I love country music. As in, I LOVE country music. Growing up in Nashville, country music was ubiquitous, but nowhere more than our home. I’m not sure I was aware that other genres of music even existed when I was a child. Around our house, music was country music. One of my earliest memories is singing along to Johnny Cash records with my Dad. I was shocked and a little appalled when I learned that the other kids in the neighborhood didn’t know all the words to Folsom Prison Blues. So when I say I love country music, I have street cred, people. In fact, I love country music so much that my youngest son’s middle name is an homage to Cash.
But country music, at least mainstream country music produced on Music Row in 2017, has a problem.
Country music isn’t country music anymore.
It’s probably a bit too dramatic to say that country music has lost its “soul”, although plenty of critics have come to that conclusion. Stadium country, Bro-country, country-pop…there are plenty of terms to describe the dreck on the country airwaves these days, but none of them are good. Aesthetically, there is a certain assembly-line approach to Nashville country that many find off-putting. Comedian Bo Burnham nails Nashville’s cookie-cutter approach to record making:
“I think some of the greatest songwriters of all time are country artists. Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, you know? And if you’re writing honestly, that is art, and I would never bash that. The problem is, with a lot of modern country music, what is called stadium country music—the sort of Keith Urban brand of country music—is that it is not honest. It is the exact opposite of honest. Where instead of people actually telling their stories, you’ve got a bunch of [millionaires] who’ve never done a hard days work in their life.”
“They figured out the words and the phrases they can use to pander to their audience, and they list the same words and phrases off sort of Mad Lib style. And every song is raking in millions of dollars from actual working class people.”
Insert a backroad party reference here, a pickup truck / tractor there, name drop a classic country artist like Willie or Merle, simmer over a bed of pedal steel and electric guitar for three and half minutes and…voila! There’s your Mad Libs template for a bona fide country hit. The only interchangeable piece is the (usually male) artist on the stage. And that’s the state of modern country music: an artistically bankrupt wasteland where Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley (ad nauseam) are kings.
Thankfully, “real” country music is still alive and well, albeit far away from the plastic sound of Nashville’s airwaves. Thanks to the proliferation of digital music and the accessibility it provides, artists like Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell are carrying the torch for fans of authentic country music. I’ll highlight a few of these artists over my next few posts.