As H.L. Mencken once cogently observed, "No one in this world, so far as I know...has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people." And if you happen to be Pat Green, you can actually fashion one helluva successful career by appealing to all the party-hearty dumbasses to be found in this here Lone Star State, which is a great mass of plain people indeed. After all, he's not just playing one night but two -- yes, count 'em, two big nights -- at Billy Bob's this weekend.
I happened to stumble on a Pat Green performance one time when he opened for Merle Haggard at Stubb's Bar-B-Q in Austin. It took only part of the opening song to drive me inside to the bar, as far away as I could get from Green's full-tilt assault on my not-so-tender sensibilities. I don't know what I found more offensive: his hollering rabble of fans, or the way Mr. Potato Boy with a battered cowboy hat pandered to them. And even after a couple of hearty belts of good scotch, the music -- and I use the term loosely -- seeping in through the stone walls sounded even more repellent. This, obviously, was not a good sign.
Billy Bob's Texas
But I'm a pretty fair guy. I try to see the good in just about anything musical. And I strive to give everyone their sporting chance. So when Green's latest disc, Carry On, arrived in the mail, I figured, what the hell, I'll give it a spin. Maybe his stuff is not quite as mundane and overwrought as I thought. Boy, was I wrong. And even worse, the CD is the final proof positive that all you have to do is give the once well-respected Lloyd Maines a little bit of money -- not even the big money, mind you -- and he'll produce a record for absolutely anyone.
The 1990s saw a flowering of the Texas singer-songwriter scene. Now come the weeds, and the most virulent strain goes by the name of Pat Green. He is obviously the sort of guy who thinks that clichés are the stuff of profundity. He wouldn't know a clever metaphor if it farted in his face, and the very notion of complex emotions is too far above his head for him to ever grasp. And subtlety, well, that isn't even in his vocabulary. But in a way, one has to be impressed at how he's reduced the Robert Earl Keen oeuvre to its very lowest common denominators. Eschewing any of Keen's droll if sometimes too sly wit (at least for most of his good ol' frat boy fans), Green merely accentuates the drawl and overdoes the growl. And then he takes the somewhat mythic and romantic folk-tale tradition of Texas songwriting and grinds it down into the most simplistic sort of literal and linear songwriting -- once again, I use the term loosely.
Pat Green reminds me of a review New York Times critic Stephen Holden once wrote of a Kenny Rogers show. In it, he noted how seeing chubby Kenny up there crooning gave hope to all the punters in the crowd. Because with his limited talents, Rogers demonstrated how the distance between some regular guy humming tunes as he flipped burgers at the backyard barbecue and being a star like Kenny up there on the arena stage just isn't as far as it may seem. It's populism at its very worst, and here in Texas, Pat Green is the living embodiment of that distressing trend. He's the über-fratrat cowboy who learned a few chords, then gleaned the basics of the Texas songwriting lexicon, and now he's fueling the booze-soaked dreams of thousands of his ilk. Scary, huh? But I gotta hand it to the boy. He and his fans make an even bigger case than Homer Simpson does for the way that cheap and bad beer can make you really, really stupid.
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