On Contemporary Country

I am admittedly not the biggest contemporary country music fan. In fact, if you were to poll me on the street – a la any late night talk show – and ask me my favorite modern country song, I would probably respond with an unintelligible grunt or make up a fictitious title such as “Songs about Trucks.” I will admit, I am certainly ignorant in the field of contemporary country music for the most part. Though, having heard country on radio stations at various jobs and while tilling soil, I feel my toehold is slightly better than the average bear. (Update: “Songs About Trucks” is, in fact, a song by country music artist Wade Bowen. Either I’m an incredibly lucky in guessing or a facetious smart-ass.)

For the most part, country music deals with themes not so foreign to those I am familiar with in other musical genres – heartbreak, heartache, social unrest, Americana, alcoholism, dogs who live inside your truck, your father naming you a woman’s name – which in theory should make it a seamless transition in taste. Hell, I can go from listening to Chance The Rapper to Regina Spektor to Nine Inch Nails without much aggravation, so what is the roadblock modern country presents?

I think my first point of contention lies within my inability to distinguish many country songs from one another. The instrumentation, vocals – there’s not much of indelible quality to sink my teeth into. The same argument could ostensibly be made about any genre of music, but something in the thickheaded nature of my tastes doesn’t allow me to hear much further than slide guitar and harmonies. I don’t mean to degrade any of the hard working musicians, who no doubt toiled away in the process of creating music, it’s just very rare I find an outstanding piece of country music.

Secondly, I find their marketing both brilliant and despicable. Country musicians know who their fans are, and don’t need to fish much outside of their market. You don’t often hear notable contemporary country musicians hybridizing their music in order to gain a larger following – whomever bought Kenny Chesney’s Halloween From The Heart Volume 2 will most likely buy the subsequent volumes. Those country fans are dedicated bastards, and there’s no incentive to alter a formula from which profits are derived. Why would anyone then go out of their way and risk radio alienation? To that end, the country market has a cradle to grave branding not unlike that of Harley Davidson. The mentality is “Once a country boy, always a country boy” lest ye hate your native land and resign your morals.

However, very few country songs that I know of do little more than state a laundry list  – there’s no resolution or call to action.

Yet another problem I find with contemporary country is how self-defeating it can seem. I can get past Toby Keith’s “Get Drunk And Be Somebody” or Luke Bryan’s “Drink A Beer” on basis alone. In their own rights, they are proletariat, blue-collar, unassuming anthems for the drive home and that weekend that can’t come soon enough. I think it imprudent to judge any artist for creating in the spirit of contempt or restlessness of any nature. However, very few country songs that I know of do little more than state a laundry list  – there’s no resolution or call to action. Drinking beers and feeling melancholy is all well and good, but is it not feeding in to the vicious cycle? To me, Mr. Keith et. all are advocating lifestyles that promote stagnancy and helplessness. I don’t mean to stand on a Rollins-esque pulpit, but shouldn’t some of these more prominent figures be dispatching to their listeners a mode of discourse pulling up by their literal and figurative bootstraps? Surely it exists, it must, but more of that mindset is something I could get behind in the genre.

I’d also like to see more diversity in the artists preforming in the contemporary country genre. If there’s one thing we patently don’t need more of, it’s another Anglo-centric area of art, but unfortunately that’s almost exclusively been the face of contemporary country. To my knowledge, Darius Rucker is one of the few non-white artists to gain any notoriety in the field, and that just doesn’t cut it. Artists of diversity exist, so where’s the collective push in this day and age to promote them?

I don’t mean to be entirely scathing to country music and country fans  – I’m enamored by the likes of Haggard, Nelson, Cash, Gram Parsons, Straight, Cline, Krauss, among many others. I heartily believe that as an American, having a genre representative of our relatively young country and reflective of many folks in our society is important. Keeping that in mind, I also think it’s important to be conscious of what we rally to and hold as American art. Kudos to those artists of integrity and literacy in keeping the spirit of country music and kicking – we depend on you for the sake of the style. To the rest of y’all, perhaps after finishing your Coors and tuning up your Ford, some further analysis could benefit a great deal of us.

Born and raised on classic rock and oldies, Jake Tully consumed music voraciously growing up in Central California. He has his wonderful grandparents to thank for his love of music, as well as the amazing luck to have seen hundreds of concerts in his lifetime. He considers himself an eclectic consumer of all media, and further reading can be found at his blog.

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