American Culture

What the hell happened to country music?

Friend: Hey, Yogi, I think we’re lost.
Yogi Berra: Yeah, but we’re making great time! 

It’s probably clear to anybody who pays attention that I’m a rock & roll guy. But I was raised by my grandparents, two country folks who were born in 1913 and 1914 respectively and grew up through the Great Depression. There were two kinds of music in my house, country and gospel, and those aesthetics – the melodies and harmonies, the minor chord dips and the aching they signify, the constant battle between ignorant hope and blunt despair – they shaped my relationship with music in ways that will accompany me to my grave.

We listened to gospel quartets on Channel 12 Sunday mornings. The rest of the time, if there was music in the house, it was the likes of Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Roy Acuff & the Smoky Mountain Boys or Cowboy Copas. Granddaddy and Grandmother liked to watch The Porter Wagoner Show (with Dolly Parton, of course) and Saturday nights meant Hee Haw, with Buck Owens, Roy Clark and some of Nashville’s greatest stars.

I’d listen to Top 40 radio like any other kid, and I liked The Jackson 5 – who didn’t? – but up until I hit junior high and high school, when I began discovering artists like Elton John and Queen (yeah, that combination had to be a little unsettling for my Southern macho adult male relatives, I know) this was pretty much what music was for me. I didn’t necessarily like all of it, but the hardscrabble roots of American C&W were my context, and to this day those sounds, catching me by surprise, can blindside me back across four decades to a time when my grandparents were alive and my idea of tribulation was being forced to show my work in arithmetic class and write out the complete sentences in my English exercises. As silly as it must sound, it was a little hard for me to watch Oh Brother Where Art Thou because the music conjured so much sadness, so much loss for me. It reminded me that most of the people associated with most of the happiest moments of my early life are dead, and now that I’m an adult I have the perspective to understand just how hard their lives were and how much they had to sacrifice to take care of me.

That was then.

This is now.

Meanwhile, I’m not sure Nashville has even heard of this guy.

Clearly, something has gone bad wrong. The industry movers and shakers evidently looked deep into the souls of their audience at some marketing research ginned up by guys in expensive suits and decided that what they needed to be was Top 40 with pedal steel guitars. From Coal Miner’s Daughter to American Idol. From Pomade to hair tinting. I haven’t actually seen it yet, but I imagine we’ll have guys in Capri pants on CMA before too much longer.

Okay, okay – I’m being bitchy and gratuitous and I shouldn’t be, but the truth is that once upon a time C&W was essentially American and relentlessly genuine. Even if you didn’t like it, you could not argue the authenticity of George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Back then, if you couldn’t play or sing, thanks for coming but take your butt back to the farm. These days if you can’t play or sing, but you’re pretty, we have this thing called AutoTune.

And, come on – can you fucking imagine Hank Williams doing a track for The Hunger Games?

That last video above is the lead track from Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit’s Here We Rest. It features 11 songs that run the gamut from straight-up country to beer-drinking honky-tonk to bluegrass to blues. Songs about busted relationships and hardship, numb despair and the the working class denominators in a society ravaged by economic corruption. Isbell doesn’t name the perpetrators, but the world got this way somehow, didn’t it? His history with Drive-By Truckers makes clear that he knows the score (give “TVA” a listen sometime), and we shouldn’t be deceived by his decision to focus on the intimate and personal this time out.

Here We Rest was this rock & roll guy’s CD of the Year for 2011, but best I can tell it never got within hollering distance of a C&W chart.

Past caring about great music and wanting legitimately talented artists to get their due I don’t have a dog in the fight. But … I do care about that, and it has always griped me to no end to see no-talent put-up jobs getting rich while artists like Isbell (and Jeffrey Dean Foster and Paul Lewis and Don Dixon and the gods know how many others) work their asses off for the table scraps.

Once upon a time, in April of 1964, The Beatles had 12 songs in the Billboard Hot 100, including the top five positions. Today hit radio has become, if I might riff on Oscar Wilde for a moment, the unlistenable played for the unspeakable. Nashville apparently sees the results and figures it can do business in the shallow end, too. As for their listeners, I don’t know – maybe it’s karmic payback for what they did to The Dixie Chicks. And if you listen to it by choice you deserve what it does to you. This is your brain. This is your brain on Taylor Swift. Any questions?

Yes, folks, Nashville may be lost, but it’s making great time…

15 replies »

  1. I love that you put up a vid for Wabash Cannonball. It looks like we grew up with many of the same musical influences. To this day, I can still remember lyrics from George Jones’ “White Lightning.’ If *that* were to come up in rotation on a workmate’s Pandora station, I’d probably stop what I was doing and sing along.

    The odds of that happening are just about zilch, though. Modern C&W seems determined to live down to the worst of the stereotypes. Heartache, infidelity, pick-up trucks, getting drunk, getting drunker, kick it up a notch with jingoism…

    But when I thought it couldn’t get any worse…something I now think of as the C&W date rape song came on the other day:

    We’ve come a long way down the wrong road, methinks.

  2. Well I was never a fan of pop country, and working in studios in Nashvegas it made me even less of a fan. I can still pretty much recite every mic, compressor, and rig set up by heart. Basically it’s also the same handful of musicians as well. Once in a while a band would come in and play their stuff, but it always ended up sounding the same. I’m sure like most music you can find good stuff on the net, but not much of what came out at the studio I worked at was memorable, although it sold a shit load of records. It honestly jaded me, and for a while I hated pop music, especially country. I try not to let it bother me, but some stuff still kills me (ie the volume of the vocals in country music). I know music is supposed to be fun, but it really sucked the life out of me. There is good stuff being recorded and played, just tough to find (like most music). Lot’s or really good blue grass actually, although that doesn’t officially fall under the C&W category. I will say that I’m no fan of Cold Play, but as the first comment on YouTube says “Willie made this song his bitch”

  3. Amen, Sam.

    I, too, grew up with healthy doses of C&W when I visited my relatives in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio (right across from Wheeling, home of the Wheeling Jamboree). Saturday nights for me: Gospel Singing Jubilee, The Oak Ridge Boys, Hee Haw, and wrestling. I saw Johnny Cash, June Carter, and the Carter Family at the Ohio State Fair when I was a kid.

    One of my favorite movies is “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” When Sissy Spacek climbs out of the car and says, “Doo, it’s the Grand Ol’ Opry!” I get it. When I went to Nashville, all I needed was to stand outside and have that same moment. You can keep the rest of Nashville.

    There are some country songs I still share Frank’s temptation to sing along with (as long as I’m alone) including anything by Patsy Cline. Whitney Houston did a lovely job with “I Will Always Love You,” but could never touch the heartache and pain of Dolly Parton breaking her partnership with Porter Wagner with it.

    Yeah, I went through the Urban Cowboy period. I was in 4-H growing up (I was city, my friends were farmers). I really did square dance. It was all still fun.

    The Last Straws for me were 2 songs I heard back to back in my mom’s car, in my mom’s presence. The first was “Older Women Make the Best Lovers” and the second had a chorus about getting too drunk to make it to the bedroom, so the couple has sex in the hall. Since then it’s been just about all downhill (with an occasional stumble over something surprisingly interesting).

  4. @ Frank & Sam: Jake Owen, another too pretty Keith Urban wanna-be with twang. He’s pretty enough to attract the groupies now, but give him a few years. As I told a friend once in a bar about a country lead singer wearin’ a big ol’ back cowboy hat, “A hat that big can hide a multitude of sins.” It was: wrinkles, bad teeth, bald head.

  5. “Sure, I like old Tim Carroll, and BR5-49
    But Nashville don’t need that noise, no,
    Nashville’ll do just fine
    As long as there’s a moron market
    And a faggot in a hat to sign.”
    -from Robbie Fulks “Fuck This Town”
    I think that last line’s for Garth

  6. Pretty much the same thing happened to black gospel: a once classical form gone show biz. Re the old stuff: Patsy Cline is still my favorite female singer of all time.

  7. dear friend i agree with all of it they can’t play an instrument they can’t all they do is play dirty videos and write trahsy music like all of you we grew up on old country music johnny cash buck owens porter waggoner and the older rock like the beatles none of it is nothing now but trash and lousy singers all they do is dress up for the camera and use all kinds of mechanics to cover up there sick hound dog belly ache singing. sincerely virginia

  8. Hank 3, last gasp of country music. Burn Nashville to the ground and start over.

    • I’m afraid it must be put down. I was dumb struck this last CMA deal – – where the hell did country music go? I felt like I was 90 and watching some alien performances – – woes me. Is this what it means to get old? completely bummed out here . . . a country girl

  9. Where did country music go? It stayed in Texas with Willie and Waylon and the boys, where it has proudly flipped nashville the bird since Jerry Jeff recorded a song about Luckenbach. Check out guys like Jason Eady or the Turnpike Troubadours( they’re from oklahoma but we’ll claim them). Heart felt music that prides itself on being fiercely independent from being “shaped” by anyone other than themselves, and sounds best when it’s heard live. I don’t mean a pyrotechnic aided, and pre recorded, see the stage through binoculars, stadium ” Live”. The bands don’t brag about being from the “backwoods/sticks/trailer park”, because if you have to tell people you are you’re probably not. Country music’s not dead, it just changed addresses and now goes by the name Americana, folk, southern rock, red dirt, or texas country. That’s just a zombie corpse of bad pop stars with bad accents and worse songwriting in Nashville.

    “When you sing about your wrangler jeans, pick up trucks, and dairy queens
    You make the place I live sound like a bad cartoon
    Sing about your own life and ill sing about mine”

  10. what the fuck did you people do to country music,mise well call POP MUSIC,it’s sure not country ?

  11. I enjoyed this article and the comments. Jason Isbell & 400 Unit reached No. 1 on my personal song chart this past fall with his socially conscious song “White Man’s World.” Willie Nelson’s “A Woman’s Love” also topped my chart. Turnpike Troubadours, the Mavericks, Janet Burgan, and many others have had major hits on my chart.