The following is a guest contribution from Scott O’Brien.
“But someone killed tradition. And for that someone should hang.” –Larry Cordle & Larry Shell, “Murder on Music Row”
Dan Milliken’s recent post got me thinking: The country music I grew up with is nothing like the music on country radio today. If I turned on today’s country radio in 1988, I might not realize it was a country station and keep right on flipping. Back then, Randy Travis and Keith Whitley’s traditional twang ruled the airwaves. Today, they are dominated by the giggly teeny-bopper ditties of Taylor Swift and the boy band sounds of Rascal Flatts. Did they get away with murder on music row? Well, let’s start by briefly uncovering country’s traditional roots.
What is traditional country music? Is it simply anything from the past? That seems too broad; Shania Twain wasn’t traditional. Anything that isn’t pop? Maybe, but that is still a rather wide and subjective net. To me, traditional country music is honky tonk music. It heavily employs steel guitars, fiddles, and forlorn vocals. It moves at a slow pace. There are no drums or electric guitars. The songs typically deal with heavy topics such as heartbreak, cheating, or drinking, with a ballad here and there. In most cases, the goal is to induce pain. Not bad pain, but the therapeutic empathy that tugs your heart and helps you through your personal struggles. The patron saint of traditional country is Hank Williams. Hank’s first disciple is George Jones. Jones’ first disciple is Alan Jackson. The traditional template is supposed to help us decipher what is country and what is not. After all, what makes country music country if not fiddles and cheatin’ songs?
These days, traditionalists have a legitimate beef. When you turn on the radio, you don’t hear much steel guitar. Instead, you hear what might pass for 1990s pop, replete with fluffy repetitive lyrics, catchy drum beats, guitar riffs, and sex appeal. We aren’t preserving country music when the CMT Music Awards feature the B-52s and Def Leppard in lieu of John Anderson and Charley Pride. Was there a tribute to recently deceased traditionalist Vern Gosdin? No way. Do today’s artists “tear your heart out when they sing”? Not a chance. Is Keith Urban going to fill Conway Twitty’s shoes? Not a prayer. You know we are in trouble when pop-infused zipwire-flier Garth Brooks sounds more like Merle Haggard than today’s stars. Heck, just listen to Taylor Swift’s latest album. If that is country, I’ll kiss your ass. Nashville, we have a problem.
But let’s not go off the deep end just yet. Maybe traditionalists are thinking about things too narrowly. Country music is much more than Webb Pierce’s raw steel guitar-laden crooning. It always has been. Going back before Hank to the First Family of Country Music, the Carter family sound was an amalgam of several different sub-genres including Appalachian old-time, folk, and gospel. Jimmie Rodgers, the Father of Country Music, blended elements of jazz, gospel, old-time and blues to create some of the first country sounds. Marty Robbins played just about every musical style conceivable. Traditionalist hero Elvis Presley sang rockabilly. Johnny Cash had similar beginnings and even years later there was nothing “traditional” about his trademark up-tempo bass beat. Waylon Jennings’ music incorporated Buddy Holly’s rock-n-roll rhythm; he even wrote a song about how un-Hank-like his music was. Merle Haggard’s Bob Wills-inspired Bakersfield sound used amps and electric guitars. Even 1980s ACM Artist of the Decade Alabama shunned the steel guitar altogether and typically sang up-tempo, feel-good music. Yet these names are among the most venerated by traditionalists. What gives?
The problem is that traditionalists aren’t even sure what traditional country is. If it includes all artists who sold country records without crossing over to pop, the label is not very helpful. If it is strictly honky tonk, do we really want a bunch of Hank Williams clones? As great as he was, we surely do not. There has to be some updating – just ask Alan Jackson, who has innovated the traditionalist motif without sacrificing his authenticity. The genre has to evolve or it risks becoming boring and repetitive. Waylon Jennings understood this well (“It’s the same old tune, fiddle and guitar/Where do we take it from here?”). Hank Williams’ own son realized it too after trying for years to replicate his father’s sound. His song “Young Country” directly attacked the tradition-or-else mentality: “We like some of the old stuff/We like some of the new/But we do our own choosing/We pick our own music/If you don’t mind, thank you.” He is right. Why draw lines? Strict uniformity is not desirable in any genre, particularly country, whose trademark is its diversity of influences, instruments, rhythms, voices, song topics, and stories.
So what should define today’s country music? It should pay tribute to the past by incorporating and updating its unique fusion of diverse influences. It doesn’t have to be strictly “traditional.” But country music needs to capture the sentiments of rural and working class America. It needs to cover painful topics like drinking and cheating. It needs to tell colorful stories. It needs to tear your heart out sometimes. It also needs to make you feel good sometimes. What it shouldn’t do is become pop music. When country is indistinguishable from Top 40, it loses its soul. Unfortunately, this has happened with the Keith Urbans, Rascal Flatts, and Taylor Swifts – all talented artists to be sure. But country artists? Not so much. Still, there are old warhorses like George Strait who carry the torch and newcomers like Jamey Johnson who give us hope that country’s soul will stay alive and well.
I’ve heard it said so many times in the past week: the death of Michael Jackson is my generation’s equivalent of the Death of Elvis Presley. (I can only assume that makes Kurt Cobain our Janis Joplin?)
He was a controversial figure, to be sure, and much like Elvis, a tragic figure even before his tragic death. Being a music fan first, I lost interest in Jackson a long time ago, simply because he’s made so little music in the past two decades – a mere three studio albums in more than twenty years.
But there’s no doubt that he’s an icon, the embodiment of the MTV age and the breakdown of barriers between pop, R&B and dance music. Who does pop music have left that’s in the same league? Only Madonna, but since she’s still very much at the top of her game and is anything but a tragic figure, don’t expect the mourning for her to begin any time soon.
But pop music isn’t the only genre running low on icons. What country acts remain that could garner significant coverage upon their death? Johnny Cash’s death made the cover of Time magazine, an honor usually reserved for former Beatles members. CNN broadcast live from Tammy Wynette’s funeral back in 1998.
In contrast, Waylon Jennings and Porter Wagoner, two legends and Hall of Fame members, made barely a ripple in the national news media. It’s easy to imagine the same fate for George Jones and Merle Haggard, two country music icons that have never been nearly as popular in the media beyond country music.
Who are the icons in country music that could command the same attention as Wynette and Cash, or perhaps even Jackson, when their road comes to an end?
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?
Okey doke, here's my thinking: we'll just do Country Quizzin' every other week for the time being. I look at the blogger/bloggee relationship like an ADD-culture marriage: you gotta change it up sometimes to keep things interesting for both parties!
With that in mind, a discussion:
I got myself on a dangerous roll these past few months in building up my music collection. It was probably a little silly of me; they say owning music is kind of on the way out (the kids these days are all about that newfangled “streaming” thing), and I don't have a great deal of disposable income to begin with.
But I so love to discover great music, to hold it in my hands. Especially older stuff, which just doesn't feel right t
o own exclusively in MP3 form. And when Amazon, eBay and my local record stores keep offering incredible deals on used items, I find their mating calls very hard to resist indeed.
And so I find myself now knee-deep in a pool of that most spurned of media forms: the compact disc. Most of mine are proper albums, but I've started to lean more toward compilation packages (e.g. “greatest hits”, “essential”, etc.), particularly box sets, which you can sometimes get for astonishingly good rates if you keep your eyes peeled.
And of course, they're such a nice way to scoop up most of the important output by artists who didn't always make cohesively great albums. For example, I picked up Waylon Jennings' 4-disc Nashville Rebel set a while back, and there's hardly a bum track to be found. I recommend!
What are some of your favorite country-related compilation packages? Also, who are some artists who you think have been worth collecting full albums from?
I really love everything that Daryle Singletary’s approach to country music represents. Sometimes it seems there are only two veins of country traditionalists: the ones who take the Haggard and Jones approach, and the ones who take the Waylon and Willie approach. Singletary is all about the Conway Twitty and Charley Pride, a crooner of romantic ballads awash in steel guitar.
There’s only one thing that holds Singletary back from being the Twitty or Pride of his generation. His voice just doesn’t have the ability to pull off these types of songs completely. “Love You With the Lights On” is a solid enough song. It certainly would’ve been a chart-topper in the seventies for one of the aforementioned men.
Singletary sings it pleasantly enough, but he’s not entirely convincing as the seducer here. His voice just doesn’t have the depth and nuance to pull it off. God bless him, but he sounds like he’s singing for control of the remote, not fulfillment of his desires.
Stuck in my car stereo over the last couple of weeks has been a CD loaded with tunes from some of my favorite Texas-affiliated artists. I’m a big fan of the singer-songwriter, old school and raggedy rock styles of country music, and Texas excels at all three. So any time I need a break from the current “Nashville sound,” I like to check in with Texas and see what they’re up to. Invariably, it’s more colorful and interesting.
I can’ t call myself an expert on Texas country by any stretch of the imagination and my education is nowhere remotely near complete (hint: feel free to recommend), but I do sense that it’s a style of music, or perhaps a musical sensibility, that is extremely important to maintain. Texas artists exude a certain spirit of creativity and sense of individuality that is sorely lacking elsewhere in country music. And in my opinion, great music and great artists only flourish in settings where both of those are encouraged.
Here’s a sampling of the songs I’m currently listening to:
“Dallas,” Jimmie Dale Gilmore
“Snowin’ on Raton,” Townes Van Zandt
“West Texas Waltz,” Joe Ely
“Greenville,” Lucinda Williams
“Tortured Tangled Hearts,” Dixie Chicks
“Transcendental Blues (Live in Austin),” Steve Earle
“Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” Willie Nelson
“Treat Me Like a Saturday Night,” The Flatlanders
“Bourbon Legend,” Jason Boland & The Stragglers
“Jesus Was a Capricorn,” Kris Kristofferson
“Angry All The Time,” Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis
“What I Deserve,” Kelly Willis
“Old Five and Dimers,” Billie Joe Shaver
“Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame,” Sunny Sweeney
“Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line,” Waylon Jennings
What are some of your favorite Texas country tunes?
While the Grammys have honored country music from the very first ceremony in 1959, they did not begin honoring by gender until 1965, when the country categories were expanded along with the other genre categories. This year, the 45th trophy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance will be awarded.
In a continuation of our Grammy Flashback series, here is a rundown of the Best Country Vocal Performance, Male category. It was first awarded in 1965, and included singles competing with albums until the Best Country Album category was added in 1995. When an album is nominated, it is in italics, and a single track is in quotation marks.
As usual, we start with a look at this year’s nominees and work our way back. Be sure to vote in My Kind of Country’sBest Male Country Vocal Performance poll and let your preference for this year’s race be known!
Trace Adkins, “You’re Gonna Miss This”
Jamey Johnson, “In Color”
James Otto, “Just Got Started Lovin’ You”
Brad Paisley, “Letter to Me”
George Strait, “Troubadour”
As with the album race, this year’s contenders for Best Male Country Vocal Performance are a combination of unrecognized veterans and promising newcomers. In fact, none of this year’s nominees have won in this category, and only one of them – Brad Paisley – has a Grammy at all.
First, the veterans. Paisley has numerous ACM and CMA victories to his credit, including two each for Male Vocalist. Although he’s been nominated for this award twice before, this is the first time he’s contended with a cut that can’t be dismissed as a novelty number. The touching self-penned “Letter to Me” is his best shot yet at taking this home.
Trace Adkins has been at this a bit longer than Paisley, but this is his first Grammy nomination. His crossover exposure from Celebrity Apprentice might help him out here, along with the fact that the song was considered strong enough by voters to earn a nomination of its own.
But the real veteran to watch out for is George Strait. After being nominated only twice for this category in the first 25 years of his career, voters have now given him three consecutive nominations. This is one of four nods he’s earned for the 2009 ceremony, and “Troubadour” is essentially the story of his epic career distilled into a radio-length song. It would be the perfect way to honor the man and his music in one fell swoop.
However, there’s a newcomer that might be a Grammy favorite already. We just haven’t found out yet. Not James Otto, of course, who is nominated for his charming romantic romp “Just Got Started Lovin’ You”, but rather, Jamey Johnson. The recent Nashville Scene critics’ poll further confirmed the depth of his support among tastemakers, and his nominations for Best Country Song and Best Country Album indicate that he’s very much on the academy’s radar. It helps that he has the most substantial track of the five, and it’s the obvious choice for traditionalists, who have little reason to split their votes in this category. If voters aren’t considering legacy when making their selections, he has a great shot at this.
Dierks Bentley, “Long Trip Alone”
Alan Jackson, “A Woman’s Love”
Tim McGraw, “If You’re Reading This”
George Strait, “Give it Away”
Keith Urban, “Stupid Boy”
The often offbeat Grammy voters have been surprisingly mainstream in this category for the past three years, a trend best exemplified by this lineup, which was the first in more than a decade to feature only top ten radio hits. Tim McGraw and Keith Urban were the only two who had won this before, and it was Urban who emerged victorious. ”Stupid Boy” was a highlight of his fourth studio album, and this was the only major award that the impressive collection would win.
Dierks Bentley, “Every Mile a Memory”
Vince Gill, “The Reason Why”
George Strait, “The Seashores of Old Mexico”
Josh Turner, “Would You Go With Me”
Keith Urban, “Once in a Lifetime”
Vince Gill returned to win in this category for a ninth time with “The Reason Why.” Not only is he, by far, the most honored artist in this category, his wins here account for nine of the nineteen Grammys currently on his mantle.
George Jones, “Funny How Time Slips Away”
Toby Keith, “As Good As I Once Was”
Delbert McClinton, “Midnight Communion”
Willie Nelson, “Good Ol’ Boys”
Brad Paisley, “Alcohol”
Keith Urban, “You’ll Think of Me”
Urban’s biggest and probably best hit launched his second album to triple platinum and established him as a crossover artist. He gave a killer performance of the song on the show. Toby Keith was a first-time nominee here, and while he publicly groused that the Grammys put too little emphasis on commercial success in picking their nominations, he lost to the only track that was a bigger hit than his own.
One of the awesome things about YouTube is that serves as an archive of live performances. Today’s discussion asks you to find a great live performance from a country artist that others might not have seen.
Here’s all you need to do:
1. Find the YouTube clip
2. Copy the url and paste it into the comments
3. Add a “v” right after http, so “http://www.youtube.com….” becomes “httpv://www.youtube.com…”
When you post the comment, the video will appear. Don’t forget to add a brief comment before or after the video!
I’ll kick things off with a superstar performance of “Highwayman” by Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings & Kris Kristofferson. I love the wave of applause that comes after each man starts singing, and how even in a group of superstar legends, Cash’s star power stands out. He gets a longer ovation than any of them and quite a few people stand up once he starts singing, even though he’s been on stage the whole time.
Dierks Bentley Greatest Hits: Every Mile a Memory, 2003-2008
Bentley’s resume’ reads likes a wish list for rising country stars. Schooled in the classic sounds of Jones and Jennings, Bentley first burst onto radio airwaves with 2003′s “What Was I Thinkin’,” a song that flies along at breakneck speed as a frisky fellow navigates Friday night with his lady love.
Since then, Bentley has flown the flag for men who sport a little sensitivity to match their macho desires. In five years at Capitol Nashville, he’s built a commercial portfolio that rivals the top stars in country music. With three million albums sold, newcomer trophies from the CMA and ACM and induction into the Grand Ole Opry, he’s nudged his way into the upper echelon of country music. His traditionalist bent has won him veteran admirers, and the pop sheen applied to his rough-and-tumble tales is perfectly suited to the tastes of an ever-evolving mainstream audience.
Earlier this year, the Grammys celebrated their fiftieth anniversary with a series of compilations focusing on winners in different fields. Two of the best entries in this series focused on country music. With five decades of winners to choose from, it’s no surprise that Ultimate Grammy Collection: Classic Country and Ultimate Grammy Collection: Contemporary Country are solid collections.
The Classic Country set is particularly strong, including a diverse selection of significant artists from the sixties and seventies. Even better, most of them are represented with their signature tracks. Roger Miller opens the set with “King of the Road”, easily his biggest hit. Other superstars include Tammy Wynette (“Stand By Your Man”), Johnny Cash (“A Boy Named Sue”) and Waylon & Willie (“Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.”)
As the collection moves on to the seventies and eighties, there is a healthy portion of pop-country classics from the likes of Kenny Rogers (“The Gambler”), Dolly Parton (“9 to 5″), Crystal Gayle (“Don’t it Make My Brown Eyes Blue”) and Willie Nelson (“Always on My Mind”). In the midst of that crossover sound, however, there’s a healthy dose of traditional country, courtesy of George Jones with “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
That Jones track is the only one that wouldn’t be familiar to fans that buy the set because they remember those crossover hits, even though it’s a country classic. They might also revel in the discovery of Ray Price (“For the Good Times”) and Jerry Reed (“When You’re Hot, You’re Hot”), which were both AM radio staples back when top 40 regularly played country records. The set also includes mega-hits from Charlie Daniels Band, Lynn Anderson, Donna Fargo and Jeannie C. Riley. The only real misstep is the inclusion of Johnny Cash & June Carter’s “If I Were a Carpenter”, an unnecessary inclusion that was no doubt shoehorned in because of lingering sentiment for all things Cash. That slot would’ve been better represented with Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn’s “After the Fire is Gone.”