Why Pure Country Deserves Another Chance

In the wake of country legend Merle Haggard's death, Nathan Rabin looks at a small film that explores the nature of country music stardom.

by | May 18, 2016 | Comments



Country music places a curious, even perverse premium on authenticity and purity, on the concept of “real” or “true” or “pure” country that stands strong in sharp contrast to the watered-down compromises and cynical calculation of the stuff you hear on the radio. Yet country itself is inveterately a mutt — a genre and a state of mind with its roots in folk and blues and Hawaiian guitar and a whole mess of other unexpected and unlikely influences.

Merle Haggard, who died recently after a remarkable life and career, represents the impure nature of country. No matter what he sang, it invariably sounded country, even if its roots were in the howling railroad blues of Jimmie Rodgers, the jazz-infused western swing of Haggard’s beloved Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys, or the more conventional jazz of a song like “It’s All In The Movies.” It was the very lack of purity that made Haggard so compelling and so difficult to pin down culturally and musically.

During the Countrypolitan days of the 1950s and 1960s, producers dressed up the hillbilly sentiments of country crooners with strings and fancy background vocal groups in an attempt to appeal to a more cosmopolitan audience. In the decades that followed, a never-ending battle raged for the soul of the genre. When Garth Brooks brought country to the masses in the late 1980s, he was vilified by purists as a man who had made country more popular than ever at the cost of the genre’s everlasting soul.

So when country superstar and Brooks rival George Strait made his film debut with a movie called Pure Country at the height of Garth Brooks’ gaudy Vegas-style crossover success, it sure felt like an overt commentary on Brooks’ appeal. Pure Country is about a country superstar played by a country superstar, but on a more symbolic level, it was about the uncertain state of country music in the early 1990s.

Was country the righteous rebel music of the white Southern underclass, or something to entertain Wal-Mart managers during their commute to work? Was it the music of honky-tonks or arenas? Was it a form of folk music sacred to its true believers, or money-making pop? Pure Country has strong, unsurprising opinions on this subject,but in star George Strait, it had the best of both worlds. Strait was the arena-ready superstar of the Garth Brooks/Shania Twain era who was also widely respected by those who worshiped gods like Haggard, Johnny Cash, and Hank Williams.


In his first and final lead performance as a film actor, Strait acquits himself quite nicely.

Pure Country opens with some kitschy Americana, as we’re ushered into the film’s country-fried world by images of a clean-cut boy growing up, set to the tune of a child’s off-key voice warbling about all of the following subjects, among others:

  • twin fiddles
  • a steel guitar
  • the heartland
  • the American heart
  • Opry music
  • smiling
  • tears
  • a good man’s work ethic
  • conventional morality
  • decent common folk

Then, about halfway through, something remarkable happens. The child’s voice is replaced by the strong, confident crooning of a man named George Strait, and the song stops feeling like a silly, borderline embarrassing burlesque of country corn and begins to feel like a country song, and a pretty solid, convincing one at that.

I spent two years exploring the heart worn highways of country music history for a column I wrote for The A.V Club called Nashville or Bust, and in that time I came to develop not just a tolerance but an appreciation for country schmaltz. Cornball Americana and shameless pandering are such core elements of the genre that to complain about them is a little like griping that a blues song or artist isn’t chipper enough. When something is a central aspect of a genre, it seems a little silly to single it out as a fault.

We then segue from the past to the present, where Strait’s character, “Dusty” Chandler, is rampaging his way through the massive arenas of God’s own United States in a furious hurry, like he’s freakin’ Kiss or something. Unlike his own superstar persona, Strait is cast as a man with Garth Brooks’ over-the-top, Branson-on-acid stage show and Billy Ray Cyrus’ regrettable follicular situation.

Director Christopher Cain layers the stadium-sized performances of Dusty and his band in a way that conveys how exciting it must be for fans to hear these songs and how draining and tedious it might be to play them over and over again, night after night. Dusty isn’t just bigger than he’d like to be. Like Garth Brooks in the early 1990s, he’s probably bigger, commercially, than anyone should be, particularly someone whose music and roots and aesthetics can be traced to honky-tonks.

Dusty’s manager Lulu Rogers — played by a scene-stealing, scenery-devouring Leslie Anne Warren as a show-business anti-Christ in the devil’s red leather — just wants to keep the money train running smoothly. She’s already moved on, psychologically and professionally, to the next handsome man in a cowboy hat she plans to make a star, a squirrely ball of scheming professional ambition played with brash charisma by a pre-stardom, pre-Friday Night Lights Kyle Chandler.

The tacky glamour of bright lights and packed houses have lost all appeal for Dusty. After a particularly frustrating performance, he decides to just walk out, to turn his back on stardom and return to his roots, both geographical and cultural, by heading back to his hometown in a bid to win back his soul and regain his love for music.


Pure Country feels fundamentally honest and convincing despite the ridiculously melodramatic nature of its plot and its corny themes and messages.

Pure Country takes the notion that the glitz and spectacle of the Garth Brooks aesthetic were so blinding that it almost didn’t matter who was up on stage to its logical extreme by literally replacing Dusty with Buddy without anyone noticing. This might seem unrealistic, but remember that at the height of his fame, Garth Brooks himself was replaced onstage by a lookalike roadie with a weight problem for as many as 30 dates a year without a single person noticing.

While Lulu tries to keep Dusty’s tour going even after he mysteriously goes AWOL, our disgruntled and dissatisfied protagonist re-learns the simple pleasures and homespun joys of small town life. He even begins dating a small town girl (Isabel Glasser) with aspirations to win the big rodeo so that she can save the family farm from those meanies over at the bank.

Pure Country was made with a light touch that allows it to simultaneously tap into the homey conventions of country music, which deify the dewy innocence and goodness of common folk, and demonize and vilify fancy-pants big-money city slickers, having fun with them all the while. There’s a quietly wonderful scene, for example, when Dusty’s drummer and sidekick, Earl Blackstock (character actor and X frontman John Doe), visits Dusty’s grandmother in his efforts to track down his boss and get him to return to the tour. Rather than offer a direct answer, grandma dispenses metaphorical homespun country wisdom about roots and branches and whatnot. Doe, who brings to the role a sense of authenticity that can only come from a lifelong musician playing a lifelong musician, handles the scene perfectly. His goofy smile and sense of incredulity conveys that the grandma may, in fact, be the wise guru she appears to be, or she could just be a crazy old lady babbling gibberish that people mistake for wisdom.

Strait has a nice chemistry with Doe that makes it easy to believe that the two of them have been performing together for decades; their musical and non-musical bond is so strong it borders on telepathic. He brings an ingratiating prickliness to the role, particularly in the first act when he’s getting ready to leave his gilded cage in search of the America of pick-up truck commercials and Republican campaign ads. In his first and, it turns out, final lead performance as a film actor, Strait acquits himself quite nicely.

Like country itself, Pure Country is in love with cliches, particularly the one about country music being all about soul and sincerity and personal expression, about the music, man, and not the glitz and the glamour and the fireworks shows and flying harnesses and concept albums where bored country-pop powerhouses pretend to be fictional Australian rockers with soul patches.


Pure Country is largely devoid of surprises, but that doesn’t make it any less emotionally satisfying.

Here’s the thing about country music, pure or otherwise. It doesn’t matter if the words, sentiments and ideas being expressed are original or shocking or bold or new. No, it only matters that the emotions being expressed feel honest and sincere and true. On that level, Pure Country feels fundamentally honest and convincing despite the ridiculously melodramatic nature of its plot and its corny themes and messages.

As a movie star as well as a musician, George Strait has a real gift for selling even the tritest of sentiments through presence, directness, and effortless charisma. Pure Country has the good sense to put Strait next to a microphone with a guitar in his hands for much of the film. As a country music morality tale where the spirit of Willie, Waylon, and Hank triumphs over the crass vulgarity of the Garth Brooks phenomenon, Pure Country is largely devoid of surprises, but that doesn’t make it any less emotionally satisfying.

Pure Country was not a hit, but today it has a distinct cult among people like my father-in-law, a South African neurologist in suburban Atlanta who loves nothing more than to pick up a guitar while howling a Bob Dylan song. Culturally, his roots are a ways removed, but he feels the music in his soul. That’s what really matters.

He must not be alone in his love of Pure Country, because almost two decades after it disappointed at the box-office, a direct to video sequel was released, featuring a cameo from Strait as himself, confusingly enough. Aside from that, Strait hasn’t starred in any more movies, and considering how confidently and ably he carries Pure Country, that’s a bit of a shame. After Pure Country (whose soundtrack is the most successful album of Strait’s extraordinarily accomplished career), Strait went back to being one of the biggest, most loved country stars in existence, which is a heck of a consolation prize for a commercially unsuccessful movie that looks more and more like a success with each passing year.

Early in Pure Country, I had an intense feeling of deja vu before I remembered what half-forgotten bit of cornball cornpone Pure Country reminded me of. Then it hit me: Pure Country bears a suspiciously close resemblance to a masterpiece of the cinematic arts known as Hannah Montana: The Movie, which was similarly about a big star rediscovering what’s important while revisiting her small town roots.

Hannah Montana: The Movie costarred Strait’s Pure Country doppelgänger (at least before Dusty shaves and gets a good Christian hair-cut) Billy Ray Cyrus, as well as his musician daughter Miley. Cyrus’ roots are in country, but these days she’s all things to all people (with the exception of the proper church folks what cottoned to her in the first place), a bold pop icon whose persona transgresses all manner of boundaries involving culture and gender and sexuality and race and performance and authenticity. Like good old Merle Haggard, Miley Cyrus is a mutt who takes inspiration from all over. In that respect, she’s held on to her country roots all the same, albeit a strain of country that is boldly, defiantly, and sometimes transcendently non-pure.

Original Certification: Rotten
Tomatometer: 38 percent
Re-Certification: Fresh

Nathan Rabin if a freelance writer, columnist, the first head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, most recently Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.

Follow Nathan on Twitter: @nathanrabin

  • Evelyn Milian

    Pure Country is an entertaining, simple and beautiful story. George Strait is amazing as a musician, singer and actor.

  • Bill

    The song sang in the beginning of Pure Country is actually being sang by George Straits son. Just an FYI. 🙂 He is also represented on the Movies Album. I think the movie was a particularly good watch, simplistic yet keeps you watching.

  • Joyce Morris

    After my first reading, I thought your article was mostly “pure trash”. I read it a second time to try for more objectivity; my opinion did not change. This short paragraph sealed the deal:
    “Early in Pure Country, I had an intense feeling of deja vu before I remembered what half-forgotten bit of cornball cornpone Pure Country reminded me of. Then it hit me: Pure Country bears a suspiciously close resemblance to a masterpiece of the cinematic arts known as Hannah Montana: The Movie, which was similarly about a big star rediscovering what’s important while revisiting her small town roots.”
    To the best of my knowledge, Pure Country, the movie, was not made as a documentary nor has it ever pretended to be one….the author appears a bit confused by going to it to do his Sub-Cult article and I couldn’t quite figure out if he was critiquing “Pure Country”, the movie or Pure Country Music. Well, Pure Country Music is almost dead, and “Pure Country”, the movie doesn’t need your vane, verbose, “looking down your nose” review; it’s doing just fine. Also, still wondering how the death of the revered Merle “Hag” Haggard prompted this review. Perhaps I am not “cultured” enough. One has nothing to do with the other.

    • Meristel Shaw


      • Joyce Morris

        But accurate.

        • Meristel Shaw

          You’re angry Joyce, you need therapy, psych meds, prayer and to GET LAID….

          • Joyce Morris

            Changing the subject and or name calling/belittling is a sure sign that one has lost an argument; you are guilty of both. I have no interest in further discussion with you, I’m just going to let you be wrong.

  • Preston

    This movie is awesome.

Tag Cloud

politics heist movie Comic Book Star Wars Acorn TV Paramount Network The Academy italian indie Pride Month Avengers Apple TV+ marvel cinematic universe binge Disney+ Disney Plus quibi BBC Fox News Sundance TV 2015 crime drama what to watch new zealand Alien Film Festival james bond Nickelodeon Sundance Now CMT Character Guide Spectrum Originals miniseries ABC japanese DC Comics social media series Sony Pictures comic deadpool new york psycho Black Mirror YouTube Red Pop TV Musical Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt television Quiz Drama Hallmark streaming technology vampires HBO Set visit Apple Trophy Talk NYCC dceu aliens E! king kong nfl 24 frames MSNBC christmas movies Pet Sematary DirecTV Bravo theme song hispanic FX archives TCM versus FX on Hulu composers Nat Geo Shondaland Television Academy sports cats supernatural women TV renewals BET Awards news award winner Countdown finale TNT Amazon Prime Video San Diego Comic-Con Western telelvision Masterpiece Turner Apple TV Plus The Walking Dead sequels toronto Election Emmy Nominations USA ratings Star Trek The Purge WGN game show romance indiana jones reviews political drama Tarantino popular Tumblr police drama scene in color Infographic Disney streaming service NBC renewed TV shows APB 2016 golden globes live action Horror travel Lucasfilm child's play classics mockumentary kong SXSW First Reviews The Walt Disney Company stoner Holiday green book Marvel Television animated Cannes Tomatazos Premiere Dates monster movies Starz chucky Teen 2020 fast and furious The CW cooking remakes foreign natural history Freeform Discovery Channel festivals USA Network war LGBT Musicals dragons mission: impossible LGBTQ DGA Lifetime First Look TIFF CBS All Access crossover Holidays scorecard Captain marvel boxing BBC America See It Skip It transformers Showtime GLAAD cancelled ABC Signature biography TCA Winter 2020 VH1 Christmas Pixar HBO Max OWN game of thrones Song of Ice and Fire werewolf cults ITV Warner Bros. Mudbound Oscars CNN fresh cinemax A24 72 Emmy Awards Cartoon Network SDCC batman saw richard e. Grant cancelled television Amazon sequel MCU documentaries trailers period drama Shudder mutant Superheroe superhero Dark Horse Comics south america MTV Women's History Month Rocketman Broadway elevated horror Valentine's Day blockbuster spinoff Ghostbusters Esquire blaxploitation Britbox Lionsgate Marathons screenings Universal nature Ellie Kemper franchise strong female leads Cosplay docuseries Mystery 93rd Oscars lord of the rings aapi anime TruTV blockbusters kaiju Mary Poppins Returns PBS streaming movies based on movie disaster video Mary Tyler Moore rt archives razzies The Witch Fox Searchlight talk show 2021 free movies halloween 21st Century Fox Sneak Peek target Summer TV One serial killer Amazon Studios scary movies book zombies Country psychological thriller Nominations twilight sag awards zero dark thirty Pacific Islander french Chernobyl spain breaking bad cartoon video on demand independent VOD Syfy Music Netflix Christmas movies Extras teaser IFC Films science fiction FXX Funimation Thanksgiving Reality romantic comedy YouTube worst movies Logo 2019 golden globe awards Fantasy Tubi spanish 71st Emmy Awards spider-man rom-coms TLC Mindy Kaling AMC GoT Biopics Certified Fresh revenge Classic Film spy thriller name the review Trailer diversity anthology international Pop festival YA historical drama casting canceled cops satire latino Grammys Kids & Family dc football Crunchyroll CBS kids stand-up comedy Polls and Games Peacock Superheroes Rocky cancelled TV shows Exclusive Video Marvel prank hollywood OneApp justice league Fall TV Disney facebook screen actors guild VICE documentary Anna Paquin Academy Awards Martial Arts CW Seed Baby Yoda Legendary Awards worst Amazon Prime Sundance New York Comic Con pirates of the caribbean Travel Channel Television Critics Association FOX Disney Plus Toys Watching Series ghosts TV movies asian-american australia ID adventure Emmys movie BET superman Paramount dogs Columbia Pictures Turner Classic Movies joker godzilla Interview PlayStation Paramount Plus stop motion rotten movies we love jurassic park Winners Arrowverse medical drama tv talk TV Land all-time 007 Comedy BAFTA Comedy Central high school Stephen King singing competition universal monsters RT History laika directors comic books American Society of Cinematographers crime thriller GIFs Pirates Netflix The Arrangement 45 Endgame cars Family spanish language discovery Chilling Adventures of Sabrina book adaptation hist RT21 new star wars movies ABC Family Binge Guide Brie Larson true crime Comics on TV Lifetime Christmas movies 99% TCA 2017 Disney Channel Marvel Studios Reality Competition Action DC Universe TCA Awards slashers harry potter docudrama 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards comedies movies WarnerMedia doctor who adaptation Hallmark Christmas movies nbcuniversal YouTube Premium Spike dark parents Super Bowl ViacomCBS Epix 2017 comiccon obituary DC streaming service Crackle Black History Month National Geographic sitcom Walt Disney Pictures robots boxoffice unscripted Spring TV die hard halloween tv Rock Writers Guild of America BBC One critics hidden camera films Schedule reboot cancelled TV series Box Office Winter TV President zombie best children's TV HBO Go rotten TV Video Games Awards Tour Image Comics crime Hear Us Out Ovation Opinion Red Carpet 4/20 jamie lee curtis Vudu Film thriller IFC Year in Review know your critic X-Men Hulu Calendar Podcast Mary poppins Photos toy story Food Network Rom-Com canceled TV shows venice E3 Creative Arts Emmys PaleyFest Animation black TCA TBS witnail concert History Trivia emmy awards ESPN dramedy 20th Century Fox Adult Swim 2018 Heroines a nightmare on elm street SundanceTV Best and Worst comics space El Rey Sci-Fi criterion A&E Elton John