- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 29, 2005

What should a proper rockist make of country singer Gretchen Wilson? Before we answer that, we’d better define terms. “Rockism” is a critical theory that holds that popular music was good for about five minutes in the late 1960s. Art and commerce then were in some of kind of magical synchronicity; the public’s tastes were as refined as those of critics. Alas, the theory goes, things slid inexorably downhill until the horrors of disco, Madonna and hip-hop made a mockery of all that was holy about rock.

Rockists disapprove of, in no special order, drum machines, sampling, lip-syncing and synthesizers — basically any form of prestidigitation that distorts the direct expression of guitar, drums, bass and voice.

For a long while, rockists also have taken it upon themselves to monitor the health of country music, a genre whose simple virtues are easy to lionize as well as caricature.

The structure and instrumentation of an authentic country song are seemingly as set in stone as religious liturgy. (Country artists themselves are often as jealously protective of their music as rockists are of rock — witness Alan Jackson’s hits “Gone Country,” which lampoons venue-shopping country poseurs, and “Don’t Rock the Jukebox,” on which a heartbroken hillbilly can’t bear to hear noncountry noise.)

Thus, it’s a truism in the rock press that any music that emanates from Nashville today is by definition impure, inauthentic and patently commercial (an unforgivable vice among rockists). To differentiate it from the country they purport to cherish, it’s often dismissed as “pop” country.

Music critic Sasha Frere-Jones defined the rockist attack on pop this way in the online magazine Slate: “Pop music isn’t made by people, but by bands of hired guns on assembly lines, working to rationalized standards established by technocratic committees maximizing shareholder investment. The emphasis of pop songs is on transitory physical pleasures, instead of the eternal truths that rock protects.”

And, the kicker: “Pop is also consumed by lots of women and kids, and what do they know?”

In the lesser country category are crossover commodities such as Kenny Chesney, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw and Shania Twain. (The least generous rockists tend also to overlook arguably “authentic” country stars such as Toby Keith and Brad Paisley.)

The pure typically include: Hank Williams I and III, but never II; old soldiers such as George Jones, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and the late Johnny Cash; and the late Gram Parsons.

It’s curious, is it not, that Mr. Cash, Mr. Nelson and Mr. Parsons weren’t strictly country singers; they were themselves “crossover” artists, albeit of a rebellious sort more acceptable to rockists.

As a short-lived member of the Byrds and later as a solo artist, Mr. Parsons, indeed, is often credited with inventing country rock before there was a name for it — a movement that has seen various permutations (the Eagles, Charlie Daniels, Alabama), none much favored by rockists until the arrival of so-called alternative country, which, through an unusual critical inversion, has come to be seen as more country than country itself.

The magazine No Depression, which chronicles the fortunes of alt-country bands, is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. Its name comes from the 1990 debut album of Uncle Tupelo, a seminal St. Louis band that spawned Son Volt and Wilco, outfits that are still active today.

Again, the genre catholicity is striking: Neither Son Volt nor Wilco ever claimed to be anything other than rock bands — and with each new album, it’s become increasingly difficult to categorize the experimentally-minded Wilco.

None of this is to defend artists like Miss Hill or Mr. Chesney or the nine-to-five songwriting fabrication that’s so common on Music Row. It is, rather, to question whether rockists like country music at all.

Which brings us back, at last, to Miss Wilson, who this week released “All Jacked Up,” her lively follow-up to last year’s quadruple-platinum “Here for the Party.” Miss Wilson is the traditionalist in a group of recently emerged artists — including the duo Big & Rich and “hick-hop” rapper Cowboy Troy — that has given Nashville a much-needed draft of fresh air.

With her rough-hewn, tobacco-chewing, “Redneck Woman” persona — a persona well-matched by her songs, some of which were crafted by John Rich of Big & Rich — Miss Wilson should have plenty of cred to pass muster with rockists. Barroom stomps such as “California Girls” and “Skoal Ring” are blessedly free of pop impurities, as are the album’s teary-beery ballads, “I Don’t Feel Like Loving You Today” and “Raining on Me.”

The one thing that may discredit Miss Wilson in the eyes of rockists is her unapologetic embrace of red-state values. On “Jacked,” she sings of the unappreciated merits of stay-at-home motherhood (“Full Time Job”) and makes an anthem of lyrics such as “I’m for the Bible/I’m for the flag” on “Politically Uncorrect.” Such Everywoman sentiments will no doubt endear her to country fans — but not to rockists, whose celebration of all things primitive and working class stops at the edge of Republican politics.

One hesitates, however, to politicize the aesthetic standards of rockists. They are narrow enough as it is.


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