The State of Country

Yesterday’s post about the current Billboard Hot 100 name-checked the large number of country stars whose current hits appear on the big chart, so today seems like a good day to share a few impressions about the state of country music in general.

Country records are a lot better produced than they were 20 or 25 years ago. Guitars bite harder, drums bang louder, arrangements are more interesting—records produced before the early 90s often sound dry, flat, and dull in comparison. Garth Brooks brought a rock sensibility to the country concert stage 20 years ago, but I suspect much of the credit for its appearance on record belongs to Mutt Lange, producer of Foreigner, the Cars, Def Leppard, AC/DC, and Bryan Adams in the 80s, who produced several smash albums in the 90s for his then-wife, Shania Twain, using a similar sonic template.

What fascinates me more is how the subject matter of today’s country records has changed from those of a generation ago. Where the beverage of choice in country music was once whiskey, it’s now beer. (It’s striking how many country songs refer to beer these days.) Cheatin’ songs are no longer fashionable. Today’s country songs are more likely to be about high-school sweethearts in lengthy marriages. Songs about how great it is to be from a small town have practically become a genre all their own. In these songs, everybody goes to church on Sunday, drives old pickup trucks, respects their parents, and enjoys simple pleasures such as fishing or boating. (It’s striking how many country songs refer to boats these days). There’s a lot of walking barefoot down dirt roads and grandparents dispensing wisdom.

I suspect that the popularity of the small-towns-and-simple-pleasures subgenre has a lot to do with how the art we enjoy tends to reflect the people we’d like to be. When you are 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 better to 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.

The best example of this currently in the Billboard Country Top 30 is Justin Moore’s “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away.” It’s not an exact match to the description above, but you’ll get the idea.

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5 responses

  1. The first time I ever heard Shania Twain, our receiving clerk was playing it in our backroom. I just heard the music to whatever song it was and was puzzled as to why I couldn’t recognize the Def Leppard track. Then, she sang and I realized that it wasn’t the Leps.

  2. re Ms Twain: I was at a function and subjected to her music once. She had a song that was a dead ringer for “Back Off Boogaloo.”

    According to his book, Jimmy Bowen said the nasal twang was the obstacle to be removed before country would sell in rock and roll unit numbers. I believe he succeeded with Garth.

  3. It’s a terribly sad truth in the ‘Music vs Biz’ system that controls the culture: On the one hand, we would like ‘ the art we enjoy to
    reflect the people we’d like to be ‘. On the other hand, ‘ the nasal twang is the obstacle to be removed….’Teenagers are newbies who are culturally uneducated, and thanks to the principles of marketing, they control who can become a ‘great artist’. The contrdictions in the system are unending, as is the cultural destruction. A prime example, without naming names:
    a certain ‘artiste’ manages to create a crossover style, and is wildly successful in commercial terms, selling 60 million records. He now ‘controls’ the record label, and can make demands. The record label’s lineup is full of established stars, several of who exhibit more artistic talent than he. In the pursuit of more profit than they need to satisfy the ‘artiste’s reasonable recording and
    advertising requirements, they give 80% of the entire label’s budget to promote just him. The other artists get the crumbs, and are dropped from the label when they lose access to the ‘a-list’ songs and the promotional budget. It’s a numbers game that has
    nothing to do with cultural improvement.
    Epilogue for this example story: The greatest voice in the history of country music now works every little bar and corn festival, and is not heard on Big ‘Country’ Radio any more.

  4. Many of the top country artists today still name-check pioneers such as Merle Haggard and George Jones, but aren’t such references largely meaningless to fans who have grown up on post-Garth/post-Shania radio country?

  5. [...] considered the changes in the way your favorite radio station delivers programming to you and how country music is different from what it used to [...]

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