The battle between pop influences and changes in country music, and the purity ached for by the traditional elements of the genre is almost as old as the genre itself. Country Music has been greatly reformed in the past couple of years. From the fiddles and steel guitars, it embraced the use of electric guitar. It even includes rap-infused beats and AutoTune normally reserved for hip-hop, and, most controversially, the pop elements that turned the genre into an electronic dance music.
Back in 1990, a time when commercial-music corporations are geared almost exclusively to the new records’ market, country stars started to stray from the “nature” of country music for a more “pop” feel that would be played on radios. The essence of “real” country music started to deteriorate.
These days, pop-country is more popular than ever, but also more despised than ever. The attitudes between traditional and modern-country fans and even popular personalities have become ever more belligerent. Tensions have been brewing, and frustrations have reached a boiling point.
Instances that triggered tensions between traditional and pop country supporters
Blake Shelton calls traditionalists “old farts” and “jackasses”
The Voice coach and 2103 CMA Entertainer of the Year, Blake Shelton, angered thousands of elderly country fans during one of his interviews when he commented,
“Nobody wants to listen to their grandpa’s music. And I don’t care how many of these old farts around Nashville going, ‘My God, that ain’t country!’ Well that’s because you don’t buy records anymore, jackass. The kids do, and they don’t want to buy the music you were buying.”
The remark went running hot on social media and entertainment news. It helped spark the debate about traditional-country vs. pop-country. As a response, country legend Ray Price slammed Blake Shelton through a Facebook Post:
“It's a shame that I have spent 63 years in this business trying to introduce music to a larger audience and to make it easier for the younger artists who are coming behind me. Every now and then some young artist will record a rock and roll type song, have a hit first time out with kids only. This is why you see stars come with a few hits only and then just fade away believing they are God's answer to the world. This guy sounds like in his own mind that his head is so large no hat ever made will fit him. Stupidity Reigns Supreme!!!!!!! Ray Price (CHIEF "OLD FART" & JACKASS") " P.S. YOU SHOULD BE SO LUCKY AS US OLD-TIMERS. CHECK BACK IN 63 YEARS (THE YEAR 2075) AND LET US KNOW HOW YOUR NAME AND YOUR MUSIC WILL BE REMEMBERED.”
According to Saving Country Music, Shelton took down one of his Facebook fan pages after receiving numerous feedbacks. Some reports also say that numerous radio stations pulled Shelton’s songs from circulation.
On the other hand, Willie Nelson renamed his tour to “Old Farts and Jackasses Tour” after Shelton’s controversial statement. Shelton later apologized and was forgiven for his dreadful comments.
Zac Brown calls Luke Bryan’s no. 1 single the “ Worst song I’ve ever heard”
Zac Brown Band may have never been the most old-school “country” group out there, but their albums have constantly featured classic Nashville storytelling and strong songcraft. Back in 2013, when the group were invited as guests on a Canadian radio station, Zac Brown commented on Luke Bryan’s hit, “That’s My Kind of Night.”
“I love Luke Bryan and he’s had some great songs, but this new song is the worst song I’ve ever heard,” Brown said. “Country fans and country listeners deserve to have something better than that, a song that really has something to say, something that makes you feel something. Good music makes you feel something. When songs make me wanna throw up, it makes me ashamed to even be in the same genre as those songs.”
A friend on the rescue, the reigning ACM Entertainer of the Year, Jason Aldean, expressed his disappointment in Brown’s statement, and tells him,
“Nobody gives a shit what you think.” He added a plea for artists not to bash their fellow artists.
Here's “That’s My Kind of Night” by Luke Bryan, the song that centers the drift.
“Murder on the Music Row” (#KeepinItCountry)
"Murder on Music Row," which you may recall was recorded in 1999, and popularized in 2000 by George Strait and Alan Jackson, frankly answered the question of what or who killed country music. This song laments the constant trend of country-pop crossover acts that pushed traditional artists to the fringe. This criticizing song attests that the transitioning genre was no longer interested in “your grandparent’s music.”
Do you remember that CMA night, where Alan Jackson walked out because he was disappointed about Beyonce’s performance with Dixie Chicks? Though he did speak about living the event in the middle of that performance, his action has already spoken volumes for the traditional, real country acts. He has been using the hashtag “#KeepinItCountry” since that night.
Naomi Judd slams CMT Awards, says they disrespected George Jones
Perhaps, the most controversial CMT happened in 2013. The inclusion of pop artists Nelly and Lenny Kravitz on the CMT Fest line-up gathered criticisms from country music fans and artists. For the veteran country star from the duo the Judds, Naomi Judd, the worst thing ever happened on that event was the 26-second tribute to George Jones. She wrote a letter to The Tennessean, ripping the CMT ceremony for not staying true to country music.
“George Jones is to country music what The Beatles are to pop, the Rolling Stones to rock, Elvis to rockabilly, Mozart to classical and Aretha to soul. Yet, the ‘Country’ Music Television awards show allowed only a “by the way” mention of Jones’ death and legacy. Incongruously, they chose alternative music group the Mavericks to perform their short version of George’s ‘The Race Is On.’ True country music fans are a loyal bunch and are passionate about our roots and heritage.
Every year, CMT includes artists of unrelated genres, many of whom some country music fans don’t even know. I suggest the CMT Awards show change its name. Perhaps to ‘the Multi-Genre Awards Show, Featuring Artists under 30.’ I realize speaking out will cause me to now be forever banned by CMT. But I’m tired of folks messing with my country music. Especially when it involves my dear friend George Jones.” -Naomi Judd
What has happened to our music? When and where did all these start?
The Evolution of Country Music
Artistic inspiration is like a giant river-it never stops changing. Ultimately though, art will always comprise of what came before it. Whether something comes in the medium of a film, art, or music, the ideas of the past influence the content of the future. The same is true for country music. Let us first take a look into its transformative process to better understand country music as a genre.
The 1920’s: Music as part of traditions
In the beginning, country music shared organizational resemblances with folk tales. The presentations were usually live, and the songs and musical arrangements would differ depending on the place’s location. Traditional country music used to allow one to learn about the history and culture of that area. It was then a very personal genre that seemed hard to make accessible on a larger scale.
However, musicians who studied and reckoned these traditional tunes began to pop-up over time. They have created unions between the styles of various regions. It wasn’t until the 1920’s that recording studios opened doors for country music pioneers such us Fiddlin’ John Carson and Jimmie Rodgers.
The 1930’s: Western movies gained its popularity
Famous country music songs of this era were usually ballads, which would tell their own narrations of heroic cowboys. The genre reached wider audiences with the help of motion pictures.
Westerns became one of the most popular film genres in Hollywood. As a matter of fact, the only artist to have been awarded a Hollywood star in every category of television, film, radio, music, and live, was known for his roles as a kind singing cowboy. Gene Autry personified the straight-shooting hero, having an honest, brave, and true character that profoundly touched the lives of millions of Americans. He was later succeeded by Roy Rogers, who helped romanticize the vision of the Wild West which caught America’s mind-eye for decades to come.
The 1940’s: Honky Tonk – The introduction of rock n’ roll to country music
During this time, rock n’roll reached the peak of its popularity. Even country music began to take inspiration from high energy rock tunes. This style was known as “Honky Tonk.” The music initially became popular during World War II, with Ernest Tubb becoming its first star. It has become a continuing staple, the style to which mainstream country patiently returns time and time again to refresh itself.
The basic honky tonk sound features acoustic and/or electric guitar, steel guitar, fiddle and string bass. On the other hand, the vocals often draw from the so-called "high lonesome" sound of traditional country, sounding either rough and nasal or smooth and clear.
Even with the new direction in country music, it wasn’t able to contest with the growing genre of rock’n’roll. Many music analysts began to see country music as being less commercially viable than the previous years.
The introduction of Honky Tonk to country music paved the way to the fame of artists such as Kitty Wells, and Hank Williams.
1950’s and 1960’s: Redeeming country music popularity
Instead of trying to compete with rock n’ roll at its own game like Honky Tonk tried, innovative musical enthusiasts saw an opportunity to reinvent the genre in the 1950’s. Record companies and producers from Nashville including Decca Records, RCA Records, and Columbia Records introduced a new style of country music which highlighted on smoothness and polish. They call it the Nashville sound. Chet Atkins and Patsy Cline became two of the most known artists, who excelled in helping create this new, mellower sound.
1970’s: Outlaw Country, a tougher and bolder country version
While Nashville sound hooked the audiences with its slick songs, it had also gathered its own fair share of critics. Some analysts felt the style went very commercialized, and didn’t have enough artistic range. This gave way to the rise of the classic style, with a modern twist called “Outlaw Country.”
The sound and instrumentation of this genre may have evolved from the 1920’s arrangements, but the themes and lyrical concepts inverted old school cowboy ballads. The story telling nature of songs went back to country but the protagonists were usually stark anti-heroes. Their character doesn’t fall to the description of a bad guy, nor a wholesome gentleman. Their outfits also drifted away from the neat and clean cowboy boots, sheriff badges, and white hats.
The most famous performer of this style of country music was “the man in black,” Johnny Cash, however, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard were also important musicians during this time.
1990’s – present time: Massive Rise of Pop-Country Artists
The ‘90s made way for a fresh set of country music entertainers, who wanted to make a new sound for themselves. Pop country sound certainly advanced with the modifications in technology and began to feature different sound effects, a full harmony backup and solid musical textures. Also, it introduced the use of electric guitar solos that the audience enjoy so much these days.
Bring “real” country back on the radio
Billy Block, a radio producer who promotes traditional, or "roots" country music, says it can barely get an airing on most country stations. He observed that most radios prefer to play ‘70s pop than traditional country music.
The commercialization of country music affected the standards among record labels and radio stations. Very few still believe that traditional country can sell. According to Craig Havighurst, a music writer for the Nashville Tennessean, these era, record labels are already looking for guaranteed winners.
It was so country that it wasn’t country anymore.
Even Dolly Parton's new songs hardly get a slot on country radio. Music analysts praised these new tracks, saying they are some of Parton’s best work ever. This fact has saddened talented young artists like Rhonda Vincent. She is a celebrated musician who can play half a dozen instruments, her talent is reminiscent of Barbara Mandrell. Her vocal acrobatic performance on country songs often bring a live audience to its feet. Unfortunately, she still can’t get the mainstream radio to even listen to her albums.
Another young and talented rising star that expressed disappointment with the new production format is Jim Lauderdale. He is a popular Nashville entertainer. He recorded a couple of albums for big country record labels, but according to him, they told him his George Jones-like style was "too country." Lauderdale chuckles as he considers the irony.
“It was so country that it wasn’t country anymore.”
Keep them playin'
On the lighter side, there are some traditionalists enjoying success on radio, like Alan Jackson, Vince Gill and Travis Tritt. May they won’t get crowded out as record labels and radio stations look for more of the pop sound that undeniably steel the spotlight.
The propaganda on saving country music
We understand that music headways over time, however, it is necessary that we keep traditional country music alive. Traditional country music offers benefits to a lot of people that modern-day country cannot.
Country music will totally fall apart as an art form without its roots and traditions. Also, it begins to lose its commercial viability without any pop or other outside influences. The war for the heart of country music will continue to burn. However, the real issue that creates an unhealthy conflict is the imbalance favoring the pop music, that has paralleled the most formidable and incontestable decline in the country music industry, in its history.
As long as there are ears, who yearns to hear country songs that rooted from its origins, REAL COUNTRY WILL NEVER DIE!