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September 1, 2010 / scherstuhl

Strum & Twang: Thinking Too Hard About Today’s Top Country Singles

Lee Brice, “Love Like Crazy”

Verdict: Godawful

Rock folks have long cracked that new country is just old rock and roll  — with a hat.

But in an age where any rock with some roll left is old, we need to be more precise, especially if we hope to comprehend how a power-ballad travesty like Lee Brice’s “Love Like Crazy” – currently the number four single on Billboard’s hot country chart — could come to stand in the tradition of Merle Haggard.

Here goes. If a rock song is new, and not by U2 or Springsteen, and not based on those crabbed and sour chords popularized by the Pixies and Nirvana, and has somehow found a home on commercial radio in 2010, than hat-or-no that rock song is country.  It’s the brute logic of target demos and format-changes. No station in no city plays new rock of the Hootie/Mellencamp sort, so the nostalgia-makers of Music Row annexed a fresh audience: the millions of white grown-ups who never cottoned to the dark abstractions of the so-called “alternative” rock.

That’s why “Love Like Crazy” sounds like late Aerosmith.

Over a riff so light and sunny it’s almost pizzicato, Brice croaks about a couple who have achieved a half century of blissed-out matrimony despite six kids and everyone telling them it’s crazy to hope for so much. Then the crescendos start.  The chorus is weighty and dumb yet still tries to soar;  the climax is scored for an Air Force flyover.

Brice dips into his moist lower register, wallowing there like Conway Twitty might. But Conway sang about first-person lusts; Brice sings third-person Chicken Soup for the Soul-isms. That’s standard Nashville, these days. The music can rock, but the lyrics must reassure listeners that all is right in American life.

Brice’s words (by Tim James and Doug Johnson) lay out simple advice for the simple life: “Go to work/do your best/don’t out-smart your common sense.” Then he yells that we should love like kuh-raaaaaaay-zee, which might be a go at Renaissance word-painting because here he sounds entirely out of his mind. Finally, he tells us that that perfect husband quit his job and banked a mint with a computer start-up.

This muddles the song’s message: get married, be happy, procreate lavishly. Go to work no matter how much you hate it. Don’t feel bad about not reading books. Also, quit your job and become a millionaire.  Ladies and gentlemen, this is the Sarah Palin story.

Conway Twitty starring in The Rosie O'Donnell Story

One More Thing! Here’s my two favorite Conway Twitty songs. I include these to illustrate this minor master’s potent emotional range as well as his greasy lower register. I do not intend them as illustration of how far the music has fallen. There were plenty of shitty hits back in the day, too.

Here, he shows us what it would be like to be seduced by your high school principal circa 1972. Notice how at 2:33 he creaks just like Brice does. Also, notice how this creak means something.

And here, he and Loretta demonstrate that, nine times out of ten, songs about temptation crush songs about contentment.

Sometimes, while banging out an assignment, I will promise myself things like this: “Fifty more words and you can listen to ‘Feelings.'” Then: “Fifty more words and you can listen to ‘Feelings’ again.”  It’s one to soak in.

— Alan Scherstuhl

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