NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Keith Urban, John Rich Offer Memorable New Work

Both Answer Musical Points Raised By Merle Haggard

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

Here’s Merle Haggard in a recent interview with Joel Selvin in the San Francisco Chronicle grousing about current country music: “We don’t have the enthusiasm in music right now,” he says. “We don’t even have songs you could date a time period by.”

You know, Merle has earned the right to say what he wants about music or, in fact, just about anything he wants to. But I know, or think I do, what he’s talking about in both instances. I personally don’t hear the enthusiasm in much music today. I hear a lot of music by rote, music that is being assembled for radio play and really for no other reason. Or it’s music that’s obviously crafted to try to perpetuate a career. I sense that Haggard is talking about music that comes from a genuine love of music and of creating art.

You can hear genuine enthusiasm in music, and it can’t be faked, not with all the forced studio “whoo’s” in the world. I can hear real love for the music in a few things these days.

One new CD that’s brimming with enthusiasm is Keith Urban’s Defying Gravity. He’s always had great chops and the ability to make good music. But I feel that now he’s entering a personal maturity that gives him a sort of unselfconscious confidence to pour out the music that’s in him. To the extent that it is seemingly effortless. It isn’t, of course. He put a lot of work into it. But it sounds like it came out seamlessly.

Not every song on Gravity necessarily is chock-full of such unselfconscious qualities. I don’t mean that they are cheerleading songs — a song such as “’Til Summer Comes Around” is a bittersweet tale — but they all communicate a celebration of life. So much so that it’s a pleasure to listen to something like this these days. Especially after I got fitted for my BanjoBeGone filter earpieces (patent pending) which automatically convert banjo licks into your choice of steel guitar or Telecaster guitar sounds. No offense, Keith, but there are banjophobes in the world, who — except for listening to genuine bluegrass banjo — break out in hives at the sound.

Haggard’s other observation — about songs that date a time period — is something else that I feel is valid. I don’t mean songs that just name-check current events or are obvious products of a point in time. I mean songs that carry a sense of a certain time, that convey the feel of an era.

Songs that don’t mark a certain place in time are not necessarily timeless. They’re just not rooted in anything. Listen to any number of songs on the radio that evoke nothing but a passionless, obviously forced attempt at conveying romance or an attempt identification with a social class, say, or a sort of mindless raising hell. What do you remember about them?

But there are songs that evoke immediate senses of time and place, of entire eras, even. And I don’t mean songs that are historical epics. Just songs that capture the beauty or the heartache of an experience. Listen to, say, a song like Kenny Chesney’s “Anything but Mine” and — without being an adolescent or being there — you can feel the excitement and thrill and the fragility and vulnerability and exuberance of a young summer romance at the beach. All in a short song.

Steve Earle’s upcoming CD Townes, a tribute to the great songwriter Townes Van Zandt, entirely does that because Van Zandt’s songs were the chronicles of an era and those songs unmistakably carry that to the listener.

Another new CD that carries both a sense of time and a high level of enthusiasm is Brothers From Different Mothers, the second release from the bluegrass duo Dailey & Vincent. They carry on the sense of tradition of bluegrass but pair it with a highly-attuned choice of songs. And they are obviously playing this music because they love it.

Good movie soundtrack composers are probably the unsurpassed masters of evoking time and place in music. There are certain soundtracks that immediately conjure up vivid memories of a certain time and certain events. Listen to soundtracks for Slum Dog Millionaire, The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, Chariots of Fire, Gandhi or Lawrence of Arabia, and you will hear the movie’s action and sense its time and place.

If you want to hear the obviousness of songs that date eras, listen sometime to the Willie’s Place channel on Sirius XM. A lot of the older country songs played there are just plain old. But many are brilliant tales of a time and place and will never lose their quality. The work of artists such as Faron Young, Tammy Wynette and Jimmie Rodgers and many, many more and almost anything by Hank Williams will forever and indelibly be a living chunk of America. The most-requested song on Willie’s Place lately has been “Backstage Pass” by Johnny Cash, a very funny song about the world that a backstage pass opens up backstage at a Willie show. Very much evocative of a certain time and place in history.

John Rich’s excellent new video for his song “Shuttin’ Detroit Down” will become a classic for what it conveys and evokes. It unmistakably says: America 2009 — and it will always say that. It’s a combination of Rich’s biting words and the considerable on-screen presence and acting abilities of Kris Kristofferson and Mickey Rourke. And it’s a praiseworthy piece of work.