Thursday, December 27, 2007

Losing our country (music)

This is "country"?

I can't say I was really shocked. A dozen or more years ago, when Billy Ray Cyrus did that "Achy Breaky Heart" thing, I knew country music had entered the dark world of MTV.

But I had no idea how far into the depths country has sunk till I watched the re-run of the CMA Awards program (originally broadcast in November) the day before yesterday.

In its mass market commercial form, at least, country music has almost nothing to do with the tradition. If it follows any model, it's 1970s rock and 1980s heavy metal. Here and there, deep in the mix, you can just make out a pedal steel guitar or fiddle; otherwise, you'd be hard pressed to figure out it has any antecedents beyond Megadeth and Styx.

Country (or, if you prefer, country-and-western) has had an identity crisis for quite a while. The
family farms and whistle-stop, three-street towns and that nurtured the genre have departed the landscape. Memories of cattle ranching have been replaced by memories of movies about cattle ranching. The 1980 John Travolta film Urban Cowboy entertainingly satirized artificial western culture preserved in a manipulated, money-driven time warp.

But at least the ersatz cowboys in those days had a faded image of the real thing. If the 2007 Country Music Association awards are any indication, even that has dissipated. What's left is a shell into which Nashville producers pour dated power pop.

Big & Rich. This is "country"?

As I viewed the CMA awards show, I couldn't stop a cliché thought spinning through my brain: what would Patsy Cline or Hank Williams or Hank Snow think if they saw this? I didn't want to imagine it, as act after act did the shuck and jive -- the whole treatment, choreographed and posturing. The arena-rock lighting and in-your-face stage paraphernalia (which included, for one group, a wall of video monitors) contributed to the glitzy atmosphere.

I'm not saying this because I dislike rock music; I grew up with it and rock was on my life's soundtrack for years (although I'm not a fan of the showbiz screeching variety that was so much in evidence in these "country" performances). I'll admit that Miranda Lambert, previously unknown to me, was thrilling enough singing "Gunpowder and Lead," but it wasn't recognizable as country. And the Eagles-together-again showed what honest country rock could be and once was.

But mainly the performers offered only crass and empty bombast. True, it was just another symptom of the lost art of melody in pop music, but until recently I retained some fondness for modern country because it seemed the last refuge of heart and romanticism in contemporary songwriting. You can almost kiss that goodbye.

The absolute dregs were a duo called Big & Rich ("We Like It Loud"). Said one of these oafs in his introduction, "We send this song out to the King of Bling, the late great Porter Wagoner." I don't know anything about Wagoner, other than that he was of an earlier generation of country musicians, but somehow I don't think he'd appreciate being called "The King of Bling."

The clothing fashions of your 2007 country stars are all over the place, except what you used to see. Admittedly, the former styles of country performers, especially the men, were pretty silly, but at least those embroidered shirts and rhinestone jackets proclaimed that the wearers weren't any damned city slickers. Has that ever changed. Now a lot of the guys are so-o-o cool, if you didn't know they were soi-disant country performers you'd figure they were straight out of Manhattan's SoHo (or London's Soho). The women were carefully made up and drop-dead alluring, but sure not about to hop any fences in those gowns. I can't imagine how Miz Lambert did her stage moves without breaking the stiletto heals of her boots -- they must have been made of steel and welded on.

"Country" lass Miranda Lambert

Well, enough. Traditional country music may no longer dominate the charts, but it won't die, either. After "Achy Breaky Heart," the Dixie Chicks came along with their modern-retro Wide Open Spaces, and while their subsequent albums haven't been up to that exalted standard and their taste hasn't always been impeccable, they have continued to produce some fine work in the older style. The extraordinarily talented Martina McBride took a detour from wasting her voice in its prime on commercial tripe to do a wonderful compilation of classic country, Timeless. Patty Loveless continues to prove that electrified arrangements can coexist beautifully with her Appalachian roots.

Even in this terrible CMA awards program, George Strait and Alison Krauss contributed a touch of humanity (albeit neither with very good songs), and Sugarland's effective singer and her partner, who played an amplified acoustic guitar, gave us a relatively quiet and strong ballad.

There is still hope for real country music. Like a plant sprouting through a crack in the sidewalk, it will come through. Let's hope there will still be anyone around who can appreciate it.



Anonymous said...

Actually I think the late Porter Wagoner would've appreciated being called 'the king of bling'.
As some of the photos on his Myspace page (no, really: show, he was a big fan of the rhinestones.
He was 'bling' long before the term exsited...

Rick Darby said...


Point taken. But "bling" used to be an accessory, not a main theme, of country.

Vanishing American said...

Good post, Rick. I didn't know you were a country fan; you are full of surprises. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised, since you posted about rockabilly a while back.

YIH is right; there is a long tradition of flashy clothes in country music, going back to Spade Cooley, Lefty Frizzell and Webb Pierce, wearing their rhinestone 'Nudie suits'. But I would wonder whether 'Big & Rich' have ever heard Lefty or Spade or Webb.

There's no doubt the big media moguls who now control country music are trying to give it the MTV/VH1 treatment, and of course they are trying to make it more 'diverse' by promoting black entertainers as 'country' artists and by 'crossover' hip-hop/country novelties like Tim McGraw with Nelly or whoever. That's what I object to; the effort to tamper with what was at least originally a folk/roots style of music that has its origins in a very particular culture and tradition. Everything has to be thrown into the multiculti blender nowadays.

Rick Darby said...


You don't mean to say Tim McGraw has done a duet with Nelly Furtado? That's beyond the end.

It didn't occur to me, but I agree with you that at least part of the reason big-time "country" has become so loud and aggressive is that the music biz powers, who worship the concept of "crossover," want to appeal to a black and multi-culti audience.

Vanishing American said...

Rick - no, he hasn't done a duet with Nelly Furtado, which would be weird enough, but 'Nelly', the rap/hip-hop artist. Nelly as in Cornell Haynes. So there is definitely an attempt to give country the diversity makeover. It's too hideously white, country music.
I've noticed too that the cable TV country music channels have ads with black people, and I wonder how many black people watch country music channels? You could count them on the fingers of one hand. The videos, too, are getting the PC treatment.