But unlike former rodeo champion Chris LeDoux, whom Brooks helped shepherd to stardom, Brooks always seemed embarrassed by country music. He recorded covers of Little Feat, Don McLean, and KISS which got progressively less distinct from their originals. He hired sidemen without country credentials. Prior to his Chris Gaines album, when he announced his next CD would not be country, many fans shrugged and said, “How’s that any different?”
Through it all, paying audiences rewarded Brooks for his ambivalence. He sold out arena venues, and moved more albums than anybody but the Beatles. Fans ignored his burgeoning gut and documented extramarital affairs, and his winning streak ended only when he took himself out of the game. The music scene Brooks left behind had been permanently changed in his image.
Country musicians have always felt torn between raw authenticity and commercial success. The honky-tonk of Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell gave way to the Nashville Sound championed by Chet Atkins. In my childhood, radio provided the field where spare, muscular Outlaw Country competed with more commercial Countrypolitan. In pure dollar terms, slick, highly produced country has always done better than the honest, naive stuff.
Retracing music history, though, these subgenres didn’t squeeze each other off the air. A country station might play a slick track by Ray Price or Dottie West, and swing without pause into Kris Kristofferson or David Allan Coe. Honky-tonk survivor George Jones revived his career with his crisp Atkins-produced duets with his wife, Tammy Wynette. Different influences mingled, but it all remained country music.
and George Jones
Garth Brooks’ electrified country-lite ascendency coincided with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which significantly deregulated mass media. Where once, companies were limited in the number of outlets they could own, and their ability to dominate regional markets, now companies like Clear Channel and Sinclair could own nearly all the radio in an area. And these conglomerates demanded returns that would make Mexican drug lords blush.
Country Music is big business. Country is the most common music radio format in America, with a more unified audience base than rock and pop genres. Thus, singles that can follow Brooks’ highly commercialized model have unprecedented reach. Get your song picked up by conglomerate media, Cowboy, and you can wipe your ass on Benjamins.
Studio labels and radio conglomerates conspire to push songs onto the airwaves that, apart from twangy vocals and the occasional fiddle, are indistinguishable from classic rock programming. Taylor Swift and Luke Bryan make money by attracting large crossover audiences. The fact that traditional country listeners, like me, drift away in droves, doesn’t matter. There aren’t enough of us.
But historically, slick country doesn’t produce music that lasts. Many artists honor the idea of Skeeter Davis or Charlie Rich, but nobody actually listens to them. Acts that didn’t have the same influence in the short term, like Dwight Yoakam or Billy Joe Shaver, remain listenable decades after they laid their music down. Of course, music studios have to pay their bills right now. But that doesn’t justify artistic short-sightedness.
No one audience should monopolize the genre. Just because I don’t like Blake Shelton doesn’t mean he should go away. But only one kind of music now dominates the country mainstream. The competition and difference that made the country of my childhood has largely disappeared. Without that, the sound has become incestuous. That’s why country music objectively sucks.
Where Has the Music Gotten?