Traditional Country is a Link in a Long Chain

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.


  1. Great article, Scott.

    I’ve listening to the new Brad Paisley album today. Aside from the fact that I like it a lot, I’m always struck, including on this album, that he’s not afraid of using the steel. He’s definitely not traditional in the strictest sense of the word, but he definitely embraces traditionalism.

  2. I appreciate your thoughtful post, Scott. I agree with much of your sentiment, but I’m not sure I’m with you on the following:

    “…but it needs to capture the sentiments of rural and working class America. It needs to cover painful topics like drinking and cheating.”

    To me, country music is about honesty – the kind of honesty that, like you said, can rip your heart out. And I don’t expect every country artists to be able to *honestly* convey the sentiments of the working class. In fact, as I’ve mentioned before, the one thing I DO appreciate about Taylor Swift (and there’s not much), is that she tells her own stories, and she does it well. I’m not going to fault her for growing up in a middle-class family. Does that make sense?

    And in fact, with the country music fanbase widening the way it has, I think country artists should explore topics that are different than the traditional topics (drinking, cheating) – because there’s an audience out there that may relate, one that may not have existed before.

  3. Leeann, I find myself thinking the same thing, there’s steel guitar and fiddle everywhere, and it’s pretty sweet.

    Nice article, but I do agree with Tara. Honesty is the best thing to go for, drawing from the artist’s personal experience instead of trying to make their experiences match those of drinking and cheating or on the flip side of whatever fluff radio wants.

    If I was a country artist, I wouldn’t be able to sing about drinking and cheating because I have no experience with either topic! I’m not saying one has to cheat in order to sing about it, but you can’t sing about something you don’t know.

    If Keith Urban sang about working class, it’s not believable because I know he doesn’t have that kind of life.

  4. Chris, if a country artist had to be a part of the working class in order to believably sing about it, none of them could do it after a couple successful years on the radio. Alan Jackson says that he doesn’t even go to the grocery store, but if he sang about it, I’d believe him. So, I think it’s more than the artist living the life for it to seem believable.

  5. I too believe that country music has always been based on honesty, but with saying that there are a lot of artist that have amazing voices to be heard, but may not have had the “country” life experience.

    Does this mean that they should not sing country music because their song doesn’t match their life, I think not. There are so many great songwriter’s out there that need a voice to be the vehicle to get there stories out. I personally see no problem with artist using other people’s work, if they didn’t there would be a lot of good songs lost.

    I can appreciate how Reba flat out says, “hell no I don’t write I don’t have time for that, I buy my songs”. I don’t think that makes her any less a artist, nor does it mean she doesn’t feel or relate to those song choices.

    I am so tired ass of late, hearing over and over, “yes but at least he or she writes her own stuff”, I think that for some is a coppout to make up for other things an artist may be lacking.

    I have a greater appreciation for tradition country after my recent visit to Nashville, and more so the Opry. But I also have no problem with the changing of the tides, bring on something new and fresh, I can adapt, and when I want something traditional I will go to the archives (iPod) and bring them back.

  6. Yeah I definitely think you CAN sing about something you don’t know. Some of my favorite artists are incredible interpreters, and that doesn’t take anything away from their artistry. I just take issue with the idea of every country artist having to sing from a certain perspective. I think that actually does country music a disservice.

  7. While I can bring back tradition with my iPod, I still don’t want it to be completely extinct. I want to know it’s a country station when I turn on a country station. I’m all about updating sounds, but I like to know that it’s still rooted in tradition…something that songs like Jason Aldean’s “She’s Country” doesn’t do, which is just to name one.

  8. Here’s an idea for an article if anyone wants to write it…

    If you could bring back for one day any of the accepted traditional country artists that have died from as far back as you wanted, and have them listen to and see the state of country today and then get their opinion on it, and also get to see them perform as they did at their highest peak of their art for one concert, who would you bring back? Who would you want to sit down and talk to and sit down and listen to if you had to choose just one?

  9. i remember where i was when i heard that waylon died. sitting at the bar at ego’s lounge watching redd volkaert. then i ordered a whisky. then another…

  10. Good, thoughtful article, Scott…

    I think it’s easier to define Traditional Country by what it isn’t than by what it is. I think you are right about the various threads and sub genre’s that make up Traditional Country, and that may be the difficulty..Bluegrass, Honky Tonk, Rockabilly, Western Swing, Mountain Gospel… Traditional Country is all those things…But what it’s not is boring, and pop country is for the most part extremely dull and forgetable.

    I cannot say what Traditonal Country is for certain, but I know it when I hear it…and it is mostly laden and drenched with the sounds of steel and fiddle, and from-the-heart vocals. And I know who it’s champions are.. In this day and age, Alan Jackson, George Strait and Patty Loveless, (amoung others), are the the vital links to Country’s Classic sound.

    Timewise, these three artists almost straddle the Classic and the Contemporary eras in the span of their careers, And they stand out as well as for the Traditional elements they have woven into their work. They are true Keepers of the Flame, and younger folks like Jamey Johnson, and Joey and Rory seem ready to step into their shoes.

    But I agree with those who say the subject matter of Traditonal style Country songs can vary.

    Oh, and Leeann, after listening to the Paisley album today, I especially enjoyed “Water”…loved the dueling fiddle, steel and guitar at the end. You just don’t hear that kind of virtuosic intrumentation outside of Bluegrass anymore. And for the first time, I thought Paisley’s fiddle and steel players actually outplayed him! I think the term that Kevin uses to describe Patty’s style, “Progressive Traditionalist” fits Paisley as well, if not better. I think Brad’s more of the “progressive” part, and Patty’s more of the “Traditionalist” but Kevin’s term “Progressive Tradionalist” fits both artists very well.

  11. You know, Steve, I think I agree. That’s something I noticed about Brad’s album too. He still plays his signature guitar very well, but he really gives the fiddle and steel very prominent preference, i think even more than on his other projects. And while the album is fiddle and steel laden, the sound of everything is most definitely progressive and could turn pure traditionalists off.

  12. I think with the exception of Water, and You Do The Math…I agree Leeann, it doesn’t sound real Traditional. And for the first time, I think for once Brad actually flubbed a bit in his guitar solo on Water, starting out with some blistering Country scale riffs, then getting lost a little injecting some Rock licks that got kind of jumbled and meandering. But man, that fiddle and steel just blew me away…those guys are very adept at keeping up with the Country guitar Master, Brad has his match in them for sure.

    I was a little dissapointed with the album as a whole, but still, mediocre Brad is still better than many artists best work, nowadays.

  13. Steve, I echo your sentiments when you say, “I know it when I hear it.” It reminds me of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous declaration that hard core pornography was difficult to define, but “I know it when I see it.” Then again, traditional country seems like it is easy to distinguish, but then I hear some artists being labeled “traditionalists” when I simply don’t hear it. There is a huge gray area. It appears at times that any artist who name-drops Lefty Frizzell or Hank Williams as an inspiration is automatically granted a “traditionalist” card. I have difficultly labeling a lot of artists. For example, Kenny Chesney’s early music was traditional by most standards but his later stuff is not traditional by my definition.

    I am still somewhat bitter about the lack of traditional country music on the radio. I believe that traditional country’s heyday was the middle to late 1980s and the pre-Garth 1990s when artists like Mark Chesnutt, Doug Stone, and Ricky Van Shelton charted the bulk of their hits. To me, artists like these incorporated traditionalist elements but still sounded up to date. Today, these artists can’t make it and it is a shame: Mark Chesnutt briefly hit #25 with a Charlie Rich cover last year, but that was all he could do. Yet songs about chicken nuggets that “went-a’flyin'” dominate the charts.

    Where does this leave us? Well, as Hank Jr. said: “We’ll do out own choosin’.” Nashville doesn’t force us to buy records; people choose what they want to listen to. And the verdict in the 2000s is that traditional country music is not popular anymore. As much as it pains me to say it, it just doesn’t sell. Sure, there is a niche within country for traditional-sounding music. But the blue collar country boy who depended on a whining steel guitar to survive hard times has been replaced by the comfortable suburban soccer mom who relates more to the catchy choruses of Keith Urban or Rascal Flatts than the honest emotion conveyed by traditional country music.

  14. Tara,

    I agree with you. I think Taylor Swift is a tremendously talented songwriter. I admire and envy her songwriting ability. My critique of her is not driven by any doubts about her talent and appeal, but rather how we should classify her music.

    I also don’t mean to insult soccer moms or anyone who may not be rural or working class. I certainly am neither of these, having grown up a suburbanite.

    I think there is room in country music for everyone. Our society has seen population movement from farms and small towns to suburbs and urban areas. Factory jobs have become service industry jobs. Of course, with these changes will come a change in the music. I just hope that we hang on to the roots of country music so that the genre retains its unique identity and doesn’t melt into pop/rock/etc.

  15. Scott said: “I am still somewhat bitter about the lack of traditional country music on the radio. I believe that traditional country’s heyday was the middle to late1980s and the pre-Garth 1990s when artists like Mark Chesnutt, Doug Stone, and Ricky Van Shelton charted the bulk of their hits.”

    I think Doug Stone and Mark Chesnutt were enjoying the heights of their successes at the same time as Garth, as Garth came on the scene in 1989.

  16. Hey Steve,
    Thanks for helping me prove that I’m not actually a pure traditionalist. I always claim not to be, but I think some people doubt it sometimes.

  17. Not only did Doug Stone and Mark Chesnutt enjoy their greatest success after Garth Brooks rose to prominence, but so did Alan Jackson, George Strait, Patty Loveless, Aaron Tippin, and quite a few other traditionalists. Even George Jones had two gold studio albums in the early nineties.

    The nineties boom was truly amazing, and Garth was the biggest part of it. It irks me when he’s blamed for the genre going pop when it was his refusal to send his records to pop radio that resulted in the longest stretch of time in country music history when Nashville didn’t chase the crossover audience.

  18. I always felt that Garth was unfairly maligned. For one thing, he always included a couple of tracks on each album that could appeal to the most diehard traditionalist. For another, he has always been a strong supporter of the Grand Old Opry.

  19. I agree on Garth. As I said, he sounds pretty traditional by today’s standards — his music incorporated plenty of steel and fiddle, but there was a great deal of variance in the style of his songs. The thing about Garth that irked the traditional crowd was his theatrics, not so much his sound — though he did push the envelope with several songs. And then there was the Chris Gaines thing… But all in all Garth was a solid country artist. I own all of his records. “The Dance” may be the best country song of the 1990s.

    I was a bit off in my placement of Doug Stone and Mark Chesnutt, and for that I apologize for not doing my homework. Traditionalists did thrive throughout the 1990s along with Garth. I think the late 1990s saw the demise of the so-called neo-traditionalists.

  20. It’s still out there.
    I think artist change and evole with the times.
    And most country artist aint hurting for money and know how it is to be a working class america.
    Maybe at one time the did.
    but I mean did you see how alan jackson was living..

    I think it should be about honesty and telling a story real meaning and feeling to it.
    And where people can relate to it.
    But its allright to have a little fun everynow and then.

  21. I gotta add my voice in support of Garth, he is not on my list of the usual suspects of those who have corrupted (or watered down) Country music either… and I agree, it’s a matter of relative perspective, and by today’s standards, his music would be a breath of fresh air.

    Rodeo and Working on a Full House sound Country as can be to me. ;)

  22. Atleast Rascal Flatts do cover Rocky Tops in their concerts… :-)

    For me country music should put intact those rural feel when you listen to it. I can hear it on Alan Jackson as much as Taylor Swift and Emerson Drive but can’t on Keith Urban and the 80s version of Alabama and Kenny Rogers.

  23. Doesn’t make much sense. Steel guitar, fiddle, drinking, cheating, rural, working class better stay in your traditional box and not get into mainstream radio. Just stay in your own world. If you want to hear it, just hit AOL and listen all day.

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