Wednesday, October 10th, 2012

Brad Paisley – Southern Comfort Zone

Ponderin’ think-pieces to come…


Edward Okulicz: This feels like the Don Henley to Brantley Gilbert’s Bon Jovi. I’ll cop to loving so much about how this song sounds that I’m willing to either tune out uncharitable interpretations, or insist that Paisley’s big-tent populism is as genuine as the radio-devouring, muscular chorus he’s written here. It’s obvious how cheap the “Not everybody…” formation is in light of the fact that not everybody from the South drives a truck either. It’s obvious that interpolating “Dixie” is going to come with a whole slew of baggage. But I forgive this, because I believe from these lyrics that Paisley has come to love his home (as stylised and caricatured as it is portrayed in the first verse) for having seen the world without loving the world any less, and that he might merely be attempting (futilely, of course) to liberate “Dixie” from its conflicted context and place it as a purely geographical paean. Ultimately, I’m most won over because the song he’s created is as rousing and anthemic — and universal — as the idea he’s pitching.

Anthony Easton: I think this song is important, especially with regards to new Nashville, but I am not sure that it is any good. 1) I think this is a direct response to recent work about the South by younger artists (Gilbert, Aldean). Paisley provides the context they have often lacked. 2) I wonder about the inclusion of “Dixie,” a song now undeniably charged with a racist frisson but written by a Northern composer who was surprised by the South’s embrace of his tune. Country music often flirts with racist signs, while seeming to think that they are post-racial. Paisley works this paradox out: “You know you want to play with the nature of the South,” he says, “so let’s work out exactly what Southern identity means.” 3) As a meta-work from an elder statesman, it’s more dignified than the “I can still party” vibe of Toby Keith or McGraw. 4) Still, is this pandering? Paisley has the track record; see his George Jones duet “Too Country” for the nadir. Can you meta-pander? It might be pandering, because he’s recorded songs harrowing in their depictions of the geography of economic failure (“A Man Don’t Need to Die,” “You’ll Never Leave Alive”). Even here, in a song glorying geography, the optimism seems false. So this is the paradox of Paisley: how he’s capable of making dumb, fun shit, shit that panders, and shit that out-Haggards Haggard. 4) But I think he knows this. He’s in the middle of being phased out, figuring out how to make that paradox work for him. And this is why the song works as a corrective. 5) With Romney losing (and perhaps the Southern Strategy as well), and the old ideas of the South being slowly reworked or replaced, conceptions of the South are in a major demographic shift. So what would a Southern identity without pandering look like? Can you imagine a country music equivalent to, for example, the flat affect and cultural irony found in the photographs of Eggleston? 6) Can all of the feedback over a children’s choir make an argument about the dissonance of a new South — and having “Dixie” overwhelm the platitudes of the song’s first few minutes — that is saying something about the bedrock of history always presenting itself, but it is kind of a sweet and soft way of reminding one of that history. 7) The song holds so much baggage, but much of that baggage is commercial. It is a song that is very, very current to Nashville; one of Paisley’s many talents is shrewdness. This is a genius example of that shrewdness, but as integral as the paratext is, that’s not what I’m reviewing. As a text it’s a 7 or 8. As a paratext, who knows? In criticizing others for refusing to see the implications of Southernhood they espouse, he would seem to be doing the opposite of pandering — but can you pander as a critique of pandering?

Jonathan Bogart: There isn’t much here I don’t identify with, from the sentimentality that conflates place and personality to the itch to get out. The gospel choir that isn’t really a gospel choir (that is, it’s not rooted in any particular tradition) but just a suburban church choir, the shined-to-a-reflective-polish stadium rock, the fact that I recognized Andy Griffith and Jeff Foxworthy and NASCAR and the Opry immediately. I’m not from the South, but I’m not not from the South: the Sun Belt is as elastic as the Bible Belt. The main difference between me and Paisley is, I’m not trying to sell anybody anything.

Alfred Soto: Liberalism and genre conventions at a crossroads, with a guitar solo that’s a cry of anguish. 

Patrick St. Michel: I went to a party the other day, and at some point in the afternoon one group of guests started talking about the American South.  They put on goofy accents and described the entire region as one sprawling episode of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.  None of it was shocking: geographic othering has intensified the past decade, dripping down into places one wishes it wouldn’t…like party conversations, TV shows and music.  Brad Paisley’s “Southern Comfort Zone” starts like so many “Southern and proud!” country songs before it: samples of Andy Griffith, Jeff Foxworthy and the Southern 500 open the song, and “Dixie” gets referenced and recited at various points throughout the song.  You think it’s heading towards “This Is Our Country” territory…but then Paisley starts singing and it turns into something achingly universal.  This is a song about venturing beyond what you know to grow without forgetting where you’re from, and of missing that place but knowing all these experiences are for the best despite the pain (“I know what’s it like to talk/but have nobody understand” hits especially close to home).  The chugging, bombastic music adds grandeur and melancholy to Paisley’s words, words that could easily be turned into talking points but are character details, making all the new discoveries our narrator encounters more revelatory.  Don’t get caught up on the sweet tea and preachers: this is a track about a feeling that most of us share.   

Josh Langhoff: OK, now he’s just toying with us. By “us” I mean “people who write about music online,” a demographic Paisley has long courted. (Dude, he wrote that one song about us!) Look, if I said I was from the South, a real Southerner would kill my mule and tattoo one of those Confederate skulls on my face, or at least laugh me out of her suburban McMansion, but I got every single one of Brad’s Southern signifiers no problem. (Well, except Martha White, but that’s just cuz Mama always bought the store brand flour.) If he was aiming for hardcore Southerners, he could’ve at least gone the Drive-By Truckers route and rattled off some engine block specs. This indie-riffed paean to broadmindedness, expensive European travel, foreigner-empathy and Wagnerian arrangements of “Dixie” has absolutely zero chance of convincing xenophobic Southern Whites to “go outside” their Southern comfort zone; that demographic barely exists. No, “Comfort Zone” beckons to materialistic, upwardly mobile, non-xenophobic Southerners; and it stands a decent shot at making us, Brad’s gentile followers, feel nifty about not being xenophobic Southerners. I like it a lot.

Mallory O’Donnell: On one hand, I have to admit to the success of this musical marriage : anthemic country and shitty sub-sub-U2 rock go great together. But tack that Soccer Chants : The Musical rendition of “Dixie” on the end and you’ve totally lost me. Luckily, I was already long gone many acres of reverb earlier, thanks to the lyrics, which trade in such extravagant degrees of hoary cliche that the only thing that could make it any worse would be a title involving a liquor pun.

Brad Shoup: Brad Paisley: the walkin’, pickin’ answer to the question what if “Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith had kept his shit together? Like an ingratiating curvewrecker, he wins the devotion of rock critics older than he while still trying out jokes to keep his classmates from pummeling him. His latest project is a giant Dixie diorama with maddeningly inspired details: the Billy Graham/Martha White chiasmus, an honest-to-Jeebus white Baptist choir, the mandolin gargle when he sings of Rome, the word “wheelhouse” — I love the word “wheelhouse”! It’s probably the Paisliest thing he’s ever attempted: a widescreen match cut that piles on the jive and aw-shucks while emphasizing the aching arena in his sound. Papers could be written about the repellence in his imagery and the assumptions to which he plays. Still, like Jim McAllister in Election, I sit at my desk wondering how he always gets away with it.

4 Responses to “Brad Paisley – Southern Comfort Zone”

  1. Mallory, Soccer Chants: The Musical is my new favorite thing.

  2. I would buy a CD called Soccer Chants: The Musical

  3. That would be the best thing ever, Anthony!

  4. I wish I could’ve seen the fusion of the songs two ideas the way many of you did, but to me it’s oil and water : an extremely narrow definition of a very particular kind of Southern culture which reads just like all of these sets of “truck, gun, church” lyrics do, attached to a no doubt very earnest attempt to posit himself as worldly and accepting, while still just a good old southern boy at heart.

    My problem with this is both that it’s cliche and that, well, Paisley’s a Northerner. So he could have played this game a lot more interestingly, with some thoughtful lyrics that reassess pride and place. Instead, he’s recycled a particular and extremely white set of reductive images about an area of the country that is far more diverse, while never letting you know that he’s an outsider too.

    And as someone actually born in the South, but not growing up there, but then living there in my adulthood, I would have enjoyed that a lot. I also would have enjoyed seeing the individualism and diversity of my fellow Southerners, transplanted and born, represented rather than the same 12% or whatever that Paisley’s singing of and to. Even just the “not everybody” bits indicating not everybody *in the South* would have been helpful.

    Oh and to echo the words of nearly every Southerner I’ve ever known, had I asked : fuck Billy Graham.