Anyone who reads Bob Lefsetz' “The Lefsetz Letter” knows that Lefsetz is a fairly new country music fan, but a passionate one all the same. I frequently disagree with his current assessment of country music, particularly country radio (although recently he has clued in to its frequent vapidness and monotony), but he's a fantastic voice out there championing country music.
In a recent letter, he made some interesting statements about his desired role for the future of country music (i.e. the classic rock of the future). After approvingly citing the recent Newsweek article which bemoaned the current state of country music, Lefsetz stated:
blockquote>Country used to have an edge. My buddy Pete Anderson would love to bring it back. But I’m thinking we’ve just got to move the needle a little bit, and suddenly we’ve got the rock business we used to have, the one that triumphed in the seventies.
He went on to state:
If they just took off the cowboy hats and lost the banjos they’d be closer to Lynyrd Skynyrd than Dolly Parton or George Jones. When are the country acts going to go after their rightful audience, boomers who lived through the seventies and younger people who want melody!
The future is in country, or something quite like it.
It’s not the final resting place for has-beens like Bon Jovi or wannabes like Jessica Simpson, but a phoenix ready to rise if it’s taken seriously, adds a bit of true cred, emphasizes electric guitars and is willing to have an edge.
As fans of country, new and old, how do you feel about this assessment of the future of country music?
I’m so excited you posted this, because I’ve actually been dying to say something about it. Lefsetz is always great at opening up watercooler discussions, whether I agree with him every time or not (and this time, my feelings are definitely mixed). I have class right now, but I’ll be brewing my response to this one!
Since I’m personally part of the “younger people who want melody” category, I would have to agree. Everyone is always praising George Strait for his music, but I find him melodically quite boring. I can appreciate a good lyrics sometimes, but I don’t want to listen to it over and over if it doesn’t have a good melody.
“If they just took off the cowboy hats and lost the banjos they’d be closer to Lynyrd Skynyrd than Dolly Parton or George Jones.”
I’ll use Jason Aldean’s “She’s Country” move into the top 30 of the Hot 100 as proof to his point. Also, when I got into country music a few years ago, I didn’t end up liking traditional country afterwards. I fell for rock next. Not that I think country music transitioned me to rock music; there are many other factors that could have done it, but it sure didn’t hook me on traditional country.
To please this guy, we should dispense with our college degrees, move back to the trailer parks and farms, and pretend like the last 30 years and the mass movement of broad swathes of the poor in the South and rural areas to the middle class didn’t happen. And then we can have that edge back.
Now if I’m misreading him, and he really just wants the kind of “edge” that puts Tammy Wynette in a trunk and Johnny Cash in jail, I’m all for it. But I don’t think that’s what he means, and he’ll just have to live with the kind of “edge” that crawled out of L.A. with Gillian Welch.
I’m not sure I understand what he is saying. Is he saying Country Music artist should start playing classic rock, and that should be refered to as country?
I think it’s funny that he’s referring to Dolly Parton, who was lambasted for moving country in the pop direction. I love Pete Anderson’s work with Dwight Yoakam, but quite a bit of that would be rock without the cowboy hat, too.
I need to re-read the article above, and I also wanted to draw attention to this: http://www.cmt.com/news/nashville-skyline/1610388/nashville-skyline-country-music-as-defined-by-others.jhtml
Lefsetz and Flippo seem to pretty much agree on the current state of mainstream country (with a few exceptions): rock with the occasional fiddle or banjo.
What Lefsetz appears to be encouraging is the dropping of the fiddle or banjo and losing some of the sugary sweet radio lyrics (developing an “edge” a la a killer Keith Urban guitar solo or Miranda Lambert’s “Gunpowder and Lead”). By doing that country would gain some mainstream cred, and essentially become the classic rock of today.
I have no problem with artists filling that niche (heaven knows I love me some classic rock), but at some point country music gets lost, doesn’t it? I love country music in all its forms, but I think it needs the variety to live and breathe and flourish. Country radio should be playing bluegrass, alt-country, country-pop, southern rock, etc. all together. By pushing the entire genre towards a newfound version of yesterday’s rock, IMO, real country music would up end up the loser: the red-headed step-child all over again.
Also, to a certain extent, advocating that country move towards rock is sort of like selling out. Figure out what sells and head in that direction. Don’t challenge your audience, cater to their every whim (which, thus far, has produced tragically unsatisfying results). Wouldn’t it just be better to encourage today’s country artists to write, record and play better material? To push themselves and to test their limits, but not to change into something else entirely?
I guess my point can be summed up with this: If Miranda Lambert came out with “Gunpowder and Lead” tomorrow, I’d only be a casual fan. She needs songs like “Dry Town,” “I Can’t Be Bothered” and “Greyhound Bound for Nowhere” to be really interesting.
The Newsweek piece (as well as the Lefsetz blog) had points with which I disagreed, but both were willing to make some sort of stand. Flippo’s piece seems to be the very thing that he wanted to avoid: defensive. Why? It tries to argue against the “attacks” without a consistent strand of evidence. This quote from Flippo is interesting: “Country music is about a lot more than mainstream country radio. Look at all the varieties of country presented on the different stages at the Stagecoach festival in California: alt-country, Western swing, cowpunk, bluegrass, country rock and cowboy storytelling.”
True, but that statement misses a big point. I don’t believe that country music is worse than, say, 30 or 40 years ago. It’s the country music industry that has devolved so considerably, especially for the fact that it’s ignored so many of the elements that Flippo mentions above. I can tick off a number of current artists that treat the art form respectfully and have created memorable music that ties in somehow with country’s traditions (as well as expanding country music, both sonically and lyrically). Think Loveless, Yearwood, Stuart, Johnson, Yoakam, Dixie Chicks, Jackson, Strait, the list could go on and on.
What’s worse now is the industry and the commercialization of country music as mainstream product. The problem’s been growing since the early ’90s boom, but it’s exacerbated now with the poor economy and the lack of exciting product being turned out in Nashville.
Take Taylor Swift, for example (Easy example—she’s cited in both articles). I guarantee you that many Taylor Swift detractors wouldn’t care less about her if she were marketed as a pop star (which, in my opinion, she is). She’s this decade’s answer to Shania and Faith, in a sense. Now, I’m not a real, hardcore fan of most of their music, but it seems contradictory the way that those two were treated for their pop escapades (Dolly, too, I guess; I wasn’t around for that and only have secondary sources to know the situation) and how the likes of Swift and Underwood are handled now.
Now we have a small crop of stars (like Swift and Underwood, and others) bringing in the bucks and Music Row greets them with open arms because otherwise the industry would collapse. In the ’90s, we still had your Clay Walkers and Doug Stones selling gold and platinum, so Nashville could survive while still snubbing these “outsiders.” It’s just not possible given the lack of profits circa 2009.
If Music Row chose to push the traditional singers and songs, they would likely be making about the same amount of money as in the ’60s and ’70s (gross guesstimate, mind you). But the Garth Brooks-led movement showed that big money could be made, and is a businessperson going to be turn down a silver platter filled with dollar bills? Right now, all the eggs are being put in just a few baskets; in mainstream country, you’re either an automatic #1 (Paisley, Underwood, Swift, Chesney) or a nobody.
As for the arguments regarding the fast-living, hard-loving, art-imitates-life music of the past, I would never wish harm or heartache on today’s stars, but the landscape is pretty sterile nowadays. We used to have ordinary, sin-prone singers using their extraordinary talent to shine on a light on the human condition. Then, country stars were a reflection of who we are. Now, country stars seem to be a reflection who we want to be. The homecoming queen (or king). The brainy high school girl. The muscled-up, ladies man. I’ve seen enough blond, bubbly chicks and sexy, slick-haired dudes for the rest of my life. I don’t look to country music singers as idols, bottom line. Corporate Nashville’s ashamed of its haybales, its hillbillies and, apparently its hard times. Not to mention its fiddle and steel. While I’ve appreciated the music from the current stars, I wish that others with considerable talent received just as much recognition and respect (remembrance?) from the country music “structure.”
This is a lot of stuff and probably not all of it coherent, but I’m not an expert or a so-called “expert” or, you know, anybody. lol
I should never comment while at work (or if I anticipate Blake to comment after me). As usual, Blake said it much better and with sharper insight than I ever could have. Glad to have you around. :)
I admit that country music COULD lose its redenck, reactionary, right-wing stance and still be America’s music. After all, as David Allen Coe points out, there’s really no other musical genre that really talks all that much about Momma…or trains…or trucks…or prison…or gettin’ drunk.
OK, my comments will mostly address some of the musical aspects, not the lyrical content of the subject at hand. If I understand Mr. Lefsetz correctly, I have no problem with a rock edge incorprated into Country music. But not at the expense of real Country instrumentation. I’ve always thought that Rock elements add spice to Country music, whereas excessive Pop contamination waters it down. But it is sure not necessary to lose the banjo, or the steel guitar or fiddle for that matter. Patty Loveless showed us how it’s done with her Mountain blend fusion of rock and Country, acoustic and electric on albums such as On Your Way Home and Dreamin’ My Dreams. Listen to the dueling dobro, mandolin, fiddle, electric and slide guitars near the end of “I Wanna Believe” for a very clear example. And as Patty soulfully hums in alternation with Deannie Richardson’s bluesy fiddle intro to Nothing Like the Lonely…breathtaking, .. Country, yes, but bluesy Mountain Rock as well.
And even Big and Rich on their first album combined Rock and Country elements and instrumentation quite sucessfully. (I wish they had omitted the Hick-Hop Rap, however.) The banjo flecked intro to the opening song on Horse of a Different Color blends seamlessly with the electric power chords in a very organic manner.
Then there’s the master, Brad Paisley.. His riveting electric guitar leads his traditional Country band, who pretty much match him note for note, fiddle and steel keepin’ right up. I do believe that Paisley’s band even features a permanent, resident banjo player. Granted, Brad plays mostly Country scales, but electrified and revved up in a way that could put even some of the best Southern Rockers, (SYNYRD, etc) to shame.
I’ve said for years that the best Rock and Roll since the mid seventies can be found in the the Country section of your local record store. I still believe that to be true, in spite of the onslaught of Pop diluted country-lite that is so pervasive in Nashville today.
And melody? Traditional Country is a rich resource of memorable melodies. That is one of the reasons the classics from the great masters have been so sucessfully covered time and time again, one need only to check out the catalog of Emmylou Harris, or the covers albums of Martina McBride and Patty Loveless to see that this is true. And how can one beat ole Hank’s simple but captivating melody on I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry?!
Also Blake, very interesting and insightful comments, thanks for the great read..I followed the link and printed the Nashville Skyline article and look forward to reading it.
And Lynn, I’m glad you hightlighted Miranda Lambert with your spot-on comments and observations, and the awesome video as well. I think Miss Lambert has a real connection to Tradition, and in ways that it actually shows in her work.
In spite of all the compromises Nashville has made, and market accomodations, signs of hope remain. Miranda Lambert is one of them, the fact that she can chart and get award nominations in this current climate is refreshing. And the continuing suceess of Paisley and Alan Jackson is encouraging as well. And Jamey Johnson, Joey and Rory, Zac Brown Band…all is not lost, may these new keepers of the flame prosper to the point where they can actually set the tone on Music Row for years to come.
I’m not a regular Bob Lefsetz reader, but I went to his site and read six or seven articles and I noticed that when he argues, it appears, he tends to make his point using extreme examples.
It made me wonder, after reading the entire article, if he is really just arguing that mainstream/radio driven country would be better off, and have more depth, with a rock edge rather than a pop edge. It seemed he might not have really been calling for all tradition to disappear, just for a different market to be created by executives for all these artist that are “closer to Lynyrd Skynyrd than Dolly Parton or George Jones” anyway.
I hope that’s what he’s suggesting, William…I like your interpretation. Although should the words “edge” and “Pop” ever be used in the same sentence? ;)
I don’t know about anyone else, but I love the fact I can turn on the radio and hear Jason Aldean’s “She’s Country” (which is on the edge of rock and AWESOME) and have the very next song be “In Color” by Jamey Johnson. 2 totally different types of country songs, and both GREAT songs. I will say though, the less pop on country radio, the better!
Personally, I think it’s great that country has some pop and rock sounds, while it still has traditional country sounds. It gets on my nerves when people are like, “That’s not country music, only I know what country music is”. I honestly think that people who are against most new country music and still call themselves country fans are sort of trying to “keep country music in a box” – they don’t want it to grow, or change, or sound different. It’s like they want every country song to sound the same and have the same message. I’m personally a huge country music fan (I love both old and new country) and I’m proud of it. I listen to classic rock too, but I much prefer country. But look at rock music – it’s changed quite a lot over the years. So, why can’t country change? Why can’t country branch out with new material? I’m personally a HUGE Taylor Swift fan. I think she sounds perfectly country by today’s standards (and even if she wasn’t country, her music is still really great). She’s brought so many people into country music, and now country’s more popualar than ever. I think that deserves some praise. Country music is considered the music of our nation, and it’s also one of the best (if not the best,) music genre(s) on earth; and yet, it’s still one of the most (if not the most,) underrated music genre(s), and I think that when people don’t let it expand a little, than people not only stop liking it, but the people who never liked it won’t even consider giving it a chance. When me, my mom, and my older and younger sister first started listening to country music, my older sister became a die-hard country fanatic; she was completely obsessed with it, and now, she acts like she hates it and she says a lot of the stuff sounds the same. I’ve read some blogs and comments by other people who were the exact same way. So what I’m trying to say is, if country music doesn’t change a little, or branch out just a bit, than people will lose interest. Some people have lost interest because they hate new country – it’s just not their style. But no matter what era of country you prefer, it’s still great music, and great music should be allowed to change a little. After all, country is music about real life, and real life has changes; therefore, I believe country shoukd be able to change.
Sorry for the rambling. Just trying to get my point across.
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