NASHVILLE SKYLINE: John Rich, Hank Williams Jr. Get Topical

Singer-Songwriters Tackle Current Events With Songs

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

There is a long tradition in country music of songs that provide social commentary and observation or even criticism. It harkens back to Woody Guthrie and his blunt songs of social observation and his lovelier songs about this country such as “This Land Is Your Land” and “Pastures of Plenty.”

And there have many, many examples over the years, from Merle Haggard‘s “Okie From Muskogee” to Loretta Lynn‘s “The Pill” to Alan Jackson‘s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” and many more. I’m pleased to see there are a few current songs that are about what’s actually happening now, as opposed to what’s not.

Obviously, the country audience has plenty of room for all the current songs about how country we all truly are and how we’re all actually from a small town where mom and dad were high school sweethearts and you were the high school quarterback or the homecoming queen. Back when we all really came from Mayberry. And we knew what a tractor was and that it should be green. And that we should drive a pickup truck and it should be an F-150. But many listeners also yearn for some meat on the bones of their music.

“Shuttin’ Detroit Down” by John Rich is one such meaty song. Rich wrote it with John Anderson, one of the few gifted populist country singer-songwriters who are still walking around Nashville and writing and singing. They use a two-by-four piece of lumber to preach about some current economic policies. This is a prime example of a song that was meant for a stellar video and it got one, with Mickey Rourke and Kris Kristofferson carrying the load in a production that amplifies the song’s impact. It’s a plain, unadorned populist message saying that this country shouldn’t abandon Detroit and the American automobile industry. The song is also a blistering attack on banking’s bonus babies. John Anderson has also recorded “Detroit” in a somewhat faster version for his forthcoming CD, Bigger Hands, due June 9.

There’s a more powerful song on the new Rich album Son of a Preacher Man. It’s about his grandfather, titled “The Good Lord and the Man.” His grandfather was a heroic soldier from World War II, and Rich uses his life to sketch a broad and vivid vision of the greatest generation’s contributions and what they stand for today. A good song is the equivalent of a three-minute sermon, and some deliver the message in that short time.

I can’t remember ever agreeing with John Rich’s politics, but the man knows and deeply loves country music, and I respect him for that.

With “Red White and Pink-Slip Blues,” Hank Williams Jr. looks at the personal impacts of job layoffs. He didn’t write it — Mark Stephen Jones and Arthur Tower did. Jones also has another great song title with “Screwdriver and a Vicodin.” Jones also does a softer, partly narrated version of “Pink-Slip Blues” on his CD, Self Made Man. Ultimately, the song’s title surpasses the song, but it’s a worthy effort.

Twelve severed heads in a bag. That’s the dramatic and searing image left by the aptly-titled “Corrido Twelve Heads in a Bag” by the Krayolas from their CD Long Leaf Pine (No Smack Gum). Obviously, it’s a commentary on the spate of brutal murders by Mexican drug gangs. And it’s a very graphic song. The Krayolas are a San Antonio group in the long and honorable tradition of Tex-Mex groups in Texas. And on this album, they borrow the wonderful Augie Meyers on Vox organ and piano and also the West Side Horns, both from Doug Sahm‘s glory days in San Antone.

“Homeland Refugee” by the Flatlanders is an eloquent tale of the suddenly homeless finding themselves reliving the grim days of the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. “I lost my home when the deal went bust/To the so-called security and trust” and from there, life spirals downward, until “the pastures of plenty are burning by the sea/And I’m just a homeland refugee.”

“Christmas in Rehab” on Kacey Jones’ forthcoming CD, Donald Trump’s Hair, is another great song title. The former lead singer of the group Ethel & the Shameless Hussies has a quirky new CD with this cut tucked away on it. I’ve waited for years for someone in country music to write a song titled “Christmas in Rehab.” (So why didn’t I write it myself? Good question.) Rehab is the spa of last resort for many a Nashville star, so why not consider spending Christmas in rehab? Many people already do. Jones also includes here the acerbic song, “Something’s Wrong With Kenny Rogers’ Face.”

Susan Boyle. Not her song per se, but her appearance on Britain’s Got Talent and the subsequent worldwide hubbub about her. Her significance here: She is a total repudiation of the entire current Botox culture. Will that impact last? That’s entirely up to the public.

See the video of John Rich’s “Shuttin’ Detroit Down.”