Sunday, August 3, 2014

Two Hours on The Highway

A summer in Nashville does things to a music lover. You go East, the bars have music. You go Midtown, the bars have music. Downtown, every bar has music, sometimes two and three bands on different levels. You don't have to have the music in you, Kiki Dee, because it's omnipresent in Nashville.

One weekend night we passed by two downtown bars, across the street from one another, where the bands were both playing a country-fied covers of “Don’t Stop Believin’.” It was Bourbon Street with cowboy hats and steel guitars.

Music music everywhere, and not a rock to drink.

One of the guys I got to know very well has a wife who is on the verge of breaking in. A group of us were invited to see her and a handful of up-and-comers repped by one of the big dogs in town at an exclusive event. I kept overhearing people at the party mentioning “The Highway.” The hubby explained that “The Highway” was a country station on Sirius XM and had become one of the biggest players in the business. National reach. No commercials. Plenty of time to test drive new material and measure feedback and interest. It broke Florida Georgia Line and numerous others into the big leagues, he said.

Shortly after the event, his wife found out The Highway had selected a song of hers as one of six they were going to test out in the coming weeks. This meant photo shoots and fast-tracking a video. She’s getting a real shot. It’s the dream come true before the bigger dream can come true.

While my music tastes have often danced around the edges of country, it’s been a long time since I bought an album by a popular CMA-level star (Keith Urban’s 2006 album, to be exact). But all the excitement and hope in the middle of the Music City gave me pause, and I was now one degree of separation from someone who might be a Next Big Country Thing!

For my 2-hour return to Chattanooga, I decided to dine on a non-stop diet of “The Highway.”

Now, some people complain that country music has gotten predictable. That all the songs sound the same, that all the songs are about drinkin', misbehavin’, or broken hearts, hard livin' or briefly escapin' to the beach.

After two hours of listening to “The Highway,” it’s clear that those people are 100% exactly and entirely correct.

The only -- and I mean ONLY -- song on that 120-minute journey that wasn’t about drinking, messin’, sunnin’ or cryin’, that didn’t include references to America, was a country version of “Mandolin Rain.” In other words, a cover of Bruce Hornsby’s ‘80s great was the most original and lyrically daring song in the stretch, and there wasn't a close second.

This “experiment” wasn’t some predestined or prejudged way for me to experience a genre. I didn’t go in wanting to knock or mock country music. I loved being in Nashville and listening to the bands on those few nights I got the chance. It’s fun music, and there’s a ridiculous amount of talent all over the place. But country music is clearly in a rut. A rut the depth of a WWI trench in France, or maybe even that trench where they supposedly sank the Red October.

Toes were in the water for three songs. Songs referenced rum, Patron, whiskey, PBR, beer, Jagermeister, more rum, more beer, more shots. I think Miranda Lambert’s “Something Bad” just mentioned generic “drinks” of some unknown alcoholic persuasion. Lots of bars. Lots of gorgeous strange women in those bars. A few broken hearts.

Maybe the perfect song that sums up what I heard in two hours of “The Highway” was this song called … wait for it… “Song About A Girl.” The song spent the entire time telling you what the song wasn’t about. And basically, it wasn’t about drinking rum or whiskey or beer or tequila, and it wasn’t about sitting on the beach, and it wasn’t about America, and it wasn’t about bars or strangers. It was, apparently, for 4% of the lyrics, about “a girl.” Don't worry. She's a heartbreak queen. She can rock the jeans.

Even in a country song that’s not supposed to be about those things, the dude had to spend most of the time getting those words into the song just so people would pay attention.

Now I know why I haven’t bought a country album in eight years. At this rate, it could be eight more years before anything refreshing enough to escape this rut changes my mind.


goofytakemyhand said...

There's a lot of good country music coming out of Nashville and other areas. It's just branched off to alt-country, Americana, roots, and rockabilly.

What now passes for the country music you speak of is indeed formulaic and makes my ears bleed.

And at least two of those acts will probably headline 2015 Riverbend.

Billy said...

You're absolutely right, @goofy. "Mainstream" country is in a rut, but a lot of things on the fringes is impressive and strong. The Civil Wars (RIP?) met at a Nashville songwriting retreat, and Holly Williams, for all that talk of "indie country" was on the cover of two Nashville mags while I was there. Here's to hoping the mainstream can find country music's "Nirvana" to right the path.

Robert Berman said...

I'm not much for country radio. My country tastes mainly run to the alt crowd. Neko Case's "Fox Confessor Brings the Flood" (2006) is hard to beat, not to mention the 90s stuff (Uncle Tupelo, Vigilantes of Love, etc.) I was also the guy who rose to defend the Avett Brother's old cowpunk stuff, though their new stuff is boring and slow.

Perhaps because I'm a guitar player, I'm impressed with Brad Paisley's "This is Country Music" (2011), a concept album which self-consciously runs the gamut musically from surf rock to western whistling (by Clint Eastwood no less), and lyrically from homespun moralism to sentimentality to unapologetic carousing. I also love Paisley for being a guy who clearly loves music, not just what a music career can do for him.

troutking said...

yep, xm radio's outlaw country is way better---the old stuff by Willie, Waylon, Merle, etc---and it's part of the burgeoning empire of Little Steven!

G. B. Miller said...

Personally, I don't listen to country pop for most of what you listed.

For me, I'll take the country sub-genres like bluegrass, alt-country and Americana for my country music listening pleasure.

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