Old Country/New Country
What exactly I am about to attempt to demonstrate I confess I’m not 100% certain, but what I do know is that there has been a bit of a downward sliding scale regarding the enduring quality of mainstream Country Music songs. Apologies in advance for rambling and ranting at various points. This is not a history of Country Music but my opinion on the current state of things in general with the genre.
It’s murky waters that I’m swimming in here as there is an evolution involved in any music genre so direct comparisons are perhaps inappropriate. I am somewhat aware of the influence the so called Country Music “establishment” has had on this evolution. One need only look at examples like Taylor Swift, Shania Twain and Garth Brooks and others who were criticized and in some cases “shunned” for their unconventional approaches who are now celebrated as part of that same ‘establishment’. So there is some hypocrisy at play in my opinion, which further confuses the definition of what the term “Country Music” actually means? I mentioned in my Country Rock blog there are so many subgenres of Country, and now I’m thinking there is no longer a catch-all definition available to describe it, I myself hear songs on ‘Country Music’ stations that I would not identify as being a ‘Country song’ at all.
Regarding a current trend and one thing I’ve heard enough of is this “livin’ the country lifestyle” crap coming from certain artists and supported by some in the media as well. Here is a question, what is the ‘country lifestyle’ anyway? So if you live in a city you can’t be a ‘true’ country artist? Or is it you have to have a farm or work and live amongst the rural and agricultural world? Maybe it’s just you must have a “southern drawl” (and not the fake one as some call it the “Nashville accent”)? Perhaps it’s more macro geographical, and no one south of Ohio can play true Country Music…but that would have to include California but I guess they are just west not south. Maybe you have to write your own songs like Hank Williams did, nope can’t be that, there have to be more songs not written by the artists in Country Music than in any other genre.
If you look at the major recording centers for Country Music you have the ‘cities’ of Nashville, Austin, Tulsa and Bakersfield (and at one time Memphis) that’s some fairly diverse urban geography not to mention local accents. I am sure those artists promoting the ‘country lifestyle’ have thoroughly vetted all their band members (producers et al) places of origin and current domicile, most certainly they can’t sing songs written by someone from Los Angeles or heaven forbid New York City! Can’t sing a song written by city folk ’cause that would be hypocritical! And it seems that Blake Shelton can live in a multi-million dollar home and fly on private jets but still claim to be “livin’ the country lifestyle”. There is some manure there but it ain’t coming from the cows!
If you look at any genre of music it will have its origins, and so if it is to become successful and grow it has to expand beyond its own borders. No region or group owns exclusive rights to listen too or perform it’s music with the exception of forms of indigenous and spiritual music. What if the descendants of the creators of the guitar campaigned to say “we never intended for Country Music to use the instrument, so please just stop”, sounds pretty silly. While there are purests in any genre, an industry that churns out manufactured hit song after song is way past any form of innocence. In the end it is up to the listener to decide.
Truth is there’s a strong southern rural history to the evolution of Country Music which included early stars like Hank Williams who sang for the most part in his natural regional Alabama accent. But, far as I know Hank lived in towns and cities and not exclusively in what would be described as a rural area and neither he nor his family were farmers. So already the greatest ‘Country’ star ever has a couple strikes against him. If we look at Patsy Cline, she was from Virginia but far as I understand didn’t grow up on a farm, but she did work in a chicken factory. Being from Virginia she had an accent but most of her songs are sung without one at all. Roy Clark was from Virginia too and grew up on a tobacco farm but listen to most of his songs, not much of an accent there either. My point here is many rely on some accent or other floating target as to what qualifies as “Country Music”. Country greats have sung with and without an accent and it makes them no less nor better for it. And no I don’t want to debate the whole phonetics and singing thing here but many artists add and subtract their accents from song to song quite deliberately. And in many cases pronouncing words in english and singing them actually quite naturally eliminates your accent. But I think we are way past Country Music being the exclusive domain of those from the rural southern US states with a natural accent in order to be authentic or at the very lease legitimate.
The Nashville ‘cat’ is out of the proverbial bag so to speak so if Keith Urban wants to drop his New Zealand accent and add a little twang to his voice, I say go for it!
“God’s Country” by Blake Shelton written by Devin Dawson, Jordan Schmidt and Michael Hardy. This is part of the recent uptick in ‘God’ and religious songs in mainstream, and hey I find no fault in that, there is a history of jumping on the bandwagon so to speak with music in any genre. And we know there has always been a strong religious component in Country Music and Christian Country is a subgenre of both Country and Christian music. So I don’t think it necessary to pigeonhole songs and keep them solidly within the Christian genre. The problem I feel with songs like these are they are derivative, repetitive and formulaic. Religious or not I find that the songs are too ‘preachy’. “God’s Country” is a huge smash hit but in a years time I predict it will pretty much drop of the map, having said that most songs do anyway. Many ‘Country’ songs today are also full of either ‘holier than thou’ and ‘I’m a wonderful person’ because I’m a ___ fill in the blank with ‘god fearing christian’ or ‘good ole country boy ‘. To the other extreme from the same artists you can get mindless let’s party in the back of my pickup songs. Case in point last year end the #1 airplay song was Kane Brown with “Lose It “, not necessarily a party song and it’s a nice enough but ultimately forgettable and I can’t see this being remembered in another 5 let alone 25 years. In terms of cover songs both of these songs have and will follow with a flurry in order to capitalize on the popularity.
|Hank and Jr.|
So here’s the old fart coming out in me but “I Saw the Light” written and performed by Hank Williams is from 1948. Now to compare anyone or any song to Hank Williams sets a pretty high bar but bear with me. While clearly inspired by the Christian faith and the ‘Bible’, and no offence but this is still a remarkable piece of music. A recent cover from Josh Turner Featuring Sonya Isaacs is an affirmation of how well this song has endured. This and other songs like “Wings of a Dove” (1958) written and performed by Bob Ferguson (popularized by Ferlin Husky 1960) convey a message without somehow sounding like the ‘look at me I’m so special’ feel of many of today’s mainstream Christian faith based Country songs. Sorry if you are a fan but I just don’t see people covering Blake Shelton’s “Gods Country” in another 50 or 60 years, not that Hank Williams likely ever contemplated that his songs would still be covered today. But hey I could be wrong. I’m being unfair I suppose to Shelton and not considering his whole body of work but he was a easy target to try and make my point.
While not every song has to be of ‘substance’ there has been too many of no significance at all. “Knockin’ Boots” by Luke Bryan (written by some quality people; Hillary Lindsey, Gordie Sampson and Jon Nite) is a catchy tune and on the higher end of the scale but still one of a thousand songs that all have the same sound and storyline. I know I’m picking on particular songs but this is what is popular for the most part. There is nothing wrong with fun songs or something on the lighter side but it’s just the over abundance and repetitiveness that’s wearing me down!
Here is a popular song that was considered in 1969 to be on the ‘lighter’ side of Country Music. “Boy Named Sue” written by the multidimensional humourist Shel Silverstein (not a Country boy) and popularized by a cover from Johnny Cash. Not to say that if you look into the past that there hasn’t been a fair amount of forgettable Country songs like “Boo Dan” by Jimmy C Newman, also a chart hit from 1969. And not every song that someone like Hank Williams sang and or wrote was great but a significant number were and are still memorable and amazing.
There are artists that I think are producing some higher quality music that will last much longer. And not everyone is going to be a Garth Brooks or Miranda Lambert. However as an example, I’m not alone in appreciating Chris Stapleton who’s success has restored my faith in the future of mainstream Country Music. It’s refreshing that his albums ‘Traveller’ (2015) and ‘From A Room: Volume 1’ (2017) did so well in both sales and awards. “Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning” (2017), written by Gary P. Nunn and Donna Farar. This is an amazing cover version of the hit song by the legend Willie Nelson from 1982. Stapletons original material is of no less quality “Broken Halos” written by Chris Stapleton and Mike Henderson is destined to become a Country Classic.
Outside of the pop country ‘mill’ of a lot of poor music are some great artists making great music some of which is just not being heard enough. I will blog about some of the other Country genres like alt-country and Outlaw-country in later issues but for now check out these artists; a relative newcomer, Margo Price who has gained recognition with a Grammy in 2018, “Hurtin’ (On The Bottle)“, or the non ‘mainstream’ Chris Knight with “My Only Prayer” and a ‘gods country’ song of his own.
There is a series on PBS that I heard about via my friend Dave, “Country Music” from Ken Burns that I’ve started to record but haven’t watched, maybe then I’ll be better educated on the whole topic of the history and be able to put the present in a different light.
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