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Country music has changed its tune

December 17, 2008

When you have a horse barn, there's some kind of unwritten law that it must have a radio tuned in at all times to a country music station. This is to keep the horses company. I don't know whether horses have ever had a vote in the station selections.

I listened to country music a lot when I was growing up, but until this past year there had been something like a three-decade gap in my C.M. knowledge. When I left the scene, it was all Johnny Cash and George Jones and Waylon Jennings and a bunch of other guys who have since moved off the Top 50 list onto the waiting list for new livers.

It's been a fairly enjoyable experience becoming reacquainted with the genre, but much has changed.

For example, the steel guitar has been largely replaced by the electric guitar. I suppose it's all part of the rockification of country music, but country musicians still seem to be struggling with the instrument. It's like giving a 6-year-old a Geiger counter - he knows it's really cool, but isn't quite sure how to use it. So let's just say that Jimmy Page's job is safe and leave it at that.

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The second big change I've noticed is in general content. Country music songs used to be predominantly about illicit sex and getting drunk. Today, they are largely about nostalgia and revenge.

A strong "the rest of the world has moved on, but I'm still a country boy so sue me" theme is readily apparent. One proudly points to the fact that she still says "Hey y'all and yee haw."

OK. I admire a person who sticks to her beliefs. Plus, it's a good song, so it's easy to take. So is the song about a boy taking a trip down memory lane through his grandpa's old black-and-white photos, and others that relive the glories of being dirt poor and wiping your nose on momma's skirt.

The revenge theme is darker. There is one song about a woman who gets slapped around by her husband, so she waits up for him, drinking heavily and loading her shotgun. No plain old D-I-V-O-R-C-E for her.

But my favorite is the guy who apparently got turned down for a date in high school. But now he's rich and famous, so he crows to the offending woman, "How do you like me now?"

I'm guessing that she probably likes herself a whole lot better, for having the wisdom at an early age to spot a self-absorbed chap who was the type to carry a grudge for 20 years.

And no one has been better for country music - or provided more content, at least - than the terrorists. A lot of artists are falling all over each other trying to out-Lee Greenwood the next guy. Even when it doesn't seem to fit.

There's a really good, happy and upbeat song about drinking beer and eating fried chicken. Then, at the end, it slows down to thank the military for protecting our rights. Fair enough. Yet somehow, this verse needs to be reconciled with the rest of the song. So off he bounds, picking the beat back up and saying that these rights include drinking beer and eating fried chicken.

You wonder how the Founding Fathers missed that one. Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of beer drinking and fried chicken eating.

I suppose, however, that you can argue that the little things we enjoy in life are just as important as the big things, so perhaps I am being overly critical.

And the horses don't seem to mind, so what's not to like?

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or via e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com.

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