A friend and I have been talking recently about writing our own country songs to sell in Nashville. Neither of us is what you would technically call a "musician" or "songwriter." But we both know some guitar chords, and I can write words OK. The way we figure it, it's mostly a matter of thinking up a gimmicky chorus that taps into some kind of folksy zeitgeist. We're not too worried about the chord progressions, hooks or melodies — those we'll steal from somebody else's hit song. (See "Blurred Lines.")
So far, we have one song sketched out. The gist: Country boy has to go to the city for a party. At first, he doesn't fit in at the party — it's a classy affair, and he showed up in his boots and cowboy hat. During the bridge, there's a twist, and on the last verse, it's the country boy who ends up showing the city slickers how to loosen up and party, country style. It's kind of a feel-good story about harmony in a world of difference. The working title is "Party Like a Country Boy." We're looking to sell the rights to this song for somewhere in the neighborhood of $75,000.
Because that one is pretty much a wrap, I'm on the hunt for some new ideas. So on Saturday, I drove to Starlight Theatre for Y'allapalooza, the annual concert hosted by local country radio station Q104.
At the top of the bill was Tate Stevens, who was crowned the winner of Season 2 of The X Factor last year. I'll root for Stevens because he's a local guy — he's from Belton — and because he worked as a construction worker before The X Factor, which makes his blue-collar lyrics more believable than most. But Stevens' first round of songs (he released his debut album back in April) is about as safe as they come: a relentlessly bland collection celebrating a country lifestyle that, if it ever existed, certainly doesn't today. As a country songwriter on the make, though, it's inspiring. Even a rube like me can play in the same league as "I Got This": Grease on my hands, name on my shirt; Got dirt on my boots, mud on my truck; and, of course, I'm a country boy, don't mean to brag/I'm all about God, our troops and the flag.
The other big name on the Y'allapalooza lineup was Aaron Lewis. You might remember Lewis from the late '90s, when he was the frontman in the post-grunge butt-rock group Staind. That was a legendarily terrible band, but Lewis' recent opportunist ventures into country music are even more objectionable. It's of no concern to the conservative white males making up Lewis' target demographic that he's a carpetbagger (from a wealthy town in Massachusetts); they're just happy to have another guy around who's as resistant to world progress as they are. If Lewis' debut album, 2011's Town Line, was a globe, you could spin it around and land your finger on a politically pandering or comically stupid line every single time.
The definitive Lewis track is, uh, "Country Boy," which is a direct rip-off of Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive." Lewis brings in Southern redneck icon Charlie Daniels at the end to fiddle a little of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and deliver this bit of proud ignorance: I love my country, I love my guns, I love my family. I love the way it is now, and anybody who tries to change it has to come through me. That should be all of our attitudes. Cause this is America, and a country boy is good enough for me, son. Take note, political activists and grassroots community organizers: Your efforts are in vain until you run them past the guy on the Geico commercial who sang "The Devil Went Down to Georgia."
The good news is that Lewis is, in a lot of ways, late to the party. Much like hip-hop, country music is undergoing an identity crisis as it inches closer toward the mainstream. Kanye West's recent Yeezus has the industrial tones of a Nine Inch Nails album, and there was a dubstep song on Taylor Swift's last album. Genre tags are growing ever looser in the search for hits. Lewis' medium-angry guns-and-God shtick may play well with his base, but it's not the kind of material that's going to connect with the general electorate.
One of the openers on Saturday, Cole Swindell, seemed to represent this shifting landscape. Swindell is cut in the mold of country-star-of-the-moment Luke Bryan, which is to say he dresses more like a frat boy than a cowboy (he was a Sigma Chi at a Georgia college), and doesn't overplay the twang in his voice. Swindell wore a predistressed baseball cap and a well-fitting Royals T-shirt, and his songs tended toward the loose and breezy — the closest thing he has to a hit is called, tellingly, "Chillin' It." Musically, this is not the stuff of Hank or Johnny or Randy Travis. It's a lot of revved-up electric guitars, power chords and soaring choruses — take away the country signifiers in the lyrics and you might mistake it for a '90s rock act like Matchbox Twenty. One of Swindell's last songs was called "Brought to You by Beer." It was such a perfectly dumb party anthem (complete with a reference to "12-ounce curls") that I almost couldn't enjoy it, so jealous I was that I hadn't thought it up myself.