Sunday, September 24, 2017

How Much of This is Fox News's Fault?

A study came out last month in the "American Economic Review" attributing much of the nation's recent drift to the populist right directly to the rise of Fox News, and served up numbers to back them up.  John Kerry, they claimed, would have performed 3.6% better in 2004 and won the popular vote if not for the impact of Fox News.  In 2008, Barack Obama would have supposedly gotten 6.3% more of the popular vote and won by a Reagan vs. Mondale style blowout.  The election fundamentals of those years, especially 2008, did back up the notion that Democratic Presidential nominees should have performed stronger than they did.  On the other hand, it seems impossible to control an experiment that could quantify the findings of the published study with any scientific credibility.  I'm inclined to give Fox News some credit for fometing a larger and more rigid conservative movement, but will document in the paragraphs ahead why I think the situation is more complicated than the study indicates.

Supporting the study's findings are the demographic shifts of long-standing Democratic strongholds into the GOP fold during the Bush years, which coincided with Fox News' meteoric rise.  There are regions of the country ranging from western Pennsylvania to middle Tennessee to eastern Oklahoma that stubbornly clung to the Democratic Party through Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, and two terms of Clinton.  Despite these voters being intuitively conservative, they endured the Democratic Party through turbulent culture wars such as Vietnam, abortion, and the "welfare queen" debate.  Conservatives won the arguments on these issues but Democrats were still winning the war.  Yet once Fox News came on the scene, the tide shifted in these ancestrally Democratic regions....despite the lack of pressing culture war touchstones beyond the Iraq War.   And even as the Iraq War became widely unpopular in nearly all corners of the country, the conservative tide nonetheless kept rising in most of Middle America, even places that had been voting Democratic for generations.

And while it's mostly anecdotal, it's hard to imagine that Fox, combined with the ever-enlarging role of conservative talk radio over the same period, didn't play a role.  Suddenly, the aging, conservative-leaning denizens of the heartland had easily accessible voices offering an eloquent viewpoint that validated a few of their pre-existing views, providing a foot in the door for a more wholesale transformation that led to a switching of parties. There is data down to the county level of who watches what and where they live, and Fox News viewers disproportionately dwell in dozens of counties that have flipped from 2-1 Democratic strongholds to 2-1 Republican strongholds over the past generation.  That would indicate the network has largely succeeded in reaching its target audience and affecting political affiliation of potentially millions of Americans who may well be voting with their granddaddies' political party had the Fox News Network never existed.

But it strikes me that there's a lot more going on here.  It's not as if the conservative message wasn't getting out in the pre-Fox News era when the country hitched its wagon overwhelmingly to Nixon and Reagan.  Perhaps Hazard, Kentucky, and Johnstown, Pennsylvania, stayed blue during those challenging cycles for Democrats, but the suburbs of just about every big city in America didn't.  Overwhelming numbers of suburban voters swung to a crimson shade of Republican red and did so without any organized conservative media beyond obscure academic publications.  Are we to believe the Democrats' electoral arguments were that much less persuasive in the lean 70s and 80s elections that they managed landslide defeats even without this media machine with its thumb effectively on scale for the opposition, as the aforementioned study alleges was the case during the Fox News era?

What else may have happened to swing large segments of the electorate so rigidly conservative during the era of Fox News's rise?  The mass attrition of the liberal and reflexively Democratic World War II generation is no small matter.  And the even more comprehensive attrition of labor unions is arguably an even bigger deal, particularly in some of the same socially conservative redoubts where Fox News viewership has soared.  A generation ago, the prime political message that voters in West Virginia and southwest Pennsylvania, as a couple of key examples, got came from their union literature and phone banks.  When the jobs and the unions went away, the vacuum was filled by conservatives on talk radio and cable news, serving up a diametrically opposite message.  Had the unions existed to the same degree in 2004 and 2008 as they did a generation earlier, there would have been competing messages and a diminished vulnerability for the Democrats to losing millions of Clinton and Gore voters for whom casting a ballot for a Democrat today would be unthinkable.

The Fox News impact study focused on the 2004 and 2008 cycles, which makes its findings a bit dated in regards to its conclusion of maximal disruptive impact.  One could certainly argue that a candidate like Donald Trump could never have ascended to power without an assist from a Fox News nation, but there's no real way to quantify that and it doesn't give enough credit to the uniqueness of Trump's victorious message comparative to what the two major parties had served up at any prior time in the lifetimes of most current voters.  The two major pillars of Trump's message were opposition to immigration and trade policy, issues that have long defied traditional partisan affiliations.  And as Trump proved with the winning coalition that he cobbled together which included many millions of Obama voters, the message almost assuredly broke through without the persuasive powers of a cable news network that averages about 2.3 million viewers a day amidst a declining and rapidly aging cohort of cable subscribers.

Issues of key political importance are constantly changing in America and political coalitions change with them.  The suburban voters of the 70s and 80s swung to conservatives without the help of an organized right-wing media while the heartland hardened in support of conservatives a generation later in tandem with the rise of a right-wing media.  And an entirely new conservative coalition is taking shape now even as Fox News often finds its lineup in third place in a three-network cable news field.....a coalition with large segments that voted consistently in opposition to Fox News' leanings up until November 8, 2016.  A dynamic electorate in a constantly changing issue landscape is the driver of the overwhelming majority of our increasingly inelastic political environment.  I'm not inclined to give Fox News as much credit and its critics would like for this transformation.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Tenney Continues To Take It On The Chin Even After Unincorporating

A few years back, I wrote an entry about Tenney, the smallest incorporated town in Minnesota in the west-central part of the state near the North Dakota border with a population of 4 at the time, disbanding as a town when the last remaining residents decided to leave.  In the last couple of years, they even removed the sign for Tenney on Minnesota State Highway 55.  But even with zero remaining residents, Tenney at least maintained its marquee feature, the massive Wheaton-Dumont Co-op Elevator along the highway.  It was a huge complex, visible from several miles away amidst the flat landscape, with as many as 10 large bins for grain storage, adjacent to a railway with trains speeding by at 50 miles per hour.  Or at least until last month....

From afar, I could tell something wasn't right as I approached the structure from the south.  The closer I got it was more visible that some significant storm damage had tore up several of the grain storage bins.  Sure enough, a June storm smashed the majority of the grain bins, leaving the elevator structure about half the size it had been.  Driving into the "town" was even more apocalyptic than usual as in addition to the few remaining abandoned houses in town, shards of metal from the destroyed grain bins had been gathered and piled up in what used to be the center of town.  It would be a great setting for a horror movie.

Despite Tenney no longer being a town, the stated intention is to rebuild the Wheaton-Dumont Co-op Elevator.  We'll see if it happens as planned but it's a prime location and I'd be surprised if they moved it or just dismantled it, and thus leaving no evidence of what used to be the town of Tenney.  Most striking about Tenney is that it continues to seem predictive of the future of several small western Minnesota towns in the decades to come.  The population in the area is in freefall and plenty of places on the map that I visit every year when I go to the region seem very unlikely to outlast me.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

The "Gig Economy" And The Inevitability Of Single-Payer Health Care

It's only when one takes the time to assess the various crosscurrents playing out in the American economy and public policy sphere that they realize how hopelessly conflicted we are.  One of the biggest stories of 2017 that's not being told sufficient to its long-term consequences is the all-at-once collapse of the brick-and-mortar retail industry.  Every day, I read new headlines of long-time retail fixtures big and small either filing bankruptcy or bleeding cash to the point where their endgame is inevitable and right around the corner.  From small operations like Payless Shoes and Gander Mountain to national institutions with storied histories like Sears and J.C. Penney, cutbacks and store closings are aplenty and the official end times are not far off.  Even the heaviest hitters in the retail sector like Walmart and Target are adjusting their business models to account for the reality that their best days are behind them.  America's outsized retail footprint compared to every other country on the globe coupled with insurgent online competition are driving a nail in the coffin of American retail even amidst an eight-year economic expansion, and with it will come a loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs for American workers who skew downscale, female, and middle-aged.  Most of these jobs aren't great in terms of pay or benefits, but they will be damn hard to replace for many of those who work at them.

And that's where we're at in America today....even the jobs that our parents lectured us to go to college so we could avoid are no longer gonna be an option for those who didn't go to college....and for plenty who did go to college but are stuck working retail anyway.  So what happens to these dislocated workers from the demographics least sought after by modern employers? 

Certainly a large share of them will go the same direction as the first wave of dislocated, middle-aged, semi-skilled workers.....scrambling to find their way onto disability before it goes bankrupt and seeking out a chemical vacation from their miserable lives via opiods.  Others might be able to find work in the industry displacing them, landing jobs as pickers at online retailer warehouses with Dickensian working conditions that will be all the more taxing on the body to those used to years of working retail.  And, alas, those warehouse jobs are on the chopping block for automation as well, with factory floors full of robots not too far on the horizon, denying American workers one more venue to scratch out a subsistent living on their achy breaky joints.  But a third option is quickly emerging for the most enterprising amongst them....the ascendant "gig economy" embodied by ride-sharing service Uber, an economy full of independent contractors likely to cause as much disruption in other economic sectors, skilled and unskilled alike, as Uber has caused among licensed taxi cab drivers.

I suppose in theory, this sort of mercenary economy provides an option for people whose services the traditional economy no longer has a use for to hustle up a semblance of a living.  But it will come at a steep price to every basic notion of middle-class life in America for all but the lucky few.  Workplace benefits, weekends, and vacations, among other things, all become antiquated notions for those stuck in the "Hunger Games"-like environment of the "gig economy", where it's every man for himself in a competition for crumbs.  The wildest example I've come across is a story of a pregnant woman driving for Uber ride-sharing competitor Lyft who went into labor on the job, but still felt compelled to pick up a couple additional customers before driving herself to the hospital.  And most amazing of all, Lyft actually cited this woman on their website in a favorable light, not even pretending that there's something dysfunctional about a business model that promotes such behavior.

Again, this is where we are in America today, and ironically it's the politicians and free-market ideologues most prone to peddle the empty rhetoric of "family values" who have long fetishized this notion of a nation of entrepreneurs that may finally be on the cusp of being realized.  The most tangible recent example was George W. Bush's "ownership society" template, but it hardly began there.  And it's also the same politicians and free-market ideologues who, last week, responded to the insurgence of the gig economy by passing a health care reform bill that strips away the security Obamacare brought to the health care system and replaced it with the unrelenting risk that defined a past American health care system that had far fewer "gig economy independent contractor" types who needed to roll the dice.

The volatility of the individual health insurance market is an abstraction for the majority of Americans who work for an employer that offers group rates, but if the "gig economy" blossoms at its current pace and more workers from old-line industries get displaced by a changing economy, participation in the individual health insurance market will inevitably boom right along with it.  Every other nation in the world recognized long ago that the concept of a "health care marketplace" simply doesn't function in the way that a "cereal marketplace", for example, does and that they have followed one of two models towards universal health care.  Obamacare was a diluted version of Germany and Switzerland's health care model, except with far more conceits to a "marketplace" that leaves gaping coverage holes the likes of which we've witness leak like a sieve in the past several months.  Rather than closing those loopholes, the United States House with the President's support has voted to revert back to the dysfunctional model of the 1950s that only worked then because just about everybody had coverage through employers in the post-World War II pax Americana. 

Simply put, in a nation where fewer people get their insurance through employers and where fewer yet are likely to have it a generation from now, the "health care marketplace" that Congress just doubled down on is increasingly antithetical to the reality of the ground, and eventually there will be a price to pay for it.  Some analysts said Obamacare succeeded in changing Americans' perception towards the liberal viewpoint that "health care is a human right", and that voters will now not accept, among other things, the notion of insurers denying people coverage based on pre-existing conditions.  There's some truth to this, and as more people become foisted into the individual insurance market with less and less security and an insurance industry more likely to deny claims and discriminate based on more metrics than ever before, it seems like single-payer is inevitable.

I wouldn't have believed this even two years ago, and it still won't come easily with politicians dedicated to the preservation of a profit-driven insurance industry middleman in the health care market above all else whenever the topic of health care reform comes up.  But the successful dark horse candidacies of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump last year proved that we have likely reached a tipping point where the central pillars of our system are vulnerable to change by a people who won't accept the status quo that our masters have resigned us to.  And the health insurance "marketplace" that was a fiction to begin with is simply not sustainable in a nation of independent contractors.

It's hard to see much good coming from just about any trend in the American economy.  But the sooner we can discard of the health care "marketplace" fantasy and move to a universal coverage scheme of some sort, the better off we'll be.  There's no such thing as a painless health care coverage model.  There are winners and losers to every approach, and we can be sure a vigorous debate would ensue before any transition to single-payer or even a more robust version of Obamacare like Germany has, but nothing could possibly work less for the American economy of tomorrow than the model that was crafted in the immediate aftermath of World War II.  That economy is gone forever, as we're reminded every day we drive past shuttered factories and shuttered Sears stores, so the health care coverage that served that economy needs to go away too.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The 20 Worst Country Songs of All-Time

It's only fair.  I just revised my list of the best songs to ever come out of country music.  Now it's time for the worst.  This is an incomplete list of course, limited to my lifetime.  Even the hardest-core fans of old country music readily admit that catastrophically terrible music was recorded and released as singles back in the 1960s and 1970s, but most of those bad songs have been excised from most peoples' memories and are pretty scarce even in the oldies' country radio show circuits I've come across.  Thus, I will limit this list, save one, to songs from my lifetime.

Now I'm somebody who complains a lot about how bad country music has gotten and, for that matter, how much crap one had to wade through even in the genre's mid-90s heyday to find the sparkling gems, but most of what I define overarchingly as "bad" is merely bland and soulless.  It's a relatively small lineup of songs I will categorize as viscerally awful.  When Rick Trevino's horrendous 1995 song "Save This One for Me" fails to make the list by one position, you know you have a horrible list.  But below are 20 songs that meet the criteria, for a variety of different reasons....

#20.  Okie from Muskogee--Merle Haggard (1969)...............It's hard not to put a black mark on Merle Haggard's impressive and distinguished multi-decade career in country music when looking back at the way he stoked societal divisions during the Vietnam War, and never more than with the flag-waving, hippie-baiting anthem "Okie from Muskogee".  Haggard redeemed himself in the final couple decades of his life, when he became a pretty liberal cat, vocally opposing the war in Iraq and then endorsing and repeatedly standing up for President Obama amongst incessant criticism.  Nonetheless, it feels like he's rewriting an embarrassing prior chapter of his life when he said the narrator of "Muskogee" and other songs like it didn't reflect his own view, but were merely giving voice to a point of view of the silent majority.  I'm not really buying that, but it makes it even worse if he did, lending cover to closed-minded assholes.  The ultimately irony is what became of both the city and the singer who lionized it in this song 40-some years after its release.  Haggard, the guy who proclaimed that "we don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee", recorded a duet with Willie Nelson a couple of years ago called "It's All Going to Pot", where the video shows Merle and Willie passing the joint around in the studio.  Meanwhile, the mythically puritanical Muskogee, Oklahoma, is so ravaged by drugs that the city of 38,000 has nine drug treatment facilities and one of the highest rates of single-parent homes in the nation.

#19.  She's My Kind of Rain--Tim McGraw (2003).....I've always admired Tim McGraw's instinct for experimentation.  He's never been one to play it safe, and that's part of what's kept him relevant for nearly 25 years now.  But as is always the case with singers who are more experimental, they semiregularly find themselves releasing some real crap.  McGraw is certainly not immune to that and has at least a half dozen cringeworthy trainwrecks to his name going back to his mid-90s origins.  In terms of sheer unintentional comedy though, it's hard to top the manure pile that was 2003's "She's My Kind of Rain", which nearly manages to gloss over its herculean levels of sappiness and gloppiness with its lyrical pretentiousness and high-pitched falsetto vocals.  I know of few people who didn't fall out of their chair laughing at how silly this song was, but McGraw nonetheless got it up to #2 on the charts!

#18. One, Two, I Love You--Clay Walker (1997)..........I've cited before that country music hit a wall in the mid-1990s, very rapidly getting fat and lazy after the spectacular creative spurt it enjoyed in the first half of the 1990s.  The "sensitive guy" takeover was one of the worst offending trendlines, and specific to that trend were love songs with lyrics commingled with nursery rhymes.  One came blame 20-year-old "sensitive guy" pioneer Bryan White for this trend with his 1995 #1 hit "Rebecca Lynn", but for as off-puttingly gooey of a song as "Rebecca Lynn" was, it seemed sincere to who White was as a barely-out-of-high-school artist.  But it was another story altogether when Clay Walker continued this pattern a year later with a far worse song.  Walker was an artist who came out of the starting gate with a fantastic debut album in 1993, showcasing a stylistic and narrative range capable of belting out above-average contemporary uptempo fare while skillfully selling a sad country ballad like "Where Do I Fit in the Picture" and "My Heart Will Never Know" as good as anyone of his era.  Unfortunately, as his career proceeded, Walker mostly steered in the safe lane of commercial country music and occasionally stumbled into the worst gimmicks of the era, such as this smarmy and infantile love song referencing the impact of Mother Goose on a couple's trajectory.

#17. Comin' to Your City--Big and Rich (2005)........The oddball pairing of liberal hippie Big Kenny Alford and archconservative West Texas cowboy John Rich was just crazy and provocative enough to work when they came out in 2003.  As clunky as the songs on their debut album were, nobody could accuse them of being generic.  Unfortunately, right out of the starting gate on their sophomore album a year and a half later, they managed to combine their annoying genre-bending sound with the hollow, self-indulgent lyrics of a song that was pretty much an ode to their own awesomeness.  The outcome was not good, and it killed the modest momentum the duo had on the charts based on their first album.  At least at the time, it looked like the Big and Rich story was already nearing its end, but they got the last laugh, latching on to a few more mainstream songs and scoring bigger hits, breaking up as a duo based on personal grievances, and then reuniting a few years back and are STILL on the charts.  If anybody had told me 10 years ago that Big and Rich would still be on the charts come 2017 I'd have thought they were nuts....yet somehow they still are.

#16.  Live Forever--The Band Perry (2015)......From the outset of their 2010 debut, there was just something really weird about the two-brothers-and-a-sister trio The Band Perry.  They had a few above-average songs during their half decade of country hitmaking, but by and large it was an unsettling ride of oddball tunes that were more annoying than endearing and usually didn't sound like country.  There was always a pop crossover undercurrent with The Band Perry, but rarely has a mainstream act been so bold in attempting to sell a Katy Perry-style histrionic pop anthem as a "country" song the way The Band Perry did in 2015 with the first single from their fourth album, a shrill, self-indulgent, and overproduced assault on the ears that predictably flopped on the country charts and laid the ground work for their formal transition to the pop charts in 2017.  Nothing personal guys, but after trying to get away with this hot mess as a country song, good riddance!

#15.  Little Miss Honkytonk--Brooks and Dunn (1995)......This can probably be said about any act that had a two-decade career, but the legacy of country's most successful duo of all-time, Brooks and Dunn, is a decidedly uneven one.  Lead vocalist Ronnie Dunn has a soulful voice with a considerable range, and that range served the act well on a long list of songs with a variety of different styles over the years.  But Dunn's voice also often had the ability to make a crummy, gimmicky song all the more unbearable...the equivalent of putting sauerkraut on top of spinach.  This criticism applies to at least a half dozen of Brooks and Dunn's hits, but none were as embarrassingly intolerable as "Little Miss Honkytonk", a steaming pile of shit that emerged during the height of country's music line dance era.  As a general rule in the 90s, if a song had the word "honkytonk" in the title it was almost certainly going to suck (the one exception to that rule is Sammy Kershaw's eloquent 1998 ode to the small-town watering hole "Honkytonk America").  But at no other time did it suck worse in the 90s than when Ronnie Dunn was wasting his vocal talents bellowing out "I'm her big cat daddy...she's my little miss honkytonk".

#14.  Bob That Head--Rascal Flatts (2008)......The legacy of country-pop boy band Rascal Flatts is very similar to that of Brooks and Dunn for me, for many of the same reasons.  They've found some good songs over the years and the range of lead singer Gary LeVox has lent some additional emotional resonance to songs like "Here", "Skin (Sarabeth)", "Stand", and the Natasha Bedingfield duet "Easy".  With the help of a fierce closing electric guitar riff, Levox's vocals even came close to salvaging the lyrically empty unsung hero anthem "Every Day".  The flip side is that Levox's range and general vocal style have a tendency to make bad songs that much more shrill.   The annoying "Mayberry", and the even more insufferable "Summer Nights" and "Payback" were all viable contenders for this worst-song list, but nothing Rascal Flatts ever recorded (at least that I've heard) can compare to the combination of stupidity and aural punishment as "Bob That Head", a song that's just as empty as its title suggests, about partiers bopping to the music.  Ironically, the song's generic musical arrangement will have nobody "bobbing their head" to the sound even as they twist facial muscles cringing at the awful lyrics.  Most insulting of all is that in a music scene where literally hundreds of thousands of struggling singer-songwriters can't catch a break, Rascal Flatts can release a piece of garbage called "Bob That Head" in their peak hitmaking years and get to #15 on the charts with it.

#13. Hey! Baby!--Anne Murray (1982)......Somewhat lost among the female country singer legends of yore is Anne Murray, who combined satin-smooth vocals with a number of great songs for a very successful career spanning 20 years in the 70s and 80s, frequently crossing over into the pop charts.  Working against Murray's legacy is her fondness for dated and overly sentimental ballads like "You Needed Me" and "I Just Fall in Love Again" that were popular at the time but don't hold up that well now because of their gooieness, although we may still enjoy listening to those songs behind closed doors with our curtains drawn and headphones on!  But even if those syrupy 70s ballads of Murray's remain a guilty pleasure, one of her hits most certainly does not.  The childish exclamation points in the title of "Hey! Baby!" pretty much tell you all you need to know about the immaturity of this song, and in this case you can judge a song by its title.  It's not saved by a bouncy beat or sophisticated musical arrangement either as the sound is as generic as the sentiment.  Even a teenage Taylor Swift wouldn't have written or recorded a "girl wants boy" ditty this banal, but the fact that Anne Murray was 36 when she recorded it makes it that much more of an embarrassment looking back.

#12.  Get Over Yourself--SheDaisy (2002)......The sister act trio SheDaisy had a more impressive run than one may have expected when they first popped up on the country music scene in 1999, their relentless gimmickry being just clever enough and sprinkled in with just enough above-average songs to keep country listeners interested up until 2006 when they faded away.  It also didn't hurt that all three women were incredibly hot and marketable.  But they almost blew their early momentum with the first single from their second album, "Get Over Yourself", an ironically fitting title for the auteurs of this headache-inducing three minutes of noise, representative of country-pop at its most stereotypically bubblegummy.  The first two versus and choruses are bad enough but the song saves its worst moments for the bridge portion.  Anybody who can make it through that bridge to the song's closing notes is a stronger person than I.

#11.  Wrapped Up in You--Garth Brooks (2001)......There are no other examples I can think of where a successful artist had two phases to their career as diametrically opposed in terms of quality.  For Garth Brooks, the pivot point came after the release of his 1994 "The Hits" anthology.  Pretty much everything he put out before that was inspired, provocative, and memorable, on the front lines of taking country music to a different place than it had been before.  Pretty much everything Brooks put out after "The Hits" was shallow, unmemorable, and lacking soul, not just failing to live up to his prior hits, but well below average even compared to what the new generation of pretty boy crooners of the late 90s and early 2000s were putting out.  Brooks hit bottom with the release of his eighth studio record, "Scarecrow", in 2001, where the first single "Wrapped Up in You" was just a mealy-mouthed mess all-around, lacking anything even remotely attractive in either its sound or lyrics.  How was it possible that the man who had such a great ear for so many memorable songs in his early 90s heyday was now reduced to repeatedly chanting "ba-ba-bababa-ba-ba, ba-babababa-ba" as the LEAD SINGLE from a new album?  Needless to say, his days of consistent hitmaking were nearly at their end.

#10.  Bobbie Sue--Oak Ridge Boys (1982)......Another country act that had two pretty distinct "chapters" was the Oak Ridge Boys, who had a mainstream late 70s country sound in their first few years and had their fair share of quality material.  Their career record, "Elvira", came in 1981, and although it was silly, I'd have been happy to let them get away with it if they returned to more mature material afterwards.  Instead, they doubled-down, releasing a significantly dumber and more annoying ripoff of "Elvira" called "Bobbie Sue" a year later, and were regretfully rewarded with another #1 hit.  The Oak Ridge Boys just got weird from there, releasing a litany of "can't-we-all-just-love-each-other"-style anthems of varying degrees of dorkiness throughout the rest of the 80s, but never did they match the level of insipidness of "Bobbie Sue", which is effectively an avatar of what a terrible country song sounds like in the minds of the genre's critics.

#9. Vacation--Thomas Rhett (2016)......When I was in high school, there was no other country singer I connected to more than Rhett Akins, a young guy with a debut album that seemed to directly cater to guys my age both lyrically and musically, with the most convincing hybrid I've come across of mainstream 90s country and late 80s hair band rock.  Rhett Akins had only modest success with the few albums he released in the mid-90s and nothing else he recorded matched the stunning accomplishments of that 1995 debut album.  However, Rhett Akins went on to be a prolific Nashville songwriter with dozens of hits for other artists on his resume....and his son has gone on to have the career that his father didn't.  After a shaky start a few years back, Thomas Rhett has gone on to become one of the biggest things going in country music today.  He shares his father's diverse musical tastes and inclination to experiment and push the country music boundaries, but for the most part he doesn't share his father's song quality.  Never was that more clear than last year when Rhett attempted to get away with a mindless pile of shit called "Vacation" that makes The Go-Gos 1982 namesake seem downright cerebral by comparison.  Even though Thomas Rhett has been unable to do anything wrong of late, country radio drew the line and kept "Vacation" from becoming a hit.  It takes a lot for country radio these days to say "that ain't country" to a song from one of its biggest hitmakers, but three and a half of minutes of incessantly repeating "hey...let's party like we're on vacation" with a decidedly non-country backbeat was apparently a bridge too far even for them.

#8.  Bumper of My SUV--Chely Wright (2004).......There were quite a few eye-rollingly dumb patriotic anthems to arise at the outset of the war in Iraq, some of them directly endorsing military action, but most of them I was able to dismiss as the ignorant musings of a jingoistic entertainer who was simply offering his own opinion, however worthless that might be.  But it was the cases where the chickenhawks started belittling those who don't share their opinion where I cried foul.  In the case of Chely Wright, she was inspired to write this song based on a lady in traffic giving her the finger, her assumption being that it was based on her U.S. Marines bumper sticker in honor of her brother.  Through the course of the song, the narrator demagogued the motives of the story's antagonist with lame strawmen and ad hominem attacks that reduced the narrator to the level of the woman flipping the bird.  And as other critics of the song have pointed out, it's ironic that the driver cluelessly pointed to the bumper sticker on her "SUV" in reference to a war that was fought over oil.  As was the case with so many of the country crooners responsible for the most egregious one-dimensional pro-war songs, Chely Wright was quite three-dimensional herself.  Sean Hannity embarrassed himself when he invited her on his show during the peak of the 2004 election campaign, assuming he had an ally but discovering that Wright was actually a liberal and did not support George W. Bush.  A few years later, she was the first major country artist to come out of the closet as gay.  Nonetheless, she definitely shamed her legacy by aligning herself with supporters of an indefensible war and using the most mindless arguments to attempt to discredit its critics.

#7. Honkytonk Badonkadonk--Trace Adkins (2006)........One of the best examples of a guilty pleasure in country music history is Mel McDaniel's 1985 hit "Baby's Got Her Blue Jeans On".  Despite its almost cartoonish chauvinism ogling over a woman's body, it was an undeniably catchy song that's hard not to crank up when it came on the radio.  But McDaniel's song seemed comparatively feminist next to its counterpart 20 years later, which begins and ends with a bunch of guys in a dance club ogling over the female form with the crudest and most comically infantile lyrical language.  As a straight heterosexual male, it was hard not to watch the even more offensive video of a bunch of faceless women shaking their "moneymakers" in front of the singer and other generic guys.  I don't consider myself a prude on these matters, but in the pantheon of objectifying women, this song and its accompanying video managed to insult my intelligence more than it was able to pacify my male instincts.  When country music starts going to strip clubs for its narrative inspiration, we have a problem.

#6.  I'm in Love With a Capital U--Joe Diffie (1995)......One prolific country singer of the 1990s I was never a huge fan of was Joe Diffie.  I just didn't like his voice that well.  His vocals took some of the power away from great songs like "Ships That Don't Come In", put an asterisk of diluted potential next to good songs like "John Deere Green" and "A Night to Remember", and made otherwise merely lackluster songs like "Pickup Man" and "Bigger than the Beatles" sound like grating dreck.  Diffie managed to find some genuinely God-awful songs like "Honkytonk Attitude", "C-O-U-N-T-R-Y", and "Poor Me" that further stains his legacy for me, and any one of them would have fit right in on this list of the worst songs least if he had never released "I'm in Love With a Capital U", a song from Diffie's catalog that stands in a league of its own on the spectrum of aural assault and lyrical larceny.  The song's celebration of an illiterate suitor's misspelled and grammatically challenged love letter to his girlfriend would be painful enough in the hands of a smooth-toned crooner, but Diffie's vocals make it absolutely wretched.

#5.  Kiss This--Aaron Tippin (2000).......If there was one country singer of the 90s whose vocals annoyed me more than Joe Diffie, it was Aaron Tippin, the gruff and nasally toned South Carolina redneck who nonetheless dragged his hitmaking career out for more than 10 years.  Unlike Diffie though, Tippin's raw sound lent an air of blue-collar authenticity to some of his better songs like "I Got It Honest" and the bluesy "Without Your Love".  But few crooners in Nashville were capable of making an already terrible song sound more grating than Tippin, which he proved on numerous occasions, but never more so than "Kiss This".  Tippin seriously turned a story about a couple getting into a fight and the wife telling the husband to kiss her ass into a three-minute song.  And it was a #1 hit!  It becomes easier to understand why Donald Trump was elected President when you look at some of the public's questionable choices that led up to that moment!

#4.  1994--Jason Aldean (2013)......This song starts with a great ode to 1994, the best year in country music history.  How can one possibly go wrong with a song that pays tribute to that great year?  It's easy to tell in the first five seconds that this is a painfully bad redneck rap song disguised as country, immediately betraying the legacy of the year the song waxes nostalgic towards with a sound not at all reflective of the music of the time.  And then the song proceeds to pay tribute primarily to one of the mid-90s least impressive artists....Joe Diffie....going so far as to not-so-subtly include the titles of a dozen or so of Diffie's songs in the lyrics and then rap out Diffie's name specifically as what qualifies as a "chorus" for the song.  It has to be heard to be believed.....for anyone with a high enough threshold for pain to endure four minutes of this monstrosity.  In general, Jason Alden is not my kind of country music, but most of his music is at least listenable.  With "1994", he managed to find a song so bad that country radio couldn't catapult it into the top-10 the way it has every other song he's released since 2008.

#3.  Friend Zone--Danielle Bradbery (2015)......I've only watched a few random hours of "The Voice" over the years but I do know that in the show's most highly rated season, mid-teen country cutie Danielle Bradbery was the winner.  Bradbery oozed a special kind of innocence and wholesomeness that almost certainly contributed to her win and defined her brand.  She released two singles from a rushed album right after her "Voice" victory that were semi-hits and stayed in her lane.  But when Bradbery returned a year or so later for her sophomore effort, somebody in her orbit opted for a wholesale departure.  The final product of that effort was the toxic waste dump that passed for a "country" song "Friend Zone", a soul-draining hip-hopped mess where the country cutie gets superficially sassy and brassy in describing to a male friend how he needs to step up his game.  Even worse than the crime against mankind that was the song was the video.  Presumably Bradbery had just turned 18 when the video was produced, and spent half the video shaking her ass into the camera at extremely close range, in the accompaniment of a bunch of skanky, tattoo-covered barely legal female friends behaving just as inappropriately.  It's hard to think of another scenario where an artist and her handlers so badly misjudged their audience.  It was way too early to turn Bradbery's image into a slutty sex kitten in the minds of the "Voice" viewers who voted for her yearning for a sweet, innocent girl singing virtuous songs.  There was plenty of time for her to morph into a "naughty girl" in the years ahead, but after jumping the gun in doing so, they probably ruined her career. 

#2. Planet Texas--Kenny Rogers (1989)......When Kenny Rogers went country in the late 70s, he came out of the starting gate with several classic songs that gave him considerable leverage to proceed the directions he wanted to creatively from there.  He dominated country's early 80s "urban cowboy" era with the pop-sweetened love songs produced by Lionel Richie, and then really ventured in some strange directions in the second half of the 80s.  He went full-on Bruce Springsteen rock with "The Pride is Back", a patriotic anthem co-opted in an ad campaign for Plymouth cars.  But in 1989, he released the most surreal song in country music history with "Planet Texas", which plays more like a children's tale set to music describing an alien invasion of cowboy boots-wearing spacemen who descended upon a dusty West Texas town.  The video was even more surreal, with 80s-era graphics depicting Kenny riding in outer space on horseback over the rings of Saturn, and later with his cowboy hat covered in ice after riding past Pluto.  It's impossible to imagine who could have thought this was a good idea for a commercial country song, but clearly somebody did as it was the debut single from a new album and a pretty healthy budget appears to have been spent on that hilariously bad video.  I usually give some bonus points for songs outside the box, but when they're outside the solar system, I tend to think the Nashville writers should probably have snorted a little less cocaine in the studio while musing over song ideas.

#1. Have You Forgotten?--Darryl Worley (2003)......I've cited in some of the previous write-ups how most of the singer-songwriters of country's most jingoistic anthems are more three-dimensional than you'd think in their political views.  Even Toby Keith has described himself as a conservative Democrat and has been fairly active in the Oklahoma Democratic Party over the years.  But one guy who is every bit as much of a cartoon character as his lyrics indicate is Darryl Worley, writer of the country song that more than any other song in American history is responsible for us getting involved in a war.  Like "Bumper of My SUV", "Have You Forgotten's" poison stems from its sneering judgments, strawmen, and non-sequitirs aimed at critics of the war rather than merely stating "one man's opinion".  Worley insists that the song was written about US military involvement in the war in Afghanistan rather than Iraq, and that may be true, but if so it makes matters worse because the song was hastily recorded, rapidly rushed to radio stations, and timed for an album release just as the war in Iraq began in the spring of 2003.  That certainly made the interpretation of the lyrics transferable to waging war against Saddam Hussein to avenge 9/11.  For the longest time, a majority of the public bought into the never-spoken-but-always-implied association between Hussein and the attacks on 9/11.  Even more than the Bush administration, the chart success of "Have You Forgotten?" cemented that false narrative.  "Have You Forgotten?" was a garbage song all-around, but given that it was intractably linked to the advancement of the biggest foreign policy blunder in our nation's history, it stands alone at the bottom of the sewer as country music's all-time worst song.

Oh I suppose I could have done a "bottom-25 list" here.  As I was compiling the list, I just remembered Jerrod Niemann's 2014 howler "Donkey", which Niemann himself admitted may have been the worst song ever, but the very fact that it's performer concedes that the song is that bad oddly takes it out of contention.  So I think I'll let the list stand by itself.  Unlike my top-300 list which there aren't that many songs from the past several years, you may notice that this list is pretty heavily weighted towards the last several years.  Unfortunately, the trajectory of country music today suggests that my list is likely to be obsolete in a year or two.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Revising My Top-300 Country Song List of All-Time

Ten years ago on Super Bowl weekend, I put together a list of my 150 favorite country songs of all-time, ranking them chronologically from #1 to #150.  That was a fun exercise and I figured a decade later it was worth a revisit and an expansion.  This year I originally did a list of 250 of my favorite country songs singled out, but since I found myself with so many more songs I'd classify as "great" that I expanded it to 300 songs in my second edit.  I also arranged the list differently.  I'll go through cycles where one song really hits me and I find it to be the best thing ever recorded, while other songs I loved at their peak can burn out for me and lose their magic.  With that in mind, I didn't want to do a pecking-order list this time, so instead decided upon a chronological listing of the songs that comprise my top-300 list, going from oldest to newest.  Here's the list, with some additional commentary at the end....
Sixteen Tons--Tennessee Ernie Ford (1955)
Walk the Line--Johnny Cash (1956)
The Battle of New Orleans--Johnny Horton (1959)
Sink the Bismarck--Johnny Horton (1960)
Big Bad John--Jimmy Dean (1961)
I've Been Everywhere--Hank Snow (1962)
Ring of Fire--Johnny Cash (1963)
Six Days on the Road--Dave Dudley (1963)
King of the Road--Roger Miller (1965)
Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Loving on Your Mind--Loretta Lynn (1966)
Wichita Lineman--Glen Campbell (1968)
Mama Tried--Merle Haggard (1968)
A Boy Named Sue--Johnny Cash (1969)
Galveston--Glen Campbell (1969)
Snowbird--Anne Murray (1970)
Take Me Home, Country Roads--John Denver (1971)
Coat of Many Colors--Dolly Parton (1971)
Burgers and Fries--Charley Pride (1971)
The Man in Black--Johnny Cash (1971)
Billy Dee--Kris Kristofferson (1971)
Uneasy Rider--Charlie Daniels Band (1973)
The Most Beautiful Girl in the World--Charlie Rich (1973)
Danny's Song--Anne Murray (1973)
Jolene--Dolly Parton (1973)
If We Make it Through December--Merle Haggard (1973)
Smoky Mountain Memories--Mel Street (1975)
Convoy--C.W. McCall (1975)
One Piece at a Time--Johnny Cash (1976)
Lucille--Kenny Rogers (1977)
Rollin' with the Flow--Charlie Rich (1977)
Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue--Crystal Gayle (1977)
Luckenbach, Texas--Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson (1977)
Here You Come Again--Dolly Parton (1977)
There Ain't No Good Chain Gang--Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash (1978)
Sleeping Single in a Double Bed--Barbara Mandrell (1978)
Tulsa Time--Don Williams (1978)
The Gambler--Kenny Rogers (1978)
Why Have You Left the One You Left Me For?--Crystal Gayle (1978)
Back on My Mind Again--Ronnie Milsap (1979)
The Devil Went Down to Georgia--Charlie Daniels Band (1979)
Shadows in the Moonlight--Anne Murray (1979)
Sail Away--Oak Ridge Boys (1979)
Family Tradition--Hank Williams, Jr. (1979)
Missing You--Charley Pride (1979)
Broken Hearted Me--Anne Murray (1979)
Coward of the County--Kenny Rogers (1980)
Like We Never Said Goodbye--Crystal Gayle (1980)
He Stopped Loving Her Today--George Jones (1980)
Drivin' My Life Away--Eddie Rabbitt (1980)
The Legend of Wooley Swamp--Charlie Daniels Band (1980)
Good Old Boys Like Me--Don Williams (1980)
Do You Wanna Go to Heaven?--T.G. Sheppard (1980)
Tumbleweed--Sylvia (1980)
Smoky Mountain Rain--Ronnie Milsap (1981)
Who's Cheatin' Who?--Charly McClain (1981)
Tight Fittin' Jeans--Conway Twitty (1981)
Drifter--Sylvia (1981)
Angel of the Morning--Juice Newton (1981)
Louisiana Saturday Night--Mel McDaniel (1981)
Somebody's Knockin'--Terri Gibbs (1981)
Seven Year Ache--Rosanne Cash (1981)
I Loved 'Em Every One--T.G. Sheppard (1981)
Queen of Hearts--Juice Newton (1981)
Rainbow Stew--Merle Haggard (1981)
I Wouldn't Have Missed it for the World--Ronnie Milsap (1982)
Lord, I Hope This Day is Good--Don Williams (1982)
Blue Moon with a Heartache--Rosanne Cash (1982)
Nobody--Sylvia (1982)
16th Avenue--Lacy J. Dalton (1982)
Mountain of Love--Charley Pride (1982)
A Country Boy Can Survive--Hank Williams, Jr. (1982)
Kansas City Lights--Steve Wariner (1982)
Mistakes--Don Williams (1982)
Like Nothing Ever Happened--Sylvia (1983)
Inside--Ronnie Milsap (1983)
Amarillo by Morning--George Strait (1983)
Pancho and Lefty--Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard (1983)
He's a Heartache--Janie Frickie (1983)
Stranger in My House--Ronnie Milsap (1983)
Highway 40 Blues--Ricky Skaggs (1983)
The Ride--David Allan Coe (1983)
The Sound of Goodbye--Crystal Gayle (1984)
Still Losing You--Ronnie Milsap (1984)
God Bless the USA--Lee Greenwood (1984)
The City of New Orleans--Willie Nelson (1984)
Angel in Disguise--Earl Thomas Conley (1984)
Some Fools Never Learn--Steve Wariner (1985)
Old Hippie--Bellamy Brothers (1985)
Meet Me in Montana--Dan Seals and Marie Osmond (1985)
I Don't Know Why You Don't Want Me--Rosanne Cash (1985)
Don't Call it Love--Dolly Parton (1985)
The Highwaymen--Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Cash (1985)
Nobody Falls Like a Fool--Earl Thomas Conley (1985)
Back to the Heartbreak Kid--Restless Heart (1985)
Never be You--Rosanne Cash (1985)
Bop--Dan Seals (1986)
Guitar Town--Steve Earle (1986)
Hold On--Rosanne Cash (1986)
Everything That Glitters Is Not Gold--Dan Seals (1986)
In Love--Ronnie Milsap (1986)
You Can't Stop Love--SKO (1986)
80s Ladies--KT Oslin (1987)
Baby's Got a New Baby Now--SKO (1987)
The Weekend--Steve Wariner (1987)

The Pride is Back--Kenny Rogers and Nickie Ryder (1987)
In Another World--Gary Morris and Crystal Gayle (1987)
The Way We Make a Broken Heart--Rosanne Cash (1987)
A Sure Thing--Foster and Lloyd (1987)
Midnight Girl in a Sunset Town--Sweethearts of the Rodeo (1987)
One Step Forward--Desert Rose Band (1987)
Tennessee Flat Top Box--Rosanne Cash (1988)
Where Do the Nights Go?--Ronnie Milsap (1988)
I Wouldn’t be a Man-Don Williams (1988)
It's Such a Small World--Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash (1988)
If It Don’t Come Easy--Tanya Tucker (1988)
Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses--Kathy Mattea (1988)
I Told You So--Randy Travis (1988)
She's Crazy for Leaving--Rodney Crowell (1988)
The Bluest Eyes in Texas--Restless Heart (1988)
Runaway Train--Rosanne Cash (1988)
Don't Close Your Eyes--Keith Whitley (1988)
Addicted--Dan Seals (1988)
Song of the South--Alabama (1988)
Big Dreams in a Small Town--Restless Heart (1989)
Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)--Garth Brooks (1989)
Bayou Boys--Eddy Raven (1989)
My Arms Stay Open All Night--Tanya Tucker (1989)
She Don't Love Nobody--Desert Rose Band (1989)
Where've You Been?--Kathy Mattea (1989)
I'm Gonna be Somebody--Travis Tritt (1990)
Two Dozen Roses--Shenandoah (1990)
Little Things--Marty Stuart (1990)
Dumas Walker--Kentucky Headhunters (1990)
Hard Rock Bottom of Your Heart--Randy Travis (1990)
Bordertown--Dan Seals (1990)
Sticks and Stones--Tracy Lawrence (1991)
Unanswered Prayers--Garth Brooks (1991)
In a Different Light--Doug Stone (1991)
Hurt Me Bad in a Real Good Way--Patty Loveless (1991)
Tempted--Marty Stuart (1991)
Hooked on an Eight-Second Ride--Chris LeDoux (1991)
Fancy--Reba McEntire (1991)
Feed Jake--Pirates of the Mississippi (1991)
Straight Tequila Night--John Anderson (1991)
Neon Moon--Brooks and Dunn (1992)
The Thunder Rolls--Garth Brooks (1992)
Billy the Kid--Billy Dean (1992)
Cafe on the Corner--Sawyer Brown (1992)
Aces--Suzy Bogguss (1992)
Nowhere Bound--Diamond Rio (1992)
Maybe it was Memphis--Pam Tillis (1992)
Past the Point of Rescue--Hal Ketchum (1992)
I'm in a Hurry (And Don't Know Why)--Alabama (1992)
Boot Scootin’ Boogie--Brooks and Dunn (1992)
Seminole Wind--John Anderson (1992)
Letting Go--Suzy Bogguss (1992)
When She Cries--Restless Heart (1992)
He Would be Sixteen--Michelle Wright (1992)
Tell Me Why--Wynonna (1993)
When You Leave That Way You Can Never Go Back--Confederate Railroad (1993)
I’d Rather Miss You--Little Texas (1993)
Chattahoochee--Alan Jackson (1993)
Let Go--Brother Phelps (1993)
Every Little Thing--Carlene Carter (1993)
Nobody Wins--Radney Foster (1993)
The Hard Way--Mary Chapin Carpenter (1993)
Mama Knows the Highway--Hal Ketchum (1993)
Holdin' Heaven--Tracy Byrd (1993)
On the Road--Lee Roy Parnell (1993)
What's it to You?--Clay Walker (1993)
Reckless--Alabama (1993)
My Baby Loves Me--Martina McBride (1993)
Someplace Far Away--Hal Ketchum (1993)
Wild One--Faith Hill (1994)
I Just Wanted You to Know--Mark Chesnutt (1994)
He Thinks He'll Keep Her--Mary Chapin Carpenter (1994)
Hey Cinderella--Suzy Bogguss (1994)
Live Until I Die--Clay Walker (1994)
Oh What a Crying Shame--The Mavericks (1994)
Words by Heart--Billy Ray Cyrus (1994)
Holding My Own--Lee Roy Parnell (1994)
Unbreakable Heart--Carlene Carter (1994)
Little Rock--Collin Raye (1994)
I Wish I Didn't Know Now--Toby Keith (1994)
How Can I Help You Say Goodbye?--Patty Loveless (1994)
I Take My Chances--Mary Chapin Carpenter (1994)
Daddy Never was the Cadillac Kind--Confederate Railroad (1994)
Foolish Pride--Travis Tritt (1994)
Spilled Perfume--Pam Tillis (1994)
The Cheap Seats--Alabama (1994)
Independence Day--Martina McBride (1994)
I Sure Can Smell the Rain--BlackHawk (1994)
She Thinks His Name was John--Reba McEntire (1994)
Calling Baton Rouge--Garth Brooks (1994)
Has Anybody Seen Amy?--John and Audrey Wiggins (1994)
Now I Know--Lari White (1994)
What They're Talking About--Rhett Akins (1994)
Southbound--Sammy Kershaw (1994)
Lipstick Promises--George Ducas (1995)
That's How You Know When You're in Love--Lari White (1995)
House of Cards--Mary Chapin Carpenter (1995)
Cain’s Blood--4-Runner (1995)
My Heart Will Never Know--Clay Walker (1995)
If I Were You--Collin Raye (1995)
That's Just About Right--BlackHawk (1995)
And Still--Reba McEntire (1995)
My Girl Friday--Daron Norwood (1995)
Just My Luck--Kim Richey (1995)
She Can't Love You--Boy Howdy (1995)
In Between Dances--Pam Tillis (1995)
That Ain't My Truck--Rhett Akins (1995)
Dust on the Bottle--David Lee Murphy (1995)
If the World Had a Front Porch--Tracy Lawrence (1995)
Heaven Bound (I’m Ready)--Shenandoah (1995)
Heart Half Empty--Ty Herndon and Stephanie Bentley (1995)
No News--Lonestar (1996)
The River and the Highway--Pam Tillis (1996)
She Said Yes--Rhett Akins (1996)
Miracle Man--Smokin' Armadillos (1996)
Living in a Moment--Ty Herndon (1996)
Home Ain’t Where His Heart is Anymore--Shania Twain (1996)
When Cowboys Didn't Dance--Lonestar (1996)
One Way Ticket--LeAnn Rimes (1996)
King of the World--BlackHawk (1996)
Where Corn Don't Grow--Travis Tritt (1997)
Cold Outside--Big House (1997)
Dark Horse--Mila Mason (1997)
A Dozen Red Roses--Tammy Graham (1997)
Everywhere--Tim McGraw (1997)
The Fool--Lee Ann Womack (1997)
Thank God for Believers--Mark Chesnutt (1997)
One Solitary Tear--Sherrie Austin (1997)
Postmarked Birmingham--BlackHawk (1997)
Bye, Bye--Jo Dee Messina (1998)
Matches--Sammy Kershaw (1998)
Dream Walkin'--Toby Keith (1998)
Innocent Man--Sherrie Austin (1998)
Holes in the Floor of Heaven--Steve Wariner (1998)
Don't Laugh at Me--Mark Wills (1998)
Honkytonk America--Sammy Kershaw (1998)
How Do You Sleep at Night?--Wade Hayes (1998)
I'll Think of a Reason Later--Lee Ann Womack (1999)
Please Remember Me--Tim McGraw (1999)
Fool I’m a Woman--Sara Evans (1999)
Give My Heart to You--Billy Ray Cyrus (1999)
Your Own Little Corner of My Heart--BlackHawk (1999)
You Were Mine--Dixie Chicks (1999)
Something Like That--Tim McGraw (1999)
He Didn't Have to Be--Brad Paisley (1999)
Smoke Rings in the Dark--Gary Allan (1999)
Goodbye Earl--Dixie Chicks (2000)
I Hope You Dance--Lee Ann Womack (2000)
Feels Like Love--Vince Gill (2000)
The Little Girl--John Michael Montgomery (2000)
Just Another Day in Paradise--Phil Vassar (2000)
The Hunger--Steve Holy (2001)
Go Back--Chalee Tennison (2001)
Why They Call it Falling--Lee Ann Womack (2001)
Rose Bouquet--Phil Vassar (2001)
There You'll Be--Faith Hill (2001)
Only in America--Brooks and Dunn (2001)
Austin--Blake Shelton (2001) 
No Fear--Terri Clark (2001)
Real Life--Jeff Carson (2001)
Riding with Private Malone--David Ball (2002)
That's When I Love You--Phil Vassar (2002)
Ol' Red--Blake Shelton (2002)
The Impossible--Joe Nichols (2002)
Life Happened--Tammy Cochran (2002)
Waitin' on Joe--Steve Azar (2002)
When You Think of Me--Mark Wills (2003)
Brokenheartsville--Joe Nichols (2003)
Three Wooden Crosses--Randy Travis (2003)

One Last Time--Dusty Drake (2003)
What Was I Thinking--Dierks Bentley (2003)
Long Black Train--Josh Turner (2003)
On Your Way Home--Patty Loveless (2003)
Texas Plates--Kellie Coffey (2004)
Whiskey Lullaby--Brad Paisley and Allison Krauss (2004)
Me and Emily--Rachel Proctor (2004)
Trip Around the Sun--Jimmy Buffett and Martina McBride (2004)
My Better Half--Keith Urban (2005)
If Heaven--Andy Griggs (2005)
Don't Ask Me How I Know--Bobby Pinson (2005)
He Oughta Know That by Now--Lee Ann Womack (2005)
Kerosene--Miranda Lambert (2006)
What Hurts Most--Rascal Flatts (2006)
I Loved Her First--Heartland (2006)
I Keep Comin' Back--Josh Gracin (2007)
I Don't Want To--Ashley Monroe (2007)

Love Lives On--Mallary Hope (2008)
Man of the House--Chuck Wicks (2009)
Need You Now--Lady Antebellum (2009)
Till Summer Comes Around--Keith Urban (2009)
American Honey--Lady Antebellum (2010)
Raymond--Brett Eldredge (2010)
Guinevere--Eli Young Band (2010)
Turning Home--David Nail (2010)
From a Table Away--Sunny Sweeney (2011)
Back to December-Taylor Swift (2011)
Let it Rain--David Nail (2011)
I Don't Want This Night to End--Luke Bryan (2011)
Amen--Eden's Edge (2011)
The Sound of a Million Dreams--David Nail (2012)
Tornado--Little Big Town (2013)
Mama’s Broken Heart--Miranda Lambert (2013)
Blowin’ Smoke-Kacey Musgraves (2013)
Sunny and 75--Joe Nichols (2013)
Drunk on a Plane--Dierks Bentley (2014)
What We Ain’t Got-Jake Owen (2014)
Biscuits-Kacey Musgraves (2015)
Song for Another Time--Old Dominion (2016)

So what's on the list....

Original Songs Released As Singles That Charted--Some were big hits, others were flops.  But they all hit the charts.  And there are plenty of outstanding remakes of classics that deserve a separate list, but even though I prefer Lonestar's 2003 version of "Walking in Memphis" to any other version I've heard, it wasn't their song and shouldn't be held up as such.  There are exceptions to the rule though.  If an artist turned an otherwise low-profile song from another performer into their own hit, and managed to own the song in a way that virtually nobody knows the song wasn't theirs originally--such as Willie's "The City of New Orleans"--then I'll put them on the list.

Mid-90s Awesomeness Abounds--Most people are sentimentally partial to the music of their most formative years and I'm no exception.  But it's not just nostalgia in play here.  The first half of the 1990s was a truly stunning era in country music with an exciting wave of new artists making the charts bringing fresh sounds and a different style of lyrics to country music.  At the time, the old-timers grunted about country music's transformation into something they didn't recognize, but I think now most people have come to appreciate what a great and diverse period in country music it was before the pretty boys in cowboy hats singing "sensitive" love songs took over in the second half of the 90s and the creative momentum came to an abrupt halt.

Sad And Depressing--All too often, critics of country music wrinkle their noses at the format because "it's just too depressing".  There's very little in the way of songs of that caliber on the country music airwaves in the 2010s, but I wish there was!  I have the utmost respect for the country music that successfully takes me to an emotional ditch, either with straight up tear-in-my-beer depressing lyrics or story songs with emotionally charged lyrical and vocal flourishes.  My list is packed with these types of songs.

Songs That Are Unique in Sound or Lyric--I've always sought out songs that are a little outside the box and even push the envelope a little bit.  This can go too far as I'm not likely to go for the new wave of autotuned EDM rock, hip-hop, and beatboxing fused into modern country, but I loved how country embraced rock as a natural component of its sound with escalating frequency in the 1980s and 1990s, along with saxophones and synthesizers.  I love the traditional sound of country music, but so long as a good song kept one foot planted in that traditional sound, I'm more than happy to entertain and reward some experimentation. Likewise with the lyrics.  If the lyrics say something different or controversial and say it well, I'm more often than not a fan.

What's Not on the List.....

Really Old Stuff--I've long said that the golden era for country for me was 1975-1995, and I added up to see that 188 of these 300 songs come from that timespan.  There was plenty to like from the preceding generation of country, but not a ton to love.  I like to think I've given the original era of commercial country music a fair shake and, while there are certainly some diamonds to be found, the production values generally aren't high enough for me to be viscerally drawn to.  And a fair percentage of the music is just straight-up dreadful, even worse than the laughably shallow Thug Country era we're suffering through today.  But even among what was considered the best music of the era, I like Hank Williams and Patsy Cline, but the sound and the lyrics are just intangibly dated for me in a way that I can't qualify them among the ranks of my all-time favorites.  I'm sure if I was a generation older, I'd have a completely different viewpoint.

The New Stuff--There are a number of issues in play as to why this list has so few entries from songs from the 2010s.  The primary problem is that the music has gone downhill in a big way.  The lyrics are shallower, the artists are less distinguished, and the musical arrangements are far less sophisticated.  Last night I listened to a dozen or so songs from the early-to-mid-90s on this list that I hadn't heard for a while and that really provided a reinforcement to what comparative thin gruel you get listening to an hour's worth of today's country radio. Beyond that, I've always found it hard to judge contemporary songs with "the classics" and have always felt I need five years removal from a song's chart reign to appreciate its worthiness.  Even by that standard, I don't suspect we're looking at a future groundswell of songs from the 2010s saturating this list, but perhaps in time, more songs will hold up well enough to seem worthy of the greats of yore.

A Lot of Beloved Artists Got Short-Changed--When compiling a list of this nature, it's always amazing how quickly you get to the magic number and realize you're out of slots.  There are a number of singers like Tanya Tucker, Mark Chesnutt, and Waylon Jennings I've always held up as above-average crooners with above-average material, but in all three cases, only two of their songs qualified for this list.  If I added 100 songs to the list, all three would likely get more than one new entry each, but that's just the way the cookie crumbled.  Other very high profile artists had their share of good material over their long careers and will turn the sound up on the radio when they come on, but there was little from Alan Jackson or Vince Gill that I absolutely LOVED.  Some artists you just don't connect that closely with.  Ditto for the likes of George Strait, Kenny Chesney, and Carrie Underwood, superstars I've never fully connected with.  I don't dislike them per se, but even after combined decades worth of collective songs from the three of them, there's little that makes me jump out of my skin.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

It's Gonna Be a Long Eight Years!

Unfortunately, I didn't mistype.  Despite his terrible inaugural approval ratings, his dark and hostile inaugural address, the assurance of endless personal scandal, and a policy forecast suggesting America's 45th President plans to govern in direct contrast to his populist propaganda, I think we're stuck with him until January 20, 2025.  And I come to this conclusion not simply as an overcorrection for underestimating Trump in November.  After all, I was sounding alarm bells throughout the year that Trump was gonna be stronger than people thought given his message and the dynamics of the race.  I think Trump gets a second term because he's uniquely skilled at shoring up a larger slice of the tribal, culture war pie.

The consensus opinion is that Trump's inaugural speech yesterday was unlike anything we've seen in living memory, defying tradition by provoking rather than unifying a divided nation.  Trump recognizes it's futile to try to pacify his critics, and is coming right out of the gate by proclaiming solidarity with those--and only those--who bought into the Trump message at the outset.  This may portend nasty things for a permanently inflamed divisions in the country, but it's great politics because.....Trump knows those divisions will be inflamed anyway.  And given that his governing blueprint is likely to cause even more economic disruptions for his blue-collar base, Trump's highest political priority needs to be keeping the cultural divide at a permanently elevated posture so that his coalition is more distracted by their rage at "those people" than they are about their continued decline, a decline that will be accelerated if Trump and the GOP Congress steals their health care and cuts their Social Security and Medicare as now looks incredibly likely.

Republicans have long been masterful at maintaining the least natural demographics of their coalition by constantly provoking the culture war, but Trump has taken it to a whole different level and managed to bring in millions more downscale voters into the coalition by advancing an economic worldview that contrasts sharply with the laissez faire Republican consensus dating back to the Reagan years (and even before).  Most people in the media and even many of Trump's own downscale voters insist that he's merely on probation with this demographic and they'll abandon him if he doesn't deliver.  It seems unlikely for two key reasons.... 

First, Trump is a pathological liar....and no matter how good or bad economic and jobs numbers are three years from now, he will insist they've never been better, and his conservative media echo chamber will validate those claims and soften the edges of whatever unmistakable damage has been done in terms of, say, 20 million Americans having their health insurance taken away.  Second, Trump knows exactly how to talk to his voters, while the opposition party and especially its rank-and-file have absolutely no clue how to talk to Trump's voters.  Trump will continue to make provocative us-versus-them polemics like yesterday's inaugural speech throughout his entire term, and the left will always respond with snooty tone-deafness.  One of Trump's most brilliant rhetorical moments during the 2016 campaign was his proclamation that he "loves the poorly educated", setting up the emissaries of the "people's party" to loudly sneer at the expense of the "poorly educated".  Trump knows exactly what buttons to push and what strawman enemies to build and burn down.  He's not gonna get less good at this in the years ahead....and given their empty bench, it's very unlikely the Democrats are gonna get better at responding to it when he does.

And about that empty Democratic bench?  Where do they go from here?  Who is the face of the Democratic Party in 2020 after they've spent three of the last four election cycles watching all of their rising stars getting voted out en masse?  All the chatter among progressives is that if Democrats had run Bernie Sanders in 2016, he'd be President right now.  I'm not so sure.  Even if Sanders was able to do well enough with the white working class to win Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, he'd have been much easier to define as an unthinkable socialist among the cosmopolitan suburbanites in Colorado and Virginia, which are every bit as necessary to get to 270 electoral votes as the Rust Belt states.  North Carolina and Florida would likely have been completely off the table as battleground states if the Democrats had run Bernie.  That's all Monday morning quarterbacking, but especially now with Trump having so thoroughly claimed the mantle as the voice of the white working-class, it's hard to see much of an opening for a Democrat of Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren's pedigree to poach those voters back, at least without forfeiting moderate voters in the Democratic coalition.

So do the Democrats go with a cosmopolitan slickster of the Gavin Newsom fold, running primarily on a social justice platform and campaigning almost exclusively in big cities in hopes of hanging onto the volatile Obama coalition and winning over just a few more center-right upscale suburbanites embarrassed by Trump to thread an Electoral College needle?  We know how well that worked in 2016.....when Trump was completely untested and thus more vulnerable to defining as unacceptable.  Incumbent Presidents are hard to beat because even if voters don't really like them, they've proven themselves merely by having governed before.  Only if we're mired in a deep recession as we were in 1932, 1980, and 1992, do voters take seriously the idea of throwing out a sitting President in favor of an untested replacement.  And given the magnitude of the tribal fault lines in American politics today, I'm not even sure a huge recession would be enough for the majority coalition to abandon their candidate, particularly with as good as Trump is in defining any and all opposition as unacceptable.

Trump started his Presidency yesterday by throwing Molotov cocktails at his critics because he understands what they don't.  Success in American politics today has nothing to do with bringing a divided nation together, it has to do with cobbling together a bare plurality of voters by exacerbating the nation's divisions.  Trump will spend four years stoking that and the clueless left will respond in kind, continuing to be unaware of just how toxic cultural liberalism is in Middle America.  With that in mind, the biggest question will be what the tone of Trump's next inaugural speech on January 20, 2021, will be when he has no more campaigns to run.