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Nashville has a complicated, occasionally fraught relationship with the pop world. Its biggest crossover success stories tend to get the cold shoulder on their home turf—Swift was the biggest red-carpet draw at last Friday's Country Music Association Awards, for instance, but she didn't take home any trophies. And those very crossover successes often seem to inspire country fans and musicians to flee the pop-cultural center and take up a traditionalist sound that, consciously or not, is likely to alienate outsiders. The roots-focused outlaw country movement, maybe the best thing to happen to the genre in the past 50 years, probably wouldn't have
happened come into its own if it weren't for the late-70s fad for pop country that made megastars out of middle-of-the-road performers like John Denver and Olivia Newton-John.
Swift's impressive multiple appearances on the Hot 100 chart are currently outnumbered by the combined efforts of a gang of cowboy-hatted men whose hard-edged take on country music offers a corrective to her Max Martin-assisted pop takeover.
There's a big cluster of these guys' songs down in the bottom half of the chart, including Justin Moore's "Til My Last Day" at 68, Eric Church's "Creepin'" at 74, Gary Allan's "Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)" at 81, Zac Brown Band's "Goodbye in Her Eyes" at 82, and Randy Houser's "How Country Feels" at 85. None of these guys are hard-line traditionalists, and their music's broad streaks of rock 'n' roll—specifically of the Springsteen/Mellencamp variety—reflect the heterodoxy that's taken root in Nashville. But their roots stretch all the way back to the honky-tonks of the old school, and that's a welcome change from the recent dominance of overly polished pop music with a few country signifiers here and there, which is what country radio has been pushing on listeners for what seems like a very long time.
This hint of upsetting the status quo gives these guys a rebellious aspect, and country-music fans are notoriously fond of rebels. Even with that in mind it's surprising that Brad Paisley's "Southern Comfort Zone" is doing so well, coming in at number 87 on the Hot 100. Musically it's a little less self-consciously traditionalist than the country singles in his neighborhood of the chart, mixing mandolins, twangy Telecaster solos, and high-lonesome yodeling with a muscular rhythm section that (especially on the choruses) suggests Springsteen by way of the Arcade Fire, which knowing Paisley actually could've been his inspiration.
But the real rebellion is in the lyrics, where one of the biggest country stars to come up in the past decade or so challenges his fan base to put aside their prejudices, travel outside their comfort zones, and maybe learn a little bit about the human condition in the process. To soften up his audience, Paisley peppers his lyrics with acknowledgements of how good southern living is (there's even a bit where he quotes "Dixie," which crosses over into pandering), but he's also unambiguously calling them out for their narrow-mindedness.
The single version of "Southern Comfort Zone" that's currently charting is punchier and more energetic, but I kind of prefer his performance of the song at the CMA Awards, which I found via Jon Caramanica's Times writeup of the awards telecast. The little quote of "Empire State of Mind" at the beginning not only works as a tribute to the New Yorkers and New Jerseyans who are still feeling the wrath of Hurricane Sandy, but also sneaks in another tweak of his conservative southern audience, who might go apoplectic over a good ol' country boy singing a rap song.