January 19, 2012
(So is a Rascal Flatts rocker that doesn’t want to make you jam with anyone named Elroy, throw away your old Igloo cooler and lose your appetite every time you see a Sonic Drive-In.)
To put the lead single from the formidable trio’s forthcoming eighth studio album in perspective, a brief backstory of the instrument in the spotlight is warranted.
Indeed, the banjo has been long revered as a quintessential ingredient in not only country music, but as an integral part of all American music. Brought to the United States via the slave trade (the earliest documented mentioning of a “banshaw” is generally believed to be 1678, from an autobiographal note in Martinique that describes a convergence of slaves prior to deportation in which one is depicted plucking a “banza”.) Thomas Jefferson, himself, would later recognize this instrument in 1781, who referred to it as a “banjar.”
From the formation of the Sweeney Mistrels to their integration into parlors in mid-nineteenth century Boston, from the emergence of celebrated banjo legends such as Charlie Poole and Earl Scruggs during the mid-twentieth century to helping differentiate American country music from Western European influences then onward……..the banjo, in all its clawhammered, fast-arpeggiated glory, has stood the tests of time and its legacy is secure.
Tragically, recent years have not been kind to this tone-ringed, sometimes fretless, watermark. Since its heyday, it has been relegated from the forefront of traditional American music to something treated like “natural flavor” to add a hint of distinctive zest to modern country radio tracks. You’d be hard-pressed, in fact, to find something on your local radio station’s playlist that prominently features a banjo as opposed to merely being submerged in the mix.
But no need to fear, y’all! Rascal Flatts are back to rescue this five-stringed wonder from obscurity………..I guess.
According to an interview by DeMarcus on the eve of this single’s release, he explained that “Banjo” is about “getting away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life” by driving as far out into the backwoods as you can “until you go so far you start to hear a banjo.”
In theory, that makes for an enticing, musical journey. So why is it that “Banjo” is at its most intimate in the opening minute, and ends at its most obstreperous?
The first two verses bow with a notably banjo (!) driven arrangement, free of schmaltzy string arrangements and Huff’s signature 80′s-rawk sensibilities. Lead vocalist LeVox laments how the “B.S.” has gotten so thick in the concrete jungle that he has decided to rev up his four-wheel drive and make a run for the back roads. By the time the chorus kicks in, the trio suddenly regresses to a standard arena-rock chorus that sounds as though it was cloned from “Summer Nights”, with LeVox beseeching you must “kick it into four-wheel drive when you run out of road, and you go……..until you hear banjo.”
“Banjo” steadily ramps it up from there, where LeVox goes on to brag in the third verse that their “little place of heaven hidden” has not been tracked by the satellites or G.P.S. yet (I’m willing to bet the song’s three co-writers we can eventually track it on Google Maps.) Finally, by the time we reach the song’s coda, rather than being greeted with an intimate, back-patio banjo solo or perhaps a whiff of mountain music, the group finally regresses to its stereotypical stadium-rock histrionics, with the touch-ups of banjo deafended by high octane blasts of electric guitar testosterone as the group fist-pumps to battle cries of “Whoa oh oh!”.
If “Banjo” is any sort of musical statement, it is quite a contradictory one. By DeMarcus’s logic……….shouldn’t the song start off dominated by electric guitar, only to gradually veer closer to traditional instruments and sounds as it goes on? It certainly sounds to me like, the more closer the group drives home to the hinterland, the more noise and distraction there tends to be! Perhaps the B.S. is even thicker where the G.P.S. don’t sleep!
Then again, considering the arrangement, suppose we were to re-think “Banjo”. Perhaps, “Banjo”, if anything, is an existential crisis put to music. It concerns a troubled protagonist, who “can’t take a breath without gettin’ sick” in this wasteland of the 21st century, and is idealistically driven to try and find a relic that has been long believed to have faded into obscurity. The longer and longer he drives on, the more desperate he grows, yet his panglossian disposition encourages him to press on. Finally, by the coda, he has started to become unhinged by his migraine-induced desperation that he, emotionally, has “ran out of road” as he hears what sounds like the last banjo crying insolably as it is being usurped and broken apart by stratocasting poachers.
Whatever this single’s three writers were intending, it misfires as a musical statement of sorts. In spite of this, that contradiction doesn’t necessarily defeat the entire listening experience. I for one appreciate the renewed energy output here, especially following back-to-back ballads (and several album cycles dominated by schmaltzy ballads before that). Also noteworthy is the fact LeVox’s vocal performance here is not nearly as overdone as we have been accustomed to hearing of him overall. LeVox actually sounds like he’s enjoying the ride here, rather than belting as though it’s all life or death. He even sounds rapturously laid-back often, most notably during the verses.
If anything, the group would benefit from channeling this sort of renewed hunger a little more often (minus the last 35 seconds)……………..albeit steering clear of lyrical swamps in the vein of offenders like “Bob That Head” and opting for less of Huff’s trademark rawk bombast. “Banjo” may not offer anything new to the table, but it is certain to become a live setlist standout and I can see numerous listeners tuning this up while burning up calories on the treadmill. Who knows, perhaps live renditions of “Banjo” on their forthcoming tour may provide a refuge for various accomplished banjo players to exhibit their skills from city to city. I hope so, anyway.
If you dare not overthink “Banjo”, you’ll likely at least tolerate it in a way you haven’t been able to tolerate previous rockers from Rascal Flatts. If you are hankering for some clawhammering in its most intimate splendor, however………try not to breathe, and keep on drivin’. You ain’t even close.