Montgomery Gentry’s newest album, Rebels on the Run, has a song about the town they’re from (“Where I Come From”), one about the people who live there (“I Like Those People”), one about the “hardworking Americans” they know there (“Work Hard, Play Harder”), one about their closest male friends there (“Rebels on the Run”), and at least two about the lifestyle they and their friends lead there (“Damn Right I Am” and “Simple Things”). Besides a few love songs, the album depicts the types of lives Montgomery Gentry (and by relation, their songwriters) hold up as ideal.
It all seems firmly in the wake of “My Town”, the 2002 single that was one of their big hits. That song’s tour of ‘their town’ showed us a small town of the imagination: tractors, American flags, a diner, a crowded church. The reference to a closed mill seemed a touch of reality, though the busy factory that took its place begged the question of what was being manufactured there. “Where I Come From” takes that scene and adds to it houses where the doors are always unlocked, teenage boys fistfighting in a parking lot, rocking chairs, pickup trucks and a millionaire who never went to school and now lives a quiet, humble rural life without flaunting his riches. Other songs on the album throw in a courthouse square, 4th of July parade, front-porch swing and dirt roads.
There’s politics in all of this, and not just in the portrait of the gentle small town one-percent-er. “Work Hard Play Harder” offers a quick rant against Uncle Sam, who’s on a spending spree with our money. “I Like These People” glorifies the straight shooter who tells it like it is, goes to Church every Sunday, and isn’t afraid to tell an off-color joke, a description that on the surface fits many a politician who at the same time was lying to the public. In “Damn Right I Am”, the singer is proud of his brother for shooting an intruder, because it fits the US constitution (“I believe in what was written,” he sings, apparently a ‘strict constructionist’. Nevermind that the amendment they’re alluding to was just that, an amendment).
The past is placed on a pedestal, too; his “daddy’s ways” were better than the way we do things today. It’s hard to hear that phrase without wondering about the relics of his daddy’s era that lie between those words (Jim Crow, gender inequality, etc.) The party song “Ain’t No Law Against That” has an interesting definition of “law”. In the world of the song, it’s A-OK to bend the rules by disobeying noise ordinances or alcohol-related ones in pursuit of fun, because “there ain’t no law against that”. The metaphor gets confusing when they’re singing both about hypothetical “law” and actual laws. They tell us if “having fun” is a crime, they’re guilty, and then transition to the chorus. “They’d have to put us all in jail and throw away the key! / and there ain’t no law against that”, they sing. So… there’s no law against being arrested for breaking the law that isn’t really a law?
Aside from making specific political points right before an election year, the point of Montgomery Gentry’s American portrait is to tell us that things are the way the duo believes they are, and no other way. As they declare twice on the album, “It is what it is”. They state that absolutist position outright on “Damn Right I Am”, with one of them telling us how proud he is “that all I see is black and white / wrong or right / and there aren’t no changing me”. In that way, they voice the unspoken premise behind so much of contemporary country music: the world is like this, not like that. You’re either a “country boy” or you’re not; “proud to be an American” or not; a real man or not. The blockier, more generic the characters in your song, the better.
For a genre historically filled with references to specific places, these days there are remarkably few songs that do so. Where are these towns and neighborhoods that Montgomery Gentry sing about? You’ll find them in The Mythical Country; the country that exists in the collective imagination of Nashville songwriters and singers, and that of the audience.
At the same time, so many country-music artists and songwriters really are from actual small-town America. Look up the facts on towns like Sharon, Kansas (population 158, where Martina McBride was born and raised) or Sarepta, Louisiana (population 925, birthplace of Trace Adkins) and realize that small-town America is indeed part of the inherent fabric of country music. (Eddie Montgomery and Troy Gentry are from the comparatively large towns of Danville, Kentucky, population 16,218, and Nicholasville, Kentucky, population 19,680.) Yet when country songs these days get specific about place names, or even when they throw in enough agricultural specifics to really sound like they’re set around actual farms, like several of Luke Bryan’s songs, it stands out in a field mostly populated with generic references to the country.
I like to imagine the topography of contemporary country music as a visual map, or a town model a la Mr. Rogers Neighborhood that illustrates country-music living as heard on the radio. Here’s the church, here’s the fishing hole. Over here our young lovers are going skinny-dipping again, while over here the high school football stadium is lit up. Over here’s the backwoods, where the young people have their late night parties. Over here, a young woman is dancing barefoot in front of the headlights of a young man’s car.
There’s an animated short by Al Jarnow called Cosmic Clock, made in 1979 for an episode of the children’s show 3-2-1 Contact, that shows someone sitting on a hill overlooking a town and then flashes back to what that area looked like in the beginning of time, fast-forwarding quickly through the years, decades, centuries and millenniums to come, as seasons changes, buildings go up and come down, etc. I imagine a country-music version of that, showing the way the genre has added to and subtracted from its version of small-town life. For example, at what point in time does the airport show up, offering budget flights to Mexico and the Caribbean, where the cowboys go on holiday, to put their toes in the sand and get sage advice from the local fishermen?
Of course the actual lives lived in those small towns are somewhere within these songs, but many of the details are glossed over, romanticized, politicized or just plain ignored. There are megachurches in small towns now, not just cute little white chapels. There are Meth labs. There are business sections of town that don’t look too different from what you see in suburbs around big cities; e.g., not very pretty. There are factory farms, which bring some uglier realities than the idyllic farms of country songs (the stench of large-scale hog farms, for one). There are immigrants from other countries, possibly even (gasp!) illegal ones, often working the least appreciated of the farm and factory jobs. There are eccentricities and new developments that just don’t fit the portrait of rural America in country songs.
Plus, the country singers and songwriters aren’t all living in the country these days, but are just as likely to be found in your McMansions in the suburbs (look, for example, at the neighborhood Brad Paisley stands in, whether it’s actually his or not, in the music video for “Welcome to the Future”).
Country music fans live in such suburbs and cities, as well. Country today preserves the myths, half-truths and conjecture associated with the divide between small towns and cities, rarely acknowledging the gray areas in between. (Montgomery Gentry: “Don’t you dare go running down my little town where I grew up and I won’t cuss your city lights”). In country music today there is a constant sleight of hand going on with regards to “the country life”, shuffling up ingrained ideas of what it means with ones rooted in today or yesteryear.
Sometimes this might be political, a way to smuggle (or, more often, showcase outright) conservative ideas about the way America should and shouldn’t be. More often it’s probably of convenience or laziness, repeating past successes or playing into what artists imagine their audiences want to hear. But on another level this is about genre, about preserving a certain library of scenes and stories, to make the music recognizable as country and further the tradition. Then again, genres are shaped by the minds of the fans as much as the musicians, and by the times we live in.
Still, the genre has the potential to become a closed conversation with itself, repeating to itself what has been established as the essential country tropes, in the process mimicking and reinforcing the notion of small towns as closed circuits, or small-town folk as close-minded. In this context, Montgomery Gentry’s “I Like Those People” could be about the people in country songs, not actual people they know in actual life. It’s the people that drink cold beer every Saturday night , go to church every Sunday morning, and tell it like it is. “They take what they’re given / hard-working, hard-living / right out of some old country song.” These are characters from country songs singing about characters in country songs, to an imagined audience that exists in country music as itself a fiction; like country music as a genre seems to imagine, and long, itself to be.