What constitutes “real” country music, anyway?
If you consider yourself a hardcore country fan, chances are you know this one: two-thirds of the way through David Allen Coe’s 1975 outlaw anthem “You Never Even Called Me by My Name”, Coe stops singing and delivers this tongue-in-cheek definition of country music.
“A friend of mine named Steve Goodman wrote that song, and he told me it was the perfect country and western song. I wrote him back a letter and I told him it was not the perfect country and western song, because he hadn’t said anything at all about mama, or trains, or trucks, or prison, or gettin’ drunk.”
With this satirical ballad, Coe held up a mirror to the popular country music of the day, and it remains a steadfast declaration of all things wrong with country music.
If you’re a country music fan, “that’s not real country” is a phrase you’ve probably heard or read in the comment sections of blogs. It’s been said about countless artists who are played on country radio.
In all the rhetoric floating around concerning “real” country music, you may have started to wonder what are the elusive rules that define the country genre? What separates “real” country music from fake, and who decides?
Country music has always been evolving
It would be easy to make a blanket statement that genuine country music involves only certain instruments and only certain subject matter, rendering obsolete any songs or subgenres that don’t comply, but music is a type of art, and art tends to defy restriction.
Music, like any other art form, is supposed to be fluid.
If you examine a modern history of country music, you’ll notice it has undergone several pop phases. Currently, country music is heavily influenced by pop, which is probably the main reason so many people are frustratedly trying to define country music.
The pop-country melting pot has been shown to tip in both directions, as many beloved pop hits began as country songs (see Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” for reference).
And because most music lovers don’t confine themselves to listening to only one type of music, many country artists frequently top the pop and country charts concurrently. Consider the 2014 CMAs, where pop artists sang pop songs alongside country artists.
Musical trends are often cyclical
Inevitably though, country music always returns to its roots; a trend we’re starting to see now. Right on schedule, there’s a burgeoning group of artists like Sturgill Simpson, Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert and Eric Church who are releasing more nonconformist country music.
Country music purists are more often concerned with what modern country is not and does not represent. In all the talk about who isn’t country, there has yet to be a universal consensus of which artists epitomize the genre.
Some point to outlaw country, but for what it represents, if Outlaw were the only form of country, it could no longer be called “Outlaw,” because then it would be mainstream. As antithetical as it may seem, to some, that’s the goal. But even so, some outlaw musicians still find themselves under scrutiny.
Eric Church, in particular, who could be considered a leader in what is becoming known as the “new outlaw movement” wrote a satirical song called “Country Music Jesus” about the exaggerated lamentation of what constitutes real country music. In a 2011 interview with the Boot, Church said, “There were a couple reporters, critics who kept saying, ‘We need a country music Jesus to save the format.’ When I read that I thought that’s the biggest crock I’ve ever heard.”
Keep the music fluid
Because humanity is diverse in its opinions of good versus bad entertainment, there will never be a unified and narrow definition of country. That is not to say that country music is indefinable, there are certainly elements that we, as fans all expect.
Music, like any other art form, is supposed to be fluid. When it meets resistance, instead of yielding, it must shift the forces acting upon itself. Like a river carving out canyons and gullies, it needs to move and flow with the ever-changing current of life, washing away the silt to expose the bedrock. If it can’t do this, it becomes still, stagnant and irrelevant.
To put a new twist on an old saying, beautiful music is in the ear of the beholder, and if you find it pleasing, why not listen to it? So call it country, or call it pop, but whatever you call it, just crank it up, because as Shakespeare said, a rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet.