Have you seen the episode of 30 Rock where Jane Krakowski's character, Jenna Maroney, "goes country" by wearing Daisy Dukes and a cowboy hat, recording a Western-style theme for NBC's off-season tennis coverage? Aside from being one more joke in a long series of jabs at the network that airs the show, the episode highlights the relatively modern showbiz phenomenon of semi-notable performers "going country" in a last-ditch attempt at continued commercial viability.
I bring this up in reference to Aaron Lewis, formerly of nu-metal/alt-grunge band Staind, which hit it big in the late '90s/early Aughts with all the signifiers of the time: angsty lyrics, down-tuned guitars, and a purposefully misspelled name.
Lewis' new EP, Country Boy, places him in the ranks with Kid Rock, Bon Jovi, and Darius Rucker of Hootie and the Blowfish fame — oh, and the various casts of CMT's reality series Gone Country, in which Rich (of Big & Rich, naturally) has navigated three seasons of unlikely B-listers such as Bobby Brown, Dee Snider, Jermaine Jackson, Sebastian Bach, George Clinton, Justin Guarini, Sisqo, and Shelia E. toward country gold.
Aaron Lewis is scheduled to perform Saturday, April 9.
Not that Lewis' career shift down "an old dirt road" seems quite as disingenuous as, say, Bobby Brown's. He's always been more a crooner than a screamer, and Staind's biggest hits haven't been their heaviest: Both "It's Been Awhile" and "Outside" are the kind of baritone warbles that Pearl Jam made huge and everyone from Puddle of Mudd to Nickelback have kept on the FM dial, not entirely unlike the tuneful, melodic grit and spirit of Lewis' supposed outlaw inspirations Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Hank Williams.
Yet the single and titular track feels utterly textbook. Over a few dusty chords, Lewis warbles about standard Western convictions: God, guns, family, American flags, don't-tread-on-me constitutionalist slogans, and even a reference to a big red tractor. He tosses in a line about smoking weed, but the Nelsons and Keiths of the scene have already made pot references pretty unremarkable, as far as rebel statements go.
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Personal politics notwithstanding, it's not the lyrics that ultimately damn "Country Boy" to sounding like a tired cliché. Who doesn't love "country life," drinking domestic brews with friends, and riding around in pickup trucks? It isn't the warm Americana and Libertarian slant that ruins "Country Boy"; it's that the whole thing is meandering and without a hook. Lewis has brought out all the country trappings but seems to have forgot to write a good song to sing them over.
Even more troubling is the sense of outrage Lewis expresses while singing about selling his soul to the devil — punctuated by a well-played burst of Charlie Daniels fiddle — out in L.A. The devil instructs him, of course, to lose some weight and change his sound to achieve Staind's massive success. Lewis paints it like his hand was forced, as if we're somehow supposed to feel bad for his making millions of dollars.
You might be able to buy into it, if Staind weren't currently working on another album. Lewis enlists country legend George Jones to sing on the song, as well, but has expressed in interviews that the parts were recorded separately and he didn't have the pleasure of working with Jones in person.
Even if he isn't bluffing, the whole deal feels awfully calculated. Maybe Lewis is embracing his true roots, and with his charity work and upcoming TV special about hunting with war veterans, it certainly seems his heart is in the right place. But the sounds on Country Boy can't escape feeling like a whiskey-soaked cash-in.