(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Two powerful new videos that are more moving than anything I’ve seen since Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” are a development I hope is emblematic of a shift in country music. Kenny Chesney’s “Who You’d Be Today” and Neil Young’s “Walkin’ to New Orleans” are both graphic pointers in defining the leadership role that country music needs to again assume in accurately reflecting and also defining the changing national mood.
Alan Jackson did it very poignantly four years ago with “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning).” As Jackson had done, Young rallied music fans with his performance of Fats Domino’s “Walkin’ to New Orleans” at the Sept. 10 telecast of the CMT-MTV-VH1 program, ReAct Now: Music & Relief It is interspersed with very graphic and striking documentary footage of the displaced and devastated people of the city of New Orleans. Directing credit is given to “Bernard Shakey,” which is Neil Young’s filmic nom de plume. The documentary clips drive home the magnitude of this hurricane’s incredible human toll. If it also reminds you of government negligence and ineptitude on a massive scale, so much the better. Great art should bother people now and then.
At one time in this country, journalism’s mission was seen as this: Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Now it’s quite the opposite. How appropriate that music can now take up that original mission.
Chesney’s “Who You’d Be Today,” directed by Shaun Silva, is the strongest thing the singer has ever done. It’s an emotionally vibrant tale of human frailty and interdependence and mortality, and you would have to have a very hard heart indeed if this does not affect you. And it’s a lesson that music should be about much more than the temporal, about much more than immediate sales, about much more than beer and babes and bourbon and stardom and platinum records.
These videos radiate a somber sense of responsibility, a duty of facing problems head-on. They say that country is a music that has a social conscience and a sense of maintaining certain moral standards. I’m not saying there’s no place for feel-good songs or proud-to-be-a-redneck songs, but I have a feeling that nobody will be writing frothy drinking songs or empty boasting songs for a while. Or wasting creative time on songs that are blatantly manufactured and constructed to be nothing but empty, sloganeering, fleeting radio hits. Songs that trivialize country music’s great legacy. You know the ones I mean.
In listening to many people recently and scanning chat rooms and message boards, I get a real sense that people are feeling a hunger for songs of substance, for music that shows a direction, for artists presenting a message of reality.
I’m talking about the kind of musical maturity shown in such recent albums as Rodney Crowell’s The Outsider and Marty Stuart’s new Souls’ Chapel. Both Crowell and Stuart have been diligent about creating quirky but extremely thoughtful and worthwhile and lasting and thought-provoking musical projects that everybody says won’t sell. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t, but they are worth their weight in gold for what they create in the form of solid, useful, durable, substantial, thought-provoking and lasting music for real human beings. As opposed to the quick thrill of an exciting but empty three-minute musical whirl.
It leaves you wondering: What is the role of country music these days? Is it to provide quick and disposable hits for mainstream radio? Or is it to also deliver songs that contain emotional touchstones and musical substance? Songs that connect generations? Or that just sell beer? Country has been good in the past about offering a bountiful harvest of songs of all stripes, songs to match every human need and desire — from selling beer to salving human suffering, from raising hell to saving souls.
Remember, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton and Waylon Jennings and Lyle Lovett and Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris and Crowell and Stuart and a lot of other golden musical artists were discarded at one time or another by Nashville’s major country record labels for no longer being commercial enough after successful careers that had been lucrative for the labels. Their music will live forever. Will the temporarily successful flashes in the pan that their record labels instead focused upon have any meaningful longevity? Or any impact or influence at all? Or the disposable artists of today who are very pretty but are quickly used up and thrown away? You tell me. If you can remember any of their names, that is.
Editor’s note: Prior to its Sept. 29 television premiere on CMT, Chesney’s “Who You’d Be Today” video debuts exclusively at CMT.com on Tuesday (Sept. 27). CMT.com is already streaming Neil Young’s “Walkin’ to New Orleans” video.