Though dismissed as hopelessly reactionary in some circles, mainstream country music has been making some progressive moves of late. Everybody knows about the Dixie Chicks, who don't seem to have much use for Nashville. Breakout stars Big and Rich are pushing buttons, especially regarding race and Nashville's penchant for building cultural barriers between itself and the rest of the musical world, but they've remained coy about electoral politics. And even Toby Keith has expressed some reservations regarding Iraq.
But despite these tremors, Nashville is still Bush country, with musical entertainment at the Republican National Convention this week a pretty even mix of country and contemporary Christian artists. Among the Nashville cats crooning for crony capitalists: Brooks & Dunn, Lee Ann Womack, Darryl Worley, and Sara Evans. (Say it ain't so, Sara! Say it ain't so!)
But there's another side to Nashville, and two new records from Middle Tennessee residents operating outside the country-music machine offer an alternative. Onetime Memphian Todd Snider's career-best East Nashville Skyline makes his dissent geographically specific -- praising an artist-heavy neighborhood away from Music Row that the rich avoid at all costs. Steve Earle signs off from Fairview, Tennessee, in the liner notes to The Revolution Starts Now, his one-man-527 attempt at influencing an election. But he's been battling Nashville's conservatism for years en route to becoming the American musician most likely to be seen sparring with Bill O'Reilly on national television.
The Revolution Starts Now, written and recorded as the Abu Ghraib scandal was breaking, is actually not as strident as its title suggests. The kind of revolution Earle is aiming for isn't molotov cocktails in the streets (though, if it comes to that, he might not rule it out) but rather mass personal transformation rooted in "Where you work and where you play/Where you lay your money down/What you do and what you say."
The sanity of the album's message is doubled in the liner notes, in which he writes that "Voting is vital, but in times like these voting alone simply isn't enough." This is especially welcome given a spectacle like Sunday night's MTV Video Music Awards with its overwrought "Vote or Die" theme and constant stream of celebrities imploring the (largely underage) television audience to get to the ballot box yet insisting that it doesn't matter who you vote for as long as you vote.
Earle knows good and well that it matters intensely who people vote for (if Young Republicans stay home in November, democracy will be none the worse), but he still manages to refrain from Bush-bashing. Earle's strength as a political artist isn't rally-the-troops anthems but his ability to identify with regular people caught up in messes they can't control. As in his magnificent "John Walker's Blues," his gift is in speaking convincingly in the voices of those far different from him or his audience.
On The Revolution Starts Now, this happens on two ace songs. In "Home to Houston" and "Rich Man's War," Earle offers decisive snapshots of innocents pulled into an abyss that springs from geopolitical puppetry: an independent contractor hauling freight out of Basra, a rifle-toting enlistee rolling into Baghdad, a backdoor-draftee guardsman stuck in Kandahar with bills piling up at home, and a rock-flinging Palestinian teen growing up hard in Gaza.
Following the common-sense call to action at the outset, those two songs suggest that Earle has made the political record of the year, but it all falls apart on the very next track, the spoken-word "Warrior," a clunky, pretentious experiment that derails the album. And despite the delicious, rousing "F the CC," The Revolution Starts Now never really regains its focus.
The cute "Condi, Condi," a calypso come-on to the current national security adviser, is a strangely purposeless novelty. It doesn't exactly seem an empathetic nod to an assumed moderate in a den of hawks or even to a well-meaning human being in way over her head. But there's also no sarcasm or critique to it. Absent any other kind of content, it sounds a little sexist, as if it's ultimately silly for a woman to be in such a position.
The rest is filler: "Comin' Round," a de-rigueur duet (with the ubiquitous Emmylou Harris) completely vagues out, while "I Thought You Should Know" is the kind of standard-issue love song that could have come from just about anybody on just about any album.
At only 11 songs, with two of those bookend takes on the title exhortation, The Revolution Starts Now is strangely slight for an album with such an attention-seeking title, as if Earle wanted to get his two cents in before Election Day but only had enough relevant material to fill an EP.
A better "protest" record, believe it or not, is Snider's East Nashville Skyline, which isn't outwardly political despite the presence of a righteous campfire-style sing-along called "Conservative Christian, Right-Wing Republican, Straight, White, American Males."
Snider is too modest and too nice to lecture anybody about anything, but he seems to understand in his bones just how extreme American life has gotten over the past three years, and he is certain of at least one thing: The bad shit always rains down hardest on the poor. ("Incarcerated," which captures both the surreal hilarity and underlying sadness of the lost souls on shows like Cops and Judge Judy, is genius.)
So East Nashville Skyline is less a bit of electioneering than a guide for living, a perhaps unintentional attempt to steer the coarseness of Bush's America back on track with a recipe of kindness and empathy and good humor. It's everything good folk music should be: casual and conversational rather than stuffy, smart rather than merely correct, and really, really funny.
Has it gotten so bad that we need a self-described "tree-huggin', peace-lovin', pot-smokin', bare-footin', folk-singin' hippy" to show us the way? Keep an eye on New York this week, and you may get your answer.