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ERIC CHURCH GETS HIS JOHNNY CASH ON

Finally, the new models of consumption in country music serve the urgency of the moment.

Eric Church, who’s always walked hard and bristled with the smoldering rage of blue-collar people being shoved to the side, has dropped “Stick That in Your Country Song,” drawing on the same righteous indignation that made Johnny Cash a hero. And like Cash before him, Church delivers unadorned, full-frontal music that hits hard as Tom Petty or Metallica.

But what makes “Stick That in Your Country Song” so potent isn’t just the track, which slices and strikes, but the seething indictment of a genre that would rather sidestep inconvenient truths for field parties and sweet honeys. Merle Haggard spent his career singing political songs—“Irma Johnson” took on interracial romance as the ’60s bled into the ’70s—before country embraced a haranguing uber-patriotism that superseded singing about the issues facing the downtrodden. But now, Eric Church has kicked down the door.

Opening by invoking Detroit, where the factories are empty and the jails full, “Mamas crying, young boys dying/Red white and blues still flying,” he moves straight to Baltimore, where the windows are boarded up and “dreams become drugs and guns/Only way out is to shoot or run.” The gritty real world he paints impales the party-down hip-hop intersectionalism so much of Nashville’s hick-hop emerges from.

For the first time in years, a mainstream country superstar—albeit one who’s always worked from margins of his own choosing, where radio is awesome but not essential, who built it on the road, taking it to the people, often in the rock buildings instead of the obvious country venues—has thrown down a gauntlet there’s no way to ignore. On this stark, visceral song, the tension burns and holds you in place.

As Chuck D said in 1989, “Rap is the CNN of the ghetto.” But who looks at reality from the other side, the place where the country fans come together? The white working-class rural person or suburban dweller rarely sees that roughness in their country music. How do they understand what they’ve only experienced in a videogame or on TV; the terror, the lack of safety in the act of just walking home, the meager opportunities, the jobs that don’t exist, the meth being pushed in the Oxy crisis?

Every syllable’s a gut punch, every line a straight-up challenge.
In a world of saying nothing, not wanting to alienate anyone or take a stand,
Church drills straight into the dam with simple words
that leave us with nowhere to hide.

Church doesn’t make any judgments—he doesn’t have to. Two more brief verses—one evoking a 23-year old John Prine-esque “Sam Stone” PTSD-type battered vet, the other celebrating the battles of a public-school teacher trying to make a difference for kids who have no real chance—and a bridge that demonstrates how music can foment the wrongs that go unspoken and reveal the ugly truths that have been willfully overlooked.

“Stick that in your country song,” he seethes, “Take that to #1.” Every syllable’s a gut punch, every line a straight-up challenge. In a world of saying nothing, not wanting to alienate anyone or take a stand, Church drills straight into the dam with simple words that leave us with nowhere to hide.

This is more than just invective, because he knows he’s not speaking only for himself. There’s strength in numbers, and all those people in crummy, thankless jobs have got his back. It’s why, as the chorus builds in intensity, he proclaims, “Get the whole world singing along/Put that in your country song.”

Somewhere in heaven, Haggard smirks a little, looks over at Cash. Not only did those two icons stand for something, their legacy defined the people no one bothered to see—or fight for. Both had their share of mirthful songs, ironic novelty numbers, but they used their platforms to speak for the working poor who had no voice.

At a time when it seems like that notion of country music, especially the fierce ride-or-die variety, has been lost, Eric Church tears into view, car stereo blaring. In that bridge, fierce and fearsome, he howls, “Light the arrow, pull the bow/Shoot that fire right through my soul/Hit my pride, fist up high.”

It’s a catharsis and a tornado whistle. It’s meant to serve as a release and bring people together. Not quite storming the walls, “Stick That in Your Country Song” calls out the happy, uptempo, positive gloss that so much modern country music purveys. For Church, that’s not enough. The man whose breakthrough, “Homeboy,” castigated a punk little brother taking it out on his parents, drops a track that forces us to look—and we can’t stop listening.

 

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