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Kenny Chesney hasn’t forgotten: Nashville’s nostalgia for a 'pre-9/11 mentality'

Kenny Chesney in concert at Target Field.

Kenny Chesney in concert at Target Field. Star Tribune

On September 11, 2001, everything changed … for a young Texas classic rock fan named Rafael Edward Cruz.

“I grew up listening to classic rock, and I’ll tell you sort of an odd story,” Senator Cruz told CBS This Morning in March 2015. “My music tastes changed on 9/11. On 9/11, I didn’t like how rock music responded, and country music collectively, the way they responded, it resonated with me, and I have to say, it just is a gut-level — I had an emotional reaction that says, ‘these are my people.’”

Much as I'd like to imagine that Dick-Tracy-stool-pigeon-looking motherfucker being incensed by Fred Durst's appearance on “What's Going On,” Cruz is clearly pandering here, and clumsily at that. But he's also tapping into a received narrative about 21st century country music that many Americans, country fans or not, have accepted as conventional wisdom: While lefty rockers wondered feebly where all the protest songs had gone, Nashville rallied around the flag with a spirit that was bellicose, patriotic, and, above all, committed to the urgency of the present moment.

And yes, there were responses to 9/11 as open-hearted as Alan Jackson's “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning” and as empty-headed as Aaron Tippin's “Where the Stars and Stripes and the Eagle Fly.” And there were kitsch hits as downright flukey as David Ball's “Riding with Private Malone,” which was released before the attacks but later became more relevant to audiences: It's the story of a man who buys a '66 Corvette and believes its former owner, a Vietnam casualty, saves him from a car wreck.

Don't worry, we're getting to Toby Keith. His first hit after 9/11, let's #NeverForget, was a genially sexist romp that owed quite a bit to the rap stylings of the Spice Girls.

(And I hear a little Slick Rick in his "luh-verr.") 

But of course, Keith would soon release the song that commentators would use a metonym for Bush era country music, “The Angry American (Courtesy of the Red White and Blue),” and this would so thoroughly re-brand a star once known for comically assertive masculinity that it was hard not to hear his later 2002 hit “Who's Your Daddy” as his way of sexually one-upping the pencil-necked college boys out marching for peace and objecting to Toby's call for unilateral boot-ass adjacency.

And then more egregiously -- more egregiously even than Keith's “American Soldier” a wooden slab of a truck commercial so inert John Ashcroft should have sung it -- was Darryl Worley's cry of outrage in search of a strawman, “Have You Forgotten?,” a broadside against Osama-tolerating amnesiacs. No, Ted Cruz couldn't hear songs like this on classic rock radio (or any new songs at all -- that's why they call it “classic rock,” Ted), though its morning shows might have provided him with dose of cranky patriotism he seemed to crave.

And yet, in many ways, country radio playlists would soon look much as they had on September 10. There were big sentimental ballads and rowdy rockers as there had always been. But there was also a shift in sensibility perhaps more profound than the impact of a handful of patriotic novelty hits would suggest -- an effusion of manly nostalgia.

It was no longer the '90s, an era when country music went pop -- not just in the sense that it became massively more popular, but in that its hits embraced the contemporary moment and felt vibrantly present. This shift had already begun during the confused year of 2001, when two very different movie soundtracks battled it out for the number one country album slot: O Brother Where Art Thou, anchored by Ralph Stanley's “O Death,” and Coyote Ugly, which mated Leann Rimes' “Can't Fight the Moonlight” with uncountry-as-possible dance tracks like EMF's “Unbelievable” and “The Power” by Snap!

That December, as Alan Jackson was taking on his statesman-like role, Garth Brooks released Scarecrow. It went to number one because it was a Garth Brooks album, but it would be his last for thirteen years. Garth embodied what, in a much different context, was categorized dismissively as a “pre-9/11 mentality.” Garth's ‘90s hits had typically looked forward with anticipation – he sang with the excitable gulp of adolescence carried magically into adulthood through a force of will. Garth's credo could have been the same as his White House alter ego's: Don't stop thinkin' about tomorrow.

In the '90s, country was pop, and in country as elsewhere pop is “bad music for dumb girls that is bad and dumb” -- that's a direct quote from Travis Tritt. (OK, not really, but it could be, right?) Tummy-baring, PMS-fearing, Brad Pitt dissing, Def Leppard-riffing Shania not only generated imitators like SHeDAISY but inspired vets like Faith Hill to make pop moves. And then there were the Dixie Chicks who brought the energy of roots music to arenas without any of its fustiness.

And after 9/11, where the ladies at? As country radio developed a preoccupation with the trappings of traditional manhood, as on Tracy Byrd's “The Truth About Men” and Gary Allan's “Tough Little Boys,” female country hits sounded out of step with the times as Garth. On the cover of her 2002 Shania-come-lately feint toward the adult contemporary market, Cry, Faith Hill is greased down and Maxim-cover-ready. her look best described as “Britney... but for moms.” Twain herself would release Up! a blockbuster whose song titles were recklessly strewn with over-compensatory exclamation points. Like Garth, Shania would then withdraw, while Hill returned to the country fold in 2005 with Fireflies, her shockingly brunettishly hair suggesting a return to roots in more ways than one.

A history of 21st century Nashville in two album covers.

And the Dixie Chicks? Oh ... do we really have to? Considering what followed, it’s important to remember that at first, their 2002 album Home seemed potentially simpatico with 21st century country sensibilities. Nostalgia, which had ebbed in years prior, came rushing back in on Tim McGraw’s “Back When,” on Rascal Flatts’ “Mayberry,” on Mark Willis’s “19something.” And on the Dixie Chicks' “Long Time Gone.” A few years earlier, on “Wide Open Spaces,” Natalie Maines had celebrated a girl who sought “room to make big mistakes.” “Long Time Gone” is the sardonic sorting through of the consequences of youthful adventurousness as an adult.

Now nostalgia may be common currency in country music, but that broad category also reflects the particular sensibility of the times. You could bemoan the loss of your musical heritage, you could yearn for a supposedly lost sense of community or for rural simplicity, or you could just wish you were, as the first post-9/11 Kenny Chesney hit would put it, “Young.”

The Garth-shaped hole at the center of country music was too big for any one man to fill, but the early '00s were the Age of Chesney, when he perfected his pose as erstwhile party boy whose best days were behind him, for whom adulthood was a forced march of drab responsibility, shot through with pangs of regret, calling for self-medication with as many ocean views as he would take in and as much alcohol as he could ingest. A hitmaker for years, Chesney became a superstar in the new century, beginning with the album No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems in 2002 and When the Sun Goes Down two years later. Dissolving the era's controversies in a warm bath of jaunty yet weary evasive masculinity, Chesney was the figure through which a good share of post-9/11 white male trauma were ultimately refracted.

These songs didn't sound as dreary as their lyrics, taken as whole, on their own, might suggest. And Chesney's title tracks were mellow bacchanals. “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems” was a take-this-job-and … please don't downsize me while I take a week's PTO in Mexico, and on “When the Sun Goes Down” he genially bro'd down with the repulsive Uncle Kracker.

But if 21st century country music often seemed to be stumbling blissfully back from a lost weekend in Margaritaville wearing somebody else's Hawaiian shirt and carrying an open container, Chesney seemed many times to squint with a hangover and wince with a pop-top sliced heel. Instead of pumping you up for the weekend, his backward-glancing songs often feel like passages from some kind of Remembrance of Flings Past. On “A Lot of Things Different” he muses “People say they wouldn't change a thing, even if they could/ Oh but I would,” “I Go Back” mourns a lost friend, and “Keg in the Closet” pines for a lost moment of collegiate drunken innocence. Then there's “The Woman With You.” The titular character regrets entering the workforce but cherishes her opportunity to recapture her innate femininity in the lovin' arms of Kenny Chesney. It might just feel a little more convincing, and less retrograde, if some she – any she – was singing it instead.

Not all of Chesney’s biggest hits from this period end with the proposition that adulthood is a drunken trudge through regret toward death. In fact, two of his biggest hits from this period start with the proposition that adulthood is a drunken trudge through regret toward death. On “The Good Stuff,” Kenny stomps out to get smashed after his first tiff with his sweetie, and is advised by a wise bartender, over glasses of milk, to return home. And “There Goes My Life” starts with an unplanned teen pregnancy and a downtrodden fellow digging his heels in all the way to the altar, muttering “there goes my life.” It ends with that same guy years later, watching his daughter speed away to college, and the title takes on a different meaning.

In these two songs, Chesney reluctantly reconciles himself to adult responsibility, much like those citizens feeling themselves forced to war by a terrorist attack. As history intruded into American life, escapism and nostalgia were obvious routes for those who weren't ready to enlist in the war effort. But for Chesney, nostalgia is personal, individual, isolated. There is no lost community to return to or idealize. Youth is the only value worth mourning, and fun is inherently a youthful quality. In 2002, with the world outside closing in and the postwar promise of widespread prosperity welched on, it's as though the future is all downhill for the white middle-class-and-under American man.

So it’s no surprise that when country again recommitted itself to imagining a future, the superstar leading the charge was female, young as hell, and pop as fuck. Even as No Shoes No Shirt No Problems was topping the charts, a brilliant middle-schooler was getting set to pack her carpetbag up in Wyomissing, PA. Her first hit would treat Faith Hill’s ball-and-chain as a memory as distant as Haggard and Cash. While sweetly condemning a former boyfriend to a life of sad Chesney-esque memories of what might have been, her delivery insisted that she was cheerfully girding herself to take on the world, and tomorrow.

This article was adapted from a recent presentation at the 2017 Pop Conference at the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP) in Seattle.