When I was three years old, “I’m from the Country” and “Bye Bye” were my two favorite songs. I was quite familiar with names like Jo Dee Messina, Tracy Bird, and Alan Jackson. I was also familiar with Shania Twain and Dixie Chicks, though whether the latter two really qualify as “country” is debatable. But then, what passes for “country” music today falls into that category as well. To me, the endless parade of beer-themed anthems sung by lookalike scruffy dudes in baseball hats and plaid warrants the subgenre label of “urban cowboy” at best; “rap with phony Southern accents” at worst.
So what did happen to country music? Where did it all go wrong? In this unscientific post/rant, I shall attempt to figure that out.
The genre we know as country music can trace its origins to the early 20th century. Folks in the Deep South and “hillbillies” twanged on often homemade instruments while singing or yodeling traditional songs. These songs were often religious in nature, but sometimes about secular subjects as well. With the advent of radio and later television, the genre was able to coalesce into a more organized entity, with weekly programs like the Grand Ole Opry.
By the mid-20th century, the “traditional” country themes of heartbreak, drunkenness, and trains had become firmly established. As had instruments of a rather nontraditional nature such as electric guitars. Yet, the “country sound” remained largely intact despite the new technological innovations. It did, however, lead to the introduction in the 1950s of the “rockabilly” hybrid between early rock ‘n’ roll sounds and country. Later on, the country-rock genre came along. Through acts such as the Eagles, Poco, and Linda Ronstadt, this distinctly ’70s genre attempted to similarly blend the sounds of soft rock with those of a more country nature–whether the artists themselves were the least bit “country” in origin or not. In both cases, however, the genres essentially billed themselves as hybrids, claiming to be neither fully rock nor fully country.
In my opinion, the problem really began with the appearance of saxophone and brass in the early 1980s. Appropriately enough, this coincided with the release of the film Urban Cowboy, which to be honest, most “cowboys” really were even then. Radio, television, and the massive growth of suburbs throughout the century had reduced the number of authentically out-of-touch, backwoods individuals to a very tiny minority indeed by then, and has virtually eliminated it today. Folks under the age of 50 who claims to be true “hillbillies” or “country boys” are almost certainly kidding themselves, however bad their English may be.
The early 1990s pretty much saw the end of “true” country stars coming to the fore, with the more electric, urbanized sounds arriving by the end of the decade. Artists like Faith Hill and Shania Twain, who (like earlier singers such as Linda Ronstadt) started out with more of a country sound ended up crossing over into Top 40 pop and never really looked back. Of course, even their crossover work sounds “country” by today’s standards.
With the 2000s came the era of self-proclaimed, in-your-face Rednecks wearing grungy plaid shirts, designer boots, and that horrible week’s growth of stubble that has come to dominate the sound today. And it has all been downhill from there. Every song is now about beer-guzzling and good-timing, every video is about girls fawning over these less-than-camera-friendly guys in their garage band outfits, and every CMA Awards show is a shadow of its former self. Some of the oldies are still out there doing their thing, but they, like the oldies in other genres, are sadly becoming scarcer by the year.
So, that’s my take on the subject. Where do you think Country music took a turn for the worse? Or do you perhaps believe the hybridization of the genre is a positive development? Let me know down in the comments.