That connection between good-hearted introspective country rock and religious symbolism was intimate and constantly intertwining. Since the days of Charlie Daniels and his immortal battle against the Antichrist itself, it seems country was only a hop, skip, and a jump away from eternal damnation. Robert Johnson, a clear country precursor and ancient icon of the genre (his sound was a purer folk, that’s for sure) historically sold his soul to the devil to become a guitar virtuoso. I could never tire of listening to his sweet voice marred in a dark visage of racism and mortality.
At some point in the last 15 years, this intertwining grand battle of religious understanding, soul, and humanizing country music was traded in for Keith Urban and Brad Paisley. Now this big arena rock country-pop has been present in the genre for decades prior. We can’t write off the fact that Kenny Rogers, even as fun as his music is, is still a pop songwriter at heart. And George Strait is probably responsible for ushering in this cultural idiom of country pop. But the shift towards pop-friendly country rock is obvious, and the artists with more of a soulful lyrical edge are relegated to the sidelines.
Something tells me that Jesse Lenat is okay being here, at least for now. I could not see Jesse Lenat sincerely pushing forward big arena-ready love ballads. It may not be in his blood, though something tells me he would do a damn fine job at it if given the opportunity. Lenat is of a dying breed. His country rock channels something smarter and perhaps more sullen than many of his peers. Lenat wants to talk about the 99%- the all of us who are not really even fighting the big machine anymore, but just want to stop being looked at as victims or statistics. In “99%,” we scream for a decent wage. At the end of the day, a part of us just wants to be left alone to be happy- oppression is a bitch.
Lenat’s current opus is ‘Devil Be,” which circles us back to the religious undercurrent. I could not see Brad Paisley talking about the devil in himself without relating it to a fight with an ex-girlfriend or some type of pursuit towards unconditional love. But Lenat is surrounded by devils. He hears the trumpet croon, the world is ending ala the Book of revelations. The angels smile, and disappear, left to be surrounded by devils.
Lenat ends up bringing this right down to his own reality, and the meaning of religion in, well, the 99%. He even mentions being the president, an idea that is both riddled in heroism and evil. If you want to lead this world, you got to be a little cold.
‘Devil Be” is a wonderful song, layered in nimble-minded observations. Lenat is releasing his forth full-length album, Son of a Cactus Farmer. It is a continuation of his observations on humanity with a greater focus on the natural world. Lenat seems to be reserved in the smaller things in life. The album is almost purely acoustic, which lends well to his soul-baring studies on his own life. Lenat ends up filtering his story, such as his father’s farm being run into foreclosure and the family being forced off the land, in folksy ballads that run antithesis to the big arena-prepared country rock intoxicating the genre.