(Editor’s note: This is largely a response to a piece titled “Critics Have A Genre Dilemma”)
As Sammy Kershaw once said, “country music is the only genre that hates itself”. I believe that. The fact of the matter is that Country music is largely in the midst of an identity crisis, and that encompasses ALL facets of Country – mainstream, independent, or otherwise.
Now, The Musical Divide is not a Country blog. I do write for a Country blog with This Is Country Music (I’m also affiliated with Country Exclusive), and my previous blog was called Country Music Minds. Really though, are there any strict Country blogs out there? The mainstream is the most obvious place to start when discussing this dilemma. Obviously Pop music has always been a part of Country’s history. We had the Nashville Sound, and later on we had the 80’s which were complete with very sleepy, atmospheric, boring Pop-Country tunes (my days of doing the Past Pulse Of Mainstream Country Music at Country Perspective taught me a lot). Therefore, to see it infiltrate the genre once again is really nothing new. The problem now is that it’s infiltrated the genre enough to the point where it’s hard to tell exactly what is Country about most of the tunes played. You have Midland, Jon Pardi, Carly Pearce (sort of…definitely not that new single though), and Luke Combs (again though…not that new single) sort of, but it’s a very uneven balance. A guy like Mo Pitney never stood a chance, and unfortunately William Michael Morgan hasn’t caught on either. The divide of the genre is easy to see here since it has been discussed numerous times by writers who are far better than I am. Plus, it doesn’t take a degree in Rocket Science to see what’s taking place here.
Now, with every trend we’ve seen in Country music that mirrors what we’re experiencing today, there has always been something to counter it. With “The Nashville Sound”, we had the Outlaw movement where the focus was on gaining artistic freedom. With the sleepy pop-country of the 80’s, we had the 90’s neo-traditional country movement (that by all accounts was also established by the late 80’s). Now? I don’t think we’re going to get anything like that to counter what we have now. You have to remember, in those days radio was the only choice listeners had for hearing new music. It was much easier to get outraged at what was occurring. After all, the business people over on Music Row don’t care what exactly sells. If the next hottest thing is Bluegrass, they’ll force Bluegrass down our throats to no degree. It’s not like that though. The people outraged with the state of the mainstream have moved on to what they consider to be bigger and better things like Americana, Ameripolitan (I got you, Dale Watson), and Texas-Country among whatever other sub-genre there is. In other words, the mediocrity will likely continue because the new target audience wants it. The people outraged at their radios who don’t know about their other options are a much smaller group than they used to be (when there weren’t even any other options anyway).
Of course, once you start getting into Americana the genre argument turns to shit even more. Tomorrow Anderson East is going to release his new album, Encore, an album that (spoiler alert!) is not country in the slightest and very much soulful and (I guess) Americana. It’s still already receiving attention from a lot of Country music writers, and while I can’t say I’m a Country writer through and through, I too will be covering it. Don’t give me that lame excuse of saying “well yeah, but they’re only talking about it because he’s with Miranda Lambert”. Please. Plenty of attention was given towards his last album, Delilah too.
Beyond Anderson East too, Country writers will also discuss Whiskey Myers and Blackberry Smoke, bands that are Southern-Rock instead of Country. I get it, Southern-Rock has more in common with Country than Soul or Pop, but as history will show, that’s really not the actual case. Heck, what can we consider First Aid Kit’s upcoming album? Country? Pop? Americana? All of the above?!? Come to think of it, who actually is releasing bonafide traditional Country music? I’m scanning through my top ten from last year right now, and all I’ve got are names like Jason Eady and Sunny Sweeney. Hell, even with Sunny there’s certainly enough of a rock edge there. Tyler Childers could be a popular answer, but he’s also incorporating Bluegrass into his music as well. Zephaniah Ohora works too, but really, isn’t he just adapting a style?
I don’t know mean this to be some informational piece that has all of its facts straight. These are just thoughts running around in my head. Still, even though I’m baffled by the genre argument, I still think genre is important. No matter how experimental artists get, it always starts with something, and that something is the roots of the genre they pull from. The only problem is, what actually defines Country music? I mean, you hear a steel guitar and you think, “shit, that’s Country!”, but Country didn’t even begin with steel guitar. The instrument was introduced in Hawaii and wasn’t even a part of Country music until the late 1940’s. Now it’s a staple of the genre instead of fiddle and banjo which were there from the beginning! I can’t wrap my head around it, and yet I still want to fight for the integrity of Country music. Yet I don’t even know what it means!
I’m not saying labeling is always good either. Sometimes it can block you from hearing music that’s not all that different from what you hear anyway. Hurray For The Riff Raff dropped an album last year called The Navigator about a Puerto Rican immigrant living in New York, and yet the album does have its traces of Folk and maybe even a little bit of Country in there too I guess. There’s of course a very Latin feel to it too, but we’ve seen that with the Mavericks, so what’s so different? Maybe it’s the marketing, I don’t know. By all accounts too, Kesha’s Rainbow had more Country influence than the majority of Country albums in the mainstream last year, but because she’s a household Pop name we don’t really cover her. How about Yelawolf? Again, there’s more Country on Trial By Fire or Love Story than there is in a lot of facets of Country music, but even he himself will say they’re both Rap albums first and foremost.
I think another problem too is Americana and its definition. At least with Country you can find a definition on the Internet (even if I think there’s more to it than that). Americana is just known as this bloated melting pot which houses a lot of experimental Soul and Blues along with “real Country”. As glad as I am to at least have those options available to me, I don’t want Americana to be known as the new Country. No offense to Ameripolitan or Dale Watson either, but I don’t want to have another name for a genre with such a rich history.
Of course, nothing I’ve said is anything new. Many writers have been discussing this subject years before. Still, I think there’s even something to be said for the times we live in. Back in say, 2010 when underground Country was a WAY different scene (and actually underground since hardly anyone knew about it), we had acts like Hellbound Glory, the .357 String Band, and Dale Watson at the forefront playing real, badass, bonafide Country music. Yeah, the Nashville rants were as tired then as they are now, but back then it was mostly tongue in cheek, ass-kicking country music that stood for something. That was then though. Now those same faces include the likes of Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and Margo Price, none of whom care to preserve Country music in an age where more and more people are discovering their alternatives to radio. Jason Isbell doesn’t consider himself a Country singer. Sturgill is off doing God knows what, and Margo Price is happy calling herself Americana considering her music pulls from traditional Country and Soul. Maybe it’s just a sign of the times. I wish I knew.
Now we even have Taylor Swift releasing a brand new single with “New Year’s Day”, but as much as I’d like to complain about all of this, unfortunately it’s no worse of an offender than the latest offerings from Sam Hunt and Walker Hayes are. That’s the sad part. This “monkey see, monkey do” attitude has made it so now when some random artist drops a completely non-country song, the response is usually just “yeah, but it’s still more Country than this song or that song”. In other words, the goal lines for what constitutes a Country song keep getting moved farther and farther away. Imagine this scenario. A teacher leaves his or her first graders alone in a room to play. He or she comes back only to find that chaos has erupted. Some are climbing on the desks, some are drawing on the chalkboards and some are…I don’t know, putting boogers in their mouths or something. The point is, none of it is right, but who’s the worst offender? Some of the actions seem minuscule compared to what others are doing, and that’s a problem.
Don’t think Texas-Country is off the hook either. While that definitely has a unique identity to it (and kudos for that), it’s also become so clique-like that pretty much every artist there is considered to be amazing. I mean, an artist like Jon Wolfe gets defended, and his album was pretty much what it would sound like if George Strait sold out and tried to be hip. Propping up mediocre music isn’t the answer either.
That brings me to my conclusion, is all of this a good thing or a bad thing? Is Country better off for becoming diverse or is this a case of Rock music where it’s bound to implode on itself sooner or later? Personally I think the latter will happen, but only if we don’t define what all of this means soon enough. What is Country? What is Americana? Of course, none of this is to say that you can’t enjoy this hodgepodge of sounds offered to us today. In many ways this problem seems like a problem mostly specific for this day and age mostly because we do have the freedom to explore a ton of options. I just want to know where the line is drawn and where it isn’t. I enjoy listening to music regardless of genre, but at the same time it shouldn’t be as messy as it is. Then again, I don’t have a solid answer to this or even know if any of what I just said made any sense. Again, these are just random thoughts in my head, so make of them what you will.