[16 December 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The question “What is country?” is eternal, and not just among nerdy music critics. Contemporary country is filled with songs about what it means to be country. Some are defensive, some inclusive, and some pander to their audience in an obvious attempt for sales. Luke Bryan’s answer to the question, in the song “What Country Is”, is none of these, and very specific: you’re country if you were born in the country. Or, country “Ain’t a rebel flag you bought at the mall / It’s a hide away bed in an old horse stall”.
The song, written by Jamie Teachenor and Shane McAnally, is filled with evocative images of rural life, from cars pulling over for tractors to “homemade peach ice cream on sunburnt lips”, and they suit Luke Bryan fine. Bryan’s a solid singer with an amiable personality, but the main thing that sets him apart is how well he channels the specifics of rural life. On a good half of his second album, Doin’ My Thing, he sings about country life in a way that comes off not as hollow, trendy, or marketing, but as a true extension of what he’s all about, about where he comes from. Where he comes from is Leesburg, Georgia, population around 2600. I know nothing about Leesburg, but his songs make me feel like I do.
“Welcome to the Farm”, co-written by Bryan and Jeff Stevens, finds him taking his city girlfriend—and us, by extension—to the farm for the first time. While I’m not sure I believe that there’s too many small towns left where credit cards aren’t usable, his description of farm living, though romantic, doesn’t seem like complete fantasy. Romance, actually, is one of the song’s overriding themes, as Bryan expresses awe at how comfortable his ‘baby’ looks amid straw and dirt: “Girl, I ain’t ever seen you looking so good / As you do right now”. Maybe being country isn’t just about birthplace after all.
That song has a line where the gas store attendant tells “that story ‘bout me wrecking my truck”. The story itself, or a similar one, comes up a few songs later, as part of an anthem about the stubbornness of us all, “I Did It Again”. He throws his truck in a ditch, and two nights later does the same thing; he couldn’t resist. That’s one of the songs on Doin’ My Thing that best translates the rural slant into potential radio fodder. Another is the opener, “Rain Is a Good Thing”. The melody is infectious, but more interesting than that is the way it presents a specifically agricultural thesis about rain’s importance, one that crosses generations while also taking typical romantic notions of rain’s aphrodisiac qualities from a different angle. His dad wants it to rain because of the crops, and so does he, but his reasons are different. Witness this equation that you didn’t hear on Schoolhouse Rock: “Rain makes corn / Corn makes whiskey / Whiskey makes my baby feel a little frisky”.
The rural songs are more unique than Bryan’s still-enjoyable ‘feeling good’ songs or his love ballads. It’s not that he’s incapable of singing ballads well, just that the songs themselves seem rather routine. Still, the worst of the love songs is maybe the most unexpected, a cover of OneRepublic’s bland “Apologize”, and the best are the most generic ones. Sometimes Bryan and the right melody can be appealing even with ordinary lyrics. That’s true with the pop-leaning, somewhat up-tempo “Every Time I See You” and the more slow-burning first single “Do I”.
Co-written by Bryan with two members of Lady Antebellum, “Do I”’s success is more about the melody in Bryan’s hands offering an impression of genuine emotion than the song itself containing a feeling or story that makes any sense. Essentially a “do you still love me?” song, its “do I”s and “don’t I”s are more confusing than clever. It’s a testament to the singer and the songwriters that Bryan doesn’t get tripped up by them, and that we as listeners don’t care whether we understand what’s going on or not. The song is ready to be a massive hit, if it isn’t already. It’s certainly on its way. “Do I” may be Bryan’s real introduction to rural life, the non-geographical song that will attract new listeners towards his detailed realization of life in the country.