You know what I haven't done in a while, for plenty of very good reasons? Listened to the whole cotton-pickin' Billboard Hot Country chart! Yee-haw!
1. BLAKE SHELTON, "SHE WOULDN'T BE GONE" | Woman gone; truck present; dog not accounted for. Forgive me for resorting to the oldest joke in the book, but I'm just following the track's lead. Nashville autopilot. The exact same song as Willie's interpretation of "Always on My Mind," except that the narrator is being a weepy little bitch about it instead of aspiring to respectable cowboy stoicism or emotional nuance.
2. BILLY CURRINGTON, "DON'T" | Dawn breaks and a stubbly bumpkin whines at his lady not to leave the bed because he — if I'm reading my metaphors correctly — still has a Rodney. You see, he doesn't want to wait till tonight, because his Rodney is ready now. Good luck with that thing, Billy.
3. ALAN JACKSON, "COUNTRY BOY" | Sort of bizarre to hear country music taking overt inspiration from hip-hop, but these are crazy times — cats marrying dogs, sex robots, falcon can't hear the falconer, etc. Jackson, the archetypal red-blooded, God-fearing Ford-truck pitchman, indulges in some undisguised redneck whip flamboastin': "Big 35's whinin' on the asphalt/Grabbin' mud, and slingin' up some red dirt." Just replace 35s with 22s, mud with money, and red dirt with white powder and you've got yourself a new Clipse single, boy howdy.
4. DIERKS BENTLEY, "FEEL THAT FIRE" | You'd need a pretty clever critical ear to discern why this isn't Nickelback, but it peeks out if you concentrate: a couple of truck and rodeo references and an almost subliminal twang buried in the mix. The pedal steel pops out and waves howdy at the end, ensuring that country fans won't grow ornery and think they're listening to the wrong flavor of utter crap.
5. TOBY KEITH, "GOD LOVE HER" | Although I'll always hate Toby Keith for forcing me to side with the Dixie Chicks, at least his boot's out of Osama's ass for the moment and he's just singing lame clichûs (Rebellious preacher's daughter baptized in dirty water! Ooh!) instead of being one.
6. KENNY CHESNEY WITH MAC MCANALLY, "DOWN THE ROAD" | Acoustic tearjerker for the ladies. Highly recommended if you get misty at quasi-Christian greeting cards, or if you're just a big fan of dead-eyed bathos in general.
7. KEITH URBAN, "SWEET THING" | Here's an unexpected combo: Edge-style guitar delay and verse vocals that fall smack halfway between Roxette's "She's Got the Look" and Tom Cochrane's "Life Is a Highway." I'd hardly call it country if it weren't for the porch-swing-romance lyrics, but I guess the guy's from New Zealand, so he's naturally kinda weird and shitty.
8. BROOKS & DUNN FEATURING REBA MCENTIRE, "COWGIRLS DON'T CRY" | An exciting use of the Forrest Gump–style "woman defined by her tragedies" concept: a cowgirl falls off a horse, wordlessly endures an abusive marriage, and listens to her father die over the phone. All the while, she remembers her dad's sage advice: don't cry, because you're not supposed to for some reason. Go feminism!
9. BRAD PAISLEY WITH KEITH URBAN, "START A BAND" | There's been a long tug-of-war between the "being a musician is great, but maybe we're being ironic" tracks (Joe Walsh, the Byrds) and the "being a musician will bum you out and maybe kill you" tracks (Bad Company, Bob Seger). Will this be the song that defines that discourse for the new millennium, or is it totally witless and forgettable? You decide! (No, actually, I already decided for you.)
10. GEORGE STRAIT, "RIVER OF LOVE" | Just reading the title will give you about as much out of this love-river metaphor as you're likely to get, so you should probably leave it at that.
David Thorpe can be reached at email@example.com