(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Toby Keith's topical video, "American Ride," may very well represent a litmus test for country music audiences. By that, I mean viewers' reactions to it speak volumes about their appraisal of country music, to music videos and to the use of topicality and satire in those songs and videos.
As a song, it is not all that different from many other skillfully-crafted, up-tempo, hook-laden tunes. But the video itself seems, on the surface especially on a first viewing, to be deeply political. Viewers have ultimately realized that the video was neither liberal nor conservative. It is, in fact, an equal-opportunity attack on all aspects of the political and financial establishments. That has puzzled some people but delighted others.
Similarly, Brad Paisley's new video, "Welcome to the Future," initially strikes some people as being pro-Obama. But, finally, viewers seem to overwhelmingly interpret the video as being deeply patriotic.
Political import aside, the Keith and the Paisley videos stand apart from the current pack of country music offerings. Those videos pretty much serve up the usual live concert footage or little vignettes involving churches and/or cemeteries, action in bars/clubs, running or walking or driving carefree or tormented through the countryside/desert/small town or driving a hot car/tractor/pickup. Or else they're little glimpses of a love/infatuation gone right/wrong. Nothing wrong with all that. But Keith and Paisley offer something distinctive. Something that makes you want to watch and to see what happens next. That's storytelling, which is what country music should be about. Here, it's storytelling presented in a compelling and distinctive way.
At the same time, I find it interesting that the wide country music audience and community, as a whole, remains relatively at peace with each other. Despite minor differences, most everybody is tolerant of others' wacky and disgusting tastes in music, compared to their own enlightened views, but nobody's yelling at everyone else or showing off their guns. And there's no hue and cry to have town hall meetings about the state of country music. People just like what they like and ignore the rest.
What's especially interesting is that this musical coexistence is happening even though society at large exhibits wide and seemingly serious cracks and divisions between people who should be neighbors as fellow Americans.
I'm not saying there's not a lot of dissing and damning going on online, but it's not rampant and seldom seems to be toxic. Music fans themselves seem pretty tolerant. The secret, I suspect, is that country music is still made up of so many diverse artists and niches that there's a widespread merging of fans from one artist or niche to many others. A George Strait or Gene Watson fan may also be an Alison Krauss fan and also maybe (and perhaps secretly) a Kellie Pickler fan. Many listeners simply have wide interests.
Maybe it's the economic climate that has more or less silenced artists' tongues and stopped them from taking strong controversial stands. Or it may be that Toby Keith's topical video -- as opposed to his earlier very blunt video statements -- simply represents a more mature point of view. More than anyone else, Keith represented the angry American country singer a few years ago. It wasn't all that long ago that Keith and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks were involved in a furious 10-round battle. Today, it should be pointed out, this nation is still ensnared in the same two wars it was then involved with. But times seem to have changed.
My old friend and country singer Kinky Friedman is running for governor of Texas again, and I may have to visit my native state to see if I can inspire at least a couple dozen votes for him. Kinky's success as a country singer was limited due to the huge numbers of people he offended with some of his songs. My own sister-in-law, who is a library administrator, invited Kinky to speak at her library -- even though, as she said, "I wasn't sure whether to invite him in or throw him out!"
Kinky is a good example of someone who today is admired, if not respected, by the very people he thought he was offending. It was, I think, because those very people came to recognize the honesty with which he wrote and sang.
Meanwhile, as Kinky always says, "Thank you for being an American."
See Toby Keith's "American Ride" music video.
See Brad Paisley's "Welcome to the Future" music video.