Tradition: Chain of Strength or Chain of Restraint?

chainThis 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?


  1. I think there are ways for country music to progress while still being rooted in tradition, which I guess means that I consider tradition a chain of strength rather than a chain of restraint. And when I talk about tradition in country music, I don’t just mean the instruments that are used, I’m talking about the traditional spirit of the form as well.

    I think it is that very spirit that is missing from a great deal of what passes for country music these days. Virtually every time I hear somebody shout out the term “Country!” in one of their songs on country radio, it comes off sounding like a hustle–really phony. The same goes for those shout-outs to the artists of the past; they’re just names to be used, and the people using them in their songs seem to have little or no idea about the people behind those names or what those artists were all about to begin with.

    It used to be that country music progressed by remembering the traditions of its past and making those traditions relevant to the present; and in doing so, it not only became hugely popular even with non-country audiences, it remained fresh and vibrant. I think it can still do so, but it needs a lot of help–help that I don’t think too many artists these days are willing or able to provide with what is really just arena rock with a lot of drawl and twang.

  2. As long as there’s balance. George Strait and Alan Jackson carry the tradition down and counter people like Shania and pop-country. I think theres room for both to make the industry more interesting and the pop flavour can draw new people in from the mass audience. If it was just hand-me-down traditions, country music would have lost out on alot of money and fans.
    My only concern is whos gonna carry on that real traditional strain to counter all the pop-country now once George and Alans commerical appeal is up. Hopefully Josh Turner and Joe Nichols auidences will grow to make them arena headliners.

  3. I agree with Erik a great deal. Great comments. It seems the way traditional country is used or treated today is really based on the fans and radio play. When I was growing up the radio played old and new country side by side. You could hear the links and the progressions. But on most country stations an older country song is one by Garth Brooks. Radio play seems to focus on a handful of performers and their only link to country music may be that their stepmother once removed played a Johnny Cash record during a Labor day picnic.
    The newer artists don’t see a profit in connecting with traditional country music for three reasons:
    1. Their fan base probably doesn’t know Conway Twitty from Brenda Lee. So why take note of it. The fans won’t care. They will see you as un-hip, and you will bore them to death. They pay for new, instant, right now- not slow, steady, and real.
    2. I don’t think many performers understand, know, or even care about traditional country music. To a degree that is not their fault. Many don’t come from the same places that traditional country grew from: farms, proverty, struggle. But to not understand or know the history of the music you perform is a disrespect to all those who helped form it. And a slap in the face to their efforts on behalf of a genre which now brings you fame and money.
    3. Finally, older country artists don’t push the issue. Jones,Lynn,Parton,Nelson-I love them all but they owe a debt as well. Now that they are the older country artists they should use their fame, in part, to make traditional country music more respected and heard. They shouldn’t ( this means you Willie) just sing with a popular artist because it will sell records.
    Some day the music we now hear might be considered traditional country music( I know -scary right). Performers and radio stations should want new country to resepcted and admired (or why else perform and play it)later down the road. And the best way to insure that respect will be to respect what came before today.

  4. Personally I like both traditional and mainstream, the ladder being my first choice. I don’t think there is a certaig type of treatment towards traditional music, I think it is the same as anything else, progress. Everything in this world progresses and evolves with time, and country music seems to be moving realing fast right now.

    Country music is seeing the youngest demographic of fans yet, it is almost a fad (one that hopefully won’t run out). This new generation of fans seem more geared to new, new, new, wanting something new every week. It is a real feat if a song stays at #1 for more then one week, because there is so much new music being released. You have Kenny, Brad, Keith, Taylor, and even the King George releasing a new song before their current song has even run its course, if their song gets in the top five they put the next one out. We have artist popping out albums every 10 months to a year. Sometimes its nice for an artist not to have somethin g new for a month, and make people wonder “when are we going to hear something new from so and so” and when it does come out, I think it makes it much more appealing and appreciated.

    As for the respect to traditional country, I thing you hear it in most artist, even if it is just a hint. Does an artist really have to include traditionalism in their music to make it country, absolutely not. But for the most part I think they appreciate and respect the people who have made country music what it is.

    Even when a newer artist, mostly female ones do some sort of tradition in their music it is never enough, or not right, or now they are trying to be country when they haven’t all this time. We live in a very critical world, and most the time nothing iss ever good enough. When it comes to music though, people are extra critical of the ones that do make the radio regularly, and harp about why isn’t this artist being played their just as good as him or her. Not everyone can get their big break, not every artist I like gets on the radio and thats fine with me cause I either own their cd or downloads, so I can hear them whenever I want, and not wait through the popularity contest that is country radio today.

  5. It’s really quite simple: if you cut off the roots, the tree dies!
    Here’s an interesting quote from 1998(!) by Randy Travis:
    “Some of the newer acts coming in really know nothing about the history of this business. It’s not true of all of them, but that is a very sad thing that I have seen. You sit down and start calling off names of songs by people like Jack Greene or Ernest Tubb or Don Gibson, Freddie Hart and they’re just like, ‘Who?’ I don’t feel it’s my obligation to educate anybody on that – that’s something you’ve got to want, or something that you came from, came across in your past. With me, it’s what I grew up with. I’m a guy who’s been listening to country music from the time I was able to turn a radio on.” [Whiteside/LA Weekly 5/98]

  6. This is a really interesting question. And I can’t really add anything new to the conversation, but I do want to echo what Randy Travis said in the above quote: A person has to want to hear the traditional sounds and want to be educated on the people who built the genre – you can’t force them to listen to it. And it seems that the mainstream right now isn’t interested in hearing traditional sounds. They’re out there – indie artists making roots music are plentiful – but you have to seek them out.

    To answer the question, I think the traditional sound of country music is what defines it as a separate genre from rock and pop and in that sense, they are definitely our strength. But on the other hand, I don’t see anything wrong with broadening the borders a little as long as the music is still quality music.

  7. This is a great thread so far. I wanted to comment on one point Craig made:

    “I don’t think many performers understand, know, or even care about traditional country music. To a degree that is not their fault. Many don’t come from the same places that traditional country grew from: farms, proverty, struggle. But to not understand or know the history of the music you perform is a disrespect to all those who helped form it. And a slap in the face to their efforts on behalf of a genre which now brings you fame and money.”

    I think this is so key, and what’s astonishing to me is that mainstream country is probably the worst at this right now. No self-respecting rock band – from America, Japan, anywhere – doesn’t know how to play some Beatles songs by heart. No self-respecting R&B artist doesn’t know the Aretha Franklin or Ray Charles catalogs. But I genuinely think a lot of up-and-coming Nashville artists couldn’t play you five Hank Williams songs if you asked them to.

    And I’m not a strict traditionalist by any means – I like to see music evolve with the times – but I do think art can only be so substantial as an insular thing. Studying the roots can allow one to learn from the roots’ mistakes and triumphs, and thus provides a fuller spectrum of possibilities for the future.

  8. It is a real feat if a song stays at #1 for more then one week, because there is so much new music being released.

    Actually, throughout the 80s and most of the 90s it was highly unusual for a song to be at #1 for more than one week. It’s much more common now.

    We have artist popping out albums every 10 months to a year.

    Who is putting albums out that frequently? Again, back in the 80s, active artists released an album once a year like clockwork, and back in the 60s it wasn’t unusual for an artist to release as many as three albums a year. Dolly Parton signed with RCA in 1967 and by the time she released My Tennessee Mountain Home in 1973, she’d released 17 albums, including the duet albums with Porter Wagoner. Nowadays, most artists release an album once every two years at the most. I think I’d go broke if everybody went back to releasing three albums a year, but I’d like to go back to the days when fans could expect a new album every year.

    As far as the original question goes, this genre is rapidly losing touch with its roots. New fans are not being given an opportunity to tap into country’s rich heritage, unless they really go out of their way to seek out the older music. It’s a shame.

  9. Saving Country Music,

    Ha! Try reloading the page. That happens to me from time to time. I’m not sure what it is.

  10. Thanks for posing this question.

    As far as I’m concerned 90% of the relevant, radio-played “country” artists out there don’t pay one bit of attention to tradition more than what they have to as counseled by their marketeers to draw in specifically targeted demographics of fans. If any single parson can tell me with passion that Taylor Swift cares about the traditions of country music, I’ll eat my hat.

    I think Garth Brooks might be the worst thing that ever happened to the country music genre, yet I think today they wouldn’t make it in “country.” He is too talented, and he did pay at least scant attention to tradition, which would’ve been a sign to today’s label execs that he may not want to “play the game.”

    Country music isn’t just a genre of music, just like Judaism isn’t just a religion. It is also a heritage, a tradition, a lineage. Rock n’ Roll was built on breaking traditions, while country was built on preserving them. Without country’s links to the past, it would fall into the abyss. And if you ask me, at the moment the teeth of the chain cutters are fast against the link, and Taylor Swift, Toby Keith, Tim McGraw, and many more, are wrenching on the handles, trying to break through. It only takes one link, one space in time for the chain to break, and all to be lost, devaluing “country” from the proud music of America’s rural heart to just the default American music genre it seems to be becoming today. Country music has become the junk drawer of American music. If you don’t know what to call it, find a pretty face to sing it, put a fiddle in the corner, and you can call it “country.” Yee haw.

    The Country Music Hall of Fame is built, literally, around a question: “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” This implies that the circle breaking is possible, and quietly hints to what the ramifications of that might be. That is why it is so important to hold on to the traditions of what made country music great, even when the CMA is snubbing the new Hall of Fame Inductees, and thus, losing audience with the Hall’s wisdom.

    Sure, everyone has a right to make money and there’s always monetary concerns, but right now money is virtually the only concern. THIS is what is holding country back in regards to creativity and innovation, not tradition.

    Am I being overdramatic? Maybe. But I am not the only one, and our ranks appear to be growing daily. The fans and REAL artists of country music need to storm the skyscrapers of Nashville and take their music back. Why? Because that is the tradition of country music. Willie and Waylon did it, and now we must too. That Circle that the Hall of Fame talks about has become an oval, pushed to the brink of potential bursting, or breaking, by a protracted cycle towards pop.

    This threat is as REAL as the music of Waylon Jennings, and the music of other country artists you’ve never heard of, struggling in virtual obscurity while the spotlight is stolen by Taylor Swift playing with Def Leppard, and Kid Rock playing with Lil Wayne. That’s not country. The term “country” belongs to the people. It has been stolen from them and used as a marketing term.

    Time is running short. The link is failing. The hairs are gray. But for some reason, I still have faith.

  11. Country music has a proud and historic lineage that can be traced all the way back to the Celtic flavored Mountain music of the pioneers who settled the hills of Appalachia.

    It has a geographical center, Nashville, the Ryman etc, the “Mother Church of Country Music”, the Opry.

    It has characteristic instrumentation, fiddle, mandolin, steel, banjo, dobro, guitar, in various combinations, but almost always, fiddle and steel.

    Pure Country has a distinctive sound, long notes and high flying harmonies. It has traditionally embodied story telling lyrics, stories of the common man.

    This is s chain of stength. Few other genres of music embody similar distinctive and identifiable characteristics, or have such a proud heritage. Traditon matters, and gives Country music it’s strong identity. There is room for expansion and creativity within the Traditions of Country, but care must be taken to retain at least some of the elements of Tradition.

    I see a lot of lip service to Traditon these days, the occasional token cover performance of a Country classic at the Opry, for example, by singers who seem all too eager to ignore classic sounding Country in their arena concerts, or studio sessions. These folks are the musical equivilent of the Sunday saint who sins all week. Many of these same singers dominate the charts, radio airplay and awards shows sound much more Pop than Country. They say they revere Tradtion, but they do not let it’s nourishing elements actually influence their music. They are diluting Country’s identity, and hijacking the genre…redefining it by their very sucess at selling their insipid wares, and counterteiting real Country in the process. They sell nothing but watered down Nashville Pop, and unfortunatly people are buying it, and buying into it. Pop with a Southern drawl is still pop; vapid and amorphous, souless musical junk food and pretty much completely severed from the real, nourishing roots of Country.

    But in adddition to these villians, there are some heroes, keepers of the flame who give us hope. Patty Loveless, for example, shows us how it’s done. I like Kevin’s description of her style as “progressive Traditionalist” deeply connected to the pure roots of Country, but creatively reinterpreting the classic sound in a manner that keeps it vital.

    Also Jamey Johnson, I was delighted to see him perform at the George Strait tribute tonight, a bright light amoung a sea of mediocrity. And Alan Jackson seemed like a veritable reincarnation of Hank Williams, full of easy going Country charisma..equal in stature to the great George Stait himself.

    And Joey and Rory,and other up and coming traditional sounding artists give us fans Pure Country reason for hope. There are many others, but I’ve rambled long enough.

    If Traditon is a chain of restraint, give me a George Stait jacket right now!

  12. And to “Saving Country Music” (if that IS your real name, jk)

    Seriously, that was an excellent post, and views like yours so eloquently expressed give me hope as well.

  13. I think these are all great comments. I’ve personally always had a strong position on how you define country as a genre. Not all of today’s country fans (myself included) grew up with it, they discovered it later. In my case, It was the Beatles, Stones, Jethro Tull, Black Sabbath, Grand Funk, etc. Hee Haw was about my only exposure to country music. But in the ’90s, I found my home in country music, because it turned out that the songs I had been writing all that time were actually country songs in content. Then I went to school on country artists, including traditional music. I think what makes country country, is what it says. Songs about everyday life: love, struggles, values, hope, families. But for the country genre to flourish, it has to continue to evolve, and fuse with the diverse tastes of its global audience. There’s no reason why Barcelona Spain couldn’t have a huge population of country music fans, even though they don’t know the first think about life in Appalachia. In fact, if country music was focused only on the south, I can’t see how it could survive as a genre. In this age of specialization, I don’t see why there can’t be many flavors called “country” – neo-traditional, pop, blues, etc. It seems that country always had pop influences in it anyways, albeit maybe from 10 years prior. We hear rockin’ country songs today that pay musical homage to groups like AC/DC. I love that. So, I don’t think that it matters so much if new fans of country music know Hank Williams (their loss, of course). What matters is that there is a musical genre that speaks to them today. I do think country artists should learn their genre, just like folks who study modern music start with Bach and work their way forward. Of course, what matters more is that there are a lot of Real and incredible country songs you can hear all over Nashville which will never get to the radio, and if you compare them to what is on radio today, you might be scratching your head. But that’s probably another blog…..

  14. I think you touch on an important point, Stansongman…That Country music’s themes are not just focused on the South, but are far more universal.It may have originated in Apppalachia, but it’s appeal certainly doesn’t stop there, and it transcends geographic and national boundaries. But that doesn’t mean that Country as a genre needs to incorporate diverse musical elements foreign to it’s traditions to survive. I feel it has an inherent universal appeal, musically and lyrically.

    And as a sidenote, Brad Paisley once explained the popularity of Country music in Austrailia by stating that if “Texas were an island, it would be Austrailia” or words to that effect. And even in America, “country” as a geographical designation, is not confined just to the South. Lord knows there’s plenty of it up here in New England as well, especially Maine and New Hampshire, Western Mass and CT, and Cape Cod and Cape Ann…Rhode Island? Not so much, ;) jk (there is even a rural New England accent up here, that while certainly not Southern, is every bit as country!)Seriously, every state and every country has it’s rural regions, and with them their indiginous folk music, their equivelents to American Country music. And I think country folks (from whatever state or nation) have similar sensibilities, and a similar down to earth character and outlook. And with this often comes a similar taste and appetite for good ole fashioned rootsy Country music.

    As for Rock and Pop influences, personally I don’t usually have a problem with Rock influence on Country, after all, Rock had it’s origins in Country and Gospel music, as well as the Blues. Now, it’s gone full circle and is blending with Country once again, in some ways returning to it’s origins. Not referring to the new Punk or Heavy Metal stuff here, not the head banging stuff, but rather to classic Rock, Country rock and Southern Rock. The best of it survives in some of Today’s Country, folks like Brad Paisley, Brooks and Dunn, Montgomery Gentry, etc. and a lot of Patty’s music right up to and including her Dreamin’ My Dreams album has a rock edge to it. (Even Why Baby Why from SN). Trisha Yearwood’s recent albums as well.

    I think Rock and Blues influence spices up Traditional Country music quite nicely, whereas excessive Pop flavor waters it down, and makes it quite bland.

  15. Steve from Boston’s point about Patty Loveless as a progressive Traditionalist is precisely what I’m talking about–being able to balance the two. And then you have Linda and Emmylou, two “left-of-center” artists if ever there were any, getting rock audiences in the 70s to appreciate the traditional spirit of the music while presenting it with an honesty borne out of rock and roll and the 1960s folk music revival, and without the redneck attitudes that so many rock fans found repellent about country music for the longest time. I find it almost amusing that so-called “fringe” artists like these know more about both tradition and progress in country music than the majority of artists that get radio or CMT airplay.

    The thing about today’s country is that so many artists and record labels seem to be aiming for the Adult Contemporary radio format as much as the Country format, without realizing that the Adult Contemporary audience either doesn’t care about country music, or cares very little about it. To me, this doesn’t sound like the way to keep country music healthy, by so focusing on an audience that may not care in the long run and shutting out an entire other segment that might actually like the genre for real.

  16. My first visit here, found the blog accidentally really, and I just wanted to say I’ve enjoyed my visit and had some good reads while here :)

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