NASHVILLE SKYLINE: What’s Country and What’s Not?

Many Charge That "Collaborating With the Enemy" Is Not

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

I continue to find it interesting that a number of posters and commenters and e-mailers persist in loudly complaining about country artists fraternizing with the great unwashed — as many seem to view the non-country world. And many go on to harangue country artists who they perceive as not being country enough or not country at all, which has become a daily complaint on its own. Time to back up and remember a couple of things.

• Country music does not exist in a vacuum.

• Country music does not live in a test tube, as a pure and unsullied single-cell creature.

• Music is an organic being, and it grows and mutates in unpredictable and sometimes uncontrollable ways.

Looking over the wall of country music or peeking out from under its tent is not a crime or a sin. It is natural. It’s not really collaborating with the enemy, as many see it. It is natural to want to get off the reservation once in a while and see how the rest of the world lives.

I would hazard a guess that some members of the rabid keep-it-country purist crowd are also angry Yankee-haters and those who are suspicious of anyone who appears to be from somewhere else.

The Taylor Swift/T-Pain duet with “Thug Story” was a very funny and lighthearted mash-up of country and rap. So it seemed. But it hit a nerve with many self-proclaimed country purists who lamented that this was yet another giant step down the road to perdition and indeed to country music’s destruction. A lot of that vitriol came from anonymous posters and bloggers who like strewing random poison. Some of these people remind me of cockroaches. It’s not so much what cockroaches eat or carry off, it’s what they fall into and mess up.

The interesting thing is that this topic did not become such a heated issue before rap and hip-hop entered into the country collaboration equation. That seemed to quickly change the landscape. But that whole resentment of so-called alien music is nothing new. Think back to the “Disco Sucks” campaigns of the 1970s — and the whole anti-disco fervor of years ago. History again repeats itself. Rock collaborations are one thing to some listeners. But seemingly atonal, alien music is something else again. At any rate, there are some very angry people around today, and perceived impurity in country music is one of their favored targets these days. Modern country itself, with its admitted country-pop bent, is a very large and easy target. And change of any sort in one’s favorite music is not always welcomed.

Country duets with non-country partners, though, are nothing new. Ernest Tubb dueted with the pop trio the Andrews Sisters (if you ever get a chance, listen to their delightful “I’m Bitin’ My Fingernails and Thinking of You.”). George Jones recorded frequently with pop-rocker Gene Pitney, with the great Ray Charles, with Elvis Costello and with Keith Richards. Willie Nelson has sung with, among others, Duane Eddy, Diana Krall, Aerosmith’s Steve Tyler, Wyclef Jean, ZZ Top and Julio Iglesias. Merle Haggard has teamed with Clint Eastwood, Orquestra Was, Dean Martin, Ray Charles and Leon Redbone. Loretta Lynn, after many stone country duets with Ernest Tubb and Conway Twitty, moved on to rocker Jack White. Tammy Wynette joined voices with Mr. Las Vegas — Wayne Newton. Kenny Rogers did very well with both Kim Carnes and Sheena Easton. Jennifer Nettles and Bon Jovi got a No. 1 country hit with the duet “Who Says You Can’t Go Home.”

And Johnny Cash, on his TV show, sang with so many varied artists as to spin your head. Try Louis Armstrong, Derek & the Dominos, Stevie Wonder and Neil Diamond. Country-rock in its heyday stretched the boundaries again but is embraced by the majority of the audience. The Eagles and Creedence Clearwater Revival and the like are just as familiar to country audiences as are Southern rockers such as the Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Willie dueted with Snoop Dogg. And then Tim McGraw dipped into the hip-hop pool with Nelly and “Over And Over,” a soft, harmless ballad. It was a huge success. But resentment built among the keep-it-country crowd.

Well, if country had always stayed just as it once was and remained frozen in amber, here is what it would sound like now. First, go to church — a very strict church — many times a week. Then think: You will hear many, many dirge-like, mournful Anglo-Saxon ballads and sad hymns and laments about murder and dead babies and sinful husbands and fallen women and drunkenness and gambling and heaven and hell. That doleful diet was enlivened now and again by a goodtime rounder like Jimmie Rodgers with his rousing songs about the road and the railroad and pretty girls and enjoying life. He was like the rascally uncle of old who liked to sneak out early from church and enjoy a nip or two out of his flask and savor a cigar and maybe tell a snappy joke or two. That was being adventurous in those days. In those days, country music was pretty well divided up between heaven and hell, between the sin of Saturday night and the sanctity of Sunday morning. Nowadays, nobody can tell what the hell is what.

But, if country music had never changed from its “pure” beginnings, you would have never heard a steel guitar wailing away in a good-time honky-tonk, never heard a Telecaster guitar preaching the country blues and never heard Hank Williams wrenching every possible basic human emotion out of his songs. You would have never heard so many songs about three chords and the truth. Think about it.