ot to downplay or disparage the vigilance exhibited by the likes of Sleater-Kinney and Le Tigre, but in the best female pop-country there’s an articulation of womanhood that’s more complex than you’ll find right now in any musical genre, and maybe any art form altogether (it certainly beats Desperate Housewives).
There’s desire bristling against convention, wanderlust running into responsibility, the cost-benefit analysis of everything life has to offer. An album like Shelly Fairchild’s Ride may offer plenty of purely musical satisfaction, mostly thanks to a few truly indelible hooks, but the vast quantity of the record’s value would be lost if you didn’t listen to the lyrics.
The fact that, as with much of pop-country, the songs reflect not the will and prejudice of one individual but rather the grouping together of various songwriters and their efforts with very specific ideas in mind about audience and message, consequently strengthens and deepens rather than dilutes the effect. It’s gotten to the point with modern-day C&W; aimed at both sexes (listen to the new Toby Keith, Kenny Chesney, and Dierks Bentley records for proof) that reflections have long since begun to irrevocably blur—are songwriters penning lyrics that accurately capture the experience of being male and female in rural-suburban America, or are they actually writing in real-time the new codes of masculinity and femininity themselves?
Fairchild’s album is slow to get out the gate mostly because it waits awhile before entering this discussion. “Kiss Me” and “Ready to Fall” are brassy and cocksure, but all momentum is sacrificed to an absence of direction, the former throbbing along in fits and starts, the latter mere sassiness for its own sake, the right attitude wrongfully divorced from context.
The far more affecting “Tiny Town” roundly treats the topics of roots and duty in the portrait of an archetypal Southern idyll, but it’s not until the next song that things get really loaded. Released last year, “You Don’t Lie Here Anymore” served as Fairchild’s coming-out party, ostensibly the aptest representation of her fledgling artistic persona. It’s a doozy too, bold and ballsy in all the best ways, an amped-up rewrite of Loretta Lynn’s lowdown-man-rebuking classics, different from the songs that preceded it on the album simply because Fairchild’s finally just telling you how it is rather than wasting her time trying to convince you.
So this is Shelly Fairchild, a tough-talkin’, no-shit-takin’ redneck woman cut from the same cloth as you-know-who. That’s probably what Nashville wants you to believe, at least at first (while this outspoken country-babe thing is still hot), but just like with Gretchen there’s more to it than that.
See, the rebellious redneck woman aesthetic is geared just as much (if not more) towards domestic daydreamers as it is the mud-flaps-and-four-wheelers set, and that former audience needs some succor once it snaps back to reality.
So rather than get messily entangled right away in the real, unpredictable rhythms of the heart, “I Want to Love You” offers temporary pablum (and peerless adult contemporary), a Nicholas Sparks-sketched version of romantic longing that soars in spite of its triteness. It’s the kind of wonderfully goopy ballad Gretchen Wilson lacked on her debut, a sure sign of the ever-winnowing sophistication of Nashville tastemakers.
Perfectly primed by that soft-focus depiction of domestic bliss, Fairchild’s now ready to tackle the less felicitous (but doubtlessly more familiar) aspects of modern suburban housewifery—mundanity, thanklessness, the stifling of sexuality and self-fulfillment.
Our heroine escapes captivity, but unlike the many unhappy country spouses who leave and never look back (Patty Loveless’ “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am” comes to mind), this particular homemaker guiltily returns before the end of the day. If you wanted to appraise it cynically, you could read Fairchild’s resolution as the calculated reinforcement of family-first primacy in GBA (George Bush’s America). Me, I prefer to keep in mind the fact that Shelly has to sing “Eight Crazy Hours” in third person, simply because it would seem too unbelievably disingenuous to picture her getting caught in a similar situation and “coming to her senses” in such a self-negating way.
After the dull blues-rock exercise “Down into Muddy Watter” and the regrettably restrained title cut, Ride’s narrative incision returns with the wonderfully conceived “Time Machine,” which seems at first irreverent and off-the-cuff but actually offers a fascinating way of looking at nostalgia and sex. Fairchild wants to utilize that hackneyed device to “stay 17” and revisit the romances of youth, her motivation not simply to wallow in their nostalgic effect, but tempered instead with an awareness of just how uncomplicated sex and longing were at that age, recognizing the impossibility of ever recreating that sense of mystery and anticipation now that things have been irrevocably sullied by adulthood.
That uncertainty is nowhere to be found on “The Other Side of the Tracks,” however, the loudest and sharpest feminist anthem of the year. Championing a place “where Mama makes all the rules,” and more importantly where “a guy won’t fly off the handle when a girl whips him at pool,” Fairchild offers up the perfect Roseanne theme song ten years too late, reimagining the eternal class struggle as a battle between the sexist intractability of entitlement and the humbled equality of being poor.
The capper is “Fear of Flying”—superficially a meditation on emotional paralysis, the song gleans deeper significance from the inescapable association of its title with Erica Jong’s 1973 novel of the same name, an exploration of feminine physicality and sexual possibility in an era of repression and self-denial.
“Eight Crazy Hours” and Nashville’s neocon reputation notwithstanding, adult women own and dictate pop-country in a way they can’t claim with hip-hop and rock. So it’s entirely fitting in a time of similarly gendered stasis to see their unspoken realities and ever-burrowing ideals communicated on a mass scale first and foremost by someone like Shelly Fairchild.