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One of the more pathetic trends in contemporary country music is the spectacle of cheesy, blow-dried crooners championing their “country” qualifications. Duded up like Village People cowboys, they babble with exaggerated drawls in songs and interviews about how proud they are to be “country”—if not by virtue of their family backgrounds, at least in their brand of boots or pickup trucks.
Some, of course, aren’t exactly lying when they divulge their humble beginnings. But the hardscrabble hyperbole reaches new heights in newcomer Tim McGraw, who likes to reminisce about his dirt-poor childhood in the Deep South. Others may have grown up in shacks, but McGraw actually claims he was raised in a barn in some forlorn Louisiana pasture. He even recalls waking up to the sounds of a cow mooing outside the window. How’s that for a hayseed?
This sort of mythmaking has always played well with country music’s audience. But in the past, growing up poor and rural was more prevalent than it is now—for the performers as well as the fans. More important, such backgrounds truly informed the music. Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors,” for example, evoked her poverty-stricken life as a Tennessee mountain girl, acknowledging bittersweet feelings of shame as well as pride. Even Hank Williams Jr.’s “A Country Boy Can Survive,” if a bit ham-fisted, has a ring of truth to it; after all, Bocephus can outhunt any musician except Ted Nugent.
Current singers who wave the country banner seem all the more ridiculous considering the music’s mainstream post-Garth audience. Today’s “young country” (the industry’s moniker for its fastest-growing market) borrows the bombast of ’70s and ’80s arena rock and adds the sentimental pap of MOR pop—one new band proudly describes itself as “Styx with a banjo.” This bright homogenized sound has none of country’s grit or fatalism; the more the music invokes its supposed country qualities, the less it resembles country music at all.
Despicable as he is, McGraw shouldn’t shoulder all the blame. The success of Travis Tritt’s 1990 “Country Club” spurred the onslaught of cornball anthems now clogging the airwaves. Worst of the current crop is Alan Jackson’s latest smash, “Gone Country,” which reduces the genre to a shopping list of western wear (“Look at them boots!” he gushes) and Norman Rockwell sham-family values. In many of these songs, the word “country” has less to do with music or geography than it does with right-wing ideology, and “country” is simply shorthand for “hard-workin’ tax-payin’ white American.”
Even a talented veteran like John Anderson can’t resist jumping on this star-spangled hayride to hell. On the title track of his new album, Country ’til I Die, Big John storms out of an uptown shindig because he can’t stand the party’s “high-falutin” music. Before he reaches the door, though, somebody shoves a plate of hors d’oeuvres at him. The very sound of the foreign word rankles him, as does the pathetic sight of “a little piece of fish, some rice, and three green beans.”
Instead of feeling hip about his lack of “social graces,” as do Jackson and other new-country hams, Anderson figures there’s something wrong with him. He even goes to a doctor, who gravely tells him that there’s no treatment for his condition: His body is “countrified,” he’s terminal. For Anderson, being country isn’t some career choice or fashion statement, it’s a disease. And in fact, it’s been a curse as much as a blessing during his rocky career.
Gifted with an ultra-bluesy baritone, Anderson is a honky-tonk singer of the old Jones ‘n’ Haggard school. (It was a Merle Haggard record he heard at age 14 that seduced him away from his boyhood faves—Hendrix and Steppenwolf.) Anderson really knows how to crawl inside a song, worrying his lines in a drawn-out, dramatic delivery. Most of the time, he sounds like he’s got a mouthful of molasses, and though he sometimes verges on self-parody, his is a truly original voice, one of the few left on country radio.
Country ’til I Die, Anderson’s 14th release, should continue the modest resurgence that began with his 1991 hit “Straight Tequila Night.” Before that, he suffered a five-year dry spell without any chart success. Despite his midcareer re-emergence, Anderson remains a fringe artist by Nashville’s blockbuster standards: When he goes on tour, he still plays smaller venues like Alexandria’s Zed or performs as an opening act in the big arenas. Though he’s found a new audience, Anderson hasn’t changed his signature sound at all. In fact, his new record—a grab bag of hard-core honky-tonk, maudlin ballads, and rocking stompers—is a dead ringer for his old ones, right down to the cover of his early smash, “Swingin’.”
Trying to cash in on Anderson’s comeback, MCA has released a compilation, You Can’t Keep a Good Memory Down, that mines the dry spell to reveal artistic triumphs in the midst of commercial failure. It shows a still-young performer bent on bold experimentation, ranging from Dixieland (“Blue Skies Again”) to hard boogie (“Lower on the Hog”) to blue-eyed soul (a previously unreleased cover of Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love”). The collection serves as a fine introduction to Anderson, along with his Warner Bros. greatest-hits package (which includes “Swingin’ ” as well as classics like “Black Sheep” and “Wild and Blue,” a song that was exquisitely covered by the Mekons’ Sally Timms).
When “Swingin’ ” first came out in ’82, it crossed over to the pop charts and eventually became one of the biggest-selling singles in Warner Bros. history. Buoyed by a lazy, infectious boogie beat—complete with R&B horns and female backup singers—the song’s universal appeal came from Anderson’s droll recollection of an affair with a neighborhood girl named Charlotte Johnson, who is “as pretty as the angels when they sing.” Their springtime romance is kindled innocently out on the Johnson family porch swing:
Her brother was on the sofa eatin’ chocolate pie
Her mama was in the kitchen cookin’ chicken up to fry
Her daddy was in the back yard rollin’ up a garden hose
And I was on the front porch feelin’ love down to my toes.
Co-written by Anderson, “Swingin’ ” is a storytelling gem in the Tom T. Hall tradition, a slice of the real South right down to the detail of the chocolate pie. (The average country tune would have either opted for the clichéd, all-American apple or tried for the Dixie-style—and ultimately forced—pecan or sweet potato.) Even as the narrator fondly catalogs the everyday bustle surrounding the young lovers, he never brags about this tryst-in-broad-daylight: He presents his tale with a wide-eyed and joyous wonder. This is the sort of song sorely missing from country radio, now ruled by swaggering Wal-Mart cowboys and their test-marketed twang.
Anderson’s new version—fueled by a souped-up organ—rocks harder than the ’82 hit, and if there was any justice, it would storm the country charts and cross over again. (It has a better chance than another recent underground cover of “Swingin’ ” by the Gay Sportscasters, an Austin rockabilly band led by ex-D.C. wildman Evan Johns. With an over-amped, vibrato guitar attack, the Sportscasters skewer the song; a crazed vocal perfectly satirizes Anderson’s slo-mo delivery and exploits the lyrics’ bawdy undertones.)
So far, though, the only song from Country ’til I Die receiving major radio play has been the heartsick ballad “Bend It Until It Breaks,” another tune composed by Anderson and longtime collaborator Lionel Delmore. Its wistful melody and old-timey fiddles recall the title track of Seminole Wind, the album that launched Anderson’s comeback in 1991. Spurred by a visit to his family homestead in rural central Florida, that song addressed the ecological crisis threatening the Everglades. (Last year, in a bit of cruel irony, Alan Jackson’s redneck ode to the pleasures of power boating, “Chattahoochee,” won top honors from the Country Music Association.)
The remaining pair of Anderson/Delmore songs reveal the strengths and weaknesses of their association, and of Anderson’s albums in general. Anderson as the sly honky-tonker is at his growling best on “It Ain’t Pneumonia, It’s the Blues,” stretching out lines like “You’re taking pills and drinking Yoo Hoos” for maximum comic effect. His playful sense of humor has always separated him from Stetson-topped robots like Randy Travis and George Strait.
But on the soggy and maudlin “Where the Children Have Gone,” Anderson’s vocals—more lugubrious than mournful—can’t redeem the embarrassing material. (Its spongy, “lite” arrangement resembles a Garth ballad, now a subgenre of its own.) The answer to the song’s titular “question,” of course, is that the kids have all grown up and left the nest (the listeners are long gone as well—having fled the room or skipped to the next song). This is the kind of hokey, Hallmark-card treacle that Nashville sells by the gallon—and that keeps many people as far from country music as they can get. For Anderson, fortunately, it’s a temporary lapse rather than a career move.
The album’s strongest cut and emotional centerpiece is “Mississippi Moon,” a paean to the Delta penned by swamp-rocker Tony Joe White. Anderson gives one of his bluesiest efforts yet, and the track features an expansive arrangement led by steel guitarist Paul Franklin and fiddler Joe Spivey. (One can only hope that Anderson will one day veture a cover of White’s ’69 hit “Polk Salad Annie,” a tune about a bayou woman that features the immortal line, “Gator’s got your granny.”) As always, Anderson delivers some satisfying country-rock numbers, including a cover of “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” that manages to outromp and outwink the Georgia Satellites’ chart-topping version.
Better yet, Anderson effortlessly trounced the Boy Raised in a Barn, Tim McGraw, during last week’s CBS country special. The program’s finale featured a sing-along version of The Band’s warhorse “The Weight,” and after Anderson blazed through his verse (“It’s just Old Luke and Luke’s waitin’ on the Judgment Day”) all poor McGraw could do was blurt out his karaoke delivery and then try to hide deep inside his silly-looking black hat.
How’s that for country?