I’m about to move back home to Boston after six months of living in Louisiana, and I’m kind of dreading it.
I’m sorry, Boston. It’s your music.
Don’t get me wrong: I was once one of you. I, too, proudly described my taste in music as “sad bastard.” But I have spent the last six months listening to country radio, and you know what? I feel great.
Oh, I know the joke that goes, play a country song backwards and you get your dog back, your job back and your wife comes home. But that’s the old country, the country of men like Waylon Jennings, hard-drinkin’, hard-livin’ troubadours who came to Nashville with a guitar, a dream and a taste for trouble.
I’m not arguing for that country. It doesn’t need my help. Ever since Joaquin Phoenix smoldered through the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, cowboy boots and whiskey-drenched sorrow have been in fashion. Admit to liking Johnny or Jennings and people just think you’re authentic—even if your boots came from Newbury Street.
My country’s demagogue isn’t Cash but Kenny Chesney, a man who wears his hair blonder and his jeans tighter than Paris Hilton. Down here, his “Never Wanted Nothing More” plays at least once an hour and its chorus (“Well I’m what I am and I’m what I’m not, I’m sure happy with what I’ve got”) provides a collective affirmation for the entire South.
And it’s not just that one song. Listen to country radio long enough and a sense of calm will descend upon you, a certainty that there exists a clear moral universe, one in which all it takes to make a girl yours is a ring, and happily ever after is ensured. Singers moon over their wives (Jason Michael Carroll’s “Livin’ Our Love Song,” Joe Nichols’ “Another Side of You,” and, oh, heck—anything at all by Tim McGraw). A 4-year-old saying a cuss word is a moral crisis worthy of an entire song (Rodney Atkins’ “Watching You”—imagine Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” with Happy Meals and a sunny ending).
Ever hear your parents talk about how much they loved Leave it to Beaver when they were kids? They didn’t care whether June was dying inside. All they knew was that for a little while, the smiling perfect world made them feel good. Country radio is like that. No, it’s better. It’s the entire Self-Help section of Barnes & Noble, distilled. It’s audio Prozac. And it’s free!
I once organized a CD swap in Boston. It was the middle of winter, and no fewer than eight people individually put Elliot Smith’s “Waltz No. 2” on their mixes. That is a song with the chorus, “I’m never gonna know you now.” It compares a girl to a “dead china doll.” It was written by a man who (probably) killed himself. COME ON!
Please, Boston, let me introduce to you to Brad Paisley. His girl’s “a Saturn with a sunroof with her brown hair a-blowing.” Much better.