carrie underwood good girl cover

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.

  • Chris Holmes

    At the end of the day country pop has merit because so many people like it. I am not one of them. I feel like a lot of the criticism levied at country pop is an indictment of its audience as well. “How can you be so stupid as to fall for this crap?”

    For the last several years, the popular country scene has become the new rock ‘n’ roll. The slickly produced albums, big radio anthems, and concert spectacles that used to be the purview of rock artists is now found mostly in country music (legacy rock bands like Aerosmith excepted).

    But if you think the current country pop scene offers nothing of value, there are plenty of acts working outside the mainstream that are great. I’m sure of it. 

    But hey, if all else fails you can never go wrong spinning a classic Waylon Jennings album again.

  • KingP

    A few thoughts on this issue:

    From what I’ve been exposed to, current country tunes produced by female artists seem to reflect tradtional country music themes: heartache, regret, revenge, general hell-raisin’, etc.

    On the contrary, as reflected in the authors’ comments, hits by male artists are mainly concerned with one topic: “we were young and crazy.” I think I have actually sat through at least three songs played in succession that contained that exact lyric.  No gunplay, murder, morning-after laments, or run-ins with angry grandads or the sheriff, just recreational drinkin’ and lines about some hottie from days of yore. 

    To me though, the real shame in country music is the fate of “alternative country.”  In the mid 80s and early 90s it appeared that the genre would be guided by genuine ass-kickers like Jason and the Scorchers, Green on Red, Lone Justice, Los Lobos, and others.  Furthermore, for a brief time in the 90s, Dwight Y, the Mavericks and Carlene Carter’s solo disc made it seem that mainstream country would experience its own “alternative” era.  

    Alas, ’twas not to be.  Today we are left with “we were young and crazy” and twee, folky, neo-psychedelic noodling from the  “alternative” crowd (Wilco’s regression from “AM” to whatever it is they do now bears out my general thesis).  

    The ladies do make some decent tunes, though.   


  • JonCummings

    I’m always uncomfortable with sweeping generalizations when it comes to musical genres — and Sarko’s use of that horrible (and irrelevent) Lisa Gale Whoosiwhatsit video as emblematic of country music in general was sort of like eating a vat of lard, puking it back up, noting that lard=animal fat, and concluding that you’ll never eat meat again. It might be a healthy way to live, but you’ll miss some great steaks along the way.

    The fact (almost certainly) is, there’s just as much unintelligent and/or unlistenable crap released every year in the rock, pop, hip-hop and R&B genres as there is in country. The difference is that country is, sometimes deservedly and many times not, seen by many urbanites/Northerners/rock fans/intellectual elites/etc. as having a far lower median standard of quality. Whether that’s because of traditional (though not currently relevant) class distinctions between country listeners and other music fans, or because of the lasting (if unfair) equation of Southern accents with lower IQs or poor taste, or just a longstanding distaste for black hats and steel guitars, I’m not sure. But I think we can all agree that, for a lot of non-country fans, a country song has to be REALLY, REALLY good to get past all that baggage and impress them. Conversely, those inherent barriers make it too easy to listen to one more pandering hat-act hit (or to blow up a one-off, unsigned atrocity like Lisa Gale Whatserface all out of proportion) and reconfirm one’s dismissal of the entire genre.

    I write all this as a southern-Virginia boy turned northern urbanite who spent my childhood and adolescence sharing that blanket dismissal of any country that didn’t cross over to the pop charts, but then got caught up in the country boomlet of the late ’80s and early ’90s. (Songs by Wynonna Judd and Trisha Yearwood played key roles in my wedding.) Since then, I’ve become as big a collector of classic country, from the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers to Porter Wagoner and George Jones) as I am of classics in other genres. And while I admit that I’ve maintained a general aversion to hat acts — for reasons similar to those stated by Mr. Bartlett — I find (like KingP) that female country artists frequently turn out really good music, full of genuine emotion and perspectives worth hearing. I don’t know where I’d have been the last 15 years without the Dixie Chicks, and my daughter’s adoration of Taylor Swift has convinced me to adore her, too.

    Anyway, it’s always worth remembering that country emerged out of the same primordial material (Childe ballads, Anglo-Saxon and Appalachian folk) that also evolved (through rockabilly) into rock — it’s just that country didn’t take in as many African-American influences along the way. Nashville’s mainstream has long operated on a model (songwriters working through music publishers to serve as Ground Zero for most hit songs; performers jockeying to make hits with the best songs available; labels funneling numerous artists through just a few in-house producers) that rock abandoned long ago, and from which pop has veered from embrace to rejection to embrace, with varying degrees of artistic success.

    The result of all that is a lot of crap — but also a decent number of gems, turned out on a consistent basis. That’s the same ratio that governs every other genre of music. The rest is all about personal taste. Which is another reason why it’s not terribly wise to make sweeping generalizations (though I know I’ve been doing exactly that throughout this comment — and I don’t feel good about it). Everybody has a right to love or hate country music (or any other genre of pop-culture artifact … I personally have no use for “Law & Order” or “CSI”-style procedurals, and have never sat through a single episode of either franchise, but that’s just me). As a generally obsessive music fan, however, I just hope that any genre is given a fair hearing, and is placed in a true and respectful historical and contemporary context, before it’s generalized about or dismissed entirely.

  • jabartlett

    Good thoughts all, and all worthy of consideration in my original post, except I didn’t want it to get as long as “Infinite Jest.” Pop country is indeed the new rock ‘n’ roll, as Chris suggests–it occurs to me that the average country radio station today sounds a lot like the average top 40 station of 25 or 30 years ago, only without the R&B. And Jon’s observation that every genre has its unintelligible crap is undeniably true. I’ve worked a fair number of radio formats over the years and most break down the same way: a third of it is pretty good, a third of it sucks, and a third of it leaves no impression one way or the other.

    King P’s thoughts on the perspective of female singers vs. male singers is something I had never considered. “Young n crazy” is probably second to “the old home town” in the trope bank. Again, it goes back to the idea of validating one’s conception of self–the guy in the Sentra with the insurance job and the wife and the ungrateful kids wants to be, or to remember, when he was somebody else–or to be reminded that there’s another, different person inside of him.

  • DwDunphy

    The embryo that was rock music sheared into identical twins. The one that wanted to portray bravado and toughness became hip hop. The one that wanted to be goofy and dance or get good’n drunk became modern country.