To say that country music has entered its reflexive phase might sound pretentious and even simplistic. And to say that country is pop music filtered through Nashville’s vexed notion of authenticity—this might sound even more obvious. But maybe the only valid critical response to a music that constantly hedges its bets against notions of sophistication imposed from the outside is a good belly laugh.
Viewed in this light, someone like Dwight Yoakam comes across as a formalist whose conflation of Bakersfield, Rubber Soul and prog-rock synthesizers on this year’s “She’ll Remember” reveals him as an old-fashioned postmodernist who lays out musical forms without inhabiting them. Keith Anderson, on the other hand, produced one of the year’s most brilliant yet empty singles, “XXL,” which sported a psychedelic guitar lick straight out of XTC’s Skylarking, and which rocked dead out. Anderson’s Three Chord Countryand American Rock & Roll might have been banal, but there was joy in its borrowings.
The same can be said about Big & Rich’s new Comin’ to Your City, except that its relationship to the past is far more fruitful, perplexing and substantial. Like Anderson (with whom John Rich has worked), Rich and Big Kenny Alphin like a good joke and inhabit a world of surfaces. But Comin’ to Your City, more than their acclaimed—and endlessly parsed—2004 debut Horse of a Different Color, reveals artists who have pulled off the trick of disguising real depth and complexity underneath an opaque surface.
In other words, they’re pop artists comfortable with their own ridiculousness, and creators who are somewhat ahead of their audience in ways that perhaps aren’t obvious to that audience. This becomes even more apparent when you listen to Big Kenny’s recently reissued 1999 solo effort Live a Little, an audacious record that, had it been widely heard six years ago, would have turned some heads. A song like “Under the Sun” came across like some lost post-Easybeats production by Harry Vanda and George Young, while “Cheater’s Lament” and “Trip” recalled Queen or Jellyfish.
Live a Little was marred by Alphin’s somewhat self-conscious vocals, and his pop moves weren’t quite as worked out as they could have been. Still, the record raised the possibility of a true pop-country synthesis that was unafraid to take from the most unlikely sources—a synthesis that was at once down-home and baroque, and one that had even less to do with conventional ideas of country music than Horse of a Different Color.
Comin’ to Your City opens with a goofy skit in which Big & Rich proclaim, “Someone’s got to be unafraid / To lead the freak parade.” The title track begins with a flourish of fiddle, banjo and organ, sticks in a disco bass line and throws out a cornucopia of pop-cultural references. “We flew through Cincinnati and we all got really happy / Grabbed a bowl of that Skyline chili along the way / Then we rolled on into Canton, scared the hell out of Marilyn Manson,” they sing.
“Comin’ to Your City” sounds like a hip beer commercial, one that references not only Marilyn Manson but also West Virginia clog dancer Jesco White. Like the next track, “Soul Shaker,” it’s enjoyable, rocking and about as blissfully content-free as popular music gets. Big & Rich’s trick of combining country instrumentation with hard-rock guitar is performed with aplomb, but it’s a formal exercise. As they are throughout the record, the vocals are recorded and mixed upfront, with absolutely no ambience.
“Never Mind Me” is a gloss on the Eagles and the Gin Blossoms, and reveals Rich and Alphin as songwriters somewhat impatient with form: it has everything a great pop tune needs except a bridge. Closer to the mark is “Caught Up in the Moment,” another ’70s rip reminiscent of Climax Blues Band’s 1976 hit “Couldn’t Get It Right.” Like much of Comin’ to Your City, this song hides a distinctive take on stardom and upward mobility behind a not-quite-anonymous arrangement. “He said, ‘I got a million-dollar meeting up in New York City / If I ain’t there, it’ll be a crying pity,’ ” they sing, and what makes this song work is its tone—at once detached and sardonic.
Big & Rich tackle politics and religion in “Filthy Rich,” a 1920s-style two-step. The story of a grandmother who “worked her whole life sewing at a shirt factory” only to have her life savings stolen by a “big man in a high-rise,” its heart is in the right place. It’s interesting, however, to think how much more effective, and disturbing, the tale might have been had Rich and Alphin couched the words in the big beat, fiddle and banjo they use for their less serious songs.
“Blow Your Mind” achieves the pop-country synthesis hinted at on the rest of Comin’ to Your City. It appears to be about apocalypse, or the Rapture: “Tell me, brothers, sisters, do you listen when it rains? / Are you worried something’s gonna end it all today?” With a great wordless chorus of “Boom-boom-ditty-ditty-boom” and a middle section straight out of The Move circa 1968, “Blow Your Mind” is truly ominous, a hoedown just minutes before the end of the world.
Other tunes come across as simple throwaways, like “20 Margaritas,” in which the lime-and-tequila drinks are offered as trade for moonshine, a bit of cultural exchange that manages to suggest a certain pan-Americanism. “8th of November,” a tale of the Vietnam War with a spoken-word introduction by Kris Kristofferson, is Big & Rich at their most sententious, a decent enough song somewhat clumsily delivered.
If Comin’ to Your City isn’t exactly a pop masterpiece, it does suggest a new kind of populist music: one that respects its audience enough to stretch its imagination by tapping into pop’s collective unconscious. And if some of the record seems to be lacking in what’s usually called content, one might say that Big & Rich are smart enough to distrust any notion of culture that doesn’t make room for a big belly laugh now and then. Not that they would ever express it so pretentiously.