I would like to like Miranda Lambert. About the closest I’ve come is a live acoustic performance at a Nashville fan party in which the Pistol Annies, Miss Lambert’s supertrio with Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley, sing a version of “Takin’ Pills” from their first album. Stripped of gloppy production and overcarbonated drumming - the twin curses of country radio - the song turns into a lazy, ragged lope. The women exchange flirtatious banter, accusing each other of drinking, smoking and taking pills as the tune wavers and staggers but never quite loses its groove. With the performers seated and mugging to the crowd unapologetically, the performance comes across as part stone outlaw country, part hippie coffeeshop love-in. It’s messy and winning and real.
The live “Takin’ Pills,” in other words, manages to sound authentically country - stripped down, rural, with no glossy coating for a crossover audience. Though, of course, I’m a crossover audience. I’ve been listening to country since as long as I can remember, but that’s because my liberal Jewish parents had some folk revival damage and were into Johnny Cash. I’m an urban aesthete, not a hillbilly. If I want my country more authentic, that’s because that’s what urban aesthetes like. Real hillbillies when they turn on the radio don’t want Miranda Lambert pretending she’s on “Prairie Home Companion.” Real hillbillies want Miranda Lambert as she is on her new album, “Four the Record,” complete with echoey production, throbby anthemic vocal tics - and those drums.
The point isn’t that urban aesthetes are the real custodians of country music, or that the genre’s core demographic has stabbed country in the back. Rather, the point is that pinning down country “authenticity” is like nailing Granny’s gravy to the wall.
Richard A. Peterson, in his 1997 book “Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity” explained that in country music, “what is taken to be authentic does not remain static but is continually renewed over the years.” Thus, on record Miss Lambert signals her authentic countriness not by being laid back and retro (as she did in her live performance), but through other means. “Four the Record” includes, for example, obligatory references to old guitars and smoky bars and the occasional well-deployed cowboyish metaphor (“Just like the fringe on my boots/You move with every step I take.”)
If, instead, Miss Lambert recorded an album with Carter Family instrumentation and production values, it wouldn’t seem authentic - it would seem like a retro-roots academic exercise. On the other hand, the 20- or 30-year-old rock cliches of “Fastest Girl in Town,” coupled with familiar frisky-but-not-too-frisky sexual braggadocio, are just old enough to sound “real” without being so backward that they suggest an actual conscious stylistic choice. Similarly, the Daniel Lanoisesque roots-as-New-Age-emoting of “Oklahoma Skies” shows unequivocally that mainstream country is ready and willing to absorb the lame alternative country of only a couple of decades ago.
It’s easy (and fun!) to scoff at country’s charmless fustiness, just as it’s easy to scoff at its soulless genuflection to the zeitgeist. As Mr. Peterson suggests in his book, though, the vacillation between reflexive authenticity and reflexive pop has historically been the engine for country’s aesthetic successes, whether it was Elvis retooling jump blues as hillbilly music, Bob Wills refiguring swing as cowboy music, or Emmylou Harris turning coffee shop folk into country radio hits. If country was just about roots authenticity, it would long ago have turned into a festival curiosity like blues or bluegrass. If it was just about pop, it would be pop, and you wouldn’t be able to tell Miss Lambert from Ke$ha. When country stops being a dialectic, it will cease to exist.
Part of the problem for country over the past few decades has, in fact, been that the terms of its dialectic have spread out to such an extent that the dialecting has become a struggle. Blues, jazz, and rock all share an ancestry with country. Thus, when blues, jazz, and rock were at the top of the charts, it was relatively easy for country to borrow their pop magic while still remaining true to itself. Hip-hop and ultraproduced R&B, though, have been a lot harder to assimilate. Ke$ha actually illustrates the difficulty nicely. Her persona isn’t far from an update of Wanda Jackson’s in-your-face white trash swagger - the same neck of the woods Miss Lambert is working, in other words. But where Miss Jackson could easily straddle rock and country in the ‘50s, there’s no way Ke$ha’s electrotrash or her virulently foul mouth are going to fly on country radio. The distance between the programming formats has opened up, leaving country aesthetically stranded.
Though maybe not forever. There have been some signs of life on country radio in recent years, not least from Miss Lambert herself. At least one song on “Four the Record” is decidedly weird - not an adjective I tend to apply to mainstream country. “Fine Tune” is a clunking, honking bluesy strut - a little Tom Waits, a little Lindsey Buckingham in “Tusk” mode. Miss Lambert’s voice is processed so that her nasal twang sounds like its coming from inside the hood of the car she uses for a series of entertainingly lascivious (if familiar) metaphors. “You started tweaking on a little knob/That I didn’t even know was there.” Cars and sex; traditional, but always new.
I don’t love “Fine Tune.” Nor, hard as I tried, did I love the country-shakes-hands-with-doleful-‘90s-pop that was “Greyhound Bound for Nowhere,” from Miss Lambert’s 2005 debut “Kerosene.” Miss Lambert’s just not quite inventive enough or musically talented enough to be an Elvis or a Bob Wills or an Emmylou; her forays across the radio dial end up seeming like tentative first steps rather than like a real synthesis. Still, I appreciate her twin desires to stay real and to sell out. Country has always been about failing to do both simultaneously, so if she hasn’t succeeded yet, maybe it means she is headed in the right direction.