Monday, June 6, 2011

This Is Country Music

This Is Country Music
Brad Paisley

Bob and I used to debate the merits of contemporary country music. Most of these conversations escape my memory, but there was one time when I brought out my two major sticking points: The lack of breadth in subject matter, which relates directly to my biggest problem, the vaguely patronizing way with which the genre seems to treat its audience. In response, he nodded sagely and said, "Simple stories about life."

Now, whether you agree with him or me, this is still my problem with country as it stands today. Bob looks at country music as presenting the audience with what they want, simple stories put into song. I feel like the genre is constantly insulting its own audience by practically refusing to talk about social issues or complex stories. The world isn't always a happy place in country music, but it's always cut and dry. The envelope containing the accepted subject matter in country is very narrow.

For about a decade now, Brad Paisley has been finding very clever and very subtle ways to push that envelope. Most of his songs concern the normal fare; "I love my wife", "Weren't we stupid when we were young?", "Fishing and hunting while drinking beer is paradise on this Earth", etc. But his writing is so witty, it doesn't sound like he's pandering. He's not writing about these things because he knows it's what the audience wants: he's writing about them because he is, in many ways, a traditionalist, and they are the conventions of the genre he loves.

But every now and then, he lets out a song like "American Saturday Night," about multiculturalism in America. Not a big deal in most genres of music, but country is, both fairly and unfairly, thought of as the last bastion of racism and intolerance. So that was actually a pretty big deal. And that it was a hit made it even better. Most of the audience missed the point, yes, but that's not his fault.

So it's a little disappointing for me when This Is Country Music, his newest album, opens with a title song that features everything I don't normally like about country. Take this verse as a prime example of what I'm talking about:

Are you haunted by the echo of your mother on the phone,
cryin' as she tells you that your brother is not coming home?
And if there's anyone that still has pride and the memory of those,
that died defending the old red, white, and blue,
this is country music, and we do.

Maybe it's just me. I don't like it when music panders that blatantly. And I expect Paisley to be better about this kind of thing. It's as though he feels he may have over-played his hand on American Saturday Night, and so he's here to make amends.

The biggest complaint about This Is Country Music is that it's too long. If Paisley had cut it back from 65 minutes to 35 or 40, it would be an absolute slam-dunk. As it is, songs like "Be the Lake" and "One of Those Lives" are accomplished and entertaining enough, but they never amount to more than filler. And while country music is all about giving the people what they want, which is usually more, Paisley is smart enough to know better. Still, a remarkable talent at what I can only assume to be the peak of his powers. It may not be a great album like his last one, but it's still damn good.

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