Establishment Music: WTF ever happened to Country & Western?

If C&W had a soul Jason Isbell would be the biggest thing in Nashville.

Keith Urban is a judge on American Idol. Blake Shelton is on The Voice. Taylor Swift, Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and the rest of these prancing pinup models are the stars of the moment.

Meanwhile, down in Alabama, Jason Isbell has produced as good a set of back-to-back records as anybody in country (C&W, alt.Country, Thunder Country, you name your sub-genre) history – maybe as great as any consecutive albums in any popular music genre – and Nashville treats him like something it scraped off its diamond-spangled distressed ostrich boots.

If you want, go listen to Here We Rest and Southeastern before continuing. They’re both on Spotify, although after you listen you might want to head over to iTunes or eMusic or Amazon to actually buy them both. Go on – I’ll be here when you get back.

Listening to Southeastern this morning set me off again. And it’s more than just a matter of style. Yes, Nashville done gone Hollywood. Thank the gods Hank is dead. He wouldn’t recognize NashVega$ and if he showed up they’d chase him out of town like you’d shoo a hog out of the living room when the preacher stops by. We can probably bitch all day about what this means for the genre’s authenticity. But…the thing is, I’m not worried about the style. I don’t care about the facade. I care about the substance.

C&W used to be music of the people. The downtrodden. The poor, the overwrought, the hard-working. Real Americans. Real Americana. George Jones. Tammy Wynette. Loretta Lynn. Hank Williams. Johnny Cash and June Carter. Roy Acuff. Bill Monroe. Patsy Cline. Kitty Wells. Not a lot of uptown in that crowd. They’d have been afraid to walk a red carpet for fear they might mess it up. And their music seemed familiar because it was familiar. These artists did not come from privilege. Since they knew their audience and cared about them, they could speak to them instead of pandering to them.

C&W was the music of a marginalized class. It was, in so many ways, political, serving as a record of the plight of those who had no voice in the halls of power and no money with which to purchase the favor of those charged with serving their best interests. Even when it was intimately personal it was political, because it spoke from circumstances that simply did not attend the lives of the world’s haves.

The current crop of Country luminaries sings about the same-old same-old themes, of course, but it’s all a bloodless put-up job. Can you imagine Taylor Swift covering “Stand By Your Man”? I’m giggling just thinking about it. Nope, nowadays, Country & Western is Establishment Music®. It’s about glamor and status and wealth. It has become the very thing it once stood against.

Meanwhile, there are artists who carry on in the tradition of the genre’s legends, and Jason Isbell has to be foremost among them. Consider the last couple verses of his “TVA,” which he wrote in 2009 when he was still with Drive-By Truckers. (Click to listen.)

My granddaddy told me when he was just seven or so
His daddy lost work and they didn’t have a road to hoe
Not too much to eat for seven boys and three girls
All lived in a tent, a bunch of sharecroppers versus the world

So his mama sat down and wrote a letter to FDR
And a couple days later, a couple county men came in a car
Rolled out in the field, told his daddy to put down the plow
He helped build the dam, gave power to most of the South

So I thank God for the TVA
Thank God for the TVA

When Roosevelt let us all work for an honest day’s pay

Thank God for the TVA

You can’t help thinking that this would have played nicely in the Grand Ol’ Opry in the late ’30s. Back here in 2014, though, this kind of bald-faced socialism has little place in Nashville. Damned shame, too. I hate to politicize, but contemporary C&W provides the soundtrack for folks who want to vote against their own best interests (I bet Taylor Swift sells pretty well in the Walmarts up West Bygod way – you know, the place where right now everybody can run a bathtub full of poisoned water). How many of the pretty people at your average Lady Antebellum show descend from grandparents and great-parents who’d have been well and truly fucked if not for old-style, hard-boiled Liberalism? How many of them realize it? How many of them would ever think to ask the question?

Jason Isbell is one of the most talented recording artists working in America today. In addition to all that talent, he has brains, he has a conscience and he has more soul than all the poncey popmongers in Nashville put together. I hate that false consciousness has become the national pastime, and I especially hate it that my people – the working class, the poor, especially in the South – have so completely lost touch with the music that helped sustain their forebears through hard times.

I feel like I’m ranting. I don’t have a grand epiphany here. Nothing new to say, nothing you don’t already know. Just venting for the choir, I guess.

Let me make it up to you. Jason and his band played Austin City Limits the other night (see if you can catch a replay). Here’s the lead track from Southeastern.

Here’s “Alabama Pines” from Here We Rest.

One more – “Live Oak,” with his wife, Amanda Shires. Beautiful, gut-wrenching stuff.

Now I have to go check and see when Isbell is playing Seattle next….


  • Given the nature of my current employment, I get to hear more than my fair share of contemporary country. Then I generally make a mad dash back to my bay where I’ll have Black Sabbath, Skinny Puppy, and 16 Horsepower anchoring my peculiar shuffle mix. I don’t mind when it’s traditional country. Hell, I’ll even start singing along under my breath when the words come back to me.

    The low points are when I hear blatant overuse of auto-tune, as in Darius Rucker’s horrid cover of Wagon Wheel, which is still on fairly heavy rotation for some stupid reason, or rap stylings in the lyrics, never mind how mind-numbingly plebian they already are without the awful urban affectation. Since I don’t waste a lot of time learning about the artists whose work I detest, I couldn’t name Rucker until I just looked it up and still couldn’t precisely pick out which modern jackass du jour is responsible for the rap-style rapid-fire banality that puts me off. Apparently it’s enough of a “thing” that EW put the following piece up last year, which I only found because I searched Google for country music auto tune rap stylings. It seems you’re at least in good company when it comes to dismay.

    How country music went crazy: A comprehensive timeline of the genre’s identity crisis

    “De gustibus non est disputandum,” my ass. Crap is crap. Substance is important, but this modern soundtrack for Irony Unappreciation Week is so awful stylistically I just have a hard time understanding how it ever passed the smell test to begin with.

  • Very interesting article Frank. I have been listening to a fair amount of music on the local “country” station recently (notice I did not call it “country music”). Some of what they play is really wonderful but much of it is just confusing (as in, really? they call this country?). If you listen long enough though, you do realize how cliche much of the new music is. There must be some checklist of words that have to be included in a song to make it a big hit – truck, beer, girl/hey girl, jeans, etc (as discussed in the EW article). The term “bro-country” is spot on! Every once in awhile I hear a song that truly moves me, sometimes they play some old school country (not often enough). oftentimes I just have to laugh at the lyrics, and so I will stay tuned to see what happens in the world of country music. And I will certainly be listening to more Jason Isbell. Thanks for that, Sam.

    • I know you know, this, CJ, but I really think you need to go listen to “You Never Even Call Me By My Name” by David Allen Coe (again, likely). His last stanza explains the perfect formula for “real” country music lyrics. Catch a live version where he explains WHY he wrote the last stanza.

  • 1. Ever hear Matt Grim and the Hangdogs? Maybe the best country album I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard a few.
    2. A few years ago there was some TV special with Travis Tritt and Vince Gill and those guys, and in the interview Tritt said something to the effect that when he was alone in his studio he played Stones and pretended he was a rock and roll star. Today, country is a watered down wanna be version of mainstream pop (as is what used to be called soul.) The other night I saw something with Blake Shelton rapping and it was downright embarrassing. Hey bitch, know a man got to live, Be why I so derivaTIVE, hey bro, know a man got to eat, Be why I try to rip off beats, or some such. People who fail at rock (e.g. Rucker,) go on to long and great careers in country.
    3. I don’t buy the argument that is bad today. On the whole I think it’s better than it was in the halcyon fifties, sixties and seventies. (We only remember the good stuff. We forget Bobby Goldsboro and Pina Colata.) However, I think it’s pretty clear that the remora categories like country and soul/R&B are much worse than they were.

    • My reponse, Otherwise, is that contemporary country is a watered down version of The Eagles, Firefall, Poco, et. al., with a little Buffalo Springfield/CSN thrown in.

      Country has always been formulaic. But there were geniuses (Hank Sr., Cash, Willie, Waylon) who could turn the formula on its ear and give us classics. Now it’s committee written and you know what you get when anything is committee written. – lowest common denominator horse shit….

    • Anybody who even thinks they might even possibly like country should go on Amazon & buy East of Yesterday by the Hangdogs. If you don’t like this album you’re either a.) dead or b.) a tea party conservative. The Handgogs really are one of the best country bands I’ve ever heard.

  • Well, that’s two recs for The Hangdogs. Heading over to Spotify now….

    • And thanks for those Hangdogs recs. The Nashville PD probably has standing orders to shoot them if they ever come within 100 yards of the city limits.

  • You’re singing an old song here. My wife and I quit watching the CMA awards about a decade ago when Shania Twain, who didn’t look or sound country, was one of the main acts, and only Alan Jackson sounded truly country on the show. Plus, they moved the awards show to Vegas!

    We have a classic country station here and I listen to it quite a bit. When they sing about a working for a living, I wonder how many current Nashville stars could pull off a line like that. Merle Haggard, I believe it. Jon Anderson, I believe it. Keith Urban, nope.

  • I love country music. And I completely agree that there is a lot of crap played on country radio, most of which falls in the pop-, bro-, and rap-country subcategories. As Tom Petty stated, it’s “poor quality rock with a fiddle”. (How many actually have a fiddle?) This is not limited to Nashville, considering there is an equivalent amount of crap on the rock, pop, rap stations. The key is to filter out the crap, and this occurs naturally with time as suggested by Otherwise. There are at least 100 country songs played over and over and over and over again on the radio. In 5 years you will hear 10 of them still being played. In 20 years, only 1 or 2 will still be played-these are the quality songs. As with yesteryear, there are quality musicians playing quality music on the radio today. It takes decades to get names like Cash, Hank, Willie, Waylon, Beatles, Zepplin, etc. There are several mainstream country artists that are still making quality hometown country music with heart, soul, and often a fiddle. Zac Brown, Trace Adkins, and Montgomery Gentry are a few that come to mind. These guys lived the country life and not just the trucks/beer/party part, so they can actually sign about it and sell it. Not everything they make is great, but every artist has put out something really bad.

    There always has been, and always will be, a “garage” scene that has the “best” bands that need to be discovered. In the current country music climate, this is where traditional country lives. I look up Isbell and Hangdogs and direct you to the following bands: Railbenders, Hank III, Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash (he approved of the name!), and Buckskin Stallion.

  • Pingback: Whatever happened to Country & Western?: imagining an alternate Nashville | Scholars and Rogues | Progressive Culture

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