Earlier this year, a discussion with a colleague of mine revealed a mutual affinity for country music. It was a typical conversation that I have with fans that are around my age. We fell in love with the music about twenty years ago, don’t think it’s quite as good as it once was, but can find a lot of things to like from just about any era, including the current one.
So in the 2010 version of making a mix tape, I offered to load up her iPod with a whole bunch of country music. A week later, she took me to dinner as a thank you. We started talking about the music that I’d passed on to her, and she told me that she was listening to the iPod while mowing the lawn. Suddenly, a song came on that made her cry. Full-out cry, mind you, not just a tear or two.
Now, there are a few possible reactions to this. I suspect for many or even most, it will be either befuddlement or outright derision. But me? I totally understood why that song would have such a strong impact, and I can best describe it in one word: Sincerity.
It’s the bane of the cynic’s existence, and of many critics as well. You don’t see Anne Murray pop up on too many lists when discussing the greatest country artists of all time, or even the greatest pop-country singers of all time, even though she’s definitely both. Ditto for Kenny Rogers and my once future wife Olivia Newton-John, who also fit well into both categories.
But there are some artists who exude sincerity and still are treated with reverence, like Loretta Lynn and Alan Jackson. What makes them different? I think it’s the added perception of authenticity that differentiates them from the artists above.
Take Dolly Parton as a case study. Rare is the critic or country music historian who doesn’t speak highly of both her pre-1976 and post-1999 output, where her music was firmly grounded in her mountain roots. But her pop era – roughly 1977-1986 – is widely maligned. The sincerity is there all the way throughout her career, whether it’s delivering the brilliant working class social commentary present in both “In the Good Old Days” and “9 to 5″, or when she’s just being hopelessly maudlin, be it with “Daddy Come and Get Me” or “Me and Little Andy.”
I think that she gets less credit for that period because there’s a sense that she’s being something that she’s not, that the authenticity is lacking. When you think someone is being inauthentic in their sincerity, it’s hard for some to embrace them. I think that I’m in the minority in that I don’t care much if someone is authentic, so long as they’re sincere.
Where things fall apart for me are when I perceive authenticity without being able to sense the sincerity in the performances. This is my major issue with many of the more traditional artists today. I think Jamey Johnson, Gretchen Wilson, and Brad Paisley are completely authentic in their music. They are who they say they are, and such. But I have trouble getting into them because they don’t come off as genuinely sincere.
It’s hard to articulate this, but to use Paisley as an example, he often sounds to my ears like he’s emotionally divorced from what he’s singing. The brain is plugged in, but I don’t feel the heart. I loved, loved, loved “Letter to Me” because his voice cracked with emotion. I felt the sincerity that I don’t feel when I hear “Anything Like Me” or “Little Moments.”
Meanwhile, Carrie Underwood can rarely do wrong with me because she drips with sincerity, something that was prevalent even during her embryonic Idol days, but has really come into play with her writing so much of her material. “Change” is my favorite song she’s done so far, not just because I fully agree with the message, but that she sings it with such sincerity. Does she live out the message in her own life? I have no idea. But her performance is so powerful to my ears that it being her authentic life story is as irrelevant to me as the fact that Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon aren’t really a death row convict and a Catholic nun, respectively.
Sincerity over authenticity, if I have to choose. Both are great to have, but the former is more essential than the latter in the music that I love the most. It may be a meaningless distinction in the end, but it’s the only explanation I can come up with for me usually liking songs much better by great singers than by the original songwriters, and for Laura Bell Bundy getting so much more play on my iPod than Taylor Swift, the most genuinely authentic teen star ever. Or at least since Lesley Gore.
With that all said, how about we listen to some Anne Murray? She’s awesome.