OK, right out of the gate, let me stipulate something: Country music is not my thing. Like everyone else on the planet with semi-decent musical taste, I’m a huge fan of classic country music, but the music coming out of Nashville during the past
10 20 30 years has not been something I’ve really paid attention to. The pop-oriented and factory-production tendencies that Nashville has built its billion-dollar industry on has made it seem, to me at least, as empty and soulless and craven as a dubstep remix of a will.i.am song.
So I have not been paying attention. Until I heard this:
I gave this album a listen solely based on a Twitter exchange between two people whose tastes I respect (hey @sterlewine and @maura!), and immediately felt like a complete idiot for not having paid attention earlier. However, upon listening to the full Like A Rose album … and then the first Pistol Annies record … and then basically all of Miranda Lambert‘s catalog … and then Kacey Musgraves (thanks to this two-fer review in the NYT that paired Ashley Monroe’s album and Musgraves’ excellent – though not quite totally “country” – Same Trailer Different Park album) and Brandy Clark‘s Soundcloud page (thanks to several shout-outs from Musgraves) and enough other new country music to make my wife finally say “What the hell is going on here?” I figured out that, just like pop music and R&B, mainstream country music is experiencing something of a high-quality renaissance right now.
It’s definitely not complete (looking at you, “Accidental Racist” and Florida Georgia Line and, shit, basically everything else on the country charts right now), but it’s definitely there: Nashville is cranking out some pretty decent records these days. I mean, why would I (or you) listen to a “supergroup” founded by a winner of a TV talent competition? But right there, tucked into the middle of the debut album from Miranda Lambert’s Pistol Annies project (featuring Ashley Monroe, duh) is this:
This song starts out with this lyric: “I’ve been thinking about/setting my house on fire. Can’t see a way out of the mess I’m in/And the bills keep getting higher.” Say what you will, but that’s a classic country lyric if ever there was one, but it’s also one that’s couched in thoroughly modern, Great Recession-era terms. And it’s indicative of the tone and tenor of Lambert’s (and Monroe’s and Musgraves’ and Clark’s) work. These are storytellers, relating – without sentimentality or schmaltz – the trials and tribulations of folks that are just trying to get by. Musgraves’ current hit is about waitresses gossiping over between-shift smokes; Monroe’s title track is a hardscrabble anthem, while her song “Used” is basically Dolly Parton’s “Bargain Store” circa 2013; Brandy Clark … oh my god, Brandy Clark has a song called “The Day She Got Divorced.”
“But,” you say. “But there’s been ‘real’ country-style music being made for years outside of the Nashville system.”
Yeah, sure. But to hear this kind of stuff coming out of Nashville – and not in a fit of “let’s get authentic” tokenism, but in a for-real, “let’s promote the shit out of this because it’s the next big thing” way – is bracing. That Nashville system gave us Dolly and Patsy and, despite what you want to believe, Johnny Cash. It even gave us Waylon and Willie in a weird way. Sure, Bakersfield was grittier and Texas was rootsier, but Nashville was where the songs came from that defined a good chunk of what “real” country music is. And it’s incredibly refreshing to hear it doing that again.
So, yeah, the country charts are still pretty abysmal for those of us who don’t enjoy twanged-up revisions of Southern rock or schmaltzy pop ballads with a steel guitar in the (deep, deep) background, but hey, those same charts still hold a few kernels of legit quality, so maybe you might want to start paying attention a little bit. Or at least not completely ignoring it out of hand.
Oh, and by the way, the Pistol Annies have a new record out this Tuesday. You should probably listen to it.