Not Like Real People 

Images on CMT don’t reflect life as most people live it

Images on CMT don’t reflect life as most people live it

Nickel Creek’s video for “This Side” is an oddball among the clips currently being aired on Country Music Television. The video’s “story” is a little quirky—the youthful bluegrass trio play their number facing the wall of a living room, while behind it a crowd of neighbors and other passersby enjoy the performance—but it’s not the premise that stands out. What’s different about the video is that it’s set in the suburbs.

The overwhelming majority of people who listen to country music haven’t actually lived in the country for half a century now. And it’s been decades since all those rural transplants filled urban working-class neighborhoods. Now, we’re told, the country audience has followed the jobs to the suburbs. Yet you can watch CMT for hours and not see a strip mall or a minivan or an office cubicle or one of those new mega-churches, or even a bass boat sitting in a driveway—all the details that would literally hit most country fans right where they live.

Not that a shock of recognition is completely absent from CMT’s programming. It’s nice, for example, that the station’s male video stars can be considered “hot” by many female fans, even with the familiar profiles—and sometimes even the comfortable waistlines—of ordinary men. Kenny Chesney and Eddie Montgomery, Travis Tritt and Tim McGraw—really, almost any major male country singer—would, deprived of their fame and leather pants, blend in perfectly with the other regular Joes at your work, church, or favorite tavern.

The women on CMT, though, are practically required to be out of this world. Martina McBride, Faith Hill, the Dixie Chicks, Lee Ann Womack, Jo Dee Messina—female country singers in today’s videos must either be drop-dead gorgeous, in a generic Hollywood sort of way, or at least willing to dress the part. No jeans and cowboy boots for these women, no bumming around the house in sweats. Instead, it’s glamour time, with singers perpetually dispatched to wardrobe for high heels and backless gowns, often with necklines plunging to their navels.

Similarly, the women pined for by male video stars look nothing like our mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, girlfriends or female co-workers. Rather, almost without exception, they are hyper-thin cover girls, the sorts of women who are more likely to show up in a Victoria’s Secret catalog than in the checkout line at Kroger. In his video to “Somebody Like You,” singer Keith Urban (who, according to my wife, looks like a cross between Tom Petty and Jewel) can be found dancing in the desert with supermodel Niki Taylor. It looks very, very hot in the video, but nobody sweats.

The locale of a typical CMT video isn’t likely to resemble where you live or work, either. No doubt for maximum visual interest, many settings could fairly be called exotic. Faith, Shania and Brooks & Dunn cavorted in deserts long before Urban showed up, and with just as little perspiration. Rascal Flatts rock out, preposterously, on an airport tarmac in the pouring rain; Emerson Drive do the same in the viewing tunnel of a salt-water aquarium.

Of course, there are the expected rural images as well: plenty of cowboy hats, for instance, along with Silver Eagles rolling down two-lanes past wheat fields and water towers. But for every time Alison Krauss & Union Station sing in front of a dilapidated country homestead, or Montgomery Gentry show us around their hometown of Perryville, Ky., there are many more videos shot in extravagantly upscale settings. Over and over, CMT’s videos are set high atop some hill, in an architecturally stunning home—and one that features hip black-and-chrome décor, with windblown, whiter-than-white, floor-to-ceiling drapes, say, or maybe just a little river running through the living room. Sure, it may be loveless in that mansion on the hill, but check out the view!

Granted, there’s good stuff on CMT. There’s the Grand Ole Opry telecast every weekend. There are some swell performances on “Most Wanted Live.” And there are the infrequent but always fascinating installments of “Country Crossroads,” where dissimilar artists are paired—Lucinda Williams with Elvis Costello, the Chicks with James Taylor—to remind us that music knows “no boundaries” (just like Ford Trucks, intones the voiceover). Now and then, the station even airs videos by country acts that don’t receive much, if any, airplay on mainstream radio. For example, last week, CMT ran clips by Radney Foster, Kelly Willis and Patty Griffin. But what’s almost always missing on the station is real life as most of us live it. And just how “country” can you be if you forget that?

Radney Foster’s video, by the way, is for a song called “Everyday Angel,” and it features footage of working Americans doing their jobs, hanging out with their friends and family, just going about their ordinary lives.

Where in the world do they come up with this stuff?

Take Five: Paul Worley

Paul Worley, COO of Warner Bros. Nashville and co-producer of Wide Open Spaces and Fly, Dixie Chicks albums that each earned Diamond certification from the RIAA for sales of 10 million copies or more.)

1. Motorcycle Touring

2. Mark Kurlansky Salt: A World History (book)

3. “Taking whatever is left in the fridge and making a meal of it.”

4. Home (relaxing with family)

5. Gibson guitars

Take Five: Tommy Womack

(Tommy Womack wrote The Cheese Chronicles, one of the great traveling-band memoirs, and will still be rocking when the lights go down on Lower Broad. His most recent album is Circus Town.)

1. Liza Minelli Wedding Photo This one photo captures the decline of American showbiz culture as starkly as Marilyn’s blowing dress portrayed it on the way up. David Gest’s face is so lifted his toes are curling and the happy bride looks the closest to normal of anyone in the photo, unbelievable by any other standard. And then there’s Michael. Michael, Michael, Michael. When your sadness can show through that much plastic surgery, you are truly dwelling in the basement of your soul. As willful a gift of genius and physical grace he’s given us to admire, he’ll still burn brighter for history as an example of why children should never be in show business. Elizabeth Taylor. Two words. Aunt Bea.

2. Low Rider Jeans God, I love low-rider jeans. I love my wife and I’m pushing 40 but I love low-rider jeans. I’ll watch a girl for a whole city block or even two, until her hips are just fuzzy pixels. You’re always hoping to see a butt crack, and it’s very important in some male way to watch because it could always happen and this might be the butt crack that is the Revelation so you must watch. God bless Britney Spears and all the products that made her possible.

3. Spicy Nacho Doritos Doritos peaked in the mid-’90s with the short-lived and much-mourned “Pizza Craver” tie-in with Pizza Hut. I cried when those two companies broke up. They were made for each other. As it is, we now troll at the trough of the Spicy Nacho. There isn’t much better in life than to be curled up in bed with the wife and child asleep, a bowl of Doritos (no noisy bags in bed, please), a Diet Coke, two Tylenol PMs and a big-ass book about Hitler.

4. The Air Traffic Controllers of North America Nobody’s thrown a party for these people yet, and they deserve one. When the attacks happened and Uncle Sam closed down the skies, we started hearing spurious reports right away: a plane was down in Washington State, one missing in Colorado, etc. None of which turned out to be true, but at the time I was glued to the TV thinking, “Yeah, this is it. No way are they going to get all those planes down without incident.” But they did. Those beautiful people channeled their inner Lloyd Bridgeses and got every single non-military plane in the American sky...out of it! Without a scratch. They should all be feted with Long Island Teas and what’s left of The Who.

5. Mike Ireland and Holler Redneck but not stupid. Sad but not sleepy. Correct but not politically so. Beautiful but not pretty. If you haven’t heard Mike Ireland and Holler, you don’t know how wonderful modern heartache can get. Mike Ireland is a torch singer. A modern Kansas prairie torch singer. This is as good as it gets and if you’re missing out, stop it.

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