NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Ronnie Dunn Says There’s Still Room for the Common Man

But Does Country Music Still Have a Place for the Common Man?

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

The best and most effective music I have ever heard unveil a rock or country music concert was the Rolling Stones opening their on-stage appearances on their 1975 Tour of the Americas with a dramatic, ear-blasting orchestral “Fanfare for the Common Man.”

That totally American composition by the composer Aaron Copland still resonates as a … well, as a fanfare for the common man. It was — and remains — totally grounded in American values and musically celebrates and elevates mere human existence and humanity’s rising above commonness. It is music of grandeur, striving for human greatness.

At the same time, perhaps we need to remember the country comedian Brother Dave Gardner who famously updated President Lincoln’s saying, “The Lord loved the common man, because he made so many of them.” Brother Dave said, “If you think someone’s common, go up and tell ’em so, and see how fast they punch you in the nose.”

The idea of the “common man” remains today an overwhelming American syndrome and a distressing dilemma as the economy has reduced countless working men and women to a jobless and often desperate state — through no fault of their own. Is that the new “common man” of the new foreclosure and layoff era? No one today who has been cast aside by this blasted economy likely ever thought of himself or herself as “common.” But that’s happened. And a huge amount of this hurting working class is the country music audience.

There is a chain of restaurants in the state of New Hampshire called “The Common Man” that has flourished for decades by following its slogan of “doing well by doing good.” Each individual restaurant strives to serve its community by sponsoring and carrying out real, ongoing outreach programs to help its neighbors. That is, unfortunately, a rare concept in many areas these days. Are there any fast food chains in your city helping your area’s hurting neighborhoods?

Who in government, or in business, or in finance and banking, or in entertainment, or in media stands up for the common man these days? Nobody, if you believe the news. Nobody, period. And it’s hard to avoid that conclusion.

What troubles me these days is that I’m not hearing much in the way of a sincere common man theme in country music. What I’m still hearing is a lot of long-tail-chasing of mainstream radio-friendly back-road, pickup-truck, and pseudo-small-town, hick-friendly, beer-drinking, hell-raising songs that get big radio play. With some babalicious babes thrown into the song and the video wherever possible.

That’s all well and good for the industry’s immediate bottom line these days, but in hard times, country music has historically tried to serve up some earnest fare with some real life-lesson substance, rather than tossing out the sort of diaphanous and sugary bon-bons we’re hearing these days. The next time I hear a young country singer trying to break into an obviously-forced Mr. Haney voice-break, I’m going to send him an obviously much-needed jock strap.

That Mr. Haney voice-break sound, for those who were deprived of a TV-watching childhood full of such mind-rotting shows as Green Acres, was a cornerstone of that show. Green Acres was the tale of Eva Gabor and Eddie Albert portraying wealthy New Yorkers who move to the country in search of an idealistic country paradise. (I’m surprised that no networks have tried a modern reprise of the show. Maybe with tabloid TV characters such as Ashton Kutcher and Jennifer Aniston.)

What the Green Acres viewers find is a gold-plated cliche. Mr. Haney plays a common man who is actually an ultimate country shyster and hustler who regularly fleeces the gullible and wealthy Manhattan-ites. And Mr. Haney — well-played by actor Pat Buttram — has a perfect voice-break, slipping into falsetto, that is intended to convey genuine country simplicity and honesty — but which actually masquerades a certain staged humility. That voice-break sound was later elevated to superb, masterful levels in song by Garth Brooks. You can daily hear poor-boy versions of it these days on country radio in ersatz back-road, small-town songs by lesser singers.

Anyone who aspires to being a serious artist will realize at some point that art sometimes needs to take on a social duty, to grow a conscience, and to try to make the world a better place than it was before the artist entered it.

There is nothing wrong with escapist, fun music, but there is also nothing wrong with serious music that addresses society’s ills, that seeks to right wrongs and that seeks to elevate the human condition.

Listen to the late Waylon Jennings’ song “Love of the Common People.” He didn’t write it, but he made it his own. I saw him sing it several times in his annual visits to Navajo reservations in the West, where the Navajos held a special place in their hearts for Waylon and his empathy for them and their struggles. His simple musical message and his efforts on their behalf made a real and un-noticed difference.

Listen to Ronnie Dunn’s current song of the common man’s plight, “Cost of Livin.'” It doesn’t get that much radio or TV play these days because country music gatekeepers privately say it is “depressing.” Well, of course it’s depressing! That’s because it’s about a sad reality that’s reflecting what’s going on all around us. That song itself is a reality show. A really real reality show.

Bank has started calling
And the wolves are at my door
Three dollars and change at the pump
Cost of livin’s high and goin’ up.

(A personal note: It is with sadness that we note the passing of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. In addition to everything else he accomplished, Jobs saved the music industry with iTunes. RIP, Steve Jobs.)