A Return to Country

The showstopper country rendition of “America the Beautiful” by The Zac Brown Band sends a message across the U.S.A.

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.”