How Do You Like Me Now?

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: country star Toby Keith, early in 2002. The flag-themed guitar and FDNY hat were no accidents.)

Time to piece together some leftovers from my draft file. I started and never finished a couple of country-themed posts, so here goes.

On the drunken, violent, disorderly crowds at large country music shows:

It’s been widely reported how the subject matter of mainstream country music has changed in recent years. Where country was once highly personal and grounded in universal experience, a significant percentage of its most popular songs trade on a handful of the same tropes, repeated over and over. Songs of love and loss are outnumbered by party anthems drenched in moonlight and moonshine. Cornfields, bonfires, trucks with tailgates down, and everywhere people drinking, dancing, and hooking up without conscience or consequences.

It’s hard not to draw a line from these songs to the behavior of some of the people who like them. After all, since the invention of the movies a century ago, Americans have learned how to behave from various forms of pop culture—but most of us also recognize that the world in which we actually live has different rules from the world pop culture portrays.

The best discussion of these two interlinked subjects—the behavior of crowds and the transformation of mainstream music—comes from Saving Country Music, a site that is harshly critical of mainstream country. But even accounting for that editorial viewpoint, “From Checklist to Bro-Country: the Subversion of Country Music” is an excellent analysis of how the changes in country over the last several years have been accomplished, and how those changes fuel the mayhem visited upon many country shows: the abuse of alcohol, disrespect for women and for property, and outright violence.

Another excerpt from a country music post that fell apart, about an artist who’s capable of better, in a couple of different ways:

Toby Keith came right out of the chute in 1993 with a #1 single, “Should Have Been a Cowboy,” and hit the country Top 10 with his next six singles. His best stretch started in 2000 when “How Do You Like Me Now?” hit #1. Twelve of his next 13 singles would reach #1. One of those was “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue.” Subtitled “The Angry American,” it was written in the wake of the September 11 attacks, went to #1 in 2002, and stands as one of the most awful artifacts of that terrible time. It’s a flag-waving, chest-beating, patriotic anthem that basically says “mess with America and we’ll kill you for sport.” (Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks famously called it “ignorant.”) In the post-9/11 climate, such sentiments didn’t hurt Keith’s career one bit, as he continued to rack up #1 hits. Another patriotic record, “American Soldier,” was one of them, in 2003. Keith was one of the most notable celebrity supporters of the Iraq War when it began, although by 2004 he was claiming to be a John Kerry supporter.

“American Soldier” was the followup single to “I Love This Bar,” another #1 hit that Keith uses as the name for a chain of restaurants he owns—a chain that makes him one of the highest paid musicians in America year after year. And the drinking songs have continued apace: “Get Drunk and Be Somebody,” “Get My Drink On,” and beginning in 2011, six out of his seven chart singles were drinking songs of one sort or another. In 2013 and again in 2014, he appeared on stage visibly drunk, causing fans to ask for their money back.

We get trapped in what we allow ourselves to become. Toby Keith became a right-wing patriotic totem and had to remain one even after his personal politics changed. And now it’s as if he’s become the official performer of the over-served.

There is nothing about “How Do You Like Me Now?” that isn’t insanely great: the setup and the story; the video; and one of the best fist-in-the-air singalong choruses you’ll ever hear, any genre, any artist, any decade, capped off by a taunting little guitar lick that’s perfect. Even if you don’t like country, you’ll like this.

I couldn’t make you love me
But I always dreamed about
Livin’ in your radio
How do you like me now?

3 thoughts on “How Do You Like Me Now?

  1. JB,

    Remember this old joke? What happens when you play a country music record backwards? Answer: The singer sobers up. His truck is fixed, his dead dog comes back to life and his girlfriend moves back in.

    I’m bad at remembering jokes, but you get the general gist.

    Around the time I first heard that joke in the mid-1980s, I got into the business of country music. Prior to this, I had been a writer on Casey Kasem’s AT40, a writer/producer with Dick Clark, and all of the above for CBS Radio and other outlets. Sure, as a kid, I loved Marty Robbins’ “White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation” and Jimmy Deans’ “Big Bad John.” But I was a Rock, Pop & Soul guy.

    But when I got the chance to try and save a floundering country music program that was airing on the Mutual Broadcasting System, I couldn’t resist the challenge or the paycheck. The show really was pretty bad, but when I heard the program’s host, Lee Arnold, on New York City’s lone country outlet, WHN, I couldn’t believe how great he sounded live. So my goal and plan were simple. If I could get Lee to come across on the canned show as he did on his air shift, we’d have a hit. And for the next ten years, we did indeed.

    Between osmosis while working with Lee, and my own penchant for research and record collecting, I became very well versed in the genre. It didn’t hurt that at the time we were producing “On A Country Road,” veteran stalwarts such as Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and George Jones were sharing the upper reaches of the chart with neo-country acts like Randy Travis, the Desert Rose Band and the Judds, as well as fringe newcomers such as Lyle Lovett, k.d. lang and Steve Earle. On any given week, with a playlist of about 35 songs, I often agonized about the songs that I had to omit.

    There were so many great records from veteran artists and young up-and-comers and, while the occasional song sported less than mind-expanding lyrical content, nothing ever approximated the clichéd approach hinted at in the joke above.

    People in country music were so gracious, and even the biggest stars, like Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton were accessible. My decade producing that show –musically, professionally and communally—were as good or better as I have ever experienced. The only hint of clouds on the horizon was when Garth Brooks’ star started soaring. It was almost as if Nashville snapped out of a conditioned humility, one in which it was accepted that a record that sold 100,000 units was an unexpected, runaway smash. When Garth started going platinum, then double-platinum and beyond, the town and the business changed forever.

    Fade to today…

    When I hear the horseshit that populates country radio today, it’s as if that old clichéd joke is perpetuated over and over and over again. I was familiar with the term “Bro-Country” already, but had not heard of the “Country Checklist,” the attempt to cram every down home, redneck-celebratory reference possible in the lyrics of a song. I worked briefly this past year in an office where one of the employees frequently had the local country station tuned in. First of all, there was a total absence of female country artists in the playlist, and in the endless hours of males singing paeans to their superior country lifestyle, the men were virtually indistinguishable from one another.

    No one ever confused Waylon Jennings with Conway Twitty, Sonny James, Eddy Arnold, Charley Pride or anyone else that once dominated the scene. And none of the heritage artists mentioned here, or countless others, ever expounded so militantly on a lifestyle of redneck, rule-breaking behavior as perpetuated by the crop of male artists currently dominating the scene. Blake Shelton, notably got into a war-of-words dust-up with Ray Price on that topic shortly before the legend (that’s Price, not Shelton, under-40s!) died.

    It’s not just music anymore, it’s a lifestyle. And it’s perpetuated by our increasing youth culture, as well as country music’s need to crank out cookie-cutter product—records that sound like all the others. And no one in a record company’s executive suite cares if most of these interchangeable “Bro-Country” guys are extolling a narrow, redneck lifestyle.

    I saw some new young buck on the Today show a few weeks ago and he couldn’t stop talking about how exciting it was to be opening for a country music legend—Jason Aldean. Give me a break.

    Unlike the pop, rock and soul with which I grew up, I developed my appreciation for country music and its history well into my adulthood. I’m not nostalgic for a better era, just better music.

    So the old joke has finally become apropos. But extolling dubious behavior in song is really plumbing the depths. I guess the anthemic nature of these redneck paeans help make a venue full of redneck idiots feel superior for a few hours.

    As you suggested, JB, Toby Keith was a progenitor of this idiom (pun kind of intended). He tapped into something that sold, and his music effectively became his own brand of content marketing. As his lyrics veered into this lamentable, narrow turf, he helped define the “Country Checklist” genre, inspiring much of what dominates the Country Radio format today. In Keith’s case, a genuine musical talent will likely be obscured by a legacy that leans more toward accrued wealth than artistic achievement.

    Thank God Willie, Merle and Dolly are still with us, not to mention a great complement of young, alt-country acts that are steeped in a finer art of songwriting. Sadly, few of these veterans or hip new recruits graze the charts or the airwaves these days, but their music is worth seeking out.


    Scott Paton

  2. Coleen

    I agree wholeheartedly with the above post. But let me add one point (and trust me, I am not a expert nor a fan of country music)…

    Seems to me that today’s country artists are taking their cues not so much from country music of the past, but of rock music. When I listen to country these days, it seems more like they are taking their cues from rock guitarists than country guitarists. A little more scream and a lot less twang…

    I realize that these present-day country artists were probably influenced by rock and roll via the radio back in the day…but that still doesn’t make it right.

    Just a thought…and I always love coming to your website!

    Coleen Burnett

  3. Well-said, as usual, Jim – and what a fabulous response from Scott Paton! Some day in the mythical future I’ll write a tale or two about my days as OM of a Billboard 5-point-reporter country station in the 70’s – the overt payola, the phony country crony-ism (not sure how to spell that word…), the smarmy record promoters – back when there WERE female singers in the rotation, before the phony patriotism which really is jingoism, and when radio was still a local operation dependent on local personalities.

    Until I muster the courage and carve out the time, I’ll simply continue to thoroughly enjoy reading your marvelous posts.

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