Nearly every week, an interviewer in some city or town across America asks a legacy country artist on tour what they think about modern country music.
Their responses range from the polite (“There’s room for everyone.”) to the refreshingly honest (“It’s a bunch of crap.”).
If you’re the Hag, Emmylou or any artist at their level, you’re probably listening to country radio with an expression of bewilderment or disappointment. Perhaps a mixture of both.
The music that most listeners identify as having authentic country qualities is now called Americana. And there’s not really a place for that on modern country radio.
Here are six country artists who shot it straight when asked the aforementioned question about the current state of affairs in their own words.
“You can relate to picking up girls, drinking beer and hot pants. The thematic stuff is what bothers me. I don’t like Luke Bryan and those guys, because there’s no originality. Every song follows pretty much the same chord progression. That’s not a bad thing, in and of itself. Hank Williams used the same four chords, but there’s no melodic integrity and the words are just silly.” — The Lowell Sun
“They’re talking about screwing on a pickup tailgate and things of that nature. I don’t find no substance. I don’t find anything you can whistle and nobody even attempts to write a melody. It’s more of that kids stuff.” — Inforum.com
Haggard also described modern country as “a bunch of crap.”
“Guys singing about ‘Drive my tractor,’ and they probably can’t even drive a manual transmission car! Which I do, by the way.” — Radio.com
“It’s incumbent on us to export something that has some quality to it, that reflects our culture in ways that are positive and meaningful,” he continues. “In order to do that in country music, we have to go back to the country because this music originated with people who lived in rural America and lived authentic lives.” — Rolling Stone Country
Ok, I get it; you don’t think Don Henley’s country. But Henley was country before most country stars his age were country.
Lee Ann Womack
“In the past, Merle and Willie and Hank would sing real lyrics about life, but today’s Music Row records don’t talk about those subjects, at least not in a grownup way,” Womack says. “That’s one reason all these songs spoke to me.” —Dallas News
“I don’t like it very much… But everybody wants to knock all these songs, and, yeah, they’re a lot the same, but go back to the early Sixties and there were songs about trucks then too.” –Rolling Stone
That’s a very polite way of saying it sucks, but Vince Gill is a very polite guy. And those truckin’ songs he mentioned were pretty good.
Gill’s follow-up quote provides some insight into the root of the problem:
“I had a visit with an executive who runs a record company. He was bemoaning yadda yadda, and I looked at him and said, “Don’t you get it? It’s your fault.” He said, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Everything you’re saying you don’t like, you’re signing, you’re recording. Just do your part.’ If you don’t like it, quit jumping on the apple cart because you think it will work.”
Country tastemakers always chase trends; that happens all the time. The problem is that country music is rooted in unique musical traditions, and the sensibilities of those traditions are getting washed away by the industries mad dash to mix in other formats. Styles like EDM, which labels and artists are incorporating to open country to a wider market, dilute the art form rather than preserve and develop it.
I almost forgot two notable artists: George Strait and Alan Jackson. In 2000, they made a public statement about modern country with a song that claimed murder had been committed down on Music Row…