“What Makes You Country” is so generic, so formulaic, that you wince.
And then you play it a couple of times and you cannot stop listening, you’ll stay up late at night just to let it play. That’s what happened to me long after midnight. I wanted to finish the Wolff book, but I could not stop playing this LP, songs were revealing themselves to me left and right and I was getting deeper and deeper going down the rabbit hole feeling good, and ain’t that what it’s all about?
Generic like Boston. But with fewer innovations and better songs. That’s right, Boston ushered in corporate rock, it’s just that a few of those tracks were so damn good you couldn’t take the record off the turntable, although they could not follow it up. Whereas Luke Bryan keeps chugging along and although I think “Kill The Lights” was a comedown from “Crash My Party,” “What Makes You Country” is right up there, although, as stated above, I didn’t feel this way at first.
You see your heroes disappoint you. Like Keith Urban, a stellar guitarist who peaked with 2009’s “Love, Pain & the Whole Crazy Thing” and failed with its follow-up, “Defying Gravity,” and has pulled back from the precipice, is testing limits no more, just recording pabulum which I don’t even think he believes in.
But Luke Bryan was never shooting that high. It was kinda modern good ole boy rock and roll filtered through country, but he knew it was about changes and melody and his voice works and…
I’m a fan.
That’s right, we’ve got three music businesses.
One, the people who don’t care a whit. Who are completely ignored. The ones who’ve got no idea who Drake is, never mind Post Malone or Lil Yachty. They detached, they believe there’s nothing for them, and they might put a Pandora station on in the background, but really they don’t care. It’s kinda like Snapchat. A lot of hoopla, not that many users. Do we need another social network? The media says yes, until it turned and trashed the service. It’s a game they play, they build you up to tear you down but it doesn’t reflect the user’s experience. We fall in love and it takes a lot to break the bond.
Like mine with Luke Bryan.
Two, the people who consume. They follow the hits and go to the show.
Three, the hipsters, who believe whatever you listen to sucks and insist you must like their music, which is outside and referential and oftentimes features bad vocalists, ensuring it will never go mainstream, which is exactly what they want.
Is it okay to be in camp two?
I oftentimes am. And you should see my inbox! If it’s popular, they hate it! They know better. They e-mail me their favorites. And I laugh, because this just demonstrates how out of touch they are. Sure, be a fan, but don’t you know you’re in your own backwater, that this ain’t the twentieth century no more, and there’s a plethora of product and no cohesion and you’re a party of one?
But online everybody gets a voice and there’s so much noise that you end up with group one above, the people who completely tune it out. Think about it, who wants all that noise in your head?
So I’m thinking about this modern country. How it’s not really country at all. That’s right haters, you’re right, so what? If you added a twang it wouldn’t be so big. But it does represent different values from hip-hop. Hip-hop is reacting, country is uniting. And that’s so weird, because I’m an alienated boy, but when you get universal emotions right, I cave, because I’m human, and at the core I want to connect.
So the advantage of being a big star is you get the best songs, whether it be in country or pop. The idea of doing it yourself, the singer-songwriter, is at a low ebb. Now it’s about a team. And if you want to make bank, you hook up with a star, to get paid, you want them to cover your song. Which is why Carrie Underwood is a nitwit but ends up with so many hits. She’s as bland as bland can be personally, paper-thin, but those songs!
Same deal with Luke Bryan. Although he cowrites a bunch of them. Who knows where his participation begins or ends, and a lot of the songs are not that personal, to his ultimate detriment, but when he rings true, like on “Pick It Up”…
“What Makes You Country,” the title track, is like a Bon Jovi cut, like “Let It Rock” from “Slippery When Wet,” although the guitars aren’t as turned up in the chorus. And if Bon Jovi can get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame…
And “Light It Up” is already a hit.
“Most People Are Good” shoots so low, panders so much, that the only way you can enjoy it is by ignoring the lyrics, and then it works, because the changes and vocal delivery are so damn good.
And then you get stuff like “Sunrise, Sunburn, Sunset,” which aims so low but feels so good, what a conundrum. But the hooks are solid, as are the changes, and you hear it three times and you can’t get the damn chorus out of your head.
Shooting even lower is “Drinking Again.” This is music for the mindless.
But then there’s stuff that shoots a bit higher, like “Like You Say You Do,” and you begin to wonder whether you’re being too critical, Luke’s selling this stuff, unlike too much modern pop, there are changes in the verse, you can see yourself driving down the highway with the window down and your hair blowing in the wind and nodding your head and singing along.
And a trifle like “Driving This Thing” gets under your skin, your resistance is fading, listening is just too enjoyable.
Even the closing, everyman, wisdom-laden “Win Life” which you hate in principle you love, because of the vibe and changes and the loping groove. I mean underneath it all we’re similar, people, just trying to get through, music is supposed to soothe, make it easier, and this does.
But the piece-de-resistance is buried deep into the album at #13, “Pick It Up.”
It’s the cut no one talks about, that you find by accident, but on the very first time through your ears perk up and realize this is the song on the album.
It’s the sound of the instruments in the intro, in the race to the sonic bottom we underestimate these tweaks that used to make hit records back in the hi-fi era, but some engineer gets these sounds just right, they’re so inviting. And then…
I put a fishing rod by your bed, right next to a Bible
DON’T TUNE OUT! I don’t care if you believe, just as you don’t tell me to. Whatever gets you through. But let’s keep religion out of politics.
I leaned a guitar in the corner of your room with some Milsap on vinyl
Back when people used to play, all the country acts do, they’re the ones keeping Gibson in business.
And sure, Eric Church sang about vinyl records earlier, but isn’t it funny that the supposed outsiders are up on the trends more than the insiders in hip-hop and pop?
I figured the best thing I could do was put a thing or two
That it wouldn’t hurt to have in your way, on your path
Influences. We want to give the next generation inspiration.
Hoping you might pick it up one day
And you might learn a couple pretty cool things that I love to do
He wants to show him who he is. Guys don’t know how to communicate, he’s trying to demonstrate his identity via these gestures.
Then you can take it and spin it and fit it to you
Funny, this is the opposite of the elite paradigm, where kids are born to bank, to be winners in the footsteps of their fathers, taking no risk, doing no exploring, just being what they’re expected to be, and that’s just plain sad, never mind a wasted life.
I don’t know what you’re gonna be
But I hope you smile when you think of me
‘Cause I helped make you
But I didn’t ever try to make you pick it up
You just pick it up, pick it up
My father never asked me what I was taking in college, didn’t care about my grades, same deal in law school, as long as I was passing, doing my job, he let me be who I wanted to be.
Not like my friends from my generation. They’re micromanaging the careers of their kids, even calling the college. You’ve got to let people fail, you’ve got to let people be who they want to be, or they’re hobbled and ultimately resentful. That’s the crazy thing about life, you can influence people but you can’t control them, they’ve got to find out for themselves.
But there are a few other influences baked in:
Early to rise, heading to work, open a door for a stranger
Yes sir, yes ma’am, red dirt on my hands
Showing you the best way I can
He’s teaching through example, how to behave as a gentleman in this life.
Dancing and kissing your momma in the kitchen
Treatin’ her like a princess
Hoping you might pick it up one day
This is how we’re gonna solve the #MeToo problem. Present fathers acting reasonably passing wisdom and behavior down.
And now Luke Bryan’s gonna be a judge on “American Idol.” What a waste. Now he’s gonna be everybody’s when the key to longevity is just to be somebody’s, it’s always best to stay one mark away from the center, so your audience can bond to you.
And that show will fail anyway, because it’s not about singing but drama, and sans Simon Cowell, it’s toast. Not that anybody involved seems to know this.
But they know how to write songs in Nashville. It’s a factory, an assembly line. But they make BMWs on an assembly line. Then again, that’s business, not art. And if I want to be honest, Luke Bryan’s “What Makes You Country” is more business than art, but there’s a satisfaction in getting behind the wheel of a Toyota or Honda and knowing everything just works.
“What Makes You Country” just works.