Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Tim McGraw and Friends (Academy of Country Music/CBS-TV, May 19, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The show was a special sponsored by the Academy of Country Music featuring Tim McGraw in an all-star presentation also including Faith Hill (Mrs. Tim McGraw to you), Taylor Swift (whom I’m liking better the more I hear of her — not coincidentally this show had been immediately preceded by a 60 Minutes segment run on her), Keith Urban, Jason Aldean, (at least I think that’s his name), Lady Antebellum, a band called Florida Georgia Line, rappers Nelly (and given the way he was dressed that wasn’t at all an inappropriate pseudonym!) and Pitbull (who I think is Latino, if only because he doesn’t look Black and his rap included a few bits of Spanish), Ne-Yo (a haunting-voiced Black singer — judging from his ethnicity and his stage name I’d assumed he’d be another rapper, but instead he sang, and while the timbre of his voice is a bit on the whiny side he sang quite well), someone identified only as Newell, and Brantley Gilbert (whose song, “Country Must Be Countrywide,” was actually one of the best things in the program, the only one that lyrically mentioned the country greats of yesteryear: Hank, Johnny, Willie and Waylon — do you really need their last names?). The finale featured John Fogerty leading the rest of the singers in a joint version of “Born on the Bayou,” and that was yet another example of a 1960’s veteran coming on with such power and authority he made the rest of the cast members seem like amateurs by comparison. The big problem with this show is that most of the music sounded pretty much alike — the so-called “country” sound of today is actually what in the 1970’s was called “Southern rock,” and McGraw and his (male) guests owed a lot more to Lynyrd Skynyrd than they did to Hank Williams or Johnny Cash — aside from a possible pedal steel guitar in Gilbert’s song, very low in the mix, there was no evidence of this once-paradigmatic country instrument, nor were there any violins, either bluegrass fiddles or the big string sections that backed the country-pop artists of the 1950’s like Eddy Arnold or Hank Snow. Instead the songs were all driven by power chords and basic rock rhythms; as Charles joked, “Lose the hats and they’re just another band.”

Not that the show was entirely unentertaining; the sight of all those hot, slender young men in skin-tight jeans had a certain aesthetic appeal (I remember buying at least one recent country CD at Auntie Helen’s thrift store simply because I thought the guy on the cover was hot!) and within the limits of the genre some of the songs were pretty good — though the editing of the show obviously assumed that anyone watching it would know who these people were and what songs they were singing already, so they didn’t trouble to identify them. Another problem with the show was the strong XY-centricity of the guest list: the only women on the program were Taylor Swift, Faith Hill and the female members of Lady Antebellum and The Band Perry — an oddly named group because they’re composed entirely of a family named Perry, with Kimberly Perry as their lead singer and her brothers Reid and Neil playing bass and drums, respectively. As things turned out, Kimberly Perry was by far the strongest singer on the program (next to John Fogerty, and one expects that kind of authority from him!); singing the Band Perry’s latest single, “Done” — a typical goodbye-and-good-riddance song addressed to a former relationship partner — she turned out to have a great voice, powerful, bitterly emotional, encompassing both the anger and the sympathy one would want from a breakup song. Taylor Swift sang exquisitely on the song “Half the Way Home,” which she recorded as a duet with McGraw and was performed that way last night (with Keith Urban supplying a quite good guitar solo), but she didn’t get a solo number. Lady Antebellum’s female singer, Hillary Scott, wasn’t showcased because they chose to perform a song, “Nothing but a Goodbye Town,” on which their male singer, Charles Kelley, sang lead (and he’s a good pop-country singer but their strongest records have been the ones that featured her).

As for Faith Hill, her husband did her no favors by introducing her as a combination of Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin and Brigitte Bardot, and while the all-in-one black leather suit she wore on stage emphasized her sexiness (for all the welcome beefcake on this show, Faith Hill’s was about the only segment of this show that would have made a straight guy cream!), her song choice was spectacularly ill-advised: “Piece of My Heart,” a piece with not only Joplin but also Franklin connections (the first record of it, in 1967, was made by Erma Franklin, Aretha’s sister). The result sucked: Faith Hill has a spectacular voice but this was not the kind of song she should have gone near; Janis Joplin’s voice may have been more ragged and less conventionally “beautiful,” but it not only gave this song its wrenching power but Joplin was even more technically secure on it: time and again Faith Hill had to rewrite the melody to duck the killer high notes Joplin nailed on her version. (Then again, if she were still alive Joplin would probably have to rewrite the song similarly, the way Stevie Nicks can no longer sing “Rhiannon” the way she wrote it originally because she doesn’t have those high notes anymore.) It wasn’t always easy to tell the various tall, skinny men in tight jeans apart from each other, particularly since they all had pretty similar voices and approaches to music, and aside from the songs by the Band Perry (why didn’t they just call themselves “The Perry Family” à la The Carter Family?) and Brantley Gilbert, there wasn’t anything on the program that would make me want to run out and buy their CD (of course today all the “running” you do to buy music is to wherever your computer is to order it online, now that the brick-and-mortar record store has gone the way of the brick-and-mortar bookstore!).