Highs, lows and the state of country music in 2003
This was perhaps the strongest year in mainstream country since 1989-1990 for solid traditional music. The Louvin Brothers tribute album is an artistic triumphI like to think it would have happened even if O Brother hadn’t paved the way in the commercial marketplace, but I’m not so sure. June and Johnny’s passings don’t trigger a sentimental vote so much as a keen reassessment of what their music and their personas mean and will mean for generations to come. What they released this year stands solidly on its own, outside of sentiment and will survive history’s judgment. Gary Allan is finally coming into his own as the sturdy Nashville-California bridge that Dwight Yoakam has sometimes provided. Patty Loveless assumes the former Reba-Trisha mantle as country’s most eloquent woman. Kathleen Edwards sends a welcome shot of defiance across the bow of all things mainstream. Finally, a whole bunch of middle-aged and older white guys started reassessing their places and the music’s place in the grand scheme of things this year. Merle is the all-knowing and resigned grandfather with lessons for us all, Vince is the suddenly wised-up middle-aged uncle shocked by seeing the gray in his hair.
The mere fact that Music Row could not figure out how to establish a vocalist and songwriter as abundantly gifted (and, not coincidentally, photogenic) as Allison Moorer is proof enough of its current malaise. What’s wrong here? Vocally speaking, the woman’s earned her place alongside late and current greats like Tammy Wynette, Dusty Springfield, Wynonna, Patty Loveless and Natalie Maines (not to mention her sister, Shelby Lynne). Perhaps the “problem” for radio programmers has been that there’s at least as much Southern soul as country in her singing. Or is it image? Has the mainstream grown so comfortable with cute girls that there’s no more room for complex, down-to-earth women?
Seems to me this was the year that the division between “alt-country” and “country” got foggier than ever. With Dixie Chicks embracing the twang and Brooks & Dunn and Marty Stuart rocking harder than most of their supposedly “alternative” kin, I found myself listening with renewed interest to the radio.
From Patty Loveless’ mountain soul to Universal South’s Louvin Brothers tribute to Bottle Rockets-worthy records by Hank Jr. and Toby Keith, 2003 was the year that Music Row made alt-country seem irrelevant. The coup de grace was Brooks & Dunn’s Red Dirt Road, a punchy country-soul wonder with all the rootsy “authenticity” and retro sonic allusions Uncle Tupelites crave.
The records released by Brooks & Dunn, Joe Nichols and Brad Paisley were hard to resist, not least because they sounded so good. After all, mainstream country’s one undeniable advantage over its alternative brethren is the sheer luster of its audio; they not only have the best producers but the best singers as well. And yet I found myself resisting those discs, because the songwriting always copped out at a crucial moment. Every time the songs got close to an uncomfortable truth about working-class families at the cusp of the century, they substituted a reassuring fantasy. When Paisley sings about celebrity, he does so with a self-congratulatory smugness. When Brooks & Dunn sing about growing up on a red dirt road, they opt for nostalgia rather than memory. Yet when Drive-By Truckers sing about their famous heroes or their Southern childhoods, they do so with an unsettling honesty that would have felt familiar to Johnny Cash. There’s a reason that almost all the songs written after 1970 on Cash’s Unearthed set came from the alternative side of the tracks.
While Brooks & Dunn can gain kudos for making an album that resembles the 16th-best Rolling Stones album, and even as they endlessly and creatively run the riff from “Brown Sugar” (the best song on the 14th-best Rolling Stones album), they simply won’t let their music do what the Rolling Stones’ would do. Notice the lyrics to “Brown Sugar”: “Gold Coast slave ship bound for cotton fields / Sold in a market down in New Orleans / Scarred old slaver knows he’s doin’ all right / Hear him whip the women just around midnight.” And that sadistic slaver inhabits and contaminates every sex act in the rest of the song. This stoking the fire, pulling the rug, yanking up the floorboards, is just what Brooks & Dunn won’t do. Not that they’re required to, any more than the Stones were required to reincarnate Howlin’ Wolf. I’m just pointing out what’s missing, where the real barrier is.
“Don’t matter where I hang, people love my twang,” goes Bubba Sparxxx’s “Like It or Not.” From his album Deliverance to Nappy Roots’ Wooden Leather to David Banner’s “Cadillac on 22’s,” hick-hop and its harmonicas, fiddles and banjos sounded a lot countrier this year than the mall-bred fare of Martina McBride and Kenny Chesney. Hell, Sparxxx’s “Comin’ Round” was more bluegrass than Alison Krauss.
A friend of mine pointed out that when she’d seen the Chicks perform in London (six months after the famous concert), Martie’d said between songs that they’d listened to a lot of bluegrass while making Home, but that they now were listening to a lot of Eminem and Missy, and she couldn’t predict what the next album’d be like. So you never know.
I think I need to explain why I picked Anthony Hamilton’s Comin’ From Where I’m From as my No. 1 country album, when most people have pigeonholed it as R&B. There are not a lot of “country” textures here: It’s soul music with gospel and folk and rock touches, and sounds it. But these songs are country at their core, from “Mama Knew Love” to the title track, which is sung from jail, where the narrator is (as we realize, horrified) for killing his girlfriend. Even the pimpin’ song is country. (It’s called “Cornbread, Fish and Collard Greens.”) But the masterstroke is “Lucille,” a folk song about losing your woman to her former life of alcoholism and being powerless to prevent it. The first line of the chorus is, actually, “You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille,” but it’s sung differently than the one we all know, and carries a serious emotional wallop. This record is just as country as anything else that came out this year; Al Green was country, Otis Redding was country, and Anthony Hamilton has made the bravest and best country album of the year.
Country-boyism thrives on certaintynot certainty discovered out of doubt, just straight-up grinning cocksureness. It’s a good time to be cocksure in Americathe heat of combat does not favor the doubtful, the nuanced, the dialecticaland Music Row is filled with passionate intensity. I don’t mean the songs directly addressing the events and aftermath of 2001. The great country singles of last year weren’t about it (with the partial exception of “Beer for My Horses”), they were in the spirit of it. We have a frontier again, and it’s everywhere! The New No Regrets brings out the best in the new good ol’ boys, and the combination of aw shucks and awe shocks lifted a tide of B-listers and one-hitters into the heavens alongside the genre’s stars. Toby Keith’s “I Love This Bar,” Dierks Bentley’s “What Was I Thinkin,” Mark Wills’ “The Crowd Goes Wild,” erstwhile Tim McGraw’s “Real Good Man” and Blake Shelton’s title of the year, “Playboys of the Southwestern World” were all premised on so much American confidence that nothing could go wrong that nothing did. All these songs are in the key of 9/11. What didn’t happen on country radio was the country song of the year, and also the song of the year, period: The Man in Black’s cover of “Hurt” stood as a rebuke to every one of those country hits, to each swagger and grin, a song of frightening beauty and fragility that regretted everything.
The Cash-Carter clan
I was asked to prepare a newspaper obit for Johnny Cash last summer, when it seemed like it might be needed at any moment. It seemed ghoulish and made me consider Janet Malcolm’s ideas about the way journalists justify themselves: “The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and 'the public’s right to know’; the least talented talk about art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.” I used all three excuses, plus one more: “If I don’t write it, somebody else will, and not as well.” The morning Cash passed away, I got online and found the obit with my byline, except that I didn’t recognize much of it. The first paragraphs had been updated and recast by the overnight copy desk. Up top, they’d added a quote from a well-known DJ at a local country station, where Cash probably hadn’t been played in 20 years. “Johnny Cash had a great sense of humora very funny guy,” the DJ said. I put “Hurt” in the DVD player, cranked up the sound and sobbed.
By Cash’s fourth album for American, I honestly thought the gimmick had grown hoary. But the Unearthed box set completely turned my mind around. A new American songbook that will lead listeners back to classic songwriters.
Rosanne Cash, who once reigned over urban country, now polishes her Rules of Travel into consolation prizes more perfectly reflective than Lucinda’s, and so makes really smart, woman-of-the-world folk-rock. That’s almost a contradiction in terms, not as inventive as young Dylan or McGuinn, but never as geeky either, and never as country, not anymoreexcept when she and Johnny lead each other through a September song’s long afternoon of clues, vanishing in footprints.
For much of his career, Rodney Crowell too often coasted on the strength of his multiple talents, but he follows the luminous look back of The Houston Kid with an equally stunning (and sprawling) midlife inventory. He’s now written two of his three all-time best albums since turning 50. Can’t wait for the next one.
Toby and Natalie
Never met the guy, but Toby Keith seems like kind of a dick. I have no taste for his bully-boy politics, not to mention that song dissing music criticslame even if you sympathize with him. But “I Love This Bar” was one of the few mainstream country tracks I heard this year that kept me from flipping Sirius channels. “Weed With Willie” was very funny, and I even give the man credit for “The Taliban Song,” where he makes the artistic effort to imagine himself as an Afghani working-class shlub who reviles his government, even if it lapses into the usual jingo-jingling near the end. It’s annoying when artists you’ve come to dislike on principal actually make good music.
Watching Toby Keith square off with Natalie Maines in ’03 made for better sport than a WWF grudge match. But the typically obstreperous Keith’s most disarming move came with “I Love This Bar,” a seeming throwaway in the “Friends in Low Places” mold that, of all things, toasts tolerance and the ties that bind.
No doubt about it, Brooks and Dunn and Montgomery Gentry are the real deal, consistently delivering true country. A year ago, The Dixie Chicks would have topped this list for me. They are incredibly talented, but it’s hard to listen to their music now. Not because I don’t believe they have the right to say whatever they want, but because they came off as looking like hypocrites in that whole mess. They wanted to be able to say whatever they wanted but didn’t want others to have the freedom to react, and also chastised Toby Keith for expressing his opinions in song. In the end, it just seemed like they used the war to get publicity (the same way Keith did).
What happened this year to The Dixie Chicks ranks with the persecution of Muhammad Ali and the Smothers Brothers. I can think of no other time since when an artist has faced such political censure by what was once derisively termed “the Establishment,” but what seems not to be the fully supported established order. But the Chix were lucky: Ali lost the best years of his career before finally being embraced as the world’s greatest; the Smo-Bros lost their show. The Chix were too well-established to lose their huge fan baseand delivered to it as good an arena concert performance as I’ve ever seen. Credit them, too, for never backing down under pressure, even when their comments were so innocuous. Yet compare their plight with Johnny Cash: No one dared challenge his sentiments in “What is Truth,” his antiwar country hit at the height of the Vietnam War and its related social upheaval. And I’d like to see Charlie or Toby or Darryl or Clear Channel take on Willie Nelson now for “What Ever Happened to Peace on Earth?”
The honesty and integrity Johnny Cash embodied with such earthy eloquence have never been in such peril as now. So hats off to The Dixie Chicks for bravely speaking their minds, and a big kick in the pants to Toby Keith and the various national radio syndicates that attacked the Chicks with such venomous ignorance and intolerance. The fact that the Chicks’ most impassioned defender was Bruce Springsteen certainly speaks volumes. Should the Chicks defect, as they have indicated they may do, the loss will be to country music, not the group.
How to define country music?
At this point, it should be obvious that real country music, like real hip-hop, can be grown anywhere in our global village. One of my favorites of 2002 was an alt-country set by Sweden’s Nicolai Dunger. And one of the most memorable shows I saw last year was by Mindy Smith, a country-fried folkie with deeply soulful phrasing who was raised on the New York suburban flatlands of Long Island. The Truckers’ Patterson Hood is a country music hero that won’t appear on no stamp. I bet he ranks near the top of this critics poll. And he’s on record as saying his pick for best LP of the year is OutKast.
In explaining my choices for this poll, I must quote Saul Bellow’s eloquently basic definition of music: “Music, I assume (amateurishly), is based on a tonal code containing, inevitably, expressions of the whole history of feeling, emotion, beliefof essences inseparable from what we call our 'higher life.’ ” The “higher life” of Toby Keith? Of Shania Twain? The idea delivers its own punch line. Then again, my idea of “higher life” in 2003 came from artists who sought enlightenment by burrowing deeply into the commonplace. From Rodney Crowell’s undiluted acknowledgment of middle age to Drive-By Truckers’ taut summation of working-class rage, I heard voices reaching heavenward from bodies that were stubbornly, even pridefully, earthbound. And for me, that might stand as the essence inseparable from country music. Like blues or punk rock, two other genres whose elements have been open to fierce debate from the moment someone attempted to codify them, country music works best from attitude and emotion, not from matters of instrumentation, production or arrangement.
-Jon M. Gilbertson
As far as the marketplace is concerned, country radio continues to define what country music is. Maybe half the artists I’ve listed here have once been, still are or (in a better world than this) could be considered country according to the strictures of the airwaves. As for the rest, country, like blues, is less a form than a feeling. Defining it restricts it, but I know it when I hear it.
If Drive-By Truckers’ “Sink Hole” isn’t a great country song, I don’t know what is. There’s no doubt in my mind that the Truckers made the best record of the year in any genre. They are a country band by birth, attitude and material, even if they will never get played anywhere but college radio. My question is, who cares? If Kid Rock, Sheryl Crow, Jimmy Buffett and James Taylor are all over CMT, is there really even anything to argue about anymore?
Country music serves many uses, but one of its most important is speaking for America’s working-class adults. More than any other genre, country has spoken honestly about the joys and sorrows of trying to keep a marriage and home together in the face of drink, boredom, sexual temptation, low pay and high bills. To me, Music Row’s great betrayal of the past 10 years has not been Pro Tools or naked navels or jingoism, but the abandonment of that mission.
Marty Stuart is the one from my list who can best be relied upon to define country music, as he so ably does in his boldly stated album title. Then again, did anyone besides me list itlet alone listen to it? As it only peaked at No. 40, my whole take on the current state of country music is that a great album entitled Country Music, and consisting of what I would call precisely that, went essentially unappreciated.
This may seem like the last, sad devolution of a cherished musical style, but for a genre that allegedly values tradition, the inability to define country music at least has something resembling a legacy. Whether it was the addition of drums or the introduction of amplification, whether it was Shania Twain’s bared navel or Johnny Cash sympathizing with Vietnam protesters or the countrified Byrds getting a cold shoulder at the Opry, country music has frequently butted heads with innovators and heretics. The music has either declined or prospered as a result. So while it is fashionable to get nostalgic for the good old days, it is important to remember that our sepia-toned bygone era featured the exact same debate. Careers will prosper and falter. New music formats will succeed or fail. Country music as a business may crumble, but it’s important to remember that none of that need spell the end of country music as music.
A Prayer for the New Year
“God help Texas. May we someday learn to do politics as well as we do music. God help Nashville. May they someday learn to do music as well as they do Bibles and life insurance. God bless Willie Nelson. Bring him beer for his horses, whiskey for his men and a big bowl of herb for the bus. God bless Billy Joe Shaver. May he always remember that it’s not what goes into your mouth, it’s what comes out of it. God bless Natalie Maines. May she continue to speak the truth, at home and abroad, however unpopular that might be. God help George Bush, for even the president of the United States must sometimes have to stand naked. God save America, for we know not what we do.”
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