Still trying to sort this out.

So I read this from My Kind of Country and this from Saving Country Music, and frankly, I am still trying to get my thoughts sorted out about it.

To make a long story short, a piece-of-shit song from two jagoffs who don’t really give a shit about country music beyond the extent it fills their wallets breaks the record for the longest stint at No. 1 on Billboard’s country singles chart. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth ensued in the above-linked posts, and, well…ten years ago I might have said, “This is much ado about nothing. Charts are worthless. I listen to a bunch of folks who will never top these charts yet they still manage to make a living doing what they do. Billboard, Radio & Records, et al. can go screw.” But another point the Triggerman made did make me stop and think…

So what does all this mean? It means that the elements of country music that used to keep it in check with its roots increasingly don’t care any more. Like refugees, they’re retreating to their little independent scenes and micro-scenes, and forming an elitist “we have ours, screw the masses” bent. But that’s the same flawed logic of saying, “I have a job, who cares if my neighbor does?” Eventually, the creatively-bankrupt nature of mainstream music is destined to creep into your world.

I can see what he’s getting at, but at the same time you could probably say the micro-scenes are to a large extent walled off from mainstream music and all its insidious proclivities. After all, for example, you don’t see Aaron Watson remixing his songs for pop radio or doing duets with Nelly. I think that to the extent that the “creatively-bankrupt nature of mainstream music” makes it into the smaller scenes, it’s only because the artists themselves get burned out or tap out their muses. And nobody’s making mainstream America listen to shit music against their will. All that obscure underground stuff is just as available to them as it is to us. They just have to seek it out.

But then there was this:

Look, we can tell ourselves this song isn’t country all we want, and tell ourselves none of this matters. But the simple fact is whenever a schoolkid goes to Billboard or Wikipedia or somewhere else to research what the biggest songs in the history of country music were, Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” is going to be right there at the very top, above a slew of Hall of Famers.

So it will, which raises the question: Is that more of a commentary on country music itself, or more of a commentary on the mainstream country audience? At this point I could say that it’s probably a commentary on the country music institution itself — at least as it is represented by mainstream country — as it’s the singers and labels themselves who are marketing all that lowest-common-denominator bullshit as country to what is arguably the lowest-common-denominator demographic. (A history of country music worthy of the name would also include the observations of all of us who think these people hijacked the genre to further their own ends.) But on the other hand, if the sales of acts like Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Brantley Gilbert, and FGL are any indication, you could say that demographic is pretty big, which is not a good reflection on what’s considered the mainstream country audience anymore.

Of course I’m sure there are those who are reading this and thinking, “Who are you to define what’s country and what isn’t? And how dare you look down your nose at the people who listen to new country.”

All I can say is that I know country when I hear it. And drawing a line through the evolution of mainstream country by way of Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Ricky Skaggs, George Strait, and Alan Jackson, I defy anyone to tell me that any of these new singers really fall anywhere near that line, taking into account both their sound and subject matter.

(As far as the people who listen to it — well, frankly, if there’s any truth to the comments contained here and here, if the mentality on display is anywhere in the ballpark of the fans in general, well, they deserve every bit of opprobrium that comes their way. )

Anyway, as I said before, mainstream country hasn’t been redefined so much as hijacked. And in the end, ironically enough, I’m really okay with that, as much as I think it sucks.

Why? Because once upon a time country was not the big-selling genre it is today. In fact, country didn’t even have its first million-selling album until Wanted! The Outlaws, in 1976 — some 50 years after the genre was created. And just as the music itself changed, so too have the channels through which it is heard.  Terrestrial radio’s not the only game in town anymore. Between satellite radio, Spotify, independent Internet-based radio stations, and the like, country music — the real thing — is going to be just fine. It’s not going to be as visible as it once was, but I don’t see how that is necessarily a bad thing.

Besides, no one knows how any of this is going to play out in the long run anyway. For all anyone knows, we could very well be in store for another post-Urban Cowboy–type collapse or New Traditionalist renaissance any day now.

Speaking of that, I was just now reminded of this piece, which ran in the New York Times almost 30 years ago…

The young audience that should be swelling the ranks of country music fans is looking elsewhere. Most rural and small-town youngsters now grow up listening to rock-and-roll. Most radio stations now play the same rock records, in rural areas as well as towns and cities. And the performers with country roots whose record sales remain healthy are mostly rockers with a country tinge – Hank Williams Jr. and the four-man band Alabama, for example. These artists appeal to an audience that is growing larger and getting younger.

Substitute Jason Aldean and Eric Church for Hank Jr.  and Alabama, and that could have been written yesterday.

I could be all wrong. The whole thing could be burning down right in front of us. But all that music that’s been made up to now? That’s still there and it’ll always be. And it can’t ever be taken away from us. Such brings me to something I’ve talked about before in this space: how the music has been passed down through the years. You read this blog back to the beginning and you’ll see that I really haven’t talked about much new music. It’s been mostly older music, from the ’60s on up through probably the late ’80s and early ’90s. As I’ve said before, I’m not the only one who listens to that stuff. And I guarantee you Sabra and I are not the only ones who are going to be passing that stuff down to our kids. Who’s to say the kids won’t come back around to that music and newer music similar to it?

tl/dr: Is all lost? It certainly looks that way. But I wouldn’t give up hope just yet.

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One Response to “Still trying to sort this out.”

  1. Jeff Bauer Says:

    Though not a country music fan, I do respect the roots of the music. So after reading your post, there was only one word that was bouncing around in my head: tradition.

    And I respect tradition, too. It’s too bad more people don’t these days – and that goes for more than just music genres.

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