(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Let’s examine some of the latest country music transgressions, as thrown at the genre by detractors.
Country is turning into rap and losing its country identity.
Especially as evidenced by Jason Aldean and Ludacris performing Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” on the CMT Music Awards show. For me, Aldean’s music is pretty straight-on country and the rapping in “Dirt Road Anthem” is true to the song. And it was in the song before Ludacris came in for the duet with Aldean on the awards show. Ludacris totally bought into it, and the song has a natural feel. There’s an old argument over whether any music or any song has a color. I don’t buy into that. Music in and of itself has no color. And rap and country have more in common than many people want to admit or recognize.
Drums were once forbidden on the Grand Ole Opry because drums were the devil’s own tools of rock ‘n’ roll, which was then the enemy of country music. Many of country’s gatekeepers wanted to build walls around the genre to keep out unhealthy outside influences that might pollute the purity of the music. Insidious influences like rock ‘n’ roll. Or pop music. The fact that county music is itself a child of Anglo-Saxon folk music, African music, black blues, both black and white gospel music and white mountain string bands has often been conveniently ignored by proponents of the purity of country.
Money has a way of changing things. After Hank Williams songs were adopted by pop singers and Patsy Cline became a huge cross-over success, country suddenly embraced pop music. Nashville was taken over by the smooth country-pop sounds of Ray Price and Cline and Eddy Arnold. Suddenly, that pop sound became marketed as the beloved “Nashville Sound.” Later, both Shania Twain and Garth Brooks were criticized early in their careers for supposedly leading country music into pop. Then, when pop audiences flocked over to country, both Shania and Garth became visionaries.
Was Toby Keith‘s “I Wanna Talk About Me” a rap song? It was written by one of country’s staunch traditional songwriters, Country Music Hall of Fame member Bobby Braddock, who wrote — among many other country hits — the great song “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Toby as a singer is pretty straight-ahead pure country. Country has for decades had a tradition of spoken word songs, some of which rhyme and some of which don’t. So, is “I Wanna Talk About Me” a rap song? Who determines what is rap and what is spoken word? John Rich once said Wyclef Jean told him Charlie Daniels‘ “Devil Went Down to Georgia” was the first rap song. “Devil” was a hit country song. How is that so different from what Jason and Toby are doing?
Country is ignoring its roots.
True, to a large extent. TV is the villain. Radio still can build careers and sell music. But country relies to a huge extent on TV and cable for its large market success. Nobody wants to see age on TV. And HDTV has only compounded the problem. Surely you’ve seen what HD can do to any physical imperfections or to any aging performer who’s on a large plasma screen. It is certainly not kind to those sliding over the hill, as it were. Botox cannot hide everything.
Some of country’s roots may be better off ignored. One popular Cajun singer, using the pseudonym “Johnny Rebel,” recorded a whole series of songs and albums that reveled in the “N” word, as in a song titled “Move Them N*****s’ North.” Not many people bought into that. But some did. Somebody was buying those records. The one-time country hitmaker David Allan Coe later recorded “Move Them N*****s North,” as well as other equally questionable songs.
The King of Country Music, the beloved Country Music Hall of Fame Member Roy Acuff, once performed in blackface and also recorded such racy songs as “Doing It the Old Fashioned Way” and “When Lulu’s Gone” under the name of the Bang Boys. A sample lyric: “What’re you gonna do for bangin’ when Lulu’s gone?” Was Acuff keeping country pure?
And the early Grand Ole Opry featured a blackface duo named Jamup & Honey. What did that do for country’s image?
But there remains a devoted audience for recorded traditional country music. Not necessarily a huge audience, but a loyal audience, nonetheless. And there’s a good reason for it.
Country music is turning into nothing but American Idol and TV talent show winners.
Unfortunately true, to a certain extent. When the music industry becomes a sinking ship, desperate people will grab for any lifeboats. Managers and record labels recognize that taking a proven favorite of music fans from TV is a hell of a lot easier to market than is a young, talented — but largely unknown — aspiring writer-singer. Artist development, unfortunately, is becoming a victim of the sales decline as well as the Idol syndrome. Kenny Chesney, like many artists of his generation, took years to develop into a marquee name. That sort of artist development has become an expendable luxury. Carrie Underwood, the best example of an Idol hopeful landing a major country music career, told Billboard about her own career arc, “If somebody like me who lives in Oklahoma just started playing in bars around Oklahoma, there’s no way I’m going to get discovered. It just doesn’t happen like that anymore. If you know the right people or you have enough money, then you can get your way into the industry, but American Idol is for people like me. It’s for people like Scotty [McCreery] and Lauren [Alaina] who were in small towns and didn’t know how to do it but had a love for music and a great talent and did their thing.”
And, while I’ve never been a fan of the show, I think Idol maybe got it right this year with winner Scotty McCreery and runner-up Lauren Alaina. Nashville got a chance to get up close and personal with them during the recent CMT Music Awards and CMA Music Festival , and Nashville liked what it saw. These seem to be two good kids with a genuine love for country music. Nothing wrong with that.