Friday, December 14, 2007

Friday Morning Musical Musings: Cross Canadian Ragweed

Don't ask me how I missed this piece on Cross Canadian Ragweed, but it's pretty good. I've always liked Mario Tarradell's work...

...the pot-smoking, beer-chugging college days are history. These guys are serious now, writing songs with lyrical heft and Southern rock energy. Plus, they are all husbands and fathers, which only heightens their need for creative expression.

Mission California, the band's fresh studio album, showcases the quartet's sharpest musicianship and Canada's most personal songwriting. He's angry at the bean-counting, artistry-thwarting man during Record Exec. He's rattling with angst on Dead Man, then turns gentle and reflective on the ballad Lawrence. Later, he channels the Beatles on NYCG, while Plato takes an R&B detour on the smoky, melodic Soul Agent.

The CD is a revelation. Surely this isn't the same group that cranked out frat-boy anthems Carney Man and Boys From Oklahoma back in the late '90s. But for those who follow CCR religiously, and there are plenty of you out there judging by the outfit's busy touring schedule of 260 shows a year, Mission California comes as no surprise. With the release of 2002's Cross Canadian Ragweed, dubbed The Purple Album for its album cover hue, Canada and company matured into real artists.

That album's centerpiece is 17, a searing account of youthful rebellion and adult resilience. The song's message is succinct: There's no reliving the past.

That turned out to be prophetic. While Ragweed hasn't lost any touring business and Mission California sold a respectable (for them, anyway) 22,604 copies its first week in stores, there are some fans who can't get past the Carney Man and Boys From Oklahoma days.

"There's a lot of people that say, 'You know, you don't play anything even close to the old stuff. I like the old stuff the best.' And that's cool. That's really cool," says Canada, 31, as he puffs on a cigarette. "But I know what they're referring to. They're referring to Carney Man. And we still like it. But there's so much more to talk about. I don't know if it's getting older and having kids. What's the point writing about some things when there's so much more to talk about around you? I think it bugs some people, and I think other people like it. Because it is progressing, whatever it's turning into. In the beginning, a lot of people said we were a country band. And then people said we were turning into a rock band. They didn't know what to do with us. We're not trying to do anything. It's just happening."

It could be a lot worse. They could be doing schlock like "Mr. Mom." ;-)
Seriously, though, I can understand the gripes about the so-called evolution of an artist. A lot of times artists do end up changing their sound from what it was at first. Lord knows I've raised enough hell about what Pat Green's music has become. But I think that has more to do with me thinking that what he's doing now doesn't fit him nearly as well as what he's done before more than anything else. The first Pat Green cd I ever picked up was Live At Billy Bob's and it just flat blew me away. Everything that came after that was, shall we say, a bit underwhelming, dull even. Wave On Wave? One word -- blah. (Pat and Cory Morrow's duet cover cd, Songs We Wish We'd Written, was great, though.) I'm sure a lot of the Ragweed fans felt the same way about everything that's come after Highway 377. I'd have to get those earlier cds to see what they sounded like back then. As it stands now, the earliest Ragweed cd in my collection is that self-titled "purple" album and it's one of the best cds I've ever bought, a great balance of mainstream and, for lack of a better term, not-so-mainstream. There aren't that many acts even close to "mainstream" who'd even write songs like "Freedom" or "Walls of Huntsville," much less record them. And there's no good reason at all for radio to even shy away from those songs. Contemporary Hit Radio doesn't, why should country be different?
As different as the boys from Yukon are now from when they started, though, this is quite heartening to see:

They're not scared of returning to the do-it-yourself way of releasing records, either. That's how they got 1998's Carney and 2001's Highway 377 out there.

*snip* they watch friends Pat Green and Jack Ingram score national radio hits, they feel no jealousy or second thoughts.

"I don't think there's ever been one regret in this band," says Canada. "There's been nights that we regretted, but no decisions."

To underscore his point, Canada tells a story that involves multimillion-selling country superstar Tim McGraw, perhaps the last person you'd think would hang out with Cross Canadian Ragweed.

"We were with Tim McGraw in LA two years ago," he says. "Joe Nichols, he's our label mate, just got a gold record. We're sitting backstage or sitting in our bus or something and I told Tim, 'Well, let's get one of those. Let's get a gold record.' He said, 'Well, you let me drive.'

"He was dead serious. He said, 'You let me drive, you let me pick the songs and I'll get you one.' I said, 'Dude, I was kidding. If we're going to get a gold record, it's going to be because of who we are.'"

I know it's a business, and I know the boys and their families have to eat just like we all do, but it's great to see them remaining true to themselves and their music. That's one of the things I loved about the Dixie Chicks as well, politics be damned. I remember reading in the Houston Chronicle not long before Fly came out that radio people suggested re-mixing some of the songs on Wide Open Spaces for pop radio airplay and the Chicks refused. Natalie Maines told Rick Mitchell, the Chron's music critic at the time, something to the effect that, "We listen to those other stations, and we're fans of that other music, but we don't ever want anyone to say that we're trying to not be country. We're trying to do the opposite. We're trying to bring country back to country." That was quite refreshing at the time, considering Shania Twain's and Lonestar's pop remix pandering and the latter's half-assed attempt to say they were still a bunch of good ole boys from Texas. Which of course was a load of crap, considering what they had remade themselves into by that point. I never thought it could actually get worse, but of course it did. I do hope Cody Canada and the boys don't ever listen to that siren song, because even to the extent they cater to the mainstream, they still make some of the best music out there.