Scotty is truly an original. He has an unusually deep voice and a stage presence that is warm and empathic. In an industry that is overly-commercialized and overly-sexualized, Scotty’s innocence and humility are a breath of fresh air. He has a penchant for country songs as they used to be — singing of everlasting love, compassion for one’s neighbor, love of one’s town or region, friendship or just the joy of every-day living.
The former grocery store clerk is as all-American as the songs he sings: he comes from the small town of Garner in North Carolina, loves baseball and his mom, and wears his Christian beliefs for all to notice in a manly, straightforward manner. For Scotty, God and country are not in a perpetual headlock: they are one and the same, oozing forth in harmony from his simple, decent and charming personality.
Scotty reminds us about what America — and country music — used to be. The more interesting question beyond the season finale, however, is whether he can channel this energy into his first record and help restore country music to the values he represents — and that the industry used to champion.
Since the 1990s, country music has degenerated into a cheaper version of itself. It is populated by wannabe pop stars who are choosing the path of least resistance to fame and fortune. Country music songs no longer celebrate the heartland, convey the raw emotions of relationships, or delve into the whys and hows of a broken heart in a compelling manner. Today, country music has become infested with liberalism — it is another form of hedonism to the tune of a poor beat and even worse lyrics.
The decline of country music began in the 1990s, mostly as a result of artists such as Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Toby Keith. Miss Twain was the leading country music star of her time and she also became a pop artist. Her early work captured the original beauty of country music with a new, ironic twist that especially appealed to young women, as featured in “Any Man of Mine.” Yet, her videos became means to showcase her bare midriff and gaze at her body. The more pristine values of country music were dwarfed into body-watching. Faith Hill took this even further, even appearing naked and rolling around in a sheet in the desert in one of her videos, “Breathe.” Whereas her lips conveyed “forever,” her body clearly said “right now.” And thus, country music became infected with narcissism. The images in videos were little different than those being broadcast on other music stations, stripping country music of its unique traditionalist flavor.
Toby Keith went even further and mixed both lyrics and images to accommodate the raging hedonism of the decade. He ditched the moving romanticism of his early recording career in such songs as “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” and “Wish I Didn’t Know Now” — and embraced the poetry of — um, the one-night stand. He spoke about only for tonight and not being Mr. Right but being Mr. Right Now — song appropriately titled “I’m Just Talkin’ About Tonight.” His videos showcased a bevy of babes, with him often donning the rap persona of the big daddy playboy. In addition, Mr. Keith and a host of other country artists began to glorify the Almighty Beer Bottle — one of Mr. Keith’s number one hits is in fact titled “I Love This Bar.” And country music truly hit rock bottom with Trace Adkins’ “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” an uplifting song about a woman’s buttocks, delivered with the subtlety of a rap artist.
Soon, there became very little difference between CMT and MTV. Thus, liberal values hijacked and killed country music, one of the few genres in which conservatism was celebrated. If pop music is characterized by sex, drugs and rock’ n roll, country music is now characterized by sex, beer and a tune so awful you can’t sing it even to distract yourself in agony in the dentist’s chair.
Then an all-girl band, the Dixie Chicks, took this hatred of conservatism and made it explicit. On stage in London in 2003 the lead singer declared their opposition to the Iraq war and that they were ashamed that the president — then George W. Bush — was from Texas, their home state. There was a public outcry, accusing the band of unpatriotic behaviour at a time of war.
Yet, country fans nonetheless rewarded the band with a smashing hit single when they gave their version of events three years later in the bitter song “Not Ready to Make Nice.” It stayed at the top of the charts for weeks and earned a Grammy Award.
And that’s just about when Carrie Underwood came along with a unique brand of Christian hypocrisy. She too was discovered on American Idol, began her career in country music and has now also branched into pop. Miss Underwood’s lame first hit single “Jesus, Take The Wheel” was a real let-me-nod-off-and-wake-me-when-it’s-over kind of song, but at least she had the courage to say the word Jesus in public and smile in a friendly manner at the same time. This love of Jesus apparently faded, however, by the time she recorded, “Last Name,” a song about a girl who can’t remember the last name of the man she slept with in Vegas on a drunken orgy, and can’t remember her own last name. This is another second-rate version of Toby Keith’s “Stays in Mexico” — different song, same themes (yawn). And most of us are thinking, yes and why don’t y’all not-so-country-music singers go sing there, Mexico or Vegas, so we can forget about you in the morning.
And that’s where Scotty McCreery comes in. His voice echoes the country music of another time. He may become just another man co-opted by an industry that specializes in destroying the youth — both its leaders and followers. Yet, for a moment, as we celebrate his current ascension we can hope that he will be a trendsetter — bringing country music to its former glory.
Scotty, here’s some advice: sing about love, passion, life and death. Sing about the one you will love forever, the one you will never love again, the one you will miss and the one you once kissed. But please don’t tell us it’s 5 o’clock somewhere and time for you to booze and have sex with a stranger.
Bring country music back to its better days when there were real cowboys of the heart and soul.
Dr. Grace Vuoto is the Executive Director of the Edmund Burke Institute for American Renewal.