The artist performing in the following video does not necessarily reflect the taste of the author. Watch only as a frame of reference for the rest of the blog, I do not accept responsibility for any senses that may end up being offended. Trust me , mine were.
It's a sad truth that I am somewhat addicted to watching reality singing shows, specifically “The Voice” and “American Idol.” Last night’s Voice opened with an artist whom host Carson Daly described as the new face of country music, Thomas Rhett. As I watched, I thought that perhaps Merle Haggard had taken his own life three weeks ago when informed that the fresh face of country music looked more suited for the cover of GQ magazine than playing in a bar with sawdust on the floor, fronting a band with banjos and fiddles. Worse yet, at the end of the performance, Mr. Daly proclaimed that the future of country seems to be in good hands. I actually felt the anger rise up inside me at this innocuous throw away statement, that somehow Thomas Rhett was the heir apparent to legends like George Jones and Johnny Cash. In reality, his brand of teen pop with a twang more closely resembles boy bands and Justin Bieber. It was an insult to the authenticity and honesty of the music the pioneers of country left behind.
My issue is not with the music or the genre itself. Artists are free to put out whatever type of music they desire. Obviously country as it exists today is hugely popular, an industry fueled by some of the most commercially successful artists in music. Just please stop calling it country, because as the song says “it ain’t”. Big hats, designer jeans, Gucci boots and 200 dollar haircuts ain’t country. If honoring your artists involves rolling out a red carpet, dressing them in tuxedos and gowns, and posing them like Hollywood stars and starlets heading for the Oscars, then damn it that ain’t country. It’s popular music with a twang, and that’s ok, but please don’t pretend that it has any connection to Butcher Hollow, Kentucky; it doesn’t. On that note, here is what I perceive to be the antidote to Thomas Rhett’s “T-Shirt"
While watching this video one of the things that stood out to me, other than the great music of course, was Waylon’s hat. I guess it could be described as a cowboy hat, but you can tell immediately that this isn’t the first time it’s been resting on Waylon’s head. The fact is, it looks like he may have slept, or even passed out with it still on his head a time or two. Probably seems like I’m nitpicking here but the hats I see today are just too pristine, like they were taken down off a hat rack to convey an image, then put right back in place once the show was over.
There is a sterility and a sameness to current country, it's just too clean, the recordings too perfect. Techno pop electronic music is not country but that's what it has become. The 2013 CMT awards closed with a performance by Florida Georgia Line, a duo who manages to straddle the line between pop and country. The line was crossed though when rapper Nelly joined them onstage for the closing performance. This shift in direction has led to some infighting between current artists who desire to keep the genre traditional, and a group who are looking to crossover and make noise on the pop charts as well. Apparently nine seasons as a mentor on The Voice and hanging out with Gwen Stefani has sucked all the Okie out of Blake Shelton. His shtick is to portray himself as a good ole country boy from Oklahoma, but all of his actions scream Hollywood. When asked to comment on the growing feud he remarked that “Nobody wants to listen to their grandpa’s music. And I don’t care how many of these old farts around Nashville are going, ‘My God, that ain’t country!’ Well that’s because you don’t buy records anymore, jackass. The kids do”. Willie Nelson quickly responded by renaming his tour the “old farts and jackasses tour” The bottom line in 2016 is that there are a large group of pop artists residing in the country genre. There was a time here in Connecticut if you turned your radio dial to 92.5 WWYZ, you knew immediately you were tuned to a country station. Now you’ll have to listen for a while, sort through the pop noise, and maybe at some point, George Jones or Alan Jackson will appear.
As a child of the 60’s, the music I listened to was pure rock and roll, country artists were never part of the equation, unless it was country rock like The Eagles or Lynyrd Skynyrd. The first person in my life who listened to country was my older brother, but the country he was listening to on the eight track player in his pickup truck bore little resemblance to the 2016 version. He was listening to “outlaw country” Waylon and Willie, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash and David Allen Coe. If it wasn’t the outlaws then it was the standard bearers, legends like George Jones, Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline. At the time I was not mature enough to understand the honesty of the music or more importantly, the poetry of the lyrics. My stubbornly deaf ears couldn’t hear beyond what I perceived to be a shit kickin, hillbilly twang. Little did I know that 40 years later, I would be scanning you tube searching for that hillbilly twang, searching for authentic country.
Today too much money is on the table for system bucking outlaws like David Allen Coe and Waylon Jennings to exist. It’s hard to protest against a system with a silver spoon planted firmly in your mouth. But thanks to these outlaws, it took longer for country music to soften into the pop rock pabulum that exists today than it would have without them.
As I got older some of the music from that eight track started to filter into my life. The first pure country album I recall purchasing was Johnny Cash Live at Folsom County Prison. In 1973 Leon Russell released an album titled Hank Wilson’s Back, a tribute to some of the bluegrass and country legends that had influenced him. Without realizing it at the time, it was my own introduction into the bluegrass music that I would come to love later in life.
But it was an obscure indie movie titled “Songcatcher” that opened up a whole new world of music that I had previously ignored. The movie, set in the early 1900’s, tells the story of a musicologist, who after being denied a promotion at the university where she teaches, decides to visit her sister ,who runs a small school in Appalachia. There she discovers the music of the mountains, Irish and Scottish folk songs passed down from generation to generation, protected and hidden in the isolated hills. She ventures deep into the mountains in an effort to record and preserve the music, and her dealings with stubbornly protective mountain dwellers while trying to accomplish this, form the crux of the movie. The storyline is great, but it is the music of the mountains that makes this movie special.
The soundtrack featured established stars like Dolly Parton, Roseann Cash and Emmy Lou Harris, but also introduced lesser known country and bluegrass artists like Gillian Welch and Iris Dement. What struck me most were the voices, something pure and deeply soulful, sounding like it could echo through mountains unamplified and still pierce your heart. I have been attracted to that kind of voice ever since, to me the sound that you hear from Bill Monroe, and Del McCoury, Allison Krauss and Gillian Welch, for my taste that is the true essence of country.
The last concert I attended featured bluegrass legend Del McCoury and mandolin virtuoso David Grisman, a two-man acoustic show. It was 90 minutes of pure joy, the grizzled veterans of bluegrass and country, telling stories, playing classics, and Del McCoury’s incredible voice ringing through the acoustically perfect College Street Music Hall. It’s a voice straight out of the Songcatcher movie I mentioned earlier. It’s Mayberry's own Ernest T. Bass, calling out to Andy Griffith across the holler, but set to music. I would have never imagined forty years after resisting the music my brother introduced me to, music I once regarded as “shitkickin hillbilly twang” that it would end up being the music that stirs my soul. There were no big hats, no designer jeans, and no young girls in the audience screaming and waving white tee shirts. The future of country was not in the house that night, but the heart and soul of its past was.
Postscript: This article was put together with a great deal of help from my older brother Fred, numerous conversations regarding his love of Outlaw country, picking his brain for memories, and as we often do when talking, laughing hysterically. It helped make this the most enjoyable of all the blogs I have written. At that time back in the mid 70’s when he was unsuccessfully trying to convince me to like country, we were brothers but not necessarily friends. Today I am happy to say that not only is he my brother, but my best friend.
Hey that sounds like a beginning to a country song, but old school style.