Every couple weeks, we take a hard listen to the music in which millions of Americans soak.
Questions raised by this round of top country music singles: Did you know country stations are the only radio home for new songs (like Blake Shelton’s) built on Babyface-style slow-bump R&B heartbeat rhythms? Did you know that Nashville drummers (like Lady Antebellum’s) love a James Brown breakbeat just as much as DJ Premiere does? And did you know that pretty much every country hit today (including both of the above and Darius Rucker’s latest, too) works that Broadway/American Idol trick where most of the instruments drop out to create a dramatic hush just before the final chorus? And, shit, what if the top three country singles right this moment were, seriously, representative of all the best American pop has to offer? These three are good, people.
“Sure Be Cool If You Did”
Current Chart Position: 1
Blake Shelton’s bar-room pick-up splits the difference between Conway Twitty-horndoggery and Nashville’s newfangled pragmatism about the fact that it’s only women who bother to buy CDs anymore. So, here’s some straight-up woo-pitching from a slab of Harlequin-cover prime.
This one is all about you, the one-in-a-billion girl Shelton’s rummy is chatting up at some Applebee’s someplace: how just sitting near you has already healed and purified him better than any tent revivalist could. How it’s enough to watch you toss back your shots and get to know you. And how, maybe later, after your fascinating self has been moved by all this and can’t help but want to hear more, it would sure be cool if you went ahead and gave him the goods — and/or picked up a copy of Based On a True Story, his new album, just out on Warner Music at a list price of $12.99. Shelton promises “a night that you’ll never forget,” just like Twitty might, but before that he promises “It’s your call/ Ain’t no pressure at all,” like maybe at some point he took some seminars at Smith College.
Besides serving as a welcome post-Steubenville reminder that consent is something even he-hunks should solicit, the song’s a strong one on its own merits. The chorus is easy listening in the best sense, as in it coats your mind like Pepto coats a tummy, and it takes some serious willfulness not to sink into those pillowing guitars. There’s almost nothing else this laid back on contemporary radio, save George Strait’s great “Give It All We Got Tonight.” Also, all Shelton’s talk of beauties in neon is a reminder that, seriously, if “Purple Rain” — the song, not the the LP– came out today, it, too, would only get airplay on country radio.
Hint that Country Music Is Now Cool With Recreational Marijuana Use: “Now you’re standing in the neon/ Looking like a high I wanna be on.”
Lyric That Proves It’s Country, Not Pop: “Let your mind take a little back road.”
Verdict: Play this gem twice, and you’ll give Shelton anything — maybe even that $12.99.
Current Chart Position: 2
Here’s how odd things have gotten: Polite alt-rock kabillionaire Darius Rucker went country, and like other reverse-crossover converts (Jewel!) he dared a looser string-band-trad sound than Nashville allows its own indentured hatchlings. Now, after five number-one singles, all well-crafted ain’t-life-super? reassurances, he’s making his real old-school, down-home country-roots move — with a cover of an alt-country standard half-penned by Bob Dylan.
If you know Old Crow Medicine Show’s ascetic original, Rucker’s “Wagon Wheel” might strike you as swollen up with Music Row’s artificial sweeteners. But I find the sugaring an improvement, and not just because this secret-handshake classic is now a for-everybody hit. Relish the happy plunking of those banjos, the re-elevation of the fiddle to front-line status, and that joyous looseness, a scrappy sound you’ll find nowhere else today in of-the-moment American pop. Plus there’s Rucker’s amber-warm voice, and the impossible beauty of a million kids in a million southern minivans belting along as a black man sings “If I die in Raleigh/ At least I’ll die free.”
Hint that Country Music Is Now Cool With Recreational Marijuana Use: “I caught a trucker out of Philly/ Had a nice long toke.”
Lyric That Proves It’s Country, Not Pop: “I made it down the coast in seventeen hours/ Pickin’ me a bouquet of dogwood flowers”
Verdict: Do some Joe Ely songs next, please, Mr. Rucker!
Current Chart Position: 3
Next time some authenticity snob carps that modern country is just yesterday’s pop with a twang grafted on, you could just play him — it’s always a him — this frilly-funk pleasure, which is not a rejoinder so much as a Yeah, so what about it? This is yesterday’s pop but better, a chiffon strut tricked out with a we-like-Clyde-Stubblefield!-breakbeat and a looping guitar wiggle that works into brainloaf like worms into apple.
There’s even some of the socio-cultural truth country detractors insist Nashville no longer bothers with: The narrator chews out her man for not taking her downtown anymore, a complaint pregnant with several litters’ worth of implications. Is this just about how couples get old and start staying in? Or how city dwellers hit 30 and flee to the suburbs? Or is it deeper — frustration with how too many male country-music fans feel alienated from the swaths of American popular culture that aren’t directly marketed to them, which certainly includes downtown’s clubs? “I don’t know why you don’t take me downtown,” Hillary Scott insists, although she probably knows perfectly well why: Because the radio — both the country and talk formats — have been telling him for decades that downtown is not for dudes like him. Good luck, sister.
Hint that Country Music Is Now Cool With Recreational Marijuana Use: “We used to smoke while we were jaywalking”
Lyric That Proves It’s Country, Not Pop: “I got a dress that’ll show a little uh-huh/ But you ain’t getting uh-uh if you don’t come pick me up.”
Verdict: If this had come out in 1987, every third romantic comedy today would feature a scene of female friends bonding to it, sometimes at karaoke.