If I’m ever asked to describe my original music with reference genre or style, my automatic response is usually met with a slight hesitation and feeling that it might take more than a few words to fully explain myself. In a UK music market which; is dominated by Pop, Rock and Indie music, I’m very curious to observe the expression on the inquisitors face when I mention the words ‘Country Music’.
Let me explain my predicament. Firstly, I don’t exactly play out-and-out country music. It is more of a fusion between Country, Bluegrass and Irish music which; I describe as Celtic Country. This means that to the untrained ear – I have to explain what constitutes these particular genres and then further explain that although my music echoes these styles, it doesn’t really sound like any of them in their purest form. Phew!
The problem with genres and labeling is that – it’s effectively stereotyping. Country Music has acquired; it’s fair share of unwanted associations over the years. Perhaps this has come about more through the media and film, than the actual music itself. Movies like Deliverance; has lead; everyone to believe that they need to paddle frantically upstream when they hear the sound of banjos. Country as a genre; is ostensibly an American construct, born out of folk music that was brought over from the British Isles and Ireland. It has changed stylistically over the years, and now demands a huge audience in America as the number one selling music, and is now setting up it’s trailers in the UK to get a slice of the action over here.
To the ordinary music loving man or woman on the street in the UK– if you asked them: “what constitutes country music?” They are likely to say, “Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Kenny Rogers or Willy Nelson”. They would be referring to the Golden age of Country music from the 1950’s through to the 60’s. This was indeed a great time for this genre and many of its’ greatest exponents and their songs came from this era. If any industry is going to survive and remain relevant within the modern music world it has to evolve, and the Country Music Industry is no different.
In a bid to become more ‘hip’ and relevant to a younger audience; Country has had to reinvent itself. From the perspective of a traditional Country music fan like myself, ‘New Country’ is kinda like ‘Pop music with a country hat’- But what do I know? This move to a more aesthetically pleasing brand of Country, has not only proved to be a great earner for the industry, but it has managed to sweep up converts in their droves on both sides of the Atlantic. This modern-day phenomenon is illustrated perfectly by the increasing ticket sales at the London’s O2 Arena which; plays host to the annual pilgrimage to see leading American Country stars in the flesh (as it were) in the Country–to-Country weekender. Due to the sizeable demand, this event has now made its way across to Dublin where it is also staged at the corresponding O2 Arena.
The new ‘Country Pop’ craze has not just arrived overnight though. It has been a few years in the planning and has been spearheaded by one artist. She is the force that is called Taylor Swift. She is he biggest selling artist of her generation, far outstripping Beyonce and Lady Gaga. I happened to be visiting Nashville for a few weeks around the time that Taylor was beginning her ascent to the throne of New Country. Most of the diehard musicians and old-school country lov’in folk, I have to say were less than impressed by the pop country princess; cussing her sound invasion and reappropriation of what they had considered to be country music. I was also very interested recently to read an interview with Ketch Secor – The front man; of Americana String Band favourites: Old Crow Medicine Show. He talked despairingly about how the music business even redefined Johnny Cash as Americana because had “warts on his face and they wanted something young and pink and fleshy to stand up there and shimmy and shake”
Nashville is of course; the unquestionable home of Country Music, not unlike myself; it very much divided with regards to musical tastes and where folks musically speaking, like to hang their hats. The music scene of East Nashville is still flying the flag for Old School Country, Old Time American String Band music and it’s subsequent derivative; ‘Americana’.
The name Americana itself, is a classic example of new genre defining and labeling. It was a move by the industry to keep it far enough away from the bigger cash prize of ‘New Country’; which comes straight out of the Country Music Industry Executives of 16th Avenue, Music Row Nashville Tennessee.
There always an argument over the integrity of anything artistic, and I do agree that music must evolve, if it is to be seen as relevant, after all, creativity is about searching for something new and avoiding stagnation. However, having immersed myself, in the classic sounds and the many of the less commercial sub-genres that can be found in the broad church of country music, like Honky Tonk, Bluegrass, Tex-Mex, Western Swing, Old-Time, and Rockabilly to name a few – I can see why there is some rightful consternation over it’s current rebrand, and it’s modern day protagonists.
I love country music, and although I share this suspicion for the new brand of music that is found it’s way onto BBC Radio and TV and masqueraded as the Country genre; this has really helped to find a new audience within the UK. It has also helped to fortify the case for the banjo as a bonafide musical accompaniment. That can’t be a bad thing!
I just hope that this new adoration for all things big, American, shiny and pop sounding, does not overlook the talent that lies within these shores. We have some very fine Americana artists here, and have also had a few recent successes to speak of with regards to country music in the UK, in the form of duo band; ‘The Shires’ and singing sisters; ‘Ward Thomas’. Having been the first young bands from these shores to make a breakthrough on Music Row in Nashville. I can’t help thinking though that they are already getting the Nashville ‘music row makeover’ and that they might end up more bottox than banjo when all is said and done.
Whilst the UK and Ireland will always play second fiddle to the Grand Old Opry artists of America – in the country music stakes, I hope that somewhere down the dusty track we can manage to claw back some of that original genre defining country sound that got us all going ‘Crazy’ in the first place.