The Beatdown

The good, the bad and the ugly of neo-country.

Okay, hands up: Who here hates neo-country? Yeah, me, too. But not everyone detests it. In fact, KYGO -- which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year -- consistently finishes in the top three in the Abitron ratings.

"I set my alarm to it, believe it or not," confesses local troubadour Jack Redell, a country purist if ever there was one. "Because it's the most objectionable music I could find, and it actually gets me out of bed."

Cheers to that, Jacko. But I have to admit that as much as the music makes me want to climb into a clock tower with a rocket launcher on my shoulder, a few of the songs have actually struck a chord. The melodies and arrangements didn't draw me in; the majority of those are as formulaic as deep-fried fowl prepared with the Colonel's secret recipe (add a pedal steel and call it a day). No, the lyrics grabbed me.

When I first heard Chad Brock's "Ordinary Life," I related instantly to these words: "Pay the bills, watch TV, day in, day out, the same routine/Mow the grass, fix the leak, just to fix it again/We go to church, go to work, so picture perfect that it hurts/I feel like I'm trapped inside this ordinary life." Dude was reading my mail, because back then, I felt very trapped by my white-picket existence.

I'm not the only one who's found country music playing the soundtrack of his life. A few years ago, a couple of my buddies experienced love in reverse, via involuntary marital implosions. Although they'd each prefer a prostate exam from Edward Scissorhands over listening to the sappy, Velveeta-inflected sounds of Trashville, on separate occasions these men were reduced to quivering piles of goo by Garth Brooks's "Learning to Live Again" and Chris Cagle's "I Breathe In, I Breathe Out." I guess that's why KYGO has called them "living, loving and leaving" songs.

But the emotional numbers aren't the only ones that hit a sweet spot with me. I've also enjoyed the clever (albeit often nauseating) double entendres. "What She's Doing Now," again by Brooks, offers a classic example: "But tonight I lie here thinkin' what she's doin' now/'Cause what she's doin' now is tearin' me apart/Fillin' up my mind and emptying my heart."

Unfortunately, to find something palatable, you have to steer your way through a shitstorm of depthless air. A few months ago, Redell and I took a road trip to Scottsbluff, Nebraska, where we were set to play. At a truck stop in Cheyenne, Redell, who was riding with my pal Bigolo, stepped out of the car ranting and raving about a cut by Tim McGraw called "Back When." For whatever reason, he and Bigolo had been listening to a country station when they came across the offending track. Redell is something of a musical fascist, so I dismissed his sentiments as overly dramatic. But then I encountered the cowpie myself. God, was he right.

"Back when a hoe was a hoe, coke was a Coke," McGraw croons. "And crack's what you were doing when you were cracking jokes/Back when a screw was a screw, the wind was all that blew/And when you said, 'I'm down with that,' well, it meant you had the flu/I miss back when."

Me, too, Timmy, only the Back When that I miss was when country was country -- you know, Hank, Buck, Merle, Johnny, Waylon, Willie, George, Townes and the boys. For chrissakes, these days it's hard to tell what country these new jacks like McGraw are from. Shockingly, though, Redell says that those aren't the lyrics that upended him.

"'I'm readin' Street Slang for Dummies' -- did you hear that part?" he asks. "'' Cause they put pop in my country' -- he's saying that. Tug McGraw's kid. The only thing country about that kid is he wears a wife-beater." At the time, Redell asserted that "Back When" was the worst song he'd ever heard.

But the polls are still open, and I think I've found another candidate that's surging. Maybe it's because the Stock Show is in town and I wanted to get in touch with my inner redneck, or maybe I just needed a diversion from the ennui that accompanies negotiating the I-25 corridor, but for whatever reason, I spent the past week listening to KYGO. Needless to say, Chely Wright makes McGraw seem like an Ivy League alum. Take a gander at these nuggets from "Bumper of My SUV":

"I've got a bright-red sticker on the back of my car, says 'United States Marines'/And yesterday a lady in a minivan held up a middle finger at me."

Before we continue, Chely, the pot called: Apparently, the kettle is black.

"Does she think she knows what I stand for," Wright sings, "or the things that I believe? Just by looking at a sticker for the U.S. Marines on the bumper of my SUV?"

She then delivers some namby-pamby rationale about not being a partisan warmonger: Her brother, dad and grandfather reportedly fought to give the minivan-driving soccer mom the right to give her the bird. Which is all well and good, but did Chely ever consider that her shitty driving may have inspired the one-finger salute? Or is the minivan driver simply a tree-hugging environmentalist who hates her SUV? I doubt we'll ever know.

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