Common wisdom says that Nashville’s best material has a hard time finding its way to radio, either because the most colorful (and often quirky) tunes penned by the city’s immensely talented core of writers end up relegated to “album track” status, or because those more left-of-center songs never get cut in the first place. In recent memory there have been rare examples of non-standard themes rising to hit status–“Mrs. Steven Rudy” and “International Harvester” come to mind. For the most part, however, there is a startling disconnect between the quality of what gets shipped to radio and what the writers of those songs are actually capable of producing.
For better or worse, a big part of this is due to the fact that it’s difficult to strike a balance between artistic creativity and commercial message; country music is a business that targets millions of listeners, and more generalized themes typically translate more effectively over such a wide demographic. Songs that are too quirky can be alienating, while songs that are too smart can go over the heads of certain portions of the audience.
That’s why, when you visit Nashville, you’ll hear songwriters who you thought capable only of the lightest possible fare instead performing truly fantastic songs that will probably never be recorded by a major artist.
Trent Tomlinson’s latest single (the first quality release from new label Carolwood), certainly isn’t too smart for country radio, but it is a considerable departure from the very narrow scope of material currently defining the format. Full of colorful, highly descriptive language, it reminds me of the kind of song you’d hear at a Nashville writer’s night, but would be surprised to hear blasting from your car stereo.
Henry Cartwright, owner of a small-town produce (and prayer) stand, is neither a hero nor a villain—although he could fill the role of both, depending on your perspective. Is Cartwright a symbol of the values that define the moral core of “the South,” or is he a fabricated relic of an idealized past that was never actually representative of the people or places around him?
The song never answers this question. “Henry Cartwright’s Produce Stand” does not exist to pass judgment on Henry Cartwright–which is why this piece of slick, mainstream Americana remains charming, even in spite of its obvious commercially-fueled construction. It strives for no great drama, nor does it attempt to drive home any particular lesson or moral teaching. Instead, it settles for being an aptly drawn portrait of an often overlooked individual; Cartwright, probably seen as little more than a speck on the side of the road by the average passerby, is shown as flesh and blood, and valuable member of society who wields considerable influence.
To be sure, this song provides a candy-coated and one-sided portrayal of the character. We don’t get to see his flaws or his fears. But the song ultimately allows us to come to our own conclusion about “what it takes to make a man a man,” and as to whether or not Henry Cartwright is a capable commentator on the subject.
This is a song about character–the literary kind–and that’s something country radio could use a lot more of these days. Henry Cartwright, however we may choose to view him, is a carefully, thoughtfully, and loving crafted individual. His introduction is well worth four minutes of our time.
Now if only I could head on down to the produce stand to taste some of those “sinful” watermelons.