As melody, orchestration, the way the arrangement shows its hand, these two country hits are almost the same song. They’re both about small towns and independence, making your own way, becoming yourself–etc. upon etc.
The Brooks & Dunn version is strictly personal, but set in terms of experiences all real guys have: “That red dirt road” is where the singer “had my first beer,” “wrecked my first car.” The McBride version is about a woman who takes a stand–and raises the flag for others. A woman who, by her solitary action in a community where everybody knows what’s going on and nobody does anything about it, raises the promise of a more perfect union, or any kind of union. A woman performs an act–burns down her house and kills her husband–that forces everyone to pay attention, which requires that everyone have an opinion, even if one’s real opinion is not what one says in public. The act creates a real community by dividing a false one. And through the metaphors used to portray it, this act draws on national ethics, on the history of the country for motive and justification and explication–and in the process extends or changes those national ethics, that patriotic history. None of the Revolutionary generation equated Independence Day with “the day of reckoning”–Judgment Day, the day when “the guilty pay”–as McBride does, but when you hear this song (written by Gretchen Peters), the connection seems to have always been there, hiding somewhere in the Declaration.
“Independence Day” is sung full-throated, but with odd, harsh snaps at the ends of lines, cutting them off, throwing you off, personalizing the song: No one else would think to sing it this way. “Red Dirt Road” is cuddly-growly, with words curling back on each other, creating an impression of modest regular-guyness. “Independence Day” is plain: The father is “a dangerous man.” In a “small, small town” “word gets around.” Everyone knows this guy is beating his wife. In “Red Dirt Road” the song turns, or falls, on its euphemism-by-omission: While the fact that this is where the “had my first beer” guy had his first girl is implicit, you’re made aware that the singer won’t say this, and it feels like a cheat.
One is a song that anyone could sing and almost everybody in country music has. One is a small story waiting in the greater American story for that greater story to give it meaning and ennoble it, or for the greater story to fall to pieces by failing to come through.
3. Elephant, directed by Gus Van Sant (HBO Films)
The Columbine shootings, or the feel of high school life, and what happens when what everyone has reasonably taken as reality becomes something else.
4. The Strokes, Room on Fire (RCA)
This bright set of tunes about nothing is a leap past the celebrated/backlashed Is This It? The band sounds like a band, not a set list of precursors. On those moments in “Reptilla” and “I Can’t Win” when guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. step out of the machine-stamped song structures, there’s a great lift. You can forget that, as with bassist Nikolai Fraiture’s “War Is Peace” T-shirt, for singer Julian Casablancas hot means cold.
5. School of Rock, directed by Richard Linklater (Paramount)
It’s interesting that the 1950s rock-movie plot–forces of authority try to stop music, end up tapping feet–is still serviceable. Why does the lead outraged parent look just like neo-con talking head William Kristol? The kids in the theater where I saw the picture went completely bananas for exposed fake teacher Jack Black’s inadvertently pedophilic mea culpa “Your kids have touched me–and I think I can honestly say that I touched them.” But all that pales next to Maryam Hassan as Tomika, telling Black she wants to sing, doing “Chain of Fools” with the camera tight on her face as it begins to slide into a trance, just slipping around the eyes.
6. Handsome Family, Singing Bones (Carrot Top)
Featuring what ought to be a double-sided smash by the folk duo: “If the World Should End in Fire” backed with “If the World Should End in Ice.”
7. Richard Thompson, “A Love You Can’t Survive,” from The Old Kit Bag (Cooking Vinyl)
A peace-corps-to-prison-to-drug-lord tale you could have expected from Warren Zevon. At the end, there are notes so huge they come out of Thompson’s mouth and wrap him up like a shroud.
8. Randy Newman, “The Great Nations of Europe,” Bimbo’s 365 Club (San Francisco, Oct. 26)
“A song that sums up better than anything else ever written the last 400 years of Western civilization,” Newman said to introduce his chronicle of expansion and extermination, starting with the Canary Islands–according to some anthropologists the last redoubt of the Cro-Magnons, at least until the Portuguese got there. “Didn’t he enunciate more clearly than with other songs?” said the man next to me. “He wanted people to hear the words.”
9. Mad TV Kobe Bryant skit, “Consensual” video, with director’s credit to Michael Jordan (CBS, Sept. 27)
Neo-soul vocal as Bryant (Aries Spears) seduces women in the jury box and high-fives the judge. You know he’ll walk.
10. Press release on CMJ Music Marathon in New York City (Seattle, Oct. 25)
“200 years ago Lewis and Clark, after learning of the Louisiana Purchase, left the East Coast to explore the rest of the New Land. Bringing a Newfoundland dog named ‘Seaman’ and Lewis’ slave ‘York,’ the two set out on a historic journey that is still marveled at today. Their now legendary voyage reveals the natural desire of man to explore the world around him.
“This month Sub Pop Records will follow the same path of William Clark and Meriwether Lewis (except totally in reverse!) to CMJ in New York. Accompanying us will be our Chihuahua Vito and our intern ‘York.'”
City Pages, November 12, 2003