Saturday, August 15, 2009

A lil' bit country

The last couple of days I've been around the house more than usual, which means I've been subjected to my mom's radio more than I can bear. It's one of those weird little radios that no one has anymore, mounted into the bottom of our kitchen cupboards. I remember being a little kid with one of those little microphones that would "broadcast" over the radio, and I would run around the kitchen singing (yelling) into it. Back then we listened to FM97, especially Brother Weems in the morning. So much so, in fact, that when Weems got booted for being too wild, we moved with him to a local country station, WIOV, and suddenly my childhood went from Billy Idol and Right Said Fred to Billy Ray Cyrus and Garth Brooks.

It goes to show you just how commodified pop music really is, for my parents to move seamlessly from their Mötley Crüe cassettes to a Neil McCoy concert. But Weems was pretty legit. The morning he ran was no Howard Stern, but at my age I probably wouldn't have understood Stern anyway. Though, within a few years, we would be hanging out at my friend Ryan's house, listening to the re-broadcasts late at night between Cake's "Frank Sinatra" and the Presidents of the United States of America. But that was it for my parents, they were into country suddenly, and now fifteen years later, WIOV is still the station my mom's radio is tuned to.

It's the reason why I can sing the words to every single country song from 1991 until about 2001 without even knowing them (I need to get on that CMT show, "Singing Bee"--I'm a total ringer), and really, that I don't mind. Some of those songs are pretty damn good. I love Johnny Cash and Hank Williams and George Jones. I've got a place in my heart for David Allan Coe and Reba McEntire (so many songs about murder!), and of course Garth Brooks is one of the biggest acts in the history of music for a reason. But tuning into WIOV (or now as they call it, "The Big I-105") these days is a far cry from a decade ago.

I hate the music that they call "country" any more. Johnny and Hank would be disgusted to hear it. Johnny no doubt was when he was still alive--you didn't see him singing duets with Faith Hill or touring with Rascal Flatts (whoever the fuck that even is). He worked with Rick Rubin and Tom Petty and sang songs by Glenn Danzig and Trent Reznor. I played in a country band for almost a year, and though we've sadly now disbanded from the distance between us, I miss The Bad Faith Compromise quite a bit. But when I'd try to explain who we were, what we did, I'd always balk at calling it country though I knew it plainly was. "Folk rock" we said most of the time, "or Americanacore, if you can imagine such a thing. You know, a little like Slim Cessna's Auto Club. Or Waylon Jennings fronting Minor Threat."

It's not because I wanted to lie, it's because country music, at this point, absolutely mis-represents country music. It's the farthest cry from what it was, in production, in spirit, in sound, even in theme. If it was popular at one time to make fun of country songs for being all about rusty pick-up trucks and old hound dogs and the memories of lovers lost, then what the hell do we have today? At least those were stories, and from the heart. I dare you to listen to "Beaches of Cheyenne" without it painting a heartbreaking tale for you. Hell, think about the title. That's deep stuff! Today we get three main kinds of songs. Female singers get the one of the categories, the Tough-Ass Beer-Swillin' Babe Gonna Show You She Ain't Dealin' With Your Shit No More (Gretchen Wilson's "Redneck Woman" and Carrie Underwood's "Before He Cheats"), along with their occasional sappy love songs here and there. Male vocalists also get their whiny little love songs (that are usually more about Jesus than women, it seems), but they've got two main categories as well: the Let's Hit The Bar & Partake In Some Questionably Homoerotic Bro-Bonding (Big & Rich's "Save A Horse, Ride A Cowboy" and Kenny Chesney's "No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problems"); and of course the I Am So Goddamn American You Wouldn't Even Believe (Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" and... well, okay Toby Keith kinda has the market cornered on this one).

Actually, as I took a few minutes from writing just now to look up these song titles (since all I ever hear in these songs is "America! Beer, beer beer! America! Horses!" and that's not much to go on for identification), I am truly blown away by some of the shit I have found. First of all, Kenny Chesney's gay, right? First that song about not wearing clothes up there, but he's also got songs entitled, "Keg in the Closet," "All I Want for Christmas is a Real Good Tan," "Flip Flop Summer," and his ostensible ode to the many and beautiful schlongs he's seen in his life, "Someone Else's Hog." Apparently there's some crossover in the Shit Yeah You Know I'm A Fucking American camp as well, with Chely Wright's "Bumper of My SUV," in which she sings somberly about the U.S. Marine Corps ribbon magnet on the bumper of her SUV, and the woman in a minivan that flips her off as she drives by. Because of her bumper sticker, right? Not because she's probably holding up traffic as she cruises down the street at 10 mph below the speed limit in her gas-guzzling Hummer H2, taking out small pets and kids on bikes without even noticing because she's on her cellphone and listening to Toby Keith's "Let's Talk About Me" at volumes loud enough to drop birds from the sky.

Yeah, I'm sure it was your USMC bumper sticker.

I love country music, but every time I say it, I have to follow it with a big, fat asterisk. I love the stories county music tells like no other genre can, and I love the storytellers telling them. I love the imagery and metaphor, like John Updike with a harmonica. I love a simple guitar, a haunting lap steel and a fiddle. Man, if the good ol' boys of country could see it now, I know exactly what they'd do. They'd beat the snot out of these Keith Urbans and Brad Paisleys and call them queers. Because, frankly, they were racists and homophobes. But they did make some fine ass music. And that's what counts. I think.


  1. i'm quite the fan of Johnny Cash, and yea country music, by today's standards is the equivelant of pop music. The reason i love the indie genre is the folksy, genuine, honesty to it..something that's been missing from country for quite some time.

  2. Country music turned into a crap heap for the same reasons all other genres of popular and not so popular music turned into respective crap heaps.

    Reason the first: the people who run the record companies, the radio stations, and all other media outlets are not music fans. They're bean counters. They only care about the bottom line. So Garth Brooks comes along and adds some glitz and arena rock pomp to his version of country music. It's not my cup of tea, but Brooks is respectable in my opinion. Anyway, the bean counters look at how this explodes and say to themselves, "Fuckin hell! Look at all this money. We need to find stuff exactly like this, market the hell out of it, and sell, sell, sell." So they do. And as each incarnation of the new Garth Brooks puts out a record, the form gets watered down and down and down until its just a single, monotonous drone. It's how Garth Brooks begat Big n' Rich. It's how Led Zeppelin begat Billy Squier and Boston. It's how Pearl Jam and Soundgarden begat Creed.

    Point the second: As is relevant to point the first, the major labels are headed by people who don't give a shit at all about music. The music itself is meaningless. So it's 1961 and the then head of Columbia Records, John Hammond, brings some scruffy kid from the Village into his office for an audition. The kid plays three songs, only one of which is his own, and Hammond immediately signs him to a record deal. Right there. Forty eight years later, the kid releases his latest album on Columbia. That kid was Bob Dylan. Could this happen today? On a major label? I don't think so. We all know the stories of Elvis and Sam Phillips, Phillips who also discovered Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and so on. See, Phillips and Hammond wanted to make money, but they were the heads of RECORD COMPANIES that stood alone as their own entities. They cared about making money, but their way of making money was to put out a superior product. Now, record companies are all part of major media corporations like Sony. Who gives a shit if it's any good? Furthermore, these people were tastemakers. They took high risks and reaped high rewards. Now, it's all about safety. We know people like this certain shit, so we will continue to market and sell this certain shit until it's completely dry.

    Point the third: Music doesn't mean anything anymore. I'm not talking about political messages here. Music is just 1's and 0's. Point and click. Buying a record/cassette/cd used to be a holy experience. Having the physical doccument in your hands, pouring over the liner notes, was a religious ritual. Now you can have any song you want for 99 cents and the romanticism is dead. Just words and codes. The people don't care, they're not seeking out music, live performance, whatever it may be, as forms of entertainment. Think about where we went to college. Not too long ago, there were three clubs that featured live music on an almost nightly basis. The Decade (rock and blues), The Electric Banana (punk), and the Upstage (dance). You know why they don't exist? Our generation doesn't care. Music is not a major form of entertainment.

    So yeah, it's two am, I'm rambling, but I have a point, damn it.

    Country music sucks for the same reason that rock n' roll sucks. I don't want to live in a world where the Rolling Stones couldn't break out. Nor do I want to live in a world where if Johnny Cash came out today, he'd be playing in bars with no fanfare. Unfortunately, that's where we are.

  3. It's true and it's disgusting and it's depressing. It's also the reason people can like both 50-Cent and Trace Adkins--not because they are connoisseurs of music that can appreciate any genre, but because anything that falls beneath the "popular" genre is exactly the same.

    It seriously takes a toll on the fabric of my being to hear some of this shit, and I can't understand it because people like us care so much about music. I just can't comprehend someone who listens to music the way people eat in this country: just a sugary snack to keep your mind busy while watching American Idol. The shit they play on the radio has to be at least as bad for the brain as the shit we put into our gaping pieholes are for our hearts.

    I'd say we need another grunge movement or something like it, to re-affirm what popular music can be, but someone would just derail it, put it on an MTV reality show and make a million dollars off the merch. Ugh. Now I'm even more depressed.

  4. "put it on an MTV reality show and make a million dollars off the merch."
    I think the problem is that everything gets to a point where you can sum it up and put it in a box. And unfortunately the sad truth is the music business is still a business. I feel like you just gotta search harder to find the good true country music...like go take a field recorder to the backwoods of west virginia or something...

    ps. update the god damn soda blog already.