Sincerity

by

December 29, 2010

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.

So I ask if it was “Love, Me”, or maybe “Where’ve You Been”, or something similarly tragic. She was almost embarrassed as she told me that it was the old Anne Murray hit, “You Needed Me.”

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.

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  1. Ben FosterNo Gravatar says:

    Kevin, you can load up my iPod for me any time!

  2. ZackNo Gravatar says:

    I will say that I am more inclined to like music if I know the artist has written it, though, Reba tends to outshine others when singing songs; she is a great storyteller, and one of the best.

  3. DiamondNo Gravatar says:

    I played played Anne Murray’s “Broken Hearted Me” over and over back in the day– the chorus hit me where I lived after a painful break-up. For what it’s worth, I think this article, Kevin, is one of your best and bravest. You have definitely set a wonderful tone on this blog because YOU are sincere in your words and thoughts about country music.

  4. Ben FosterNo Gravatar says:

    Ditto to Diamond’s comment. I enjoy reading posts that cause me to view something from a different angle, or that bring out a point I’d never thought of myself. I liked the way this post draws a distinction between authenticity and sincerity (terms that some of us may tend to use interchangeably). I’d have to agree that I’d choose sincerity over authenticity.

  5. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar says:

    A very cool entry – Diamond said it best with the last sentence there. I find myself agreeing with and respecting several parts of the argument even as my personal taste still lands on the “opposite” side (authenticity over sincerity). (I particularly relate to your take on Paisley, although I would add that I don’t think he usually even digs deep enough in the writing itself for it to feel very sincere. I always find myself wishing he’d wipe the smirk for a sec and show some actual vulnerability, the way he did in “Letter to Me.”)

    I always connect much more deeply to a vocal performance when I know (or at least believe) the singer personally lived through the experience. Bruce Robison, Jackson Browne, and Taylor Swift may sound average or worse on others’ material, but on their own stuff it’s often like listening to a dear friend. I do think there are some singers who are able to inhabit others’ material as well as a great actor inhabits someone else’s life, but such singers are few and far between for me – perhaps it’s easier to get away with a pretty-sounding vocal without depth than a pretty-looking acting performance without it. It really does all come down to individual taste and perception, though.

  6. Erik NorthNo Gravatar says:

    As is so often pointed out (gratuitously, I think), Linda Ronstadt doesn’t write her own songs. But what she does is feel the song inside her, and out of that comes a lot of heartfelt, honest, emotional singing, which does it for me. And you don’t need to take my word for it–ask Trisha, Martina, or Patty.

  7. JakeNo Gravatar says:

    Did you catch Carrie singing “change” on idol gives back. it gave me goose bumps.

    I think it does have to do with personal taste but people trends to like both types. Like me for instance my favorite male artist is Jason Aldean(authenticity) and my favorite female artist is Carrie Underwood (sincerity)

  8. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Great article, even if I lean toward Dan, except for the Paisley part.:)

    It’s interesting that both terms are pretty subjective. I’d never consider Jason Aldean authentic, but many would vehemently disagree with me. I suppose it’s easier for me to assume that somebody is sincere than authentic though.

  9. I’ve said since 1999 that there’s something “Eddie Haskell” about Brad Paisley. He dots every “i” and crosses every “t” just right. I think what calls attention to him, specifically, is the way he so very publicly worships the Opry. In my time, I’ve known most artists to be respectful of the Opry, but there are times when I hear him talk about it that it just sounds to me like he’s been told that talking it up is the way to convince us all that he’s a good guy or something.

    Anyway, back on topic, I get the point about sincerity vs. authenticity. I think that’s what I love most about guys like Waylon and Willie; the only insincere periods of their careers were in the early days when the labels kept interfering and wouldn’t just let them be them. Even when the material may have been weak (looking at you, early 80s RCA Waylon), at least it didn’t ring false.

    And I’ll say I think this is what draws me to Taylor Swift today. Can I relate to her experiences as a teenage girl/woman in her early 20s? Not so much. But I can recognize that she’s written and sung with conviction about these experiences, and I can get behind that. Her aesthetic is as far removed from the outlaw country that I generally favor, but it suits her and her material; heavy steel would be out of place on her recordings and wouldn’t work.

  10. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Hmmm…I get why people don’t feel his music, but I can’t help but feel defensive of people questioning Paisley’s sincere dedication to the Opry and its legends.

  11. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    That seems more like a personal attack to me, even though I’m sure that’s not how you mean it.

  12. Tara SeetharamNo Gravatar says:

    I love, love, love this piece.

    I’m a sincerity over authenticity person. It’s all about emotion for me: I’m much more likely to connect with a song if the artist can sincerely convey –be it via voice, lyric or melody– specific emotion that I can grab onto.

    I do think that sincerity is fairly subjective, though, as Leeann said. You find Carrie to be sincere in her music, and I do too – but it’s very easy for me to understand why some people have a hard time really grasping her brand of sincerity. Artists, and people in general, show their sincerity in different colors and shades; some are more subtle than others, like Carrie’s. The listener’s experience really comes down to the listener’s own interpretation.

    I’ll add that I find Brad to be very sincere, though perhaps more as a person than as an artist. I guess that’s a whole other discussion.

  13. Re: Brad Paisley & the Opry – It just seems to me like the guy immediately became the current poster boy for the Opry. I can’t think of anyone else who has been half as public about his love for the Opry as Paisley and while I’m sure I’m just cynical, it there’s just something about it that always feels like he’s calling attention to himself, “Look! I really love country music!”

  14. Kevin John CoyneNo Gravatar says:

    I totally get that assessment of Brad Paisley. I thought the same thing myself when he first came out, because it was against the backdrop of the Shania/Faith/Lonestar crossover success. He was saying all of the right things to garner support from the traditionalist bloc in the industry.

    It was right after Lee Ann Womack earned hosannas for taking the same approach, so it was easy for it to look a little calculated at the time. But I think he’s proven himself to be genuine on this measure since then, unlike say Garth Brooks, who routinely said that Opry induction was the most important thing in his career yet showed up there with about as much regularity as a night owl to afternoon tea.

  15. Oh, Paisley has definitely walked the walk; no question about that. The attention he’s brought to the Opry has surely been a positive thing for the Opry and country music in general so I have no objection to it. There’s just something about the way he’s talked the talk that makes me want to know if he’s secretly buying the Ryman so he can later knock it down and replace it with a strip mall. Like I said; probably just cynicism on my part.

  16. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Yes, as much as I love Garth, it’s difficult to defend his attendance record.

    Vince gill is just as vocally supportive and active the Opry. Is he insincere too? Please say no.:)

  17. BobNo Gravatar says:

    Great article. Sincerity is definitely more important, especially since I don’t care at all if a song’s authentic country music. I’m just always looking for music that appeals to me and it happens that most of that has been country. My wife and have been Anne Murray fans for forty years. Counting vinyl and cds, we may have more of her albums than any other artist.

    Kevin said “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”. I made lists of my 40 all-time favorite female and male country artists about 2 1/2 years ago. Anne Murray was #7, even though she rarely, if ever, wrote any of the material she performed. If I had to update the list, Anne would if anything move up. The only major change would be the addition of fellow Canadian Lisa Brokop to my top 10. I was not familiar with her music when I made the list. For me, she exudes sincerity – plus she can sing.

  18. J.R. JourneyNo Gravatar says:

    Nobody says ‘country isn’t quite what it used to be’ like Kevin Coyne. Fascinating read. I found myself agreeing more than not, especially on the Parton and Paisley parts.

  19. TyNo Gravatar says:

    I agree with you about Carrie Underwood. the girl is so honest and sincere that you feel she is the girl next door. I can’t think of anyone that promotes the Opry more than Carrie. She has an Opry scene in every one of her concerts and in every interview she stresses how much she loves Country music. Brad is next. T think they represent Country music better than anyone out there.

  20. @Leeann – Vince Gill is so disarmingly charming that if he is insincere, I’m too distracted by his charisma to notice. Nobody has hosted a country awards broadcast like him. By the second hour, it was usually harder for him to stay focused and that’s when the unintentional comedy factor could go real high, real quick. Good times.

  21. KNo Gravatar says:

    I tend to gravitate towards scincerity over authenticity, but it depends on the artist and performance of the song for it to work.
    I don’t consider Jason Aldean to be authentic nor sciencere 99% of the time, but I do believe he conveys both in his performance of “The Truth.”
    It works in reverse as well; I believe Carrie Underwood is scincere/athentic in 99% of her performances, but I didn’t feel the same about “Last Name”, because she didn’t feel invested in the performance, even though she had co-writing credit.

    I think a scincere performace can improve upon a weaker lyric, but authenticity cannot. Again, Carrie Underwood’s “Mama’s Song” is a good example.
    Alan Jackson is a great example for the flipside argument. A lot of his fans might argue that he seems more authentic because he sings about true life with small- sometimes hokey- details. However, another listener might argue what an artist lives and sings about are two seperate issues, and are not intertwined.

    I tend to think of authenticity as a personality trait (Alan Jackson, Loretta, Dolly, Miranda, Carrie) all convey that in their real lives. And sciencerity is a trait used in performance by an artist, but isn’t connected to authenticity in the same way it would be applied in real life.

  22. BrianNo Gravatar says:

    I think sincerity and authenticity can go hand-in-hand sometimes too. For me, both these traits are missing in droves from many of the country music acts out there now. It’s perpetuated by the increasing list of “I’m from the country, and here’s a list of reasons why” songs. A singer who feels what they are singing rather than just singing something is always welcome and a listener can tell the difference.

    With Jamey Johnson- I think he has both. Something about his songs make me believe that singing is not just a job for him. It’s salvation and what he feels is a logical point his life has led him to. A song like, “My Way to You,” would feel wrong in many singers hands. His emotion conveys through the radio.

  23. BLLNo Gravatar says:

    I would not disagree with a word written. Well said Kevin. And though people jump on Garth about the Opry attendence, when I listen to him with the headphones on I feel like I’m sitting next to him while he sings, believing every word. I felt that way the first time I heard John Denver, even though he was a folkie (and I did sit next to him on my couch whilst he sang). I feel that way when I listen to Chris LeDoux,even though he’s not a perfect singer, and when I listen to Trisha Yearwood who is about as perfect as one can get.

  24. CraigNo Gravatar says:

    I pretty much echo everything that Ty said. Carrie and Brad are a couple of the best representations of Country music out there, and their authenticity and sincerity that they’ve created to make an impact on the genre is truly remarkable.

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