Roots Watch: Being Really, Really Real Country (Etc.)
There was some discussion here on Engine 145 last week, sparked by Sam Gazdziak’s comments on the Justin Moore “Bait a Hook” single, and its “dumped and venting guy” lyric that raises—no, presses— the musical question “Is anyone in any way unlike what we three songwriters imagine you wish me, the country singer, to appear to be, a real man—you know, a really, real (seeming) one? (It also answers the question it raises, to assure the similarly abandoned: “Of course not, but you know that. Right, baby? Right, guys?”)
I’ve noticed that self-assured, self-defined adults comfortable in their own skin don’t waste a whole lot of time or breath reminding others who they really, truly are, in mean terms or otherwise; people can just tell. Can you imagine, say, a George Strait record where his response to being left is whining “But I’m a man!”? (And now I’ll be the one to answer his own question: I bet not.)
I’m not returning to this theme to revisit Styles of Post-adolescent Empeevement, but because it seems to me that this is a telling time for this sort of record to be appearing. There’s a notably close connection between being “a real man” and being “real country” in that song, and while the history of songs about identifying with country music is about as old as the field, there have always been more self-assured, (and adult) ways to stake that claim than what Sam’s review refers to as “…you suck if you’re not as country as I am.”
Self-assured performers, formats of music, and audiences confident about their music’s strength and the identity that connects them to it, too, may go for their “we love our genre” numbers, but aren’t so intensely pulled toward belligerent “and all the other styles of music and the people who go for them are worse” songs. That was true when Chuck Berry noted in rock ‘n roll’s fledgling days that for a rocker he had “no kick against modern jazz”—and it was true in the early 1990s when those early Alan Jackson hits could good-naturedly joke about “not rocking the jukebox” (because of his mood, not some character-defining choice) or pointedly tease—but not reject—all of the country-come-latelys in “Gone Country.” The self-assured can afford a generous sense of humor.
I think it’s not an accident that we’re hearing by-the-numbers, chip-on-the-shoulder “more country than thou” songs at the same time, as was discussed in The New York Times arts’ section this past Sunday, that the charts are becoming more dominated by softer than soft shell, tougher-to-distinguish as specifically country male acts. Pendulum swings back and forth between softer, pop leaning sounds and images and more hard country sounds and styles has long been part of this music’s story. The lazy shortcut of real (or faked) belligerence in response can be, it seems, a temptation for the less musically and personality established when the pendulum swings towards soft again, but it only comes off as flailing. The unmistakably, self-assuredly country acts don’t have to react that way to the trend. They won’t now.
That Times report on only vaguely country-identified country characters was entitled “Their Soft And Not-So-Rowdy Ways,” a reference to Jimmie Rodgers’ early rougher and rowdier ones which, I’d note, were from a near-invalid with a strong sense of humor. For all of the Father of Country Music’s identification with the emerging country audience, he never felt the need to record a single song dismissing other sorts of music, or parts of the population.
A turn to the softer shell country direction is usually a sign of a lack of confidence by the record producers (and broadcasters—and songwriters and singers in response) in the genre’s ability, at the moment, to keep attracting new sought-after audiences with harder twang. This looks like one of those threatened times—with these posturing, over-reaction songs not far behind. I’m suggesting that maybe we’ll be less likely to hear dumb-ass outburst records the next time we see hard country seriously on the charts, prime time country TV specials not with begging, pressured titles like “Country’s Night to Rock,” but with the firmer position of, say, “Country’s Night to Be Country.” (And then maybe even, elsewhere, even “Rock’s Night to Country.”) That could be really, really good.
By the way: Some less-trumpeted new CDs I think you’ll have reasons to enjoy: the versatile guitar boogie-meister Kenny Vaughan has a hot CD coming out September 15 on Sugar Hill, titled V; it features not only the guitar that was in demand for years in country and rock before Kenny became a Fabulous Superlative, but some catchy songs and Vaughan vocals to boot. (There will be a live preview on the Music City Roots show on September 7.) The singular Steve Cropper of Booker T & the MGs fame produced and takes a lead role on Dedicated: A Salute to the Five Royales,in which Cropper and acts ranging from Dan Penn to Delbert McClinton, B.B. King and Lucinda Williams cover the songs of the undeservedly obscure 1950s R&B band that inspired him. (The 5 Royales were unique in blending doo wop era harmony vocals with screaming, funky, Deep South electric guitar.) Nashville’s Jon Byrd is usually classified Americana, but he sings smooth, affecting, classy country, and on his new one, Down at the Well of Wishes, he’s penned a set songs of hard won mature experience to match the vocal finesse. And while it sometimes seems that the celebrations of Bill Monroe’s 100th birthday have now been going on for 100 years, there are two quality late-breaking Monroe salute compilations to seek out: Bill Monroe Centennial Celebration, a 2-disc set from Rounder that collects vocal and instrumental turns on Big Mon composition from throughout the label’s history, and With Body and Soul from Rebel Records, as the title suggests, a somewhat earthier multi-artist salute emphasizing Monroe’s physical, soul singer side. (Rebel has a good multi-artist Monroe gospel CD too, Let the Light Shine Down.)
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