A few weeks ago I went to the taping of an episode of the BBC World Service Arts Hour, a program that goes around to different parts of the world. Host Nikki Bedi talks to people wherever she goes about the local arts and culture and for some strange reason when she was here in Nashville the focus was country music. The episode is now available. It was an interesting, sometimes spirited discussion, and my only complaint is that whenever they asked for questions for feedback from the audience I raised my hand and got ignored. Why wouldn’t they call on me? I didn’t even end up on the cutting room floor—there was nothing to cut. Maybe that’s just as well. I’m just a schmuck who doesn’t know a lot about country music, or music in general, but here are some thoughts I wish I’d gotten to share.
The opening discussion was about what qualifies as country music, whether “country” is even a distinct, definable genre anymore. As both people on stage and in the audience commented for most younger listeners these days music is basically genreless. They download or just listen to individual songs or whole albums without much thought about what category the music fits into. That reminded me that back when there were still record stores, even though I gravitated toward certain sections, I could find something I wanted to listen to in every category. That’s still true for me. My taste in music is so wide-ranging that my friends will agree I’m pretty much tasteless, but that’s another story.
Something else I thought about, though, is how genres in music really never have been clearly defined—or rather they’ve been defined more by who’s making the music and how it’s marketed than anything else. Take, for instance, “Lola” by The Kinks. Tweak the lyrics a bit—change it from a club down in old Soho to a honky tonk in New Orleans and the drink from champagne that tastes like cherry cola to moonshine that tastes like muddy water—and you’ve got a country song. Even the subject, a naive boy who meets a woman who may be more than she appears, could fit into country, although LGBT themes in country music is something I’ll come back to later. Similarly “Beast Of Burden” by The Rolling Stones and even Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” could be country songs with just a little change to the instrumentation–after all British rockers were heavily influenced by the blues and country music long before they invaded the U.S. airwaves. The major difference between rock and country has primarily been that the latter is unplugged, although I remember when Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road”, played with The Pogues, got regular spins on rock stations. Then there’s a band like Credence Clearwater Revival that in record stores and radio stations was classed as rock but had distinct country, blues, and folk influences.
The issue of diversity in country music was a big topic with performer Jimmie Allen talking about his own experience and how there are more African American country singers than people realize. Conversation veered into Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Country Road”, but it also got me thinking, how much difference is there between country and the blues? Again this is a question of genres, and here the line is even more blurry than it is between country and rock. While genres may have their uses the classification of music is a form of segregation since the main difference between “country” and “blues” mostly seems to be who’s doing the playing, even at Bob’s Country Bunker where they play both kinds of music—country and western, but that’s another story.
Also on stage was Australian singer Morgan Evans who came to Nashville to play and record country music, a reflection of both its international appeal and the fact that “country music” is no longer regional–if it ever was. Australia has its own tradition of country music with singers like Slim Dusty and the band Bullamanka. Their songs range from covers of popular Australian tunes and American country songs to originals like “The Bunyip Of Hooligan’s Creek”, which combines Australian mythology, environmental themes, and reflects the Celtic influences on country music.
Another major part of the discussion was also focused on the decline of women in country music—although this is also primarily a problem on country radio. With the rise of satellite radio, not to mention the ubiquity of apps you can put on your phone, how much of an audience does traditional radio command anymore?
As part of that subject country singer Cam performed her song “Diane”, a response to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”, which Dolly Parton loves, so you know it’s a good song. Speaking of both Dolly and women in country music, her song “Nine To Five”, written to promote the now classic film she starred in alongside Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, was both a major hit and a call for women to get the respect they deserve.
And to get back to the question of genre, in spite of some stylistic differences, I’d put both Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” and Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman” in the same category of women’s celebratory anthems. It’s also interesting that much of the focus of the show Nashville, that ran from 2012-2016 on ABC and from 2016-2018 on CMT, was on three women: Rayna James, played by Connie Britton, Juliette Barnes, played by Hayden Panettiere, and Scarlett O’Connor, played by Clare Bowen.
Nashville also had a subplot about character Will Lexington, played by Chris Carmack, who struggles with being gay but ultimately accepts it. The day after the BBC World Service Arts Hour taping country artist Ty Herndon was on NPR’s All Things Considered to talk about his real coming out in 2014, and changing the pronouns in his song “What Mattered Most”. There was also Chely Wright who came out publicly in 2007, and let’s not forget k.d. lang who came out in 1992.
When Trae Crowder, the “liberal redneck”, took the stage for a quick comedy set which included learning as a kid that his uncle was gay which helped shape his views, I was reminded how much of a sense of humor country music has, from Ray Stevens to Cledus T. Judd, who could easily be described as the “Weird Al” of country music. And there’s one of my favorites, Roger Miller, who amazingly always sang with his tongue firmly in his cheek.
Crowder also reminded me of an old joke: why don’t Southern Baptists have sex standing up? Because people might think they’re dancing. That got me thinking about how much country music deals with topics that are off-limits in “polite company”, such as alcoholism, or at least drinking, and infidelity. Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley P.T.A.”, written by Tom T. Hall, is a scathing account of institutional hypocrisy that was so popular it spawned both a movie and a TV show. Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe” recounts a suicide, and Loretta Lynn’s “One’s On The Way” is humorous but also a subtle stab from a woman who’s being kept barefoot and pregnant. On a similar note there’s Deana Carter’s more recent “Did I Shave My Legs For This?”
Speaking of Loretta Lynn she was proud to be a coal miner’s daughter—a reminder of country music’s role in speaking both to and for marginalized, mostly rural people.
When the subject of politics came up I was surprised there was no mention of The Dixie Chicks who were cast out of country music for a remark about George W. Bush but who also, at the height of their popularity, took on domestic violence with “Goodbye Earl”, which I’m sure raised a few eyebrows among the execs, but they were willing to let it slide as long as it sold.
Anyway, like I said, this is not a comprehensive review of music history, but rather just some thoughts that came into my head during the show. It’s probably just as well they didn’t call on me. I don’t know that much about music.