No Country For Old Men

Last night was the CMA's, which I burned exactly zero calories on. The Hollywood-if-ication of Country music is annoying for many reasons -- the least of which is the way it's vanilla-fied the vast majority of the music. The genre is probably more successful than it's ever been -- so get used to it, but there's a certain loss of character that's come with the move towards overproduction and crossover star-making that's turned the whole thing into something that's more like pop music without soul than anything that could ever show up as background music in a biker bar scene in a Lance Henrikson movie.
Country music may be many things, but lately I feel like it's not really very country anymore.
A big part of this for me comes from the fact that while growing up, I got to hear a lot of my dad's music, which was mostly old-school country singers. Artists like George Jones, Kenny Rogers, and Jim Reeves. But the other part of my longtime quiet fandom of country music is the tragic result of being a little kid in the late 70's/early 80's -- which was the staging ground for country music's other assault on the mainstream, the one they try not to talk about anymore now that the new effort is working so well.
And yet both styles found a way to somehow still feel more authentic to the non
city-slicker lifestyle than anything that's come out of Nashville in the last decade.
See, when I was a kid country music was still deep into it's hillbilly/redneck shuck and jive stage, featuring scores of boozed up guys in cowboy hats who toured like crazy and only got played on AM stations that you'd hear at auto repair shops or convenience stores. But what a lot of people seem to forget is that it was also a time when a small number of more palatable country music stars had a strange little hold on Movies and TV as well.

Back in the day, there was this sort of rift between supposed real country artists like Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Merle Haggard -- scary long-bearded guys who drank too much and switched between being wildly successful, losing every penny they had, or putting out nothing but doom and gloom Corinthians chapter and verse-inspired gospel albums (not the "Jesus Loves Me and Everything's gonna be GREAT!" variety -- but more like "There's a man going around taking names" type of albums that scared the crap out of anyone who had the bad luck to hear them) -- and good time country artists who were just as comfortable co-starring in movies with Burt Reynolds as they were donning sequined jackets and doing prime-time network variety shows like Barbara Mandrell or the Statler Brothers.

So what you essentially ended up with were all these old-school Gangstas wearing the black hats who would do hour-long sets on Austin City Limits where they hardly looked at the cameras and every song they sang had to do with a woman leaving them and living at the bottom of a bottle -- and then you had this whole other camp of producer-made pretty faces that wore jackets with fringe hanging off the sleeves and sequins all over the place who were at the forefront of the whole "feel good country/pop music" thing that overloaded the genre with clean-cut guys in button-down shirts and vests and women who sang with a little twang in their voice but still talked about relationship issues that other people could relate to.

Most people remember The Dukes of Hazzard, but people don't seem to talk too much anymore about all those other TV shows featuring the Gatlin Brothers or the Mandrell Sisters -- that were essentially just re-treads of earlier variety fare like the Osmonds or Sonny and Cher, except with a country music mood to them.
It made for a country music scene that honestly bears a lot of
similarities to the hip-hop/rap scene we've got going on right now.
Dolly Parton does not equal Reba McIntire. Sure, they're both superstars, but artistically they're about as different as Mary J. Blige is from Mariah Carey. All these dudes in the hats and the pooka shell necklaces that you can't tell apart anymore? The Rascal Flatts and the Kenny Chesneys owe a lot more of their success to acts like Alabama and Eddie Rabbit then they ever would to say, the Outlaws.

What the contemporary country music industry has managed to do (much like the overlords who control mainstream hip-hop are attempting to do with their artists right now) is to curb the edges. Take out the extremes. Toby Keith will get a little preachy now and again about what he thinks you should do if you don't love America -- but he's still got Ford trucks to sell, so he can't really go off the Charlie Daniels deep end to the point where you go to a show looking to hear "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" and end up about halfway through the thing worrying that you'd somehow stumbled into a Klan meeting.

In a similar vein -- gansta rap was an important piece in the development of hip-hop, but it's hard to find anymore. There are still angry songs -- but the days of anti-police anthems are kinda gone. There's still a lot of room for talking tough about what you'll do to someone if they get out of line, or whatever -- but the edge is sorta different now.
Much like it is in country music.
Now what it seems like you have in country music are the people who the super saccharine-y pop artists and the guys who grew up listening to Southern Rock and AC/DC, but have taken that background and turned it into a more lite-rock variant of the new country sound.

Not that one version is necessarily better than the other (I might argue that one is more authentic), but that there's a lot less fragmentation now that there used to be. Country music's edgier moments work well right now as a contrast to it's ballads. It's not like you have to start a whole new country music station to put all the Keith Urban stuff on so it doesn't drive away the people waiting to hear Carrie Underwood.
Which is something you simply can't do with rock and roll, alternative, or hip-hop right now.
That's not to say that underground country artists don't exist, or that there aren't fresh new voices in the genre -- but that you won't find them at the CMA's, or on any of those radio stations. As far as I can tell, college radio stations are the only source for the bands working to stretch the country music envelope, which tends to make them feel less like country acts and more like alternative bands featuring a "down-home sound" (Wilco or The Kings of Leon, for example).

But the point I'm really trying to make here is that as Country music has worked to elevate it's mainstream image to the point where it now wants to have awards shows with red carpet entrances and Hollywood production values, what you get is less and less room for the characters that always made the genre so endearing.

Every style of music has it's heartthrobs and pin-up girls, but what always separated Country music from the pop acts that lived in the world around it was the way that the songwriting mattered. The way that certain country songs tend to stay with people, and end up kinda living forever.
Even the bad ones.
Of course, it may be just me. I tend to dislike any musician telling me how to live my life. I'm more about relating to the stories that singers have to tell, finding emotional connections to lyrics and music that resonated with my own experiences and feelings. But the one thing that I used to appreciate the most about the country music I grew up with was the way it used to make me laugh -- something that I don't think works quite as well anymore, unless it's Rodney Carrington or something like that.

I don't know -- maybe I'm in the minority here, but I miss the days of goofy country songs. I miss the days where it was sort of like a more upbeat variant of blues. What I mean by that is a blues guy would write a song about how blue he felt when times were hard, when love was lost, or when it was time to ramble. Always emotionally stirring, but to be honest -- sometimes kind of a bummer.
Where as the country artists I enjoyed the most were more like,
"Wanna hear about this time when I did something really stupid?"
Which is something I can totally relate to.

[Listening To:  Mudvayne"Do What You Do" ]


adam said…
I always think that modern country music reminds me most of so-called 'contemporary christian' music. Really bland and personality-less.

I actually loved the Eddie Rabbit, Juice Newton, Ronnie Milsap days of country. At least as much as I like 'authentic' country music.

As far as rap is concerned, I think I prefer a lot of the production of modern hip hop, but I can't stand all that bitches and bling shit. I prefer gangsta rap when it comes to the lyrics and stuff, but hated the g-funk parliament sampling shit that was all the rage in the early 90s. That said, the first Snoop Dogg album still holds up pretty decently.

On a side note, I always thought it was odd that hip hop, being a genre of music that is so dependent on rhythm, would be so 'lazy' when it comes to the beats. Songs tend to stick with one beat with little or no variation... and for a long time, producers just kinda did the same thing over and over. I guess that's why people like Timbaland and RZA were such a big deal when they first arrived.
Werdna said…
I miss the "working man's band" style country.

Wilco and Kings of Leon are great. Both kill live. But it doesn't quite measure up to (measure down to?) southern fried rock or rocked up country...

Where is the Drivin and Cryin style or like you brought up the Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Merle Haggard types? The guys that had a band, probably an ace player or two and some well written songs- bottom of the bottle subject matter or no.

pop-country now is to country as blink-182 is to punk rock. Blink was SoCal punk back on the first two albums and then became a pop band. many of the country artists have done the same thing.... country moved to pop. And it is in many ways the worst for it artistically. Popularity and financially it is extraordinarily successful.
jason quinones said…
everything underground eventually reaches corporate ears to eventually get watered down and mass produced to be sold to the mainstream.

punk went new wave and eventually went to pop.

rap became more R and B and eventually went pop as well.

why wouldn't country do the same.

but everything usually comes back full circle with kids rediscovering the roots of where all their pop music was based off of.

thanks for the mandrell pic as it brought back some tv memories!! i watched anything on tv with a muppet on it back then!

the only "country" album i own is mike ness's cheating at soliataire which is a brilliant record!!
Amanda said…
I think it has something to do with the downfall of the songwriter. People don't use music to tell stories or as cheap therapy, they use it to sell records. And there just aren't as many unique voices any more, or unique stories. Emmylou Harris is on Prairie Home Companion this week, btw.
This is part of the reason Sugarland is such a disappointment IMO. Jennifer Nettles can sing with such emotion and candor that I am still brought to tears listening to certain Soul Miner's Daughter songs, but Sugarland is just worthless pop shit as far as I am concerned.
Monster said…
where oh where are you tonight?

why did you leave me here, all alone?

I searched the world over and thought I found true love... you met another and..

(if you have to wipe spittle off your screen at this point, let's be friends)
Hex said…
Adam -- Juice Newton was hard not to like at the time, but her music (IMHO) has not aged well.

Werdna -- there are a few successful country bands out there, but like most pop genre's they get lost under the bigger star names. But I'm with you -- I miss the days of the groups.

The only positive of this new movement is the rise of studio players who have to be at the top of their game to accomodate the various stars they play and tour with.

Jason -- that Mike Ness album is great. You make a good point about the cycle of popular music genres, but what bothers me is that the country music industry right now seems to be actively focusing so hard on one side of things that it's quashing out the underground of it. Kings of Leon for all intents and purposes right now is being marketed as a rock band. I'm not sure I agree with that.

Amanda -- Oh yeah, Sugarland is terrible. Can't stand that crap.

Monster -- I've been working to teach Curren than song recently. All kids should know that song by heart.