Gwyneth Paltrow, Country Strong, and the Rise of the Country Carpetbagger
Gwyneth Paltrow, the star of Country Strong, isn’t the only outsider invading the opry. Bryan Curtis on how Darius Rucker, Kid Rock, and Jewel conquered country.
Lately, Gwyneth Paltrow has been behaving like a country-music star. It began in November when Paltrow slipped into a tiny dress and delivered a warbling performance at the CMA Awards. The next chapter comes Friday, in the movie Country Strong, in which Paltrow sings in front of a video screen filled with wild horses, swills booze at a roadhouse, and approvingly quotes Waylon Jennings. We could chalk it up to a mid-career crisis, except that Paltrow isn’t the only one wearing a new pair of boots and affecting a twang. These days, country music is filled with country carpetbaggers.
Darius Rucker, formerly of the rock band Hootie & The Blowfish, has recorded four No. 1 country hits. The rap/nu metal entrepreneur Kid Rock reinvented himself as a country star. Jewel has gone country, perhaps sensing her hardscrabble youth was wasted on folk rock. Jessica Simpson’s last stab at a career was at a country career. The Eagles, Jon Bon Jovi, and Robert Plant have all scored recent country hits. The nichiest of genres has become as welcoming as a Wal-Mart, especially for sagging artists in search of a payday. Country is now a refuge for the unwanted of the music industry.
Country is now a refuge for the unwanted of the music industry.
Country music has suffered regular invasions: by Jerry Lee Lewis after a scandal derailed his rock career; by crooners like Kenny Rogers; by the creature known as Shania Twain, whose music videos were like Robert Palmer’s crossed with a drag show. In 1994, Alan Jackson, a beloved singer and one of the genre’s self-appointed guardians, lamented “the whole world’s gone country.”
But the interesting thing about the new wave of country carpetbaggers is the ease with which they’ve crossed over. Take Kid Rock (please). Before he sang with Sheryl Crow, Rock drove a Pontiac Firebird in a music video. By the time he made “ All Summer Long,” his 2008 country hit, he had switched to a boat. In a gesture of Red State solidarity, Rock donned an Alabama basketball jersey for the CD single. Rock has internalized the patriotic dissonance that runs through country music, stocking his videos with both an American flag (in “ Born Free”) and a woman in a Confederate bikini (in “All Summer Long”).
Rock’s “All Summer Long” is worth pausing over, if only to admire its unwitting genius. It’s a plaintive song about yearning for simpler times—for lost summers, lost girlfriends, and so forth. In it, Rock greedily samples Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” another song about yearning for simpler times. What Rock created, then, is a twinge of nostalgia for a twinge of nostalgia. It perfectly taps modern country’s existential angst, its artists’ longing not just for ex-wives and old dogs but for the genre’s more authentic past. Country fans dug it. “All Summer Long” was the most popular song of Kid Rock’s career.
Darius Rucker’s insinuation into country provides another instructive blueprint. In 2005, as his lucrative run as the Hootie & the Blowfish frontman was winding down, Rucker filmed a Burger King commercial in a ridiculous cowboy suit. It was a spoof, an easy payday. Rucker didn’t realize he would soon be doing a version of the act on CMT.
A few years later, a Capitol Records executive suggested Rucker try switching to country. The native South Carolinian was thrilled and, according to The Washington Post, gave the label some Texas shuffles that would have made George Strait proud. No, no, the executive told Rucker. Your country music needs to sound more like Hootie music. So Rucker took his brand of eager-to-please rock and, with the help of producer Frank Rogers, gave it a new twang.
Gaze upon Cowboy Darius. In last year’s “ Come Back Song,” he walks through leafy, brick-covered Southern alleyways—wearing boots, of course. He sings of long lost love, pouring rain, burnt coffee, a mule. What’s remarkable about “Come Back Song” is that, musically-speaking, it could have worked as a bonus track on Hootie’s Cracked Rear View. It treats a typical country malady (inchoate pain over lost love) with such good cheer that you can hardly remember what the malady was. “Come Back Song” became a No. 1 country hit.
In “ Alright,” Rucker—again wearing boots, again prowling a Southern alleyway—dispenses entirely with country’s pangs. “Alright,” another No. 1 hit, is an ode to simple pleasures like shoes on one’s feet and a roof over one’s head. “I got all I need,” Rucker sings, cataloguing his blessings, “and it’s alright by me.” Rucker’s genius is he looked at modern country and saw the '90s.
What happened to country music? Well, first, you have to understand what happened to rock. Rock has been largely crowded out of Top 40 stations, replaced by hip-hop and rap. This leaves a gaggle of highly paid rockers with no place to hawk their music. They’re never going to take airtime away from Kanye West. But they might take it away from Keith Urban—especially if they are, say, Jon Bon Jovi, who recorded a No. 1 country hit with Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles and occupies Urban’s anthemic part of the music spectrum. Country is now seen as the genre that honors such a sound. Indeed, most country arrivistes insist they never left rock; it was rock that left them. As Jewel put it to The Los Angeles Times, “I don’t feel like I’ve changed, the formats have changed.”
If rockers were moving toward country, then country was also moving toward rock. The seminal event cited is usually the noisy late-1980s arrival of Garth Brooks, who mimicked rock’s grandiosity as he winged over the crowd at his stadium shows. “But go back and listen to Garth Brooks’ No Fences album,” says Kyle Coroneos, the excellent critic at the website Saving Country Music. “I don’t think that would be played on country radio these days. It’s too plain. It’s too country.” Indeed, genre-straddling acts like Taylor Swift, Sugarland, and Lady Antebellum have pulled country’s center of gravity further toward rock. “Once, Taylor Swift was the most non-country thing you could hear on country radio,” adds Coroneos. “Nowadays, she is the median.” It’s hardly a surprise that when Kid Rock enters the arena, nobody raises much of an objection.
There’s no such thing as a crossover act when the whole genre feels like a crossover act. Aaron Lewis of the alternative band Staind recently recorded a country song called “Country Boy,” and featured George Jones and Charlie Daniels on it. Gretchen Wilson’s single “Work Hard, Play Harder” sounded so much like the Black Crowes song “Jealous Again” that members of the group felt compelled to sue. (Wilson later settled out of court.) Country Strong seems to sense this tension. The movie draws a triangle between a hard-living country star (Paltrow), her nefarious husband-manager (Tim McGraw), and a vapid beauty queen who wanders into country stardom (Leighton Meester). After Paltrow’s songstress gives a climactic concert, she scowls at the newcomer and says, “That’s how it’s done, sweetheart.” But those of us who have heard the new country-rock blend—and watched Paltrow’s awkward pantomime—can hardly tell the difference.
Country is now less a style of music than a refuge from other styles of music. The country carpetbagger has become such a regular that Kyle Coroneos has indentified three steps to career reinvention. First, the newcomer announces that he or she has actually been listening to country music all along. (Rucker to National Public Radio: “When I was a kid, you could hear Stevie Wonder and Buck Owens on the same channel.”)
Second, the newcomer hires authentic ambassadors to perform alongside them. (Kid Rock enlisted Bob Seger; Rucker had Brad Paisley; Paltrow had Vince Gill.)
Finally, to erase any doubt, the carpetbagger produces an album that is chock-a-block with countrified imagery. Rainless summers (Paltrow). Pouring rain (Rucker). Raging rivers (Rock). Old dirt roads (Lewis). Blind dogs (Bon Jovi and Nettles). Patsy Cline (Rucker). Whiskey sipped from a bottle (Rock). Relationship solidified on a highway (Jewel). Long-lost loves (nearly all of them). How do you spot a country carpetbagger? Long after the country mainstay has given up grieving for his wife, his tractor, and his dog, the carpetbagger will still be shedding lucrative tears.
Bryan Curtis is a national correspondent at The Daily Beast. He was a columnist at Play: The New York Times Sports Magazine, Slate, and Texas Monthly, and has written for GQ, Outside, and New York. Write him at bryan.curtis at thedailybeast.com.