Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Nashville isn't even pretending any more

I channel-surfed across a "country music" special on ABC tonight, and I was shocked at how little country there is left in the music. As I write this, I am watching a band consisting of three electric guitars, an electric bass, and a drum set. They are all dressed like a heavy metal band (ratty jeans, black T-shirts, tattoos all over) and the lead singer looks like a Kurt Cobain wanna-be (slightly long unkempt hair and a couple days' stubble on his face). The song sounds like something you might have heard on Top-40 radio fifteen to twenty years ago.

I have argued for years that "modern country" (or "young country" or "hot country" or whatever the local radio station calls it) is just rock/pop repackaged with cowboy boots, a hat, and a (usually fake) southern drawl. Apparently the labels have decided that its not even necessary to repackage any more, but that just calling it "country music" is enough.

If you don't believe me, try calling your local "country music" radio station and asking for Jimmie Rodgers ("the father of country music"). They probably won't even know who he is, and if they do, won't have his music, much less be willing to program it. Try asking for Hank Williams. Not Hank Williams Junior, not Hank Williams III (whose music is more country, and better than his dad's), but the Hank Williams. You might get lucky and find a station willing to play a couple of his songs (more likely they'll play a cover by Junior), but it's pretty unlikely. Even Johnny Cash, who has regained a measure of popularity over the last decade, is hard to find on "country music" playlists. Loretta Lynn recently released an outstanding new album, which many have suggested is the best in her long career, chock full of original material (she wrote every song on it), but you wouldn't know about it if you listen to "country" radio.

I'm not suggesting that country music, or any artistic style (music, literary, visual, or other), should be frozen in time. Change is inevitable. But no genre has done as much to lose its history than modern country music. "Oldies" stations keep older rock, R&B, and Top-40 songs and musicians in the public eye, but very few stations (mostly independently owned and operated) continue to play older country music. How many people even know what real country music sounds like?
Nobody saw them running
From 16th Avenue
They never found the fingerprints
Or the weapon that was used
But someone killed country music
Cut out its heart and soul
They got away with murder
Down on music row....

They thought no one would miss it
Once it was dead and gone
They said no one would buy them ol'
Drinkin' and cheatin' songs
Well there ain't no justice in it
And the hard facts are cold
Murder's been committed
Down on music row

For the steel guitars no longer cry
And the fiddles barely play
But drums and rock 'n' roll guitars
Are mixed up in your face
Ol' Hank wouldn't have a chance
On today's radio
Since they committed murder
Down on music row
From "Murder On Music Row" by Larry Cordle.

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