A recurrent theme on country music blogs in recent weeks has been debating what makes country music truly country. One criticism often levelled is how obligatory it has become in the last couple of years on country radio to shout out about how country you, the person, are, and how artificial and forced this is.
"All day, you've been singing rock songs to me about how country you are. And even country songs about how country you are. It's been 'dirt road' this and 'back road' that, and 'party in the woods' this and 'redneck, hillbilly' that.
"I don't believe you"
To me, it's perhaps less about the issue of the music itself 'not really being country' (or rather, while sometimes it is, that's not what I'm going to focus on in this blog entry). It's more about how this focus on 'being a real country boy' excludes people like me. I'm a fan of country music, and have been for a few years (though not as long as many), but I'm not from the country. Hell, I'm not even from America. Therefore, I don't really care much about that big green tractor you probably didn't actually drive around, or the backwoods you've probably never driven out to in your pick-up with a keg on the back. Because I can't identify with that. And I really don't appreciate being told that 'the countryside is the only place you'll find people who pray, feel proud of themselves, and hold doors open for old women'*.
What I can identify with is stories. Stories about real people and real emotions. Stories about life's struggles and dilemmas, about loss and heartache, about what's wrong but feels right. It's what Reba McEntire does so right. So many of her songs are identifiable to so many people, and she sings them like she's experienced them, like they're her own words of wisdom. She doesn't need to shout at me about how she's so country. She just is. I can tell that by listening to her music. Someone else who is clearly identifiable as country, from her own songwriting this time, is Taylor Swift. Sure, she's basically a pop singer – again, it's not about the music 'not being country' here. It's about telling those stories about real people, and that's what Swift pulls off every time.
But, you could argue, why is it a problem? Why can't I just ignore this music that I don't like? And it's a fair argument, I really could. But the problem for me is, I know country music can do better. Sure, I could hunt it down on the dwindling independent recordings, but I don't want to have to do that. I want to be able to hear it on the radio, and in the mainstream. I don't want to go to a bar in Nashville and effectively be insulted for being who I am.
In addition, I know that the artists themselves can do better. Blake Shelton's first few albums are great, full of complex themes and strong melodies, before they degenerate into the Hillbilly Bone posturing of the last few years. Jason Aldean's The Truth is an excellent song, passionately delivered and full of real emotion that anyone can identify with (and he even pretends to be away in the city!). Effectively, it's a selfish wish on my behalf: I want country music to be what I want it to be – the real people and the real stories I fell in love with.
I'd also add as a postscript that much of the problem is that I feel these songs are relying on the hook of 'I'm a true country boy and I'm proud of it, the country is the best place on earth' to substitute for actually having a good song. Because there are songs that play on this and also have engaging melodies and arrangements that build to a crescendo to really engage the listener and complement the lyrical themes. An example I'd give (and I know this is where I'm going to lose a lot of people) is Jason Michael Carroll's Where I'm From. The song is sappy, completely typical and predictable once you know the formula and even mentions the big C word (Brad Paisley would be proud). But I love it. The emotion in it gets me every time, even if that emotion is totally manipulative. And that's the key for me – country music is about emotions, and it's about people and it's about storytelling.
*this quote is stolen from CM Wilcox over at engine145.com. Thanks for summing up how I feel so succinctly!