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Defecting!

Finding worthwhile things in neo-country -- like Jen Mangum.

If misspelling Shudder to Think's name in my Jeremy Enigk piece a few weeks ago wasn't enough to get my hipster credentials revoked, this ought to do the trick: I'm developing an affinity for country music. And I'm not talking about the classics (you know: Hank, Buck, Merle, Waylon, George, Johnny, Townes), because I've always had a soft spot for that stuff -- what music critic worth his salt doesn't? No, I'm talking about acts those legendary framers would find anathemas, the Trashville tunesmiths I should loathe.

This music is the antithesis of everything that is good and right. The artists are one-dimensional pinups, and few write their own material. Most songs are made by committee, overly processed and formulaic. The tracks are clever -- driven by trite lyrics that rely on such double entendres as "She Let Herself Go" and "Don't Take the Girl" -- to the point of patronizing, and usually play to the lowest common dominator. What's worse, apart from the occasional pedal steel, the Nashville tuning and a slight twang to the vocals, this neo-country hardly qualifies as country at all; bands like Rascal Flatts have more in common with Lifehouse than the Highwaymen. Still, I keep finding myself drawn in by such songs as "I Loved Her First" and "There Goes My Life." It's something I've dubbed "the Butterfly Effect" -- or, more accurately, "the Butterfly Kisses Effect."

Fact is, I have a sentimental streak. Blame it on growing up with three sisters, who pretty much ruined me. Although I've spent many a Saturday night with my knuckle-dragging associates watching grown men beating the holy hell out of each other on pay-per-view, I've also been known to linger a little too long when I come across one of those Lifetime movies while channel-surfing. And while my cinematic inclinations generally lean to the holy trinity -- the Godfather, GoodFellasand Scarface -- I'm also moved by sappy chick flicks like The Notebook. When you get right down to it, I'm an old-school emo wuss. And while country tunes still fall far short of the artistic level of Dylan Thomas or even Bob Dylan, they can cut to the quick. Consider these lines from "I Loved Her First," which reduced me to a mumbling pile of slush as I listened to them on the way to work the other day:

How could that beautiful woman with you
Be the same freckle face kid that I knew
The one that I read all those fairy tales to
And tucked into bed all those nights
And I knew the first time I saw you with her
It was only a matter of time

But I loved her first and I held her first
And a place in my heart will always be hers
From the first breath she breathed
When she first smiled at me
I knew the love of a father runs deep
And I prayed that she'd find you someday
But its still hard to give her away
I loved her first.

Regardless of their country packaging, these words would make any dad feel wistful.

"For me, country is the most real genre," says Jen Mangum, a lyricist from Lake City who has two songs under consideration by Clay Walker's freshly minted publishing company and had a tune on hold with Carrie Underwood. "In country, people write about what's really happening in their lives."

Inspired by her mother, who's also a lyricist, Mangum has spent the past four years writing songs that she hopes will move people, keeping a notepad close everywhere she goes. Along with her co-writers -- melody writer Brock Goodwin, who lives in Nashville, and Blake Hill, who lives in Dallas -- she's penned more than a hundred songs and gotten a few small deals by following a very strict formula. Publishers are looking for tunes that are no more than three and a half minutes long and adhere to a verse-chorus-verse-bridge structure. But there's a lot more involved to writing a hit song, as Mangum can tell you. For example, until a cut actually makes its way to a record that sells, there's no money to be made.

Nonetheless, Magnum keeps on writing, demo-ing song after song (you can hear some at www.myspace.com/jenmangumsongwriter) and faithfully attending the Durango Songwriters Expo. There she gets to chat with some of the most successful songwriters in country music, including Al Anderson and Jeffrey Steele -- who's written tunes for everybody from Faith Hill to John Michael Montgomery, Trisha Yearwood and Leann Rimes. "Most of them say the same thing that I say, and I'm not even successful yet: You've got to love what you do to stay in this business," she remembers. "If you stay true to your heart and write what you believe and inspire others when they hear your song, that's what really matters. And if it makes you successful, so be it. If it doesn't, you're still doing what you love to do.

"It is a rough road," she continues. "You've really got to love what you do. I just love to write. It's like therapy, you know -- if you have a bad day or if you meet somebody who's going through some troubles -- and it gives you inspiration to write something. It's just part of me. It's just something that I've always loved to do."

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