Starbucks has just released a collection of classic country (it's a follow-up, actually, to a well received set from about a year or so ago), and it got me to thinking about admitting my secret love of Nashville. And I don't mean just the sort of "alt country" many modern hipsters use to deflect any indication of liking corporate, mainstream music. I'm all into big, corporate Nashville, songs about Daddy, drinkin' and cheatin'. I don't know how it all fits together - I'm a little bit country... and a little bit rock and roll. It's all in me.
- Indigo Girls, Nashville and Southland in the Springtime. It's partly because, to me, all the lines start to blur: folk and country and bluegrass and acoustic rock and pop... it all meets, and in the best sense, one thing feeds off another, certainly in the most creative talents. Indigo Girls bridge a lot of those gaps, especially in this pair, the latter a straight up, pretty ballad from Emily Saliers about the beauty and calm of a spring day in the south, and Amy Ray's blistering, bitter backhanding of Nashville's worst corporate impulses (which probably comes from trying to push "Southland" to country radio). I agree, to the extent that Nashville blands out and stifles edginess, it's a shame; but it would also be a shame to deny that Country, even at its most corporate, can be a sweet thing.
- Brad Paisley, I'm Still A Guy. Paisley's about as straight-up a corporate success as there is in Nashville today, but he does it with a sardonic edge that undercuts the usual expectations. As much as this paean to manliness ("My eyebrows ain't plucked, there's some guns in my truck") stomps right along, Paisley delivers the whole affair with just enough of a wink to let you know he's onto himself as much as you are. And few pop songmasters can do what Paisley does, song after song, with precise rhymes and smart lines as well as a lot of tasty guitar work.
- Reba McEntire, Sweet Dreams (Live). Of course, like any good gay boy, it's all about divas, wherever you go, and Reba's in a class by herself; it would be enough to point to the string of albums and singles since "Whoever's in New England" that cemented her hold on top of Country's charts, but Reba's turned out to be a competent actress and even a Broadway star - Annie Get Your Gun never had it so good. Like many, Reba's reverence towards Patsy Cline is obvious, but few have the sheer singing power to tackle Cline on her home turf... and a capella, in key the whole time. This used to be Reba's nightly encore. The first time I heard it, on her amazing live set, it gave me shivers. Still does. Just wait til she takes off at the end.
- Dolly Parton, Coat of Many Colors. I didn't get exposed - er, there's a double entendre for ya - to Dolly until the mid-eighties, by which point she was pursuing crossover stardom, and she won me over, easily with 9 to 5 and never stopped. But it was really only a few years ago that I went back and listened to Parton as a songwriter and to the music that she wrote when she was starting out, especially this lovely story song about being a poor girl in a rag coat her Mama sewed for her that the other girls thought was embarrassing. The purity - both in the lyric and Parton's spare, sweet soprano - is undeniable. And a reminder that country touches on an experience of being white and rural and poor that we just won't get from anywhere else.
- Kathy Mattea, 455 Rocket, Gretchen Wilson, Redneck Woman, and Terri Clark, Girls Lie Too. There's also a tough, plain-spoken aspect to country women singers that's also a corrective to the usual presentation of I love My Man or I lost my man type songs that are always out there. Whether it's being as deep into cars as the boys, admitting your common practical roots or even reveling in the cliches of girliness as you undercut them, country's audience clearly accepts women with complexity and a range of emotions - and some deep, throaty voices.
- Tim McGraw, Live Like You Were Dying. I am a total sucker for pure country weepies - the sad songs about granpa's values, daddy's hands, and sad stories about dying, or the chance of it. McGraw's tale of taking the chances you wouldn't take soars (literally) above the fears and regrets and never fails to tear me up. And absolutely, it's slick and manipulative and manufactured... and give me more of it.
- Big and Rich, Save A Horse, Ride A Cowboy. I could go on, but I'll just stop there, for now. I'm the only John Wayne left in this town. It's a party, y'all.