Country Will Survive

Time for you pathetic hipsters to buy yourself a Stetson and git on that mechanical bull.

The most wretched people in the world are those who tell you they like every kind of music ‘except country,'” writes pop-culture guru Chuck Klosterman in his book Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. “People who say that are boorish and pretentious at the same time … they hate it because it speaks to normal people in a tangible, rational manner. Hipsters hate it because they hate Midwesterners, and they hate Southerners, and they hate people with real jobs.”

Fortunately, I don’t have a real job, as my job last week consisted of hanging out at the Saddle Rack in Fremont, nervously eyeing the malfunctioning mechanical bull while amateur crooners hooted and hollered through the Saddle Rack Idol II finals.

Country is cool again, you see. And not hipster-approved, which Klosterman denounces as largely artificial and inauthentic — Midwestern cool-guys who’ve never actually seen a moving train penning Cheez Whiz hobo ballads. No, this here’s Wal-Mart country, unabashedly poppy and populist, with a Cheez Whiz virus of its own but a transfusion of fresh blood to help combat it. As SoundScan dutifully informs us, though 2004 CD sales have jumped an impressive 6.9 percent, country music’s spike nearly doubles that. With or without your knowledge and/or approval, this shit is hot.

Who’s responsible? Our old friend Jimmy Buffett topped the Billboard charts recently with License to Chill, a blatant country crossover attempt — leaving nothing to chance, he mashes guest appearances from Clint Black, Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson, Toby Keith, and George Strait on the first track alone.

But perhaps two fresh-faced newcomers bear more responsibility for country’s rise: Gretchen Wilson plays the new sexpot, her debut CD Here for the Party loaded with cheesecake shots of our heroine leaning saucily against an RV — she’s Avril to Shania’s Britney, the tomboy party girl whose “Redneck Woman,” with its I ain’t no high-class broad declarations and Wal-Mart shout-outs, gives boot-scootin’ ladies their very own Beyoncé paragon of independence. The rest of the album blows. Not so Big & Rich’s Horse of a Different Color, a bizarrely appealing country/rock/hip-hop hybrid that breaks up its five-hanky balladeering with barn-strafing party tunes laden with honest-to-God rapping. It’s gotta be the first country album to employ the word “crunk,” and that, friends and neighbors, is progress.

But if this sells, who’s buying? Like a Twilight Zone episode, meander through a pitch-black, seemingly deserted Fremont corporate park, and then, THWACK, the enormous Saddle Rack appears outta nowhere. The beloved San Jose boot-scootin’ institution migrated north a coupla years back, providing Bay Area cowboys and ‘girls with a Clean, Well-Lighted Place for Brooks & Dunn. It’s huge, bright, jovial, opulently rustic, and graced with a world-renowned mechanical bull that broke down well before closing time.

But this particular Thursday night is a horse of a different color: the Saddle Rack Idol II finals. The contest began in March, quickly whittled down to twelve semifinalists, cut one of those per week Idol-style, and culminates in a three-week, five-finalist shootout ending tonight. Saddle Rack female-fronted house band Appaloosa assaults the crowd with everything from “Shout” to “Sweet Home Alabama” to Big & Rich’s “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)” to “Footloose” in between stints as the wannabe Idols’ backing band — each victim gets two songs apiece, with, as a spastic MC/comedian evidently named Slappy breathlessly informs us, instant fame (or at least, a music video on locally aired CMT) hanging in the balance.

A blonde coed named Angela fires first, belting out Shania Twain’s “I’m Gonna Getcha Good!” She drills all the high notes and wobbles harmlessly over all the other ones. Then comes Justin, a trucker-hat-clad singer-songwriter heartthrob who forgoes the band for a dude-with-his-guitar open-mic weeper about drinking whiskey, and evidently he must’ve brought his bowling league, because every lyrical silence is punctuated by lusty screams from his entourage.

Pretty jarring, but not compared to contestant number 3, LaJoyce, a black woman who saunters onstage brandishing a pool cue and thwacks it to the ground midway through a robust workout of Gretchen Wilson’s “Here for the Party.” This, to put it mildly, was not expected by me.

But sure enough, after a tall, awkward dude named Jason twangs through a tune about The drinkin’ bone connected to the party bone, Miko rounds out the lineup as the competition’s second black contestant, slamming her cowboy hat to the ground triumphantly and thanking her in-house supporters from the SF Fire Department.

Miko has the inside track, I’d say.

During the peppy Appaloosa interlude, a quick stroll around the Rack provides ample evidence of its charms — smiling, shiny, happy people of all races, creeds, and temperaments clinking beer bottles, throwing darts, and line-dancing to a Kenny Loggins cover, for Christ’s sake. And everyone’s amped up for round two: Angela, who apparently spent the break mainlining Red Bull, sashays saucily through the Dixie Chicks’ “Let ‘Er Rip,” Justin ditches the troubadour shit for Hank Williams Jr.’s anthemic “Family Tradition,” and Jason tangos with “Chattahoochie.” But it’s clearly a two-woman race at this point: Miko thunders a triumphant “Somethin’ to Talk About” to end the competition, but LaJoyce, in a highly controversial maneuver, had already slammed down her napalm trump card: “I Will Survive.”

Let’s discuss the “I Will Survive” phenomenon sometime. Truly bone-chilling. Because you know what happened: Every female in the place went apeshit, thundered onto the dancefloor, and shrieked along to every word. As a crowd-pleasing maneuver, it almost felt like cheating, ’cause when the votes were tallied, despite Miko’s firefighter cabal, LaJoyce walked away with the metaphorical crown. Then Appaloosa fired back up so she could belt out a victory song: Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman.”

Now, people, where else can a black lady win a country music karaoke contest by belting out “I Will Survive,” and then, as a post-victory encore, plow through a song called “Redneck Woman”? Nowhere else but America, that’s where. Show some respect: Bow down, grab your cowboy hat, get a haircut, and get a real job.

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