Darryl Worley is no Toby Keith.
That’s both a good and bad thing.
Worley, of course, came out of nowhere as the United States and Great Britain were preparing to go to war in Iraq with the tune, “Have You Forgotten?”, a song largely dismissed by music critics and discerning country fans as propaganda while at the same time embraced by a certain segment of Nashville as an American anthem. It was often propped up in contrast to Steve Earle’s polarizing “John Walker Blues” by much of the country and mainstream media. All of this ended up making a star-of-sorts and a spokesman out of the twenty-something Worley — previously best known as country music’s Harry Connick, Jr. look-a-like.
Well, “Have You Forgotten?” is finally out as part of a full album by the same name, though much of the material is recycled from Worley’s 2000 release Hard Rain Don’t Last and 2002’s I Miss My Friend. Worley’s intentions (not to mention his talent) are likely to be questioned given the lack of new material and the political bent of the new stuff that is present. But that would really be unfair to Worley and a disservice to the casual country music listener trying to decide whether or not to shell out the cash for the disc.
There’s nothing about the actual music that suggests Worley is manipulating anyone or anything. There’s no evidence he’s just trying to make a fast buck, exploiting a horrific national tragedy (though the same can’t be said for his label, Dreamworks). If anything, the more you listen to the first four songs on Have You Forgotten?, the more you realize that Worley probably does believe in what he is singing about.
Nowhere is that more evident than on the album’s second track, “I Will Hold My Ground”, which leads off with the “I have never had an easy life / But I’m not complaining / It has taught me how to stand and fight / For what I believe in”. And he goes on to do just that in this sanitized, mid-tempo country rocker. As hokey as the song might be, there’s nothing sinister about it.
Even the album’s overly discussed title track isn’t quite as insidious as singing about shooting missiles up Arabs’ rectums (see the afore mentioned Keith). Yet, like a lot of Worley’s tracks — pre- and post-war — the lyrics are often overwrought and clumsy. If you’re going to demonize Worley, don’t do it because you disagree with his political bent. Do it because of ill-conceived refrains like, “Have you forgotten? / How it felt that day / To see our homeland under fire / And her people blown away”.
In fact, folks ought not be offended by the man’s politics, but rather the insipid nature of his music. While physically resembling Connick Jr., musically he’s Sheryl Crow — bland and utterly predictable country-tinged rock. The back catalogue on this record shows off just how mediocre a talent Worley was prior to the media storm: a collection of songs that easily would have been forgotten if not for “Have You Forgotten?”. Here’s a sample of some of his lyrical gems:
“Big city nights and lights around me / Feels like a prison to my soul” — from “Back Where I Belong”, originally recorded for I Miss My Friend. (And, as hard it is to believe, it took three people to produce this pap. We can also blame co-writers Steve Leslie and Randy Hardison for this one.)
“I’m tired of working every day for a dollar / I’m about to choke on my own blue collar” — from “A Good Day to Run”, recorded for Hard Rain Don’t Last and co-written with Bobby Tomberlin.
“I miss the way it used to be / When there were just two channels on TV / That way of life was so much easier” — from “Too Many Pockets”, recorded for Hard Rain Don’t Last and co-written by Worley and Leslie.
But these lines don’t just indicate a lack of lyrical prowess. They also point to the theme of Worley’s work. Here’s a man seemingly confused by the complexities of modern life. A man who liked it better when he only had to choose between A and B. There was city life and country life and the two didn’t mix. So when his country is about to go to war, Worley doesn’t want to believe the situation is more complex than right or wrong, black or white. Hence, “Have You Forgotten?”. If anything, this isn’t a song about politics but a song about a man out of time. In that sense, it’s heartbreaking; a sad song rather than an anthem. Of course, in Worley’s world that assessment would prove to be just too complicated.
And that’s unfortunate, too, because Worley is clearly going to disappear from the music consciousness very soon. He doesn’t have the flair or the talent (if we can use that word in the same sentence) of a Toby Keith, like the man or not. He’s a one-song wonder to be sure. The liner notes of the CD are filled with pictures of Worley performing for soldiers, shaking their hands and being their “spokesman”. But when the war is over, so is Worley. Dreamworks knows this. That’s why the album cover is Worley in front of a faded American flag. They aren’t selling the music, they’re selling an image that a large number of Americans want to see. They’re selling a feeling that any other song, had a someone else had the lack of perspective or self-awareness to write it, could have supplied. It’s all about timing and Worley’s is just about up.
There’s fame and there’s anonymity. And Worley — rightfully so — is headed back to the way it used to be. But that fate is probably a comforting one.