In 2001, a hole yawned at the center of country music, a hole fans were curiously uneager to fill. Garth Brooks' career had imploded, and even the brightest up-and-coming men had the commanding presence of a husband in a TV diaper commercial. The male-charisma drought was so severe that certain desperate souls decided that Tim McGraw was something more than just Mr. Faith Hill.
Following Sept. 11, however, two contenders emerged. One was Toby Keith, who'd previously made a comfortable living with songs of fuzzily heroic macho nostalgia ("Should've Been a Cowboy") or lightly comic macho resentment (" I Wanna Talk About Me"). Now Keith felt called upon to right various wrongs, globally and locally, threatening to plant a boot in some terrorist ass and rhapsodizing about the good old days of lynching. At the same time, however, a Tennessee boy named Kenny Chesney, with a string of country hits already behind him, quietly sidled his way up to mainstream fame the old-fashioned way: with tear-jerkers.
Not just any tear-jerkers, though. With heartland masculinity up for grabs, Chesney chooses (or, less frequently, co-writes) not just celebrations of hearth and home, but tales of what you might call reluctant virtue. "The Good Stuff," his 2002 crossover breakthrough, follows a newlywed into a bar after his first marital spat, where a wise old man sings the praises of married life. The geezer's wife, it turns out, died of cancer, we all have a good cry, and our boy, jolted by this tale of loss, comes to his senses and makes up with his honey.
"There Goes My Life,"the first hit from Chesney's new album, When the Sun Goes Down, is even more shamelessly—and successfully—manipulative. The first time the chorus rolls around, the phrase "there goes my life" is the callow hero's lament over how an unwanted pregnancy has short-circuited his plans. When he pouts, "So much for ditching this town," you can practically taste the dust his boots petulantly scuff up. But the last time Chesney sings, "There goes my life," he's tearfully watching daddy's little girl jet off to college in her Honda "loaded down/ With Abercrombie clothes." Yes, both songs have made me cry at least once.
Notice the pattern: After toying with temptation, Chesney invariably chooses mild over wild. Domestic responsibility isn't just the right thing, it's safer, comfier, a retreat from and a cushion against public life. Chesney's strokes of sentiment, heartwarming a song at a time, sound selfish and cowardly taken as a whole. In " When I Think About Leavin'," a married man's daydreams of independence are doused by the tawdry reality of a divorced friend and "that little apartment across town that he's livin' in." The song teeters on the verge of suggesting that fear of the unknown, rather than love, is what keeps a marriage together, until its final, unconvincingly conciliatory verse steers the song back into conventional waters.
On "The Woman With You," an exhausted execu-wife resists her own temptation—a high-powered career. She comes home from the grocery store and collapses into her man's arms, cooing about how she can bask in her true feminine nature when he's around. The patronizing tone is slightly alleviated by the fact that Chesney's male characters are no less fearful of the cruel world of personal freedom. But his decision to assume a woman's voice to express "her" unease with professional life might be a twinge more excusable if the husband would at least volunteer to do the shopping occasionally. Instead, we get backlash dressed up as empathy and reactionary insularity masquerading as a celebration of family life.
Chesney is nothing if not backward-looking, which is what makes debates over whether he's really country—a burning question, apparently, for everyone except the several million folks who actually buy country CDs—even sillier than when they rose up around Brooks. True, Hank would'a never sung about his old college dorm or noticed the brand name on his daughter's clothes, and the songs in "I Go Back" that trigger Chesney's deepest memories—John Cougar's "Jack and Diane," Steve Miller 's "Keep on Rockin' Me Baby," Billy Joel's "Only the Good Die Young"—have little to do with any country music tradition.
But regardless of details, the nostalgic spirit of "I Go Back" marks Chesney as country in outlook if not always in sound, and his album as a whole pledges allegiance to the country credo that the past was easier, yet the past is lost. And the present's not much of a thrill. The excitement Chesney's married couples have to look forward to is summed up on the title track, which could have been titled "My Parents Went on Vacation, and All I Got Was This Lousy Novelty Hit." The tune rinky-dinks along to the synthesized "steel drum" sound that bar bands and tourists have agreed signifies "island getaway" and that makes me wonder if keyboards now come with a "Margaritaville" preset. Too bad Alan Jackson already snapped up Jimmy Buffett for a duet last year.
Chesney does love recalling his wild days (once him and his boys kept a "Keg in the Closet," he'll have you know) but mostly because times were simpler, not because they were crazier. And simplicity is all he desires—a return to the days when a man could work 40 hours a week and secure a high enough credit limit to spoil his daughter, spare his wife the toil of the workplace, and piss a few hundred away at some tourist trap. Brooks expected more—to hit the town every weekend, to enjoy thunderous passion at home, to maintain an almost adolescent sense of self-discovery—and a fair share of his fans likely felt the same. Chesney, however, deems the world too much of a mess to do anything but desperately embrace familial security and those once-basic middle-class expectations that have since become fantasies. This could be a sadder—and scarier—indicator of what Americans believe they've lost, and fear they may lose, than the pandering whoop of Toby Keith wrapped in the flag could ever be.