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Some Half-Baked Thoughts About Country Music Or: Michael Sarko Made Me Write This Post

Arista Nashville

Michael Sarko’s post, “Lisa Gail Allred’s 3 Second Rule Or: Why I Hate Country Music,” which appeared here Friday, had some provocative things to say about the current state of country. I’d like to weigh in with some thoughts along that line.

Michael criticizes country for an “artistically bankrupt mainstream and lack of originality.” On the latter count, guilty as charged. A generation ago, country songs covered a broad spectrum of life experiences. Now, they seem to ring changes on a surprisingly small number of tropes. Today, country is shot through with the glories of small-town life (like this and this and this, all of which are in the current country top 30) in a way it never was before. In these towns, everybody drives a pickup truck, parties hard on Saturday night but goes to church on Sunday morning, and flies the flag. Nobody cheats anymore—cheatin’ songs, long a staple of country music, have fallen out of fashion. Even Saturday night bar hookups carry with them the promise of forever. There’s still a lot of drinking in country songs—although whiskey is less favored than beer these days, tequila is as popular as ever. Today, country music might be the only art form (that and television, perhaps) in which the surest way to succeed on a massive scale is not to create something unique, but to be like everybody else.

Michael criticizes country as “a genre that revels in stupidity and pandering.” One man’s pander is another man’s appeal, but if country panders to its audience, it does so for reasons that are understandable. Imagine yourself stuck in traffic in an ’04 Nissan Sentra on the way to your job at the insurance agency, at which you support a wife grown fat in middle age and ungrateful teenage kids who spend all their time texting their friends and complaining how there’s nothing to do in this town. It’s undoubtedly comforting to punch up the radio and imagine oneself in a pickup truck on a country road with a hot country girl in blue jeans on the way to a fishing hole after church on Sunday, your soul shriven and your future secure. Should you believe, as some do, that the function of art is to take you out of yourself, well, same thing.

It’s arguable that all genres validate our conceptions of who we are and what we value, not just country. So if it’s true that a certain percentage of Americans feels as though the world is changing too fast and getting too complex, is the popularity of music that celebrates simplicity and stability any surprise at all?

Michael is critical of country production (“childishly basic orchestration”). That generalization doesn’t square with the facts. Country records are better produced today than they were 25 years ago: guitars bite harder, drums bang louder, and records from the 70s and 80s sound flat and dull by comparison. I credit this to the influence of Mutt Lange, who applied the same tight, polished production he’d done on records by Def Leppard, Foreigner, and AC/DC to the gazillion-selling albums he produced for his then-wife, Shania Twain, in the 1990s. The boundary between country and rock is more permeable than ever—recent country hits have name-checked Steve Miller and Tom Petty, and are more likely to borrow riffs from Lynryd Skynyrd than pickin’ from Bill Monroe.

These production trends have exacted a price: many, many songs on country radio are there because they’re marketed as country songs, not because there’s anything “country” about them. Carrie Underwood’s latest hit, “Good Girl,” which I am considering for an upcoming entry in World’s Worst Songs, is a textbook example. While Alan Jackson and George Strait have continued to prosper with the same kind of records they were making years ago, they might be the exception that proves the rule. (Michael’s whack at Reba McEntire as “the female Jeff Foxworthy” is unfair. Reba started as a singer in the traditional country mold over 30 years ago and is still at her best when she’s doing that kind of thing, but her ventures into the amped-up contemporary stuff, such as 2010’s “Turn On the Radio,” make a listener embarrassed for her.)

I don’t have a good ending for this post. I’ve been in and out of country radio for over 30 years, and I wish that a lot of today’s country was better than it is. But everything’s a product of its influences, for good or ill. In this, the only world we know, country’s probably turned out the only way it could have.