It's been dead for quite some time, though most listeners don't know it. It's a shame that there is no room on country (and I use that term VERY loosely) radio for the pioneers and hit makers of the past. The tradition of the past isn't really a part of what Nashville (or L.A. or New York) are selling these days. Artists (and this is another term I use loosely) such as Tim McGraw, Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley, Kenny Chesney, and Keith Urban may want to be "country", but buying a cowboy hat and driving a pick up doesn't qualify anyone.
Now, there are some folks out there who try to continue the legacy of the greats. George Strait, Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, Reba McEntire, and Dwight Yoakam are out there beating the drum for those who went before them. Not to say that these artists have not changed their music to fit in with the new crowd, but at their core level, they are still about the music and less about the show.
Today's country is a hybrid of twangy guitars, hopped up fiddles, and drum machines. It's got no soul. There is no life behind it. The performers and songwriters have not lived the lives they sing about and they have no real connection with the very things they say they are all about. Honestly, aren't we passed gimmicks and half-assed hillbillisms? "Achy Breaky Heart"? "I Shaved My Legs For This"? "She Thinks My Tractor Is Sexy"? Really......those were hit songs? If I didn't know better, I would have thought these were Weird Al Yankovic tunes.
Once upon a time, country music was rooted in musical sensibility, simplicity, and experience. The stars of the past paid their dues by playing in small bars, county fairs, and street corners. They pedaled their songs around Nashville, working odd jobs and gaining life experience until they could catch a break. These people came from Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and other areas that were generally populated with small towns. You probably couldn't find too many of them that came from New York City, Los Angeles, or Chicago. Today's music is all about marketing. If you have a pretty face, who the hell cares if you can sing, play, or write......your producer and label can make you a star. How many of today's stars look like they have seen tough times and have drawn on those experiences? When you see a picture of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, or Merle Haggard, you know where they have been.
There is some good roots music out there, it's just tougher to find, because you won't hear it on hit radio. Artists/bands like Old Crow Medicine Show, Son Volt, Scott Miller & The Commonwealth, Kelly Willis, Drive By Truckers, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Uncle Tupelo, and Whiskeytown (which was fronted by Ryan Adams) are all much closer musically to authentic country music than almost anyone you can hear on hit country radio. They are the artists that use steel guitars, fiddles, and banjos as serious instruments and not just background noise.
The pioneers of country music lived life on the road, with little time for awards shows, banquets, and living like stars. They sold their music the old fashioned way......they played the dives night after night to earn their chops and sell their music. Hank Williams, Hank Snow, Bob Wills, Patsy Cline, Jimmie Rodgers, and The Carter Family branched off from bluegrass and started country music down the road that led to the legends. For my money, artists like Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Tammy Wynette, Charlie Rich, and Kris Kristofferson should go down in music history with the likes of The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison and others. They made real music and made no apologies for doing things their way. Those performers from the past may have been coined "country" but really, they just played music. Music they loved and felt good about. They didn't care about genre. They cared about the music.
How many people realize that as recently as 2004 Don Williams released an album? Bet you didn't hear that on the radio. What about Loretta Lynn? Surely at her age, she has long since retired or is hitting the oldies circuit, right? Nope, in 2004 she released a great album "Van Lear Rose", which was produced by none other than the White Stripes own, Jack White. But, it didn't get radio play. At least one of the most artistic people in music today appreciated Lynn and still felt her relevant. Loretta Lynn is also planning two new albums this year. Willie Nelson? Still making records (and still taking the pot). Hank Jr? Still making records. Oddly enough, the real country artists are no longer welcome in the modern world of country music.
So, with that, I proclaim country music, at the chart level to be dead. I urge anyone who loves good music, regardless of what genres you think you like or don't like to give some of these tunes a listen and discover how good some of that old (and new, but underground) stuff really is. Good music is good music and reducing what we love into genres limits our ability to expand our mind and find quality in areas we ordinarily wouldn't look.
Waylon Jennings (I Don't Think Hank Done It This Way) w/intro by Johnny Cash
Ryan Adams & Whiskeytown (Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart)
Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard (Pancho & Lefty)
Kelly Willis (Take Me Down)
Scott Miller (I Made A Mess Of This Town)
Son Volt (Catchin' On)