Grating Notes in a Populist Pitch
Sunday, November 20, 2005
It's easy to see how Montgomery Gentry might have supplanted Brooks & Dunn after that boot-scootin' twosome hit a career low point during the late '90s. Rife with chugging rhythms, chunky organ fills and sinewy, Skynyrd-meets-the-Beatles guitar runs, Montgomery Gentry trades in much the same sort of meaty, beaty country-rock as Brooks & Dunn do -- a brawny, hook-rich sound ideally suited to backyard barbecues and beer busts.
"Something to Be Proud Of," the Kentucky duo's new best-of collection (with one new track) further reveals Eddie Montgomery and Troy Gentry to be staunch blue-collar populists. The trouble is, the populism to which they subscribe is stuck in a 1950s they weren't around to see.
A good third of this collection consists of nostalgic laments for "all the good things," as the song "Gone" puts it, "that ain't never coming back." These touchstones range from fun ('59 Cadillacs) to fundamental (family farms). Ultimately, though, the good things in question hark back to when white males were unassailable, an era that predates, among other cultural advances, the women's and the civil rights movements.
Women fare the worst, whether this means being put on a pedestal or being put in their place. The latter is the case in "She Couldn't Change Me," and is only exacerbated by the smugness of the song's macho protagonist.
Similarly, whereas "Hillbilly Shoes" admonishes listeners not to judge the duo for their party-hearty, rural-identified way of life, the defensive tone with which they do so reveals no inclination to extend that empathy to those who might be misunderstood for some other reason. Much too often, the things that Montgomery Gentry stand for and are proud of are defined over and against something else, instead of alongside or in communion with it.
When, for example, they pine for the return of the "Haggard generation," there's little mistaking that they're talking about those who relate to the love-it-or-leave jingoism of "The Fightin' Side of Me" and not to the Merle Haggard whose current album speaks out against the war in Iraq. "It ain't nobody's business/What kind of flag I fly/'Cause that's my right," they declare, presumably alluding to the Confederate flag, in 2001's "Carrying On." Thank heavens the track got left off this collection.
In contrast to the sometimes right-leaning Brooks & Dunn, whose songwriting has gained in depth and resonance since Montgomery Gentry emerged to contend for their title as country music's reigning duo, there's little substance to the challengers' knee-jerk populism. Montgomery Gentry and their army of producers make great-sounding records. Bereft, however, of the sort of self-examination that would take them beyond the insulated, nostalgic world that they inhabit with such vigor, too much of what's here rings hollow.