I’ve done country formats on the radio, on and off, for over 30 years. Weekend nights at KDTH at the turn of the 80s twanged hard; in mid 80s Macomb, the first station I worked for was trying to succeed with a kitchen-sink format that encompassed everything from hard country to soft R&B, while the second one seemingly avoided playing hits in favor of junk from any tiny, off-brand label that would bother to send promotional copies.
I was out of country until the mid 90s, getting back in at a critical point in the music’s history. Although Garth Brooks had brought an arena-rock sensibility to his live shows in the early 90s, his records were still audibly part of a country continuum going back to Hank Williams. But a bigger change was coming when Mutt Lange applied the same production techniques he’d used on Foreigner, Def Leppard, and even AC/DC to his wife Shania Twain’s albums. By the time I got back into country radio a dozen years later, Shania Twain was a has-been, but the style she and her husband pioneered had triumphed over everything. Today’s country still contains fiddles and banjos, but they’re frequently laid on a foundation of big riffs and pounding percussion that’s lifted mostly from classic rock—some by way of Skynyrd and the heavier Southern rockers, yes, but more frequently from Foreigner, Def Leppard, and even AC/DC.
Today’s country stars are ostensibly the heirs of Williams, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Johnny Cash, and others, but much of their music wouldn’t be recognizable as country to fans of 20 or 40 years ago. People who bought Pyromania would recognize it instantly, however: hard-rockin’, riff-based country records are preening, strutting, and aggressive in a way that country music never was until relatively recent times.
There’s been some debate over the state of country lately thanks to the kerfuffle caused when Blake Shelton, the Country Music Association’s reigning Entertainer of the Year, told an interviewer that country had to evolve 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.” One of Shelton’s idols, Ray Price, weighed in with critical commentary, which caused Shelton to backtrack: “Country music is my life and its future AND past is important to me. I’ll put my love and respect and knowledge about it up against anybody out there . . . ANYBODY . . .”
But you can’t believe both of those things—”nobody wants to listen to their grandpa’s music” and “country music’s past is important to me”—at the same time.
Shelton won’t pay an especially big price for this beyond the few days of bad PR he’s already endured. (The single best thing about the incident is that it prompted Willie Nelson to change the name of his current tour to the “Old Farts and Jackasses” tour.) But Shelton’s own words should serve as a warning to him: his brand of pop country is actually closer to the traditional stuff he derides than it is to the heavy, riff-driven material of his closest competitors, guys like Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Eric Church, and the gaggle of lesser lights chasing the same fashion. If country keeps going in their direction, Shelton’s going to get left behind too.
(There’s a review of Shelton’s latest single at Saving Country Music, which mentions some of the other increasingly familiar ways in which country has adopted characteristics of other musical genres. Saving Country Music generally takes a dim view of what country has become in the hands of its most popular stars, but that doesn’t necessarily make its observations invalid.)