What the hell happened to country music?
Friend: Hey, Yogi, I think we’re lost.
Yogi Berra: Yeah, but we’re making great time!
It’s probably clear to anybody who pays attention that I’m a rock & roll guy. But I was raised by my grandparents, two country folks who were born in 1913 and 1914 respectively and grew up through the Great Depression. There were two kinds of music in my house, country and gospel, and those aesthetics – the melodies and harmonies, the minor chord dips and the aching they signify, the constant battle between ignorant hope and blunt despair – they shaped my relationship with music in ways that will accompany me to my grave.
We listened to gospel quartets on Channel 12 Sunday mornings. The rest of the time, if there was music in the house, it was the likes of Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Roy Acuff & the Smoky Mountain Boys or Cowboy Copas. Granddaddy and Grandmother liked to watch The Porter Wagoner Show (with Dolly Parton, of course) and Saturday nights meant Hee Haw, with Buck Owens, Roy Clark and some of Nashville’s greatest stars.
I’d listen to Top 40 radio like any other kid, and I liked The Jackson 5 – who didn’t? – but up until I hit junior high and high school, when I began discovering artists like Elton John and Queen (yeah, that combination had to be a little unsettling for my Southern macho adult male relatives, I know) this was pretty much what music was for me. I didn’t necessarily like all of it, but the hardscrabble roots of American C&W were my context, and to this day those sounds, catching me by surprise, can blindside me back across four decades to a time when my grandparents were alive and my idea of tribulation was being forced to show my work in arithmetic class and write out the complete sentences in my English exercises. As silly as it must sound, it was a little hard for me to watch Oh Brother Where Art Thou because the music conjured so much sadness, so much loss for me. It reminded me that most of the people associated with most of the happiest moments of my early life are dead, and now that I’m an adult I have the perspective to understand just how hard their lives were and how much they had to sacrifice to take care of me.
That was then.
This is now.
Meanwhile, I’m not sure Nashville has even heard of this guy.
Clearly, something has gone bad wrong. The industry movers and shakers evidently looked deep into the souls of their audience at some marketing research ginned up by guys in expensive suits and decided that what they needed to be was Top 40 with pedal steel guitars. From Coal Miner’s Daughter to American Idol. From Pomade to hair tinting. I haven’t actually seen it yet, but I imagine we’ll have guys in Capri pants on CMA before too much longer.
Okay, okay – I’m being bitchy and gratuitous and I shouldn’t be, but the truth is that once upon a time C&W was essentially American and relentlessly genuine. Even if you didn’t like it, you could not argue the authenticity of George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Back then, if you couldn’t play or sing, thanks for coming but take your butt back to the farm. These days if you can’t play or sing, but you’re pretty, we have this thing called AutoTune.
And, come on – can you fucking imagine Hank Williams doing a track for The Hunger Games?
That last video above is the lead track from Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit’s Here We Rest. It features 11 songs that run the gamut from straight-up country to beer-drinking honky-tonk to bluegrass to blues. Songs about busted relationships and hardship, numb despair and the the working class denominators in a society ravaged by economic corruption. Isbell doesn’t name the perpetrators, but the world got this way somehow, didn’t it? His history with Drive-By Truckers makes clear that he knows the score (give “TVA” a listen sometime), and we shouldn’t be deceived by his decision to focus on the intimate and personal this time out.
Here We Rest was this rock & roll guy’s CD of the Year for 2011, but best I can tell it never got within hollering distance of a C&W chart.
Past caring about great music and wanting legitimately talented artists to get their due I don’t have a dog in the fight. But … I do care about that, and it has always griped me to no end to see no-talent put-up jobs getting rich while artists like Isbell (and Jeffrey Dean Foster and Paul Lewis and Don Dixon and the gods know how many others) work their asses off for the table scraps.
Once upon a time, in April of 1964, The Beatles had 12 songs in the Billboard Hot 100, including the top five positions. Today hit radio has become, if I might riff on Oscar Wilde for a moment, the unlistenable played for the unspeakable. Nashville apparently sees the results and figures it can do business in the shallow end, too. As for their listeners, I don’t know – maybe it’s karmic payback for what they did to The Dixie Chicks. And if you listen to it by choice you deserve what it does to you. This is your brain. This is your brain on Taylor Swift. Any questions?
Yes, folks, Nashville may be lost, but it’s making great time…