“Whiskey in my Water”, “Cruise”, “Crash My Party”, “I Want Crazy”, and many other country songs have seen wild popularity in recent years, not only in the country sector, but also have spent some time on the pop charts.
But are they really country? They are classified as country, and upon first glance they may appear to be country thanks to the recurring themes of small town life, beaches, beer, and girls. However, under closer inspection of the lyrics and style it becomes clear that these songs have very little meaning, and stray far from the southern Appalachian roots of real country music. That’s not to say that they are bad songs, or that they are not fun to listen to. They just lack a certain authenticity that I, as a life long country music fan, have grown up loving. To fully understand the downward spiral country music has taken in recent years one must first understand where country music got started.
The birthplace of country music was in the southern Appalachian area in the early 1910’s. The founders of this genre were of the white working class and their songs focused mainly on society. It wasn’t until the 1920s that this new style of music was officially given its own genre. First came the fiddle playing from people such as Henry C. Gillard. His piece called “Arkansas Traveler” was a work of art and it set the tone for the 20s where the main elements of country music were the string instruments. However, this all changed when the man commonly regarded as the “Father of Country Music” came along. His name was Jimmie Rodgers. He was wildly successful and started the vocal revolution of the country genre. He was obsessed with the cowboy lifestyle and his music reflected this. He commonly donned a cowboy hat, and perhaps this set a precedent for future country singers to wear cowboy hats. At this point in history the record companies had split music into two main categories; “white people music” and “black people music”. His songs “Waiting for a Train,” “T for Texas,” and “Mule Skinner Blues” became wildly popular, which ironically enough were heavily influenced by the blues or so called “black people music.” Rogers basically married the vocals of the black and the instrumentals of the white. He became a big star, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of fame in 1961 nearly 30 years after his death. The first successful group that incorporated vocals was The Carter Family. [youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ewnfWoSQz3o[/youtube]
They were popular and performed for decades with the most popular song being “Wildwood Flower.”
Bluegrass, a very mountainous shoot off from country, made its debut in the 1940s. Bill Monroe also know as the “Father of Bluegrass” was instrumental in popularizing the genre with his hybrid mix of country, British, and African music. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of fame in 1970, and interestingly enough into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. In the 1930s and 1940s much of country music was written for movies and many country music stars made acting appearances. This helped to facilitate the spread of country even further. Another shoot off of country, dubbed “honky-tonk” came about in the 40s thanks to a man named Ernest Tubb. Other prominent figures include Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell. This style is one of the most lasting forms of country music and is still popular in many country music bars today. It is a rougher brand of country music with songs like “Whiskey River” and “Red Headed Stranger.”
The dominant style of country took a sharp turn in the 60s. Taking many notes from jazz Eddy Arnold, Jim Reeves, and Jim Ed Brown all helped bring about a new era in country music that has a more polished and smooth edge. Songs included both stories and an orchestra. Songs such as “Gone” and “Four Walls” characterize this brand of country. At the same time this type of country was developing a very different sound was also making headway. Known as the Bakersfield Sound this brand was a “gritty” sound with influences from rock and roll and put more of an emphasis on louder music and drums. These two brands were rivals to each other and the two groups of artists were constantly competing for the bigger share of the country music market. In order to keep up with the growing success of Bakersfield sound, Nashville sound consciously morphed into a country-politan to appeal to a bigger listening base. Country politan was one of the early mechanisms that allowed for country music to morph into country pop.
In the 70s some country music artists were disgusted with the Nashville vs. Bakersfield “who can sell the most records” competition, and felt it was devaluing country music by having too many rules on what can and can’t be written all based on what will sell better. Out of this frustration Outlaw country was born. Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, and David Allan Cole all prided themselves on singing about and playing music however they like. They had a more ragged look with long hair and more ratty clothes than the expected suits of that time period. A less memorable era of country music was the Urban Country movement of the late 70s. Johnny Lee and Dolly Parton were popular for this hybrid of country with some pop influences. The Urban Country (thankfully) was vastly overshadowed by the so called “Class of 89” country musicians. Artists such as Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Travis Tritt and Clint Black successfully revitalized country music by adding more youth and meaning to it while at the same time infusing some rock and roll influences bringing country back from the brink of stalling out from the Urban Country and country-politan fiascos.
Fast-forward through the great era of Jackson and Brooks to today where country music yet again has fallen victim to the influences of pop and the focus on making as much money as possible by appealing to everyone rather than making money by making good country music.
Today’s country could be split into two categories; the first being a new modern style of music with country influences that actually is composed of decent, genuine songs. Artists like this include Zac Brown Band, Darius Rucker, and Rascal Flatts.
The second form is a watered down version of ’89 country that brings back memories of the Urban-country-politan era. This brand includes a whole slew of artists with the leaders being Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, and Taylor Swift. This new country could be classified as pop with country undertones. The songs have very little to no meaning, and any message in the songs is very superficial. The songs are incredibly predictable and the vast majority of them are about the very same thing drinking beer or “getting the girl.”
The most pressing question is: Is this just another phase of country music that will be forgotten like the Urban-country-politan? Will some of the greats from the 90s and early 2000s such as Brad Paisley and Garth Brooks come in to save country music from stalling out? Or will they give in and buy into the moneymaking machine of country pop? As of right now it seems they are falling victim to the draw of country pop.
Paisley and Kenny Chesney have both historically been very genuine with songs like “Then” and “I Go Back,” but now they are selling superficial songs like “Come Over” and “Don’t Drink the Water” indicating that country music is in serious danger of losing its value and falling from its former glory into the depths of hybrid pop. One can only hope its not too late.