Is a reductive engagement with social issues worse than no engagement at all?
That was the question raised last month by "Accidental Racist," Brad Paisley and LL Cool J's astonishingly simple-minded meditation on American race relations. Many critics assailed the song -- in which Paisley describes himself as "just a white man coming to you from the Southland, trying to understand what it's like not to be" -- for handling its topic as a (white) child might.
But others offered cautious praise for the song's willingness to address race at all, a perceived rarity in country music.
Now, Kenny Chesney is raising the question again (albeit in characteristically lower-key fashion) with "Lindy," from his new album, "Life on a Rock." A gentle acoustic shuffle, the song sketches a thumbnail portrait of its title character, who strolls around town "pick[ing] up pennies," "tak[ing] cigarettes from strangers" and "play[ing] piano at the church when nobody's watching."
So with his "calloused feet" and his habit of "talking to himself," Lindy appears to be a homeless man. And good for Chesney, you think: Here's one of country's biggest stars, a guy who recently established a fund for victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, shining a light on an ugly reality of American life.
But "Lindy" soon devolves into the kind of earnest cluelessness that brought Paisley so much derision. Here's the song's second verse:
Lindy's seen it all
Storms and hurricanes
Some say he's insane
No one knows his last name
But I believe he's the salt of the earth
Just look past his dirty shirt and you will see just what he's worth
In fact, that's more pernicious than cluelessness -- it's self-aggrandizement masquerading as empathy. Chesney wants us to feel for Lindy, to see him deeper than we might be inclined to. But the song doesn't actually say anything substantive about Lindy; its takeaway has to do with Chesney and his exceptional sensitivity.
As with Paisley, who notwithstanding "Accidental Racist" might be Nashville's sharpest tunesmith, Chesney's tone-deafness here seems especially egregious because it's surrounded by better, smarter material.
"Life on a Rock" is one of his occasional forays into singer-songwriter music more intimate than the stuff on muscular arena-country efforts such as last year's "Welcome to the Fishbowl," which featured a collaboration with Tim McGraw called "Feel Like a Rock Star."
Chesney wrote or co-wrote eight of the 10 songs on the album, including the reflective "It's That Time of Day" and "Must Be Something I Missed," a wry examination of need that contains this Randy Newman-grade couplet: "I wake up in the morning just making a fist / I don't call it living, I just exist."
In "Pirate Flag," which he didn't write, Chesney memorably describes the primary export of his Tennessee hometown: "Moonshine, that's where they make it," he sings. "Put it in a jug, makes you wanna get naked." And "When I See This Bar" has some strong wordplay.
Even "Coconut Tree," a dopey duet with Willie Nelson, offers the charming picture of Nelson, who just turned 80, "shimmy[ing] up and shak[ing] the good ones down."
Too bad he didn't persuade Chesney to shake off "Lindy."
"Life on a Rock"
(Blue Chair/Columbia Nashville)