Roots Watch: Brave, Specific Country Women and Timid, Generic Men?
The impossible to miss excitement this spring, within country music and in the wider pop music world, too, around the strong, risk-taking, breath-of-fresh-air releases from Kacey Musgraves and Ashley Monroe raises anew some longstanding questions about the relative effects on music makers of being relatively unnoticed. Okay; neither of them were in fact music business unknowns exactly a few years back; they were more recognized among at least some music makers then than some singer-songwriters will ever be, but given the general male dominance of recent country charts—a few obvious predecessors such as their friend and sometime co-worker Miranda Lambert and yes, also Taylor Swift aside—it’s been tempting to view the emerging work of these two markedly smart, original and fine-sounding singing songwriters as, in part at least, the result of under-detected years of practice, woodshedding, co-conspiring and mutual support by a generation of smart but marginalized country women.
The oncoming second Pistol Annies release (hint: strong again), and, I’d wager, the inevitable greater recognition for another cohort in the Annies-Musgraves clan, Brandy Clark, cowriter of a number of songs by the others and no slouch as a singer either, will further fuel the notion that we’re seeing the emergence of a generation of women born across the 1980s, who’ve been willing to take chances in lyric themes and recording sounds because they’d had little to lose—a situation known, at times, to be an excellent impetus from an artistic standpoint.
The chances taken are not just in the more obvious matters like mentioning whips and chains and smoking weed. We get actual stories from all of these new country women, stories that go places, “befores and afters,” including carefully chronicled consequences, instead of the now too-familiar pattern of “raising hot themes” while backing away from saying anything about them, like some chicken-hearted, exploitative made-for-TV movie with no more actual depth than the ad for itself. We get new stories from the heart of the country audience’s experience; “Trading One Heartbreak for Another,” an Ashley Monroe-Angaleena Presley song on that upcoming Annies album about a young mother freed from a bad relationship (“I’m not damaged goods any more”) but hurting to find their child “devastated” by the break-up, is a great example. Instead of quick country connection by name-dropping or check-off, these young singer-songwriters have been reaching for and delivering the fresh, deceptively simple, glittering specifics that are the core of potentially lasting popular art, the stuff of lines like “Mama’s hooked on Mary Kay, Brother’s hooked on Mary Jane; Daddy’s hooked on Mary two doors down,” or “Room spinnin’ round faster and faster, drownin’ in the midnight laughter, but nothin’ hits, nothing’ hurts, like the morning after.” Lines like those right there reflect all that country music can be—especially when you hear them.
So maybe there’s sense to the theory that what we’ve been seeing is that “upstart,” even marginalized, smart young women have less to lose and can and do take more chances—though before we get carried away it’s useful (as with most generalities) to mention that, for instance, Shane McAnally, a known male American, had a hand in co-writing a number of this contingent’s songs, too, Kacey’s “Merry Go Round” and Ashley’s “Two Weeks Late” among them. Talent recognizes talent.
By comparison, this spring’s pre-appearance season releases by guys with histories of big-time chart, radio and seat-filling success—Tim McGraw, Blake Shelton, Kenney Chesney, Eric Church, even the relatively non risk-adverse Brad Paisley—seem less daring. McGraw’s is a consistent, unified, pleasant listen and Paisley’s ambitious new “Wheelhouse” album, in particular, does venture into some thematic territory that challenges the audience and the programmers, as you will have heard already in his “Southern Comfort Zone,” though he tends to try to charm his way into walking back any zonal discomfort the listener may have even while he’s instigating it.
All of these performers, whether writers themselves or not so much, have pushed a little envelope from time to time in subject or sound (something rarely admitted by those who don’t listen to them at all), but percentage-wise there’s much more formulaic expectation-meeting than mold-breaking by these stars with “things to lose,” too many songs written to tested formulas. For instance, Shelton’s “Boys Around Here,” even with the R&B sound and the knowingness typical of him, amounts to catchy chorus jokes stapled to yet another by-the-numbers list — four wheel drive, ice cold beer, red dirt roads, the man upstairs, keeping it country, don’t take no shit, etcetera, etcetera, courtesy of a trio of songwriters capable of stretching in more than language bleep-ready for radio. (Ice cold roads? The red dirt upstairs? Keeping it semi-detached suburban? )
Church’s live, all blasting all the time set, revisits hits like “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag,” but mentioning Haggard or Springsteen is an easy thing, evidencing the slightest digestion of the breadth and subtlety of what they’ve made except by quotation is another. The strongest stuff on Chesney’s oncoming Life on a Rock release turns out to be gently swinging, lighter than air acoustic stuff like the single-ready “Must Be Something I Missed;” its more personal, autobiographic material more often references experiences than delivers the imagery to let us share them. The set is as idiosyncratic as he suggests, though; Kenny’s (Bob) “Marley” is a standard bearer of sweet, stoned background noise and love; the Marley I saw in New York in 1974, (in one of the most intense performances I’ve ever seen), played to an audience of a thousand grooving, stomping, fist-pumping Jamaicans in “Burnin’ and Lootin’.” So it goes. A noticeable upside when performers have been in front of as many crowds and microphones as these fellas have, it shows; McGraw, Chesney and Shelton are singing with more authority, range of expression, and even occasional swing than at any point in their careers.
Look, folks—sane pro musicians who’ve had little or marginal success generally would like to become more familiar with what these guys’ level of acceptance would feel like. And while I wish nobody hungry years of obscurity, you have to wonder, might some time outside bouncing off each other below the radar get us more startling songs from a new generation of young men?
And by the way: There’s a notable rise in songs of the “times are awful, my baby’s left me, and now all I can do is get drunk, pray, or play Lotto” variety coming from both established stars and the country newcomers discussed here, what those who don’t quite “get” country music (or the blues) often describe as genre “passivity.” But whether you’re a conservative dubious that other more collective action ought to be taken or can be, or a liberal responding “wake up; there’s a lot more we can do about your situation than those options,” the concrete depiction of how down home people are living and feeling about it right now is your necessary starting point. Exploring those specifics, in however many chords and hard-discovered truths, entertainingly when possible, is the job of all of these artists.
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