[13 June 2010]
In today’s country music world of fantasy, nostalgia, and focus-grouping, it’s relatively easy to disregard the fact that Easton Corbin had a hand in writing only four of the 11 songs on his satisfying self-titled debut album. We can, in that case, more easily consider the work as a more abstract artistic entity rather than a product of a single voice, thereby doing away with any authorial fallacy. Then again, it’s more fun to pin everything on one guy and consider Easton Corbin’s and not just Easton Corbin’s cohesive statement on the record.
In taking stock of his preoccupations and farm-kid wisdoms is to reveal Easton Corbin as a manifesto of sorts from a 27-year-old Florida native who has this year articulated a particular worldview, and taken as a whole, it’s a statement that provides a renewal of the Hemingway code. It’s one that stands at odds with much of the rest of pop-country radio, but one that carries a timeless appeal nonetheless in both message and sound, which helps explain the record’s considerable success.
It’s already been well-established, of course, that if we follow a model of parallel connections to classic novelists, that Taylor Swift is the new generation’s Jane Austen; Brad Paisley is our Henry Miller; Jason Aldean is the new Scott Fitzgerald; etc. Everyone knows that. Less explored to this point, however, has been Easton Corbin’s correlation to Ernest Hemingway. Corbin’s debut reads like a Farewell to Arms for the truck-pull set and lays out a hero’s code for existentialist country boys everywhere.
Hemingway’s code hero, we remember, accepted that the world was full of chaos and pain, yet he faced down such severe limits with courage and grace under pressure. A man’s man, he got good at stuff—not just drinking and womanizing—but also developing physical skill that required strength and competence. He wasn’t a cerebral man, rather one to avoid abstract thoughts. Instead, he was a doer who avoided death at all costs—death, after all, is nothing; life is everything—so he immersed himself in the things that make life enjoyable: hedonistic lifestyles of sensual pleasure.
In the absence of any system of order in the universe to cling to, the code hero invested in other people, maintaining strict loyalty to a small group. Of course, he didn’t talk much about any of this. The first rule of the code is that you don’t talk about the code.
Easton Corbin certainly didn’t talk about any of this when he spoke to me on the phone from his home in Nashville. He’d recently returned from a small tour to briefly regroup before heading out again as one of the opening acts on Brad Paisley’s big H20 tour, and we discussed a range of topics, including Corbin’s Florida roots, his college days at the University of Florida as an agriculture major, and his eventual push for the Nashville big time. Corbin broke through after a cousin was able to get Corbin’s demos into the hands of record execs at Universal, who promptly signed him. It’s been a remarkably quick rise to the top, even by Nashville standards, which generally churns out copycat stars as fast as possible.
If Corbin is a copy of anyone, he isn’t terribly derivative of anything you hear on country radio today. He is, it turns out, quite a bit more country than that. He’s a throwback to at least the neo-traditionalist country movement of the ‘80s, and sometimes further back into the countrypolitan strains of the ‘70s. Nearly every article and review, in fact, compares him to George Strait, especially in his vocal timbre. He’s good and country—raised in the sparse farmlands of Gilchrist County, Florida—and he talks in a deep, colloquial drawl: “My whole family is still back in Florida—my in-laws, outlaws, everybody”, he tells me. Corbin is friendly and cautious when he talks, still dazed by his success—“A Little More Country Than That” hit Number One on the country charts back in April.
Which brings us back to his reticence. When I asked him about modern country music and how pop-rock it has become in recent years, he answered with sidestepping diplomacy: “That’s fine. I’m just a country singer is all I know”. In other words, the kid is good, but he doesn’t see much use in talking about why. He gives credit elsewhere, citing the production of Carson Chamberlain—and damn right; it’s a terrific-sounding set of polished steel-guitar-and-denim retrograde urban-tonk—but he doesn’t say a whole lot about any of it, preferring to let the songs speak for themselves, and they are songs that further the code hero’s ethos.
On the record’s first track (and second single), Corbin establishes himself as a guy whose philosophy is to “Roll With It” when life gets turbulent. This sort of coping—to say the hell with it and get lost somewhere—is a classic country-music trope, but Corbin makes a particularly strong case that the only way to make sense of the world is to avoid trying too hard to do any such thing: “Baby, we’ll roll with it / Won’t think about it too much”. If Hemingway’s code favors action over thought, then Corbin has a similar philosophy, in this case escaping to the open road when the bullshit starts to pile up: “And ain’t life too short for that?”
Corbin throws in enough references to things like “pig skins” purchased at an Exxon station to keep “Roll With It” well within a rural roadtripper’s wheelhouse, but the existential angst in the “life’s-too-short” line points to a more universal psychology, especially when coupled with the apparent solution to strengthen one’s bond to one’s lover: “We might end up a little deeper in love”, he sings. If in A Farewell to Arms, Frederick and Catherine make their escape in order to create a meaningful life by investing fully in one another, so do Corbin and his girl in “Roll With It”. And if Catherine feared the rain—Hemingway’s great symbol for devastation—seeing herself dead in it, Corbin tries to allay those fears in his own lover, albeit with the required dirt-road embellishment: “It won’t be no thing if it starts to rain/And we have to wait it out in the truck”.
Of course “A Little More Country Than That” is the song Corbin will have to play at every concert for the rest of his life, and it’s a song that Corbin tells me sets a tone that he’s proud of. To be “country”, as the song explains, means several things: catching channel cat with cane poles, listening to Hank songs featuring strong steel-guitar rides, and staying loyal to your girlfriend, for instance, all of which fit the Hemingway model. Throughout Easton Corbin, the singer emphasizes physical skill, and the video for “A Little More Country Than That” depicts Corbin deftly handling backwoods tasks like bailing hay and building bonfires.
In fact, one of the Hemingway code’s most definitive characteristics is a penchant for drinking and womanizing, and in the video, the boys are doing plenty of both. It is not, however, typical honky-tonk badonkadonking, but the code-hero’s version of romantic commitment—a guy proposes to his girlfriend right there at the bonfire between sips of his longneck. Loyalty to the small group is palpable amid the high-fives and bottle clinks of this tight-knit group, and when it comes to love, Corbin insists that he’s “not the kind to two-time or play games behind your back”.
Among those physical skills that Corbin prizes on the record, none is more important than fishing, and our connection to Hemingway deepens. They’re loading up the truck with fishing poles in “Roll With It”; he’s catching channel cat in “A Little More Country Than That”; he relishes in having to bait his girl’s hook when she wants to go fishing with him in “The Way Love Looks”; and the ultimate metaphor for easy living is frying fish in “A Lot to Learn About Livin’”.
This need for hedonistic escape is never far from the surface of these songs. “Roll With It” is about lovers’ escaping from life’s “ordinary, everyday rut”, and it’s a theme Corbin returns to frequently, most blatantly on “A Lot to Learn About Livin’”, a Jimmy Buffet-esque (or, these days, Zac Brown-y) ode to the beach-bum fantasy, complete with a little Spanish guitar and a sun-drenched “i-yi-yi” bridge. What’s notable here is the allegiance to alcohol—does the fish “go with tequila or beer?”—and generally living it up. If live is everything and death is nothing, as the Hemingway code goes, Corbin doesn’t want to waste anytime on cell phones and “Brooks Brothers ties”. To follow the Hemingway trail a bit further, where does a hurting man end up in “This Far From Memphis”? In Key West, of course.
Whatever he’s escaping from are, presumably, things “That’ll Make You Wanna Drink”, another song that articulates a few reasons to “turn up a cold one”, things like losing both money and women. “The reason I came in here is I screwed up real bad”, he sings, but Corbin prefers to “say, ‘What the heck’” and imbibe rather than revel in intangible worries of the past. Even so, Corbin places plenty of importance on relationships and admits to an “achin’ soul” in “This Far From Memphis”. But where Carrie Underwood would ask Jesus to take the wheel or Chris Young would beg God to make him the man he wants to be, Corbin doesn’t put much faith in those kinds of answers. “I could go down to the church/Get on my knees and pray”, he admits, “But it still won’t change the way things really are”.
So God might not provide the answers, but a deep connection to one’s lover does, and when that love is lost, as in “I Can’t Love You Back” or “Let Alone You”, there’s little significance to life left, as the narrator in the latter song finds himself staring mindlessly at the television or sitting around with the curtains drawn. It’s the connection to a woman in these songs that staves off the existential angst that creeps into many of these songs, particularly a preoccupation with aging. “Someday When I’m Old” is, especially, a treatise on the subject: “That clock just starts ticking / Oh, that day that you’re born / And no matter how much time you get / You always want more”. In the speaker’s mind, he imagines getting older and staring hard at mortality, dealing with it only by remembering a dark-haired girl lying on the pillow years ago.
“The Way Love Looks” also uses this image (“Lying on the very next pillow/Smiling like you do”). It was the nighttime that scared Frederick in A Farewell to Arms, when the fear and the unknowns gained ground, and those terrors only eased when Catherine started coming to him in the night, an impression that Corbin echoes in these songs.
The answer to these existential panics, then, is the love of a woman, but even that is, as he explains in “Don’t Ask Me About a Woman”, “complicated stuff”. It’s another song about aging; the narrator listens to his 80-year-old grandfather, who has mastered a great many things, but still can’t figure out grandma. The fact that he’s remained by her side all these years, however, is another example of the balm that fills the void Corbin fears at the heart of the album.
When all else fails, he returns to sensual pleasures; in the absence of any surety besides mortality, life’s rewards might as well be in the here and now, rather than in a theoretical later. When Corbin touches down in Cabo, his taxi driver advises him to take off his watch: “You won’t need that here / ’Cause time disappears / In paradise there ain’t no clocks”. Now that’s a notion that Easton Corbin can roll with.