Some Albums Will Not Be Denied
Big & Rich, Horse of a Different Color
(Warner Bros.), 2004
I don't want to love this album but I kind of do but it doesn't matter, it's got momentum both commercial and critical that won't be helped by my big ups nor hurt by my approbation, and yet I feel I must weigh in on it somewhere, I wrote a preview of their concert for Audra down at the New Times BPB
I have more to say about it even though I don't really want to say it, or have to say it.
No, they're not changing country music as we know it; as I've been saying for a year or more, country music IS hip-hop these days. All those juicy lovely hard-ass drums! All the self-referentiality! All the recycling of better-known riffs in the service of "respecting tradition"! All the love of revenge, the way women get to speak their minds in both genres but only so much and not more, the radio-driven culture! And the way both genres have homes on the coasts but are completely South-driven right now! And the way they both respect God, guns, and personal glory in a way that rock and roll just don't do no more! And [repeat until someone finally offers me a fat book contract to write about this in a not-for-free-anymore-gotta-feed-my-family-dammit sort of way]----
But the two main ways that country and hip-hop mimic each other are the most relevant here: 1) Both musicks are proud of their hybrid status, and driven entirely in the short-term by faddishness about just exactly how those hybrid ingredients are mixed; and 2) Every great album in either genre is actively fighting for the soul of that music.
John Rich and Big Kenny understand this in a way that is not a new way but seems like a new way anyway. They know that everyone is frustrated, that everyone needs to feel the thrill of discovery, that Alan Jackson has had just one ballad #1 too many. They know that everyone else puts their pretty Nashville face on the cover of the record so they don't. They know that everyone else figures out a way to justify their capitulation to the machine, so they proclaim that they're four feet taller than the machine and suddenly it is so. Because that's the way it works.
They have two rap interludes on this record, courtesy of the old-school Cowboy Troy, but that's not the story--the story is that they even want
to do this. Country's been sounding like rap periodically since forever, talking blues being what they are, but lately it's been a WHOLE LOT (viz Mark Wills' "And the Crowd Goes Wild"), but covertly, gently, all smooshed in like Reese's Pieces into Steve's Ice Cream. So Big and Rich go the other way with it: actually have a rapper. A black one, who says he's black, and then raps in Spanish too. (Apparently he can also do Mandarin but he doesn't do it on this album.) Is he "great"? No. Is he awesome? Yes.
They have rowdy drinking songs, spaced perfectly at track #4 ("Kick My Ass") and track #10 ("Drinkin' 'Bout You") because that's about when the beer kicks in hardest. They have saved by Jesus songs, which are less fun but kinda metal, like Stryper, except better because they brag about almost killing a man first. They have two boring-ass relationship metaphor songs: "Wild West Show," which I dislike so much with its corny faux-Indian schtik that I wrote them off when I heard this on the radio, and "Deadwood Mountain" which does the same for corny faux-cowboy schtik.
But the wild crazy stuff is so insane that it's undeniable. The speed-bluegrass break at the end of "Real World" is pretty amazing, sonically, but it is rendered classique when they start throwing out non-sequiturs in Marty Robbins voices: "No one knows the name for the brain of the Scarecrow" OMG WTF LOL "I'm a cowboy Stevie Wonder" BEST IDEA EVER "Pro-o-o-o-o-zac" turned into an operatic trope. The metal solo in the midst of the Leon Redbone funk of "Drinkin' 'Bout You"! The way they bring Guns N Roses and Rakim both into the approach on "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)," the part about "her interpretation of my cowboy reputation" is so Axl it hurts y'all...I'm in love.
But I would be, because I (like Gerald Manley Hopkins) love dappled things, all things counter, original, spare, strange, whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) with swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim. That's hip-hop, that's country, that's Big, that's Rich.
And, refer to part 2 above, this and the Gretchen Wilson album (and to a lesser extent the Montgomery Gentry album too) are the only things this year from c&w music that seem to want to fight for the soul of the music. They're reclaiming fun, it's a roots move but a roots move for fun is always a great roots move, they want everyone to smile, to laugh, to boogie, to get drunk and get laid. Jimmy Buffett claims he wants these things but he only wants affluent palefaces to do this in their repressed flat-ass way while buying his merchandise. Funk that. Big and Rich know that teenagers and 20-somethings care less about division and more about multiplication, they want someone to fight for the music they make, to not go gentle into that good night, to be willing to throw a TV out of a hotel window or to be buried eight feet under because they're ten feet tall in a six foot town.
The album as revolutionary statement is an outmoded trope that I will embrace until I die.