A Return to Country


The 2010 Grammy Awards had many country numbers, both in the performances and the awards. Country/pop singer Taylor Swift accepted the most important award for the night, Album of the Year, with youthful enthusiasm by exclaiming “We get to take this back to Nashville!” But the highlight of the evening was a perfect rendition of “America the Beautiful” by the country group The Zac Brown Band, followed by Zac Brown’s virtuoso guitar playing during the band’s country hit “Chicken Fried.” This same group unexpectedly received the Best New Artist award, another big win for country music.

Commentary on this country presence was minimal from the seasoned (and sour) music critics, who spent a good deal of time replaying Swift’s off-key performance with the folksy Stevie Nicks. This criticism was later retracted, since the problem was a technical glitch. In the eyes and ears of such critics, this year’s Grammy performances were the best ever, thanks to the nihilistic Lady Gaga and her dancing corpses, Beyonce marching on the stage with an aggressive army of soldier dancers, and Pink’s aerial suspension in a fetal position. But ignoring country just won’t make it go away.

Crossing over from the stage to the screen, country music is the uncontested star in Crazy Heart. In fact, Jeff Bridges, the lead actor in the film, refused to participate unless the music played a prominent role. Bridges is simply the musician conduit who plays aging country legend Bad (Otis) Blake, whose alcoholism catches up with him. Bad overcomes this addiction after a frightening incident, and the dignity with which he does so is unusual. Many characters in redemptive roles still hold on to residues of bitterness; Bad comes truly clean and good.

Current movies don’t even bother with redemption, and a life free from the disappointments that vice brings. George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham in Up in the Air, the competitor to Crazy Heart, is a lonely and disconnected man. Music is a muzak backdrop in Up in the Air, but the film’s soundtrack features “Going Home,” a surprisingly solid, country-like number. The titular song “Up in the Air”, which appears in the closing credits of the film, ultimately overrides any notion of home and place with its adolescent melody and lyrics, and Bingham remains floating where he started off.

When back on land, Up in the Air is full of bleak landscapes with overcast days and gray cities. Bingham travels back and forth to airports in drab rented cars for which he has as much attachment as the concrete highways he drives them on. The rootless life he has chosen puts him in contact with similarly displaced personalities, and even the woman he falls in love with has a false identity.

Bad, on the other hand, has a beloved pick-up truck that never fails him. It runs as good as new even after a serious accident, when he refurbishes its dulled rusty color with a vibrant red. His life may be filled with lonely roads and motel rooms, but they’re part of a landscape that rewards him with saturated sunsets and rugged mountains, and ultimately songs. This invigorating country surely gives him some of the energy to finally fight for his runaway life. It is no surprise that Bridges beat Clooney as Best Actor during the recent Golden Globe awards, and is the favorite to win at the more prestigious Oscars. Redemption still wins over nihilism.

But, it isn’t only in music and films that the essence of country is felt. People grounded in the earth are appearing everywhere. The Minute Men resort to civilian vigilance of their land, refusing to give it up without a fight. The grassroots Tea Party movements, mocked as fake Astroturfs by their detractors, insist on keeping their country authentic. Massachusetts residents voted for a senator belittled for his own down-to-earth pick-up truck, who promised to preserve some of the real America. Even Sarah Palin is on the ticket to restore love for country and land.

Country’s entry into more mainstream slots shows that ordinary Americans are rejecting the impersonal and uninspiring. They are searching for concrete and elevating examples of the world around them. Words, images and ideas reflecting this are taking precedence. It is not clear if this will last, but the showstopper country rendition of “America the Beautiful” by The Zac Brown Band at the Grammys gives room for optimism. Zac Brown sings of a real place in his other Grammy performance “Chicken Fried”: “And my house it’s not much to talk about/ But it’s filled with love that’s grown in southern ground.” And Bad (now Otis) finally returns to his hometown bar in the final scenes of Crazy Herat, where he performs in sober serenity on a simple stage with his guitar. He greets his scattered audience with, ”So glad to be home.”

  • http://www.itecode.com eerie Steve

    In my opinion, canned country, what this is, has its place but it needs roots. They really will not be superstars until they advance beyond the standard three cord progression. For good country music try Jim White or Hank Williams III

    • Poppakap

      Steve,

      You've obviously never listened to Zac Brown Band (ZBB) music. To describe it as "…the standard three cord (spelling error yours not mine) progression," is musically ignorant. One of the hallmarks of ZBB music is multi-layered melodies with intricate counterpoint between guitar and fiddles.

      Despite the outstanding musicianship in ZBB's songs, the number of chords, complexity, etc. is not what makes music good. Hank Williams' music, considered by many country music historians as the ultimate expression of country sound, is invariably simple, with lots of three chord progressions. The question one should ask when listening to music is this, does it move you? Does the music create an emotional response? If not, it will not stand the test of time and opinion.

      • http://www.itecode.com eerie Steve

        Poppakap:

        u want youtube war?

  • USMCSniper

    David Allan Coe – real country – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uR9EYOKfDmo&fe

  • paulfromTexas

    The TexAmericana songwriters are not to be believed…
    It’s not country, not that top 40 crapola..it’s real music, written by real people, whoi can sit and sing it to you , right now, and sound better than any studiio-work.
    Try http://www.Radiofreetexas.org

    Save your ears while you still can.

  • ayoung

    I don't know much about this Zac Brwon Band, but one thing I do know, the song "Chicken Fried" is not country music. Like much of what Nashville spews forth these days, this song is nothing but pop with superficial lyrics that make reference to rural America with a fiddle or two thrown in to give the illusion of country music.

  • Mr. Buzzcut

    To all those dill holes that spout off “that’s not real country” I say THANK GOD it isn’t by your defination. I grew up watching and listening to that crap Porter Wagoner, the Wilburn Bros – etc, good God, no wonder my first album was Steppenwolf. Now, my teenage daughters have pics of Toby, Trace, Tayler Swift and others on their walls and listen to them too.

  • Seek

    The music in "Crazy Heart" — mainly the work of the great T-Bone Burnett — is enough reason to see the film. But the movie is fine, too. Go check it out.

  • Kidist Paulos Asrat

    I tried hard to a definitive definition of country music, but thought it was unnecessary. People have asked that question since country music started. There has always been disagreement. But, you whatever you may say, you can always tell a piece of country music – however poppy or jazzy or bluesy – when played next to other types.

    An interesting sub-theme in the movie Crazy Heart is that old-time legends like Bad consider newer country songs and musicians to be inauthentic. But Bad accepts that his much younger rival – Tommy Sweet – is the real deal. Still, Bad writes the songs, and Tommy performs them. Looks like they all need each other – young and old.

    If you don’t call the guitar riffs that Zac Brown performed country, they I don’t know what it is.

    I did say that Taylor Swift is a country/pop star. But she sings from the heart, about mundane daily things that mean a lot to her. Maybe that’s what country is all about.

    I agree that the music in the movie is great.

  • Wacojoe

    Anyone who can't tell a pickup from a Suburban needs more time in the country.

  • ayoung

    I guess when compared with other genres, the Zac Brown Band is country. Nonetheless, this band's lyrics, melodies, and guitar riffs all sound like they were developed by a committee of record producers in Nashville. This band is as packaged as it gets.

  • http://www.itecode.com eerie Steve

    Well to each there own, but honestly, did Hendrix win a grammy? I will listen to ZBB but my type of mainline country is Lonesome Bob "The Plans we've made…"

  • http://www.itecode.com yearOfTheTigerSoup

    Start with the women. Try Poor Ellen Smith.

    Poor Ellen Smith,
    how was she found!

    Shot through the heart,
    lying cold on the ground!!!