provides some relief simply by downplaying rough and rowdy ways. And then all of a sudden a four-tiered guitar build climbs to the biggest drumbeats on any record here and Bobby Pinson is upending expectations. Though it bogs down slightly in its own ambition, Jesus, what a strong album Man Like Me is.
“I put myself in the character of that small-town guy who’s made it out, or one who hasn’t,” says Pinson, the son of a football coach and a schoolteacher who spent his boyhood bouncing around rural Texas, and that’s his special secret. He hates the idiocy of rural life—”Nothin’ Happens in This Town” but stoners, losers, DWIs, and knocked-up girls. But he loves its wisdom, as in the bildungssongs “Man Like Me,” “I’m Fine Either Way,” and “I Thought That’s Who I Was,” where an escapee finds happiness returning home to his dying dad. He’s funny, as in “I Started a Band,” or the hard-won, every-line-perfect advice song “Don’t Ask Me How I Know.” He’s doomed, twice putting his high school buddy in the ground. He sings truths too plain for alt-rock in a voice too rough for new-guy country, and though he’s signed with RCA on the say-so of Gretchen Wilson producer Joe Scaife, one fears he’ll end up on Yep Roc or New West even with old guy Tracy Lawrence and the full-grown LeAnn Rimes covering his songs. But till then, he can make “Jesus Loves Me” his ghost cut if he wants.