The name of the new Rodney Atkins album is It’s America, but it could just as easily have been called Rodney Atkins and the Power of Positive Thinking.
Pessimists, be wary of this record. You run the risk of abandoning your perennial half-empty glass and purchasing a lifetime subscription to Keep on the Sunny Side Quarterly. For an optimist like me, listening to Atkins is like discovering a new friend, one who shares your enthusiasm for looking on the bright side but has the added bonus of punctuating his look on the bright side sentences with fiddles and steel guitar.
I can’t remember the last time I smiled so many times while listening to a new country record. In the opener, “Tell a Country Boy”, I grinned when he described a country boy as someone who will “always take his time, if you give him a choice.” As “Chasing Girls” progressed from chasing the girls you’re suiting to chasing the girls you’ve fathered, I laughed out loud as he pleaded with his three year-old daughter, “Don’t let that dog lick you in the mouth!”
And even though I’ve been a frustrated out-of-towner stuck behind a tractor on a one-lane road in Alabama, I couldn’t help but smirk at his celebration of his “Friends with Tractors” who “are good at slowing speeders down when they pass through from out of town.”
The vignettes about small-town life are fresh and entertaining, and are so light-hearted at first that it’s easy to be taken off guard when Atkins begins to dig a little deeper toward the end of the album. The album closes with three fantastic philosophical songs, beginning with “Rocking of the Cradle”, where he sings that “I came in this world with nothing, and that’s how I’ll leave someday. And all that I’ll take with me is the love I gave away.”
The song is more effective because it’s sung in the first person. Rather than telling the listener how to live their life, he’s sharing how the way he lives his works for him. That approach is even more effective on the next song, “When It’s My Time,” where he’s frustrated by the slow-moving cars making him late.
As he realizes the endless stream of vehicles are part of a funeral procession, he begins to wonder if he’d have such a big turnout for his own passing. It makes him think about how important it is to treat other people well and live a good life, because the value of our time on earth is ultimately measured by the good works and relationships that we leave behind.
Best of all is the album closer, “The River Just Knows.” He wants to spend the day fishing alone because “the river don’t talk, the river don’t care where you’ve been or why you’re standing there.” He’s frustrated to see another man in his favorite fishing spot, until he realizes that it’s a soldier who has returned from overseas with far greater troubles on his mind. A selfish motive may have brought him to the river to fish that day, but Atkins leaves with a greater sense of empathy for another man’s experiences.
I always tell my students that there are two ways to live your life. You can look to the right, and notice all of those who have more than you, and feel unlucky and envious. Or you can look to your left, notice all of those who have less than you, and feel lucky and appreciative. It’s obvious which direction that Atkins looks toward, and it’s a joyful experience looking at the world from his perspective.
That patriotism is such a powerful fixture in modern-day country music can largely be attributed to the events of 9-11. In the early stages of the decade, the format issued jingoistic missives (“Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue”), sentimental dreck (“Only in America”) and fortunately, eloquent commentary (“Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),” all revolving around the public’s American pride in the aftermath of great tragedy. But even as time passed, country music’s artistic community continued to reaffirm their faith in God and country, using every opportunity to establish their fidelity to the most treasured of pure American traditions.
And just as the United States is now experiencing a clear identity crisis, the same tremors of change can be felt on Music Row, where the traditional sounds of yesteryear are increasingly drowned out by the bland rhythms and rhyme schemes of today’s polished musical product. Nashville’s schizoid nature has prompted an uncertainty, and ultimately, a desperation to define all that makes country music what it is while forgetting what it once was. In the past, textured interpretations of our social environment were standard operating procedure (Haggard took the temperature of the late ’60s with “Okie from Muskogee,” while Alabama’s “Song of the South” brought the Depression era into the harsh light of reality). Now, the messages are more blunt and built to prompt immediate, yet temporary response. Rodney Atkins’ release, “It’s America,” adds to the argument that country music is in danger of losing the creative direction and distinct narration that is its ultimate foundation.
Fresh off four consecutive #1 hits, Rodney Atkins aims to solidify his spot as one of the format’s most reliable talents with his new single release “It’s America.” It’s his everyman likability and convincing vocal that lift the song, but “It’s America” still suffers from being an all-encompassing anthem. He dares to define our “one nation under God” in a song of praise spouting hopeful optimism and heartland sentiment. While harmless, it furthers an incorrect notion: that emotional resonance can be attained in the space of a three-minute anthem that reads more like a weekly grocery list than a work of poetic art. The song’s chorus is a simple distillation of feel-good nostalgia and obvious imagery, with Atkins singing, “It’s a high school prom, it’s a Springsteen song, it’s a ride in a Chevrolet/It’s a man on the moon and fireflies in June and kids selling lemonade/It’s cities and farms, it’s open arms, one nation under God, it’s America.”
In turn, the verses are full of praise for the soldiers, farmers and flag-flying ordinary folks that stand as the cornerstone of the United States, but the song barely touches on the stories that make these individuals extraordinary. It merely grasps for catchphrases that are well-known to the radio audience, relying on this recognition to inspire brief moments of connection between the music and the listener. Few consumers won’t be able to latch onto at least one of these examples, but “It’s America” is a disposable effort that fails to construct any meaning behind the music.
While a number of artists from different musical genres entered into the country rodeo this past year, no Nashville newcomer was more successful than Hootie & the Blowfish frontman, Darius Rucker. His debut country disc, Learn to Live, topped the country album charts in its first week of release, in large part due to its lead single, the #1 smash, “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It.”
Country Universe is offering a free copy of Learn to Live to our loyal readers. To be considered, leave a comment and tell us your favorite #1 country song of 2008.
Billboard #1 country songs in 2008:
Taylor Swift – “Our Song”
Brad Paisley – “Letter To Me”
Rodney Atkins – “Cleaning This Gun (Come On In Boy)”
Carrie Underwood – “All-American Girl”
Alan Jackson – “Small Town Southern Man”
Trace Adkins – “You’re Gonna Miss This”
George Strait – “I Saw God Today”
James Otto – “Just Got Started Loving You”
Brad Paisley – “I’m Still A Guy”
Carrie Underwood – “Last Name”
Kenny Chesney – “Better As A Memory”
Montgomery Gentry – “Back When I Knew It All”
Blake Shelton – “Home”
Alan Jackson – “Good Time”
Sugarland – “All I Want To Do”
Taylor Swift – “Should’ve Said No”
Keith Urban – “You Look Good In My Shirt”
Jimmy Wayne – “Do You Believe Me Now?”
Brad Paisley – “Waitin’ On A Woman”
Jimmy Wayne – “Do You Believe Me Now?”
Darius Rucker – “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It”
Kenny Chesney – “Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven”
Toby Keith – “She Never Cried In Front Of Me”
Carrie Underwood – “Just A Dream”
Taylor Swift – “Love Story”
Entries will be considered until 11:59 p.m. on Sunday, November 23. Best of luck!
Last night, the CMA stamped its approval on the leading contemporary country stars of today. Congratulations to Kevin for commandeering the most popular live blog in Country Universe history. Here is a series of highlights (according to me) from an otherwise staid ceremony:
Best performance: “More Like Her,” Miranda Lambert; “Just a Dream,” Carrie Underwood. With understated brilliance, Lambert shifted gears by offering her Texas twang on the stripped-down ballad, while Underwood hit all the glory notes on her dramatic tearjerker with style and grace. Often pitted as rivals and polar opposites, the two proved that country music holds plenty of room for these two prodigious talents. Although Underwood ended Lambert’s faint hopes of claiming the Female Vocalist prize, bet on Lambert winning her fair share of CMAs in the near future.
Sound off: Repeatedly an issue, the Sommet Center’s sound system had problems again this year. Also, Nashville is a town of songwriters, but L.A. is a town of scriptwriters, and some intelligent, humorous ones would be welcome at next year’s ceremony.
Nashville’s full of musicians, too: Let’s tip our hats to first-time CMA award winner, Musician of the Year, Mac McAnally.
10:57 If I was a petty man, I’d be gloating about out-predicting all of my co-writers at Country Universe. Wait a minute. I am a petty man. I won! Yes! I won! This country universe is mine. Y’all just live in it. Suckers. (Except for you Leeann. You didn’t get all up in my grill, talking smack before the throwdown. You’re cool.)
10:56 ENTERTAINER – Kenny Chesney
10:54 Standing O for Shania. Good God, she’s beautiful. Welcome home.
10:50 So the only artist I see live who charges Eagles prices is Madonna, and I have to say that if she just stood there and growled, I’d feel ripped off. Come on, guys. Slap on some heels. Throw in some synchronized dancing. Jump some rope. Rub up against something. You’re supposed to be legends.
10:49 Dan:Once again, a washed up rock act gives us one of the better performances of the night. I like the Eagles, but that’s sad.
10:48 You know it’s bad when you’re hoping that Shania’s the surprise guest because you want to see some real country stars.
10:46 Paisley’s right about that. The Eagles have a lot more to do with country music today than most seventies country stars.
This afternoon, the Country Universe staff is following up last night’s personal picks with our actual predictions about who will win tonight. Check back tonight at show time to join the live blog and mock us for our defective divinations. Less
Kevin: BMG has to throw their weight behind either Chesney or Paisley. My hunch is they’ll back Chesney for Entertainer and Paisley for Male Vocalist. _
Leeann: It’s been Chesney all this time and not much has changed to make me think it won’t be Kenny again this year. _
Blake: Chesney remained steady on the concert trail and earned three #1 singles in the past year. This would be his fourth win, tying Garth Brooks for the most ever in the Entertainer lineup. _
Dan: It seems somewhat foolish to bet against a Chesney repeat, but I just have a nagging feeling that the favor will be thrown in Paisley’s direction this year by voters looking to honor someone new. (more…)
As we gear up for tomorrow night’s CMA Awards Show, the staff of Country Universe share our personal picks in all categories. Check back tomorrow for our predictions in each category. Our third annual Live Blog will commence at the beginning of the show.
Kenny Chesney- Blake
Brad Paisley – Leeann, Lynn
Sugarland – Kevin,Dan
Kevin: The only act in the running this year who has shown artistic, commercial and live performance growth is Sugarland, and they’ve grown by leaps and bounds. In a race with four other acts who have long since settled into their styles, they’re the only ones who are still charting new territory.
Leeann: While Paisley may not use explosions or other fancy tricks to entertain his crowds, much like Vince Gill, he keeps them mesmerized with his comedy, graphic creations, incredible guitar prowess and a catalog of engaging songs – in other words, natural talent.
Blake: Kenny Chesney is the most significant touring act in country music and a genre-crossing ambassador for both fans and fly-by-night followers.
Dan: They can’t claim Chesney’s utter domination of the road, but Sugarland have been consistent sellers in a time where the very idea of selling well feels antiquated. They’re probably the best mainstream ambassadors for the genre right now, too, with musical output that challenges commercial conventions (see “Stay”), at least sort of acknowledges country music’s traditions (again, see “Stay”), and draws creatively from other genres (see the Beyoncé duet, the high-profile covers of Dream Academy and Matt Nathanson, the mish-mashy new album).
Lynn: With natural talent, charm, good humor, humility, skills and grace, Paisley is my pick for Entertainer of the Year. He’s an asset to the genre, and manages to keep one foot in traditional country even as he branches out. Although he’s not as big of a touring act as Chesney, he’s still a huge draw, and despite all the gimmicks and gadgets in his concert, true to the genre, he keeps the music at the heart of his show.
Alan Jackson – Leeann
Brad Paisley - Blake
George Strait – Kevin, Dan, Lynn
Leeann: With Paisley as my close second choice, Jackson has the clear, smooth voice that ultimately gets my vote. Like the man, his voice is simple but it is able to expertly capture each emotion that is needed for each song that he sings. Moreover, every note that he sings comes with incredible ease.
Blake: His attempts at humor miss the mark occasionally, and his vocal range compares little to the great voices of the genre, but Paisley, with his tremendous guitar playing and stellar songwriting executes well enough to win a second consecutive Male Vocalist honor.
Dan: They all kind of put me to sleep this year, but George did it with the strongest set of songs. Paisley will probably repeat, but I say “Strait ’08.”
Lynn: This is a tough category for me this year. I’m a fan of Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley and George Strait, but none of them really impressed me with their musical output. I’m going with Strait for keeping it country.
Kevin: All of these men have been repeatedly honored by the CMA. Collectively, they have 54 awards and 240 nominations to date. It’s been a decade since Strait took this one home, and he’s put out better music this year than both Jackson and Urban, the only other vocalists here that are in his league.
Miranda Lambert – Kevin, Leeann, Blake (tie), Dan, Lynn
Carrie Underwood – Blake (tie)
Blake: Underwood’s powerful pipes and positive contribution to the image of the genre deserve props. Likewise to Lambert’s intelligent songwriting, fearless stage attitude and feisty vocal firepower.
Dan: We’re all pretty big fans of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend here, so…yeah.
Lynn: Except for Swift, vocally this category is a toss-up, and could be decided solely on personal preference. However, if one considers the strength of material as well, this award goes to Miranda Lambert, hands down.
Kevin: Alison Krauss and Carrie Underwood are both worthy of the honor, but Miranda Lambert deserves it the most. She made the best music.
Leeann: Miranda has proven that she can sing a rocker with the necessary grit and energy to appropriate drive her up-tempo songs, but she has also demonstrated a lesser known ability to be able to sing with vulnerability and sensitivity when called upon to do so. Out of the female singers on this list, Lambert has the most interesting voice.
For a look back at the other major categories, visit our CMA Awards page.
Zac Brown Band
Usually there isn’t this much turnover in this race unless most of last year’s nominees are ineligible. This year, only one of the four eligible nominees from last year – Zac Brown Band – earns a nomination. With their massive success and their multiple nominations, they’ve got an excellent shot at winning. Then again, Easton Corbin is elsewhere on the ballot, too. It could be a horse race. 2009
Zac Brown Band
Thirteen years after winning the Best New Artist Grammy as part of Hootie & The Blowfish, Darius Rucker won the country music equivalent, adding an exclamation point to the most successful pop-to-country crossover in a generation.
The industry favorites Lady Antebellum became the fourth band in history to win this award, following Rascal Flatts, Dixie Chicks and Sawyer Brown.
Little Big Town
In the year since winning the Horizon Award, Swift has solidified her position as the genre’s most successful rising star. While her debut album hasn’t reached the sales heights of the first discs by previous winners Carire Underwood and Gretchen Wilson, Swift is still one of the genre’s only significant sellers.
Little Big Town
I had a sneaking suspicion that Josh Turner was going to take this home, but as I’ve said before, Carrie’s got the best pipes since Trisha Yearwood. That she’ was acknowledged for that at such an early stage of her career is pretty amazing. Somehow I think the thrill of winning Horizon was short-lived, as winning Female Vocalist the same night left that memory in the dust.
Big & Rich
Four of these five were nominees again the following year, and all in categories besides just Horizon, though Lambert got another shot at that as well.I think Big & Rich and Sugarland are making the most interesting music, and they’re moving more units than Bentley, though he’s no slouch himself.The CMA showed good judgment this year.