Photo courtesy of Patti McClintic
A question we often ask of our interview subjects is, “When you ‘Think Country’, what do you think?” We get a variety of answers. Sometimes they refer to what makes them think of country music. Other times they tell us what makes them think of “the country”, as in rural areas. Some of them even go so far as to explain country as sort of an emotion, a feeling they get down in their soul. They usually describe it as a sense of being at home. Sometimes, they answer it quickly, like they understand it right away, and others want clarification. They’ll say, “What do you mean? Like, country music?” We leave them hanging and tell them it’s open-ended. We let them figure it out. They always do.
As you can tell, “country” means a lot of different things to different people, and if you don’t believe me, go and read some of our interviews, it’s generally the last question so if you’re the impatient type, you have permission to skip to the end. Overall, however, there are some core similarities. No matter how far off they may stray in their answers, you can almost always find some shred of common ground between them all. When people “Think Country”, as a whole, they’re united, whether they know it or not.
What about country music? Does everyone like it? Nope. Some people downright can’t stand it. Some people won’t even try it. Mention it and they’ll tell you to get lost. Some people worship it. Mention any other genre and they don’t even want to know you. Others, like myself, listen to a whole lot of everything, including country, but when it comes to country music, things aren’t always pretty. There are days when we wonder if we need a referee around Think Country. What should be good conversation or even healthy debate turns into bitter, and even nasty arguments on Facebook. Over what? Country music. How can that be? That genre where they sit on front porches pickin’ banjos while sippin’ sweet tea, they can’t be a volatile bunch? Wanna bet?
Photo courtesy of Patti McClintic
It’s all about what is and what isn’t country music. This is not scientific folks. This is an opinion piece, but this is how I see it. There are essentially three camps. The first camp would be “The Traditionalists”. These are the people that from my point of view, believe all country music must have a pedal steel guitar, a banjo, a fiddle and absolutely no clap tracks, no auto tune, and no collaborations with any artist outside the country genre.
The next group would be “The Modernists”. These are the lovers of all things modern country. They enjoy country music that’s played on the radio right now. They know every word to the latest country songs, they’re the ones buying tickets to the hot new artists’ shows, and they don’t give a rip whether the same snap track is on the last 50 number one hits. They might not even know what a snap track is. If they can sing along and dance to the song, they’re happy.
The last category would be “The I Like Its”. These people don’t worry about any of the finer details. If the song is pleasing to them, be it musically, lyrically or both, they like it and that’s all that matters. Don’t bother them with arguments about the song not holding true to traditional country values or whether Hank Williams would roll in his grave if he heard something with a clap track. Don’t give them flap about a song being too “yee haw” or “twangy”. If they like it, get out of their way, they’re listening to it. In other words, they’re neutral.
Which of these three armies is correct in their thinking of country music? Well, I decided to do a little digging around to see if I could figure that out. This part I actually researched. I found some of it rather interesting and I hope, if nothing else, it spurs some decent dialogue without any ridiculous bickering. When I “Think Country” I definitely do not think about breaking up fights, that’s for sure.
Let’s travel way back to the beginning of time. Country music time, that is. We can’t know for sure, because there were probably people playing music long before this, but we have to rely on the recorded history, and even though I’m sure someone’s Great-Great-Great Uncle Joe from a tiny hamlet near Birmingham was known as the first-ever super-fiddler, and his wife Mabel wrote it down in the family bible, and you even have the tattered copy you can show us, we’ll just take your word for it in advance, okay? We’re going to go for the universally accepted music history, just this once. You people can debate and inform one another further on social media until the end of time after this.
Jimmie Rodgers is widely considered to be “The Father of Country Music”. Rodgers was born in 1897 and was most known for his rhythmic yodeling. He was a country, blues and folk singer/songwriter. He passed away in 1933. The Carter Family are the other act that runs parallel with Rodgers as front runner as most thought of as first country music artist(s).
Photo courtesy of rhino.com
In the 1930’s and 40’s, along came the singing cowboys or the Western style country singers, such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Still considered country music, but definitely a different spin on what people were used to, although it became wildly popular very quickly.
Photo courtesy of WXVU
Then there was Bill Monroe, “The Father of Bluegrass”. Along with Monroe, there were other bluegrass artists like Lester Flatts and Earl Scruggs that brought mountain music on to the country music scene. This was a whole new kind of country, yet again, the people that embraced it were extremely passionate about it. It eventually spurred off into an entire sub-genre of country music altogether. Bluegrass is actually becoming more and more popular today, with artists like Rhonda Vincent, Flatt Lonesome and Billy Strings bringing it to younger and younger generations.
Photo courtesy of Kentucky Educational Television
Gospel music entered the mainstream with people like Red Foley. Suddenly music of faith wasn’t just heard in the church anymore, and it was, like bluegrass, put into a sub-genre of country. Gospel and Christian music are also increasingly popular and continue to evolve today. Mahalia Jackson, and even groups like Casting Crowns and MercyMe owe a lot to those early gospel roots.
Photo courtesy of Country Thang Daily
Stop and take a moment because you might need one. Think about where we’ve gone to this point. Listen to the songs from the artists we’ve heard about so far in your head. Did you do that? I hope so, because things are about to change a little. Now remember, this is just a short list and many things were going on simultaneously, but imagine, if you will, on one end of a block there’s gospel music playing, and on the other end, you have Hank Williams. Did that happen? I don’t know. I wasn’t there, but could it have? Sure it could have. That’s how country music rolled back then. Do you think it created controversy? I imagine it might have. Certainly there was a contrast.
When honky tonk music became trendy and Hank Williams, Kitty Wells and Ernest Tubb records were spinning, there must have been a few heads spinning too. This music was starting to push the envelope. By today’s standards it all seems really innocent, but if you place it next to what came before it, it had to have seemed a little crazy, especially in the bible belt south, but it’s what was hot and “The Traditonalists” today still stand by it. That’s some serious staying power. This was the beginning of something big. Whatever could that big thing be?
Photo courtesy of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
Future rock and rollers Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis count Hank Williams as one of their main influences, which is interesting because now, looking back, many lump both Presley and Lewis in with the rock, pop and country genres. That’s where I, as an amateur observer of music history, would say “the crossover” might have started to move in. At least as far as country music is concerned.
George Jones and Webb Pierce made their first marks on the country music world in the 1950’s. They were undoubtedly “traditional” in style, but neither sounded exactly like their predecessors either. They brought a new edge to that traditional sound. This might have ruffled a few feathers of the earlier honky tonk music fans. They were new, but it ended well for both Jones and Pierce, who are now considered legends of the country genre.
Photo courtesy of The Pantagraph
Speaking of ruffling feathers, this guy almost got run out of town completely. I’m talking about Johnny Cash. The Man in Black. If the rest were different, he might as well have been from another planet. What was his deal? That spoken word singing thing? That, my friends, may have been the very first rapping. Nashville was not ready for Cash. They thought he was out of his mind. Lucky for the world, he stuck to his guns and made it through. Without his tenacity (and a hard head) we would have had no Johnny Cash. Imagine no “Ring of Fire”, no “Walk the Line”, no “Ragged Old Flag”. This is where one can really see how music, not just country music, but any genre of music, can change. It was considered country back then, but in hindsight, Cash jumps across genres. Depending on what song you’re listening to, you can hear country, rock, rap or spoken word, or even some of each in just one song. He came around at a time when at least one of those genres didn’t even exist! Talk about a man before his time! How do you suppose his music went over with the purists? If they had had Facebook back then, I would not wanted to have been monitoring any music pages and trying to get people to play nice. Oh, Hell no.
Photo courtesy of Sun Record Company
Cash may have stirred things up, but thank goodness for guys like Marty Robbins and Ray Price who brought the blood pressure down again for those who couldn’t take it. They brought back more of the lilting, traditional country that they craved, proving that maybe this genre might have cycles. Maybe there would be periods where some of the old stuff would become new again. Wow. What a concept that would be!
Photo courtesy of mojo4music.com
The “Nashville Sound” brought artists such as Patsy Cline, Connie Smith and Eddy Arnold, and then another wave of traditional-sounding singers like Buck Owens, and Loretta Lynn. That likely kept fans at a fairly even keel for a while, but it wouldn’t be long before that wave turned into a tsunami. Enter Outlaw Country.
Photo courtesy of CTX Live Theatre
They were tired of being told how things had to be done. They were going to do it their way and that’s just what they did. The kings and even a few queens, of Outlaw Country rode in and even though they’ve technically always been on the fringes of the genre, since they’ve arrived, they have never left. When they got here, they hitched up the horses, flew through the swingin’ doors and took a seat at the bar. The whiskey shots just keep on flowin’ and no matter how many of them die in body, when it comes to their music, they’ll never leave this earth. Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and Townes Van Zandt took their new breed of rebel country and said what they wanted, how they wanted and they did it well. Others that we can count among this exclusive group that are happily still with us, are Tanya Tucker, Kris Kristofferson and Steve Earle. Again, it was country music, but it sure didn’t sound like The Carter Family or even Old Hank.
Photo courtesy of Blackbird Presents
Polyester, shag carpeting and the Chevy Vega weren’t the only flops in the 197o’s. For some reason, we all remember the stereotypical fads that didn’t quite make it to the next decade, but not many people mention ACE. No, not the hardware chain. I’m talking about ACE, the Association of Country Entertainers. Now, perhaps you’ve heard of it, and if you have, good for you. If you haven’t, I’ll enlighten you.
Photo courtesy of Quality Auto Parts
The Association of Country Entertainers was formed in the mid-1970’s by George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Jean Shepard and some other country music artists who were unhappy with the direction that the genre was going. John Denver and Olivia Newton-John had recently won country music awards. Artists such as Glen Campbell, Linda Ronstadt and the Bellamy Brothers had hits that were country/pop crossovers and it just wasn’t sitting right with many in the industry. That’s when Jones, Wynette, Shepard and others formed ACE. Country pop or “Countrypolitan” wasn’t going to take over their beloved genre. They were going to fight back. Well, they thought about it. It turned out ACE and polyester had about the same shelf life. Jones and Wynette ended up going through a nasty divorce, leaving Shepard to deal with ACE on her own. She quickly found out that, really, nobody cared very much, and the association just dissolved. One might speculate that you can’t fight progress.
Photo courtesy of stereogum
The songs and the artists that ACE was fighting against were successful. They were winning awards and they were topping the charts. ACE could protest. They could rally, sign petitions or simply whine, the point is, someone was obviously enjoying the new sound. Maybe not everyone, but certainly enough people to justify making the recordings, financing the tours and everything else that came along with that music. Again, country music had taken on a new twist and not everyone loved it, but loads and loads of fans were, and it really didn’t sound like Jimmie Rodgers. Not by a long shot.
It might be a good time to add that at this time of “unrest” in Nashville, even a longtime “traditional” country artist, Dolly Parton, had opted to make a leap to that “Countrypolitan” scene”, recording the 1977 hit, “Here You Come Again”. While some country fans embraced the song, others accused her of “going pop”. Today, Parton seems to have been forgiven for her crossover sins. Her duet with Kenny Rogers, “Islands in the Stream”, was also considered to be a pop crossover.
Video courtesy of coockiestv and YouTube
Along the way, more and more country sub-genres have been born. Country Rock, one of the longest, which has stood the test of time, with groups like The Allman Brothers, the Marshall Tucker Band and even The Eagles (who now count Vince Gill as own of their own) in that category. There’s Americana and Folk, both of which have loyal followings. All of these sub-genres are here to stay and none of the three receive much debate, even among the very devout country music purists. Hold on though, I need to back this train up, we got to the 1970’s and then what?
Video courtesy of Marshall Tucker on MV and YouTube
The 1980’s and the 1990’s were relatively calm in terms of fans being happy. Why was that? You have to look back again. There was a time when things settled down in country music, decades before, and if you see things in cycles the way I tend to, I believe the 80’s and 90’s were the calm before the storm. Granted, there was some seriously great music that came out of that 20-year period. George Strait, Randy Travis, Garth Brooks, The Judds, Barbara Mandrell, Keith Whitley, Willie Nelson and the list goes on. There were plenty of artists still making music from previous decades and new ones busting on the scene too. Everyone was happy, but then, all things must pass. Some people die, new people are born. Old artists retire, new talent comes up. You know, life happens. Not everyone likes life. Or rather, not everyone likes life unless it goes the way they want it to.
Photo courtesy of WSBT
What do you want to call it? Do you want to call it “Bro Country”? I guess that’s what people refer to it most often, so let’s go with that. There are a whole slew of artists I could throw into this category, but I’ll make an example of two that I hear “The Traditionalists” complain about most often, Florida-Georgia Line and Jason Aldean. Using rap, snap tracks, click tracks, clap tracks and auto tune in their songs are just the short list of complaints about what’s wrong with both of them according to “The Traditionalists”. Florida-Georgia Line have been further accused of dressing in a manner that makes a mockery of the genre. In general, detractors of FGL and Aldean have said they “aren’t country”. Alright then. Fair enough. If they “aren’t country”, I suppose it would only be right if anyone that makes that bold proclamation to state what, exactly “is country”, and where that’s carved in stone and signed by a higher power, or maybe even Jimmie Rodgers himself.
Video courtesy of Florida Georgia Line and YouTube
We’re entering dangerous waters in these modern times because in addition to “Bro Country”, we now have all kinds of collaborations. More collaborations than ever before. We don’t just have Dolly Parton teaming up with Kenny Rogers or Loretta Lynn singing with Conway Twitty. We have Billy Ray Cyrus joining Lil Nas X on “Old Town Road”. Country is meeting Rap and Pop and who knows? Maybe Metal soon. We need to be ready folks. This is a new day. If we hide under a rock and pretend we’re going back to the days of Ray Price and Porter Wagoner, we need to wake up. We may have another cycle where some more traditional artists come around, in fact we do now. They’re out there. We have Margo Price and Mo Pitney, and there are thousands of other independent artists that are playing traditional-sounding country music, you just have to get out there and look for it, but if you believe the other stuff is going away, it’s not.
Video courtes of OfficialTMR and YouTube
It’s not going away because there’s a market out there that wants it. Just like there was a market that wanted every new thing that country blasted out before. Even ACE in the 1970’s couldn’t stop progress, and they had The Possum. Arguing might feel good but it probably does nothing more than raise your heart rate. If you like your country in the traditional style, trust me, it’s out there. It might not be on mainstream radio, but it’s there. Look for it. There are artists that are waiting for you. Get on digital platforms and find them. Sure, in a perfect world, major labels and mainstream radio would hear you and they would start signing traditional artists and playing their music. We aren’t in that cycle right now. Maybe we never will be again. Maybe we will, but all we can do is live in the present and that means help yourself. If you want something bad enough, you’ll get it. It’s there. Find it. That’s my advice for “The Traditionalists”.
For “The Modernists”, your battle is already won. Your music is here. It’s everywhere. Eventually, one day, you may find yourself in the same boat as “The Traditonalists” are right now. Yes, someday you might actually be outdated and find yourself looking back on the “old songs of the 2010’s that you never hear anymore”. Hard to believe now, but it could happen. That’s when you’ll need to refer to the paragraph before this. Until then, enjoy the ride you’re on now. It won’t last forever. Nothing does.
Lastly, for “The I Like Its”, don’t bother trying to keep the peace between the other two groups. You’ll only get hollered at. Your serene nature can’t handle it. Trust me, I know.
Image courtesy of AZ Quotes