Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Country Music Objectively Sucks, Part One

Where Has The Music Gotten?

Hank Williams
Blake Shelton’s annoying country anthem “Boys ‘Round Here” begins with this strange boast:
Well the boys ‘round here
don’t listen to the Beatles,

run old Bocephus
through the jukebox needle

at the honky-tonk
where they boot stomp

all night (That’s right)
So... let me get this straight. The Beatles broke up in 1970, while Bocephus (Hank Williams, Jr.) hasn’t had a significant chart hit since 1990. So Shelton seems to declare that “the boys ‘round here” embrace their parents’ pop culture as a means of rejecting, what, their grandparents? That makes plenty of sense.

We see the same problem in Brantley Gilbert’s “Country Must Be Countrywide,” when the artist boasts: “In every state, there’s a station/Playing Cash, Hank, Willie, and Waylon.” By “Hank” he must mean Hank Williams, since nobody calls Hank Junior or Hank III “Hank.” And nobody listens to Hank Snow anymore (your loss). So that’s three dead superstars, and one who hasn’t had even a minor hit since 2002.

Jason Aldean’s strange country rap “1994,” an invocation of novelty artist Joe Diffie, who hasn’t mattered in nearly two decades, merits mention here. But nothing more.

I love country music. My parents had me singing with George Jones and Tammy Wynette about the time they got me onto solid food. Ask me anything I’ve ever learned about environmental science, and maybe I’ll remember something about storm clouds; but I remember all the words to Eddie Rabbitt’s “I Love a Rainy Night.” Willie Nelson’s Red-Headed Stranger album is the pride of my collection.

That’s why it bothers me when mediocre stars playing uninspiring music dominate country radio. Brantley Gilbert’s right, I’ve never lived anywhere in America where you can’t dial in a hillbilly station; but since the middle 1990s, the music has grown small in its ambitions, blandly slick in its execution, and timid in its themes. But artists attempt to establish their credibility by name-checking superstars they scarcely resemble.

June Carter Cash
and Johnny Cash
Shelton seems proud that his boys are “keeping it country,” a turn of phrase Gretchen Wilson also uses in “Redneck Woman.” I don’t know what it means in either case. But from Shelton, it sounds especially weird coming from the mouth of a man singing in a twang-rap hybrid. His song seems designed to reach white suburban youths who would never actually put a quarter in the jukebox for Bocephus.

Country music, with its conservative rural ethic, has a long history of looking backward. Waylon Jennings’ “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” complained, in 1975, that country music had fallen in love with its own mythology and lost its roots. The title character in the Bellamy Brothers’ 1985 hit “Old Hippie” “gets off on country music, because disco left him cold.”

But today’s over-the-shoulder credibility grabs feel different. By name-checking older artists, Shelton and Aldean seem to admit the music they and other hitmakers record today can’t hold a candle to their heroes. This feels like a tacit confession that the crap Nashville studios push out under the country music rubric isn’t very good. They’re saying what I’ve said for fifteen years: today’s country music objectively sucks.

I still listen to Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, and Johnny Cash because their rustic authenticity speaks to me in ways Top 40 cannot. The very lack of studio polish means that nothing stands between the musician and the audience but a guitar. When Hank sings “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” by damn, I believe him.

When the Dixie Chicks recycle Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” or Darius Rucker cuts the gonads off Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel,” I don’t feel that. I’m conscious, hearing these songs, of the studio environment, the background vocalists holding lyric sheets, and instrumental tracks someone will dub in later. In today’s country music, the producer, not the soloist, is the star.

Waylon Jennings
and Jessi Colter
Not that good country music doesn’t exist. Acts like The Gourds and The Old 97s still record recognizable country music that maintains that raw cry from the heart. They just persevere without mainstream radio support. Johnny Cash won a Grammy for Unchained and a CMA award for “Hurt,” despite being ignored by radio for the final two decades of his life.

If anyone doubts that country music objectively sucks, I dare you: Google the Bellamy Brothers’ 1982 hit “Redneck Girl.” Then Google Gretchen Wilson’s 2004 “Redneck Woman.” Go on, listen to them back to back. I’ll wait. Then tell me, with a straight face, that country music is not on a decades-long slide.

Part Two:
How Has the Music Gotten Here?

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