Progress report: the year that was in country music

I’ve been a dedicated country music fan since 1996, and a casual fan for a few years prior. I cannot explain what draws me to the genre, it may be the twang, the honesty in the lyrics, or the authenticity of the performers. Actually, it’s all three. I always credit country music for shaping my childhood and being a positive influence on my growing up. It’s funny, where I live people don’t usually talk about country music. I know most people don’t like it and a comment I often hear people say is “don’t overdose on it”. Well, I have overdosed on it and I turned out just fine.

I’ve noticed a shift in people’s listening tastes of late. There are people I know who would never have given country music a chance in the past that now love it. Normally, I’d be in an “I told you so” position and be happy that others are now enjoying what I’ve loved for years. But sadly, I can’t. I cannot sit contently with their newfound love of country music because the genre had to change in order to welcome them in. The country music I grew up on in the 90s is nearly dead (I’m listening to Lorrie Morgan’s classic “Something In Red” right now) and a broadened pop-influenced watered down version has taken its place.

The genre has gradually gotten worse over the years and far too big for its britches. The simplicity that made country music great is all but gone in favor of creating a sound made to appeal to all listeners and fill football stadiums. Listeners from the pop/rock world love modern country because it has a rock edge to it.  The music is very muscular and guitar heavy thanks to the rise of Keith Urban and Brad Paisley. They have created a sound that puts the electric guitar front and center – an instrument that overpowers any traditional elements in their recordings. On the other hand, Jason Aldean seems hell bent on making rock and roll songs about tractors and cowboys. The more amped up the better for him – he’s often screaming to be heard over the way-to-loud production.

If you think about it, the growing necessity of performing in stadiums has all but killed traditional country music. That’s why the broader sound is becoming more and more commonplace. The intimate, simplistic country we all grew up on doesn’t work when playing to a crowd of 30,000. To reach everyone, you need to be bigger, louder, and more bombastic.

Now, I shouldn’t be complaining. I have the luxury of living near the godsend of all country music stadiums – Gillette, in Foxboro Massachusetts. I just hate what it represents. It’s the country music money pit – if you haven’t headlined a sold out show at Gillette, you haven’t made it. Kenny Chesney is to thank for the shift and he has the awards to prove it.

Along with getting too big, the quality of the songs has suffered. Most lack a simple, real connection between the singer and the audience. Songs that speak to the continuousness of America have been pushed aside for gutless filler.

I never thought I’d say this, but country music has become too nice – too clean and polished for it’s own good. Everyone seems too afraid to be anything more than generic. A big culprit in all this is the “radio friendly” umbrella that has taken over country radio. To be played, songs have to be quick, bubbly, fun, and listenable to all audiences. What passes as a hit nowadays is nothing short of ear candy.

Today’s Country music is also very easily digestible. You sing along because the song is infectious and catchy, but there isn’t any substance to back it up. There isn’t much truly classic being made. Next time you turn on country radio, think about this – will this song still be remembered five months from now let alone five years? I’ve come to understand that everything comes back – the rise of channels like Sirius/XM’s “Prime Country” makes that possible. But seriously, is that song you love right now a classic? And better yet, would you know a classic when you hear it? The dumbing down of country music reached completion in 2010.

The saddest reality is the ever-disappearing line between country music and pop music. Obviously, the money and sales lay in the pop side of country, but I’ve noticed something else. Country Music has expanded so much that pop/rock songs like Train’s “Hey, Soul Sister” and Adam Lambert’s “Whatya You Want From Me” aren’t a far cry from what’s being played on country radio right now.

Along the same lines, country artists are embracing their pop influences over their country ones. As a result, they’re leaving any resemblance of country in their music in the dust. Where are the fiddle, steel guitar, banjo and mandolin?

Sugarland seemed proud that they didn’t use any mandolin on their The Incredible Machine album. That blatant dismissal of all things country makes me look at them as outsiders opposed to members of the country music community.

Their new direction may be hard to take but their next album will be the real test because they haven’t completely gone off the deep end. Lets hope they pull back and realize their new sound isn’t the right direction for their music.

I’m all for experimentation but they’ve failed where Shania Twain and Taylor Swift have succeed. Now, I liked their album enough to count it among my top nine of the year, but it has some very abysmal moments that leave me wondering – where do their loyalties lay? If it isn’t with country music, the sooner they break ties the better. They’ll have to learn about the limits of growth at some point – you can only expand so far before everyone stops showing up at the party. To quote an Eagles song, “The joke is on you.”

Something hit me earlier this year and caught me dead in my tracks – when was the last time I truly loved a country song? Loved it so much, that I couldn’t get enough? When did a song make me stop what I was doing and listen? Sadly, that hasn’t happened in quite a long time. And even if I do like a song, country radio plays it to death so I loose all love for it anyways.

The only two examples that come to mind are Sugarland’s “Keep You” and Joey + Rory’s “My ‘Ol Man.” You can rarely explain why a song hits you just the right way and both those songs accomplish that for me.

Now, I have no qualms with pop/country. It is a very viable subset of country music and has been for a long time. Most of the core artists that have shaped country music fall under pop/country.

Also, every era has its artists that create generic music. For example, the 90s had their share of cooke cutter “hat acts.” Trends are nothing new and aren’t ever going away. Who will soon forget the Urban Cowboy era? But what’s missing today is the balance. The balance between those looking to expand and those who still play traditional country music. For every Tracy Byrd there was a Patty Loveless to create the music of substance. That isn’t there anymore.

Going pop isn’t the problem for me – quality is outweighing production value at this point. A new genre of country has been coming to the forefront in recent years and that’s “trash country.” Trash country are those songs that discard everything country artists have spent the last 110 years building. Songs that aren’t just horrific, they should never have seen the light of day in the first place. I have a big problem when a singer comes in without any regard for the history of country music and think they can get away with recording anything that comes across their plate. They have taken us for fools and fortunately those who actually care about the future of country music can see right through them.

That’s why I hate these pop/rock fans coming in and messing with the genre. They don’t care about the history and they embrace the trash country. It’s they who demand country acts play stadiums and dumb down the music to their level. We’re loosing all integrity so teenagers and college students can have music they can party to. Country music was never about being a genre you could party to – it was truth put to music. Where has the truth gone?

Another trend I’ve noticed is veteran artists loosing themselves and recording subpar material unworthy of their legacy. I’m not sure why this is happening, but it’s becoming ever more commonplace. I don’t understand what possesses artists to coast in their comfort zones and not doing anything to push the genre forward. Artists like Brad Paisley and Keith Urban has fallen into the trap of recording the same song over and over again. Where is the experimentation? Sticking to a formula is a guaranteed career killer.

One such downgrade I can explain – Reba’s. She’s trying (and succeeding) to be a viable entity in the current marketplace. Of course, she’s never done anything that wasn’t hugely successful, so that may have something to do with it. She’s one of the lucky ones, most artists at her age (mid 50s) are thrown out to pasture.

But the most baffling of all is Tim McGraw. Where has the singer gone who gave us all those big hits? The guy recording dog dung like “Southern Voice” and “Felt Good On My Lips” is someone I don’t recognize. I want the old Tim McGraw back; he at least put some quality in his music.

In light of all this, I wish country radio would develop a standard – they are the problem here. When will it be okay to say they won’t play a song for lack of quality? It is subjective, but there comes a point when a bad song is just a bad song. And I’m sick of all these bad, bad, pieces of trash cluttering up my airwaves. Enough is enough. Someone in Nashville needs to be woken up big time.

Luckily, country radio doesn’t tell the whole story. Country music is still a viable and thriving genre. There is plenty of great music being made that isn’t reaching the mainstream. Look at my top nine favorite country albums of the year. I’ve placed some real gems on there. Marty Stuart’s Ghost Train showcases everything great about country music and Jamey Johnson’s The Guitar Song is everything and more.

But I really meant every word I said about Speak Now. Taylor Swift isn’t the most country (see, I don’t like everything traditional) but she is writing some of the best country songs around. No matter how you look at it, “Back To December” is a country song – it’s her truth. She’s lived everything she’s singing about – she really did get roses and leave them to die. When a singer (like Taylor and Jamey) sings their truth, an authenticity is reached. Just because Jamey’s truth is grittier than Taylor’s doesn’t mean anything – both are they’re truths.

Which is why, and I have to point this out, I have such a problem with Darius Rucker. He is a great singer but he lacks any authenticity. On his Backstory special for GAC, he says something about only recording great songs because it’s only fair to country radio. Well, show me a great song! If anyone epitomizes the dumbing down of country music it’s him.

A lot has been said about his throwing away of the country shuffles he was going to record in favor of “Come Back Song” and “This.” I understand his desire for success and his need to create revenue for Capitol Records, but he’s completely lost himself. If anyone is a puppet to modern country it’s him. His music is the worst of the worst because I know he can be so much better. Or at least, I want to believe he can.

The bottom line here is country music needs an artist to come in and clean house – someone who can turn the genre around. Randy Travis was that guy in 1986, so who will it be today? We need someone not afraid to speak their mind and tell their reality (no matter how gritty) in song. But, this artist has to break through at radio as well. If they cannot sustain a radio career, the place that needs the most shaking up, than there isn’t any hope. I miss the likes of Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. Thank goodness we have Miranda Lambert, she’s that flicker of hope. Her “The House That Built Me” is the most important country song of recent memory. It speaks to everything great about the history of the genre.

Let’s all pray there’s hope on the horizon in 2011. I honestly don’t see country music going anywhere but downhill, but I’m not giving up on the music I’ve loved for over fifteen years. I may not enjoy the path it’s currently taking but giving up isn’t an option. It’s like the stock market – what goes down must eventually go back up – if you think about it, how much lower can it go?

3 Responses to “Progress report: the year that was in country music”

  1. jasihn Says:

    You’re exactly right in saying that the lines between pop and country has faded and that’s exactly why you should avoid it. Your list of top country albums of the year is full of the pop/country drabble and I know you’re better than that after reading your Lori McKenna review. Country music hasn’t gone away, it’s just not on CMT anymore.

  2. jamie church Says:

    Jonathan, this is a great piece! I completely agree. I also grew up with country music and have seen so many people become ‘country’ fans recently. Although I don’t dislike new country, (felt good on my lips is catchy!) I find myself listening to prime country far more often than the highway! Xm radio is a great thing for old country fans I get to hear my favorites all the time!

    Keep writing and I’ll keep reading!

  3. Jono Says:

    Thank you, Jamie! I don’t dislike all of new country either. There is a lot to like (Zac Brown Band, Easton Corbin, Sunny Sweeney, The Band Perry, ETC) mixed in with everything that’s gotten country off course. I do love Prime Country and I would say I listen to both stations (Prime and The Highway) equally even though if I had to choose, I would pick Prime Country any day.

    I’m glad to know you like it. Having people interested in what I’m writing is the best push to keep going. I’m having too much fun to stop now.

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