Twang 'n' Roll: Eric Church and the New Rock Stars of Country Music

When did the "rock star" label start being applied chiefly to people who weren't actual rock stars? The term once referred to the men who commanded huge arena audiences around the world, flashing their monstrous power chords and flaunting their indulgent drum solos. But as rock music lost its cachet in the 21st century, that cultural image morphed into a punch line, a symbol for an antiquated musical style that's as passé as the tape decks that used to house its songs. Now when we call a person a rock star, we're describing anyone who's achieved global stardom—e.g., Pope Francis appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone—or someone who's behaved in public in such a dick-ish, entitled manner that he conjures up images of Led Zeppelin-esque debauchery.

Other musical genres have tried to appropriate the rock-star mantle for themselves, specifically rap, where artists such as Jay Z headline traditionally rock-centric festivals and name-check acts such as Nirvana in their songs. But the style most closely aligned to rock 'n' roll these days is actually country. This development has been underway for a while, but the arrival of Eric Church's new album, The Outsiders, leaves little doubt about the symbolic baton-passing.

The lazy assumptions about the two styles go like this: Rock is sex, drugs and rebellion, while country is niche hick music best appreciated by rednecks, right-wingers and tear-in-my-beer saps. Even worse, at the same time that rock channeled the zeitgeist—shaping the Summer of Love, reflecting the civil rights movement, giving voice to the baby-boomer generation, condemning the Vietnam War—country retreated into a vision of an idealized rural America that celebrated the "Okie from Muskogee."

Neither styles' assumed legacy is entirely accurate, however. Country rewrote its narrative about 25 years ago when Garth Brooks made major inroads on the pop charts, his Ropin' the Wind ending up as 1991's bestselling album. Since then, country has been a viable mainstream commodity, with acts like Dixie Chicks, Faith Hill, Shania Twain and Kenny Chesney becoming household names. (Although, as Dixie Chicks learned the hard way by speaking out against George W. Bush in the buildup to the Iraq War, some country music fans don't take kindly to progressive viewpoints, with several stations pulling the trio's songs from their playlist.)

Simultaneously, rock has crawled into a hole and hid, content to live off its illustrious past. (Small wonder that the rock artists who got the biggest reception at last month's Grammys were seventysomethings Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr.) There is still social protestcoming from rock artists such as Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam—and younger groups like Arcade Fire are trying to broaden the sound's stylistic range—but little of it feels urgent or inspired. And even Arcade Fire front man Win Butler seems embarrassed by his genre, singing on the band's most recent album, "Do you like rock 'n' roll music? Because I don't know if I do."

By comparison, Church absolutely loves rock 'n' roll. Though he's primarily a country act, rock is all over The Outsiders, his fourth studio album and the one that leans heaviest on his desire to be a Nashville rebel. And yet, he's insistent that he wants to be a rock star without the rock-star clichés. On "That's Damn Rock & Roll," he sneers at what he sees as rock 'n' roll celebrity excess: "It ain't a needle in a vein / It ain't backstage sex / It ain't lines of cocaine on a private jet." For him, true rock 'n' roll pays homage to the music's sense of adventure and individuality. "It's doin' what you want instead of doin' what you're told," he declares over gospel-tinged female backup singers and a wall of fiery guitars.

True, his idea of rock music is essentially a crowd-pleasing notion of taking on The Man. But in the face of the risk-averse approach of so many current rock groups (the bland synth-pop of Imagine Dragons, the predictable Southern-rock traditionalism of Kings of Leon), Church's unchecked swagger is cathartic, connecting to the liberating spirit that artists like the Rolling Stones once projected before their sound became so familiar.

Church pledges allegiance to rock royalty: He's played with Metallica, toured with Bob Seger and written a song for his last album, Chief, in honor of Bruce Springsteen. But at heart, he's still a good 'ol boy. Other country acts have targeted the mainstream by shedding their genre's styles—Taylor Swift might as well just be classified as a pop act now—but The Outsiders still feels proudly country, complete with the comforting clichés such as comparing girls to beer on "Cold One" and reminiscing about good times with your buddies on "Talladega." Although he resents the conformity of the Nashville music machine—the Outsiders track "Devil, Devil (Prelude: Princess of Darkness)" compares the country music industry to both the devil and an evil temptress—he's not about to challenge the genre's established lyrical tenets. As Church made clear to Playboy last year, "I hunt. I fish. I drink beer and watch football. I love NASCAR. I'm a guy's guy."

Happily, there are other country artists who have been willing to sneak a little social consciousness into their lyrics, pushing the music's agenda in the same way that Church has pushed its sound. For as much hell as Brad Paisley got in April for his collaboration with LL Cool J on "Accidental Racist," which imagined a conversation about racism between a black Starbucks employee and a white customer wearing a Confederate flag T-shirt, he has admirably used his mantle as one of country's most popular stars to expand the genre's mindset. This was most clearly felt on 2009's American Saturday Night, which saluted multiculturalism and Barack Obama's presidency, two things that (if cultural stereotypes are true) a large percentage of his audience might not have cheered.

Even more promising was the arrival last year of great albums by two young country artists. Kacey Musgraves (Same Trailer Different Park) and Ashley Monroe (Like a Rose) wrote about topics like bringing some S&M into a stale relationship (Monroe's "Weed Instead of Roses")—"Lately I've been dreaming / You in leather, me in lace / Let's put up the teddy bears / And get out the whips and chains"—and supporting same-sex couples (Musgraves's "Follow Your Arrow"). That both are in their mid-20s—and that Monroe is also part of the smart, feminist country trio Pistol Annies alongside established star Miranda Lambert—suggests that a new generation of country acts, while still playing the Nashville game of delivering concise, radio-ready tunes, aren't going to be hemmed in by old conventions.

Not all of these acts are aspiring to rock-star status yet, but their profiles are rising to a level where they're not just being seen on CMT or the Academy of Country Music Awards. Musgraves performed "Follow Your Arrow" at the Grammys, and though she was decked out in cowboy boots and surrounded by neon cacti—lame, outmoded "country" signifiers—the song's inclusive attitude suggested this wasn't business as usual. Encouraging her female audience to ignore others' judgmental opinions—"If you save yourself for marriage / You're a bore / If you don't save yourself for marriage / You're a horrible person"—she sings a chorus to all her fellow female free spirits out there. "Make lots of noise," she proclaims, "kiss lots of boys / Or kiss lots of girls / If that's something you're into."

Full of twang and pedal steel, "Follow Your Arrow" will provoke the gag reflex in urban sophisticates who have decided they can't possibly listen to country music because of the cultural baggage they've ascribed to its downhome sound. That's why "Follow Your Arrow" is so radical: In its no-big-deal way, this modest, touching song preaches individuality as potently as Church does. "Can't win for losing / You'll just disappoint 'em," Musgraves sings about the conformity of peer pressure, but then she adds, "Just 'cause you can't beat 'em / Don't mean you should join 'em."

However, like Musgraves, Church proves that by joining 'em, you can actually beat 'em. Almost like a Trojan horse, The Outsiders is so demonstrably chest-thumping country that it allows him to sneak all sorts of moody sonic experiments (the album-closing "The Joint") and arena-rock stompers like "Give Me Back My Hometown" inside a deceptively accessible package. And yet what's most rock-star about The Outsiders is its defiant grab for the brass ring—as well as Church's unyielding desire to make an album that slays you from beginning to end.

"[T]his is the kind of record critics imagine Kanye keeps making," Spin's Michael Robbins wrote about The Outsiders, "a freakish statement of confidence and power from an artist in full command of his gifts." That's what rock used to do: Whether it was Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A., U2's The Joshua Tree or Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, rock artists would dream up grandiose, blockbuster records that sought to alter the musical landscape, risking falling on their faces in the process. Not so much anymore: When Arcade Fire, one of the most daring current rock bands, tinkered with their sound on last year's Reflektor, it was mostly an introspective, intellectual experiment. The Outsiders has its missteps, but there's nothing academic about its ambitions: The album blatantly seeks world domination. Even on a quiet guitar ballad about aging like "A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young," the emotions seek to hit us right in the solar plexus.

Beyond social consciousness and a sense of danger, what rock music brought to the world was a mirror that reflected the excitement and chaos of its era. I grew up on rock music (along with rap and Top 40), and I've watched as similarly minded friends retreat into country as they've gotten older, perhaps because the music felt more "true" to their everyday experiences or because it echoed their growingly conservative perspective. I've resisted a lot of country in protest of its politics—I don't want to settle for its suburban, reactionary complacency—but the best of the recent stuff strikes me as far more open-minded, unpredictable and engaged than what a lot of contemporary rock has to offer. Acts like Church and Musgraves are following their arrow, and where it's leading could help enliven both country and rock—expanding the scope of the former while challenging the staidness of the latter. A little twang never hurt anything.


Tim Grierson is Playboy for iPhone's critic-at-large. His biography of Wilco, "Sunken Treasure," is available now on Amazon. Follow him on Twitter @timgrierson.

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Photo by Luis Santana/ Tampa Bay Times/ ZUMAPRESS.com