Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Country Music without Sap

What the hell happened? In the 1970s and early 1980s, country music was for outlaws. It could get really brave and bold. Hank Williams Jr. wanted all his "Rowdy Friends" to come over tonight. Loretta Lynn praised "The Pill" for liberating her. Willie Nelson yearned for "Whiskey River" to "take [his] mind." The end of David Allan Coe's "You Don't Have to Call Me Darlin'" was hilarious because he noted why it wasn't a "perfect country and western song": "He hadn't said anything at all about Mama, or trains, or trucks, or prison, or gettin' drunk." So writer Steve Goodman obligingly added another verse to make it perfect: "Well I was drunk the day my Mom got out of prison/And I went to pick her up in the rain/But before I could get to the station in my pickup truck/She got runned over by a damned old train." I don't think many of today's fans would understand that joke.

I love country music! I love the balance in it, how many emotions it can contain, how many stories it can tell. Little Big Town expressed it well in "Boondocks": "Five card poker on Saturday night, church on Sunday morning." Yet there seems to have been a shift further toward Sunday morning in recent years. I don't love having my heartstrings manipulated by the most blatant schmaltz--if I want to cry, I just have to open up a newspaper. I don't love those songs that prompted an unusually smart-alecky country DJ to say that Jesus should have been named "Artist of the Year" a couple years back. And I don't love the timidity of today's country radio, not to mention CMT. It's like if they dare to play something that has a good beat and/or tells the truth, there's gotta be three icky sappy songs about Jesus and family to make up for it.

My younger cousins like country. So do many other teenagers who are being raised in conservative Christian denominations. A couple of my cousins have mentioned ministers who "find something wrong with every country song I like" and how Focus on the Family's Plugged In magazine is a bane of their existence. So I looked at Plugged In's website. To give an example of the thought process at work, Alan Jackson's song "Good Time," which is my favorite of the summer so far and is as perfect for the season as a Sonic limeade, is labeled "objectionable" because it mentions alcohol use. By adults.

This month, they helpfully provided a "pro-family playlist" of songs, 20 that span about ten years and can be downloaded to one's iPod. "Pedal Steel Progress" briefly articulates the problem: "Are you tired of country music stations that play a treasure one minute and trash the next? Or how about artists who try to cover all the bases on morally inconsistent CDs?" In other words, they 've got a problem with the balance that I and other fans love. The playlist, of course, is almost completely devoid of fun and so full of sap that you'd have to blow your nose with a pancake (thanks, Lisa Simpson!) by the time you finished enduring it. Admittedly, I liked Kenny Chesney's "Don't Blink" the first hundred times I heard it, but for the most part, the Plugged In staff and I have very different views of what constitutes "trash" and "treasure."

I felt it was time to celebrate Saturday night. Time to demonstrate that country music is not and will not be just another variety of Christian contemporary music. Time to take the genre back and have some grown-up redneck fun with it, even if I am doing it from NYC now. I had help from Scarlett Robin at Yahoo! Answers, Hank Williams III's ultimate fan. My good friend Mona offered great suggestions, too. But the best came from my work husband, another redneck who got transplanted to NYC for love. He completely warmed to the project. He'd sing a few bars of suggested songs to me in the breakroom and in my cubicle! One day I will win the Powerball and buy what will become a country station that can be heard in all the boroughs of NYC, and he will be the music director. That is B's true calling!

So. The music. It is in alphabetical order by track both here and on the playlist. I limited myself to songs released within the past few years, with only a few forays into the 1990s. (No "Folsom Prison Blues," sorry!) Some have been played on the radio relentlessly between the schmaltz; others will never, ever be played on the radio. I also limited myself to songs that were available on, so I was unfortunately unable to include the likes of John Cowan's "Carla's Got a New Tattoo". Why? Because I wanted these songs, literally, to be heard. It also helped me and B. set some limits on ourselves, 'cause we're both a touch obsessive about these things and we could have done this forever instead of the stray hours of a week we took. You can pop out this 50-song playlist, set it to random play, and have yourself an excellent party to it this weekend, one to which kids shouldn't be invited. Thank the Gods for that!

    "As Good As I Once Was" - Toby Keith A man enters into a three-way with strangers and a bar fight 'cause he doesn't want to admit he's old enough to know better.
    "Billy's Got His Beer Goggles On" - Neal McCoy A heartbroken man drinks away his pain, to the amusement of his friends.
    "Boondocks" - Little Big Town A celebration of balanced living in a small town.
    "Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other" - Willie Nelson Scratch a screaming homophobe, find a screaming homosexual. What *did* you think all them saddles and boots was about?
    "Dirty Girl" - Terri Clark A celebration of tomboy-style fun. You don't need hairspray and makeup to keep a man, just a way with a wrench.
    "Electric Rodeo" - Shooter Jennings The life of a touring country singer can be a blast!
    "Every Other Weekend" - Reba McEntire w/ Kenny Chesney Being divorced with kids ain't fun.
    "Fancy" - Reba McEntire Reba rocks out and defends sex workers in this cover song.
    "The Fever" - Garth Brooks Garth draws the listener into the craziness of the rodeo by damn near going crazy himself.
    "Good Time" - Alan Jackson *The* country song of Summer 2008. Celebrates grown-up pleasures and the importance of taking a break.
    "Grandma" - Jon Nicholson A 92-year-old woman regrets never getting stoned. Her grandson helps her fulfill her wish. Really, a lovely meditation on the importance of experiencing everything one wants out of life.
    "Gunpowder and Lead" - Miranda Lambert Sometimes the cops just don't do enough when your man's beating on you! A great old-school revenge song.
    "Here for the Party" - Gretchen Wilson The joys of drinking, getting rowdy, and torquing the guys up in your tight jeans.
    "Hell Yeah" - Montgomery Gentry Drinking and dancing can be wonderful tonics when your life kinda sucks.
    "Hellbilly" - Hank Williams III Easily the most NSFW song on the list. A redneck screams about the sometimes illicit fun of country living.
    "Hick Chick (Dance Mix)" - Cowboy Troy "Hick-hop" that celebrates redneck and "blackneck" girls. Absolute club banger!
    "Hurt" - Johnny Cash The original Goth covers the Nine Inch Nails song and makes Trent Reznor sound like a whiny teenager.
    "Kerosene" - Miranda Lambert If a shotgun doesn't work against the bastard, try arson! Oh, and you can dance to it.
    "Kiss My Country Ass" - Rhett Akins A redneck's call to arms against political correctness. I hate rebel flags, and I still love this.
    "I Don't" - Danielle Peck A man seeks forgiveness using the preachy jargon he learned at church. His ex-wife refuses.
    "I Got My Game On" - Trace Adkins Excellent hype-up song before a night out, especially for men looking to pick up women.
    "I'm Gonna Miss Her (The Fishin' Song)"- Brad Paisley A woman forces her husband to choose between her and fishing.
    "Independence Day" - Martina McBride Another song about arson, this time against an abusive alcoholic. But man, Martina sounds *so* pretty.
    "It Ain't No Crime" - Joe Nichols A fun-loving single man gets tired of people telling him he needs to put on a suit and get married.
    "Ladies Love Country Boys" - Trace Adkins A girl doesn't have to be queer to bring home somebody who'll piss her parents off.
    "Last Name" - Carrie Underwood A young woman gets drunk in Vegas and makes some serious mistakes.
    "Life In a Northern Town" - Sugarland w/ Jake Owens and Little Big Town Despair, rebellion, and death in a small town, covered by some of country's most interesting new voices. Oh, and Jennifer Nettles, too.
    "Merry Christmas from the Family" - Robert Earl Keen A redneck family puts the fun in dysfunctional over the holidays.
    "Ol' Red" - Blake Shelton Hilarious story of a man who decides he's tired of his life sentence and arranges sex for the guard dog as a means of escape.
    "Portland Oregon" - Loretta Lynn and Jack White Because sloe gin fizz works mighty fast when you drink it by the pitcher and not by the glass. You might end up sleeping with Jack White!
    "Redneck Woman" - Gretchen Wilson A rallying cry for country-loving women who've never been the Barbie-doll type.
    "Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy" - Big and Rich You know this one, don't you? Gigging frogs never sounded so hot.
    "She Left Me for Jesus" - Hayes Carll A jilted man takes his ex's trading a decadent life with him for Jesus a little too literally. Key lyric: "If I ever find Jesus, I'm whipping his ass."
    "Shiftwork" - Kenny Chesney w/ George Strait Work sucks, but if you save your pennies, you can blow them on an alcohol-fueled vacation! Uses an obvious pun to good effect.
    "Sin Wagon" - Dixie Chicks A recently divorced woman decides she's been too good for too long.
    "Startin' with Me" - Jake Owen A man confesses some very bad things he's done to family and friends.
    "Stay" - Sugarland "Other women" have feelings, too!
    "Suds in the Bucket" - Sara Evans An 18-year-old scandalizes her small town by eloping.
    "Takin' off This Pain" - Ashton Shepherd A woman's had it up to here with her husband!
    "That's How They Do It in Dixie" - Hank Williams Jr. A comeback for our favorite rowdy friend, and a celebration of bad Southern girls.
    "Things That Never Cross a Man's Mind" - Kellie Pickler The American Idol contestant who could be counted on to say anything does it in song. Periods and porno are just some of the topics.
    "Ticks" - Brad Paisley Can a man use "I want to check you for ticks" as a pickup line? It probably helps if he sings--and looks--like Brad!
    "Trashy Women" - Confederate Railroad A boy decides he'd rather have a cocktail waitress in a Dolly Parton wig than the kinds of girls his parents picked out for him, and grows into a tacky but cheerful man who loves tacky but cheerful women. Just try getting this out of your head!
    "Two Pink Lines" - Eric Church A young man's honest fear about how "two pink lines" on a pregnancy test will change his and his girlfriend's lives. A bracing counterpoint to treacly "unexpected pregancies are unexpected blessings!" songs.
    "We Shall Be Free" - Garth Brooks Garth uses his superstar status to defend enviromentalism, gay rights, and religious tolerance.
    "What Do You Think About That?" - Montgomery Gentry A redneck man defends his right to be country as gentrification brings annoying new people to his town.
    "Who's Your Daddy?" - Toby Keith Because sometimes the friend with benefits can be your best friend of all!
    "Wild One" -Faith Hill A celebration of teen girl rebellion, country-style.
    "Your Man" - Josh Turner Forget that he's going to be in the upcoming Billy Graham biopic, forget that he's totally metrosexual-looking and claims to have more shoes than his wife. This will have most women and some men thinking the impurest of impure thoughts!


alan said...

Being older than dirt, I remember when Charlie Daniels was too rock and roll for country...

If you ever want to check out something that will blow your mind, look for a Chet Atkins-Jerry Reed duet album. Checking Amazon, "Sneaking Around" is available used for $2.85. I have an older one on LP, and the two of them together do things that make "Guitar Hero" look like a cakewalk!


Lisa Harney said...

I think you just identified for me why I enjoyed C&W in the 70s and early 80s and haven't had time for it since. My impression of it changed from the more "outlaw" style to the more "moral/sappy" style.


I used to work in a bar that had a combination of sappy C&W and popular rock. One day, the manager put about 20 dollars of quarters into the machine to queue up the entire C&W library right before my shift. That was one of my worst days working there, until I figured out what was up and skipped past her selections and queued up some stuff that wasn't quite as depressing. Or sappy.