Strum and Twang: New Singles by Alan Jackson, Zac Brown, Lady Antebellum

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.”

Categories: Music