NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Country Music as Defined by Others

Country Ain't Country: Except When It Is

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

Isn’t it fun reading a self-styled expert expounding on what country music really is? Especially now that it’s become the dominant American popular music. Since no one really knows what it is or what it means, it takes entire wagonloads of magazine writers and bloggers and professors these days to tell us what it is and what it’s not and what it should be and what it all means. Or what they wish it all meant. And it all just makes me want to take a powder and lie down for a while. Take a BC Powder, I mean. Which is a true country headache remedy, for the benefit of the experts. It’s especially effective when mixed with a little Jack and water.

Unfortunately, articles are frequently written by supposed expert commentators who don’t seem to have quite as firm a grasp on country music as they think they do. The latest I read was a little thing in Newsweek magazine, neatly summing up country music today. That’s something I wish I could do as easily. In an article titled “Don’t Call It Country,” Newsweek neatly wrapped up today’s state of country music as an amber warning.

To summarize the piece: George Jones used to be what country was, now Rodney Atkins sings about Happy Meals and Lonestar sings about sippy cups. Well, wait just a minute! Atkins’ song is a radio hit, but that does not mean it represents all of country music. Lonestar’s sippy cup songs are from many years ago and were derided at the time by many in Nashville. Like Hank Williams before him, Jones is one of the few country singers who truly lived his life in his music: all the humble origins, the struggles, the stormy marriages, the drinking and drugging, the triumphs and heartbreaks. That may never occur again in country music, although it’s coming close these days with someone like Jamey Johnson.

Today’s country, writes Newsweek, is a “strange, alien country-awards show that honors bubblegum pop stars like Taylor Swift, most of whose songs aren’t really country, even using the stretchiest definition.” Well, I am pretty much a country music purist, and I respect and appreciate Taylor Swift’s songwriting skills and career smarts and her audience appeal, and I know that prominent songwriters and producers such as Buddy Cannon feel the same way about her talents.

And I agree that much of modern country is, as Poco’s Rusty Young told at the Stagecoach music festival in California this past weekend, pretty much “a country singer with a rock ’n’ roll band and maybe banjo or steel guitar.” Young elaborated, “What the Kenny Chesneys and 90 percent of these artists are doing is basically the same music that we started in 1969, 1970 — rock ’n’ roll using country instruments as color.”

But even as modern country replaces rock as the music of mainstream America, a true maverick like Jamey Johnson can still make his mark with genuine, baptized-in-the-blood country music.

Country music is about a lot more than mainstream country radio. Look at all the varieties of country presented on the different stages at the Stagecoach festival in California: alt-county, Western swing, cowpunk, bluegrass, country rock and cowboy storytelling.

We should not have to be this defensive, but since many people like to pile on country music and Southerners — and we politely put up with it — no one’s pushing back. Even when Newsweek says, “Even a legend like George Jones, 77, the man Frank Sinatra called ’the second-best singer in America,’ recently played to a three-quarters-empty arena in the Virginia suburbs. ’The Possum’ went on gallantly with the concert. In the good old days, he might not have shown up at all.”

With the nation’s economy being what it is, many artists — in and out of country — play to less than full venues these days. This is one isolated Jones date. Give it some context. And I doubt Jones would these days call his no-show days his “good old days.” It’s a cliché that a drunken George Jones is what country music should be about.

My overall point: What’s the point at all? Newsweek’s lack of perspective and nonexistent country music grounding are on full display in this oddly bitter dismissal of country.

Some country stars are sexy, some are trendy, some ignore history, some are students of history, some do sappy songs, some pay close attention to tradition and some do a dozen of other things. That’s nothing new. That has happened before in country history. The current situation in country is little different from, say, the early 1970s when mainstream country was dominated by pop-sounding artists. Then the Outlaw movement changed everything. Such music cycles have occurred throughout country’s history.

It’s unfortunate that a writer with a major name magazine gets ink with the sort of rant that will be taken seriously by readers who don’t really know anything else about country and will accept this as the gospel truth. Perception truly becomes reality. This will be many readers’ perception of all that country music is.

I know this sort of story is inevitable, given the crush of 24-hour online attention spans. And the media pressure to get online attention.

But, you can try a little harder. Newsweek should stick to what it knows: Obama, Newt, Rush, Harry Potter, Star Trek, etc. And give country music a breather.