Traditional Country is a Link in a Long Chain

June 30, 2009 Guest Contributor 23

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 before 1990? Maybe, but that is still a rather wide 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?

The Few Remaining Icons

June 29, 2009 Kevin John Coyne 27

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.

Tradition: Chain of Strength or Chain of Restraint?

May 27, 2009 Dan Milliken 21

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 and maybe throw out a taste of what’s to come in the full coverage.

So 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 (see “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way”), 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: it has some progress it needs to carry out without any real help from the past, thank you very much.

Greatest <em>Greatest Hits</em>

May 13, 2009 Dan Milliken 12

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’ve gotten on a dangerous roll lately in building up my music collection. It’s 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 to 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: the CD. Most of mine are proper albums, but I’m starting 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.

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