Has Country Music run out of things to say?
G D Sweeney
Whiskey drinking, Pickup trucks, tailgates, prison songs, small town life and heartbreak.
All of the above have been ever-present themes in the Country Music genre from the pioneers like Jimmy Rogers to the modern-day protagonists. Repetition is no stranger to the music business, in fact it is very much part of its success, and formulaic themes and structures have long been the staple diet of commercial hits regardless of genre.
Haven’t we gotten a little tired though of the sleepless nights and broken hearts, or too hungover from the gallons of whiskey that our musical subjects have downed – to kill the inevitable pain in every country song? Ok! I am as guilty as the next man for all of the crimes that I am now castigating. My debut album ‘The Truth About Lies’ is certainly equipped with drinking titles and the sound of hearts breaking to the clink of a whiskey glass; I’d like to think my tongue was firmly in my cheek when I found that ‘cheating love letter’ in my country tale “Secrets and Lies’
I am willing to declare that I am determined to change my old country ways and try to find something fresh and meaningful to yodel and holler about. Is it wrong to suggest that we should take a musical genre synonymous with all of the aforementioned stereotypes and try to shoehorn some modern themes into the mix?
I’m not suggesting that we abandon the familiar characteristics of this gloriously rich genre. I’m merely seeking to evolve it and perhaps even dare to suggest that we might take note from its rustic predecessor ‘folk music’. What if we actually sang about subjects that are relevant and pertinent to the real world we find ourselves living in?
Maybe somebody out there is having a car-stereo-moonlight-tailgate-moment with a bottle of bud in the USA, but what about the ‘1% vs the 99%’ currently unbalanced, economic and social climate debate? Would that not inspire a little more anger and frustration in the minds of the songwriting fraternity? Surely successful songwriting is about empathy as well as aspiration. Maybe some folks would like to share in the glamorous and glorified ‘Bromance’ in the songs of Luke Bryan and his contemporaries but many of the social injustices that we are experiencing (particularly in the Country Music’s mother Country ‘USA’) are being overlooked – in favour of a more prosaic and superficial view of the world. Perhaps, a stark reflection on how the world see’s itself, or in truth, the aspirational values that society drip feeds it’s citizens to keep them hungry, dreamy and distracted.
I know that it’s called show business and we are supposed to entertain, but maybe we can educate and inject some reality into the bargain! Country music has long been a vehicle for social commentary, from the outspoken feminist balladeer Kitty Wells to Johnny Cash and in particular, regular political activist Neil Young. It’s almost as if we have become seduced by the glamour of life or perhaps we have been left so disillusioned and beleaguered with the power and politics of our respective nations, that we’ve lost the passion for protest; to sing about matters that really matter!
Politics of course, is just one subject that has seemed to pale against the more shiny and glam social perspectives. There are many social aspects of life that could be addressed more often by a genre like Country. In times like this – I often think of the Great Late Townes Van Zandt. Now there was man who didn’t shy away from the harsh reality of life in his songs. He, so eloquently remarked in his song ‘To Live is to Fly’ – “We all got holes to fill, them holes are all that’s real. Some fall on you like a storm, sometimes you dig your own”.
Maybe it’s just me, but I always get more from music when it teaches you something greater than just the sound and the words, and asks you to sing along at the relevant catchy bits. When it’s delivered with a grit and honesty (like country music can do) – it offers more food-for-thought than other genre can proclaim to! Music is similar to comedy in that way. I have always been a massive fan of Bill Hicks and Louis CK. Their jokes and comedic commentaries are loaded and underpinned with messages and morals that stare down at you like a loaded gun. I’m happy to be challenged by art in this way. Aren’t you?
Society loves stars, like Taylor Swift and Beyonce, they add glamour and sparkle to proceedings in a rather dull global economic outlook. However, I don’t think we need more glitter! We need grit and honesty like never before. We need voices of protest and anger. We need to “get back to the garden” – as Joni Mitchell once said. Maybe this is the time when we should sing about something new; Country is crying out for the next Johnny Rotten, Kurt Cobain, or a Townes Van Zandt for that matter! It’s getting a lot harder to find or hear their voices against the din of the corporate music manifesto.
For many years in the UK – Country music, commercially speaking, was ‘in the desert’. This was largely because it used imagery that people here could not relate to. Now it seems; we are all happily reveling in moonlit truck stops and American dreamscapes in the new homogenized forms of Country music. Frankly, it’s as phoney as the T-shirts emblazoned with postcards from sunny San Francisco and manufactured in China. If country music is to become socially relevant again and serve the time and the climate that it exists within (as folk music has done before it) we need to change the rhetoric and park the trucks, and start looking around us. There are gritty meaningful songs waiting to be written around every corner. If we are searching for change and subjective enlightenment beyond the narrow narratives of the musical mainstream, and if Country music lyric writing has taught us anything over the years, we won’t find the answer to our initial question at the bottom of another whiskey bottle!
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