By Wil Forbis
February 1, 2013
It might surprise people to hear that I'm a fan of country music. It would definitely surprise people who read my article on David Allan Coe from several years ago which began with the phrase "...I've never been a big fan of country music" What can I say? I was a different person back then, possessing a certain naiveté that would soon be destroyed by the soul crushing burdens of modern life.
Anyway, the point being that these days I would call myself a country music fan. My conversion to country --- or more specifically the sub genre of country known as Americana was documented in my article "Americana Splendor." It's a stirring tribute to all things that make this country great and I can wait here while you pause to read it.
I have found that when one expresses their fondness for country someone invariably says something like, "Really? You like Taylor Swift?" To which I have to reply, "No... I mean, yes, actually, I do like some of her songs, but I don't really consider her music country. She's more, as they say, 'pop music with banjos.'" When I say I like country I'm saying I like more what might be considered outlaw country - Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, David Allan Coe etc. And the even more prehistoric genre of traditional country (trad-country) which holds Hank Williams and bluegrass close to its breast.
Now I know what you're thinking: "Whazzat? Pop country? Outlaw country? Trad-country? Americana? How do you keep this genre straight?" And I hear you. Country is a discombobulated form of music, splintered into different sub genres whose proponents are often at odds with each other.
One need look no further for evidence of this than the recent controversy kicked off by current country crooner, Blake Shelton. Shelton stated:
"If I am 'Male Vocalist of the Year' that must mean that I'm one of those people now that gets to decide if it moves forward and if it moves on... Country music has to evolve in order to survive. Nobody wants to listen to their grandpa's music. And I don't care how many of these old farts around Nashville going, 'My God, that ain't country!' Well that's because you don't buy records anymore, jackass. The kids do, and they don't want to buy the music you were buying."
Many were offended by the statement including 87-year old country music stalwart Ray Price who responded:
"It's a shame that I have spent 63 years in this business trying to introduce music to a larger audience and to make it easier for the younger artists who are coming behind me. Every now and then some young artist will record a rock and roll type song, have a hit first time out with kids only. This is why you see stars come with a few hits only and then just fade away believing they are God's answer to the world. This guy sounds like in his own mind that his head is so large no hat ever made will fit him. Stupidity Reigns Supreme!!!!!!! Ray Price (CHIEF "OLD FART" & JACKASS") " P.S. YOU SHOULD BE SO LUCKY AS US OLD-TIMERS. CHECK BACK IN 63 YEARS (THE YEAR 2075) AND LET US KNOW HOW YOUR NAME AND YOUR MUSIC WILL BE REMEMBERED."
Shelton, stinging at the thought that he'd insulted one of his musical heroes, apologized to Price. And he doubtless understood Price's anger; nobody like being called a jackass. Shelton's initial statement was clearly poorly worded.
That said, I understand and agree with Shelton's core point. Music is a living thing and stagnation will only kill it. If a form of music isn't constantly exploring and evolving*, it will perish. Country music, in order to survive, has to change.
* I'm using the term "evolve" here in the most literal, Darwinian sense, describing a living thing's ability to change with a changing environment. In this sense, an evolving creature is not "getting better" over time, merely becoming better suited to its environment. I make this point to be clear I don't think country (or any music) of a particular era is better or worse compared to music from other eras.
Now, I doubt anyone, even Ray Price, would be surprised by, or disagree with, this statement. All music genres --- and all art forms--- need to change to stay relevant and attract the next generation's ears and eyes. But while we may all agree on this intellectually, I think a lot of people resist this point emotionally, country fans more than most. Country has always been a genre rooted in the past; it often paints a picture of a rural utopia from the mid-20th century which may or may not have existed. And while country is powered by "modern" instruments like the electric guitar and the drum set, it's defined by instruments like the fiddle, mandolin and banjo that have been around for centuries. (Country also avoids the modern keyboard synthesizer as if it were the spawn of Satan*.) And this rustic timelessness is certainly part of what drew me to country music. I like the sound of these old time instruments and the connection to the past that they represent.
* While I hate to add caveats to every point I make, I have to say here: yes, I'm aware there are plenty of country songs, especially from the 80s, that used synths. But the instrument is clearly not highlighted in the genre.
The split embodied in Shelton and Price's comments - old versus new - is certainly not unique to country. Not long ago I wrote about it in relation to jazz. Jazz traditionalists have long bemoaned modern instruments and compositions and insisted on the purity of the classic Gershwin/Berlin songbook. And as far as I can tell, the purists have largely won the battle. The result is that, while I love jazz as a music form, I have very little interest in venturing out to see it live these days - too often it's just the same old tunes played in the same old way. (I'll drill out my eardrums before I listen to another conventional version of "All the Things you Are.") And I perfectly understand why kids today have no interest in the genre. (Frankly, few kids of my generation did.) Jazz committed slow suicide by refusing to evolve with the times.
But let's get back to Shelton's comments. While he argues that country needs to progress, one can't help but wonder if he really just means it needs to become more like pop and rock music. I'm not familiar with the entire Blake Shelton ouvre, but from what I have heard, poppy rock seems to be the direction he's going in. And that indicates that the Ray Prices of the world have a legitimate fear --- that country music is trading in its authenticity for success. (Indeed, one could argue that this has already occurred; maybe a stout fellow named Garth Brooks is to blame.)
As usual, I don't have any real answers here. But I do think that how a form of music navigates these tricky waters between rigidly defining itself and appealing to new generations has real consequences. If a genre can strike the right balance, as one could say the blues and hard rock have, it can enjoy a long life. If not... well, anyone remember klezmer?