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Chris Willman

Chris Willman

Posted March 12, 2009 | 03:54 PM (EST)

Jamey Johnson and John Rich Help Country Radio Get Real


Country radio isn't always known for its daring social relevance, but two singles that are currently rising up the charts--John Rich's politically themed "Shutting Detroit Down" and Jamey Johnson's pharmaceutically themed "High Cost of Living"--prove that the genre that bills itself as "America's music" can still provide bracing jolts of reality.

I spent time with both singers during the 40th annual Country Radio Seminar, an industry confab that brings together thousands of DJs and programmers who act as gatekeepers for what is still the nation's No. 1 music format. Successful as country radio continues to be (and, contrary to rumor, not just in the flyover states), it's proving as susceptible to downsizing as any other medium, and panelists inevitably disagreed about whether the current focus on tight playlists, aging superstars, and a core demographic of middle-aged moms will be the format's ongoing salvation or ultimate doom.

Johnson's and Rich's songs make programmers nervous, being ostensible downers that aren't easily squeezed in amid the feel-good fare that pays a station's bills. But I believe they're the kinds of songs that ultimately bring people to country radio, and which reinforce its original reputation--forged over a century, and really only recently lost to sentimentalism--as a form of popular music that deals, entertainingly, with hard truths that other genres can't or won't. Whether you like these performers or not, they're risk-takers, in troubled times, putting out topical tunes that offer an escape from all the rampant escapism.

My conversations with Johnson and Rich follow...

***

Jamey Johnson was the belle of the ball at this year's Country Radio Seminar, drawing sizable crowds to three different performances. And what a scruffy belle he is, rocking a bit of a Joaquin-on-Letterman look with his long hair, unkempt beard, and shades. He looks and sounds like a refugee from country's 1970s outlaw movement, when it briefly became difficult to tell a Nashville millionaire from a biker. Johnson was not the only guy I heard do a cover version of Waylon Jennings' classic "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?" during CRS week. But he was the only one of whom it could have been said, yep, I think Waylon might've done it this way.

In spite of his rough, throwback look, he's being embraced by mainstream country fans and programmers as well as the alt-country crowd. "In Color," the first single off his latest album, That Lonesome Song, was a top 15 hit, making him the hottest newcomer in the genre. But the fate of his followup single, "High Cost of Living," is still undetermined. When was the last time you remember hearing a song that mentioned hookers 'n' blow on country radio? Johnson's tune champions sobriety over substance abuse, but still... "That Southern Baptist parking lot/Is where I'd go to smoke my pot/Sit there in my pickup truck and pray... /As soon as Jesus turned his back/I'd find my way across the track/Lookin' just to score another deal/With my back against that damn eight ball/I didn't have to think or talk or feel." Can I get an amen? Or just a whoa? The confessionals keep on coming: "I had a job and a piece of land/My sweet wife was my best friend/But I traded that for cocaine and a whore."

"I don't make commercial music," Johnson tells me, sitting in the back of his bus while an autograph queue waits outside. "Those terms are after the fact. I don't think about something in terms of how big a hit this could be or how much money it could make, and I never will. " This is almost difficult to believe, because Johnson has spent most of his career as a Music Row tunesmith, turning out hits for other singers (most notably George Strait's brilliant divorce ballad "Give It Away"), and it's rare to find a guy like that who hasn't been trained to keep an hourly watch on his ASCAP earnings. But Johnson looks like he could beat the living hell out of anyone who'd challenge his integrity, so I'm inclined to take him at his word. And I should anyway, since That Lonesome Song really does sound like the product of a don't-give-a-crap country maverick.

He swears he was never in on any label conversations about the risk of releasing "High Cost of Living" as a single. "The only conversation that I had about that song wasn't about radio," says Johnson. "It was a conversation I had about my daughter with her mother--my ex-wife--on the phone one day. She had already heard the record, and I just asked her, 'Is this something that's gonna come back to bite me, putting this song on my album?' But I'd rather raise my daughter knowing where her dad stands and knowing that I'm doing the best that I can, than to raise her up in this sunshine world and have her discover on her own that life really don't work out to be that way all the time. So that's the only conversation I had about that song. I think every time from now on, I'm gonna err on the side of reality. I think that's what people need. We don't get to come back here and try this again. We can't screw up by putting nothing but musical Prozac on the radio. You have to have something that feeds people emotionally and mentally and spiritually. And if you fail to do that in music, why the hell are we doing this?"

Preach it, brother. One additional thought, though: It strikes me that people in addiction programs will approach "High Cost of Living" as a recovery anthem. At the same time, I saw him sing it three times during CRS, and every time, people whooped in approval at the drinking and dope-smoking references, if not necessarily the eight-balls. That dual reaction is fine with Johnson. "I think the same lines in the song that make one person holler out like it's a party make another guy cringe with pain," he says, before going out to sign CDs. "And maybe that's what music is supposed to do. They get to make up their own interpretation of what that song means to them, because that doesn't come from me. I just told the story."

***

John Rich didn't leave "Shutting Detroit Down" so open to interpretation. His voice is smooth and calm but his feelings raging as he croons about "fat cats" benefiting from the bailout plan for the big three automakers. And this one is an unqualified smash, by the way. Meeting with him in his manager's office, I ask him if he considers his hit to be an old-fashioned protest song. "Absolutely!" he nearly shouts. "I am squarely pissed off. And the people that I have seen in the last 100 towns that I've been in over the last four months all feel exactly like I do. You go out and find somebody that's having a blast right now watching the news and I'll give you a dollar. You ain't getting my dollar! Nobody's happy about it. And this song puts a fine point on it."

Mind you, "Shutting Detroit Down" can be read as a conservative protest song, even though Rich insists it's a populist anthem that crosses ideological lines. The song is currently No. 14 after just six weeks; at that rate, it's a likely contender for No. 1, which will be a rare feat for an outrightly topical song in any genre. That might have seemed unlikely for a tune a bummer of an anti-stimulus chorus: "Well pardon me if I don't shed a tear/'Cause they're selling make believe/And we don't buy that here/Because in the real world they're shutting Detroit down/While the boss man takes his bonus pay and jets on outta town." Although the subject is ostensibly the downfall of the auto industry, the lyrics go on to address America's ongoing financial crises in broader strokes. If you know that Rich is a hardcore Republican who did more stumping for John McCain than any other entertainer (including writing and performing an original campaign song, "Raising McCain"), you may be able to guess that his attitude toward so-called bailout programs is not a charitable one.

"I think my personal story is millions and millions of people's stories," Rich tells me. He's eager to speak to the Huffington Post's audience, not all of whom, he knows, may belong to his fan club. "Grew up barely above poverty level, as far as the IRS was concerned. Went to the food bank every couple of months, if we had to. A double-wide trailer in Amarillo, Texas. There are millions of us. There's nothing wrong with growing up lean. And there's nothing wrong with earning what you get. If you listen to the lyrics of 'Shutting Detroit Down,' the very first line in the song says 'My daddy taught me in this country everyone's the same. You work hard for your dollar and you never pass the blame, if it doesn't go your way.' In other words, when you're born in this country, we all have the same shot at the American dream. We weren't guaranteed happiness in our constitution; we were guaranteed the pursuit of it. And I think the sense of entitlement in this country right now that people seem to have is what's driving us into the ground. And it's what this song talks about. We work hard, if it doesn't go our way, we take that lick, and we keep on ticking. I was watching the news and saw the story about the Merrill Lynch CEO who had just spent 1.2 million dollars of bailout money we had just given his company to decorate his office, with a $38,000 toilet. The American way is not that some fat cat politician sends a big fat check to another fat cat and they sit up there laughing at all of us as they go blow it all, and that's why this song is a runaway hit. Nobody is too big to fail, out there in the Wall Street world. Someday I would like to take a piss in a $38,000 toilet! A $38,000 toilet that I bought at a garage sale for a quarter."

"Shutting Detroit Down" could be viewed as in the tradition of some of the conservative anti-welfare songs that came along in the 1960s, like Stonewall Jackson's "Welfare Cadillac" (a historical strain that I covered in my book, Rednecks & Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music). Of course, this particular song is railing against corporate welfare, a cause that can unite righties and lefties alike. But that begs certain questions: If we resist all stimulus or bailout programs because of the potential abuse by "fat cats," won't the little guys in Detroit, and elsewhere, who'll suffer right along with the suits, if nothing is done? "To be perfectly honest with you, I think that level of finance and politics, and understanding a company the size of the big three, is so far above my head that for me to comment on it would not even make sense. What my song deals with is the absolute rage that the American people feel by watching how recklessly their tax dollars are spent. If Americans saw their tax dollars being spent very carefully in a bailout or a stimulus package that was streamlined and so A-B-C that everybody, even I ,could understand it, with a back end of 'Oh, by the way, Mr. CEO, if we give you this money and you mishandle it, we will let you go down'..." Rich trails off, unable to envision such a scenario. "I think the cross purposes between D.C. and big business are so corrupt and entangled that that's why you see these things coming through with--what's the last number?--8,000 earmarks. When's the last time one of those guys proposing one of these bills had to decide whether he was gonna put gas in his tank or food on his table? When's the last time they went to Costco and bought 300 chicken nuggets, frozen, all at one time in a big plastic bag, and eats 'em for a month every day?"

Regardless of what you might make of the politics of the song, it's encouraging to see something so of the moment get rushed into production and zip to the top of the chart. Rich's album, his first solo effort since the formation of Big & Rich, was already completed and ready to press, with its first single already sent to radio, when he came up with the tune. Going out on a radio tour to promote the other ballad, he started playing "Shutting Detroit Down" acoustically on the air, and a viral recording began to spread to other stations, even outpacing the single he was already pushing. So Rich and his label made an emergency decision to back off the other tune, create a studio version of "Detroit," and switch gears.

"That is old school country music radio like how they used to do it back in the day. How they did it in Motown. Somebody would write a great song, they'd all rush into the studio, record it, put it on vinyl, get in their car and drive to the radio station and play it and, bam, they had a smash. This will be the biggest song of my career, and it gives me hope that the music industry still is susceptible to a song that says the right thing at the right time. Just when you thought the radio industry is so corporate and so sluggish that it kills a lot of creativity, if the artist is saying the right thing and willing to follow up on it, these kinds of things can happen."

***

Not everyone in country music is as worried about the fate of Detroit as Rich is, judging from the brand-name auto references--product placement?--popping up in some other current hits. In Rodney Atkins' "It's America," as part of the U.S. way of life, besides invoking lemonade stands and God, Atkins sings, "It's a high school prom/It's a Springsteen song/It's a ride in a Chevrolet," leaving you to wonder which bitingly critical Bruce song and which soon-to-be-discontinued Chevy he means. Meanwhile, Jason Michael Carroll can be found crooning about "Where I'm From," and that would be "where the quarterback dates the homecoming queen/The truck's a Ford and the tractor's green/And 'Amazing Grace' is what we sing."

These are songs that take a laundry-list approach to American triumphalism. Which are only slightly different from the genre's ubiquitous South-beats-all anthems. The chart also has one of those now, in the form of Jason Aldean's "She's Country": "She's a party-all-nighter from South Carolina... a bad mamajama from down in Alabama... a juicy Georgia peach..." And so on, until Aldean has invoked every state in the union--or, rather, every state that isn't in the Union. It seems that Aldean likes his girls to get around... as long as they never cross the Mason-Dixon line. The kind of regional pride anthems that seemed so refreshing earlier in the decade, when Gretchen Wilson was extolling the wonders of being a "Redneck Woman," now roll off the assembly line like so much unwittingly xenophobic hokum. The South has risen again, and kicked the rest of the nation's ass--okay, country music, we get it!

Far be it from me to suggest, though, that the realism of "High Cost of Living" and "Shutting Detroit Down" is the only antidote for country's formulaicism. Sometimes even formulas as hokey as the ones I just described can still work, in the hands of an outstanding songwriter. At Country Radio Seminar, I heard two yet-unreleased new tunes that fit into those America-uber-alles or South-rules subgenres, which just happen to be terrific songs.

Superstar Tim McGraw used his live performance for the radio folks at CRS to debut an excellent new album, in its entirety (recorded last year, but not coming out till late this year, he said, due to his label dragging its heels). One of this forthcoming McGraw disc's highlights is "Southern Voice," and yes, it's another laundry list of what's great about the high-humidity states, but one that happens to rock and be very funny. (It also invokes Jerry Lee Lewis, which makes anything else forgivable.)

And in a separate performance, Brad Paisley premiered the title song of his June album, American Saturday Night, which, yes, is a party anthem about all the rowdiness and romance of a weekend in these United States. It may take the listener a minute or two into Paisley's soon-to-be smash to realize that every lyrical detail in his verses ironically refers to some completely foreign concept or brand name that we've cheerfully accepted into the great American melting pot. God bless you, Brad, for getting it, and for, in your own wry way, keeping country real.