The first striking thing on “Baby Come Back to Me,” the opening song on “Experiment,” Kane Brown’s second album, is Brown’s honeyed, low voice. His vowels are slightly drawled, and his tone is rich with a heavy bottom, buoy-shaped, like a more flexible Randy Travis. Behind him, a boot-stomp beat and a throbbing guitar anchor the song firmly to the honky-tonk.
Jimmie Allen opens his debut album, “Mercury Lane,” with “American Heartbreaker,” a familiar kind of country ode. “If you were a song you’d be an anthem/‘Sweet Home Alabama,’” Allen sweetly sings, then flirts by playing rural mad-libs: freedom, slide guitar, muscle car. The object of his affection, he sings, is “red, white and beautiful.”
This is compliant country music: flaunting its lineage, eager to please, resistant to upheaval.
So much of the anxiety in Nashville in recent years has been about the tension between belonging and exclusion, in terms of who the genre advances and promotes (white men, mainly) and what sounds can and should be at its forefront (production that rejects the flickers of hip-hop and EDM that have lately been creeping in).
In this context, especially, “Experiment” and “Mercury Lane” should come as sort of a relief to the establishment: Here are two of the year’s stronger country albums, and also two of the more stylistically conservative. They are successful as well: “Experiment” debuted at the top of the Billboard album chart this week, and Allen’s lead single, “Best Shot,” just reached No. 1 on the Billboard country airplay chart, a triumphant conclusion to an almost yearlong climb.
By those metrics, it is a robust time in Nashville for performers who are loyal to the genre’s roots and tropes, fluent in its history and proudly advancing it without too much disruption.
What complicates and deepens that narrative is that both Brown and Allen are black, and their success flies in the face of a genre that has often been ruthlessly closed-minded about who can lay claim to the rural experience, at least when it comes to songs about it.
Brown has been on the rise for the last three years — his 2016 self-titled debut album marked him as one of the more musically serious young singers working, and he had two breakthrough hits last year, “Heaven” and “What Ifs.” But at the annual Country Music Association Awards last week, even as “Experiment” was heading to No. 1, Brown was not offered a performance slot, merely a presenter slot. That slight was made all the more obvious by the fact that Brown also was a presenter the following night at the Latin Grammys, an awards show for music he doesn’t perform in a language that he only slightly speaks — a signifier of his broad appeal. (Allen was also a presenter at the CMAs, but that felt more appropriate given how recent his success has come.)
For the last decade, country music has had one very high-profile black star: Darius Rucker, who’s become a genre staple, a Grand Ole Opry member and regular chart presence. He had a bit of a head start thanks to his prior life in the 1990s mega-platinum band Hootie & the Blowfish, but nonetheless Rucker has carved out a distinct place in Nashville.
There is a long and not-always-illuminated history of black performers in country, dating back to DeFord Bailey in the 1920s and 1930s. From the late 1960s through the early 1980s, Charley Pride was one of the genre’s marquee names, notable for his gentle love songs. In the mid 2000s, the country rapper Cowboy Troy experienced a brief moment of embrace.
The secret histories of less-heralded performers are collected in two excellent collections, the boxed set “From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music” and the anthology “Dirty Laundry: The Soul of Black Country.” The essay collection “Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music” details the ways in which black contributions were key to early country, but largely behind the scenes, and also how the genre conceptualized itself as white, and then set out to maintain that image. All of which leaves it ill-equipped to navigate a time in which black performers are among its most successful and promising.
Coming out of country’s tepid gentleman era, full of edgeless men with thin voices singing about romantic fealty, Brown was a refreshing alternative: His voice is lustrous, if not especially powerful, and his reference points are often historically minded. One of the standout songs on “Experiment” is “Short Skirt Weather,” a cheeky two-step that’s reminiscent of early Alan Jackson and Tim McGraw. Mainly, though, “Experiment” is filled with straight-ahead songs about love and, sometimes, betrayal. He deploys his booming voice as a weapon, especially on the outstanding “Homesick,” where he pivots quickly from burly to lovelorn and back.
Despite its title, this album isn’t about challenging the status quo; rather, its existence is a challenge to those whose ideas about the status quo are fixed in old modes.
Brown’s own skepticism, such as it is, comes through in small but meaningful ways. “American Bad Dream” speaks out about pervasive gun violence — traditionally a country taboo — and about devious cops (though only in so much as they make the jobs of good cops harder). And near the end of “My Where I Come From” — the sort of rural pride anthem that is de rigueur for the genre — Brown issues a little bit of a challenge:
So if I like my music just a little too loud
And I got a couple tattoos to show my Georgia pride
And if what’s on my mind is what’s coming out my mouth
And If I just can’t seem to shut it down
That’s just my “where I come from” comin’ out
Brown also flirts with arrangements that at least suggest an awareness of hip-hop, and occasionally opts for a more rhythmic cadence, like on the single “Lose It,” where he melts several words into one: “Let’sstartwiththemLuchessis, Babykick’emtothefloorboard/Thembobbypinsholdin’yourhairup, Girlyoudon’tneed’emnomore.”
Unlike Brown, whose voice is rich with bona fides, and who rarely dwells on the particulars of the rural experience, Allen has a sweeter and more neutral tone, and so he emphasizes the particularities. The woman he sings about is a “small-town everyday girl I see with her hair pulled back.” He sings a toast to “the tip-jar dreamers” and “the barely-made-the-teamers.” Two (!) songs mention “Jack & Diane.” And his impressive cover of Keith Urban’s “Boy Gets a Truck” is a future Ford F-150 ad in the making, explicitly linking driving a pickup to finding love, getting married and growing a family.
All of which is to say: a conventional country album. If Allen is fighting for anything here, it’s for the right to be that conventional. His arrangements are largely optimistic, rock-inflected country. He is most effective as a romanticist: As a group, the love songs are stronger than the rural-pride anthems, especially “Best Shot,” with its choked-up weeping-guitar pattern, and the crisply written and tenderly sung “How to Be Single.”
Allen and Brown’s conservative streak can be read two ways: as an unencumbered reflection of their musical impulses, or as the path of least resistance to acceptance in a genre that has long been intolerant. Or perhaps both. In any case, they have effectively made the case that country music need not be — and actually isn’t — as white as it long has been.
How these two singers view their long-term prospects in the genre might be captured by the final songs on their albums. On Brown’s “Experiment” — on streaming services, though not on the physical CD — it’s “Lost in the Middle of Nowhere,” an amiable duet with the Mexican-American pop singer Becky G that casually bridges country and Latin pop. As grounded as Brown is in country traditions, he understands instinctually that there is an appetite for him, and that his gifts might be more readily accepted elsewhere.
Allen takes an opposite approach on his closing song, “All Tractors Ain’t Green.” It’s an affectionate scold to the picayune. “Can’t judge whiskey by the bottle/might go against the grain of that country-boy model,” he sings, later adding, “I might sound a little different than I look.” Bridging that gap is Allen’s ostensible goal, but really, it’s other people’s obstacle. The message of the song is clear: This is his home turf, and he’s not going anywhere.
(Zone 4/RCA Nashville)
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