Album Review: John Rich – Son of a Preacher Man

As a member of Big & Rich, the self proclaimed “Cowbooy Stevie Wonder” (I have no idea what that supposedly means) has performed with a midget named Two Foot Fred dancing on stage beside him while featuring (on multiple tracks) Cowboy Troy, a black country rapper whose ice-cold rhymes (often in rudimentary Spanish) would have been lame in 1992. Indeed, John Rich is Nashville’s leading attention whore, an outspoken redneck populist with an addiction to self-serving publicity stunts such as his tenure as host of the incomprehensibly pointless CMT series “Gone Country.”

These examples amount to little more than the tip of the ridiculous John Rich iceberg, it’s generally difficult to see him as more than a weird sideshow attraction. That’s because John Rich is a weird sideshow attraction. He’s also one of country music’s best songwriters—when he chooses to be.

Much of the material on Big & Rich’s debut album Horse of a Different Color has to be considered among some of the best contemporary country of the decade, and elsewhere Rich has proven himself as a deft songsmith, especially in terms of melodic construction. Aside from his work on Horse, Rich was at the helm of, and a principal contributor to, John Anderson’s splendid 2007 disc Easy Money.

Unfortunately, Rich can also be one of country’s worst songwriters, prone to pandering and laziness. Further, as Rich’s career has progressed, his ego has grown exponentially and he has become increasingly self-aware and obsessed with constructing ideologically-founded music at the expense of high achievement. With Son of a Preacher Man, Rich attempts to brand himself as purveyor of everyman themes and common sense logic, but that thematic conceit forces his lyrical creativity into an unnecessarily limited arena where clichéd ideas overwhelm any actual poignancy that exists. Son of a Preacher Man is an album that tries too hard to fit a prescribed concept, and it’s all the worse because of it.

In Rich’s quest to relate to the Joe the Plumbers of the world, he boils his song ideas down to very basic levels, and the result is an album that probably sounds very good to those who haven’t heard very many country songs, but one that treads pedestrian on the ears of those who recognize that everything Rich says here has been said before. “Trucker Man,” for example, is a song seemingly constructed as if its intended audience has never heard any other songs about truckers. Rich capably describes a driver who works as hard as he can to get home as quickly as possible; it’s a well-detailed but prototypical song that serves as a prime example of exactly why Son of a Preacher Manfalls flat.

The album contains no depth of thought. There is no color or character underlining these stories, and as a result the material here comes across as overly simplistic, especially when Rich slips into politico mode (on current hit “Shuttin’ Detroit Down” and “The Good Lord And The Man”), taking on a far-fetched blue-collar persona that feels strangely condescending. In both songs, the basis for Rich’s anger or frustration stems from comments he’s witnessed while watching the evening news, as if such topical sources as two minute news segments are the driving factor behind his audience’s world view. (Never mind that later on the album, on “Everybody Wants To Be Me,” Rich espouses his riches, declaring himself a country rock star and referring to his bling–which would seem to contradict the whole “regular guy” persona.)

Both “Detroit” and “Good Lord” dispense with any loyalty to fact or logic–particularly the latter song, which declares that if it wasn’t for the good lord and the man, “We’d all be speaking German, living under the flag of Japan,” which is simply a regurgitation of an ages-old soundbyte that ignores its own context. Certainly, had various events within WWII seen different outcomes, the global political landscape could look very different today. But the idea that “We’d all be speaking German, living under the flag of Japan” is problematic on so many levels that it’s hard to believe any artist–especially one as smart as Rich–would embrace it.

The rest of Son of a Preacher Man meanders between boring and rudimentary, never truly bad but seldom remarkable. Here Rich embraces a solidly country aesthetic that suits his voice well, and his singing is actually improved over previous efforts; there is considerably more color and soul shining through here then we’re used to hearing from him. Particularly, on “Why Does Somebody Always Have To Die” (an immeasurably atrocious lyric about…well, people dying—including Jesus), Rich shows off some surprisingly engaging chops.

As a whole, however, Son of a Preacher Man reads like a failed, unfocused concept album. Rich is capable of better than this, but only when his writing is unencumbered by the pretense and prescription that dominates this record.

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