Tim McGraw, "Back When"

This is a big country, bigger even than France. Successful sellers of presidential candidates and pop music must be chameleonic target marketers. You've got to know where to talk gun control and where to go hunting, where to pay lip service to tolerance and where to propose work camps for sodomites, and how to shelter Group A from the messages intended for Group B and vice versa. Apparently mindful of these realities, country superstar Tim McGraw currently has two big singles on the radio: "Over and Over," a laid-back duet with St. Louis hip-hop star Nelly, and "Back When," a rousing expression of cultural conservatism that pines for the days before hip hop had infiltrated the mainstream. "Over and Over" is currently #3 on Billboard's Hot 100, while "Back When," written by Jeff Stevens, Stephony Smith, and former Tom Petty drummer Stan Lynch, is at #4 on Billboard's country singles chart.

The first verse of "Back When" is filled with typical C&W nostalgia for less complicated times, when folks sat around the table savoring "fried bologna sandwich[es] with mayo and tomato." (Sounds yucky.) The second verse fondly remembers vinyl records and unformatted radio stations that mixed country, soul, and rock 'n' roll, and finds McGraw "reading Street Slang for Dummies/'cause they put pop in my country." (This last line is an odd complaint for pop-savvy Faith Hill spouse McGraw to make, but whatever.) As on "Sweet Home Alabama," which gave props to Muscle Shoals soul, McGraw mentions soul music with sincere affection, perhaps to counter any hints of racism one might get from the rest of the lyrics.

The chorus goes: "Back when a hoe was a hoe/coke was a Coke/Crack's what you were doing when you were cracking jokes/Back when a screw was a screw/The wind was all that blew/And when you said, "I'm down with that," it meant you had the flu/I miss back when...." One shouldn't assume that these playful attacks on slang of African American origin and crack, a drug with obvious racial connotations, are meant to convey a deeper animus toward miscegenation any more than one should assume that McGraw, who on another tune from his recent album sings about drinking and smoking being two of his three favorite things, is really prudish enough to be offended by "screw" and "blow" in their vulgar usages (or practices, for that matter). Still, those who hate hip hop for reasons beyond the aesthetic might see an anthem in "Back When," even if the song's tone is more self-effacing than angry. McGraw after all is reading (the fictitious) Street Slang for Dummies, not burning it, and if he really took the words to heart, he wouldn't be making buddy records with Nelly. When "Sweet Home Alabama" was hitting the charts, did Lynyrd Skynyrd rush out an antidote single, maybe a gentle piano duet with Joan Baez called "The Many and Refined Pleasures of Life in Newport, Rhode Island"? (Answer: Yes, it's on disc four of the boxed set.) (No, just kidding.)

As a fan of genre-mixing and racial harmony, I'd rather prefer "Over and Over" than "Back When." But the Nelly-McGraw summit is more interesting on paper than on the radio. McGraw and Nelly murmur and croon about a lost love (doesn't sound like she's missing much) over a lazy beat and a note-bending guitar that suggests country while not surrendering to it. McGraw, a soulful singer when he wants to be, is underused, either to downplay his potentially off-putting semi-twang or to avoid showing up bush-league singer Nelly, who tries to sound all broken up and regretful but comes off tired instead. The country-rockin' "Back When," in contrast, is fired up. Here McGraw's singing is full-throated and funny, and his crack (sorry) band the Dancehall Doctors turn their Fenders up loud and make the steel sound sweet enough to get a few hip-hop fans reaching for Mainstream Country for Dummies.

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