Country discomfort 

The 2006 Country Fair in stereotype

It's not too difficult to figure out when image became the driving force in country music. Blame Garth Brooks. In 1990 Brooks showed up on the scene in a pseudo-rodeo/cowboy outfit -- super-tight jeans, a bizarrely patterned western-style shirt and a big hat. He had the talent to make it work, but clearly "the look" was as important as the music. Nashville's major labels were falling over themselves to reproduce Brooks' look and sound, not to mention the 100 million-plus records he sold.

Let's not ignore that throughout the history of country music, a flashy wardrobe and a carefully constructed persona were often instrumental in making an artist's career. From Jimmie Rodger's "Singing Brakeman" character to Webb Pierce's flashy Nudie suits, an artist needed something unique and attention-getting to pull them above the crowd. But in the last 15 years, individuality has devolved into a half-dozen simplistic archetypes. And even worse, the music being commercially marketed today as "country" is much closer to '70s arena rock than anything else. But with Bon Jovi topping the country charts last week, it sort of makes sick sense.

A shining example of these trends is the lineup for the ninth annual Country Fair, a two-day festival sponsored by the local country radio stations. Five of the six announced acts fall neatly into these archetypes, with one unique wild card thrown in who seems as out of place as a preacher at the Clermont Lounge.

On Friday's testosterone-filled bill, we find newcomer Jason Aldean, a former Macon resident who has "paid his dues" since early adolescence. A self-proclaimed "hat act" (the moniker bestowed upon the plethora of Garth Brooks clones), Aldean writes most of his own material, which falls safely into the sorta wild and sorta sensitive categories. He's fairly talented, pretty harmless, but virtually indistinguishable from the 100 other hat acts.

Then there's Pat Green, a marginally successful singer/songwriter from TEXAS!, who sings lots of songs about TEXAS!, and constantly proclaims his pride for TEXAS!. It's a shtick that has worn thin, but the frat boys love it. Somewhere in Green's catalog hide a couple of good tunes, but it's not worth the time spent separating the wheat from the chaff.

Friday's headliner, Montgomery Gentry, is one of the more successful duet acts of the past five years. Back in the old days, country duets were usually brothers (the Louvins, the Wilburns), and fraternal harmony was the hook. But MG's onstage swagger, rebel flags and Les Paul Gibsons are closer to Lynyrd Skynyrd than anything even remotely country. The duo is more about posing, yahooing and cramming as many un-reconstructed Southern references as you can into a song and the rednecks eat it up. Southern rock always had a little country thrown in the mix, but this is, well, this is Southern rock.

Saturday's lineup is an odd mix. First, let's talk about Lonestar. Remember the boy band craze of the '80s? Well, here is one of Nashville's original versions of that icky theme. Lonestar has been around for years, though its members may be a little long in the tooth to be considered a "boy band." With four nondescript guys and a song catalog that is as schmaltzy as those "soft rock" compilations they sell on late night TV, Lonestar represents everything that is wrong with country music today.

Sara Evans started out with so much promise on her hard country debut Three Chords and the Truth, but when sales were slow, she was immediately given a handful of poppy "empowerment" tunes to try and salvage her career. It worked, and she is a superstar. And she is a hottie, which counts for a lot. Consider her the Wal-Mart version of Shania Twain -- cute and shallow, and cheaper than retail.

Finally, one has to ponder how Dwight Yoakam got on this bill. As a true purveyor of traditional country music, Yoakam has maintained a unique identity and put out a ton of great music over the past 20 years. But his recent work doesn't get any radio airplay, guess it must be "too country," huh? Maybe he's the oldies act. But at least Yoakam carries the torch, however dimly it glows.

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