Country music and Broadway tend to have very little in common: Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 musical and Reba McEntire’s lauded star turn in Annie Get Your Gun are perhaps the highest profile crossovers between the two disparate worlds in recent memory—not counting Randy Travis’s gay panic when confronted with Adam Lambert’s WTF cover of “Ring of Fire” on American Idol. Enter Kentucky native Laura Bell Bundy, whose film credits include “That girl who grows up to be Bonnie Hunt in Jumanji” but who is better known for her stage work, having played Amber in Hairspray and having originated the role of Elle Woods in the Legally Blonde musical. If Bundy learned anything from her years on stage, it’s how to make an entrance, because her debut single and video, “Giddy on Up,” are hands-down the most fascinating opening salvos to come out of Nashville in years. Granted, “fascinating” doesn’t necessarily equate to “good,” but Bundy actually wants her audience to have a strong opinion, and that’s a risk worth talking about. Which brings the conversation to this:
A generally accepted maxim is that “camp” can’t be self-aware: it doesn’t happen on purpose, and something intentionally campy usually just reduces to, at best, performance art and, at worst, a stunt performance. It’s the reason genre throwbacks like Grindhouse and Bitch Slap don’t really work as intended, or why Kellie Pickler should stop trying to insist that she’s in on the joke. By dialing every aspect of her performance up to 11, Bundy’s attempt at camp misfires, resulting in something shrill and garish. Though her intention may have been to find a middle ground between her flair for the theatrical and her designs on country stardom, and though her sense of humor about the whole affair is obvious, “Giddy on Up” reads like a drag interpretation of a country music video. Lip syncing worse than the kids on Glee, setting her makeup gun to “whore,” and mugging and winking incessantly throughout the whole thing, Bundy suffocates the video’s relatively simple concept under a whole lot of bombast and tulle. My uncle has already picked up several yards of bright turquoise fabric to make the costume for his next drag revue. Considering that his last show number was Jessica Simpson’s cover of “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” Bundy may want to consider more carefully the company she keeps.
Still, the real problem here isn’t the video’s too-much-of-itself histrionics. Instead, it’s that the video ultimately distracts from the song itself, which is interesting enough to merit consideration on its own. What works about “Giddy on Up” is that it is fundamentally respectful of country songwriting conventions, sticking to a straightforward narrative about a no-good cheater and then conveying that narrative with both an economic use of language and a certain flair. The lyric on which the opening verse hinges, “A tall drink of water and a pretty little thing/Were kissing on the corner in the pouring rain/Turned my head to get a better view/Oh Lord help me, it was you,” demonstrates a well-executed reversal and the kind of mastery of the natural meter of language that has eluded John Rich for his entire career. That the song also incorporates a proper B-section that leads into its relatively simple refrain and hook also shows the kind of awareness of pop songcraft and structure that are easily the most impressive aspects of Taylor Swift’s songwriting.
Also working in the single’s favor is its inventive production. One of the few singles to do anything of note with the ideas set forth by Big & Rich’s “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)” and Little Big Town’s “Boondocks,” “Giddy on Up” foregrounds its traditional country instruments—an insistent fiddle line and a terrific banjo figure that drives both of the verses—in stark contrast to the bulk of what gets played on country radio today. The brass section that explodes in the chorus, then, makes for a structurally smart choice that matches the forcefulness of the song’s kiss-off. If nothing else, it’s refreshing to hear a single that sounds contemporary—that brass section is straight out of Mark Ronson’s playbook—while still retaining some genuine respect for the sounds on which country music was built.
Bundy, for her part, overdoes her vocal performance, affecting an exaggerated Southern drawl that doesn’t sound the least bit authentic and strangling most of her vowels in the process. There’s something very Kristin Chenoweth about it, which only heightens the love-it-or-hate-it aspect of the performance. Despite the corn-pone put-on, though, it’s clear that she has a proficient voice that bears a great deal more personality and conviction than those of many of country’s current A- and B-list stars. But what’s most compelling about Bundy is that she seems to have a distinct point of view and a real sense of purpose. If she’s able to reign in some of her stagier tendencies and refine her taste, she may not need to push quite this hard.