It's a dismissive, derogatory term coined by coastal dwellers whose planes rarely touch down between New York and Los Angeles or San Francisco and Boston. Exactly the kind of country that country music frequently exalts as its artists sing the virtues and vices of small-town, rural America.
Depending on which country singers we're talking about, the ratio of virtue to vice can vary pretty widely. One minute, we may be hearing about Jesus, apple pie and the dignity of hard work on the farm. The next, well, the same trucks that do all that hard work become vehicles for all manner of bad behavior, often involving alcohol and, well, sex.
In a recent interview, country veteran Kenny Chesney indicated that the genre has more to offer than just these clichés. "There's so much more to country than trucks, creek beds and cut-offs," reported Rolling Stone. That may be true, but Chesney's latest effort seems to reinforce those clichés more than it challenges them.
"American Kids" is the first single from Chesney's 15th album, The Big Revival. And we do indeed get a nod to Jesus' salvific power in the chorus of this modern-sounding, stripped-down acoustic celebration of Americana. Unfortunately, not everything Chesney celebrates is quite as wholesome as mom, Main Street and Jesus.
Chesney wastes no time diving into canned country imagery—immediately reinforcing the suggestion that "flyover country" is a place of redneck poverty numbed by alcohol. "Doublewide, Quick Stop, midnight T-top/Jack in her Cherry Coke town/Momma and Daddy put their rights right here/'Cause this is where the car broke down."
The chorus then blasts through a rapid-fire litany of the cultural forces at work shaping small-town life. The fact that Chesney puts them in the past tense strongly suggests an autobiographical feel as he perhaps recalls his childhood: Things start off with that nod to Jesus, as well as girls and Bruce Springsteen ("We were Jesus save me/Blue jean baby/Born in the U.S.A."). Chesney then lobs a few more familiar country settings into his narrative: "Trailer park, truck stop, faded little map dots/New York to L.A." And he reminisces fondly about hyperactive teen hormones and smoking something (perhaps cigarettes, perhaps marijuana): "We were teenage dreamin'/Front seat leanin'/Baby, come give me a kiss/ ... Uptown, down home American kids/Growin' up in little pink houses/Makin' out on living room couches/Blowin' that smoke on a Saturday night/A little messed up, but we were alright."
Church shows up in the next verse, but its influence on the teens in its parking lot seems negligible. "Baptist church parkin' lot, tryin' not to get caught/Take her home and give her your jacket," Chesney relates. Then a story about how the story changes—and not in a good way—come Monday at school. "Makin' it to second base, but sayin' you went all the way/Monday afternoon at practice."
From there we move to one last vignette, this time zooming in on a protective father sitting on the porch with his rifle: "Sister's got a boyfriend Daddy doesn't like/Now he's sittin' out back, .30-30 in his lap/In the blue bug zapper light."
Kenny Chesney says he's interested in pursuing different themes in country music. But this song mostly just does more of the same. Jesus and church make appearances, but only in the background, really. In the foreground? Romanticized recollections of American kids from little pink houses making reckless choices and "tryin' not to get caught."
The song's video seeks to amplify the intended feel-good vibe. It features Chesney and a psychedelic bus full of young people making their way across the desert. It's all about having some good clean fun he says. "The spirit of this thing—the song, the bus, the idea of the kids riding around, having fun, playing music and just celebrating life—makes you want to get involved," Chesney told Entertainment Tonight. "Fun is where and how you make it. Out in the sun with a bunch of friends—and the people who work on my videos have been making them with me for more than a decade—even buckets of paint and a bus that needs to be covered can give you a reason to have fun."
If only the song itself were as innocently "fun" as its carefree road trip video strives to be.