In country, as in rap — two genres not nearly as disparate as you might think — authenticity is key. You can be whomever you prefer in the pop world, whether it's Gaga or Madonna. As long as your brand of make-believe tickles the masses, you can sell records. But not so in country music. You have to be from somewhere. You have to represent. You have to be real, y'all.
Which leads us to Kellie Pickler and Tim McGraw, two country stars who are more disparate than you might think. Both artists released new albums this week — her 100 Proof, his Emotional Traffic — but only one of them works, primarily because the other one often sounds 100 miles from Nashville. No one would mistake American Idol alum "Pick Pickler" for Loretta Lynn, but she sells her Western wares a heck of a lot better than Faith Hill's wishy-washy hubby.
The 25-year-old Pickler, the pride of Albemarle, N.C., performed a Kelly Clarkson song for her Idol audition in 2006, but she ultimately sold herself as the next Carrie Underwood. Her lack of sushi education was fishy, and her aw-shucks dumb-blond routine grew thin. But six years later, she's still around and still a household name, and that says something. On the opening track of her fun new LP, she ponders Where's Tammy Wynette ("I stay torn between killin' him and lovin' him"), and although she may not be that genuine, Pickler, unlike McGraw, sounds like she truly enjoys country music.
A la her stint on Idol, Pickler amps up her cute, cozy Southern twang, a vocal trick that dutifully makes up for her lack of range. That works just right with the pedal steel, plucky picked guitars and honky-tonk vibe, which always sounds ready for the sing-along revelry of a Girls' Night Out.
Pickler gets lead writing credit for a handful of songs, which means the themes here don't mosey past bad boys (the winking threat Stop Cheatin' On Me), lost love (the sprawling Long As I Never See You Again) and staying true and feisty to your cowgirl roots (the mid-tempo yeehaw grinder Unlock That Honky Tonk). There are also a couple weepers devoted to her parents — most notably The Letter (For Daddy) for her ne'er-do-well dad — which has become a Pickler specialty, just a likable small-town girl trying to figure out life.
There's a sticker on McGraw's new disc with a fat quote from the man himself: "My best album ever." That's a problem whether he believes it or not. Emotional Traffic (wow, how long did TM ponder that gripping album title?) opens with the clunky one-two of lyrically awkward Halo and Right Back Atcha Babe, an over-polished adult-contempo mess that sounds left over from an early '80s Al Jarreau album.
Part of the problem is that the backing players here sound more suited for a John Mayer album, a disconnect heightened by McGraw's voice, which also sounds more rock-based than something based below the Mason-Dixon Line. As a result, the milquetoast cuts are myriad; Only Human, featuring R&B singer Ne-Yo, is the sound of men who don't like Lady Antebellum forced to make a Lady Antebellum song anyway. Even the requisite duet with wife Faith Hill, One Part, Two Part, fails to ignite a spark. That's too bad, because it really should: It's a break-up tune!
The 44-year-old McGraw is obviously a huge star, and he'll kickstart a massive summer tour with Kenny Chesney on June 2 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. But it's fair to say he's a better actor now (The Blind Side, Four Christmases) than he is a musician. You can fake it and make it on the big screen, but decent country music is no place for a pretend cowboy.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. Follow him at facebook.com/seandaly.tampabay.