Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Taking the Long Way Around Country Music

"Just so you know, we're ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas."

I found this
article recently, which talks about the revival of protest songs, which is becoming more well-covered territory lately (though it's always encouraging to read). But in the writer's subsequent blog entry, the writer brings up an important point: the Dixie Chicks' first single, "Not Ready to Make Nice" is not a protest song. In fact, on their new album, Taking the Long Way, there are only a couple of songs that would even remotely qualify as protest songs, and "Not Ready to Make Nice" isn't one of them.

Why do I bring this up (and why do I care)? Because of country music and its double standard. It makes sense when you think about it, since there's the same double standard for The South in general, but in no other genre can an offhand, between-songs comment made at a concert a few thousand miles away cause a group to receive death threats and protests. In the genre of country music, speaking out against conservatives is a death sentence. If there were an equal and opposite reaction to that on the other end of the spectrum, then I would guess that Britney Spears' "We should, like, be nice to the President and stuff. He's, like, trying real hard and we should, like, listen to him," comment would have signaled the end of her reign as the queen of the pop music they produce in them far-off places like California and New York City, right? Granted, her white trash marriage and babyin' abilities took care of that later on, but it's not like she paid any recognizable price for expressing herself.

Let me put it another way: when Toby Keith went from "singer of one of my mom's favorite songs, that cute little 'How Do You Like Me Now?'" to Toby "We'll put a boot in yer ass, it's the American way" Keith, the 1% of me that liked his first hit stopped liking that first hit pretty much immediately. But did I organize a protest and mass demolition of his albums? Not so much. That would seem silly. But even though there are plenty of liberals and Yellow Dog Democrats in the southern states (having grown up in Oklahoma, I can vouch for that), it's pretty much accepted that you don't tread on the rednecks if you want to maintain a career in country. And the media pretty much treats the issue in that way. Nobody covered the Dixie Chicks "scandal" from the "Can you believe how idiotic these backwards-ass rednecks? Death threats? Mass demolitions? Really? They've got nothing better to do in a time of war" No, the coverage was "Can you believe Natalie Maines opened her mouth like that?"

When, as an entertainer, you speak your mind about politics and/or world affairs, you probably know that you're taking a giant risk. It's pretty easy to understand, really. For the purposes of this post, we'll say that the country is pretty much split 50/50 politically, so by exposing where you stand, you run the risk of offending half of your fan base. But within the 80/20 country music genre, speaking out against the President (as long as the President is Republican) is career suicide (Case in point, threads like this). And I mean career suicide to the point of the Red Cross refusing your $1 million donation. But read a little further down in that link:

Taking the Long Way was released May 23. Early numbers indicate the disc may have sold more than 400,000 copies its first week, the band's publicist says.

Taking the Long Way is the No. 1 seller on and among the top downloads on iTunes.
Interesting. Country music radio avoids them like the plague, and yet it's possible that reports of their demise seem to be greatly exagerrated. We'll know for sure when we see how badly album sales tail off in upcoming weeks (when radio play would really help out), but that's a good start, and those conservative bloggers gloating about their "flagging popularity" don't have much of a leg to stand on so far.

As a gigantic music nerd, one thing I've enjoyed about this whole episode is that it points out clearly just how blurred musical lines really are nowadays. The Internet has made music democratic again, and that's wonderful. So what if country radio won't play their songs? It's reaching an appreciative audience anyway. So...does that mean they're alt-country now? I mean, really, there's much sonic difference between the Chicks' new album and the more contemplative but still Gram Parsons-influenced work of someone like Neko Case or Gillian Welch or anybody else who gets on the cover of No Depression magazine. Near as I can tell, the only difference between country and alt-country is where you were born (Case grew up in Virginia and Canada, Welch in New York and LA) and which way your politics might lean, so they're halfway to alt-country already. Adding in contributions from Keb' Mo', John Mayer, Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow, Pete Yorn (though I still resent him for putting on a terrible concert at the Beale Street Music Festival a few years ago), Gary Louris of the Jayhawks (alt-country at its finest), and Neil Finn, and the production work of Rick Rubin, and there's a lot of non-country involved. Which makes it okay that I bought their cd, right?

So yes, I bought my first Dixie Chicks cd the other day. My mother should be proud, though I'll say right now that, being that she loves Alan Jackson almost as much as she loves her son, she's the exception that proves the "country = red state mentality" rule.

What do I think? Well, despite all of the contributors above, this is still a Dixie Chicks cd, and I think that's a good thing. This album is not a large departure from any of their other works, no matter how much they talk about the influence of "Southern California pop-rock of the 70s, some blues, bluegrass touches and roots rock". Really, all this proves is what I mentioned above...musical boundaries are blurred to the point of nonexistence. Labels and genres influence how you listen to something, but from a macro point of view, country music is about 90% similar to '70s Cali pop rock, roots rock, Southern rock, alt-country, and everything else. All they did was say "We don't want to just be associated with country anymore," and that was that. But again, that's a good thing. As an aspiring musician myself (see the "Trip Diary" link on the Other Good Nonsense links list to the left), one of my main goals is to blur those lines as much as possible...prove that there's only a couple of degrees of separation from what's thought of as country to what's thought of as funk or hip hop. It's all pretty close together.

But I digress (sorry, the music nerd in me comes roaring out sometimes).

Honestly, the first four songs on this album knocked me back...I didn't expect to like them this much. "The Long Way Around" starts things off with lyrics to which I can relate uncomfortably well: "My friends from high school/Married their high school boyfriends/Moved into houses/In the same ZIP codes where their parents live/But I could never follow". The music is acoustic and subtle, and it's a really nice way to start out an album that, if it were to follow the stereotype of what the Chicks are supposed to be about now, was supposed to be full of rage and anger.

"Easy Silence" is even more subtle (again, tell me what's all that different between this and Neko Case's music?), though the lyrics are pointed and sad. "Monkeys on the barricades/Are warning us to back away/They form commissions trying to find/The next one they can crucify/And anger plays on every station/Answers only make more questions/I need something to believe in". Again, for a group that's supposed to be angry and outspoken, they know their roots and they take the sentiment in their songs very seriously.

You know all about Track 3, "Not Ready to Make Nice". The only thing I can add to the conversation about this song, other than the fact that it is extremely strong musically, is that it shows some serious balls. It comes across as more sad than boisterous, but the point is very clear: "I'm not going to change what I believe in or what I say because a bunch of idiots are mad at me. Bring it on." That's about 10000% braver than
threatening to kill a country musician who opposes a war.

The momentum carries through to Track 4, "Everybody Knows". What impresses me about Natalie Maines is that she's an outspoken Texas girl (I know the type), but when she shows a bit of vulnerability, it comes out in oil gushes. "Steppin' out/Everyone can see my face/All the things I can't erase/From my life/Everybody knows"..."Standing out/So you won't forget my name/That's the way we play this game/Of life/Everybody knows/I am just barely getting by". Her voice is about 1 centimeter away from being all whine, but that 1 centimeter ends up giving her one of the strongest voices in music. It's always close to breaking down, but it never does.

After these few songs, the album kind of settles into a nice, alt-country groove. Honestly, I enjoy artists like Gillian Welch and the Jayhawks, though they manage to lull me to sleep sometimes. It's pretty much no different here (rockers like "Lubbock or Leave It" aside), though the lyrics are absolutely top-notch. "Silent House" hits on a topic close to home for me, Alzheimer's. "I will try to connect/All the pieces you left/I will carry it on/And let you forget" is a very heartfelt, succinct way of watching the breakdown that Alzheimer's causes. That's probably the biggest highlight left on the album until the finale, the gospel- and Keb' Mo'-tinged "I Hope". Use gospel songs correctly (and conservatively), and they're perfect. I'm not a fan of full gospel albums, but this gentle, bluesy touch ends the album and once again reminds you that the Dixie Chicks aren't the caricatured, angry "Dixie Sluts", but a group of women with talent, heart and a wide range of influences that serve them extremely well, whether or not country music wants them. I guess this means they're now the best, highest-selling alt-country group of all-time.

UPDATE 11:14am - Apparently the projection of 400,000 album sales the first week was off. By about 125,000.

UPDATE 6:33pm - I've gotten a few very well thought-out responses to this at Check them out.