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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Reba McEntire & Ronnie Dunn: Today's Country Is Yesterday's Coldplay

Posted By on Tue, Apr 19, 2011 at 8:59 AM

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.

Reba McEntire, "If I Were a Boy"

Since Americans only got around to segregating their mongrel pop music into discrete categories like "Race" and "Hillbilly" back in the '20s, the fact that Reba McEntire's cover of a Beyoncé hit comes out sounding kind of like Coldplay is less a betrayal of tradition than a return to it.

Like individual continents mashing themselves back into Pangea, here the dominant pop forms of middle America merge into the shape they started as: a memorable tune expressing everyday concerns more universal than radio formats.

Martial drums rise slowly behind her, as does that familiar drizzling of U2 guitars -- a shimmer meant to sound, I always think, like the first stabs of sunlight after a night you didn't sleep.

The lyric hasn't changed. It's a sex-swap fantasy in which the singer recounts how if she were a boy, she'd drink beer and chase girls, but also -- once the playful kink of the first verse bursts into the big ol' hurt of the chorus -- actually bother to listen to the woman who loves her. The line "I'd kick with who I wanted" now seems more about hanging out than hooking up, maybe because Reba's "wanted" comes out "woe-ned," a bit of Nashville localization that strips away the hunger.

But the line about faking that she's sleeping alone made it through, making this the rare contemporary country hit to toy with the lure of sex outside of marriage.

Since it's Reba, the song is something rarer still in this culture: a portrayal of sexual desire from a woman pushing sixty as entirely normal. Also, she sings her ass off, with deep-down feeling Beyoncé still can't muster.

Ronnie Dunn, "Bleed Red"

It's not like Nashville and its songwriters and producers and accountants and audience don't realize that songs like Ronnie Dunn's why-can't-we-all-get-along hit "Bleed Red" sound like uplifting Euro rock. Dunn himself talks up the connection, announcing in interviews that when he first heard the song -- then just a demo e-mailed by a buddy -- he thought, "I would have to beat Bono to the punch. It sounded like U2."

Maybe it did, then. Now it sounds like U2 the way Coldplay tries to sound like U2, or the way Reba sounds like Coldplay trying to sound like U2: those chords that seem tentative at first but, as the song gathers force, seem meant to suggest nothing less than human determination itself. Those clockwork drum figures, intensifying each verse but never cutting loose. Piano plinks a kid could pick out; strings as thick as my grandma's drapes; more of those shimmering guitars, which must come off-the-rack these days; and a thin layer of pedal steel to watermark this as country.

If you watch network TV dramas about firefighters, you should expect to hear this over an end-of-episode montage any week now.

The lyric is less predictable. The title suggests either sports-team loyalty or amped-up nationalism. Neither would be surprising from Dunn, half of the duo behind that unofficial George W. Bush campaign song "Only in America," author of the post-9/11 Brooks & Dunn album track freakout "Holy War," and not incidentally a man who once lectured Steve Earle on the dangers of Wahhabism.

But here Dunn's words are more Bill Withers than War on Terror. "Let's say we're sorry before it's too late," he sings at the start, adopting the language of the man talk radio accuses Obama of being. Then he proposes we all give forgiveness a chance, and even builds in the chorus to the kind of ecumenicism that squeezes bitter tears from the corpse of Ayn Rand: "We're all the same/We all bleed red."

Like the beatitudes, these warm generalities are stubbornly resistant to definitive interpretation. There's no help from iffy poetry like "we all taste rain" and "turn the anger into water" (We're supposed to piss when pissed?) Whatever Dunn's intentions are, what matters is how listeners receive this we're-all-in-the-same-gang stuff. A humanist like me wants that we to be everyone, worldwide. But you might hear all Americans, instead, or even -- chillingly -- just everyone in Dunn's target demos.


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