Tuesday, March 08, 2005

The best country music is made for rock fans...

Over the past few years, I've developed an increasing interest in country music. Not the stuff coming out of Nashville these days. Not Faith Hill or Shania Twain or any of the the other big Nashville names that amount to little more than pop with a twang. I went back to when country music was really country. The Carter Family and Roy Acuff to Bob Wills (who mixed elements of jazz into his Texas swing without being anything short of a true country artist) to Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell (the man with a voice like a slide guitar) and even to some of the rockabilly crossover of Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.

But beginning in the early 60s, country music takes a bad artistic turn. Nashville acts trade a lot of the stripped down honesty that makes the music resonate with people across genres and generations for a slicker pop approach. It didn't happen all at once. There was still good country music coming out of Nashville (Dolly Parton's Just Because I'm a Woman, for example), but from that point it began to slip slowly away from its roots. Even solid albums by Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard appealed at least as much to rock audiences as to country audiences. But something else happened in the late 60s: Rock artists started dabbling more in country music. Of course rock always had country roots, but the British Invasion and Motown had put the country elements on the back-burner. In the 60s, there was a return to roots music among rock musicians though. Country, blues and folk all found themselves reworked into a rock context. While blues and folk have always seemed to maintain their own identity apart from how rock used them, country was losing its identity at this time. Dylan, the Dead, and the Byrds were all putting out more credible country than Nashville. Gram Parsons might have recorded the best country music of the 70s, but it wasn't coming out of Nashville and selling to the typical country music demographic. It was coming out of southern California and selling to rock fans. In the 80s, Dwight Yoakum was playing punk clubs regularly, but was a Nashville outsider.

This trend continues today. Americana and No Depression albums from Son Volt and the Jayhawks are being sold to and bought by rock fans. The same is true Johnny Cash's American Recordings albums. Lesser known artists like the Be Good Tanyas (their Chinatown album is the best country album I've heard in a long time) have a similar audience. Loretta Lynn's most vital album in years was a collaboration with the White Stripes' Jack White. Since the 60s, the best country music really is made for rock fans.

Why is this? I think the simple explanation is this: Country music, as its known today, has lost sight of its roots. The stuff coming out of Nashville is really no different than the stuff being written for Britney Spears or N Sync. Sure the arrangements are different and the lyrics appeal to the typical "America, love it or leave it"/Bible Belt mentality of the target audience, but the music is just pop with country accents. There's not much Hank Williams or Roy Acuff in Nashville today. On the other hand, rock has often at least had sub-genres that explore roots music. Maybe that's because rock is an amalgamation of other music and it can't lose sight of its roots. Or maybe there just hasn't been enough time for that to occur. Afterall, it took country 30+ years to really begin it's decline and even then it didn't just collapse all at once. If the country model holds true, it should be happening to rock now, so we better watch out!

Note: This whole thing came out of a conversation I had with Chuck some time ago. I think the point about the best country music being made for rock fans was first articulated by him, so to be fair, I thought I should give him some credit.


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