Mainstream country music has always been popular, but last year it got idiosyncratic, with songs that quoted OutKast, video cameos from Kid Rock, and a rapping black cowboy. This was mostly thanks to the MuzikMafia, a tight collective of Nashville insurgents — Big Kenny, John Rich, Gretchen Wilson, and assorted friends — who became part of the Music Row machinery by breaking its protocols. But underneath their red-state wisecracking beat the hearts of country purists. Though the Mafia sold their outsider status, they succeeded because they thought like insiders.
Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman” was last year’s most audacious debut single. The working-class anthem was a blow to country’s reductive sheen, but it also camouflaged Wilson’s true calling: balladeer. Her best songs were smoky and slow, full of pure country melancholy. Though “I Don’t Feel Like Loving You Today,” from her latest, All Jacked Up, is pristine in that fashion, most of her follow-up leans on the falsehoods perpetrated by “Redneck Woman.”
What passed for refreshing last year is merely rote here. Wilson’s no rebel when it comes to economics; her album has more product mentions than a Diddy hits collection. (“Skoal Ring” is the “Pass the Courvoisier” of the genre — she should be getting a check.) Also, she’s hardly leading feminism’s third wave. Her gender attitudes are deeply confused and, at times, startlingly retrograde. On “He Ain’t Even Cold Yet,” she scorns a woman for moving on too quickly from her ex. And though “California Girls” celebrates women who “eat fried chicken and dirty dance to Merle” — take that, Diamond Dave! — it also takes a gratuitous swipe at Paris Hilton. Class allegiance, it seems, trumps sisterhood.
Nevertheless, this is what separates the MuzikMafia from their peers: a willingness to engage the rest of the world and an understanding — occasionally misguided — of the symbiosis between city and country. Big & Rich nailed the melding of the two on their debut, last year’s glorious and eccentric Horse of a Different Color, and they do it again on their latest. The jubilant Comin’ to Your City references both the Los Angeles hot dog shack Pink’s and West Virginia’s “dancing outlaw,” Jesco White. And “Caught Up in the Moment,” about a sex romp on an airplane, quotes Nelly.
But Big & Rich, too, have a conservative streak. “Never Mind Me,” the album’s highlight, is a soft-rock ballad that takes cues from early Steely Dan, and “I Pray for You” suggests Journey without the pomp. The Mafia have always seemed interesting because they were different, but Big & Rich’s musical inclusiveness suggests that they were different because they were interesting. Changing a genre from the inside is harder than it sounds.
Grades:Gretchen Wilson, C+; Big & Rich, B
See also: Cowboy Troy, Loco Motive (Warner Bros., 2005)