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July 28, 2007

Country music has many shades of macho

Fittingly, Lost Highway sounds just like another Bon Jovi record, albeit with guest appearances from LeAnn Rimes and Big Kenny of Big & Rich, and some fun strutting from guitarist Richie Sambora, happily augmenting his patented vocoder with a bottleneck.

Brad Paisley wants you and his wife to know that his willingness to hold her handbag while she shops for post-pregnancy dresses at Bebe does not mean he won’t put it down later and go shoot a deer. “I don’t highlight my hair; I’ve still got a pair,” chuckles the country star in the oft-quoted “I’m Still a Guy” from his excellent new album, 5th Gear. But was there ever any doubt about that?

For this youngish architect of Nashvillean neo-traditionalism, the gender wars are just another setting for well-deployed one-liners and updated metaphors. Affable professionalism defines Paisley; with a calm drawl and the fleet, subtle fingers of an artisan, he appeals to fans whose dream of the good life involves not a ranch or farm but a Pottery Barn-furnished home and an SUV equipped with Yakima racks for hunting weekends.

Tim McGraw and Faith Hill are this new Eden’s Adam and Eve: a man’s man and a take-charge woman who respect each other without seriously questioning who wears the pants. But Paisley, who comes to Mohegan Sun on Friday, is its sharpest observer. He’s so beautifully ordinary — unable to overdo it on either swagger or sensitivity, he expresses the mild bemusement of the post-feminist regular guy who values his masculinity but feels silly trumpeting it.

The careful distance Paisley keeps from full-on machismo influences everything from his discreet guitar chops to his self-aware use of country corn. “Ticks” — an ode to canoodling in the woods that’s so droll it’s like Snoop Dogg without the smut — is only the beginning. Paisley tweaks such hackneyed subjects as teenage car lust and hot monogamy just enough to make them sparkle: The kid earns his keys selling chicken kebabs; the happy husband sips Chardonnay with the missus. Like the musical flourishes that refresh Paisley’s countrypolitan sound (enhanced by masters including Vince Gill and Little Jimmy Dickens), these twists prove that well-executed clichés always feel personal.

If Paisley is a New Man using management skills to modify conventions, Toby Keith is his opposite — a proud Neanderthal who would never hold a handbag, although he might swipe one in a pinch. Yet ease is also what makes Big Dog Daddy, Keith’s 11th album and first self-produced effort, so engaging. Paisley finds subtlety by standing back from machismo. On Big Dog Daddy, Keith touches the nuances within it.

Keith’s attitude recalls another high-profile blusterer: Tony Soprano. Like Tony, Keith’s characters expose the violence inherent in old-school masculinity; you really feel the push of his domination. But the drag in his warm, brutal voice communicates conflict. Clearly Keith knows that to live by wielding power is to know that others wield power over you.

Nowhere is this truer than in “High Maintenance Woman,” the first single from Big Dog Daddy, which Keith described in a recent interview as “about a guy stalking a woman.” That’s a scary undercurrent not clear in the novelty-toned lyric, about an apartment complex “fix-it-up boy” pining after a resident starlet.

Keith’s comment, does, however, illuminate the song’s most thrilling moment. At the end of the first verse, the starlet has entered her limousine and gone out dancing. “I’m goin’ downtown too, and take a . . . look around,” Keith growls. That pause before he finishes the phrase expresses both hopelessness — what chance does a sink-fixer really have with a tabloid baby, after all? — and the menace such despair produces. It’s creepy; it’s sexy. And it captures the crisis of the man’s man in a changing world.

Keith makes similar moves throughout Big Dog Daddy. In “Wouldn’t Wanna Be Ya,” the Big Dog meets his macha match and lives to almost appreciate her; “Get My Drink On” is a fatalistic party of darkness. Best of all is “White Rose,” a Fred Eaglesmith song in which a shuttered gas station becomes a metaphor for lost America — a subtle signal that Keith, famous enemy of the Dixie Chicks, grasps that the culture of Big Oil is decaying as quickly as the Marlboro Man stance he’s almost starting to question.

Keith must resent men who’ve adjusted more easily to feminism’s challenges — Jon Bon Jovi, for example, who’s used hair product since the Reagan era and still seems like one of the guys. Proudly regionalist, in love with pop formula, rabble-rousing but traditionalist at heart, Bon Jovi helped invent the template for sensitive-guy country-rock. With this week’s release of the Nashville-recorded Lost Highway, the band finally has a country album, nearly a decade after Keith Urban and Kenny Chesney copped all their moves to become superstars.

Fittingly, Lost Highway sounds just like another Bon Jovi record, albeit with guest appearances from LeAnn Rimes and Big Kenny of Big & Rich, and some fun strutting from guitarist Richie Sambora, happily augmenting his patented vocoder with a bottleneck.

There are songs about partying, loving and leaving; ripping hair-metal riffs and soaring harmonies; choruses about feeling like summertime. If the lyrics aren’t as ripe with detail as country can get, that’s because mainstream rock puts its trust not in puns but in uplift — its corn is more closely related to the chorus line than the comedy club.

Rock’s innate theatricality is partly why its heroes can be girly, too. It’s all about transformation — escaping your class position by livin’ on a prayer, becoming a cowboy in your tour-bus fantasies. Nashville has rejuvenated Bon Jovi, but to really go country it’ll have to focus more on life’s limitations — the trials and tough epiphanies that make a honky-tonk man.

At 51, country veteran John Anderson knows that journey. His latest album, Easy Money, is not a perfect effort, but it shows that a sad man armed with a good ballad can articulate ambiguities of manliness better than any gender theorist. Produced by Big Kenny partner John Rich, whose guidance is occasionally less than sensitive, Easy Money glows when Anderson does what he knows best: conveying the weariness and quiet confusion of a man who thought he had the world figured out, only to realize he doesn’t even understand himself.

On the best songs from Easy Money, Anderson sounds neither macho nor clever. He just sits there in the emotional mud, pained and brawny and trashed. He’s cramped by the habits of manhood but knows that breaking them will feel like breaking his own bones. There’s nothing wrong with holding a handbag, but such self-examination is a braver and wiser move.

Posted by riesambo at July 28, 2007 11:09 PM