Tuesday, March 31, 2009

NYT's profile of country entertainer John Rich provides a great look at a passionate thinker

The New York Times has compiled an excellent profile of country music's John Rich, and how his passion and belief system has influenced the populist message in his songs.

And his latest song about "Shuttin' Detroit Down" provides a clear message to the bigwigs who have abused the working man and woman.

I'll provide an excerpt here, but go to The Times' website to read the complete profile. It is well worth the read:

There’s no screaming on the first great song of the bailout era. No audible rage. No tears. Instead, on “Shuttin’ Detroit Down,” the country star John Rich, singing evenly, sounds perfectly levelheaded, as if he’d thought through his position thoroughly and acquired the peace of the righteous:

I see all these big shots whining on my evening news

About how they’re losing billions and it’s up to me and you

To come running to

The rescue

“The song is not depressing,” Mr. Rich said last week, in an interview in the rooftop bar of a hotel in Gramercy Park. “The song is defiant.”

And for contemporary Nashville, shockingly topical. Mr. Rich, 35, conceived and wrote “Shuttin’ Detroit Down” in late January, in a fit of pique after watching news accounts of the $1.2 million office remodeling by John Thain, the Merrill Lynch chief executive. Within two weeks it had been recorded, mastered and released to country radio stations, as well as added to his new album “Son of a Preacher Man” (Warner Brothers Nashville), which had already been submitted to the label.

It reflects not only Mr. Rich’s songwriting gifts — he collaborated on the verses with the longtime country singer John Anderson — but also his acumen in gauging and channeling the mood of the country, aggressively striking a note of conservative populism rarely seen in any genre of pop since country music’s response to Sept. 11. (The video, which features Mickey Rourke and Kris Kristofferson, will be released shortly.)

But even though Mr. Rich’s subject matter is au courant, his tropes are familiar country tugs of war: urban versus rural, modern versus traditional, white collar versus blue. The most bracing moment on “Shuttin’ Detroit Down” comes not when Mr. Rich points a finger at those “living it up on Wall Street in that New York City town,” but when he reflects on the little guy: “Well that old man’s been working in that plant most all his life/ Now his pension plan’s been cut in half and he can’t afford to die,” his voice dropping a half-step on the last word to indicate where the real locus of tragedy resides.

Mr. Rich sees the song as being in the us-versus-them tradition of “Okie From Muskogee,” the 1969 semisatire of country life by Merle Haggard, with whom Mr. Rich recently crossed paths.

“He put his hand on my shoulder, and he looked me dead in the eye,” Mr. Rich recalled. “He said, ‘That new song you have out now, that reminds me a whole lot of “Okie.” As a songwriter, that is officially the highest compliment I’ve ever been paid.”

But in many ways “Detroit” has less to do with “Okie” and more to do with the left-wing protest music of that era. That it comes from the other side of the aisle seems a minor detail. “Shuttin’ Detroit Down” is skeptical of big business as well as big government — “D.C.’s bailing out them bankers as the farmers auction ground” — keeping a song that’s postpartisan, at least on the surface, consistent with right-wing thinking.

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