Toby Keith and Kenny Chesney: Bullshit & Transcendence in This Week's Top Country Singles
On occasion, All Shook Down gives a listen to the music that is to real America what brine is to a cucumber. This is one of those occasions.
Thing Toby Keith Has Never Said: "Nah, man, that might be a little much."
Toby Keith, "Made in America"
Chart Position: No. 5
Verdict: Fantastic, but in the sense of fantasy rather than awesomeness.
Last year, Wal-Mart accounted for 48 percent of all country music CD sales, which means that Toby Keith's new top-five hit "Made in America" will most often be purchased in a store where the only thing tougher to find than a domestic product is an adult size small.
Before Keith got to it, Made in America was the title of Sam Walton's autobiography, then a Wal-Mart ad slogan back before mid-'90s globalization, and finally a dim memory and occasional punchline.
Maybe now, thanks to Keith, it will become a rallying cry, a demand for principled consumption that, eventually, might lead to the return to the kind of factory jobs country stars used to sing about telling their bosses to shove. But here it just sounds like boilerplate, the latest (and possibly least) in his series of patriotic singles that began with the passionate "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue."
The lyric describes an ex-Marine farmer who is good with tools, disgusted by foreign cars, and always sure to "spend a little more at the store for a tag in the back that says U.S.A.," which I take to mean he shops at the Berkeley Bowl. Rather than address the sad fact that, in the places where this music is sold, there are no American-made goods for this fantasy patriot to feel good about purchasing, Keith chickens out and instead swipes at a liberal straw man. He devotes the second verse to the farmer's wife, a teacher who still leads her schoolhouse in the Pledge of Allegiance despite the fact that "some folks say it isn't cool."
If bullshit counts, America is still a manufacturing powerhouse.
Musically, this go-round is state-of-the-art Nashville 2011: It opens with those silvery glints of U2-by-way-of-Coldplay guitar that every producer's been shopping for lately, the ones that sound like the sun rising at the start of a commercial for investment banking. Then some clock-winding guitar, a bouncing banjo to remind you this is country, and at last power chords that ten years back would have been called "alternative rock."
Anyway, I hereby invite this song's protagonist to come to San Francisco for a weekend, so I can take him to farmer's markets and American Apparel.
Kenny Chesney, "You and Tequila"
Chart Position: No. 4
Verdict: Gulp it down.
Urgent and sad but as easy to sink into as trouble after a stiff drink, "You and Tequila" is the fourth single off Chesney's 2010 Hemingway's Whiskey LP. Four hits off one record isn't remarkable in Nashville, although in the broader pop world such a feat is as long-gone as Hysteria or The Bodyguard, records Rascal Flatts is currently splicing together in its world-domination bunker underneath a Sears someplace.
In country, that's achievable for even a middle-of-the-road hat like Chesney because Music Row quality control ensures that an artist's filler isn't much worse than his or her highlights. Also, the labels pack each album so that different tracks target different demos; audiences -- and radio -- count upon steady updates from the stars.
In this case, the barrel-scraping fourth single might the best -- and certainly the most atypical. A pained unplugged duet about drinking through an affair that's doing neither lover any good, "You and Tequila" (written by Matraca Berg and Deanna Carter, who recroded it in '03) is the rare Nashville hit that could be called under-produced. It's also bracingly dark: "You and tequila make me crazy" Chesney sings, a sentiment that, in a more conventional Chesney hit, would lead to a Cancun vacation and a third-verse wedding. Here, though, Chesney notes that both you and tequila run like poison in his blood -- and that, no matter how much both hurt, he can't resist either. Grace Potter's warm counterpoint vocal is the salt and lime to his Cuervo: She makes the tough stuff go down easy.
Their conclusion is sober: "It's always your favorite sins/ That do you in." These days Nashville often comes out against sins like hard drinking and fooling around, but there's still something rare here: a song about why we shouldn't that captures how hard it is not to.