NASHVILLE SKYLINE: What the Hell’s the State of Country?

Well, I'm Liking LBT, Shaver, Shooter, Dwight and More

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

Time to think about a favorite question: what is the state of country music today? Some of it’s selling. Most of it’s not. So what’s ahead?

CDs lined up in my player right now are Little Big Town’s upcoming A Place to Land, Dwight Yoakam’s Dwight Sings Buck, Billy Joe Shaver’s Everybody’s Brother, Shooter Jennings’ The Wolf, Carrie Underwood’s Carnival Ride, Kid Rock’s Rock N Roll Jesus, Levon Helm’s Dirt Farmer, Bruce Springsteen’s Magic, the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss Raising Sand project and LeAnn Rimes’ Family.

There is something in each of these works that appeals to me. Does that make each of them country music? I don’t know, and I’m not sure that I really care anymore. It’s music that I like and that I know many country music fans like. Whether or not that makes it country music I think is up to the listener. I have always thought that the listener has shaped the music perhaps more than the artist has in country music. Every genuine country artist I have ever known was perfectly attuned to the wants, dreams, triumphs and tragedies of the listener. And you could hear those addressed in the music. Most great country artists have been listeners who turned into artists. The artist has always been the product and the reflection of history, raising, tradition and background.

There are, as you well know, many, many country musics. There is the most visible face of country, which is the mainstream country radio/Wal-Mart blockbuster music of Rascal Flatts, Carrie Underwood, Kenny Chesney, Keith Urban, Toby Keith, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Taylor Swift and a few more big-selling artists. Then there are the wannabe big-selling artists.

And then there are all the other sub-genres of country music: bluegrass, classic country, Western swing, rockabilly, honky-tonk, Texas music, Red Dirt music, Tex-Mex, Chicano rock, country folk, country rock, Southern rock, old-timey, Appalachian and Americana or alt-country. And even polka. There may be some fringe elements I’m missing here. The greatest thing about all of these genres is that each has a loyal audience and a loyal cadre of artists devoted to preserving that music. Commercial success for these artists would be nice but it’s not necessarily why they make the music. And without them, country would be a pretty bleak big box store of perishable radio hits.

How all of this will survive as CD sales shrink and music downloading evolves through countless tortured mutations is beyond my control, so I will not worry about it or offer you theories about the whole downloading thing. I will just say that I think the whole process is missing what I think is the only crucial link: artist to listener. Nothing else really matters.

As far as the future of the music, I don’t think it’s going anywhere. Country music has been steadily evolving since its beginning, and it will continue to do so. And what determines what makes a song country? Primarily, it’s subject matter. You know it when you hear it.