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Thursday
Feb142008

Red Ragtops + Memory Stains

Tim McGraw Gets A Little Real With Country Radio

There was a time when country music pulled no punches. When it said what was on its mind, blunt as a sledgehammer -- and swung hard as Paul Bunyan with that axe. We're talking Loretta Lynn gettin' reproductive control in "The Pill" and declaring her secession from marital duty on "Don't Come Home A-Drinkin' (With Lovin' On Your Mind)," Conway Twitty just flat-out calling his carnality with "I'd Love To Lay You Down," Johnny Paycheck getting all overt on the big boss man with "Take This Job and Shove it" and Johnny Cash confessing the bottomless senselessness of murder with the admission "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die…"

With the exception of Toby Keith's almost burlesque ugly American bravado of "The Red, White + Blue," nobody in country music seems to want to speak up or speak out. Getting real nowadays is about like getting pulled over -- something to be avoided at all costs.

Matraca Berg, who won the CMA Song of the Year Award, says that when she said in an interview "Strawberry Wine" was about trading one's hymen for experience, bliss and the transition to womanhood, some stations quit playing the record. She even got mail from people saying they wanted to return the record.

Anyone who heard "Strawberry Wine" recognized it as a bittersweet reminiscence of something all young people go through. The experience of losing one's virginity should be something viewed with tenderness -- and in the case of the young girl in Berg's song, a certain hunger for knowledge that exists beyond the classroom: knowledge of emotions, of bodies, of communion of the flesh and the spirit. It was a song that served as a bridge from unknowing child to youth on the path to adulthood.

Bittersweet is the color of Tim McGraw's latest single as well. "Red Ragtop," with its loping tempo and backwards view, captures both the heat of young lust and the weight of the consequences. And while it may be hard to believe that the man who gave you "Indian Outlaw" and "a barbecue stain on my white t-shirt" would be the potential ground zero for the return of unflinching content in country music stand poised to bring country music directly into the 21st century.

"Red Ragtop" is reportage -- on what happened once and where the singer is now. It is the not-quite-faltering confession of choices made, decisions lived with and the (un) expected denouement of consequences beyond the pale. "Red Ragtop" is a song about the heat of passion leading to the depths of reality -- a 20-year old boy and an 18-year old girl, unmarried, out of work and faced with the dilemma of a child that neither are equipped to handle.

"We were young and wild," the singer confesses, "and we decided not to have the child."

It is not said with justification -- or any other emotional underpinning. The teller isn't about to dodge responsibility, nor is he going to wallow in pity-me-for-what's-happened bathos. No this is straight-up life, no chaser, the kind of tale that defines us in its just how it is.

Whomever this young man is he offers no excuses, no explanations. He just blinks into the light, tells what happened -- copes with whatever might haunt him. And in country music, where losing one's virginity is a scandal, where we don't really drink or fight or much of anything else -- except ache and fall in love for forever, the notion of a song dealing with abortion is unfathomable.

Until Tim McGraw went north. With his own band. And made a single that was all about the music and the message. The singer who plays to Middle America's common streak isn't making taking a stand more than likely. His own mother gave birth unwed to the dark-haired renegade artist -- and kept his father's identity from him as much to shield the young boy from abandonment as to protect him from pining for a man who would not be there.

If ever there was a candidate for a young woman in a back room termination, it would've been Tim's mom. But she didn't believe that way. That was her option, her belief, her values. And so it is that her son can sing a song about the other option, a song that will make you twinge just a little and dig a little deeper when the topic comes up again.

As a Catholic for Choice, I wish I could say I had answers. I'm not sure I'm comfortable dictating how others should live their lives, especially when I can't know their circumstances. Who am I to say? No doubt there must be a cost -- and the ghosts of what might've been certainly die harder than lovers gone or childhood pets that left this world prematurely.

I don't want to determine how someone else lives or decide what they can cope with. I'm not even sure we can imagine how it feels until we're standing in their shoes.

Even "Red Ragtop" avoids drawing broad spectrum conclusions. With the admission, "Well you do what you do and you pay for your sins/ and there's no such thing as what might've been/ that's a waste of time, drive you out of your mind…," Tim McGraw looks back the wiser on an object in the rearview mirror that was far larger than it appeared.

Not one to point fingers, there is very much a sense of what was slipping through theirs. If this was a fate two youngsters couldn't handle, they made the decision they did. Though the girl implored the boy, "please don't stop…loving me," there are some shocks to the system that can't be sustained.

Whether it was merely young hormones burning off or the inability to deal with the weight of the situation, eventually the passion broke into pieces and fall apart. It may've been nature's course, but there will always be the stain of shame and guilt and what happened on the memory of that first love.

Time heals all. Softens regrets. Offers the solace of the immovability of the things we do in the moment that may not make as much sense in the long run. In the moment, you believe, "No, we did what we did and we tried to forget/ and we swore up and down there would be no regrets" because you must cope, survive, get through it.

Everything can be weathered. The question comes down to the damage. Because the options are pretty slim: deal or die. For the two brave hearts of "Red Ragtop," they're not ready to fold… they do the thing they believe they need to and they get on with their lives.

Ultimately, they come to realize that the great love may not be definitive. Eventually he realizes, "It was all make believe in the end." It is the truth that paves over what was. The roads diverge, draw up and pull away, head towards other horizons. All that is left is the echo of a decision, an action and the reaction. Looking over his shoulder at a younger boy, the singer confesses the truth only time can allow: "And I can't say where she is today/ I can't remember who I was back then…"

It is the admission of someone who's traveled many miles, learned many things, seen even more. It's all pale in the past, so much gone from the recollection. If there's no recognition for the boy parked out in a grove, locked in a fevered embrace, there's still some twinge of want and wonder.

With a gracefulness a bit alien to these sorts of truth-telling songs -- something that sidesteps judgement, flat-out avoids grandstanding and haranguing, heavy handed moralizing -- there is that moment when it all comes back in blazes. Sitting at a traffic light, the past is present in spades.

Seems a young girl in a Cabriolet pulls up next to him. Her eyes are green and her future is limitless. In that moment, he returns to the true moment of definition -- not in the backseat or the living room where a decision was made or a clinic where a termination took place. That would be the easiest mark of innocence lost.

No, no, no… Tim McGraw's narrator survives all that with the resolve of what had to be done. Sitting at that traffic light, there's a moment of pregnant exhale -- and then the boy once again becomes a man, singing, "And I was in an old scene/ I was back in that red ragtop/ on the day she stopped loving me…"

It wasn't what happened or what they did. It was the moment when the bond was broken that struck the hardest. In the cold dawn of what wasn't, this is a song about coming of age the hard way. "Red Ragtop" never judges, it merely offers a portrait of something harrowing… something middle America… something that could happen to anyone.

In the shudder that is drawn from the admission that try-though-they-might, they couldn't outrun what happened is as cautionary a tale as anything out there. It's about deeper emotional costs than what shows on paper -- and it reminds us all that consequences are often more pervasive than they ever seem.

For Tim McGraw to record a song like this is brave. To put it out as a single is either foolhardy or brilliant. For the man who's the proud father of three, it's a song that challenges people to face their own biases, attitudes and truths. With "Red Ragtop," there will no doubt be much conversation stirred.

Will there be clarity on the subject? Hardly a consensus perhaps. But any time a life or belief can be examined closely, we're all probably the better for it. The "why" being as important as the "how" if we are to learn to respect each other's differences.

At this point, who knows how country radio will respond. They may not even realize yet what the song is about -- and that's okay. Let it find its way and its audience, before the controversy kicks in. Ultimately, it's not for us to judge -- merely to sow compassion on those struggling with the choices they've made.

For country radio, the choice is one of the most powerful in ages. Is it censorship to not play this song? Is it suicide to embrace something that in reality is the embodiment of the whole First Amendment truth? And what about a genre of music that never flinched when it came to how it was?

Because how it most likely was was this: two kids consumed by the will to feel as much of the other and the throbbing release they found within another(more than not for the first time) didn't understand and got into trouble. Terrified by the responsibility of a child, they took another way out because "I was out of a job and she was in school/ Life was fast and the world was cruel…"

They were responding -- with their limited knowledge -- to how the world looked and felt. One never gets the sense that the singer, lost on the scent of what was so strong amongst the carnage of what was, ever felt particularly good about this event. It's more stoic pragmaticism. And that's what -- besides a killer hook and a melody that sweeps you up like a dust bunny -- makes "Red Ragtop" so compelling.

In a world where it's about cumulative audience, tune-out is the enemy. Whether "Red Ragtop" holds or repels remains to be seen. But if it can punch through the Hallmark, offer some modicum of measured truth, it's impact is huge.

But it needed to be written about before the die were cast: hit or stiff. For then this becomes an essay of praise or damnation, a reaction to what happened -- rather than what was done, created, offered up.

For Tim McGraw, who appeared two CMA Awards ago singing a provocative if challenging song about the genre called "Things Change," this may be his biggest gamble yet. If it works, he returns country music to being the unburnished truth genre -- a place where we look at how it is even if it doesn't fit the Norman Rockwell, "Leave It To Beaver" specifications that have defined American family life as we know it.

"Red Ragtop" isn't a beachhead, by the way, or a grand gesture. It's a well-written song about something difficult that people face up to everyday. If it doesn't get people pushing the buttons on their car radios, one can only imagine the healing and resolution that lies ahead.

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