My audience won’t like this. They’d prefer something like “Dirty Laundry,” Don Henley’s response to newscasters who reported on his peccadilloes. But that’s a forty-year-old song. And although they play it on oldies stations, most people don’t even watch the evening news, if they watch the news at all.
Not that I liked the country of yore.
Maybe if you grew up in the south, you could be a rocker who loved country. But not in the north, we hated that twangy sound. Except for a few irresistible numbers, like Charlie Rich’s “The Most Beautiful Girl.” It’s hard to explain AM radio to neophytes. The fact that we were beholden to one band in our cars, with stations that faded in and out, is unfathomable. But as a result, turning the dial, and there was always a dial, we were exposed to certain numbers that crossed lines, and although there are so many I hated, there are a few country songs I liked.
But if you were a rocker from the south and you grew up with this country music, which bears little resemblance to today’s country music, you might have been influenced by it. We’ll start with Gram Parsons. But let’s just say that the Eagles blew up the country rock sound. But there was no twang in their music. The only twang we were exposed to was the imitation that Mick Jagger employed in the Stones song “Far Away Eyes.”
But today everything is discombobulated. Country is the rock music of the seventies, that toured stadiums and sustained. Yes, if you make it in country you make it forever, make it in pop and you’re lucky if you can sell a ticket two years out. And whereas melody used to be king on the hit parade, today it’s all rhythm. As for what people are singing about… To a great degree it’s platitudes. The belief is that the more general you make it the more people can relate to it. But this is patently untrue. The more personal you make it the more people can relate to it. If you’re an artist remember this. Dig in, not out.
Not that the lyrics in Nashville can’t be bland. Not that they can’t be family-oriented and therefore intolerable. It’s funny how these rabble-rousing artists can sing about babies, the family and Jesus, yet ignore their children, get divorced and not live a life anywhere close to Jesus’s teachings. To many of them Jesus is a cover-up. If you invoke his name, you get a pass. Which is kind of ridiculous if you think about it. Kinda just like religion. Yes, here’s where I alienate even more of my readers. Go to your house of worship, be a member of the group, but don’t tell me there’s a guy in the sky who sees everything, controls it, and built the Earth only a couple of thousand years ago. Because it all makes about as much sense as QAnon, which many people believe in too. They need a crutch, something to orient their lives around, because without it they have to come up with their own principles, weigh the choices and figure out what is right. And sure, you’ll make mistakes, but that’s the nature of life, if you’re not making mistakes you’re not risking enough.
So, now more than ever, America is based around giving people what they want. You can’t stray from doctrine. You’ve got a tribal base and to change is anathema. It’s so hard to build an audience that you don’t want to risk depleting it. Therefore, we hear the same ideas over and over. No one wants to push the envelope, risk pissing off not only their fans, but the public at large. The greatest fear is being canceled. Maybe we need to cancel more people, then cancellation would mean less. Kind of like interracial people. Credit MTV with exposing America to people who were not solely white or black. Kids are less racist than ever before. But their parents? They believe they’ve got something to lose.
For your edification, I proffer two articles.
The first is by Jennifer Rubin, in “The Washington Post”:
“The GOP is no longer a party. It’s a movement to impose White Christian nationalism.”: https://wapo.st/3kn21WB
The Democrats can’t run on the truth, they’re afraid of alienating some voter who is probably always going to vote Republican anyway.
The second is by Ross Douthat, in “The New York Times”:
“What Does the Right Do When Big Business Turns Against Republicans”: https://nyti.ms/3y12J3K
Read these two pieces, but you won’t. You’ll tar the writer with the publication. You can only trust that which agrees with your viewpoint. But if you read these articles you’d be much more informed, you’d question some of your precepts, have a view into the future.
Which is exactly why you should listen to Morgan Wallen’s “Don’t Think Jesus.”
Morgan Wallen is the biggest star in the States. Assuming we’re only including the hit artists of today, it’s well known that the classic rockers of yesteryear had and still have the most impact, but none of them has had a hit in decades, at least not without the help of youngsters.
Morgan Wallen has got an accent. Let’s be clear, the coastal elites judge those with southern accents negatively. They need to be rehabbed on this. It’s kinda like judging people by the color of their skin. But Ron DeSantis now says we can’t investigate race, sexual choice, almost anything that characterizes people, and this is not only a move backward, it impedes understanding and progress. We’re all in it together in these United States, whatever you think, we’ve got to find some way to get along, to keep the peace.
Yes, to northerners Morgan Wallen appears a rube. Even with the semi-mullet. It’s like he grew up in a modern day version of “Mayberry R.F.D.” where they might have had network, but certainly not cable, never mind HBO.
But I’ve got to tell you something. All of these options, cable TV, high speed internet, streaming television, have been available in every state for years, decades! The old concept of flyover country is history. Everybody’s got all the information. What they do with it…
And Wallen didn’t graduate from college. Which immediately strikes him from the rolls of reasonable people according to those in the Northeast. That’s their number one badge of honor, where they went to college. It’s an endless pecking order. You can go to Harvard and drop out to start a business, but if you don’t go at all, or don’t graduate, these elites won’t take you seriously. Ever.
But you don’t learn how to be an artist by going to school. Period. It’s something you’re born with. It’s something you develop. It’s about observing the world and laying down your truth. Which is why these songs written by scores of people don’t resonate. Because the truth is excised, the rough edges are shorn off, or shocking elements are thrown in just to titillate and cause controversy. Pure artists are rare. But it’s funny that more than one is in country. Not only Morgan Wallen, but Eric Church.
So, Morgan Wallen has a hit. And then he puts out a double album which goes to the top of the charts and stays there.
Sure, he ends up screwing up in his personal life, but those attacking him have no idea what it’s like to be suddenly famous, with all eyes upon you. You’re no one, and then you’re someone, you get opportunities you dreamed of, everybody wants to know your thoughts and there’s a whole business based on tearing you down, because you’re successful and they’re not.
So what did Morgan Wallen do?
He wrote a slew of country songs with melodies, chord changes, traditional song structure, and it all resonated with the public.
You can’t fake a hit. Anybody who says you can make a stiff record a hit has no experience. At some point the public has to resonate, they have to buy it or stream it, and if they don’t radio drops it, because radio is a business and it can’t have tune-outs.
People liked Morgan Wallen’s “Dangerous.” They liked it more than the work of anybody else with a hit, from the Weeknd to Bruno Mars to…it’s endless. Morgan Wallen dropped his album and had staying power. And rather than investigate this, all the northerners, all the non-country fans, just deride Wallen. Wallen is the future, not the past. But never underestimate the ability of those in the business to focus on the past. The future is too scary. It’s unknown. Better to just repeat what you’ve got. Get someone from TikTok. One hit wonders. Real artists think for themselves and are not moldable and are trouble. That’s what happened in the sixties and seventies, the executives lost control, but Tommy Mottola and his minions wrested it back, and got rich via overpriced CDs, and since then the majordomo has been king, not the artist. And this is just sad.
So Morgan Wallen gets caught using the n-word and is canceled. I’m not saying he shouldn’t have paid a price, but in today’s world you can never get out of jail. You can’t do something stupid and recover. Everything is on your permanent record.
They excluded him from awards shows, when to feature him and shed light on the truth would have been a better approach. But once again, if you’re canceled…
So long after a year since its release “Dangerous” is still Top Ten, and now Morgan Wallen has released a new track, “Don’t Think Jesus.”
“Boy gets a guitar and starts writing songs About whiskey and women and getting too stoned He got all three at the first show he played Hometown said, “I don’t think Jesus done it that way”
Boy moves to city lives fast and goes hard Starts chasing the devil through honky-tonk bars
Ignoring the voices in his head that say, ‘I don’t think Jesus done it this way'”
This is Morgan’s story. Exactly. He’s laying it out, he’s owning it.
And it’s slow, nearly dreary, like a country song of yore, that focused on the message as much as the sound.
“If I was Him, I’d say, ‘To hell with you, ain’t no helping you’
‘Find someone else to give Heaven to, I’m telling you’
I’d shame me, I’d blame me
I’d make me pay for my mistakes
But I don’t think Jesus does it that way”
Funny, this is the all-forgiving Jesus, not the one in the evangelical churches whose pastors say the election was stolen from Trump. This is about forgiveness…another great Don Henley song.
“Boy’s all alone, got no one to turn to
He figures he’ll pray, ’cause what else could he do?
He said, ‘I wish You would’ve woke me up an easier way’
But I don’t think Jesus does it that way”
Regret. If you ain’t got none, you’re lying to yourself. The self-esteem movement is crap. You’re good enough, you’re smart enough, you believe in yourself, you’re entitled to success. Nonsense. Success goes to those who hoover up experience, who go down blind alleys, who screw up and learn from their mistakes and adjust their path.
Note that this does not tend to be the coastal elites. They jumped through hoops. They went to the best schools to become financiers, professionals. There was very little independent thinking involved. They were scared of getting off-track. And they have contempt for anybody who did, especially if they have success.
“World likes to rear back and throw a few stones So boy wants to throw a few stones of his own But lord knows I ain’t perfect, and it ain’t my place And I don’t think Jesus done it that way Are y’all sure that Jesus done it that way?”
Don’t bite back, don’t get in a Twitter war. All those movie stars doubling-down, denying sexual harassment… Ditto those in the government. It’s your fault, not theirs, they should pay no price and soldier on. And if you get caught in a lie, even if it’s on tape, just deny it, truth is irrelevant, it’s all about tribes.
But not in music.
Well, at least if it’s done right.
That’s why Neil Young is an icon nearly six decades later. He followed his muse not his audience. He didn’t remake “Harvest” ad infinitum.
And if this were the sixties, Bob Dylan would duet with Morgan Wallen instead of recutting his old material in some bogus elite vinyl dream of T-Bone Burnett. It’s not the medium, it’s the message!
So is “Don’t Think Jesus” a hit?
Well, what is a hit these days. Something that is played on the radio, what is streamed a lot, or something that lodges in people’s hearts?
“Don’t Think Jesus” is not a dance song, it’s not for partying. But you might hear it and end up singing “don’t think Jesus done it that way” over and over in your head.
In any event, if you’re a fan, you get the message. You remember Wallen sang this song.
Now Wallen didn’t write it. But Johnny Cash didn’t write all of his either.
Not that Wallen is Cash, but he’s not repeating the process, he’s breaking from the paradigm, this is not what country radio is looking for, and country radio still has undue influence.
It’s too long since we’ve had music that has made us think.
But I don’t want to overload on Wallen. I just use him as a point of information, a signpost, a way back to the garden. Just like when he sings about Jesus I see it as a metaphor, that there are moral principles we should all live by.
We have a top layer of society that is in our face and is constantly replaced again and again. Nothing lasts. And a lot of people keep trying to stay at the top, ultimately becoming a caricature of themselves.
And there’s a whole industry that thrives on this. Not only record companies, but publications, events. Get us who is big now, we can feature them and make bucks.
And everybody’s worried about their place in the landscape. Usually bitching they’re not heard, that they’re not remunerated.
Want to move further down the path on the board game of life?
Go smaller. Go inside. Forget publicity. Devote yourself to the long run. Do your best to get into people’s hearts more than their minds.
It doesn’t look like we’re ever gonna turn this ship around. The ship of politics and the ship of music. Those of us who’ve been around, lived through older eras, cannot fathom what is going on now. And change is rare, there’s just an endless repeat of what came before.
So you can lie in your bed, made of your past experiences, and denounce everything new, or you can investigate it, form your own opinion, separate the wheat from the chaff. You can be an individual as opposed to me-too.
And that’s what we’re looking for…individuals, unafraid of going down the road less taken, acting as surrogates for the rest of us, illuminating this life.
It’s a dangerous path. There are land mines everywhere.
But nothing is easy in this life. Nothing. Whether you were born rich or poor, we all get up every morning and face the day. And it’s a hell of a lot better if someone helps give us direction. Someone who has been there, and done that, who’s had up and downs, who looks at life from both sides now.
And in this case, it’s Morgan Wallen.