Country stars detouring from straight and narrow

by Alison Bonaguro
Special to The Chicago Tribune , July 23. 2006


When Randy Travis starts singing about hookers, you know something's wrong.

    Travis, a traditional-minded country artist who has won hundreds of awards for his wholesome tunes that teeter on the edge of gospel, is usually the consummate good boy of country radio. So when his "Three Wooden Crosses" started climbing the charts in 2002, it made some fans question the direction country music was headed.

    "Who wants to sing along to a song about a prostitute," says Carol Stream fan Mia Tirabasso. Travis' song is about a farmer, a preacher, a hooker and a teacher who get in an accident. The preacher ultimately gives his blood-stained bible to the hooker, whose son grows up to be a preacher himself. A solid country storyline, but it does make you ask yourself, what would Tipper do?

    Twenty years ago, Tipper Gore was so enraged at the lyrics on Prince's "Purple Rain" album that she took matters into her own hands. She formed the Parents' Music Resource Center and in 1990 forced the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to start identifying albums with explicit lyrics. And so the Parental Advisory Explicit Content label was born. Mitch Bainwol, CEO of the RIAA, says the label is a tool to help parents make the choice about whether their children should be able to listen to a certain recording.

Unwanted dialogue

    "Music can be a tremendous tool in fostering dialogue and understanding across generations," says Bainwol. That's exactly the dialogue Gore didn't want to foster. Who wants to talk to their kids about masturbating in a hotel lobby (after hearing Prince's "Darling Nikki") or performing oral sex at gunpoint (as the story goes in Judas Priest's "Eat Me Alive")? In her 1987 book "Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society," Gore says "Rock music has shown perhaps the least willingness to exercise self-restraint."

    But what about country music? Has it followed in those no-holds-barred footsteps? In a genre laden with Christians and conservatives, the songs have started to push the boundaries of good taste. There's now a lyrical candor you just don't expect from music with a heritage of moral well-being. "For a while in country music there was this generic wholesomeness," says Chris Willman, author of "Rednecks & Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music." "But sin is back in again, and you can get whiplash listening to country radio these days."

    Nationally syndicated country radio host Lon Helton says country music has lyric-intensive songs with adult themes. "Life has to have slapped you around a bit before you can understand country music," Helton said.

    But adult themes and swear words on country albums are not enough to warrant the Parental Advisory label. (The recent Hank Williams III album "Straight to Hell" is the only country album widely available that carries the label. It's on the Bruc Records label, which is Curb spelled backwards. The real Curb Records has issued an amended version, with songs like "Dick in Dixie" absent from the track listing.) Country's always been known to throw in milder obscenities. The hard part now is determining whether or not to warn people about a song's overall content.

    Sometimes, a song may just touch on a questionable act. Sugarland's debut single "Baby Girl" has a line that says "remember what your knees are for." You can assume that what they are for is praying, and what you should not use them for is oral sex. The reference is vague, but once you hear it, it's undeniable.

    Radio stations seem to have open minds about songs like this, even stations in the more conservative southern states like Georgia. They play the songs knowing they aren't 100 percent family-friendly. "Sugarland's 'Down in Mississippi' includes the words 'all you're gonna see is asses and elbows' in the chorus of the song," said Cadillac Jack, on-air talent from Atlanta's Kicks 105 FM. "And I count at least four other songs in the top 20 right now that include questionable lyrics."

    Occasionally, an entire song will be sexual. Trace Adkins' "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk" is about admiring a woman's backside. "We hate to see her go but love to watch her leave," sings Adkins. And then there's Joe Nichol's "Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off." The moral of the story is that drinking tequila decreases your inhibitions to a point where you start stripping off clothes. Depending on who's listening, it could be a funny reference to a girl's night out or a potentially dangerous date-rape scenario.

    While drinking alcohol is a mainstay of country songs, the stories don't always have happy endings. Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss joined forces on "Whiskey Lullaby" which dramatizes the part alcohol plays in a couple's double suicide. But according to Helton, that's what's so compelling about country music. "Have you ever heard a better lyric than 'She put that bottle to her head and pulled the trigger'" he said. Jack Daniels is to blame when Gretchen Wilson gets in trouble in her hit "All Jacked Up." She ends the song with "Don't drive your truck when you're all Jacked up," after she backs into a light pole.

    But those are just the light-hearted hits. The abundance of country songs about death makes you wonder if there's a shortage of Prozac in Nashville. Blaine Larsen made his radio debut in 2005 with a song called "How Do You Get That Lonely?" The gist of this one questions how a teenager becomes suicidal. Before that, Martina McBride had a song called "Concrete Angel." McBride's always been known for bringing women's issues to life with her music. This song goes a step beyond, into the one subject nobody wants to talk about: child abuse. In the video, the victim ends up in heaven with other children who've been killed at the hands of their parents. The topic is important, but it's hard to find entertainment in a song that makes you wonder what kind of world we're living in.

    And no controversy would be complete without the Dixie Chicks. In 2000, "Goodbye Earl" hit the radio and video channels. In it, a battered wife kills her ex-husband. And not without cause. The lessons learned are that restraining orders rarely work and sometimes self-respect requires breaking the law.

    While Toby Keith's songs may seem whimsical on the surface, he seems to have cornered the market on inappropriate videos. His most recent video for his single "A Little Too Late" shows his ex-girlfriend tied to a chair in the basement. He proceeds to build a brick wall to trap her down there. He is, essentially, burying her alive. And in his "As Good As I Once Was," he takes a Viagra-like pill in order to carry out his duties in a threesome with twins he's just met. According to Willman, songs like this one are much different from the adult-themed songs in the 70's. "Back then, songwriters dealt artfully with moral consequences," he said. "Today's sinfulness is without consequence."

    But what exactly makes a song like Adkins' "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk" acceptable, but a song like Eminem's hit "Shake That" completely unacceptable? They're both about the watching a girl's behind while she dances. Both take place in a nightclub. And both have a catchy groove. The difference is where the lyrics lead. Adkins' never get any worse than "Lord have mercy/How'd she even get them britches on." Whereas Eminem's go from bad to worse, using the most objectionable words as verbs, adjectives and nouns. And his storyline doesn't end with just the booty admiration. He sings that he's "looking for a girl I can (expletive) in my Hummer truck." That's why his work gets the black and white label and Adkins' does not.

A reflection of life

    While country music is taking a fresh detour from the straight and narrow, the trend is not entirely new.

    Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard have all felt the sting of censorship during their careers.

    The difference now is that the artists singing about topics from racy to wrong are not merely outlaws with cult notoriety.

    These are the big stars. And when you expect mainstream country from an artist but you get profanity instead, it's hard to call that progress.

    But some industry experts feel that today's music just reflects life.

    "At its essence, what country does best is make you laugh, cry, hurt and feel good," said Helton. "And if country's getting looser it's because artists are just singing about what's happening around them. That's the hallmark of country music."