September 16, 2009

Having listened to country music on and (mostly) off since Johnny Cash’s “€œA Boy Named Sue“€ four decades ago, I checked in on Billboard‘s Top 30 Country chart to see if anything was new.

A possible advantage about not knowing much about what I”€™m talking about when it comes to music is a certain ability to see the forest through the trees.

From that 30,000-foot perspective, the answer to what’s new in country turned out to be (as with most genres of popular music in the last couple of decades): not much.

Indeed, what seems odd for an old fogey like me is how much a country radio station these days sounds like a mainstream FM rock station in the 1970s.

Rock music, from its emergence in the 1950s until the rise of punk in the late 1970s, was primarily an Afro-Anglo-Celtic mélange, heavy on blues and twang. The British Invaders, for example, wanted to sound like they were from Elvis’s hometown, Memphis. Northern California bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival claimed to be “€œborn on the bayou,”€ and Topanga Canyon singer-songwriters, such as The Eagles, were fundamentally country. Explicitly regional bands such as Lynyrd Skynyrd of Alabama and ZZ Top of Texas were huge.

In the New Wave era, though, white rockers such as Johnny Ramone started to disentangle rock from its roots in the blues and in Scotch-Irish folk, while country has happily stayed planted in this rich American soil.

Why did the 20th century see such sweeping changes in musical styles, while people in the 21st century still seem fairly satisfied with the genres that emerged in those few tumultuous decades after WWII?

In the very big picture, what revolutionized music over the last 100 years was electricity. Beforehand, to play loud enough for the kids to dance to, you needed an orchestra, a brass band, or a pipe organ, none of which came cheap or casual. Electrical amplification allowed smaller groups of musicians. Combined with other new electrical technology such as recording and radio, amplification created superstars whose magnitude we”€™ll likely never see the like of again.

By the early 1980s, technology allowed any conceivable sound to be produced on demand. Technical innovations since then, such as the Internet, have mostly served to allow fans to mainline their favorite styles (here’s Wikipedia’s list of the countless current styles, such as Christian Industrial and Dirty South) without them having to put up with the crud other people like.

Although country is not particularly prospering, it has been somewhat less rapidly debilitated by the economic implosion in the music industry caused by downloading over the Internet. Country music fans don”€™t pirate as much music off the Internet. For one thing, its fans don”€™t tend to be techno-obsessed nerds.

The typical country fan has a life, and thus has a less pressing need to assert a unique individual identity through musical tastes. Indeed, having too much of a life is a common theme in country. In Darryl Worley’s current hit “€œSounds Like Life to Me,”€ a friend who has fallen off the wagon complains:

Sarah’s old car’s about to fall apart
And the washer quit last week
We had to put momma in the nursing home
And the baby’s cutting teeth.

But Darryl tells him to “€œsuck it up”€ because “€œit sounds like life to me.”€

While more than a few rock and hip-hop subgenres are intended to be physically painful to anybody other than males under 25, country is a sociable, big tent genre aiming to please both sexes and a wide range of ages above teen-age. Like NASCAR, country music tends to serve as an ethnic pride rally for the one ethnic group in America not allowed to hold ethnic-pride rallies.

So, the styles within country range considerably, from a heavy ZZ Top-sound on Brooks and Dunn’s last single “€œHonky Tonk Stomp”€ (which, indeed, features Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top) to Loggins & Messina-style soft rock.

Although some singers write their own songs, the professionalized Nashville system encourages division of labor. A salaried Nashville songwriter is famously expected to be in his office composing hit songs from 9 to 5. Thus, the level of craftsmanship that goes into the lyrics is high. (The deftness of the sidemen is also excellent, but country music isn”€™t about instrumentals.)

Country’s emphasis on clever lyrics means that singers are, despite their good old boy accents, expected to have fine diction, like Broadway stars in a Sondheim musical. No mumbling allowed. This can be unsettling for old rock fans used to listening to incomprehensible British rockers with National Health Service-quality dental care.

All that clever rhyming can make the songs a little prosaic, however. When every line has been worked over to make it lucid, there’s no mystery or ambivalence into which you can read your own meanings. In contrast, the lyrics to the alt-rock group R.E.M.’s first hit, “€œRadio Free Europe,”€ were inaudible (and now that I”€™ve finally looked them up, I realize that was just as well because they don”€™t make any sense, either), but that just made the song more intriguing for the young in 1983. Country, however, is aimed at older people, ones who aren”€™t quite ready, yet, to switch their radio dials from music channels to talk radio.

It’s widely assumed that the Next Big Thing in country music will be beautiful young blonde women, such as Taylor Swift (who was bizarrely accosted by rapper Kanye West at the Video Music Awards last weekend). You should never bet against beautiful young blonde women getting their way, but, surprisingly, that trend hasn”€™t quite gone through the formality of taking place yet: currently, 26 of the current Billboard Country Top 30 hits are sung by guys. And yet, country audiences appear to be around 55 percent female and women are widely considered within the industry to be the target.

Freud famously wondered, “€œWhat does a woman want?”€ Nashville music executives, though, don”€™t find that a perplexing question. Male country singers tend to be deep-voiced, good-looking, and big (e.g., Trace Adkins is 6″€™-6″€). One of my readers has industriously calculated that 16 of the latest 20 male country stars to come along claim to be at least six feet tall versus 7 of the last 20 rock stars (and only about 25 percent of all non-Hispanic white men).

When we lived in Chicago, my wife used to take guitar classes from the alternative country singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks, who would fulminate amusingly to his students at the Old Town School of Folk Music about the indignities he”€™d had to put up with as a songwriter in Nashville. As Fulks phrased it in a song about Nashville with a title that’s NSFW:

Hey, this ain’t country-western!
It’s just soft-rock feminist crap!

It’s not so much that women country fans would call themselves “€œfeminists”€ as that they get what they want from country music these days as much as young men get what they want from Hollywood blockbusters. Hence, you aren”€™t going to hear many lines anymore like:

But I shot a man in Reno
Just to watch him die.

Country songs sung by women now tend to be You-Go-Girl sassy, aimed at Oprah fans. Male singers, on the other hand, get to be sappy, to make fun of themselves, and do other things that wouldn”€™t be considered appropriately “€œempowering”€ for women to do. Not surprisingly, allowed a wider choice of songs, there are more male stars.

One striking difference between country lyrics and lyrics for rock, pop, or rap songs (in which it’s the default that the singer is single) is that singers are so often explicitly married or heading into (or out of) marriage, and may well have kids. Hence the large number of songs devoted to making married men feel good about being work-a-daddies bringing home the bacon. For example, the verses of Trace Adkins’s latest hit recount his hellraisin”€™ past, while the chorus is:

But when I bow my head tonight
There’ll be no me myself and I
Just watch my wife and kids please lord
That’s all I ask for any more.

Women get to fantasize about taming an alpha male (without, hopefully, having to shoot him, as one of Trace’s ex-wives shot him in the heart) to happily play the beta provider role. Men are reassured that if being a dad rather than a cad is good enough for an enormous slab of manliness like Adkins, it’s okay for them, too.

I find it plausible that all this pro-family propaganda in country songs actually improves the conduct of white working-class American men. Compare them to their distant cousins in Britain’s white working class and you”€™ll see the Americans come out better behaved on measures of things like burglary and binge drinking.


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