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By Jonas Beals
ACOLLEGE professor once asked my class what it meant to be Southern. The class responded by shouting out stereotypical foods. Apparently, being Southern meant little more than having a taste for too much sugar in everything. William Faulkner did corkscrews in his grave.
Certain popular country songs remind me of that moment. There are tunes that seem like a desperate attempt at establishing country credentials, only to miss the point entirely. It's like the songwriter took that list from my college class and used the words to write a song in the style of Magnetic Poetry.
Record executive: "I need a country song."
Nashville songwriter, who probably grew up in Los Angeles: "Country song. Hmmm. Country, like beer?"
Record executive: "Exactly!"
Nashville songwriter, who is more of a Chardonnay guy: "And trucks?"
Record executive: "Perfect! They love trucks!"
Nashville songwriter, who commutes on a Vespa: "I've got it! Pecan Pie!"
Record executive: "Nailed it!"
The result of that meeting of the minds is a song like "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" by Kip Moore. Sample lyric:
What burns me up about a song like that is its total lack of imagination. It's patronizing and bland. It's like Brad Paisley's "Ticks" without brains or humor.
Many recent country hits are little more than a list of signifiers: cold beer, pickup truck, dirt road, farm. The familiar tropes make for an easy connection with the audience.
But it wasn't until a colleague and his wife (thanks, Kurt and Elizabeth!) recently compared country to hip-hop that it hit me. These songs are nothing more than country posturing, and reflect the way popular hip-hop music has evolved into a rote exercise of listing the well-worn trappings of fame: racks and stacks of cash, jewelry, expensive cars, private jets, expensive women.
The apotheosis of this trend is probably Rick Ross' Maybach Music Group, a record label named after a pricey automobile. The word has become hip-hop shorthand--a rapper can simply use "Maybach" in a rhyme to establish himself as a person who lives and parties on a nearly unattainable plane.
Likewise, a country singer can say "cold beer" and he's suddenly Hank Williams Jr. and Sr. put together. Or it at least alerts the listener that he's listening to a country song and not a Train tune.
JONAS' IN-TOWN PICK: TJ Morgan & The Mason Branch Bluegrass Band at The Recreation Center. Friday at 8 p.m. OUT-OF-TOWN PICK: B.B. King at The Howard Theater in Washington. The first concert I ever saw was the Blues Boy at Dodd Auditorium. Thirty years later, the legend keeps rolling. Saturday at 8 p.m. LISTENING TO: "The Thanks I Get" by Wilco.