Arts, Music, Column

Making Country Music Good, Again

“How long has it been since country albums made up the Billboard 200s top 3?” Maura Johnston—Boston College professor, Globe correspondent, and generally the best redheaded music writer in our great states—tweeted at 12:36 P.M. on Monday, when Chris Stapleton, Carrie Underwood, and Eric Church came in at one, two, three. And I wondered. And I looked it up.

Man, did Garth Brooks own the ’90s. That guy has friends in all kinds of places. Garth and the gang (Shania Twain, Faith Hill, Reba) came close but, Michael Jackson, Nirvana, Ice T and the like were always getting in the way. The closest they came was Dec. 28, 2002, when Shania Twain and the Dixie Chicks came in at one and two, and Tim McGraw came in at four.

The haters said country was dead after Taylor Swift left and took her legions of star-crossed lovers with her. It hasn’t been the case. The Billboard top 3 albums of reference—Chris Stapleton’s Traveler, Carrie Underwood’s Storyteller, and Eric Church’s surprise-release Mr. Misunderstood—made it to the top in the wake of the Country Music Association Awards (CMAs) and the week before Justin Bieber premieres Purpose. But for now, country is king.

This is all on the back of “country music’s biggest night.” The CMAs are basically the Oscars of country music (a trade federation dishing out stamps of approval). Outside of maybe the Fourth of July, it’s the biggest night in America. It’s also one of the weirdest, fittingly. But it’s a night that gets a lot of things right, rewards the right folks. The Oscars gave Best Picture Awards to The King’s Speech and Forest Gump. The Grammy’s gave an award to Macklemore instead of Kendrick Lamar. When it comes to celebrating the right people last Wednesday, the CMAs hit all the right notes, showering Chris Stapleton with statues and continuing the reign of Miranda Lambert. Stapleton honorably thanked all his “cousins in Kentucky.”

Sure, there were hiccups. The Star Wars-themed opening came off too opportunistic. Disney/Lucasfilm doesn’t need free advertising. Kudos to Darius Rucker for playing along with the whole “black stormtrooper” gag. He’s slowly but surely making up for “Wagon Wheel.” There’s the hokey, “aw shucks” sense of humor that sort of says “anything that’s not country is cray-cray.” And apparently, Priceline hasn’t been paying WIlliam Shatner enough.

At the start of the (long) show, John Mellencamp performed “Pink Houses” strumming to the words “ain’t that America” alongside Keith Urban, who’s ironically Australian. Urban name-checks Mellencamp in his harmless “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16.” But, as many critics have noted the past few days, it’s Eric Church’s Mr. Misunderstood that sounds a lot like Mellencamp.

Church released his new album the day of the big show. He’s clever and cagey, that one. It’s a far cry from The Outsiders, stylistically though not wholly in substance. I saw Church at the Garden last spring. Even way back in the nosebleeds and a few weeks shy of a good night sleep, it was awesome. But the giant inflatable devil and scorching horde of guitars was little much. He doesn’t need much showmanship to tell a story. So if you wanted a Church album where “Talladega” meets “Carolina,” Mr. Misunderstood is it. Church has moved from screaming and shouting from outside, to whispering to the audience inside.

The CMAs are nothing if not a performance event—a place and a show meant to expose singles and show off headlining collaborations. While many performances like “Mr. Misunderstood” and Stapleton’s “Tennessee Whiskey” made Nashville the place to be, there are just as many “Strip It Down”s and “Beautiful Drug”s that make you scratch your head at the way people mindlessly nod along. Hold your liberal applause for Little Big Town’s winning “Girl Crush.” It’s not “I Kissed a Girl and I Liked It.” It’s “I’m Jealous of the Girl Kissing My Man.” But even with the duds and toe-dipping liberalism, the CMA’s were/are fun.

Even Justin Timberlake—rebranded for a night as “a son of Memphis”—got in on it, Performing with Stapleton, who looks and sounds like a Country Music Zeus,  “Drink You Away.”

The boys—Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan—still stole a few awards. But last week, Bro Country finally took a boot to the ass. So crack a cold one in celebration, here’s to more than trucks, beer, and girls in jeans.

Featured Image by Country Music Association

November 11, 2015