"Gone Country" and Hoping to Make It Back Alive
Going to Nashville to become country at this point is a little like going to New York City to become the Velvet Underground.
Blame it on Andy Warhol, but I never went in for reality television in a big way. In college, when friends would spend Sunday afternoons curing their hangovers with marathon viewing sessions of The Real World, I generally opted out. Why would I watch a show about a group of twentysomethings with no discernible goals and underdeveloped senses of responsibility? I was a twentysomething with no discernible goals and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, as were most of my friends. The kids on The Real World just had a nicer apartment.
So it is with a mix of trepidation and curiosity that I am about to embark on a marathon viewing session of the second season of CMT's Gone Country, all available for viewing on their website. The premise of the show, as I understand it, is this: a handful of musicians from various genres will be trained in the "county music lifestyle" and compete to see who can be the country music-est. The fascinating aspect of this for me is the suggestion that there are fundamental lifestyle differences between country and other forms of music, and that those skills specific to being a country music star are learnable. Sure, being in U2 is probably quite different from being in the Wu-Tang Clan, but can you imagine RZA giving Bono lessons on how to be a hip-hop star?
If that ends up on Bravo, I totally want royalties.
Plus, there's the promise of a very drunk and mostly crazy Sean Young. Brace yourself, we're going in.
Hour One: Nashville
Weirdly enough, I agree with the assertion that Nashville is country, and if, as the show's oft-repeated title (every participant seems required to say "gone country" at least half a dozen times) implies, country is a place that can be gone to, Nashville is certainly that place. The reasons for that have much more to do with history than with the present, and in a sense it might be as accurate to say Nashville is country as it is to say Cooperstown isbaseball. Going to Nashville to become country at this point is a little like going to New York City to become the Velvet Underground.
Once paired off at the Nashville airport, the contestants are given large trucks painted with flames and a map of the city printed on a small sheet of leather directing them to the Plowboy Mansion, a deluxe structure made of logs. It's here that we begin to see the meaning of country as constructed by the show: a cherry picking of American history, particularly images attached to "the common man" or "real folk". Log cabins were more common in the timber-rich northern rural parts of the United States, and our most famous log cabin birth, the lanky 16th president for whom toy log cabins were named, was not exactly a celebrity in the South, but no one's fact-checking here.
Further advancing this construction, the cast is taken to a Disneyland-style riverboat, complete with a long-bearded, loud-mouthed Southern general, a mixture of Colonel Sanders and all the members of Molly Hatchet. While introducing Sebastian Bach, this whiskey-clutching caricature channels a bit of Kid Rock with a cry of "Can I get a hell yeah?" Introducing *NSYNC's Chris Kirkpatrick, the general cites the boy band's record sales and notes that they fall well behind those of his favorite band: Alabama. I expected him to say Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Eventually the beard comes off and the general turns out to be host John Rich (Big & Rich). Laughing with the cast, Rich mentions how much fun it was to discard his "real" country persona and just "act like a big ol' jackass" on stage.
A Note on the Cast:
Yep, I mentioned Sebastian Bach, of Skid Row fame, a word I use here in its loosest sense. By the way, did anyone know he played Jesus on Broadway? And is anyone else disturbed by that? I also mentioned Chris Kirkpatrick, who you might remember as the guy you can't remember from *NSYNC, and Sean Young, who is actually just as crazy as the ads for the show imply. In fact, your suspicions that Young is crazy are completely confirmed by this show and her inclusion here boggles the mind. Slightly less mind-boggling is the inclusion of Lorenzo Lamas, star of Renegade and Falcon Crest. Lamas has a passable baritone and a commitment to making a Hasslehoffian crossover into music. Mikelah Gordon, American Idol runner-up who lost out to bona fide country success story Carrie Underwood, provides the prerequisite weeping and Irene Cara, who wrote the theme song to Fame, shows up late and leaves early. But the most legit inclusion here, and my pick to win it, is Jermaine Jackson. Not only did the Jackson 5 start out doing country numbers along with the R&B hits that made them famous, but they retained a couple country songs throughout their early career, many of them voiced by Jermaine. Like any celebrity reality show, Gone Country revels in the personal drama created by throwing a collection of fevered egos together, but for the purpose of this column, I'll be sidestepping the soap operatics.
Hour Two: Songwriting
To the extent we're going to get a full explication of the show's fundamental premise, we get it here. Rich states that the most important part of the show is the songwriting aspect and that "Great country music happens when your life imitates your music and the music imitates your life and they become one and the same." With that in mind, each of the contestants is matched with a professional songwriting team, to imitate the part in your life where decisions are made by a professional songwriting team.
Hour Three: Prison
In the interest of pursuing the honesty, integrity, and "real life experience" that are the building blocks of country music, the contestants are given a series of completely manufactured life experiences to aid their songwriting. Along with the songwriters to aid their songwriting. The first of these is a trip to prison.
Former Johnny Cash son-in-law Marty Stuart is in attendance to offer one line of reasoning for this: Cash's prison concert recordings (both from California rather than Nashville) were a revolutionary moment in country music. Another guess is that prison songs have been a staple of country music at least since Jimmy Rodgers' "In the Jailhouse Now". But famous country jailbird Merle Haggard, whose song gets slaughtered here by Sean Young and who was in the audience at three of Cash's San Quentin concerts, was initially a bigger hit on the west coast than Nashville, which took awhile to accept the Bakersfield sound of artists like Haggard and Buck Owens. The contestants' prison set also includes a whole lot of Willie Nelson, who had more success working in Austin than in Nashville. Just saying, there's a whole world of country music that happened outside Music City.
Kirkpatrick's decision to sing "Crazy" in front of a room full of convicts should have won him the competition right there, although I wish someone would have mentioned it was Willie's song before it was Patsy's. I'm a purist that way.
John Rich (photo by Ron Jaffe)
Hour Four: Ranching and Rules
Looks like to be "real country", you must shovel pigshit. Rich makes some comments on how ranching puts him in the mood to write good country songs, but I don't see him grabbing a shovel. And why is it no one comments on the fact that Sebastian Bach is wearing a Sebastian Bach T-shirt? On the way to the Rock Bottom Ranch, Bach repeated jokes that it sounds like they're headed to a rehab center, which could be considered one of the "real life" experiences shared by a number of country stars.
After a few pigs have been properly wrassled (although not by Jackson, who happens to be Muslim) we find out Rich's four criteria for a great country performance, as the contestants are asked to judge a Nashville talent contest called Get Rich. The four pillars are: Vocals, Originality, Style, and, most important to Rich, Connection with the Audience. Notably, a 14-year old boy with prominent braces and ample style wins the contest. Notably, Jermaine Jackson is pissed. This does not bode well for Mr. Jackson.
Hour Five: Giving It Back/Demo Derby
Country music is apparently the genre that loves to give back. To country music. Proving that charity begins at home, the contestants are sent out to raise funds for the Country Music Hall of Fame, curated by the Country Music Foundation, a subsidiary of the Country Music Association, which is a primary advertiser on CMT, the very channel broadcasting Gone Country. While this just seems to make everyone involved look bad, it also calls attention to one of the major characteristics of country music: self-identification. Country was one of the first genres to collectivize its own interests, forming the Country Music Association to protect and advance those interests in 1958. Nowadays, country seems more willing than genres most to slap the label "country" onto pieces of music that, by most imaginable criteria, aren't. While rock, pop, and hip-hop split themselves into smaller and smaller factions, this method of colonizing and assimilating other genres might account for country being one of the few sections of the industry witnessing an increase in record sales.
After the charity drive, the gang is taken to Paris, Tennessee to get in touch with more "real folk". Even more interesting than where they end up is the cast's speculation on what authentic country destination they might be headed for. Is it coalmining? Wrestlemania? In fact, it's where the competitive aspects of the latter meet the fossil fuels of the former: a demolition derby. Again, we're explicitly told there's a real country audience out there and if you're reading this, you're probably not part of it.
Hour Six: Bowhunting
Wait, are they training to be country stars or Ted Nugent? Oh, and it's another awkward moment for Jackson when the group is brought unsuspectingly to a pig roast. It wasn't bad enough they tempted Bach, a recovering alcoholic, with a fully stocked bar?
Honestly, my interest is beginning to wane, and if one of them says "bonding experience" one more time, I'm going to chuck my laptop across the room. Looking at you, Lorenzo Lamas. After the bowhunting and more cracks about Young's tender mental state, the contestants debut the songs they "wrote" for Rich's amusement. Jackson's song: sappy but not bad. Gordon's song: well within the spunky, somewhat angry girl genre of current country. Lamas manages to score double sad points by writing a song that not only centers on his time as TV's Renegade, but does so using the phrase "on a steel horse I ride". In the chorus. Which, if I'm not mistaken, is stolen directly from Bon Jovi's Young Guns II soundtrack contribution. I can bend my head around the idea that either Bon Jovi or Emilio Estevez has gained acceptance in the country community, but not both.
Hour Seven: And the winner is...
...frankly, I don't even care. If Jackson doesn't win, there's no justice in Nashville. What I'm more interested in than the outcome or the last minute appearance of everyone's families is where they got the suits. I can't help but wonder if the embroidered and rhinestone-studded outfits the contestants are wearing came from Nudie's Rodeo Tailoring protégé Manuel, who designed the suits for the Flying Burrito Brothers and currently operates a shop in Nashville. Couldn't we have devoted five minutes to costuming rather than Bach's reunion with his son? Does that make me cold?
I won't reveal the outcome. I will only mention that there is no justice in Nashville and that after hours spent with the second season of Gone Country, I have less of an idea what it means to be country than I did going in. The fact that the current season includes George Clinton as a contestant leaves me even more confused.