Identity Crisis

I became a country fan twenty years ago, and have been fully immersed in the genre for about as long.  I’ve read up on the history, heard pretty much every significant artist and recording, and can speak knowledgeably about the genre’s highs and lows over the past few decades.

We’ve never been this low.  I think I finally understand why that is.

Jonathan Keefe from Slant wrote this in his review of the JaneDear Girls album, and it really hit home with me:

…the JaneDear Girls use a couple of catchy melodies and garish costumes to mask the fact that they can’t sing even a little bit, and, if they could, wouldn’t have a single authentic thing to say. In other words, they’re exactly what country music, in the throes of a pretty severe identity crisis, doesn’t need right now: its own Katy Perry.

This is the paradox that’s increasingly devouring country music.  Artists are singing more than ever about how country they are, yet they’re doing it with songs that sound less country than ever.

Perhaps all of these “loud and proud” country identity songs are a reflection of the country lifestyle being fully swallowed up by suburbia, and “country” is now more of a chosen lifestyle than it is something homegrown.  But “country music”  has almost completely shifted to “music about being country.”  You don’t have to sound country, you just have to revel in being country.

Country music cannot retain its identity this way.  As a radio format, it isn’t going anywhere. As the larger player on the field, it’s managed to absorb a good chunk of what we used to call Adult Top 40, picking up a few of their core artists along the way.

But as a relevant genre of its own? That can’t continue if the vast majority of the new  mainstream artists have little connection to what came before them.  Superstars are hard enough to come by as it is, and when you think about the ones who have emerged from country music in recent years – Sugarland, Keith Urban, Taylor Swift, Lady Antebellum – their tenuous links to country music as a distinct art form are virtually nonexistent.

Ten years ago, Carrie Underwood would’ve been grouped as a pop-country diva.  These days, she’s the only recent superstar that even seems to care that her music sounds identifiably country.  And while there is no shortage of alternative country acts who are connected to the genre’s roots, their very existence on the outskirts of the mainstream prevent them from having a meaningful enough impact to carry on country music’s rich legacy.

Without a new generation of country stars breaking through enough to really captivate the interest of the public, I see no way for country music to continue as a viable art form and culturally relevant presence in contemporary music.

We’re in trouble, folks.

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49 Comments

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49 Responses to Identity Crisis

  1. My neck is getting stiff from nodding in agreement. This post, and Keefe’s review, hit the nail on the head in describing country’s current identity crisis. But I do like to think that conditions will improve eventually, though that may seem like blind optimism.

  2. JakeNo Gravatar

    I seen a interview of loretta lynn and she said she loves the new country. She said it’s definatly different then the old country music but that doesn’t make it not good. Country music or even music in general is constantly changing so I think your worrying for nothing because someone will eventually come along and shake things up again but the only problem with the music changing is that the old country music if you will isn’t getting played along with the new.

  3. MikeNo Gravatar

    There are acts out there that if supported, could grow the genre musically and create a new generation of and put back in, a country sound in the music we call country. They could give it an identity worth welcoming and make it money, all while growing themselves as artists. They can make actual country-sounding music relevant again; sort-of a re-revolution of the 90’s style and sound. These aren’t fringe artists like Williams the third or Shooter either that could be coming up and leading this charge; they are actual artists that have gotten and if demanded, could continue to get radio airplay and major record label promotion. The caviet is of course our support of these artists and demand for more as country music fans. We need to be supportive of yet continue to want artistic growth from people like Easton Corbin, John Turner, Joe Nichols, Sunny Sweeney, Blake Shelton, Randy Houser, Ashton Shepherd, Little Big Town, Whitey Morgan and the 78’s, the Zac Brown Band, whomever really.

    The record labels and through their lead, the FM radio market, needs to see our time and money migrate off Taylor Swift (at least as a country act) and her crowd and onto those we can comfortably say are county music artists. If our money doesn’t migrate than the their minds won’t migrate off of what they’re doing now. When fans turn Sunny Sweeney and Easton Corbin albums and live ticket gate profits into consistent, comparable chart-toppers and surefire sellouts, like the pop artists their background mandolins they are contending with, then our goal will be realized. Until then we’re going to be stuck with pop labeled country in the music, a plethora of artists who give us that sound and a small group of “rebels” out there, daring to place country in their music.

  4. JakeNo Gravatar

    I agree with that mike. I think it’s sad that the industry is run by record labels and radio people instead of the fans. Just imagine if red dirt country was getting equal airplay as pop country. People like randy rogers band, eli young band, cross canadian ragweed, etc. would be getting the credit and success they deserve. I dont think we should get rid of pop country but we should mix up the different styles of country music. Just think of how good the genre would be.

  5. DevinNo Gravatar

    There are lots of very valid points brought up here and elsewhere, but they are all from the perspective of long time fans. When you grow with something and feel like you were, for a lack of a better phrase, “country before country was cool”, it’s just going to be in your nature to be defensive of it and like it the way it was. I sort of liken it, in my own life, to Mixed Martial Arts. I was a fan years ago, before most knew what “UFC” was, and now it’s absurdly popular. But that bothers me because I don’t necessarily like the way its evolved to grab certain crowds, and I feel like I’m entitled to have things my way, because I liked it first.

    I honestly don’t think that country music has gotten worse. I just think it’s “different”. And if you liked it the way it was before, well, then I guess to you it could be worse. But I don’t think it’s so bad that it’s threatening country as a genre.

    There is absolute crap on the radio today, no doubt. But that falls on the fans, not the artists, for the most part. Music is a business, more than an art form, right now, and as a business, they will supply what people want. No matter how much that country pride song may grate on you, some people want to hear it. In droves. Singers and songwriters are just playing the hot hand, and unfortunately, artistic integrity is apparently a worthy sacrifice for a number one hit. If listeners collectively ignored the catchy but vapid songs that come around, eventually that higher quality material would come through.

    Maybe I’m just being optimistic, but I can’t imagine how we’re in trouble. While my observations are clearly biased, I can hardly remember country ever being as popular as it is now (in the last 10 years or so, I’m only 19). Growing up, you didn’t admit to anyone you listened to country music (I actually didn’t listen to it at all…) because it just wasn’t ‘cool’. Nowadays there’s at least a country song that everyone I know seems to like. It will be exactly 2 years ago next month that I became completely obsessed with country music, and many of the people who gave me sideways looks when I told them that’s what I listened to have now taken to the genre themselves. To me, that’s encouraging.

    I know a large concern among many is actually what’s being passed off as country music today. And to that, I don’t think there’s any other solution but to wait it out. But I think we should reap these acts for their potential long term benefits. While I consider myself firmly rooted in the ‘new traditionalist’ camp, many (or most) of the people I know who casually listen to country music are more on the Taylor Swift, Lady A, and Keith Urban side. But if listening to those acts can expose these people to other artists, to real country artist, it may just click with them. And a new, true fan is born.

    My limited perspective and time as a fan probably puts me in the minority of this issue. I believe there’s enough potential today to lead country music back into the ‘promise land’. And if I have to suffer through a few more Taylor Swift albums in the hopes that the broader exposure of country music will allow some of the more unknown artists to get noticed and shift the focus of the genre, then it’s certainly a blow I’m willing to take.

  6. RosettaNo Gravatar

    This is why I love Kasey Chambers from Australia. She’s real.

  7. PeteNo Gravatar

    “Ten years ago, Carrie Underwood would’ve been grouped as a pop-country diva. These days, she’s the only recent superstar that even seems to care that her music sounds identifiably country.”

    Does it, though? I’m Dutch, and thus raised on pretty much anything but country, but to my ear hardly anything about her music really sounds country.

    Carrie sounds about as country as Ilse de Lange, a Dutch singer that I’d classify as pop. Example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OJwAFi3CW5E

  8. There is a brilliant exchange shared in the booklet to Willie Nelson’s Revolutions of Time…the Journey 1975-1993 box set that I think I’ve shared here before, but I feel compelled to bring it out again. (If it looks familiar, go on and skip through it.)

    “What do you think of the state of country music today?” [Kinky] Friedman inquired. “All these sort of generic young artists popping out of the studio and becoming superstars, sometimes without even paying their dues. It’s not as if they could go on the road again. Most of them were never there the first time.”

    “Phases and stages,” Willie replied, as he steered his golf cart off the course and towards the recording studio. “They’re as real to this generation as Bob Wills, or Spade Cooley, or Tim Mix, or Lefty Frizzell.”

    That said, I think you nailed it with the phrase, “‘country’ is now more of a chosen lifestyle.” I’d say “redneck” very much comparable now to what gangsta has been in the urban community. The performers of today get away with posturing because they wear the right costumes (that’s surely all these clothes are to most of them), name-check the right people and drop the requisite buzz words in interviews. And the thing is, there’s no incentive for anyone to put an end to it.

    The labels keep presenting them because they’re desperate for the next big thing and young artists eager for the spotlight are malleable. The artists themselves know that seeing their name in lights–and on checks–is mighty satisfying, so they’re fine with playing the part. And anyway, isn’t even an authentic entertainer still playing a part for the public?

    Ostensibly, it falls to music journalists to call out these egregious phonies but who’s even still in print today? A handful of magazines–scant few dedicated to country–all of whom are largely dependent on revenue generated from selling advertising space to the very labels and artists they should be dressing down. It’s awfully murky, and there’s really no way of doing it that can’t be dismissed as sour grapes from an out-of-touch old fogey which, I believe this rant has proven, I have turned into at the ripe old age of 32.

  9. Paul DennisNo Gravatar

    I think Travis has nailed it (although I think things are bleaker than he has portrayed since I don’t really regard the country music of much of his youth as really being country)

  10. I’d add Lambert to Carrie’s name as one of the few who even care that their music sounds country (or even have a respect for the genre’s history itself), considering that she has become a rising superstar in recent months.

    It’s interesting how fast of a downward spiral country music can take in 6 years (since 2005, when I first got into the genre… was it that long ago?! My, does time fly!). Or even in 4 years, since 2007 was probably the last year we could probably pass off as good.

    I think legends are generally very careful about what they say regarding the new crop of country artists. On the one hand, I see Loretta’s point, there was a time that the current state of country music was unheard of (surprisingly); yet it seems Willie makes an excellent point in that country has seemed to become a genre where almost anyone could come in and get one or two top ten hits.

    Do you suppose there will be another period of revitalization of COUNTRY-sounding music in the mainstream as there was in the mid 00’s? (ie: There’s More Where That Came From, Fireflies, Real Fine Place, etc.)

  11. KatieRNo Gravatar

    Zack, I agree, to me Miranda Lambert is the most country female artist on the radio these days.

    Little Big Town, love ‘em or not are very country. Unfortunately they don’t get much airplay.

    Sugarland has it’s moments of country (Genevieve) and moments of, well, who knows what category (Stuck Like Glue). I still think they’re the best current mainstream country act at the moment though. No matter what their sound is.

  12. Always appreciate the plug, especially when it goes along with a good conversation piece.

    A general principle that I try to stick to is that things are only as bad as they’ve ever been. It keeps blind optimism in check and avoids easy nostalgia. There was a whole lot of garbage in the 90s country music scene, and there is some terrific music that’s informed by the traditions of country music still being made today.

    But I do think the crap-to-quality ratio has become skewed, and it’s entirely fair to ask how much of the quality music out there actually connects to “country music” and, of that subset, to what extent it connects.

    Looking at Miranda Lambert, who is at least an A-minus List country star now, it’s accurate to say that, 15 years ago, her music would have kept her confined to the alt-country bins with acts like Kelly Willis. Hell, she was even on the cover of No Depression right before that magazine stopped printing a monthly paper edition. Now that a more aggressive, rock edge has taken hold in Nashville, someone like Lambert is considered a mainstream country act, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing in and of itself.

    The problem, to me, is that the pop and rock influences that have taken hold of late are all *bad* pop and rock. Keith Urban is just a couple of years removed from covering Phil Collins without even a hint of irony. Sugarland just made a god-awful Def Leppard album. And the JaneDear Girls are horrid in the exact same ways that Katy Perry is. If artists were looking to more innovative or even simply *good* pop and rock acts, and, more importantly, if they were actually performing those pop and rock influences competently, I’d be far less concerned about where country music is at the moment.

    It’s often been said that country music is “three chords and the truth.” For a whole lot of today’s country acts, those chords haven’t been tuned properly and the “truth” came out of a focus group.

  13. Looking over my post now I see that I mistakenly typed, “Tim Mix” when it should in fact, have been Tom Mix, but then I figure you already knew that. ;)

    And Paul, I’m impressed and a little uncomfortable that you have an idea when my youth was! Alas, I grew up in the 1980s and while I can easily point to music from that era that I feel was far less country than it should have been I also get to claim being a first-generation Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam fan so I figure I come out ahead.

    That, I guess, is the real question about this era. Where are its Randy Travises and Dwight Yoakams? (In a perfect world, the industry and fans would realize both are still out there and sound as good as ever.) And it’s no use citing Josh Turner; he’s a fine vocalist and by all accounts a decent person but it’s nearly seven years since he debuted and he hasn’t conquered the world the way we all hoped he would when we first heard “Long Black Train.”

  14. Addendum: I just realized I’d mentioned my age in the earlier post, meaning anyone who’s actually been to sleep tonight (i.e., anyone who isn’t me) should have been able to pinpoint my childhood years. Egocentricity, you’ve been checked!

  15. Paul DennisNo Gravatar

    Simple math, Travis. If you are 32 then your teen years were approximately 1991-1997 (admittedly, pretty decent years for country music) and your twenties were roughly 1998-2007 (mostly, IMHO, lousy years for years for country music

    I’ve read that most people tend to be most strongly attached to the music of their teen years and early twenties. My teen years occurred from 1965-1971 so I’d say that in my case, that attachment is correct when it comes to pop and country music, although I like most country, pop and R&B music from before that time, too.

  16. JakeNo Gravatar

    I find it ironic that you post this article and the next day the jane dear girls are nominated fire an acm.

  17. CindyNo Gravatar

    THANK YOU – I saw the Jane Deer Girls on CMT this past weekend and something was bugging me about them. 1) In the video clip – they were singing BADLY and I thought “oh no – another Taylor Swift” 2) their look is WEIRD – especially the dark haired one – her hair looks fake and those red lips – yuck. Now I know where I have seen that look before KATY PERRY.
    I haven’t liked Sugarland since Stay – Stuck Like Glue was HORRIBLE and Lady A’s only good song was their first single. Loved Taylor Swift’s Tim McGraw but everything after that has been POP and BAD and she can’t sing and her hair flips and “entertainment” value is so fake. I do have an affection for Keith but do agree that a lot of his music isn’t country. We do still have people like Brad, Chris Young and Toby Keith.

    In regards to Carrie – the one thing I love about her albums is that they are an adventure. You get the trifecta (any achievement involving three successful outcomes) – Carrie’s amazing voice singing: country-pop, country-rock and traditional country – something for everyone. The fact that her voice is also the best since Martina McBride is also a plus for country fans. She seems to honor those true country voices before her with true country covers(Randy Travis – I Told You So, Alan Jackson – Look at Me (love this so much!), Loretta Lynn – Looking At Country, Eagles – Desperado/Life in the Fast Lane,Bob Wills – San Antonio Rose, Brooks & Dunn – Neon Moon, Eddie Arnold – Make the World Go Away). I also like some of Miranda Lambert’s songs and she also has a nice voice. I also am liking Sunny Sweeney. And of course Reba and Martina!

  18. BobNo Gravatar

    I would rather listen to my old rock music (none of it hard rock or heavy metal) from the late 50’s to late 70’s than almost all of today’s top 40 country. About the only new successful country act I have any enthusiasm for is Zac Brown.

  19. Sugarland had me in their corner until Incredible Machine.

    The only regular currents at radio I still follow are: Underwood, Lambert, LBT, Reba (I’m a die hard, but knows when she crosses the line), and despite their horrific album, Sugarland could still win me back with a great next album (please?)

  20. Erik NorthNo Gravatar

    Quote by Kevin John Coyne:

    This is the paradox that’s increasingly devouring country music. Artists are singing more than ever about how country they are, yet they’re doing it with songs that sound less country than ever.

    Perhaps all of these “loud and proud” country identity songs are a reflection of the country lifestyle being fully swallowed up by suburbia, and “country” is now more of a chosen lifestyle than it is something homegrown. But “country music” has almost completely shifted to “music about being country.” You don’t have to sound country, you just have to revel in being country.

    Country music cannot retain its identity this way. As a radio format, it isn’t going anywhere. As the larger player on the field, it’s managed to absorb a good chunk of what we used to call Adult Top 40, picking up a few of their core artists along the way.

    I’ve been of that opinion for a very long time, with one significant addition–to me, what passes for country music today is just 80s arena rock dressed in a wall of drawl, twang, redneck attitude, and blue jeans, and not having any real relevance or fidelity to the form of what the roots of country music or the rural way of life that gave rise to it really are.

    Contrary to what Brad Paisley might have had the audience believe in “This Is Country Music”, it isn’t just about tractors, Jesus, or Momma, or even small towns. Does anyone still remember what ranches and farms are? Don’t they comprise what “country” is supposed to be as well?

    I still remember back in 2003, when Linda Ronstadt, who grew up listening to a lot of country music while growing up on her family’s ranch in Arizona, did an interview for the now-defunct Country Music Magazine and she derisively called the current country music as “mall crawler music.” That’s playing hardball, but I think she’s right. There’s no real sense of tradition in the music any longer, just a lot of bumper-sticker symbolism and faux “proud to be Country” statements that shout a lot but say nothing of substance.

    In my opinion, it’s not enough to have “hot new young” artists and acts who proclaim themselves “country.” They ought to know, before even stepping into a studio or onto a stage, the roots of the music and the lifestyle that gave birth to it. Otherwise, it’s just a shuck-and-jive thing.

  21. PSU MikeNo Gravatar

    Kevin, thanks for writing this. There’s a lot of great discussion here, and some really interesting points are being made. Overall, I can’t say I disagree about the tenuous state of country music right now.

    I can’t really come here and post and say that I’m a purist. I love the catalogs of Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, Don Williams, and Waylon Jennings , but to this day, I enjoy listening to a lot of the music in the 1980s. Some of the artists that I liked were Alabama, Ronnie Milsap, Restless Heart, Steve Wariner, and Dan Seals, all of which recorded their share of music with country-pop gloss. While I also enjoy George Strait, Randy Travis, and Dwight Yoakam, who are more traditional in sound and critically acclaimed, many of the artists that recorded “popish” material remain some of my favorites to this day. I still enjoy listening to the country gold radio shows that play the music of the 80s and 90s along with the classics in the earlier decades. So, with that being said…how can I like the country-pop of the eighties, and not enjoy what’s being made today?

    Honestly, I think it’s a case of the maturity level of the music being made. All of the artists I mentioned had their share of songs that were written for adults. To use Dan Seals as an example, he had “Bop”, but he also had songs like “Addicted”, “Everything that Glitters is Not Gold”, and “They Rage On”. While there have always been “ditties” on country radio, it just feels like so many artists are just trying to record catchy songs, with little thought behind the lyrics (ala “Felt Good on My Lips”, “Put You in a Song”, “Turn on Your Radio”, “Wildflower”, etc, etc). One or two of these on the radio isn’t necessarily a bad thing…hearing three or four of them in a row is a problem. Furthermore, I think that the more these types of songs are heard on the radio, the more they attract a certain kind listener that doesn’t demand better songs, but instead looks for a song with “a good beat, and that’s easy to dance to.” That’s why you see someone like Trace Adkins releasing singles like “Marry for Money” or “Brown Chicken Brown Cow” in favor of “Til the Last Shot is Fired” or “I Can’t Outrun You.” Here’s an example of a guy that has genuine talent, but has gone on record as saying that he can’t consistently get his serious music played. Combine this issue with the points that Kevin raised, and it shows that “country music” is in a serious rut. While the optimist in me hopes that it will get better, I think this trend has been consistent for a while now.

    This isn’t to say that I don’t think there are some bright spots. When I look at artists like Miranda Lambert and the Zac Brown Band, I know that they have influences outside of country music. But, I also see that they have a respect for the art of songwriting, and that they have a reverence for the people who helped build country music. They just put their own original spin on it. Unfortunately, too many artists just care about recording whatever they need to, in order to get to the top of the charts, and don’t seem to give any thought to country music influences, or even the quality of the songs. Heck, I can take Keith Urban and Taylor Swift over a lot of the current superstars, because at least they put some thought and effort behind their songwriting. I don’t know that anyone will mistake Keith Urban for George Jones, but I do think that many of his songs are of high quality, and that he’s a respectable artist. But to me, the biggest issue is that many of today’s superstars not only don’t know or care to use country music past innovators as influences, they don’t even seem to do a decent job in recording decent songs, whether they’re considered “country” or not. When the majority of songs played on the radio, regardless of their production, are considered frivilous, unoriginal, and are deemed to have no lasting impact whatsoever, then your product has become nothing more than mere pop music. This problem, to me, is what could be crippling to country music as a genre, and its future viability as an art form.

  22. JonesNo Gravatar

    Yeah, you can add Miranda’s name, but Carrie has definitely been the more consistent one out of the two. Miranda was on a roll, but “Only Prettier” slowed it down a little bit. She needs to be more consistent. Carrie, has always wanted to sing country music, and yes, it’s definitelty not the country music that people grew up listening to. I liked the comment about Carrie. She doesn’t remixed, and I think that is why she stands out. Yeah, she doesn’t crossover that often, but I rather have Carrie sing country music than some washed up remixed version which takes the country right out of it.

  23. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar

    This post touches on so many potential points of discussion that it’s hard to know exactly where to start responding. I’ll probably get away from the point of the post itself, I fear. But oh well.

    To me there are two distinct issues in play with modern country music, which I want to keep distinct in discussion although they’re intertwined in ways. The first is this oft-cited observation that most of country’s sonic qualities are coming from influences outside its own supposed tradition. That’s easy enough to call, and while I applaud acts who retain a recognizably “country” core to their sound, it doesn’t bug me in theory that other influences seep in – they always have (though like Jonathan said, it would be nice if the other influences were generally good). The second issue, to me, is the bigger problem: that country music has lost its soul.

    Sappy to say, but I can’t think of a better way to word it. And soul, I think, transcends sonic choices (e.g. particular instruments, rhythms, song forms, etc.). Most of us wouldn’t have a problem calling both Roy Rogers and Bobbie Gentry country (or at least country-related) because we recognize a common spirit in them that transcends their very different sounds and styles: they’re telling the truth. In Rogers’ case, the truth was tucked inside romanticized visions of the frontier (not totally unlike how Taylor Swift’s truth is tucked inside often-romanticized visions of young relationships); in Gentry’s case, the truth was franker and grittier. It doesn’t matter: both fantasy and hard reality can speak to the human condition. Any setting or background can, too; a lot of great country songs could apply just as easily to a family in the suburbs as to a dirt-poor farmer in the deep South.

    So I don’t think it’s a problem of “types” or artistic background or aesthetics that fundamentally makes modern country suck; it’s a problem of substance. The JaneDear Girls’ act, like most of what’s out there right now, is mostly contrivance, and it’s not even creative contrivance. It’s just digging into a barrel of stock phrases and images and pulling out whatever – as long as the melody is agreeable.

    Though I agree that the “country lifestyle” is now just a chosen marketing stripe for lots of artists now, I think a lot of good songs, both light and “serious,” could be written about what it means to be live that lifestyle in the modern world; it’s just that most everyone is picking the boring parts, the parts that tell us only the obvious: we like beer. We like trucks. We like pretty women. We like America. We have “foolish pride” in relationships sometimes. And maybe they’re saying those things because they don’t have authentic experience in that which they claim to, but I think just as often it’s because somebody – maybe them, maybe a label, maybe radio – just doesn’t want them to produce something new and special. And I don’t know where we could possibly go about correcting that.

    My fantasy is always an artist who is able to overcome all these issues – who makes music that sounds country, but not self-consciously so, and that speaks to modern truths. Elizabeth Cook came closest to achieving that for me this past year, which is why her album topped my list.

  24. MikeNo Gravatar

    Keith Urban (new stuff), Kenny Chesney (new stuff), Sugarland, Gloriana, Love and Theft, Tim McGraw (new stuff), Taylor Swift, etc. should be getting played on stations that play Train, Daughtry and Kelly Clarkson. Jason Aldean, Eric Church, Toby Keith (new stuff), etc. should be on, well they should just strip their country elements in the background and ship their music to rock stations and play them next to Stained, Nickleback, Fallout Boy I guess. They’re marketed to country radio though and as country because they can have a nice little marketing gimmick to themselves.

    Country is one of those labels that always rings independent of other genres in people’s mind; not that it runs independent anymore based off of the sound of music being produced but rather the name country itself. When someone is labeled as “country” that puts them in a category to themselves and allows labels and FM radio to creating a niche, all be it a large niche, for marketing purposes.

  25. Jon G.No Gravatar

    I don’t really care about this discussion enough to do anything than throw in my two cents and say that Carrie Underwood is nusically country only in the most superficial ways. Saying that someone is country for having a fiddle thrown in here or there is like saying that Montgomery Gentry are a hip-hop duo becuase there’s some record scratching in “If You Ever Stop Loving Me.”
    And-this is another two cents kinda thing-I do actually think that Toby Keith has much stronger ties to country music than rock or any other genre (in regards to what Mike said).

  26. MikeNo Gravatar

    The last country single that Toby released was Crash Here Tonight (I suppose you can make a case for Love Me If You Can and Trailerhood). Everything else from Toby has been guitar blaring, rock influenced music or bluesy-pop in Wayman’s song.

  27. KyleNo Gravatar

    I think Dan hit the nail on the head.

    It seems “true country music” has come to mean “music about being rural” to many, which, in my opinion, leaves out the core element that has always made great country music great. Whether you call that element “soul”, “truth”, or something else… it’s that story told with uncalculated honesty, that confession made under complete lack of pretense or facade, that expression of that universally felt moment of weakness, that simple truth expressed in natural way.

    So, while I would like to hear more steel guitar and fiddle and less amplification and string sections, the main problem I have with the current crop of songs is that there’s no real pain in them, nothing that really needs to be said.

  28. BryanNo Gravatar

    Country music has suffered greatly since the 1960s when the big labels moved into the business, They “create” stars, they over-produce, and generally rip the soul out of country music. All they care about is hit records that chart well. Period.

    Your point has some merit BUT…

    … if you look to the fringes, to the small indie labels, to the artists who think that playing a concert at the Wood House is as good as it gets, and what is called alt country, and you’ll find that real country music is alive and well. Just flying under the radar is all.

  29. KatieRNo Gravatar

    To me it feels like this is a second musical revolution. In the 60s, rock sort of broke away from country. Pop too. This is a second wave of that, imho, from people who want to “push the boundaries of country music” but really all they’re doing is pushing those boundaries into already established genres.

  30. KenNo Gravatar

    You can trace the fundamental problem with today’s country music back to the late 1980’s & early 1990’s. That’s when the Nashville country music industry and country radio stations were becoming overun with non-country music fans. The producers making the music and the executives controlling the music business in Nashville had no true love for the genre. They found willing co-conspirators at radio as more & more carpetbaggers moved into positions of authority at country radio stations. Country radio program and music directors were increasingly non-country fans and leaned toward music that was devoid of any traditional country lyrics or instrumentation. Since the late 1990’s as the consolidation of the broadcast industry has eliminated thousands of jobs this situation has considerably worsened. Radio veterans who specialized in and loved country music were shown the door to be replaced with pop and rock fans who were often openly hostile toward the genre. That’s who is running many of today’s country radio stations. I see absolutely no chance for this to change.

    I mostly listen to pre-1980 songs from my music collection and don’t bother with current country radio or music anymore. It’s a completely lost cause.

  31. Kevin John CoyneNo Gravatar

    Paul Dennis wrote:
    I’ve read that most people tend to be most strongly attached to the music of their teen years and early twenties. My teen years occurred from 1965-1971 so I’d say that in my case, that attachment is correct when it comes to pop and country music, although I like most country, pop and R&B music from before that time, too.

    I think there’s a lot of truth to that. Certainly, there wouldn’t be a successful New Kids reunion tour if that wasn’t the case.

    But I think that there are also eras in country music that can be defined as golden, even if you happened to grow up during them.

    If we expand your teen years into your early twenties, for example, you’ve got the artistic peaks of Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Buck Owens, George Jones, Charley Pride, and Conway Twitty. All that came in roughly 1965-1975.

    I fell in love with country music in 1991. Think about all of the artists who were breaking through and peaking around that time: Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, Trisha Yearwood, Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Patty Loveless, Dwight Yoakam, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Mark Chesnutt, (arguably) George Strait.

    It’s my era, so I’m partial to it, but I think it stands out as an era of excellence in its own right.

    You could make up another list, though not quite as long, from the years in between our two eras, and a darn good one from the years before your era.

    Try to make one from the last fifteen years, however, and it’s slim pickings.

  32. DiamondNo Gravatar

    This identity crisis is real, and I think Carrie Underwood is at the heart of this debate for many. It is obvious Carrie has recorded pop-leaning songs that undermine her country credibility at times. But in her, unlike others, I find someone who lived the country life, and grew up loving country music. She also loved 80s rock she heard her sisters play. In my opinion, she’s like a lot of us who love country music. It is not our ONLY love. For example, I also like 70s pre-disco rock/pop. Johnny Cash, CCR and Three Dog Night were my first albums. It’s not that Carrie isn’t country–she just isn’t “country enough” for many fans of the genre. I get that. But I also know when she covers classic country songs by Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, or even Bob Wills, I hear and feel a country singer as I listen. I can not say that of many, or most, of the current crop who straddle the country/pop line.

  33. Rodney in South CarolinaNo Gravatar

    God, I miss The Dixie Chicks…

  34. Erik NorthNo Gravatar

    One of the things that I think was the most depressing in all this was when Garth Brooks started referring to his releases as “product”, and other artists followed suit (“I’m going to release new ‘product’ soon”). That’s pretty much what, I would say, sixty to eighty percent of what mainstream Nashville has put out since the early 1990s has been–Product. Not much in the way of soul or feeling.

  35. DollNo Gravatar

    ffdrt dfrt serater

  36. For me, the microcosm of this modern version of the age-old problem was the passing of Johnny Cash. At first I thought it was a good thing that the Man in Black was back on people’s minds and in their songs. But then I actually looked at the words to those songs and it struck me that few of these artists who were supposedly “strongly influenced” by Cash have actually bothered to record anything like him.

    Cash’s discography is chock full of songs about Americana and the down-trodden, from inmates to Indians. You know what would demonstrate a clear influence by Cash? A song about Mexican immigrants being unfairly targeted in Arizona. A song about soldiers that takes a look at what’s become of the ones who’ve come home to find out that “Support the Troops” was just a bumper sticker their neighbors have taken down. There’s no shortage of injustice in 2011 America and that’s what Cash–and country music–used to discuss. But then, maybe today’s entertainers and today’s audience are unwilling to think about–let alone hear about–those unpleasant things. It’s shameful that audiences thought “blasting out to Johnny Cash” was some kind of fitting tribute.

    I’m pretty sure I’ve cited this example in another context before, but I keep coming back to Tim McGraw’s “Grown Men Don’t Cry.” The first time I heard it, I was shocked that the song was about the guy who drove off in his Suburban feeling sorry for himself that he’d seen a poor woman and her kid. It crossed my mind that there was a time that the song would have been about them, but in 2001 country’s biggest star was singing about how it bothered him. The target audience was clearly not the down-trodden, but the well-to-do who needed to be assured that any discomfort they felt from being exposed to the plight of others could be assuaged by coming back to their two-story home and their healthy, stable, loving family. That song, to my mind, was when country “jumped the shark” (to borrow a TV phrase).

  37. Craig R.No Gravatar

    Dan I think “soul” is the best word you could use. What attracts me to country is the truth within the story it is telling- whether that is Roy Rogers or Bobbie Gentry. The problem with modern country music is that most of the performers are telling a list of what they think are “country truths”.

    The saddest part is that if they could tell their own truth in their music then it would be country no matter what it sounded like to certain degree. But they are lazy, fame comes too quick, and the real life can scare people off. I have started to believe that reason why country music is so popular today is because it has drifted away from the truth.

    When I tell people I like country music I usually get one of two responds: Country music is so depressing or I love Rascal Flatts. That tells me that for the most part country music has lived two lives. One that most people found to be too real and one that most people found to be to light to ignore.

  38. Just My 2¢No Gravatar

    “Is there anything behind the symbols of modern ‘country’ or are the symbols themselves the whole story? Are the hats, the boots, the pick-up trucks, and the honky-tonking poses all that’s left of a disintegrating culture? Back in Arkansas, a way of life produced a certain kind of music. Does a certain kind of music now produce a way of life?” – Johnny Cash.

    I love that quote and just had to post it. But doesn’t his criticism nicely sum up the alt.country scene as much as it does a mainstream intent on proving they have “farm-cred”? Both are wallowing in a countrier-than-thou shtick that has gotten incredibly tiresome. Granted, the music coming from the fringe scans as “country” much more readily than what has been deemed radio friendly but that doesn’t mean that one group’s authenticity fetish isn’t just as self-righteous (the Muzik Mafia; Robbie Fulks) and silly (Jason Aldean; Jamey Johnson) as the other’s.

  39. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar

    Just My 2¢ raises an important point. A lot of times we’re more prone to “pick teams” than we are to actually consider and address what the problem is.

    Here’s my personal deal: I’m interested in artists who tell stories we haven’t heard much before, or at least familiar stories with outstanding new treatments. A lot of alt-country/Americana feels unnecessary to me because it’s little more than diminished returns on yesterday’s sounds and stories. The artists under that banner I dig without reservation – Old Crow Medicine Show, Elizabeth Cook, Hayes Carll, Todd Snider – figure out ways to use what was good about past music, but they forge their own identities, too.

  40. Erik NorthNo Gravatar

    Quote by Travis McClain re. Johnny Cash:

    For me, the microcosm of this modern version of the age-old problem was the passing of Johnny Cash. At first I thought it was a good thing that the Man in Black was back on people’s minds and in their songs. But then I actually looked at the words to those songs and it struck me that few of these artists who were supposedly “strongly influenced” by Cash have actually bothered to record anything like him.

    Cash’s discography is chock full of songs about Americana and the down-trodden, from inmates to Indians. You know what would demonstrate a clear influence by Cash? A song about Mexican immigrants being unfairly targeted in Arizona. A song about soldiers that takes a look at what’s become of the ones who’ve come home to find out that “Support the Troops” was just a bumper sticker their neighbors have taken down. There’s no shortage of injustice in 2011 America and that’s what Cash–and country music–used to discuss. But then, maybe today’s entertainers and today’s audience are unwilling to think about–let alone hear about–those unpleasant things. It’s shameful that audiences thought “blasting out to Johnny Cash” was some kind of fitting tribute.

    I agree, Travis. I mean, can you imagine, say, someone like Toby Keith or John Rich doing a song like “The Ballad Of Ira Hayes”, which lamented a real-life mistreatment by America of one of its own servicemen because he was an Indian? I can’t. Nor can I see anyone doing “Folsom Prison Blues” or “A Boy Named Sue” with the same kind of intensity or integrity that Johnny did back in the 1960s. These poseurs can shout out “Johnny Cash!” all they want, but they seem not to have a clue about either the Man In Black, or real country music in general.

  41. Erik, I think part of the problem is that some of today’s artists are so entrenched with political figures and agendas that being critical of certain situations would be difficult for them. I would never call for a separation of music and state, but some of these artists (Keith, Worley) are in danger of being characterized as political jingoists for the GOP more than as actual artists.

    I despised Darryl Worley’s “Sounds Like Life” because it takes the entirely useless position that everyone should just get over whatever it is that’s wrong in their lives. Must be nice to have a life where you can just decide that your problems aren’t a big deal. Most people I know can’t just will themselves out of pain, can’t pay their bills with a sunny disposition or feed their kids with a smile. As someone who’s dealt with depression and anxiety over most of his life, I particularly took issue with the condescension of the song. But then, that “get over it” mentality reigns supreme with a lot of the people who have had Worley perform at their rallies over the last several years. He was on point with the group think, and the check cleared so what does he care if it bothered me?

    The next release from him was “Keep the Change,” which tried really hard to channel vintage Haggard but came off as little more than a bumper sticker-inspired Haggard wannabe. Sure, he had that play on President Obama’s campaign slogan but you know what? So did a thousand other people. There was nothing original, or particularly thoughtful, about Worley’s song and when he tried to act as though radio wouldn’t play it because it was “too controversial” I just laughed. An anti-Obama song should have had no trouble finding an audience at country radio (or am I to believe that the same station owners who organized the anti-Dixie Chicks rallies have changed their political ideals?). Rather, I think the song fared poorly because it was the work of hack writing. It wasn’t a critical song, in the sense that it does not display any meaningful level of critical thinking. It’s just a series of bluntly worded jabs.

    I’m all for questioning Mr. Obama and his administration, incidentally, and I would take serious umbrage at anyone suggesting we shouldn’t scrutinize his, or any other, administration. But to try to pass off “Keep the Change” as a thoughtful critique in the same league as “Okie from Muskogee” or even a rally song on par with “The Fightin’ Side of Me” tells me that either Worley thinks way too highly of his material, or that the bar has seriously been lowered since Hag’s heyday.

    Then I wonder if I shouldn’t at least give Worley credit for trying something socio-political; it’s less banal than Rascal Flatts waxing pseudo-nostalgic for sitting on the front porch sipping Cherry Coke, I suppose.

  42. @Erik – Yesterday I was at Half Price Books and decided to pick up Vince Gill’s When Love Finds You and Mark Chesnutt’s What a Way to Live, both from 1994. I laughed when I flipped through the booklets and saw a list of other Vince Gill and Mark Chesnutt “product” available.

  43. Kevin John CoyneNo Gravatar

    If Rascal Flatts made a song about sipping Cherry Coke Zero, I’d join their fan club on the spot.

  44. ObserverNo Gravatar

    I was virtually alone on this blog nearly a year ago screaming about Taylor Swift and her re-mixed, phony “country” songs. Y’all see now where it’s going? Better late than never, all you ostriches!

  45. Pingback: Will Nashville Be The Next Detroit? « Saving Country Music

  46. PatrickNo Gravatar

    You know, I remember hearing the Dixie Chick’s version of Landslide on pop radio, but that song wasn’t pop at all. I wish more artists would do that. It could possibly spread country to a broader audience while keeping its roots.

    I agree with a previous poster in that Carrie only really sounds country, at times, because she has fiddle and banjo in her songs.

  47. I was virtually alone on this blog nearly a year ago screaming about Taylor Swift and her re-mixed, phony “country” songs. Y’all see now where it’s going? Better late than never, all you ostriches! << Well… there's nothing wrong with that..!

  48. I still don’t understand why some people seem to be under the impression that the Country Universe staff gives free passes to Taylor Swift. Read the single review archives, my friend.