You urbanized top-50 lovers may call me a glutton for punishment, but I watched the latest Country Music Association’s award show this past November. For those unfamiliar with the organization of the country genre, this is basically the Grammy Awards for Nashville. The CMAs show the taste of today’s country music fans, artists, and executives. I am here to tell you that it is not good.
Perhaps I should clarify my background. I am not expert in sound studios or folk musicology; I am more like an amateur in the old sense of the word. I was raised from the cradle listening to country records on the turntable and listening to my Southern relatives discuss their preferences in country music, one of the most popular genres in America. Moreover, I grew up in country-occupied territory; Alan Jackson, Billy Ray Cyrus, Travis Tritt, and Randy Travis ruled the airwaves. Although my heart would go after the idols of pop and punk in my high school years, I nevertheless returned to my humbler roost. I came back to investigate my family’s complaints made at the supper table.
Before going any further, we should also have an understanding of what “country music” actually means. Although the genre merits several pages of history, let us say for the time being that country music is a 20th century derivative of several styles from the American South, ultimately springing from Spanish, Celtic, African, and English roots. Gospel hymnody, dance and tavern ditties, on-the-border cowboy melodies, hillbilly music, blues, and even jazz all made their contributions to the fusion of “old-timey” American music. The lightning rod that made the harmonious talents available for popular enjoyment was the Grand Ole Opry, airing first at Nashville in 1925. Although entrenched within and marketed as a Southern ethos, country music became a national phenomenon, commonly intermingling with other styles as time went on. As such, country music has a beautiful yet tumultuous history that manifests itself in the present difficulties. As I see it, the great error of contemporary country music is that it has become self-defeating.
I think the CMAs showcase some of Nashville’s significant inconsistencies and strengths. Let’s look at the hosts and presenters. Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood continue their droll yet adorable reign as co-hosts. They initiated their fourth term as MCs by defending perennial man-child Hank Williams, Jr., whose recent comparison of President Obama to Adolf Hitler earned him a boot from Monday Night Football on Fox. Spoofing several of Jr.’s classics, Paisley, Underwood, and Hank himself had a good laugh about the whole situation. Nashville looks after its own; it is one big family and ethos (rather than one’s physical family and cultural upbringing). This represents an interesting shift: members of the industry stand up for another industry member after the latter got kicked out of the spotlight. In former days, country singers were reactionary against the progressive establishment itself in defense of rural culture, à la Merle Haggard. Now the country industry mans the barricades when Hank shoots off his mouth and loses primetime status. The shift is key: form (a boasted opposition to “city-slicker” life) is separated from content (increasingly fewer artists come from true farm life and share the same sentiments as their grandparents). You see these contradictions throughout the South: we tout “family values” while divorce and illegitimacy become mainstream (even for religious folk); we praise hard work while in fact getting more people on the dole. Also interesting was the dependence on pop culture references for humor. Take for example jokes aimed at Justin Bieber and the Kardashians. I always liked country because it provided an escape from a never-ending barrage of images, entertainment “news,” and the neurosis of fashion. Now we have Kellan Lutz of Twilight presenting nominees. It seems even country stars are fond of the bright lights and urban streets.
Now we turn to the winners themselves. The Band Perry dominated by racking up Single of the Year, Song of the Year, and New Artist of the Year. Their freshman hit “If I Die Young” in both its video and lyrics conveys the Victorian theme of a dying maiden. With its lovely instrumentals and Ms. Perry’s clean voice, this song deserves all of the accolades it received. Newlyweds Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert won Male and Female Vocalist of the Year (respectively) for the second time in a row. Blake especially has contributed not only to country music, but to the national scene through his work on The Voice. On the NBC primetime show, he discovered unique voices and accomplished musicians for American listeners more than any other judge. Taylor Swift’s mopey face was pretty priceless when Mrs. Lambert received her prize. Nevertheless innocent sweetheart Swift won the Entertainer of the Year. Even though her teeny-bopper status still stands against strong country credentials, let’s admit it—“Mean” is a fairly decent song. I do worry about the message of the adolescently whiny tune: the protagonist in the song seeks escape in “a big ole city.” This cuts against the grain of homesickness, wanting to fit in home again, hatred of cramped spaces, dying in the place of one’s birth, satisfaction with small things, and downright nostalgia. I do have qualms when it comes to declaring Sugarland as Duet of the Year over The Civil Wars. The latter shows a path that country music really should take. In many of their songs, The Civil Wars use dynamics and haunting divergent harmonies to elicit the drama of romance. That which is desired is flirtatiously hidden away; separation due to an argument ends with reunion. Never has country music so intimately investigated the eros between man and woman. Whereas The Civil Wars is like a bottle of fine wine imbibed by two lovers, Sugarland’s summer-worthy pop feel is like splitting a Mountain Dew with that girl you liked in 6th grade. Overall, the Association recognized worthy artists, but I had hoped the Wars would be rewarded for their significant offerings.
The performances provided a wide smattering of talent. Blake Shelton burst onto stage with a fireworks show and backup dancers, performing what Paisley wryly labeled “the all-time country hit ‘Footloose.’” However, as scantily clad women stomped about and as Kenny Loggins howled into the microphone, I couldn’t help asking, “Are you sure Hank done it this way?” It was reaffirming to see that Keith Urban is still not a country singer, but a rock star (even though he cannot sing in tune). Notice how he carries himself, prancing around the audience and strutting fancy guitar solos. True giants need only stand at the microphone and sing. Plain folks come to hear music rather than watch a spectacle; plain folks don’t listen to Keith Urban. Miranda Lambert presented a characteristically sassy piece. Who wants to meddle with the line “Behind every woman’s scorn is a man who made her that way”? I was reminded of Harper Valley PTA, as I generally am with Lambert’s hits. The Zac Brown Band provided one of the classiest acts with their jazzy rendition of “Georgia on My Mind.” Indeed, it was hardly a country piece—more like something you would find at a nightclub than an auditorium or the Opry. The delivery remained flawless, grateful (since the award show was in Georgia), and appropriate (because the band members are state natives). I had to overcome my personal hatred for the voice of Gary Levox when he coupled with Natasha Bedingfield. With all their passionate grimaces, they still didn’t hold a candle to the preceding performance. True singers stay in tune for a concert; those that sing out of tune are either genius songwriters or salesmen. I fear Rascal Flatts falls into the last category. The Band Perry had a fine showing with a good bit of musical variety in syncopation and a circus roadshow setting. Underwood and Paisley performed a forgettable, trite mid-life crisis song. Even though Jason Aldean looked like a failed Abercrombie model with his annoying-as-hell ratty jeans, I appreciated his thankfulness for a place that “left a mark on us; we sure left our mark on it.” Most important was the Glen Campbell tribute. With the onset of Alzheimer’s, Campbell’s singing and acting careers need to be recognized and celebrated by the younger generations (or am I the only one that likes the original True Grit?).
The CMAs did sponsor a massive travesty in staging Lionel Richie with various artists. Though advertised as “international superstar with deep country roots and a new country album coming soon,” Richie is far from the cowboy ideal. If I may paraphrase Tertullian, “What hath Los Angeles to do with Nashville?” I guess this was a “welcome to the family” gesture. Nevertheless, when you have an R&B icon as a star act, something has gone horribly wrong.
Three great country divas also offered their talents to the CMA stage. Sara Evans performed a near-farcical display of clichéd tripe, obviously targeted toward Gen-Xers. The lyrics are abstract and vague, all the more easy to apply to whatever soap operatic situations in which dysfunctional thirty-somethings may find themselves. To this day, I still don’t know what the gymnast/curtain-dancer/possible-stripper troupe was for, but who am I to judge? Martina McBride went for a more subtle approach—namely, singing about cancer. If nothing else can unlock a vulnerable listener’s eye-faucets, that one always does the trick. Yes, I know, Ms. McBride has probably written this in response to some painful personal experience. That still doesn’t make a bad song any good. Faith Hill offered up her rendition of “Come Home,” which underwhelmed the audience because of faulty intonation. All three sought to create tear-jerking anthems to a Nashville taste. In short, these ladies are pretty much hillbilly versions of Celine Dion. They provided a watershed for their genre. I distinctly remember my father turning down the volume when a rowdy new singer would come on the radio; when the country-pop divas rose to prominence in the mid to late nineties, he turned off the radio altogether. I witnessed something new to the genre: a generation gap. For the first time, country became self-defeating. What was supposed to be tied to folk roots and age-spanning tradition became popular for one generation yet unpalatable to the former.
I will have to admit: many of the singers sounded the same through the entire show. Yes, I am capable of discerning the assorted subtle timbres of each performer. Nevertheless, most have the qualities necessary for what I call “vocal jawharping.” Male vocalists especially sport a universally identical twang with a deep, somewhat grainy baritone. It has become the standard of the industry (notice I said “industry” and not “art”). As more and more Southerners begin to “talk like the man on the six o’clock news” (i.e. the now-universalized Midwest accent), it has become key for country artists to achieve an ideal twang. In the process, the precious local accent and even individual eccentricities have been swallowed up in an equalizing demand. Usually, great country stars carry a bit of their home with them in their approach and style. Johnny Cash, for example, could never escape his tired Arkansas drawl. Ralph Stanley exercised his Virginia accent and background in shape-singing to perfect an utterly unique presentation. Another Virginia native, Patsy Cline, incorporated yodeling into many of her hits. I do not even know if someone with the uniqueness of George Jones could find a reputable label any longer, though someone with talent like that is incomparably rare. American Idol seems to be a more solid route to recognition rather than actual uniqueness or creative talent.
While we’re on the subject of actual technique, it is worth noting that it has become difficult to separate rock from country. What is defined as country has generally been a fluid thing. The Nashville Sound (which Chet Atkins famously likened to the jingling of pocket change) tamed honky-tonk style, which in turn encourage rebellion in the Bakersfield Sound in California and outlaw country in Texas. Nevertheless, the drum technique was generally understated in most of the old country music schools. Brushes were more common than sticks; beats generally mimicked a horse trot, a train, or a folk dance. Now, however, the crash and bang of the rockers takes precedence. You can see the shift beginning in the eighties and really flourishing in the nineties under Garth Brooks. Unfortunately, country percussion rises to increased prominence without achieving the virtuosity of rock and roll. Thus, we end up with a stinky soft-rock ethos.
Also identical are the images that the male entertainers foster for themselves. Sure, Tim McGraw flaunts a classy image, but most of the other artists go for a “bad boy” legitimacy. Exactly how are they bad? Outlaw country was on the outskirts because it abandoned the safety of Nashville establishment. Now, those outlaw elements have been incorporated into much of the music one finds even today. The nouveaux bad boys take on a party-hard mentality, which delivers the most devastating blow against what country music is supposed to be doing.
In the glitz and scandal assumed by Hollywood, we have come to expect a relatively low standard of morality. Country music and the South on whole have not escaped unscathed. We now have entertainers singing about “Honky-Tonk Badonk Badonk” and calling for “country girls” to “Shake It for Me.” We saw a glimpse of that even at the CMAs where one duet sang they “wanna watch you undress” as bedsheets wafted across the backgrounds screens. As my parents and preceding relatives would all say, “That’s just trashy.” For those of you who don’t know, “trashy” is an important category in the South. In a better time, it denoted “white trash” and rednecks from the aristocracy, especially widespread farming squirearchy, and even frontier hillbillies that “knew their place.” Basically, white trash was rude, crude, and stupid. In many cases, they could not help it because of their poverty and upbringing. As time went on, the adjective “trashy” meant someone who “knew better” and should avoid such behavior. This is exactly what we see with country music: tough, dirty individuals staying “true to their heart,” when in fact they were probably raised in nice stable households and raised to know some rubrics of etiquette.
I was recently shocked while watching the excellent History Channel special “You Don’t Know Dixie.” One promotional segment asked people off the street, “What is the difference between a redneck and a good ole boy?” One girl answered, “A redneck’s someone you party with. A good ole boy is someone you take home.” First of all, Southerners going out to “party” (as a verb) is almost as atrocious as replacing the venerable term “visiting” with the neanderthalic “hangin’ out.” Second, if a “good ole boy” decides to “take you home,” he is a scoundrel with little prudence or temperance. Old country music worked off a distinctly (and now forbidden) moral stringency. Many songs shared the regrets and pain of such raunchy and disloyal behavior. Even the wildest country singers looked at harmful consequences rather than just the party. Others told riveting stories of justice in the face of evil. Now we just want to join everyone on the dance floor in orgiastic pleasure. Every once in a while, we will drunkenly threaten to “stick a boot up your ass” if you are a terrorist, but for the most part country music has bought the same broken goods of Hollywood.
So what is the landscape we see before in Opryland? Well, for one topographical shift, we see that a proud, stubborn individualism has replaced a sense of pain, loss, humor, memory, or goofily attracting a mate. Self-important anthems overthrew stories and ballads to greatness (or to ironic lows). That being said, the CMAs presented some encouraging highs. The Band Perry sheds some hopeful light for those who regret the state of country these days. I think we witness an inherent tension when we watch the awards show. Since it is both a traditional art-form and an ever-reaching business venture, the genre can fall to misuse. Consumption starts to take precedence over enjoyment and exploration. Enjoyment becomes difficult with strong generational biases; exploration is impossible with glamorous schmaltziness. Not all movements in country agree on how American tradition is to be interpreted, much the way Brahms and Berlioz disagreed on how to carry on Beethoven’s innovations. More and more, consumptive trendiness has excluded older generations and threatened Southern moral manners, thus undoing itself. I think it really leaves long-time country fans in the same place as Little Jimmy Dickens. Though he has excellently spoofed the 2010 Tennessee floods and Kanye’s rudeness, the longtime Opry humorist seemed lost when he shuffled on stage this year. I can’t help thinking that, like Dickens, country music has forgotten the punchline.