Saturday, February 12, 2011

Thanks, Brad - My Country, 'Tis of Thee

The following is a guest contribution by Maurice Tani of the California-based independent alt-country group 77 El Deora.

I write, (and my band, 77 El Deora, plays), country music. At least I call it that. It's certainly not pure in any sense. I draw on a lot of different influences, but down in the basement, if you look at the foundation, the bricks are made in Bakersfield, and the brick layers scratched their names into the mortar: Buck, Don, Merle....

The other day, I was driving south on 101 up in Sonoma, channel surfing the radio. As a songwriter, I generally try to give a song the benefit of the doubt and listen to at least a verse and chorus. I tune out a lot of stuff and wind up listening to way too much news radio, NPR, and Mexican music...

I wish I could listen to more country on the radio, but big time commercial country music media is another world from what independent, original country outfits like my band or Red Meat (for another shining example) do. Obviously, a lot of people listen to what comes off of Music Row in Nashville, but we have little in common with what the major labels present as country beyond the broad country label.

Scanning the FM band, I came in on the beginning of some song on a commercial country station that had a long intro (sort of unusual for commercial radio of any pop genre) with some fairly aggressive guitar, which always attracts my ear. More often than not, commercial country records tease with spicy guitar and then disappoint with bland or worse, stupid lyrics. Still, there's always a chance there might be something good....

The vocal started in with a line about the protagonist having her "Brazilian leather boots on the pedal of her German car." Red flag. I am so used these days to a main thrust of commercial country being an anthem to xenophobia, America right or wrong, foreign cars suck, city dwellers are arrogant, redneck pride, etc, etc, that I had a bad feeling about where this was going after just one line.

Apparently, this is a hot button for me. Commercial country, like all pop formats, has always had a bland side, but there were also some great songwriters working the field. By the '80s, however, production started to veer into '70s-style soft rock. They had already lost me at that point. But more recently, I have been aware of a trend of blatant pandering to what I suppose the industry has defined as their target demographic.

This latest phase in commercial country focuses heavily on an 'Us vs. Them' mentality. Singers beat their chests proudly that they are "country," "rednecks" etc, implying that they're "real" while those other people are not. Real God-fearing Americans. Real Christians. Real, down-to-earth people with real moral values as opposed to the phony elitists. It's a celebration of defiance to a perceived threat to the honest, middle-American Heartland way of life.

Everyone likes the underdog to succeed. It's story telling device that predates the written word. Modern commercial country casts the (moral, white) majority in the roll of the underdog in the culture war on everything from marriage to Christmas.

This isn't some recent invention of cynical Bush-era/Fox and Friends, Nashville A&R people. "Okie from Muskogee" came out in 1969 and similar stuff surfaces periodically (i.e. "A Country Boy Can Survive" in the early '80s) but this latest wave of anti-sophisticate self-gratification has reached new height in the years following 9/11.

So, the song on the radio continues.

"She's listening to the Beatles singing Back in the USSR."

Still wary, I'm not sure where this is headed. Is this writer about to take a swing at elitist Europeans or Communism? Obama socialists? Death camps? I mean, who doesn't like the Beatles?

The singer continues:

"She's goin' around the world tonight, but she ain't leavin' here.

She's just going to meet her boyfriend at the street fair."

Okay. Actually relatively benign. In fact, "street fair" sounds a bit urban. I would have expected "county" or "state" fair. . .

Then the chorus:

It's a french kiss, italian ice

Spanish moss in the moonlight

Just another American Saturday night

He's working an international motif into a commercial country song? Sure, it ends with the hook of "Just another American Saturday night" which sounds just like what one would expect from the Nashville song mill, but he didn't get there preaching to the choir about how great we are compared to "them." It's actually sounding like some sort of celebration of diversity. I'm gonna stick with this for another verse -or at least until the other shoe drops....

Next verse he runs through a toga party and a reference to the Greek fraternity system (elitist college education), Canadian bacon, pizza (Italy), and a couple of foreign beers (one of which is light). He ends the verse with a sort of Jimmy Buffet/Great Melting Pot reference, saying "we're living in a big 'ol cup. Fire up the blender and mix it all up!"

It's just a light-hearted country-pop song, but this is a breath of fresh air in a format that has pandered increasingly to a socio-political agenda that promotes American isolationism with the implication of our (supposed) moral superiority. Are we afraid of losing our American identity with the influx of foreign influences? Not according to this guy. Our American identity is those foreign influences all blended together. We take that for granted in most coastal cities, but this is a concept that is almost shocking coming from the conservative world of mainstream country radio. Remember, this is the radio format that effectively banned the Dixie Chicks for criticizing George Bush.

The bridge comes up after another chorus and the singer sums up his point:

"You know everywhere has something they're known for

Although usually it washes up on our shores

My great great great granddaddy stepped off of that ship

I bet he never ever dreamed we'd have all this"

He's not saying those other places are better or worse. He's saying those other places are who we are. It's a gentle point. Hardly earth-shattering. Nothing that hasn't been said before in "We Are the World" or "Feed the World" or "It's a Small, Small World" but it's the context here that is important. This isn't some star-studded, cross-genre heart and wallet tugger. This is just a common, everyday, commercial country single, made for radio play in the hyper-partisan, culture-war scarred landscape of post-9/11, (white) middle America.

Then, not once, but twice through the changes with a ripping Telecaster solo. He reprises the bridge, swapping out the last two lines with:

"Little Italy, Chinatown, sittin' there side by side

Live from New York, It's Saturday Night!"

New York City?!?! Somebody call Sarah Palin! Is he actually implying that America includes NYC?! What's next? Hollywood? San Francisco? Berkeley? (Ok, Berkeley is a stretch even in Berkeley)

If you haven't guessed by now, the artist is Brad Paisley. Yes, I know. The record came out in 2009. This song was released as a single in November. That's how little I listen to commercial country radio.

I went online and found the video:

It's not genius, but cute enough. Most notably, the imagery is urban-positive with cheap CGI video game graphics (Okay, it's a look...) (Oh, and it includes a few cameos of Little Jimmy Dickins, who is featured in many of Paisley's videos. LJD is just good music!).

Brad Paisley not trying to be deep. He (co)writes clever, fun songs and plays great guitar. He tackles a wide range of subjects in his songs that range from rural ("I'm Gonna Miss Her," "Ticks," etc) to modern, topical ("Online"). He uses a lot of irony in his lyrics and a lot of fire in his playing. I don't think he's trying to change the world, but he is exerting positive energy in a place that needs it badly. We need more Brad Paisleys.

By the way... at the end of the song, he closes the whole thing out with almost a full minute of more Tele shredding. Thanks Brad. I needed that. I needed the whole damn thing.