Though it may be starting to change a little with the rise of Big & Rich (the Outkast of country - kinda, sorta), country music remains mostly uncool. Modern, mainstream country music, that is. Any self-respecting, alt-reared, would-be hipster will pay respect to a Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson, and so-called alt-country has lost its cultural moment but not much of its cachet. There are still plenty of people out there who would tell you that Lucinda Williams and Ryan Adams are real country music.
But straight-up, Nashville-based, major-label-connected, county-fair-playing, CMA-award-winning country music? Fuggitaboutit.
This prejudice against country is not unlike the prejudice against disco in the '70s. It's partly rooted in the rockist dismissal of the music's assembly-line mode of production (studio musicians, professional songwriters, fix-it-in-the-mix production trickery). But even more so, as much as detractors might not like to admit it, anti-country sentiment is rooted in disdain for the music's audience as much as for the music itself.
With disco, this dynamic was reactionary. "Disco Sucks" was essentially a veiled vehicle for all sorts submerged racist and homophobic feelings. But with the anti-country attitude, the personal disdain tends to come from the cultural left, a recoiling from the so-called soccer moms and NASCAR dads who have made President W. a two-time winner. Or worse, the assumption that listening to country music inherently equals a low IQ. (Because smart people listen to indie/alt rock and people who listen to indie/alt rock are inherently smart, right? Right?)
Country music has made periodic assaults on pop over the past few decades, but previous booms were generally easy for outsiders to deny. By consolidating the additions of the past (adult-contempo divadom, neo-trad twang, rock guitars and drums) while tossing on a healthy adoration of Southern rock and, at the vanguard, an honest interest in hip-hop, current country has happened on a musical brew that has made the genre the most reliable pop machine in America. Nothing else right now has a higher artistic batting average, not rock or pop or R&B or even hip-hop. Spend a few days scanning MTV, BET, and CMT - the joint oracles of American music culture - and, if you care more about music itself than the youth-cult clutter that comes with it, chances are you'll find yourself settling on CMT with what might be alarming frequency.
All of which brings us to this week's concert at FedExForum, which pairs Kenny "husband of Renée Zellweger" Chesney and Gretchen "Wal-Mart" Wilson. Chesney's When the Sun Goes Down and Wilson's debut Here for the Party sit at numbers 8 and 10, respectively, on the current Billboard country album chart. This would be unremarkable except that Here for the Party has been on the chart for 60 weeks and When the Sun Goes Down has been there for a staggering 74 weeks. Chesney has even released another album, though perhaps it would be for the best if we pretended the bland Jimmy Buffettisms of Be As You Are never happened.
Add to this incredible staying power a seemingly endless string of hit singles off each album, and you have a pair of Thriller-esque phenomena, albeit it within a musical world you may purposefully avoid.
If your definition of country music starts with Hank Williams and ends with Hank Williams Jr., then When the Sun Goes Down probably doesn't qualify. It's grown-up pop, made for people who were raised on rock but are living on country because no other current pop form acknowledges the reality of adult domesticity. It's packed with sharp, sneaky songs: "I'll Go Back" is honest, evocative John Mellencamp/Steve Miller Band nostalgia that bests its sources. "When the Sun Goes Down" is calypso-and-western that out-Buffetts Buffett with the ghost of Sam Cooke in the melody. Then there's my fave, "Keg in the Closet," currently number 7 on the country singles chart a good year and a half after Chesney's current run started. A state-school, frat-culture remembrance, it's an entirely unintentional answer to alt-country ("White frame house in a college town/A bunch of people always hanging around/No real problems we needed to drown/But we tried our best anyway") and a more honest drinking song than anything alt-country icons Ryan Adams and Jay Farrar have ever written.
Wilson's Here for the Party is more straight country and, perhaps paradoxically, more accessible to genre outsiders. The opening title track and the smash single "Redneck Woman" are undeniable good-time girl, Southern-rock anthems that deliver the fresh energy Wilson promises. But most of the rest of the album is based on the professional songcraft that's always been country's greatest gift, working both sides of the genre trope on the twin singles "When I Think About Cheatin'" and "Homewrecker" and completing the title "When It Rains" in satisfying fashion: "I pour."
Not everything you'll find on your country dial is on a par with Chesney and Wilson, of course. (Chesney himself hasn't been equal to When the Sun Comes Down, before or after.) Country may boast pop music's highest current batting average, but like baseball, the music measures success at a 30 percent clip. But survive such travesties as the nasal arena-pop of Rascal Flatts, the constant string of slow-down patriotic banalities, and such cringeworthy fare as Lonestar's " Mr. Mom," and there are many riches to discover in country music right now: Dierks Bentley's road rock ("A Lot of Leavin' Left To Do"), Toby Keith's assured storytelling ("As Good As I Ever Was"), Lee Ann Womack's near-perfect cycle of cheatin' songs (There's More Where That Came From), and much, much more. n
Kenny Chesney and Gretchen Wilson,
with Pat Green
Friday, July 15th