Here's the thing about country music: Like most categories of popular culture, it resembles a dumpster filled 98 percent with brightly wrapped, completely empty boxes. But if you dive the dumpster, and if you have the right kind of sensibility, you can find touchingly sincere, clever, unpretentious, and readily accessible simple pleasures scattered among the wretched refuse.
So says Daniel Menaker at Slate, and for the most part, I agree with him. I would rather the broken knob on my car radio be tuned to a crappy pop radio station than to a crappy country music station. And yet, and yet ... when a country song works, I think it is so much more direct and immediate than when a pop song works.
I suppose great country music has its complexities, as well. But it's all delivered in a straight-forward 4/4, three-chord, three-minute approach that only allows for so much variance before it sheds "country" and becomes something else. The country music that haunts me is bafflingly simple stuff. T-Bone Burnett's best album to date was an accoustic country effort that curbed his allegorical impulse in favor of quiet meditations on those lifelines his divorce-wounded heart couldn't relinquish: love, guilt, forgiveness and the safety of his daughters. I shared it with a musical friend, who later told me, "There's an intimacy evoked that makes you feel uncomfortable after a while."
Emmylou Harris is masterful at that, especially when she's working with Daniel Lanois. Lyle Lovett can evoke that sort of thing to a lesser degree, with his spare, essay-length songs on physical space and emotional isolation - but his artistic sensibility is too calculated to truly entice the listener. And should the listener be foolish enough to bite, Lovett is quick to deliver a well-placed nudge in the ribs with "Stand By Your Man", or "She's Leavin' Me (Because She Really Wants To)". Those are fine jokes, in fact (I'm smiling as I type), but they won't carry you to the end of the line.
I'm thinking these days of Johnny Cash. How can I not, with all the hooplah surrounding his bio-pic? I think everyone was alternately cheered and unsettled by his death following so closely on the heels of June Carter's. The big man could be as jokey as your local grocer (think, "One Piece At A Time"), but when it came right down to it, he was a terrifically disturbed and disturbing person. I honestly can't see why any popular religious group would care to claim him. Listen to "The Man Comes Around" before you go to bed tonight, and tell me you slept well - tell me you slept at all. Is Cash's religion really yours? Is it really? Because if it is, I honestly don't know how you find the wherewithal to dress up, climb into the van and sing choruses come Sunday morning.
The movie will give us a manageable Johnny Cash, much the way Ray Charles was tamed for public consumption in his posthumus flick. It's the music, though, that slips under the skin and alternately discomfits and encourages. Discomfit and encourage - you don't typically find those qualities working in tandem in pop music. You don't typically find them working in tandem on country radio, either. And perhaps it's just as well, or we'd have to pull our cars over to the side, just to get a grip.