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Off The Wagon

Country Music Rediscovers Its Whiskied Small-Town Roots

Jamey Johnson remembers waking up with whiskey eyes and ashtray breath.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 12/24/2008

Taylor Swift's recent album, Fearless (Big Machine), is such a triumph, both artistically and commercially, that you'd think it would be the answer to all of country music's problems. But it's not.

It's not that its artistic reputation is undeserved, for it is one of the year's most impressive recordings. It's not that its commercial impact has been insufficient, for it has dominated country radio like few other records this decade. No, the problem is that it's not really a country record.

Nothing about Fearless has anything to do with country music--not its subject matter (suburban adolescence), not its sound (dominated by loud electric guitars and louder drums), not its vocals (pop-diva belting in an anywhere-USA accent). Swift has made a terrific pop-rock album--with the lyrics leaning in an emo direction and the music leaning in a Disney Channel direction--but she offers no answers for the question of where the country-music tradition will turn next. Swift should be embraced, because she makes much better pop music than such mislabeled country stars as Carrie Underwood, Sugarland, and Kenny Chesney, but none of these artists is going to satisfy anyone's hunger for adult, working-class music made by rural and small-town Americans in the Anglo-Celtic tradition. Country music.

The year's best album from a country veteran was Lee Ann Womack's Call Me Crazy. Though it's not as uncompromisingly retro as her 2005 masterpiece, There's More Where That Came From, Womack's East Texas drawl cuts through the modern Music Row production with that mix of lingering desire and smoldering resentment that inhabits so many marriages. Unlike so many Nashville divas, Womack never adds an unneeded embellishment, preferring instead the sound of conversations that take place in real barrooms, real kitchens, real bedrooms. She joins George Strait to sing as a couple on the very edge of divorce on the Texas swing number, "Everything But Quits." She's not afraid of an old-fashioned pun, as on the album's top-20 single, "Last Call," which refers both to the final drink of the night and the final person a desperate person will phone. But Womack reaches beyond the pun to vent her exasperation with a man she can't quite push out of her life. And then she sighs, and you understand why.

But such old-timers don't have much to tell us about the future of country music. Where are the young artists who will pump new vitality into twangy songs about troubled marriages, hard drinking, unpaid bills, family cemeteries, and isolated towns? Where is the next generation of songwriters and singers to tell us about wild Saturday nights, humbled Sunday mornings, and reluctant Monday mornings? Recent years have witnessed the promising arrival of such newcomers as Miranda Lambert, Dierks Bentley, Eric Church, Bobby Pinson, Sarah Johns, Sunny Sweeney, Lori McKenna, Ryan Bingham, and Josh Turner, all working within the country tradition and all signed to Nashville major labels.

This year, the big revelation was Jamey Johnson. Johnson had released his debut album in 2006 with modest success, but a flop single and a drinking problem lost him his contract with BNA Records. He disappeared, recovered from a divorce, quit the bottle, and wrote a new batch of tougher, more personal songs. He recorded those tunes on his own, but Mercury Records was smart enough to pick it up and release it as That Lonesome Song. The album opens with the sound of steel bars clanging open, cowboy boots clicking down a hallway, and a prison guard saying, "Mr. Johnson, as of now you're free to do whatever you want to do." Does it really matter if the metaphor applies to freedom from alcohol or freedom from Music Row?

The first song, "High Cost of Living," is not your typical country-music sobriety tale, full of generalities and platitudes. Johnson makes the connection between a crummy job and chemical temptation; he points out the limitations of religion and details the sordidness of motel-room parties. He sings it all in a nasal, baritone growl very much like Waylon Jennings' over a seething organ and twangy guitar. The title track is filled with similarly sharpened detail: he wakes up in his Chevy's front seat with "whiskey eyes and ashtray breath on a chert rock gravel road." You don't hear about such experiences on relentlessly upbeat country radio anymore. "That's the story of my life," Johnson sings, "trying to remember the words to a song nobody wrote." Johnson wasn't the only one hungering for that missing country song, and here it is at last.

The year's other big revelation was Heidi Newfield. When a lead vocalist leaves a successful country band, it usually means the singer is looking for a bigger paycheck. But when Newfield left the rather conventional trio Trick Pony, she moved not toward the middle of the road but toward the edge. She opens her debut solo album, What Am I Waiting For, with a steel-driven version of "Can't Let Go," the song Randy Weeks wrote for Lucinda Williams, and goes on to sing songs by such progressive-country writers as Lori McKenna and NRBQ's Al Anderson. On the album's infectious top-25 single, "Johnny & June," Newfield sings the verses with the low-register understatement of Johnny Cash, before cutting loose on the chorus, declaring that she wishes she could have a relationship like Cash's with June Carter, thought she adds a trace of doubt that such love is possible anymore.

As June's daughter Carlene Carter did in the early '90s, Newfield has found a way to update the Cash/Carter tradition with the sound of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, adding streamlined punch to the same old questions of love, lust, work, and family. On the title track, Newfield sings of feeling stuck in a small town, of being "five years into a two-year plan." She sits in her Mustang, just itching to go, and the country-rock backing seems to shove her forward, but by the end of the tension-filled song she still hasn't left. "Knocked Up" addresses the side of romance that modern country never wants to face, but as she stomps her way through the number, Newfield sounds almost gleeful in her ability to shock her grandmother--and her old Trick Pony fans.

This year also saw terrific records from such bluegrass acts as the SteelDrivers [CQ] and Dailey and Vincent and from such alt-country acts as the Old Crow Medicine Show and Hayes Carll, but such acts are sideshows to the main struggle for country music's soul. Because of how the music industry is structured, these acts don't have access to country music's core audience, and that audience's allegiance is the big prize. So it's up to Johnson, Newfield, Womack, and their allies to persuade that audience that barroom realism is more valuable than shopping-mall reassurance.

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Keeping it Together (6/30/2010)
Marah and the Hold Steady add a harder, not as hopeful edge to Bruce Springsteen's working-class angst

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