Since only one of this week's three newbies on the country top 10 would strike my grandpa as having anything to do with his beloved hillbilly music, and since even the one kinda-hillbilly number - the Alan Jackson song - sounds like the Tony Rich Project, it's fair at this point to ask just what in the holy hell it is that makes modern country country.
This week's "I Run to You," by the comically named Lady Antebellum, is an upbeat '80s power ballad stripped of all country signifiers - no steel, no fiddle, no twang, no narrative, no nothing. My current theory on how a song qualifies for country radio is simple. If it's pleasant, guitar-driven pop based on the pre-Pixies classic rock chord changes, it's country. Jewel and Hootie have gone Nasvhille because Nashville has already gone Jewel and Hootie. [Editor's note: Hootiepants singer Darius Rucker will be performing at the Midland on December 6, 2009.]
Alan Jackson, "Sissy's Song" (#10)
Verdict: A keeper.
Like his "Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning," Jackson's latest is a cagey, low-key, grief-driven sing-along that those who don't listen closely might mistake for simple minded. As Jackson sings tenderly about family members coping with the death of a young mother, the impolite emotions of the verses (Feeling so lost inside/Anger shot straight at God) are balmed by the homilies of the chorus, which insists She flew up to heaven and She walks with Jesus. That might seem like treacle, but pay attention to the lines right before each chorus: I just have to believe for the first, I'm hoping maybe for the second, and I won't cry because for the third.
Instead of a wallow in the encouraging clichés people offer up at funerals, Jackson has penned a narrative exploration of how those clichés, repeated like mantras, firm up from vague hopes into convictions you need to live. A demerit for its deep melodic indebtedness to that one Tony Rich Project song, which itself borrowed heavily from the Prince B-side "I Love U In Me," which almost relieves the demerit--you can sing "I Love You in Me" over the chorus, but don't let Jackson hear you. Clever detail that gives me confidence that Jackson intends these complexities: the way he rhymes the word rhyme when complaining that tragedies happen "without reason, without rhyme."
Zac Brown Band, "Whatever It Is" (#8)
The dopey lyric doesn't kill this agreeable, forgettable listen. In fact, since the song's about the singer's inability to describe just whatever it is about his woman that he loves so much, the dopiness might be artful. In his steady, sturdy baritone, Brown sings She's everything I wanted to say to a woman but couldn't find the words to say, a mind-fuck if I've ever heard one. How can a woman be the things you wish you could say to a woman? He adds, Every time I try to tell her how I feel/ It comes out 'I love you,' which is also goofy, but sweetly so, since the woman probably likes that. The slow, easy way the fiddle bends upwards at the end of a chorus is worth the clumsiness. Since so much of country radio is garish and manipulative, it's easy to mistake a boring song for one with integrity.
Lady Antebellum, "I Run to You" (#9)
This is country the same way a new suburban house thrown up on a tree-razed lot is: because the people selling it say so. With its shopworn U2 guitar atmospherics, "I run from prejudice" earnestness, plateaus of silvery synths, and cornball, cruise-ship, his-and-her duet vocals, this crosses '80s indie with the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. That doesn't mean it's a chore to listen to. Unlike, say, Montgomery Gentry, the borrowed elements all soldered together here achieve a smooth seamlessness. I even like that layer of burnished organ meant meant to suggest an all-American soulfulness. The lyrics puzzle. "I run to you," they sing, as the world spins toward its disasters. That's sweet and all, but Charles Kelley truly does brag in the opening verse that he runs from hate and from prejudice, which isn't saying much. Why not try standing up to them?