Modern country music sells out genre’s vital roots

Dear reader, can I convince you to like country music? Could you just give it a listen? At least not become tense at its mere mention? Hey, could you pick the Misc off the floor please?

It’s fine. I’m pretty sympathetic to your sentiment. I’ll begin with why you probably don’t listen to country. In my own words circa 2015, “Every country song goes, ‘I drove my truck to bury my dog the day I slept with my red-headed sister.’”

My aversion to country was cemented when I moved to Nashville at the end of middle school. In Nashville, nightlife was concentrated to a street called Broadway, a vibrant stretch of establishments advertising themselves as “honky-tonks.” The biggest attraction in town was something called the “Grand Ole Opry,” which I’m pretty sure held Civil War reenactments.

Like acting careers in Los Angeles, getting a recording gig as your side hustle is deeply ingrained in Nashville culture; Odds are that you live somewhere in the vicinity of a recording artist. In my family’s case, we lived near a singer named Rodney Atkins. We lived in a pretty nice house. Rodney Atkins lived in a very, very nice house.

Once, while in the car with my family, a song came on the radio. It went like this: “If you’re goin’ through hell, keep on going/You might get out before the devil even knows you’re there.” Wow. Prophetic. My family literally could not stop laughing. Who wrote that bullshit?

“That was Rodney Atkins with, ‘If You’re Going Through Hell,’” said the disc jockey.

It turns out “If You’re Going Through Hell” was a smash country hit in 2006. Apparently, enough people liked it to earn Rodney Atkins a very, very nice house. My anti-country convictions intensified.

At the time, I wasn’t necessarily wrong. Country radio was one awful platitude. In 2015, the genre’s chart-toppers were “Drinking Class,” “Hell of a Night” and “Let Me See Ya Girl,” the latter of which I’m surprised didn’t win the Pulitzer for the line, “Let me see you do it in the bed of my truck/You sure know how to shake it alright.” Hollering at your pal’s girlfriend is a ghastly mutation of country, but it’s not just silly, lazy songwriting that plagues the genre.

It’s the sound that’s gone awry, too. Modern country bleeds right into the bubblegum pop landscape. There are the hypnotic snaps and claps, a mainstay of most pop songs. There are big techno beat breakdowns. There are 808s—a drum machine borrowed from rap. Country dudes will pose in front of a truck with a cowboy hat tilted down, meanwhile every other song on the record will be about clubbing downtown.

Modern country disguises itself as something familiar by slapping “Tennessee backroad” or some shit like that on a pop-synth beat and turning up the twang. Quick pop chart success. It got to the point that last spring Lil Nas X, a rapper, had the most popular country song on the radio.

We’re a long ways away from “three chords and the truth.”

So that’s why you and I didn’t listen to country. But what got me to defend country music? One winter day, my family checked out the Country Music Hall of Fame, recently redesigned to resemble an acoustic guitar. Parking was tough, as the nearby civic center was hosting the 2015 NRA convention.

The Hall of Fame was running an exhibit on Bob Dylan’s Nashville period. Alongside Johnny Cash, Dylan recorded his last album of the ’60s, titled “Nashville Skyline.” As a 15-year-old future liberal arts student, Dylan was practically the only music I downloaded (illegally). The exhibit had a lot of nice vintage photos of Dylan, but more consequentially, the visit assured me that country was not only some pariah of my middle school experiences.

Dylan came to Nashville because he was a huge fan of Cash. He wasn’t alone. At the time, country boasted the most popular individual acts in music. Johnny Cash was the biggest.

In a bitterly divided era, Cash was an icon to traditional country fans and the counterculture. In 1970, he was invited to perform at the White House. Richard Nixon requested that he perform an inflammatory diatribe against welfare programs called “Welfare Cadillac.” Instead, Cash performed his poem, “What is Truth,” an attempt to empathize with young people’s distrust of institutions and the government (New York Times, “Nixon Is Criticized For Song Request, ‘Welfare Cadillac,’” 03.2019).

In 1964, Cash recorded “Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian,” a surprising concept album that shed light on Native Americans’ mistreatment throughout American history. It was an antithetical product of a genre that associated itself so closely with cowboy imagery.

Modern country, with its deference to modern pop, finds itself in an ironic position. There is no single genre more defined by its obsession with tradition. Yet country has never been able to stick to just one sound.

Ken Burns’ recent documentary on country (if you know me you’ve heard about it already) beautifully depicts the recurrent aversion to and perversion of tradition in country. Fiddle and traditional Scots-Irish folk were first commercialized to working class and rural families as “Hillbilly Music” in the ’20s. Even then, country had a grasp on its audience’s yearning for something off-puttingly ineffable called “tradition.”

As it took over America, country outgrew its roots. The raucous atmosphere of honky-tonk bars necessitated a louder, clearer instrument; thus, the electric guitar became the sound of country’s expansion. Fiddle and banjo music were too down home and quiet. They disappeared from radio play over time.

Then they were back! Out of the glitz and smoothed-out sound of the ’50s and early ’60s came stripped down singer-songwriters. In the ’60s and ’70s pop and folk legends looked up to country songwriters, like Dylan did to Cash. Guy Clark, Emylou Harris, Kris Kristoferson, Bobbie Gentry and especially Townes Van Zandt are names that deserve your undivided ears.

Although if you’re a fan of singer-songwriter and folk rock, you probably already appreciate country. That’s how canonical the genre’s influences on music run. Pure Prairie League and the Marshall Tucker Band are pure Americana gold. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band revitalized traditional country and banjo music alongside legends Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff, and Bill Monroe. Gram Parsons is probably the godfather of country rock. His bands the Flying Burrito Brothers and country rock icons The Byrds made country music a preeminent facet of counterculture music. These artists and more melted this writer’s “Cold, Cold Heart.”

Hopefully my ramblings haven’t fallen on deaf ears. If I did indeed convince you, but you think it’s just me and you listening to country on campus, think again. “Country music is single-handedly the greatest genre of music due to its ability to always make you happy, even though it’s heartbreaking. It makes me feel the way nothing else can,” eloquently mused Emily Chong ’21.

One anonymous source admitted, “Country music is great to do drugs to. That’s what my cousin says.”

Tucker Quinlan ’23 put it plainly: “Country is good.”

I think so too.

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