I get irked when people tell me, “Oh, I listen to everything but country music.” While I understand the sentiment - the so-called “hat acts” that get the majority of radio airplay these days don’t do it for me, and my political bent doesn’t match up with that of many country artists - to write off an entire genre is to lose out on a ton of great music.(Didja get Loretta Lynn’s stupendous Van Lear Rose last year? What about the new Shooter Jennings disc? ‘Tis good stuff.) Consider me open-minded. But then I come across We’re Country So We Can, the sophomore album by Jackson, TN’s Forty5south, and that odious “everything-but-country” phrase makes sense to me. We’re Country So We Can is everything that makes people hate country music. And even a little bit more.
Where to even start? This is a matter of taste, but when every song sounds like it’s been polished to a high sheen for inclusion in a Ford truck commercial, there’s a problem. The band - lead singer Ashley Bowers (male), guitarist Justin Tapley, guitarist/mandolinist Phillip Lemmings, bassist Seth Gordon, and drummer Jonathan King - position themselves as humble boys from Jackson, but their songs are too slick and overproduced, with Bowers’ (admittedly strong and expressive) voice pushed up way too far in the mix. Country music’s supposed to be a little ragged and warm coming out of the speakers, not squeaky clean. The band namechecks legends like Hank Williams and David Allen Coe on various tunes on the album, so you’d think they would know that. Blame the producer: Bret Michaels. The Guy from Poison. Seriously. Yes, the man who did his best to defang dangerous rock music in the ‘80s now has his sights set on destroying country music. Of course, he can’t do it alone.
How Michaels shacked up with the band, and the misguided affinity they have for each other, is too priceless not to share. Sez Bowers in the press kit: “Bret was one of the few guys that the band collectively listened to while growing up. He has always crossed the boundaries between rock and country.” When did this ever happen? Is it because Michaels often wears that ridiculous straw cowboy hat? We’ll never know; Bowers doesn’t elaborate. Anyhoo, Bowers got Michaels on the phone and he agreed to produce We’re Country. Michaels, for his part, says, “These guys are great singers and songwriters who are on the edge of country.”
Sorry, Bret—you’re proud of your baby, but nothing could be further from the truth. To a track, each tune is bland, middle-of-the-road “Hot Nashville” country pablum. On “Heaven Only Knows” Bowers notes that “Good things come to those who wait” and “I keep on hoping / I keep on dreaming”. And the album is full of stereotypical country characters who could use a good dressing-down by an iconoclastic Robbie Fulks type; unfortunately, Forty5south plays it straight. In fact, they traffic solely in cliché: there’s the teen narrator of “I’ve Been There Too” who gets caught with liquor on his breath by his dad—but it’s OK cuz Paw is cool with it and did it as a teen himself! On “Secondhand Life” a couple struggles to make ends meet and lives in a shithole trailer—but it’s OK cuz they have each other! Bowers picks up some hottie who “was raised in a church / but has been to jail” and makes out with her in the bed of his truck (I kid you not) on (again, I kid you not) “Taste of Class”, then drinks in another bar after a hard week of work and listens to Lynyrd Skynyrd on the jukebox on “Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em”. Doesn’t anyone in the South do anything that hasn’t already been chronicled in song dozens of times?
There is plenty of competition, but the winner of the Obnoxious Southern Stereotype Award goes to the title track, where Bowers (with some vocal help from Michaels) catalogs what makes Southerners so great: their love of NASCAR, their tendency to sit on a front porch and spit chew tobacco into a can, their love of drinking three beers while fishing and watching a woman sunbathe, their abundance of double wide trailers and the fact that they “stand up proud and never back down from another man” regardless of the circumstances. All of these behaviors are justified because they’re “country”, so they can. Spare me. It’d be one thing if these tunes were delivered with a wink, a la Kid Rock, but Forty5south is irony-free. Songs like this one don’t explain only why people hate country music (undeservedly boastful, indignant for no particular reason); they’re why other countries hate us.
Despite the preceding paragraphs’ worth of evidence to the contrary, I do not revel in hatchet jobs. But when an album’s lyrics, sound, and production are as out of whack as those on We’re Country So We Can, something must be said. I do not badmouth the South, nor country music; ill-conceived music, regardless of region or genre, however, I cannot abide.