Luke Combs and Miranda Lambert, Both Bound by Country’s Gendered Rule Book11/06/2019
There’s a familiar kind of country song that functions essentially as a listicle. A laundry list of tropes about rural life. A slide show of small-town imagery. They’re a staple of the genre, an easy — too easy — go-to for performers hoping to trigger pleasure centers.
There are a few of these songs on “What You See Is What You Get,” the second major-label album by Luke Combs, the quickest-rising country star of the last two years. “Refrigerator Door” is a big, formless ocean of nostalgia. “Blue Collar Boys” feels like a Home Depot marketing PowerPoint. “Better Together” is pure rural Mad Libs (“Barbed wire and old fence posts/8-point bucks in autumn”).
But songs like this aren’t always a crutch. Take “It All Comes Out in the Wash,” from Miranda Lambert’s sixth major-label album, “Wildcard.” It’s bawdy and messy, a whoop-it-up celebration of the not-so-niceties underneath polite grins:
If you pour yourself a merlot to go
You dip your fries in your ketchup on a bumpy road
You spill the beans to your mama, sister got knocked up
In a truck at the 7-Eleven, don’t sweat it
You can embrace a cliché, or you can upend it. How Combs and Lambert approach that decision reflects larger things about their music, and also about the demands country music does and does not place on them.
Combs is a sometimes-impressive exemplar of the genre’s unending maleness — for 50 weeks, his debut, “This One’s for You,” held No. 1 on the Billboard country album chart. He inherited the machismo of the recent bro era and returned it to its rural roots while also reviving the arena-rock country of the 1990s.
Lambert is, on all fronts, a more thoughtful, precise, provocative and creative artist. Her music is riskier, and more nimble. She is the slipperiest performer working in country music’s top tier, doing just enough to stay there, and even more to remind you how little she thinks of its limitations.
All of Combs’s singles — seven of them, beginning in 2016 — have reached the Top 3 of the Billboard country songs chart. Lambert, too, has had seven singles in the Top 3 — it just took her six more years.
It’s too simplistic to say Combs is the problem and Lambert could be — has been — the solution. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say in Combs’s universe, there is no problem whatsoever, and in Lambert’s universe, the problem is so intractable as to almost be worth ignoring.
That said, Nashville’s minimization of its female performers is an issue so vast and so persistent that the relentless success of Combs is practically camouflaged by it.
Which means it can be difficult to see what Combs actually does well. Apart from the cheeky “When It Rains It Pours,” Combs’s earlier hits deployed lyrical melodrama juxtaposed with tender reads on hard-rock dynamics. He has a meaty, frank voice — it hits bluntly, but without much depth, like painting with a brush lashed to an eighteen-wheeler.
“What You See Is What You Get” challenges him less than his debut album did. It is mundanely forceful, laden with chunky guitars and hard-snap drums, and just barely ambitious. Which is to say, in the current country ecosystem, reasonably effective.
Where Combs shows the most promise is in his emergent desire to restore the genre to the high-octane pep of the 1990s, when thanks to the cross-genre theatrics of Garth Brooks and Shania Twain, country music believed it was big-tent pop. “Angels Workin’ Overtime,” with flickers of early career Alan Jackson, moves at a jubilant 130 beats per minute, an extremely quick clip for contemporary country music. “Lovin’ on You” shouts out Brooks & Dunn and echoes their line-dance-ready come-ons, and then, a couple of songs later, Brooks & Dunn show up to bemoan late-night misbehavior on the glib, uproarious (148 b.p.m.!) boogie of “1, 2 Many.”
The stultifying male-fronted country of the last several years has teetered between soused and affectionate. These songs mark a departure, imagining country music as a rowdy playground, though still one largely inhospitable to women.
As Combs is loading his sound with growth hormone, Lambert is making hers even more shaggy. Over the course of her career, her albums — including those with the trio Pistol Annies — have become looser, more curious, less married to a fixed idea of the genre.
“Wildcard” isn’t as intimate as her 2016 double album about her divorce, “The Weight of These Wings,” or as musically adventurous as its predecessor, “Platinum.” What it does have is some sharp songwriting. On “Track Record,” Lambert bemoans her romantic woes, and “Tequila Does” is a cleverer take on the succumbing-to-alcohol trope than it deserves. “Dark Bars,” which recalls Lee Ann Womack’s midcareer shift to classic country, opens with a sparse gut-punch image of idling nights away. “I’m here for the habit,” she sighs. “Complimentary matches/The pretty bartenders/The smoke and the mirrors.”
Musically, “Wildcard” is frisky, and sometimes unsteady. “Locomotive” is a Southern rock howler, and “Holy Water” has a cutting blues energy. On “Way Too Pretty for Prison,” a duet with Maren Morris, the band plays with almost comic timing, while Lambert yuk-yuks her way through a thought experiment: “They don’t have rhinestone ball-and-chains/Lunch trays don’t come with chardonnay/The bars there ain’t got boys to buy us drinks.” (Many of the credited co-writers on “Wildcard” are women. By contrast, there are no credited female songwriters on Combs’s album.)
Lambert also sings in a plethora of different voices — cocksure, sentimental, bruising, bruised, tender, resentful. Her approach to country isn’t predicated on toeing the line of what’s expected, which means she can give her looser inclinations free rein. She stands out, and apart.
There’s no meritocracy that benefits incisive songwriting, textured singing, bold attitude — not in Nashville or anywhere else. But the way the center of country music amplifies Combs and sidelines Lambert remains a needless stain. And for Combs, who’s capable of more than he’s asked, it’s a kind of burden, too.
“What You See Is What You Get”
(River House Artists/Columbia Nashville)
(Vanner Records/RCA Records Nashville)
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