Just in case you're curious, the music press often strikes me as an elitist institution, too. Not that I think critics should use popularity to determine who is deserving of coverage; on page 73 of this week's issue is a piece I wrote about a pair of cult acts, Tortoise and Isotope 217, and I don't feel even slightly guilty that I did so. But at the same time, I find it ridiculous that mainstream scribes tend to cover country music superficially when they bother to consider it at all. Country continues to be enormously successful, and while not everything being made under its umbrella is artistically intriguing, the genre is as worthy of examination as any musical style. And sociologically, it's a fascinating phenomenon, as the May 24 George Strait fest at Mile High Stadium demonstrated.

While most other kinds of music are currently struggling to draw fans, country is having a field day. The Mile High date attracted approximately 50,000 people--a throng much larger than the one that turned out for the heavily hyped U2 concert at the same venue last year. Moreover, the mix of ticket-buyers was far from homogeneous. Granted, there were plenty of stereotypical shit-kickers: A rather unkempt dude in front of me wore a black hat decorated with a tiny badge that sported the rhyme "Born on a mountain/Raised in a cave/Trucken and fucken/Is all I crave." But he wasn't typical of the crowd, which was marked by a huge age range (from children to senior citizens) and a racial mix more varied than at most rock concerts. Thousands of Hispanics were in attendance, and quite a few African-Americans showed up as well--on a percentage basis, far more than attended a Bruce Cockburn date I saw at the Paramount Theatre several years back.

Given this comparative diversity and the non-controversial nature of country music in general, it's no surprise that corporate America has wrapped its tentacles around the format. Banners on either side of the stage read "Nokia Presents the George Strait Chevy Truck Country Music Festival, Brought to You by Wrangler," and numerous other companies also served as sponsors, including GPC cigarettes, Jack Daniel's whiskey and a hat company called Resistol. (That last name sounds like an antidote to Viagra: "Not in the mood, but he is? Try Resistol.")

The bill itself also reflected family values. Asleep at the Wheel is a little shaggy, but it's been around long enough to seem merely eccentric; Lila McCann is a teenager every bit as wholesome as LeAnn Rimes; Lee Ann Womack isn't anyone's idea of a floozy; John Michael Montgomery is pudgy and inoffensive in the Garth Brooks tradition; and Strait himself is cut from Gary Cooper's cloth. And while Faith Hill is a hot number, she took the stage looking very pregnant--and since the man who contributed to her condition, husband Tim McGraw, was a part of the lineup, no one objected. Far from it: When Hill and McGraw dueted on "It's Your Love," the ahhh factor was very much in play.

What's frustrating about tunes like "It's Your Love," however, is that they have precious little to do with country music; rather, they're watered-down pop with a little country window-dressing. The proof is on Hill's latest full-length, Faith. Some of the songwriters represented on the project, such as Keith Brown, have country credentials, but many others, like Sheryl Crow, shlockmeister Diane Warren and all-but-forgotten hard-rock dolt Aldo Nova, probably think that a pedal-steel guitar comes complete with handlebars. Southern rock is also part of the equation: For instance, Montgomery concluded his set with a version of "Sweet Home Alabama" that was appropriately lengthy but bloodless (wouldn't want to shock the oldsters in attendance), and his up-tempo offerings sounded like Marshall Tucker castoffs minus the flute.

McGraw also made loads of concessions to the pop audience. Instead of referencing classic country, his supporting musicians tossed out snippets of Paul Revere's "Indian Reservation" and War's "Low Rider"--and they seemed far happier rocking than twanging. McGraw, meanwhile, strutted around the stage like a male model or the somewhat rustic new love interest on a soap opera, delivering his lines with a studied cool that didn't get in the way of his favorite pastime, posing. The lyrics throughout his dance numbers sounded like bad Westword headlines ("Messed up in Mexico/ Living on refried dreams" was probably the dumbest), and weepers like "Everywhere" had more to do with Sammy Johns (of "Chevy Van" fame) than Merle Haggard. My wife likened "Don't Take the Girl," in which the protagonist's beloved perishes after giving birth, to Bobby Goldsboro's "Honey," which is rightly regarded as being one of the most lachrymose tunes of all time. That it also contains more than a smidgen of Harry Chapin's "Cats in the Cradle" only makes matters worse.

But all was not lost. At Mile High, Strait showed why he's seen as the most solid performer on the C&W circuit--and better yet, he actually played country music. His band was short on bombast and long on alternately lively and mournful fiddle; his singing echoed with authenticity; and his songs came across as heartfelt and honest in the ways that the best country has always been. Some of his material was a bit bland, but it seldom stooped to McGraw-like exploitation. Just as important, Strait proved that he still has an ear for strong songs: "I Just Want to Dance With You" and "We Really Shouldn't Be Doing This," both from One Step at a Time, his new LP, are likely to last as long as his previous smashes. The audience stood through two hours of rain to hear him render these ditties, which was clearly a good sign. After hours of faux-country, it was wonderful to hear the real thing.

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