Sunday Morning Musical Musings: Maybe It’s A Familiar Complaint, But Still…

I was driving around taking care of some business yesterday morning, and on the radio in the truck I heard an old favorite of mine from the early ’90s. You might remember 1993, when a bunch of the country hitmakers of the day decided to get together and record Common Thread: The Songs of the Eagles. Travis Tritt’s “Take It Easy” was the big hit from that record and seems to be a mainstay of country radio even now, but to my mind the best cut from that recording was Alan Jackson’s rendition of “Tequila Sunrise,” the song I heard as I was tooling around in the truck. Maybe it’s just the way Alan sings — he could probably make Slayer sound country — but to my ear, that particular recording seems to be more country than a lot of what’s getting spun these days. I’ll freely admit to being a bit of a curmudgeon, musically speaking. I love Haggard and Jones and Charley Pride and John Conlee and all the other folks from the days gone by; we’re quite lucky, I think, to have a station here in Southeast Texas that plays all that, even if they could stand to put more variety in the playlist. But I’ll put my varied popular musical tastes up against anyone’s. I was listening to Seether yesterday afternoon, and
Kelly Clarkson’s Breakaway cd often finds its way into the player during the post-range gun-cleaning ritual, just to name a couple of examples. And I just can’t help but think it’s a sad commentary on what passes for mainstream “country” music now that a cover of a “rock” song from 30 years ago has so much more of that down-home country sound to it than too much of what’s getting played now. I know the Eagles have often been branded as a “country-rock” band and no doubt more than a few rock fans back then had as much of a gripe with them as I do with acts like Keith Urban and Sugarland, but I’ll still say it…if I wanted to listen to what’s more or less middle-of-the-road pop music, I’d tune to the adult-contemporary station. (As far as non-country goes, I usually tune to contemporary hit radio.) I remember reading an article a few years back from Peter Cooper, who I think was working for the Nashville Tennessean at the time, lamenting the state of modern country music after that year’s American Music Awards. He had this to say:

In Nashville, we have a Country Music Association and a country music industry. Yet we seem to blindly accept that Shania Twain’s Def Leppardish drums or Billy Gilman’s Star Search-y One Voice are country, merely because the songs are played on country radio and a portion of the retail proceeds end up in Tennessee wallets.
“But isn’t this really just a matter of innovation, like the symphonic pop string arrangements that sounded awfully pretty on Patsy Cline’s records? Wasn’t the fuzz-toned rock guitar a good thing on Marty Robbins’ Don’t Worry? Doesn’t it sound good when contemporary artist Clay Davidson lets his Southern Rock roots show?”
The difference is that Cline, Robbins, Davidson and scores of others have successfully tweaked the genre’s commonly accepted norms. Innovation in country music sometimes means helping the tree to grow new branches.
At the AMAs, though, the tree was chopped and chipped and the roots were removed. Then someone put an aluminum pole where the tree once was and called it … a tree.

Shania Twain and Billy Gilman have long disappeared from the scene, but I think Cooper’s laments are every bit as valid today as they were six years ago. Incidentally, it should be noted that the “fuzz-toned rock guitar” in the 1962 Marty Robbins hit was an accident; it was supposed to be a straight-ahead bass guitar solo, but the taping mechanism they were using malfunctioned as the song was being recorded, resulting in that famous fuzz-tone.
Cooper’s closing words were quite apt as well:

…if country means “whatever,” it really means nothing at all. It’s nothing more than an asparagus steak, or Bogart’s mythical desert seaside, and the fan base is likely to further recede. No one goes to an Italian restaurant hoping for tacos.

There are those of us to whom the term “country music”still does mean something. And too much of what “country radio” and the Nashville establishment calls “country” isn’t.

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