[21 September 2009]
The collection of songs on Now That’s What I Call Country, Volume 2 represents both the glorious high points and the embarrassing low points of modern mainstream country music throughout its 20-track run. That only a few songs on the collection don’t fall into either “great” or “terrible” isn’t that surprising, considering who and how Nashville has embraced over the years. The biggest accomplishment the lucrative collection manages to make is revealing why artists like Miranda Lambert and Gary Allen are light years ahead of Carrie Underwood, Jake Owens, and their ilk. The compilation also shows how big a schism Nashville has on its hands, but offers no explanation as to how to reconcile that break.
Only three songs really have enough hooks to overcome their weakness to fall into “guilty pleasure” territory. Sugarland’s “All I Wanna Do”, Keith Urban’s “Kiss A Girl”, and Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” all share identical weaknesses and strengths. The cringeworthy lyrics (“I wanna kiss a girl / I wanna hold her tight / Maybe make a little magic in the moonlight” from Urban and Swift’s completely awkward and inappropriate Scarlet Letter reference) are glossed over by infectious production and layer after layer of pop-infected hooks. It’s worth noting that Sugarland and Urban typically produce top-of-the-line country-pop, Urban has a stellar gift with the guitar, and Jennifer Nettles is easily Nashville’s best female singer currently recording for a major label.
The “bad” songs lack the needed hooks to elevate them into anything more than bland, appalling, interchangeable mainstream country slop. Kenny Chesney and Rascal Flatts continue to spit out the same crap year to year, while Alan Jackson has sadly decided to rest on his laurels after the very good Like Red On A Rose. Jake Owen, Billy Currington, and Eric Church have yet to give a reason why each one of them is needed on radio. How many pitchy, off-key B-list male singers does country radio really have to spin at a given time?
Carrie Underwood’s abysmal, melismatic, heavy-handed, and reedy cover of Randy Travis’ brilliant “I Told You So” would qualify as the biggest offender if not for Trace Adkin’s flat-out stupid “Marry For Money”, which manages to be as misogynist and insipid as Toby Keith at his women-hating high. Speaking of Toby, this collection may leave him out, but Montgomery Gentry’s awful “Roll With Me” bares the same jingoism, chauvinism, and banal lyrics that have become Toby’s stock and trade.
Luckily, Volume 2 does a good job highlighting what real, honest and good country music sounds like: Miranda Lambert’s vengeful “Gunpowder and Lead” and Jamey Johnson’s phenomenal “In Color” are easily two of the best singles of 2008, regardless of genre. Gary Allan’s “Learning How To Bend” is heartbreaking, angry, and vulnerable, and the vocal performance bleeds with intensity, especially the wonderful falsetto Allan employs during the hook.
Josh Turner’s “Everything Is Fine” may not live up to the likes of Allan, Johnson, or Lambert, but it’s still a nice tune, even if Turner’s baritone isn’t as impressive as a more confident and seasoned vocalist. Lady Antebellum lacks the force of Little Big Town, but the trio manages to transcend Rascal Flats with little effort. “I Run To You” is as obvious as the title implies, yet the male/female delivery manages to rise to the occasion.
Despite the fact that Volume 2 is composed of mostly weak and interchangeable material, there’s some hope to be placed in Nashville during the Obama era. Country music is typically considered the most conservative of the profitable genres of popular music, and Nashville has shipped out plenty of misogynistic and racist songs over the last decade, but things may be changing within these next few years. Brad Paisley’s newest single, “Welcome To The Future” (surely to be on Volume 3), is an ode to President Obama, and Volume 2 is certainly more “culturally open” than it’s predecessor. Who would have thought, during the days of guns-and-glory Toby Keith and homophobic John Rich, that a collection of popular country songs would have a slot for an African-American artist? In the words of the current American president: “Yes we can!”