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THE NO. 6 song on the Billboard country music songs chart is "Fly Over States" by Jason Aldean. It's a good song.
But it's good in spite of an annoying brand of bigotry that is rampant in country music. "Fly Over States," like so many other Nashville songs, treats city folks like idiots.
Such a sweeping generalization is, of course, pointless. But it is a convenient premise for a song. Everyone loves an underdog, so why not make yourself the underdog, railing against the faceless, small-minded rich folks on the coast who just don't get it, despite all their highfalutin education.
There are a number of reasons this is nonsense, starting with the fact that not every city dweller is a well-heeled businessman harboring an active hatred of the heartland. Nor is each Midwestern farmhand a spiteful ogre with a grudge against people who live in high-rises. But everyone loves a competition. It's us versus them.
"Fly Over States" begins, appropriately enough, on a plane, with "a couple of guys in first class" looking out the window to Oklahoma below. "Who'd want to live down there, in the middle of nowhere," one of them asks. Our singer, who has observed this exchange, assumes these men have never met a farmer and are unfamiliar with Indiana roadways. The assumption is that, if only those two could meet a farmer in Indiana, they would what? Clap wildly every time they passed over a soybean field? Maybe Aldean should just be satisfied that those two jerks will never darken his farmhouse door.
What, exactly, are songs like "Fly Over States" trying to prove with their contrived insecurities? Well, they're not trying to prove anything--they're trying to connect with listeners and maximize downloads. The easiest way to do that is through an "us versus them" scenario.
People tend to love themselves and are more likely to be skeptical of people who are not themselves. So Aldean took a chance and assumed that most country fans are not frequent first-class fliers, nor do they belittle farms and rural areas when given the chance. But the question remains: Who does do that? Aldean is banking on that answer being nobody. Like it or not, he has to sell records, and a lot of them have to get sold to folks in big cities. Heck, even Nashville--like many other collections of humans in the United States--is a big city. It's exactly the same size as Washington, a few residents ahead of Denver and a few shy of Boston.
The only reason so many pop country songs rely on this dubious "city slicker" straw man is that it's easy. Examples are countless and include "Songs About Me" by Trace Adkins and "My Town" and "Where I Come From" by Montgomery Gentry.
There is country music that gets it right. You just won't hear it on the radio. James McMurtry, for example, has made a living painting sympathetic, challenging, complex portraits of life in rural America. All of them capture quirks and personality traits that are apparently too nuanced for mass consumption. I refuse to believe that for a second. Plenty of other artists have been doing the same thing for decades. If you want country music that speaks intelligently about class and geographical divides in U.S. culture, check out Robert Earl Keen, Jerry Jeff Walker, Todd Snider and Ray Wylie Hubbard. And listen to "Out Here in the Middle" by McMurtry.
My challenge to pop country hit-makers is this: Show us the beauty of the country without showing us an ugly city slicker.
Jonas Beals: 540/368-5036