NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Just What the Hell Is Country Music, Anyway?

Or Who Are the Country Artists These Days? Or Not?

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Right. Just what the hell is country music these days, anyhow? I’m getting asked that a lot these days, and so are some of my friends who are in the habit of commenting publicly on music. Over-exposed actresses decide they need to display their country roots on record, aging rockers come to Nashville for a country blood transfusion and fading actors suddenly decide they’ve “always been country.”

I can tell you that, like the classic definition of pornography, I know what country is when I hear it. Like hearing young newcomer Ray Scott’s authoritative vocal delivery on a gritty new song like the title cut from his upcoming CD, My Kind of Music. And you know what is not country when you hear it. Like Jessica Simpson singing “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.”

Let me give you a little musical vignette. CDs by Neil Young, Lori McKenna, Wayne Scott (no relation to Ray Scott) and a new tribute to the Bailes Brothers are the most played CDs in my office and car players right now. These works are very different yet very much alike in many ways.

Are they country? Yes. Well, who says so? Who certifies what is country and what is not? And, in fact, these days what exactly is country music? Just who is a country artist? Good questions. Easy to ask. Harder to answer.

Country attitudes and point of view define the musical point of view, along with a certain compassion and sincerity and conviction. The music, after all, came out of folk music and blues and gospel, all of which are peer group musical forms. Music that’s created for one’s neighbors and friends, not for a giant corporation. Ideally, it is music of the people for the people. It is also a music genre that still honors its founders and pioneers and its historical legacy.

But, musical artists need to make a living. So there is commercial country, referred to these days as mainstream or even radio country or Big Box country, after the huge discount stores where most of the CDs are sold. There’s no reason to assume commercial country cannot be great country music, and it sometimes is.

Traditionally country has been rural based and continues to be so in outlook. The music’s moral foundations remain in the country, even as its musical forms and lyrics migrate toward city rhythms and themes. But the overriding themes continue to be family, friends, fellow man, faith and patriotism. And, of course, good times. Texas singer-songwriter Jack Ingram has a good definition of what country music knows about good times. The music tells you you’re having a good time, he says. And the lyrics tell you why we need to have a good time.

Neil Young has long embraced the country tradition and made overtly country albums such as Harvest and Harvest Moon. He returned to Nashville to cut the gorgeous, understated, very country CD Prairie Wind that pays tribute to his Canadian rural heritage and to his late father. He also filmed a DVD of the work at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, a concert that remains one of the finest I have ever seen and heard.

So, is Neil Young country? Hell yes, he is, when he’s writing and singing superb songs from his heart such as these.

Wayne Scott has just released his first album — at age 71. And it’s a pretty damned good chronicle of a way of life that’s passing from the American scene. The life of the raw-boned, strong, blue-collar laborer who raises a family to aspire to a better life than he has known and does the best he can. I’ll let his son, the great singer-songwriter Darrell Scott, describe this man and this album: “This Weary Way has been a long time coming — an album of original songs by my dad — Wayne Scott. Growing up on a tobacco farm in Crane’s Nest, Ky., in the ’30s and ’40s, the 11th of 13 children, four themes fill his stories — work, family, church and music, in that order. This recording may be a proud and thankful son helping to document his father’s lifework. It is both the least and most that I could do.” It is not a pretty album, but that’s not what country music should always be. It’s real, and is what it is.

I’ve already written in this space about singer-songwriter Lori McKenna and her superb work, Bittertown. I’m beginning to think it’s the single best CD I’ve heard this year from any genre of music, let alone country. And it’s all about real life and emotions and human drama; all things that the best country songs have always embraced. McKenna’s writing and singing are country music emotion laid on the line for all to see and hear and feel.

Bill Malone is the pre-eminent historian of country music. His pioneering book, Country Music U.S.A., is the main reason country music began to be taken seriously as an art form.

Now he and his fellow retired folklorist and historian Rod Moag are doing what they can to preserve and advance the musical legacy of the sadly neglected Bailes Brothers with their CD Remember Me: Bill Malone & Rod Moag Play the Music of the Bailes Brothers. They have sung duets of 19 of the Bailes’ most memorable songs, and they were aided by the likes of steel guitar players Lloyd Maines and Cindy Cashdollar recreating the classic sound of Shot Jackson, the classic steel player who was an integral part of the Bailes’ sound. They also got vocal help from the only surviving Bailes Brother, the elderly Homer Bailes.

The Bailes epitomized the music of post-World War II America, when the rural way of life underwent a major upheaval with a massive shift of workers moving from the farm to factory and other industrial jobs in the cities. The Bailes’ music, as Malone points out in his liner notes, helped “remind us of where we came from, [and] they also conveyed the strength of our common culture and helped us to survive in a new and unfamiliar world.” Perhaps the Bailes’ best-known song, especially as popularized by Willie Nelson with his version on his Red Headed Stranger album is the song “Remember Me,” with its well-known refrain:

“Remember me when the candle lights are gleaming/Remember me at the close of a long, long day/And it would be so sweet when all alone, I’m dreaming/Just to know you still remember me.”

Malone and Moag are not overly pretty or slick slingers, but it sounds beautiful, as only true music, sung with conviction, can sound.