No through line unites the many stories emerging from contemporary country music. Still, the musicians making it are hardly weaving tangled tales. If they have anything in common, it’s that they’re practicing not to deceive. Or, as Toby Keith sings on his latest honky-tonk jukebox Hope on the Rocks (Showdog/Universal), “Tell the truth. It’s twice as easy / if you’re right or not.”
Telling the truth whether you’re right or not has long been the preserve of country singers. While the commercial calculation of other genres often makes their lyrics sound as if they’d been crafted by an Orwellian Versificator, country specializes in calling things as they see ’em no matter how myopic the caller may be.
Toby Keith practically embraces his short-sightedness. When he lifts his burly, Southern-accented voice in praise of “girls that drink beer,” he couldn’t care less that he’s diminishing his cocktail-party clout. Neither does he care, apparently, that if the five-foot-two, 95-pound barfly who tickles his fancy in “The Size I Wear” keeps drinking beer, she won’t be 95 pounds for long.
Keith lives, in other words, in that blissfully ignorant state occasionally referred enviously to as “the moment.” But in so doing he sometimes places himself in situations so bad it’s impossible to make the best of them. He may play the randy “Get Out of My Car,” which concludes Hope on the Rocks’ “deluxe edition,” for laughs, but if the object of his lecherous intentions were to write an answer song, she’d probably sound a lot like Taylor Swift on her current bestseller Red (Big Machine).
“Love is a ruthless game,” Swift declares in the refrain of “State of Grace,” “unless you play it good and right.” The drift of Red’s songs, most of which Swift wrote, suggests she has squeezed a lot of playing it wrong into her 23 years.
“You called me up again / just to break me like a promise” (“All Too Well”), “I’d be smart to walk away, / but you’re quicksand” (“Treacherous”)—no matter how upbeat the hooks to which Swift vents her romantic disappointment, the preponderance of such sentiments makes Red’s pop sheen sound like a denial of the pain that comes through in such poignant slower songs as “Sad Beautiful Tragic,” “The Last Time,” and “Begin Again.”
And when in “The Lucky One” she envies a former female star for getting out of the limelight and off the tabloid treadmill while the getting was good, Swift sounds as eager to follow in Shania Twain’s disappearing-act footsteps as she has been her country-pop-crossover ones.
Country acts don’t get much further from the limelight these days than Howard and David Bellamy, the Bellamy Brothers. From 1979 to 1987, they scored 10 No. 1 country hits, but they haven’t hit the country top 10 since 1990 or the country top 40 since 1992. So when they “went gospel” in 2007 with Jesus Is Coming, cynics suspected them of making a desperate play for the Southern-gospel audience. (That the Brothers appended “and, boy, is He pissed” to the title cut’s refrain didn’t exactly add to the album’s devotional gravity.)
But on Pray for Me (Bellamy Brothers Records), they’re obviously taking their faith seriously. The cover of Norman Greenbaum’s dubiously spiritual “Spirit in the Sky” aside, the album plays like a country-gospel tribute to bumper-sticker evangelism.
And while such praise may be faint, it isn’t damning—not with “God Ain’t Finished with Me Yet” reminding sinners that “slow change is better than no change.” —A.O.