New Country for Old Men: Kenny Chesney, “American Kids”

Published on September 5th, 2014 in: Music, New Country For Old Men |

By Jeffery X Martin


As I’ve said before, country music is a train wreck, a big one, where you can’t identify the body parts because they’ve been replaced by twisted steel and tiny fragments of seats and gears. Everything is all jumbled together and, unless you’ve happened to luck onto some old stuff, you can’t tell the country from the can’t-ry.

So why do I still listen?


There is so much potential in country music. The talent pool is gigantic. I keep hoping I’ll hear something that restores my faith in the genre and keeps me believing, something that breaks a mold or does something different, or says something that makes me think or makes me laugh, something besides “ooh baby baby” or “yee-haw tailgates whiskey tight jeans.”

I get that every once in a while. For example, take a listen to the latest single from Kenny Chesney, “American Kids.”

Say what you want about Chesney. Say he’s the Wal-Mart of Country Music. Make fun of his giant hat and his male pattern baldness. Speculate about his short-lived marriage to Renee Zellweger. When Chesney churns out a hit, it is rarely anything less than top-notch.

“American Kids” lives and dies by the bassline; all the other instruments are practically ambient. There’s no complicated twang solo, no pedal steel. Just that bass, snapping fingers, hand claps and background singers.

The lyrics are a fantastic stream of consciousness riff, almost a scat rhyme, full of evocations instead of actual sentences.

Doublewide Quick Stop midnight T-top
Jack in her Cherry Coke town

It’s poetry. I had to write papers about verses like that in college. It’s like somebody hiccupped Larry McMurtry. The whole thing is damned near perfect. It’s as catchy as the clap. If it had been released a little earlier, it could have been the soundtrack to the summer.

Chesney didn’t write the song, but nobody could have performed it like he does. His voice is strong, and the fun he has with the song is obvious in his delivery. It’s a gem, and it doesn’t make me feel dirty after listening to it.

There are country artists who are still doing it right. They’re taking chances, but they haven’t forgotten where they come from. They seem to understand that singing country music in front of millions of people is a privilege, that telling stories and celebrating your heritage are timeless activities, things we’ve been doing since we huddled around campfires at night, waiting for the Sun God to return in the morning. When done correctly, country isn’t just a reflection of what we are, it’s who we are.

And when Kenny Chesney sings (as the great Robin Zander did before him), that we’re “a little messed up, but we’re all all right,” it’s a declaration of hope for the whole genre.

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