19 November 2010

Where Did the Interesting Music Go?

I love this album art.
It's always fun to watch people try to reconcile the fact that I love country music.  I'm fairly liberal in my beliefs (though fairly conservative in my personal actions), and I probably come across as more urbane than rural.  There was a time just a few years ago when I devoured country music.  At first, I began buying more catalog albums from artists who interested me.  Then I started taking more chances on other mainstream artists where I had previously been content to hear their radio singles.  I bought Tim McGraw's Set This Circus Down in 2001 just because I liked the cover art.  (It turned out that I loved the album, so it wasn't completely wasteful.)

Before long I had exhausted my interest in radio.  I was impatient with the way a song would enter the charts in the top 40 and then spend months ascending to the top and then hovering around the top 20 for months still.  I was disappointed by the choices in singles now that I was hearing whole albums; I'm still upset at Brooks & Dunn for not releasing "Go West" and think Montgomery Gentry should have released "Lie Before You Leave." And that wasn't even accounting for all the interesting music that mainstream radio outright refused to play, such as the talented singer/songwriters Bruce Robison and his brother Charlie.  Radio became like a T.G.I.Friday's special where the restaurant didn't allow for substitutions.  I might like the grilled chicken breast, but I can't stomach the jalapeño sauce and what difference does it really make to them if I prefer mashed potatoes to green beans?  It's been years since I voluntarily listened to radio, and I don't miss it in the least.

The last A.J. album I liked.
Somewhere along the line, though, something happened to the music I was buying and hearing.  The artists I followed seemed to hit a creative brick wall.  In 2006, Alan Jackson stepped out of his comfort zone and turned in a pair of albums; the collection of gospel standards, Precious Memories, and a bluesy/easy listening album produced by Alison Krauss, Like Red on a Rose.  I think I'm one of seventeen people worldwide who bought both of them, and one of maybe fourteen people who loved Like Red on a Rose.  Ever since those dalliances, A.J. has gone back to what had been working for him, turning in one fairly catchy, but generic, album and single after another.  I bought Good Time and liked some of it.  I checked out this year's Freight Train from the library and was entirely bored by it.

Part of the problem is that too many mainstream artists have quit recording art and have instead been contributing to Republican campaign tours.  The most offensive in the lot was a single by Darryl Worley released this year, "Keep the Change."  The song wants to be critical in a Merle Haggard way, but it fails completely.  It's nothing more than bumper sticker jingoism, and the subject matter deserves better than that.  Worley decried that radio wouldn't support it because it was "too controversial."  That doesn't allow for the fact that maybe--just maybe--someone could hear the song and just think it sucked.  It's a shame, too, because I loved his first two albums.  "Sideways" was fun; "A Good Day to Run" was an anthem for me in 2000 and "I Miss My Friend" kills me every time I hear it.  Worley should decide if he's a recording artist or a politico and stick to one or the other.

I know there's still interesting stuff being recorded.  This year I took a chance on Dierks Bentley's Up on the Ridge and loved it.  Likewise, I adored Chely Wright's Lifted Off the Ground, produced by Rodney Crowell.  It's an album for grown-ups who don't need to be spoonfed ringtones every forty seconds.  I was pleased by Joey + Rory's Album Number Two, which I found sincere and familiar like comfort food.  But I have to say, when I look over the list of this year's releases there really aren't many that I even want to hear.  Part of it I'm sure is that my taste, like anyone else's, has evolved and isn't the same as it once was.  Still, it  seems like it's harder to find the good stuff.

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