This past weekend, I had the privilege of attending the 2009 International Country Music Conference, conveniently held at a building on my college campus. The three-day event made for quite a mind-feast – so much so, actually, that it’s taking me longer than I had hoped to sort through all my notes and compose a post to do the thing justice. So that’ll be coming through the pipeline sometime within the next few days.
In the meantime, though, one issue raised during the event has really stuck out in my mind, and I thought I’d give it a spin here.
Here’s what happened: in a discussion on Waylon Jennings’ career attitude during his peak Outlaw years, someone mentioned that his label disliked the way he seemed to view himself as a musical descendant of Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams, as if his only role as a recording artist was to serve as a link in those artists’ musical “chain.” The speaker speculated that this sort of “big picture” attitude toward one’s art would probably worry many labels, simply because it directs the public’s focus away from an artist’s individual “star.”
That struck me as eerily relevant to today’s scene, where it’s become much less simple to hypothesize about which artists the big stars have “descended” from – and heck, which genres, in many cases. Today, more than I’ve yet witnessed in my young life, there seems to be much greater emphasis on building up an artist’s individual importance, rather than carrying a certain “flag.” Concerts are getting bigger and more histrionic; the CMA telecast books any act who might help ratings and basically snubs Hall of Fame inductees; and of course, most shout-outs to country legends of yore by today’s artists are usually just shallow attempts to build cred. The mainstream seems to have spoken its bit loud and clear: progress must be pursued, and no need for guidance from the past, thank you very much.
Of course, is that mentality necessarily a bad thing? Some acts have used it to impressive effect. Garth Brooks and Shania Twain, for example, always seemed more interested in blazing new trails for mainstream country music than in following old ones, and they reaped huge dividends with that approach – certainly monetary ones, and perhaps artistic ones, too, depending on your opinion of them.
But was it all truly unique, or just not acknowledged as derivative of something else? And either way, what impact does that kind of approach have on country music as a whole? Is it better, worse, or just different than the traditional “I’m the next in the line of…” way of thinking? Is one really more marketable than the other?
I guess if I had to boil it all down to one question, it would be: what are your thoughts on the role and treatments of tradition in today’s country music?