I grew up with a Mum from Tennessee who was a moderate fan of country music, but mostly due to spending 18 summers in the Deep South listening to little else on the radio, I had a serious country phase. In my early teens, it was by far and away the genre I listened to the most, because unlike most middle class British 14 year olds, I could identify with it. We went hunting and fishing growing up, and I’d say I’ve probably spent altogether at least a year riding around in pickup trucks. On grey winter days at school, I could switch on my iPod, plug in whatever album had been dominating Nashville radio that year and drift back to another Lazy Southern Summer ™. The barrage of numbing British electric pop in those years seemed artificial in comparison to the big riffs, hooks and real instrumentation of the pop country of the day. Name dropping towns and places I’d spent so much time in, along with those thick accents, held a much greater pull over me.
I won’t hide it, I was definitely not discerning. I ate it all up. This meant that for all the classic stuff I got from listening to the CDs in my grandfather’s truck like Johnny Cash, Gary P. Nunn, and Ray Wylie Hubbard, there was the decidedly less respectable crowd like Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean and Rascal Flatts. My music collection was hugely dominated by country until I was about 16 . Then classic rock started taking over, led of course by Bruce Springsteen, who I’d casually listened to for years, but then it suddenly became the best thing I’d ever heard. It doesn’t actually seem like such an odd transition with hindsight. Although Springsteen hails from a very different part of the country, his portrayal of the dark side of small town life was at once similar to, but more pertinent than, the repetitive, idealistic, and kind of shallow songwriting churned out by Nashville. Furthermore, listening to mid 2000s-mid 2010s country, the majority of hits are characterised by big 80s-rock riffs punctuated by a fiddle, banjo or steel guitar with a twangy accent and country checklist lyrics. Strip away a lot of the production and you could see how ‘Darlington County‘, for example, was accessible to a slightly disillusioned British country fan. Of course, all the big classic rock of the 60s and 70s followed Springsteen, then folk, then contemporary alternative music of all kinds, and in the last two years, I’ve decided that I like hip hop music quite a lot too.
But through it all, I try to keep a finger on the pulse of the country music scene, even if it’s not such a huge musical influence anymore. For those novices to the scene reading this, my general rule of thumb is that if it rises to the top of the ‘Red Dirt’ scene out of Texas, it’s worth listening to. If it rises to the top of the Nashville scene, it’s probably not. Nowadays I’m a lot more discerning when it comes to country. In 2013, journalist Judy Rosen coined the term ‘bro-country’ to describe the music dominating Nashville charts. In a nutshell, this means the kind of music likely to get played at frat parties in southern universities. Lyrics will feature (not an exaggeration) blond girls in ‘painted on’ tight blue jeans who get into a jacked up truck and take a ride to a lake/river. On the way, the stereo will play the music of two artists: one will be a hip hop/urban artist to gain cross-genre appeal, the other a traditional country singer of old to placate the longtime fans as proof of still being truly ‘country’. When they arrive at the river/lake they will drink the alcohol, or ‘feel good stuff’, as it is euphemistically called, so as not to encourage underage drinking amongst the teenaged listeners of socially conservative southern parents, and the sunset/moonlight will make it all very romantic. Skinny dipping may or may not be involved, and there might be a hint of sex towards the end. Personally if I was a girl in the South picked up on the side of the road by a leering redneck who offered me a lift to a lake/river as the sun was going down, the word ‘romantic’ would not be the first word beginning with ‘r’ to spring to mind, but to each their own, I guess. These songs are lazily written, lacking in substance, musically identical, and at worst, intimidatingly misogynistic. I don’t listen to this stuff anymore.
Here’s a nice example of ‘bro-country’:
It’s definitely got its merits, granted. I just listened to it to see how much of my checklist it fits (nameless girl’s hair colour not specified, she wears a short skirt instead of painted on jeans, and he does use the word ‘beer’ without a euphemism) and you can see why it’s popular. It’s undeniably catchy, with a big riff, thumping drums, nice chorus, and a little banjo run to keep it ‘country’. After a while though all of these songs start to sound the same – believe me, 2013-14 was not a good year for pop country.
The most recent country albums I bought were by the Steeldrivers (specifically a bluegrass band), the Turnpike Troubadours, Jason Isbell and Robert Ellis, who you can Google if you’re interested. They’re melodically more interesting and their lyrics have real depth to them.
Here’s a cut off Isbell’s latest album, which, in my opinion proves Isbell’s status as one of the best current American songwriters:
As an aside, that album, also titled Something More Than Free was, along with Father John Misty’s I Love You Honeybear, Alabama Shakes’ Sound and Colour, and of course Kendrick’s stupendous To Pimp A Butterfly, one of my favourites of the year.
All of which brings me to Country 2 Country, a music festival that’s been held in March in Britain for the last three years, where the big names of country music come to play for a weekend. It’s a tradition in my family, and it’s a great trip. One day is usually dominated by Nashville pop artists du jour, while the other is generally a little bit more alternative. This year we had the pleasure of seeing Chris Stapleton, Kacey Musgraves and Eric Church, and it was a new experience for me this year, as I wasn’t well acquainted with the first two acts. Eric Church absolutely dominated the radio during the summer of 2012, and I was a huge fan of his first three albums. His fourth was ambitious, but fell short, and I hadn’t heard the very recent fifth. Chris Stapleton had come to my attention, but I still had yet to listen to his album. I’d heard a handful of Kacey Musgraves’ songs but only once or twice.
We came in late, and only saw the last of Stapleton’s set, but man, the guy can sing. A fantastic raw howl of a voice, and a skilled guitarist as well. The one song I heard was my favourite of the night. He deserves all the plaudits and exposure he’s received, both for his album, Traveller, and for this performance with Justin Timberlake of all people, which is the kind of award show performance that almost never comes along, and blew the roof off the CMAs a few months back:
This was my facial expression when I saw him live too:
Seriously though, I cannot emphasise how awesome and how rare it is for a songwriter, vocalist and performer of such outstanding talent to get mainstream success in the genre considering the sheer amount of dreck that Nashville pumps out each year.
Musgraves followed up with a lovely quiet set, packed with classic country instrumentation juxtaposed from alarmingly daring songwriting. To endorse marijuana use and gay marriage in the same song, then decry the circularity and despair of small town living in the South is not something country artists normally try to do. It might have been nice to see the mood of the music switched up a little; it wasn’t until the last song that her (very talented) band were able to let loose a little. It was hard to tell which songs came from which album, which isn’t exactly a bad thing- it was all very good- but as a new fan of hers, I’m expecting a new album with something different.
Eric Church delivered almost exactly what I’d expected. The songs off the last two albums still weren’t as enjoyable as the others, though that might have been because I didn’t know them as well. It seemed in the newer numbers as though they were almost southern-rock mixed with bits of prog, and became sonically very compressed. Huge guitar solos seemed to leap out from nowhere, which seemed to jar with the direction of the song at the time. Don’t get me wrong, I can get onboard with enormous sprawling solos, but usually I like the song to build up to them so they seem like a pay-off, a a way of releasing all the tension and insecurity of the lyrics. Otherwise it can seem a bit indulgent and cheesy. I heard a few weeks back that Church’s entire band and crew came down with a stomach bug a while back, and so he played his whole show with just his acoustic guitar, and based on last night, I wonder if I would have actually preferred that at times. However, my inner 16 year old still rejoiced when I finally got to hear all of those songs from that summer of 2012 in the lakes of Tennessee, the coastline of South Carolina and the mountains of North Carolina performed live.
Country music is still a part of my musical experience, and probably always will be. I cannot separate some of my best childhood memories from it, and whenever I go back to Tennessee, the sound of the radio on the drive home from the airport is almost as familiar as the people I see. I certainly find myself looking harder for good country, but it’s always very rewarding to discover it when I do. And this was probably my favourite line-up at his festival so far.
As for the future of country music- who knows? I’d argue that the traditionalists are enjoying a little bit of a vogue after the reign of bro-country, but I worry it will begin to fade away over the decades. It’s already very hard to find it on mainstream radio. Even Musgraves’ latest album, while critically lauded, made hardly any waves on radio. Every year after this festival there’s always a debate over whether country has cracked the UK market. The answer is, in my opinion, always a resounding no. At the moment, post-festival, and being featured under a Country 2 Country page in iTunes today, the download chart is packed with the albums of those performing last weekend. But usually that top 10 consists of Taylor Swift albums (not really country), Shania Twain (ditto) and greatest hits albums of golden oldies like Cash, Willie Nelson and Kenny Rodgers. Even more telling is the audiences at this festival. I found myself standing next to two other uni students, but we were very much in the minority. Everyone was at least 50. My theory is that the British country audience does respect the oldies arguably more than the Nashville audience today, given their much higher average age, but unlike their contemporaries in the States, they do embrace the sub genres Nashville pumps out: pop country, rap-country (don’t google it, seriously) and bro-country. The older generation in the States slams these new artists as not being ‘true country’, but I don’t think that’s the case in Britain. The Carrie Underwood line up for the second day of the festival sold out in all locations, and she is a much more mainstream and radio-friendly artist. She led a line up including Sam Hunt, who is not even really bro country and more country-hip hop. I think the British crowd, having grown up with those big cheesy arena-rock riffs of the 80s and the butt-rock of the 90s find a lot to identify in contemporary country (which is adorably far behind other genres in terms of evolution). Electronic drumbeats, for example, only really got discovered in country music in the last two years. By following country, they get a nice musical nostalgia trip, and stay relevant in one genre as they eagerly await new albums and tours. Meanwhile the pop-country conveyer belt spews out new names, so their voices stay nice and young, unlike the names of the 80s, who are now not far off 70, in many cases.
I’ll keep in touch with the country scene, but it’s hard to think of a musical genre that’s ever had such an identity crisis. For every Jason Isbell that comes along, there’s a Kane Brown, the latest name poised to take over Nashville, who is just sickeningly not country, and, in a cruel personal twist of irony, hails from my (second) hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee. But this weekend’s line up at Country 2 Country did offer some hope.
Keep fighting the good fight, Nashville.
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