Thursday, March 24, 2005

This is a piece I never did with what I intended to, but I still think it's pretty good. Wrote it late last year.


The reason George Strait is such a star, a legend in country music, is simple: damned near no one sells a song better than he does. He's got believability in spades; fans trust him the way they trust their State Farm agents from Waco to Akron. The same can be said for John Mellencamp - you know you're not going to hear him make a deep house record. As Strait himself once sang, both he and John are "sing[in'] song[s] about the heartland," too. Both do what they're good at, and are consistent without being boring. If you've not been convinced before now, both men, both proudly from the country's midsection (Strait from Texas, Mellencamp a ringer for Tom Petty's "Indiana boy on an Indiana night"), both circa 25 years in the biz, have just released career-spanning two-disc comps out to do the job.

Strait's 50 Number Ones, first of all, isn't technically truth-in-advertising, at least not if you adhere to the gold (i.e. Billboard) standard of charts; according to them, before the release of this collection, Strait had notched up 38. [The same week that 50 Number Ones entered the country and pop charts at #1, its obligatory tacked-on-new-single "I Hate Everything" ascended to the top of the country singles chart, making his total now 39.] So he and his team must be judging by Cashbox or something. But beyond that quibble, there's not much more to criticize about this review of Strait's career of (can't resist) straight-talking songs sung as true as could be. When you hear someone sing a line like "Our conversation won't change nothin'/But it's sure nice to talk" (from 2000's "Go On"), how can you deny that? But there's something more to Strait's appeal: just when you feel (or fear) that he's starting to get a bit samey, he throws in the slightest change-up that makes all the difference, such as the fact that he sings "Go On" in a register a tad higher than his usual. Or records a record as left-field (for him) as 2001's triumphant "Run."

"Run" is unlike any song Strait's released, all wide-scale panorama, and quite possibly the least distinctly country-sounding record in his repertoire, like an unearthed treasure from the best band you've never heard in Kansas. It's an aural delight, because it throws you off and recontextualizes his much more trad country material as well, such as the song which follows it on 50 Number Ones, "Living and Living Well," a classic Strait single. Mind you, George isn't one to generally get pinned down. He's a pro at Western swing, steel guitar-soaked tear-in-my-beer weepers, and prime Nashville assembly-line tracks (that's not an insult; Sara Evans would otherwise be without a career). And he's a man of, and respecter of, his roots just as much as John Mellencamp.

Chances are, you're more familiar with the ouevre of Mr. Mellencamp than that of Strait; after all, who doesn't know "Jack and Diane"? Indiana's second-most-famous export (Larry Bird, people, Larry Bird - even John'd tell you that, I think) takes a potentially risky strategy on Words & Music: John Mellencamp's Greatest Hits, throwing chronological order to the wind, which means (for example) that songs from 2003 and 1996 bracket his first-ever hit, 1980's "Ain't Even Done With the Night" (which appears as the 11th track on the second disc of this set). But it works brilliantly, having the effect of holding up Mellencamp as a paragon of quality, churning out classics for a quarter-century. Songs such as 2003's "Teardrops Will Fall" benefit the most from this approach, as the rising tide of John's ouput lifts even the weaker ships - impressive, considering that almost anything coming after the title track from 1994's Dance Naked might be thought to suffer. 2001's "Peaceful World," a good-maybe-not-great track featuring India.Arie, succeeds more loudly as well, surrounded as it is by a pair of tracks from the unqualified triumph of The Lonesome Jubilee.

As for the new songs (Strait goes with 50-plus-1, Mellencamp 35-plus-2), both of John's were coproduced by Babyface - yeah, that Babyface, the epitome of '90s quiet storm R&B, writer and producer of smashes for the likes of Boyz II Men, Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton,, ad infinitum - and both of 'em work a charm. Remember, 'Face is an Indiana boy, too, and lest you worry, he doesn't take John down the same road Eric Clapton so gladly tripped down on 1996's Grammy bait "Change the World." Keeping in line with his recent work, these two new additions to the Mellencamp canon, "Walk Tall" and "Thank You," sound like John not quite so pissed off, but still a man of convinction (his recent duet with Travis Tritt, "What Say You," makes that clear as well).

Being a native Hoosier myself, I've never much cottoned to the whole notion of "John speaks for the common man" (which Jann Wenner keep spinning in the liner notes here), 'cause you know what? Just like George Strait, John Mellencamp truthfully speaks for every man. They celebrate traditional truths and values (which are not the exclusive province of red staters), like hard work and just reward, like love and lust and (sometimes) knowing the difference. And ain't that America?

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?