The most common complaint one heard about country music from the early 1960s at the time was that it was too twangy. The vocal inflections and steel guitar whines sounded like chalk on a blackboard to the uninitiated. Outside of its fanbase, this style of country was associated with rednecks and racism unless it was smoothed out into something called “folk”.
Longtime Nashville resident Jim Lauderdale has just released his 35th album, Game Changer, which he purposely created in the style of those twangy albums from the past. The North Carolina-born artist sings with a deeply accented Southern inflection and employs four different steel guitarists. The 12 tracks accurately capture the sound from back then in a slightly weird way. While the new songs employ hooks and catchy wordplay, they come off as the B-sides rather than hits. It has the whiff of something you heard before but can’t quite remember when or where.
That strangely gives the material the aura of authenticity. “Keep It Real”, Lauderdale sings on the song with that name, suggesting his obsession with the actual. While he’s crooning about romance on that track, the musician’s concern with what’s genuine and sincere permeates every cut. Even when Lauderdale sings about make-believe as in the title tune, the purpose of his subterfuge is true love. “Let’s pretend that we’re not pretending this is true,” he tells the stranger he met at the bar. The deception is in the service of candor and honesty.
The context for this style of country music has changed. More than 50 years ago, the music was intended for an insular audience. The very features that made some people dislike this sound were the same as what made the songs popular to selected listeners. One thing that hasn’t altered is the nation’s division. Country music may be more accepted and admired by the masses, but the American people are as polarized as ever. Lauderdale addresses this situation directly in “We’re All We’ve Got” (co-written with Mary Gauthier and Jaimee Harris). We’re closer than we think to crossing the great divide that separates us from each other, Lauderdale sings in a hopeful voice. At least he wants that to be.
But unfortunately, that song reveals how far apart we are. Lauderdale begins “We’re All We’ve Got” with a description of how people arrive in America (“We landed here like scattered seeds / With mighty hopes and mighty dreams / Came up from love, same melting pot”) that ignores how black populations arrived in America and the fact of slavery. To hear a white man with a thick Southern drawl sing ignorantly about race and our common heritage is specious at best. That doesn’t make Lauderdale a racist, but his insensitive omission of that history helps illustrate why we are still a divided nation.
The other material varies from uplifting, fun tracks such as “That Kind of Life (That Kind of Day)”, “I’ve Heard of That”, and “Hoggin’ My Mind” to tears in my beer slow efforts (“I’ll Keep My Heart Open for You”, “Our Happy Hour”, and “Wishbone”. This is not an exercise in nostalgia. Lauderdale brings the past to the present. The music may be old-fashioned, but Lauderdale does his best to keep the tone varied. Happy or sad, the emotional appeal of twang supersedes the music’s other charms. Whether one likes the record or not depends on how one feels about twang.