Unlike his rash colleagues Alan Jackson and Toby Keith, Billy Ray Cyrus passed a full decade in contemplation before sharing with the world art wrung from his feelings about life in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001.
Unleashed this June, the resulting disc, I'm American, should clear up once and for all any confusion you might have had concerning Cyrus' feelings about the American flag (for it!), American soldiers (for 'em!), and choruses pitched higher than his speaking voice (ain't going to happen!).
The eight-song EP features one Cyrus original, the title track, a travesty of southern butt-rock more greasy than a bucket of Popeyes and so dumb it rhymes "red, white, and blue" with "from my head down to my boots." Cyrus shouts each verse like he's a professional wrestler in a pre-match interview -- imagine Hulk Hogan trying to sound like Bon Scott.
It's pure ear pain, but I give him credit: It takes guts to commit to lyrics like
Mama's in the kitchen, supper's almost done
Daddy on the front porch lookin' at my guns
That couplet raises some questions. First, is that guns as in firearms, or guns as in the biceps of Billy Ray Cyrus, a performer who has always been the answer to the question What would it sound like if a shirtless fireman calendar somehow got a record deal? Second, presuming these are firearms, why would they be stored on the porch? Third, presuming these are biceps, ewww, is that daddy as in father or daddy as in the older half of an inter-generational two-man love affair?
Each of the remaining tracks concerns flags, soldiers, and sacrifice. There's a remake of his 1993 hit "Some Gave All," a duet with Amy Grant, a better-than-average fake Springsteen number, six songs that mention how war is hard, zero that mention that war might not have been necessary, and exactly thirty American flags spread throughout the cover, booklet, and jewel case.
Only "Nineteen" -- which has nothing to do with the bitter Paul Hardcastle hit of 1985 -- makes explicit mention of September 11. First recorded by Taylor Hicks, it is state-of-the-art Nashville songwriting: a detailed narrative about an extraordinary (but totally relatable!) American. In this case, that hero is a high school football captain whose life is changed you-know-when:
On the day those Twin Towers came down
His whole world turned around
He told 'em, "All y'all, I can't play ball."
So, the kid enlists. Marrying heroic decisiveness to shrugging, colloquial language, the songwriters (Gary Nicholson, Jeffrey Steele, and Tom Hambridge) are either honoring or pandering to the country-music audience's idea of itself as the get-it-done spine of American life. Two verses later, that kid is paraded, Purple Hearted, down Main Street in a flag-draped coffin.
The song -- and Cyrus -- acknowledge that these wars have taken many sons and daughters of that rural and heartland audience. The song -- and Cyrus -- are good enough to thank those sons, daughters, and families for their sacrifice. But neither the song -- nor Cyrus -- dare to consider whether or not this country should have demanded that sacrifice of them.
Worse, the song plods along like a broke-legged dog, and Cyrus throws in a couple of shouts, which always come out of nowhere like maybe he's trying to scare you out of the hiccups.
Other thoughts about I'm American: