NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Got Music for a Pitiful, Helpless Giant?

Wanted: Soundtracks for a Nation That's Gone Adrift

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Is anyone writing soundtrack songs for an America running helplessly headlong toward ruin? I’m not going to attempt to go into political issues, other than to say that tough times can and should produce music that can address and perhaps explain and make some sense out of the chaos that’s all around. To instill some sense of order and normalcy into everyday life. And to try, as journalism’s mission once was, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

And if ever a nation needed some memorable music, it is the United States of America of today, which has truly become a pitiful, helpless giant. With no direction home. End of sermon.

Where’s the music?

Remember when Alan Jackson took the apocalyptic insanity that was 9/11 and weaved a gentle but powerful message from that turmoil? And how that song captured what untold millions of people felt but couldn’t express? And just how powerful that song was and how valuable it was to the American people at a time when they could get that message nowhere else? Remember that?

Music has that power.

Music has done it in wartime. Many, many times in wartime, unfortunately. It’s done it during the Great Depression.

And I’m not talking specifically about event songs, about epic lyrics that describe a particular happening. I mean music that captures the feel of a time and does it through music with some substance and heft.

But massive events shape popular culture and direct musical directions. 9/11 proved that.

Songs like Jackson’s can’t be forced. I’m not advocating that the nation’s songwriters drop everything to write earnest message songs. Everyone knows that doesn’t work. We’ve all heard them. And no one will listen. Songs that come from the heart have to come from the heart.

But music can and does affect a nation’s mood. Not everyone liked John Denver’s generally sunny songs, but his championing of nature and the earth made a genuine impact. And people still listen to and sing his songs. He made a difference, is what I’m saying. This week’s disposable hell-raiser song does not. I got nothing against hell-raising. I just don’t know that it’s something you do all the time when everything’s going to hell all around you.

In many cases, country music has served as a beacon of normalcy. Country observers have known for years that country fans look to their music to articulate how they feel. That has been displayed for years in areas as seemingly mundane as advertising. Now, in light of looming recession or even depression, manufacturers are looking to country for commercial help. The publication Advertising Age recently reported that advertisers are discovering that the run-of-the-mill celebrities do not represent the average American. But the country artist does. Writes Advertising Age, “The obvious answer is that country artists are enormously popular, but there’s another, only a little less-obvious one: the economy. Clearly, Red Roof Inn and Banquet would like to pretty-up value-conscious brands, and country artists, beyond any other popular genre of music, strive for blue-collar believability. So close your eyes and try to imagine who’d be more likely to buy the same $1.50 frozen BBQ chicken meal that you would: Lee Ann Womack or Sheryl Crow? As we become more strapped for cash, musicians who cultivate working-class, scrappy brands will be more and more attractive to mainstream marketers.”

Given country music’s capabilities and its history, it can and should play an active role in building and maintaining the morale of this country.

I see encouraging little signs that maybe I wasn’t looking for before. Kid Rock’s new video, “Roll On,” is an uplifting message of hope for America’s declining cities. Kid has become a bit of a country champion by standing up for things he believes in. And by not being afraid to speak his mind. Good for him.

Jack Ingram has a new song, “That’s a Man,” that’s a very affirmative message of what it is to be a man and to stand for something in today’s world. That’s not always been a popular message, but I sense that it’s becoming so.

And just this week, I saw the Abrams Brothers, a new Canadian band, play in Nashville and deliver a solid little primer on American music, from basic bluegrass to vintage Woody Guthrie heartland music. Neither John nor James Abrams is older than 18, but these guys know the music, obviously love it and can play it well. And they know the value of a timeless tale about a land and its people. And they can also take all those elements and rock out a bit, which is what you should always do.

There’s another thing I saw this week I found heartening. It may seem insignificant to many and may indeed be just a small thing. But to me it’s an important step toward a better future. Lon Helton, one of the most influential figures in country radio, wrote an editorial in his Country Aircheck Weekly newsletter entitled “Country Radio Bares Its Crass.”

He obviously disagrees with cheap language on radio. In his editorial, Helton says, among other things, “Over the course of the last few weeks I judged about a dozen entries for the 2008 CMA station and personality of the year awards. And, to be honest, I’m disgusted by a lot of what I heard. And, incredibly, what I’m hearing in these entries is supposed to be the talent’s ’best stuff.'”

The thing is that Lon knows all the words. I know all the words. You know all the words. But I don’t care to use them in public. And not often in private. It’s not necessary, and it cheapens public discourse. English is a beautiful language. Use it to its fullest. It can be very rewarding. It can say what it means.

Good for Lon Helton. Thanks for taking a stand for a decent society. May we all take small steps toward that end.