(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Let me get this straight. Last weekend in Nashville, we had what amounted to a virtual rock concert by Sugarland, Little Big Town and Matt Nathanson. Lotsa rock songs, lotsa arena rock hoopla and carryings-on.
Yet, it’s conceivable that we could actually have a country music concert in Nashville with rock groups Styx, Yes, Air Supply and Staind. And, I’m sure Bon Jovi, Kid Rock, Jack White, John Mellencamp, Elvis Costello, Mark Knopfler, Led Zep’s Robert Plant and John Paul Jones and any number of other rock performers would love to drop in to show off their country chops. Rolling Stone Keith Richards might like to recreate his George Jones duet and his historical Gram Parsons moments. And Neil Diamond’s Tennessee Moon album has some Nashville moments he could feel like revisiting. Paul McCartney might like to recreate his Nashville studio recording days.
In recent music developments, Styx’ Tommy Shaw, Yes’ Steve Howe and Air Supply’s Russell Hitchcock are the latest rock denizens to convert to country music. Staind’s Aaron Lewis came to town to cut “Country Boy” and recorded an album that went No. 1 on Billboardcountry chart. His video for “Country Boy” became a CMT hit. This was without any country radio airplay (which it’s finally starting to pick up).
What’s significant is that Lewis and Kid Rock and every one of the other above-named rockers unequivocally profess their love for traditional country music. You will not hear that from most new young contenders in the country music arena.
This is happening even as younger country acts are increasingly performing covers of rock and pop songs. You will likely hear more Madonna and Journey and rap than you will hear George Jones or Randy Travis or even Eagles at a country show these days.
What kind of identity crisis is this? I suspect it’s totally all about a gigantic musical genre cri de Coeur. Country artists traditionally feel they are under-appreciated and looked down upon by the “real world” outside Nashville and that they would be considered cool if they did covers of some rock songs. That might make them maybe genuinely legitimate artists.
Whereas mature rock artists — having already achieved all that they are going to do in rock music — are starting to feel a yearning for some musical credibility and honesty. Before it’s too late. That may be a product of aging, but it’s real enough. And they feel that country music as a genre, despite all its shortcomings and posturing, remains the last frontier for musical integrity. They would love to be in Nashville. And sit on a stool in Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and sign autographs. If you walk just a few yards west from Tootsie’s front door and gaze south, you can glimpse the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum just one long city block away. That would be the Promised Land for so many artists.
As a wise colleague at CMT pointed out to me, much of the change in country music has to do with population shift. The baby boomers fled rock music when it turned anemic and turned to the exploding country revolution led by Garth Brooks. They stayed with country music through Kenny Chesney’s career to the twilight of their concert-going years.
Now, the target audience for radio and music-buying stays young — even as the biggest country-loving audience has aged past the desired demo mark.
One interesting aspect of this, as my wise colleague noted, is that rap and metal artists have influenced the current generation of young country artists, much more than country has. That’s why you’re hearing more rap and metal-influenced songs from younger, emerging country performers. And the audience’s taste reflects that.
A fascinating reaction to this has been a bit of a bite-back from mainstream radio, especially about the rise of rapping in new country songs. That has been bantered about much of late vis-a-vis Jason Aldean’s rapping in his new single “Dirt Road Anthem.” Even though I have become fairly allergic to “I’m-so-country” songs (especially those with “dirt road” in them), I like Aldean and respect what he’s doing.
His so-called “rapping” here is part of a long country music tradition. It just hasn’t been called “rapping” before. It’s usually been termed “recitation” or “spoken narrative,” and it mirrors country music’s long folk music history. Country recitation songs go back many decades, wherein little stories were incorporated into the songs. Hank Williams recorded many recitations. Listen to a song like “Men With Broken Hearts.” His recordings as Luke the Drifter were practically primers in recitations.
Johnny Cash loved recitations. Listen to “Ragged Old Flag” as a prime example. Charlie Daniels’ lasting hit, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” has been cited by black rappers as an early and influential rap song.
Even strait-laced George Strait raps in “Give It Away.”
So what is the ultimate outcome of this seeming trad vs. modern clash?
It will all work itself out, as ever. It’s just that country music — as with all music — continues to evolve as it absorbs other cultures and other influences. Where will it now evolve? We’ll see.