Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Country Music Ain't What It Used To Be

This article in Newsweek caught my eye:

Don't Call It Country, by Steve Tuttle.

It starts with this gem from Bob Newhart:

I don't like country music, but I don't denigrate those who do. And for the people who do like country music, denigrate means "put down."

As a kid and young adult, I never could stand to be in the same room where country music was playing. Or at least, that’s what I thought. I thought that I didn’t like country music. It was too twangy, and it all sounded the same. Nearly every song was based on a bad pun or a bizarre metaphor that was trying too hard to be folksy (eg, Drop Kick Me, Jesus, Through the Goal Post of Life). You take a dog, a pick-up, a train, and an ex-wife, and throw in some steel guitar, and you had a hit country song.

And there was something just plain weird about the performers. All of these guys who claimed to be hard working, blue collar, salt of the earth types, but who spent more on hair care products than the GDP of Switzerland. The women were all clones: tall, size 2 jeans, blond, and the exact same voice.

But I was getting this impression from my limited exposure to the genre. I only heard country music on the rare occasion in which some public place happened to play a country top-40 radio station. I was getting corporate country music, which is to real country music the way a Big Mac is like a cut of Argentine bife de costilla.

It wasn’t until I moved to Nashville that I realized that the pasteurized, homogenized, sterilized, and mass-marketed drivel is but a tiny slice of the “country” pie. Although a good part of the Nashville community was (and apparently still is) dependent on producing this McMusic, I found that the big Venn diagram of “country music” contained so many closely connected sub-groups that one quickly realizes that labels are a waste of time.

This is both country’s greatest strength and biggest weakness. There are unlimited blends of the various flavors of country: country, country-western, traditional, folk, alt-country, Americana, rockabilly, roots, or as the late, great magazine No Depression used to say, whatever you want to call it.

If you go to the Wikipedia page for the bands on the fringe of country, you’ll find that most describe their music with at least three labels. Uncle Tupelo is a roots, alternative country, and Americana band. Steve Earle is a rock, country, rockabilly singer-songwriter. The Drive By Truckers are alternative-country, Americana, and southern rock band.

Are the Jayhawks “country? If you call them “Americana” instead, does that change the way they sound? Does it matter if Old 97s is labeled as country, alt-country, or rock? Where does Lyle Lovett and his Large Band fit in? Is he country by himself, and something else when he has a horn section? Can you put any kind of label whatsoever on Steve Earle, who never sounds the same on two consecutive albums?

Instead of making country a big tent organization, all of these different flavors seem to have forced the establishment to insist on watering everything down to a plain vanilla blandness when it comes time for their top-40 list and annual awards. In the world of country, there seems to be an inverse relationship between critical acclaim and record sales. Everyone loved Whiskeytown, but they couldn’t keep a label. Anyone who’s anyone in Nashville will tell you that Townes Van Zandt was one of the greatest songwriters of all time, but he sold relatively few albums (at least while he was alive), spent most of his career playing in dive bars to audiences of about 50, and was never even nominated for a CMA award.

Take a guy like Steve Earle. Thirteen Grammy nominations with a bunch of wins. Rolling Stone gave him their Country Performer of the Year award. A Lifetime Achievement Award from the BBC. But not a single CMA nomination. How is that possible, that everyone outside the country community thinks this guy is one of the greatest country performers, and the country establishment seems afraid of him?

Would Johnny Cash have ever made it big if he had been born in 1970? Most assuredly not. There’s no room in the top-40 for shooting a man in Reno, just to watch him die. And even his late-career resurgence was engineered by a man more closely associated with rap than country, and the records were produced in LA, not Nashville.

I’m guessing this is not unique to country music, that every genre has a disparity between the critically acclaimed and the popular. But it seems especially odd that country, with its strong feelings for tradition and roots and respect for its elders, does the least to promote those performers who do their best to honor these traditions.

I left Nashville in ’96, with a completely new appreciation for music of all kinds. But to this day, I’m still not quite sure how to answer the question, “Do you like country music?” Well, sort of… but it depends on what you mean by “country”…

1 comment:

muddywaters said...

Great post. At one time I was a music snob. I've mellowed over the years, and I no longer feel people have to justify their listening choices.

I do worry about an industry where youth, beauty, and image are valued more than talent. I think about how the talented people out there in the music world who never get a chance because they don't project a marketable image.

In many ways, we're heading the right direction because we relying less on the industry to market and it's more about what the audience wants to hear.

Roseanne Cash wrote a great essay I read once where she shares an anecdote about being in a marketing meeting for her record label. She said the entire meeting was about how to make her more "fu*kable."

Sadly the shelf life for a lot of these country stars is short because no one can stay young forever.

My word verification for this post is shmaggie. That cracks me up.