Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Three Chords And The Truth

So on Christmas I read Chris Willman's new book Rednecks and Bluenecks. Chris is a frequent Nashville reporter for Entertainment Weekly, and after the political explosion over the anti-Bush comments of Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines during a London concert two years ago, he decided to write a book about the place of politics in country music. It's a fast, entertaining read about my two favorite subjects.

In "objective journalist" fashion, Chris spends time talking to folks on both sides of the red-blue equation. Both sides, it turns out, are well represented in Nashville. While it is true that mainstream country music has been widely embraced as "feedback music" on the right, where rock-adverse Republicans can turn to hear songs with lyrics reflecting the exact same opinions they already have, it's also true that musicians (and even music executives) are usually a pretty liberal bunch. Willman skillfully gets both camps to open up.

The interviews with conservative musicians are fascinating as case studies of different conservative mind sets, from the ya-ya populist ignorance of Toby Keith, to the off-putting church-lady double-speak of Sarah Evans, to the biting neo-con bluster of Ronnie Dunn. The stories of how some of the post 9/11 "patriotic" country songs came into being are filled with the juicy back-stage details of how propaganda is made, each song conjuring up a queasy mixture of overt emotional manipulation, righteous indignation, heartfelt conviction, and flat-out chart-humping, market-segment-hunting greed. It's absolutely insidious. I remember last Christmas, standing in a grocery store in Orange County that had its sound system set to a country station; over the speakers came a remix of Darryl Worley's hideous Have You Forgotten with actual audio from actual George Bush speeches cut into it. I shuddered at the thought of some kind of deep-fried corn-pone Ursprache.

That's when I noticed that the woman in front of me in the check-out line was mouthing the words and crying like a maniac.

Willman also explores the more liberal world of "alt-country", the anti-mainstream neo-traditional sub-genre that has flourished in recent years, with Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris serving as progressive godparents. Earle's bitter, almost conspiratorial rantings serve as a great reminder of what alienation can take from a man. When he comments about no longer being proud to be from Texas, you just imagine this lonely political refugee wandering the cold blue streets of New York, telling himself that he's happy, while deep down he picks at the scab over his heart.

What may be the most interesting thing about the book is when Willman talks to those artists who transcend the politics of red and blue; unabashed liberal Willie Nelson recounting both how he smoked pot on the roof of the White House during the Carter Administration, and how much he enjoys working with Toby Keith; and Merle Haggard, a man who was made rich and famous by penning two anthems of conservative America, Okie From Muskogee and The Fighting Side Of Me, but who now tours with Bob Dylan and addresses the question of his voting record by recalling that, as a convicted felon for much of his life he wasn't allowed to vote, and even after Ronald Reagan pardoned him, he never took up the habit.

My only disappointment was how Willman carefully avoided an overall judgment on the actual quality of Conservative vs. Liberal music. Willman wants to stay objective, and so, instead of just coming out and stating that he finds most overtly conservative songs to be musical rubbish, he only allows himself to hint. His devastating critique of Clint Black's Iraq and Roll aside, I wish that Willman had pointed out how seriously bad most right-preaching country is; smarmy, button-pushing songs that sound like they were produced in a studio where Karl Rove sat behind the mixing board cackling "Now bring in the swelling chorus".

The truth that Willman does address is that liberal musicians, such as those in the alt-country universe, are more interested in being artists, while Nashville's flag wavers are more interested in being stars. While you may find someone like Steve Earle's baying left-wing politics a bit cloying, a song like John Walker's Blues is a better, more musically interesting piece of music then anything contained in the wretched oeuvre of a man like Darryl Worley. Simply put, talent leans left. Thus on the few occasions when actual musical goodness aligns with a conservative, or conservative-friendly message, the result is almost certainly a surefire hit. Okie From Muskogee and the anti-urban Country Boy Can Survive by Bocephus himself are powerful examples of what happens when good music meets reactionary rhetoric. Amongst other things, cash registers ring. If Nashville really wanted to make money off of middle America, they would shitcan all the talentless hacks in their stables currently penning assembly-line Red White and Blue, and instead direct all their resources towards luring, say, Lyle Lovett or Gillian Welch into the Republican fold.

In the end, talent also wins out. However don't count on Nashville to mend its ways soon. They're getting by too well on the old formula. After all, a nation that would settle for George Bush is undoubtedly willing to swallow a bit of studio-orchestrated pseudo-populist twangy excrement now and then with hardly a touch of indigestion.

Which brings us back to the Dixie Chicks. Their first two records were over-produced fluff. Right before they offended every God-fearing Bush-lover in America, they had recorded a little acoustic album called Home, that was actually quite good. Spare, stripped down bluegrass tinged music, without the typical Nashville drum machine bluster. I think that what really hung them out to dry wasn't their off-the-cuff comments, but rather, their decision to put the music first. Artists who do so often start thinking for themselves. These days, especially in Nashville, that's a dangerous thing.

Still and all, welcome home girls. I'm glad you came in from the cold. And remember, if they give you a hard time, there is one time-tested country response:


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