The Search for True Country Music
I’ve collected and researched popular music in a variety of genres since I was a kid. I bought a new 45 rpm record at the old Grants store in Towanda almost every week with some of my allowance money and spent most of the rest of it on old stuff that I found at yard sales. I might have driven my parents half crazy with my Donna Summer disco records, but they supported my hobby, perhaps because I also dragged home old rock ’n’ roll and country records by the boxful. I played radio DJ in my bedroom and recorded the shows on a small cassette recorder.
As I’ve grown older, my repertoire has expanded in every direction. I have also seen music styles change, evolve, come back around, and change again. Rock ’n’ roll became rock, fused with funk, got hard, got soft, got grungy, became folky, and became rock again. Rhythm ’n’ blues became soul, got funky, incorporated synthesizers, turned into rap and hip-hop, and now seems largely fabricated with voices made too perfect by computer software. But the genre that appears to be in the most trouble right now is country music.
Never was this more evident than during the Nov. 7 airing of the Country Music Awards. The opening number, with its pyrotechnics, breakdancing, and people shimmying down ropes from the ceiling surely signifies the end of country music as any of us once knew it.
“Country Music” has become more of a theme than an actual style of music. Apparently, the use of any of the following words and phrases—beer, dirt road, pickup truck, redneck, fishin’, huntin’, tequila, or cheatin’—makes a song country, whether or not the musicianship supports it. The result is a bunch of slick, overproduced pop songs with country flavor but only trace elements of the guitar pickin’, fiddle playing, boot stompin’ technique that once defined the genre.
Gone are the story songs, the contents of which were sometimes the butt of jokes, but to which many people could actually relate. Country purists hated songs that “crossed over” to pop audiences, but I’d give anything to hear a country song on pop radio again like “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” or “The Gambler” that really told a story. That’s why these two songs can still get everybody in the room singing and clapping along, while I doubt few songs by Lady Antebellum will get the same reaction 20 years from now.
Granted, I know every word to The Band Perry’s “If I Die Young” and Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem,” but it’s mostly because they’re both really good pop songs. The fact that The Band Perry cleaned up at the CMA Awards is a bit disconcerting.
I know that there are plenty of other music lovers who would like to “keep country country,” but most of the bands that I’m hearing are doing so simply by incorporating classics into their line-up. There are also several bands in the area that are very good at mixing country and rock in their sets, which pleases the bar crowd but isn’t helping country radio.
Even Wiggle 100’s program director and morning personality Mike Powers has said on the air that today’s country music is just “OK,” which is why he likes to mix pop oldies into his program. While I enjoy the variety of the show and get a slight sense of Top 40 radio from days gone by, Mike’s efforts still don’t address the problem, which lies in the fact that record company executives are determining what we know as country music.
Bluegrass and folk, along with western swing, were the musical elements that combined to become the country and western music format of the ’50s and ’60s. Western swing became passé, and rock elements filled the void and took country music to a new place by the 1970s. The fact is that bluegrass and folk are both enjoying enormous success right now as subgenres, so much so that Billboard magazine brought back their folk and bluegrass charts to document their progress.
In smaller radio markets—those that record companies don’t really care about—there ought to be a place on the dial for a station that bucks the national trend and stakes a claim for fans of true country music. Some guys play fantasy football; I play fantasy radio. It can get complicated, but I’ll keep it simple. I checked the top ten albums this week on Billboard’s, country, folk, and bluegrass charts and, after removing soundtracks and special compilations, I offer the following amalgamated playlist (by artist only) that might satisfy my hillbilly cravings for a couple of hours at least:
Miranda Lambert, She and Him, Alison Kraus and Union Station, Scotty McCreary, Mumford and Sons, The Isaacs, Toby Keith, The Decembrists, Greensky Bluegrass, Lady Antebellum, The Civil Wars, The Wailin’ Jennys, Jason Aldean, The Head & the Heart, Sarah Jarosz, Luke Bryan, the Indigo Girls, The Devil Makes Three, Lauren Alaina, Gillian Welch, Noam Pikelny, Brantley Gilbert, Fleet Foxes, and Martina McBride.
If there are any bands on this list that you have never heard of, check YouTube or iTunes. Or call Mike Powers and make a request. I sense that he’s searching for a better country playlist too. In the meantime, if you are the member of a band that you believe plays true bluegrass, folk, or country music, please let me know where and when you will be performing. I would love to catch your act.