NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Why the Term “Country Music” May Disappear

Marketers of the Future May Dissolve Music Genre Labels

Editor’s note: CMT/CMT.com editorial director Chet Flippo is taking a few days off this week. In his absence, we’re revisiting a thought-provoking Nashville Skyline column he wrote in January 2010.

Genre divisions in music have always existed, but they became an important marketing development over the last 100 years as the commercial recorded music industry grew and flourished and sold actual, physical product in huge numbers.

Now, as that enterprise dwindles and transforms into a song-dominated download industry, genre distinctions are becoming blurred and even non-existent for many listeners. As songs trump the notion of artists, artist loyalty may become eroded as well.

If you look at a cross section of what’s generally considered to be current country music, you see a large array of many genres and sub-genres: from traditional country to classic country, old-timey music, modern trad, rockabilly, Western swing, cowboy, current classic contemporary trad, contemporary Texas, Red Dirt, mainstream country, recurrent contemporary mainstream, Southern rock, Americana, splinter Americana, alt-country, folk-country and country punk. Plus some other even smaller areas where its artists defy any labeling. And then there’s bluegrass, with its own sub-genres. And there’s no doubt some niche areas I’ve left out.

Some people regard all of that as country music — and some don’t. Some like all or many parts or sub-genres of it — and some like only one or two or three areas. Many fans of ’70s rock have discovered that today’s mainstream country is ’70s rock. And some bluegrass is actually closer to jazz than to country.

So, will those genres continue to exist as genres or even sub-genres if all the artists therein will be regarded mainly as providers of songs (or “tracks”) to be downloaded? As albums increasingly cease to be a dominant factor, which areas of country will fade and blur into some other area or simply disappear altogether?

The hardcore physical genre/music-labeling separation itself dates from the beginnings of the retail sales of records. In retail stores, they were separated by a loose system of labels. Rack jobbers serviced the racks in stores by genres, and the stores demanded a premium for racking the records that sold the most to get the most prominent racks. You paid to get your records racked up front and in the end-caps because it paid off in sales. Over the years, the big sellers have been rock and pop and country and rap and hip-hop and R&B.

Radio and the music trade charts long ago put labels on music. In those earlier days, all black music was labeled “race music.” Jerry Wexler changed “race music” to “R&B” — for rhythm & blues — in the 1940s when he was at Billboard, before he became a genre-changing record company producer and executive in rock, country and R&B.

In its earliest days, country was called “hillbilly music.” It originally came from the hills of England and Scotland and Ireland, after all, and then from the hills of Appalachia. But as far as I can tell, the word “hillbilly” was first used in print in 1900 in the New York Journal, which wrote, “a Hill-Billie is a free and untrammeled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it and fires off his revolver as the fancy takes him.”

So, commercial country music came to be called “hillbilly music,” a name given to it by country pianist Al Hopkins in the 1920s. The term “country & western” was used in the heyday of the singing cowboys and Western swing and is now only used by people who don’t know any better.

When the Country Music Association was formed in 1958, the term “country music” finally began to replace “hillbilly,” with a huge amount of urging from the late Ernest Tubb, who said, “‘Hillbilly,’ that’s what the press use to call it, ‘hillbilly music.’ Now, I always said, ‘You can call me a hillbilly if you got a smile on your face.’ We let the record companies know that they were producing country music ’cause we all come from the country.”

Now that such big-box stores as Wal-Mart and Target have cut their CD rack space down to an absolute minimum, whatever racks remain are reserved for supposed guaranteed big sellers, period. No more racks for catalog CDs. And no more stores for large-scale catalog racking, such as the late Tower chain of brick-and-mortar stores.

I suspect it’s pretty much a given that when albums finally disappear, so will genres, as genres. Except probably for such clearly defined (and low-selling) genres as jazz and classical. Pop music with all its bastardizations long ago became a dumping ground for whatever didn’t make it up off the butcher shop floor to be made into the latest brand of sausage.

But what has been defined as country will be a free-for-all. Then what, for staunch country music fans? The downloaders will seek out their tracks by their favorite artist and will find others largely by word of mouth and by the Internet. The CD fan holdouts will still search out and find what remains. I suspect the vinyl LP audience will continue to grow, as that album audience becomes a larger cult of true devotees of music fidelity and music integrity. And what about the future of country radio? They will find a way to survive. However devious it may be. They always do.