The Big & Rich album Horse of a Different Color opens with a swelling chord from an echoing church organ, a move that's both sincere and calculating. "Brothers and sisters," Big Kenny Alpin preaches, as if standing in a revival-meeting tent, "We present to you, country music without prejudice."
It's an attractive promise, for country music could certainly benefit from losing its prejudices. It needs to be reminded that Charley Pride was a country star and that Johnny Cash started out as a rock 'n' roller, as the album's first track, "Rollin' (The Ballad of Big & Rich)," tells us. Country music could benefit as well from a new injection of outside influences, which the song provides with its doses of rock 'n' roll guitar, Spanish lyrics and rapping. The sermon and its attendant honky-tonk hymn are so inviting that one is tempted to leap out of one's folding chair, lift one's right hand up toward the tent roof and pledge to be born again.
And yet, that organ intro carries a whiff of tongue-in-cheek hucksterism, as if there's as much posturing as proselytizing in this bid for attention, a whiff implying that any reformist crusade arising from within Music Row will always hedge its bets. That whiff suggests that any real change likely will come from outside the confines of 16th and 17th avenues, from such unlikely sources as a resurgent Hall of Famer, an alt-rocker, an Alabama bar band and Emmylou Harris' road guitarist.
But asking the right questions is an important contribution in itself, for country music can't change until its prejudices are challenged. Why can't hip-hop, punk-rock and a Spanish tinge be added to country songs? Why can't women be as rowdy as men and men as ambivalent as women? Why can't country songs talk about cheating spouses, cruel bosses, lying politicians, dead friends and unpaid bills without resorting to clichés?
Big & Rich and their Muzik Mafia protégée, Gretchen Wilson, are asking these questions, even if their answerslike their funk and their storytellingare sometimes pat. Moreover, they're asking them in the right place, at the very heart of the industry. Change may have to come from outside Music Row, but sooner or later change has to take place in Nashville if it is to make any difference.
Big & Rich and Wilson were rewarded for these efforts in the fifth annual Country Music Critics Poll. Ninety-six critics from all over North America, from big-city newspapers and small, from magazines both mainstream and alternative, cited Big & Rich as No. 1 group, No. 2 new act and No. 5 in the artist of the year category. The voters also awarded Big & Rich the No. 4 single ("Save a Cowboy"), the No. 6 songwriter (John Rich) and the No. 7 album (Horse of a Different Color). The voters hailed Wilson as the No. 2 female vocalist, No. 1 new act and No. 2 in the artist of the year category; they gave her the year's No. 1 single ("Redneck Woman") and the No. 2 album (Here for the Party).
The Muzik Mafia combined commercial and critical success as no one has since the Dixie Chicks, but this year's poll belonged to Loretta Lynn, who had never finished in the Top 10 in any category in any of the first four Critics Polls. This year, she not only swept the album, female vocalist, songwriter and artist of the year categories, she won them by margins more reminiscent of LBJ's and Reagan's mandate-confirming landslides than Dubya's recent squeaker. Her album, Van Lear Rose, was named on 83 out of 96 ballots and received 36 first-place votesunprecedented numbers. And in the singles voting, Lynn placed two titles in the Top 10"Portland, Oregon" (No. 2) and "Miss Being Mrs." (No. 10).
It's tempting to write off Lynn's triumphlike Johnny Cash's sweeping victory in last year's pollas yet another example of a living legend receiving a belated acknowledgement. And yet, just as Cash impressed the voters with a song written by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and produced by rock-rap impresario Rick Rubin, Lynn prevailed by finding new inspiration far outside Music Row, reaching all the way to Jack White of the White Stripes.
The collaboration seemed like a bad idea when it was first announced, the kind of gimmick that sounds good when managers and label execs are having lunch at a high-priced restaurant but sounds less good when some nine-to-fiver brings the CD home with an $18 credit card receipt. Yet Van Lear Rose worked better than anyone could have hoped. White enabled Lynn to do something she never could have done on her own, and she did the same for him.
The most valuable thing that White did was to sort through Lynn's pile of unrecorded songs looking not for a 2004 radio single but for songs as good as her classic compositions like "Coal Miner's Daughter" and "You Ain't Woman Enough (To Take My Man)." What's more, he found them. The lyrics to songs like "Portland, Oregon," "Miss Being Mrs." and "Family Tree" lend a narrative substance to White's music-making that it never had before. The quirky details of those lyrics illustrate just how far Gretchen Wilson has to go as a songwriterjust compare Lynn's "Family Tree" to Wilson's similarly themed "Homewrecker."
But even in the unlikely event that some major label on Music Row had given Lynn the green light on these 11 songs, the results would have been very different. For the second most valuable thing that White did was record these tunes very fast. The fact that the backing band was a garage-rock trio plus an alt-country steel guitarist and a Cajun fiddler was less important than the fact that it was a small, flexible combo that could work quickly, for that spontaneity gave these performances an immediacy that's half their appeal.
On the other hand, the fact that the backing group was made up of garage-rockers raises this question: does instrumentation tell us anything useful about a record's country credentials? For if Van Lear Rose, with Lynn's drawling vocals about Southern, blue-collar topics and White's noisy rock guitar, is considered countryand who would dare deny it?how can the Drive-By Truckers' The Dirty South, with Patterson Hood's drawling vocals about Southern, blue-collar topics and Mike Cooley's noisy rock guitar, not be a country album?
Several critics declared on their ballot that they would have voted for the Drive-By Truckers but couldn't accept them as a country act. Even with those abstentions, enough voters put the Truckers on the ballot to send them to No. 2 in the duos/groups category, No. 3 in the songwriter category, No. 4 in the albums category and No. 5 in the artist of the year category. If a bunch of guys from Alabama singing about poker games, moonshine stills, truck stops, tornadoes, railroad workers, shotgun weddings, Ford factories, Elvis Presley, Lookout Mountain, army vets, prisons, .45 pistols, churches, car wrecks and racetracks ain't country, what the hell is?
Especially when they write about these topics as evocatively and insightfully as Lynn, Merle Haggard or Guy Clark. The Truckers have a surplus of great songwriters; most alt-country bands would give a pound of flesh to have one songwriter as good as Hood, Cooley and Jason Isbell, much less three. And if the Truckers' mix of blue-collar storytelling and rocking, twangy guitars can be considered country, why not Steve Earle's (No. 2 songwriter, No. 3 male vocalist, No. 4 artist of the year)? Or Allison Moorer's (No. 4 female vocalist, No. 15 album)? Or Neko Case's (No. 5 female vocalist, No. 25 album)? Or Dave Alvin's (No. 9 songwriter, No. 23 album)?
Except for Lynn, no performer was better able to bridge the divide between mainstream and alternative country than Buddy Miller. Miller has written songs for mainstream acts like Lee Ann Womack, Brooks & Dunn and the Dixie Chicks and has produced albums for such alternative acts as his wife Julie Miller and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Miller's new album, Universal United House of Prayer, is a gospel project, but its centerpiece is Bob Dylan's anti-war hymn, "With God on Our Side." Miller records for the ultimate alt-country label, New West, but has an old-fashioned honky-tonk voice that would have been at home on Decca Records in the '40s. For his ability to reconcile such seeming opposites, the critics voted UUHoP the year's No. 3 album and voted Miller himself the No. 2 male vocalist, the No. 5 songwriter and the No. 9 artist of the year.
Some of Music Row's best sellers were summarily dismissed by the critics. Daryl Worley finished 37th in the singles category and 51st in the albums category. Lonestar finished 54th in the singles category and was shut out in the albums. Rascal Flatts finished 57th in the singles and was shut out in the albums. Pat Green was shut out in the singles and finished 94th in the albums.
And yet the critics were willing to embrace certain mainstream acts. They voted for Alan Jackson (No. 1 male vocalist, No. 5 album, No. 5 and 11 singles, No. 8 in the artist of the year category), George Strait (No. 4 male vocalist, No. 10 artist of the year, No. 12 and No. 23 singles), Tim McGraw (No. 9 single, No. 10 male vocalist, No. 13 album) and Brad Paisley (No. 3 single, No. 9 male vocalist).
It's significant that the top three vote-getters in the new-act category were Wilson, Big & Rich and Julie Roberts, all major-label stars. Roberts, who was also awarded the No. 6 single, the No. 6 female vocalist and the No. 11 album, was an especially encouraging sign. Her bluesy, understated singing and good taste in songwriters (Julie Miller, Jamie O'Hara, Darrell Scott, Lisa Carver) has more in common with Shelby Lynne and Buddy Miller than with her chart-topping peers.
Nonetheless, the near-term future of country music may rest in the hands of Gretchen Wilson. It's easy to hear why the voters were so excited by Wilson; her big, vibrant voice and attitude are rooted in her unapologetic, rural, blue-collar background. She connected with the core country audience that comes from the same environment, and she clearly has the ability to carry them into new territory.
But where will she take them? There was a formulaic aspect to Wilson's '70s country-rock sound that was as worrisome as the vitality of her vocal personality was encouraging. What will happen on her next album? Will the songwriting catch up to the singing? Or will the singing settle into the formula? Will Wilson become the next Loretta Lynn or the next Reba McEntire? The next Natalie Maines or the next Shania Twain? Will she help Big & Rich conquer Music Row's prejudices, or will the newcomers be conquered by business-as-usual? Will "Save a Cowboy" and "Redneck Woman" be remembered as the beginning of a shift to more diverse sounds and bolder themes in country, or as novelty-song flukes? Much depends on the answers.
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