(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Heard the new Jessica Simpson single. Later, a friend asked if I was outraged at yet another carpetbagger showing up in town, declaring country music citizenship and ready to partake of country’s rewards. No, I said, I wasn’t. For a lot of reasons.
I used to be a real purist, about all the forms of music that I love. Folk music — my God, you had to practically be a card-carrying Trotskyite to qualify for true folkdom. Blues — only aged black men need apply. Jazz — inner city, beret, the right shades, the proper lingo, the correct namedropping. Country — mainly Jimmie R., the Carters, E.T., Hank, Faron, Lefty, Patsy, Loretta, Dolly, George & Tammy, Merle, Kris, Johnny, Willie, Waylon, Emmylou, Randy, Alan, George. Classical — music by dead, white, European males, if you please. But, you know, after you study society and culture for a while, especially American popular culture, you realize how much of a true mosaic and crazy quilt hodgepodge it is. Conceived by many minds and imaginations and built by many hands, with one basic common goal.
So, yeah, country music has survived a lot and can survive a lot more. A single by another pop refugee is not going to bring down the walls.
Simpson’s new single is not bad. But it sounds as if it could be by any current female artist (one with no distinctive voice, that is). “Come on Over” is the title, in case you run across it. I had to look it up. The title somehow hasn’t stuck with me. It is not the same “Come on Over” song that Shania Twain recorded in 1997 (which won a Grammy). But you have to wonder if the title of Simpson’s song is a total coincidence.
Her song sounds like a utilitarian voice recording a heavily-produced, factory-written generic song, with carefully crafted steel and acoustic guitars, with almost too much of both, as if to point and say, “Listen to me — I’m country! I could be the next Shania.” At least there’s no banjo.
Interesting that some radio stations are complaining that Simpson’s single sounds too poppy. It actually sounds more country than say Rascal Flatts’ or Carrie Underwood’s current singles. Perhaps it just sounds as if it’s trying too hard to be country with its aggressive instrumental approach.
But in looking at a video of the song, with Simpson all decked out in snug flannel shirt with a new brunette look, I have to agree with Mandi Bierly of Entertainment Weekly, as she suggests in a blog, that Simpson is being pitched as some kind of new Shania Twain, and it fairly well agitates Mandi. She writes, “If Simpson’s people try to market her — suddenly all brunette and fond of form-fitting flannel — as the next Shania Twain, I will be forced to hurt someone.” Watch your blood pressure, Mandi. Country has its own self-correcting process.
Simpson is all about posturing. Look, she almost seems to be saying. “I can portray a country singer. Therefore, I am a country singer.” Well, no. I’ll tell you some people who have successfully portrayed country singers. Sissy Spacek did a truly credible portrayal of Loretta Lynn. Reese Witherspoon did the same for June Carter Cash. Then they went back to doing what they do well, which is acting.
Carrie, Julianne, Jessica, Bon Jovi, Kid Rock, etc., have been coming to Nashville for years and still they come. Are they illegal immigrants or welcome newcomers? Country accepts some, spits the others out. A lot of people in the industry said it was impossible for James Otto to make it in country. Well, the audience snapped him right up. Country listeners are accepting Julianne Hough. You cannot force them to like someone that they do not like. That’s a simple lesson.
Originally, country music was built by immigrants, and it has been populated and maintained ever since by people from all over.
Fred Rose, one of the greatest songwriters and probably the most important single figure in country music history, was a refugee from Tin Pan Alley. There have been others, artists and industry figures, from all walks of life.
No need for licensing potential country music practitioners, as some have suggested, or even building a wall to keep the barbarians out. The public will, as ever, be the final barometer. And poor Jessica, bless her Texas heart, has already been rejected by other formats. Turned away by the pop music audience and the movie-going audience. So where does she have left to go?
Toward the elephants’ graveyard. Where pop and rock figures on their last legs go. To country music. If country music won’t have them, it’s their last stop on their long journey to the true elephants’ graveyard itself.