Smoke Break

Smoke Break – Spotify

Smoke Break – YouTube

If only the lyrics were written by Jason Isbell.

Who do we blame for turning country into rock and roll? My vote is Robert John “Mutt” Lange, who turned the tiny-talented yet beautiful singer Shania Twain into the biggest star in country music. In one fell swoop Mutt performed the same magic he did for Def Leppard, he turned conventional sales records on their head, suddenly the ceiling was lifted, turns out there was lot more money in pop metal and a lot more money in country music than anybody ever fathomed.

Country started to resemble nothing so much as the rock and roll of the seventies, the corporate version, laden with hooks and generic lyrics, but this time about babies, religion and trucks.

But not exclusively. If you ever listened to Miranda Lambert’s “Gunpowder & Lead” you’d be immediately enraptured, by a woman who had the music in her, who was willing to tell her own story, evidence more girl power than all the popsters combined.

Country’s got the biggest stars who last the longest, singing a palatable sound with all the elements of classic rock, and yet it gets pooh-poohed constantly, the cognoscenti believe it’s hillbilly music for the ignorant.

But it’s not.

True, the lyrics can be crap.

But the sound, OH THAT SOUND!

“Smoke Break” is Carrie Underwood’s new single. And despite Kelly Clarkson’s hits, Carrie’s career will burn brighter and longer, she’s a bigger star. Sure, she’s a face for others, despite getting a bit of songwriting credit, but those she fronts…they’re the best money can buy!

This is how it works… If you’re a songwriter, a studio musician, the best way to get paid is by working with a country star. So Luke Bryan and Carrie Underwood, they get the benefit of the best.

Yes, Luke Bryan, whose new album is defeating Dr. Dre’s on the chart. Bringing into question whether we live in a hip-hop nation, or a country one.

I distantly knew Carrie Underwood was prepping a new project, but I had no idea she’d dropped a single. But when I cued up my “Country Hits” playlist on Spotify yesterday I was immediately confronted with a sound that’s filled a zillion arenas. That’s right, rock and roll. With big guitars playing riffs that do nothing so much as make you want to break out your air guitar.

The intro is quiet, almost plodding, but soon thereafter Carrie comes in. (Not that the beat is not solid. In a beat-driven universe the bottom is evidenced so dramatically in country music.)

She’s a small town, hard-workin’ woman just tryin’ to make a livin’
Workin’ three jobs, feeding four little mouths in a run-down kitchen

Could almost be a John Prine song, a set-up for a view into a tiny life from which we can extract the bones of everyman.

But then…

When you never take nothing and doing nothing but giving
It’s hard to be a good wife and a good mom and a good Christian

Make me puke. This lowest common denominator pandering is what is holding country music back. The people involved think the audience can only tolerate crap like this, that you can’t go deeper and be chiaroscuro, can’t show life as shades of gray instead of black and white. Nobody is that good, especially the country audience. What could have been three-dimensional ends up as cardboard. As for the religious reference…utterly superfluous and offensive to anyone who is not of the faith, that’s another thing I hate about country music, the endless fealty paid to God and the values that the nation at large is so busy trying to tear down, like the Confederate flag.

But oh what a chorus, oh what electric guitars.

On one hand it’s utterly generic, but it’s oh-so-POWERFUL!

If you ever liked rock you’ll be hooked.

Forget the people in skinny jeans who can only bless that which appeals to few, they’ve never been more irrelevant. Hell, they make Pitchfork look mainstream. But for the rest of us, who can poke fun at ourselves and are not worried about our image…we can admit “Smoke Break” sounds GREAT!

So this weekend we’ll be subjected to the antics of one Miley Cyrus, who can get our attention but has a problem selling tickets, while the mainstream press fawns over the youth-culture train-wreck known as the MTV Video Music Awards, not questioning why MTV has authority to still have a show, seeing as how it no longer shows videos, which have sunk in popularity anyway, they’re just the images behind the tunes on YouTube. But there you have it, the press would rather trump the momentary as opposed to the lasting. There’s nothing sexy in the story of Carrie Underwood.

But there’s plenty of sex in her.

And in the sound of “Smoke Break.”

If it doesn’t oil your loins, if it doesn’t get you ready for action, you’re too uptight to do it.

That’s right, sex and rock and roll are intertwined, they’re two sides of the same coin.

And they run this nation of ours.

The remaining jukeboxes feature AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long.”

It’s country acts that sell out stadiums. Hell, it’s where Taylor Swift got her start.

But it gets no respect.

Then again, with lyrics like this I’m not sure it deserves any.

But if Nashville could elevate the product, know that the way you succeed today is to deliver the unexpected, titillate us, illustrate the way we really live, warts and all, it could mow down pop overnight.

Because the truth is we live in a rock and roll nation.

But too many people have not gotten the message that the music has migrated from NYC, L.A., SF and Seattle to Nashville. Where jeans rule, and playing a mean guitar still counts.

It all works, except for the words. They’ve got to work on that.

P.S. Before you get on your high horse and dismiss this music before listening to it, know that the producer Jay Joyce started off producing Tim Finn, and has John Hiatt, Patty Griffin and Cage the Elephant credits too. You see the world is not as black and white as you think.

P.P.S. A co-writer of this song, Chris DeStefano, has written for Kelly Clarkson too, once again demonstrating the cross-pollination in music. Radio and media want to establish walls without bridges, but the truth is the audience is mashing it all up. Which is why so many country acts are rapping…but that’s another story.

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