The Heat Goes On: The Battle for Country’s Soul

The battle for country music’s soul was fought before millions of people Wednesday night on the CMA awards show, and, as usual, both sides won. After it was all over, country music remained just as culturally homogenized as it’s always been.

Representing the traditionalist side of the tiff was “Murder On Music Row,” which gave George Strait and Alan Jackson the Vocal Event of the Year award. The song charges that “Someone killed country music, tore out its heart and soul.” Standing for the more inclusionary point of view was Tim McGraw’s ever-so-defensive “Things Change.” It invoked the rebellious spirit of Hank, Elvis and the “Outlaws” to argue that greatness always shatters boundaries. One line of the song declares, “It’s just good music if you can feel it in your soul.”

McGraw’s lyrical embracing of change may have had something to do with the fact that some critics say he and his even more pop-leaning wife, Faith Hill, are precisely what’s wrong with country music.

Reporters backstage cheered when Strait and Jackson won their award. Then Strait let it be known that he had not recorded “Murder On Music Row” as a battle cry but rather as “kind of a joke.” When neo-traditionalist Brad Paisley came to the press room after winning his Horizon Award, one impassioned reporter took his arm, escorted him to the front and proclaimed, “I’m proud to present the savior of country music.”

Asked her opinion of the old vs. new fray, Patty Loveless said, “I don’t think there’s been a murder. Country music keeps on living.” (Loveless sang in rock bands before becoming a darling of country purists.) Lee Ann Womack observed, “People will say ’I don’t like that traditional country music.’ I think what they don’t like is bad music.”

None of this finger-pointing and in-fighting is new, of course. Doomsayers predicted an end to country music in 1974 when pop thrush Olivia Newton-John won the CMA Female Vocalist of the Year prize and the following year when John Denver was named Entertainer of the Year. The Urban Cowboy boom in the early 1980s was supposed to have adulterated country music beyond recovery. Instead, it ushered in the “new traditionalist” movement of John Anderson, Ricky Skaggs, Dwight Yoakam and Randy Travis.

And more than 20 years before there was “Murder On Music Row,” Justin Tubb was demanding to know with equal outrage, “What’s Wrong With The Way We’re Doing It Now?”

Hard-core traditionalist Alan Jackson exemplified how difficult it is to keep country music “pure” when he stood in cowboy hat and jeans and sang “www.memory.” Obviously, the enemy is at the gates. Again.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to