Is it time to reinvent country music?
Stop me if you have heard this one before.
“Every single country song is the same. ‘My dog died, my tractor won’t start and my woman left me.’ I can’t listen to music that only says the same thing over and over.”
Every single country fan in the world has heard some version of that story, and ten years ago, it was true. Even for fans of the “golden years” of crooners and balladeers, there was much truth to the adage that “all country sounds the same.” Country Western music began as the unfiltered and unapologetic cousin to Rock and Roll and for decades has kept music grounded in a kind of “everyman” pathos that reminded us of who we are and where we were from. Country wasn’t for everyone and we liked it that way.
But something changed. When Brantley Gilbert sang “Country must be country-wide”, he wasn’t wrong. In the past decade, country music has gone from a niche genre of the lonely farm hand and restless outlaw to a genre that everyone, from Queens, New York, to Meridian, Mississippi, listens to and enjoys. This is objectively a good thing for country music and the “Southernization” of other pop genres has led to enjoyable collaborations between artists and fan bases that would have never merged – who will ever forget the first time that they heard Snoop Dogg and Willie Nelson sing together?
And while this change is undoubtedly one that has brought country music a much larger fan base and has turned literal farmers into millionaires, it has come at a cost. While many outside the country community may have mocked Alan Jackson’s lyrics when he sang about his “redneck Taj Mahal,” that era, and those that preceded it, were steeped in the true southern and western sound that we all called “Country.” In its quest for validation outside of small towns and truck stops, country music began to sound different – it began to sound like pop music.
While the pros and cons of the “popularization” of country music is a wonderful discussion to have, that is not what this article is about. Love it or hate it, Country music is not what it used to be and to many of its most passionate apostles, it has lost its way.
Art is escapism; it is a reflection of the times in which it was created. Pop music, however, has always been a way to ignore the small unpleasant things about life and glorify the restless craving for energy and excitement that is within all of us. This is, perhaps, most clearly shown in what is now being called “pop-country” – there has always been a strain of the genre that gets our blood boiling, makes us want to sing along and shout the chorus; songs that country fans have always called “real barn burners.” These songs have always played a key role in Country music and have filled stadium seats at thousands of Country concerts. Whether it is Garth Brook singing “Ain’t Going Down Till the Sun Comes Up” or Toby Keith reminding us that “Justice is the one thing that you should always find,” barn burners are as much of a staple of the country diet as heartsick ballads. But like any diet, there needs to be a balance or the body will get sick.
Like it or not, the body of country music is getting sick. Turn on Top 40 country, what do you hear? The majority of the songs that sell the best in country music revolve around the same things: drinking, sound systems, block parties, and a “rock and roll lifestyle with a twangy accent.” None of that is bad, in fact, it has turned country music into the single fastest growing genre of music today. However, it is monolithic, it is escapism incarnate, it is pop music.
A country twang and a shout-out to momma do not a country song make anymore. We have listened as Waylon Jennings’s “Good Hearted Woman” has become a “tanned-leg Juliet.” This is not a problem with a few artists, this is a systemic issue in the genre, a vitamin deficiency of grit, soul and truthfulness that life isn’t always a grand party; and like any vitamin deficiency in the body, if it is not addressed, we could lose the genre.
This may sound alarmist to fans of country who say that this is just a cycle or that “country will always be here, it is just evolving,” and maybe those fans are right. But I am not the only one to have observed this trend and found it worrisome. Bobby Bones, the country DJ with the largest audience in the world to-date addressed this in his recently released book “Bare Bones,” Merle Haggard bemoaned this trend and it earned him a de-facto blacklisting from Nashville’s biggest record companies before his death and “neo-Outlaw” artists such as Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton have asked the simple question, “where is country music?”.
There isn’t an easy fix to these issues, and many people within the industry have weighed in how to bring the genre “back home to momma.” Some have argued that the women of country music never lost their way and have served a historic role in bailing out the genre in bygone years. Others have said that a split must happen, much like the Rockabilly-Outlaw split of the 60s and 70s.
This is not a condemnation of the dozens of great artists who receive much-earned airtime on country radio. And this is not a prescription for how to fix the issues within the music that we all love; that is for greater minds and more gifted writers to decide. But there is a sickness in country music right now, and unless our country-compass again points due-north soon, we will again begin to hear, “Every single country song is the same. I can’t listen to music that only says the same thing over and over.” But this time from the fans that were born and raised on the roots of Country Western.
Johnny Cash, the Black Knight of country, once said that country music covers a lot of territory, territory “of emotions, of love, of breakup, of love and hate and death and dying, mam, apple pie, and the whole thing. It covers a lot of country territory, country music does.”
So maybe next time this genre awards a “barn burner” with song of the year, we should “stop if we have heard this one before.”