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In what the reactionary me considers the good old days of Nashville, Johnny Cash “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” In 1968’s “Mama Tried,” Merle Haggard “turned 21 in prison doin’ life without parole.” George Jones once sang, “If drinkin’ don’t kill me, her memory will” and lived what he sang, routinely missing concerts and earning the nickname “No Show” Jones. This was the country music that country people like me listened to when I was growing up in rural Virginia.
Here’s what I hear on the radio today when I’m driving my Jeep through the streets of Washington, D.C.: songs like “Watching You,” which tells the gritty tale of a little boy making a mess of his McDonald’s Happy Meal after his daddy hits the brakes too hard (“His fries went a-flyin’ and his orange drink covered his lap”). It makes me turn bright red with shame every time it comes on, which is often, because it was Billboard’s No. 1 country song of the year in 2007. The group Lonestar had a hit not too long ago with these hard-core lyrics: “There’s a carrot top who can barely walk, with a sippy cup of milk.” It had another big song called “Mr. Mom.
I could go on, but you can see where I’m going with this. Country music just ain’t what it used to be. That might be good or bad, depending on your outlook, but it’s bad. When CBS airs the 44th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards this Sunday from Las Vegas, the parade of hot bodies onstage will rival the Miss America contest. If past concert appearances are any indication, the nominees for vocalist of the year will be dressed in skintight, revealing tops, some with long, flowing blond hair and deep golden tans.
And that’s just the men. Miranda and Heidi and Taylor and Carrie—all four gorgeous, all four blond, all four real names, all incredibly talented—will be vying for the top female prize. There are still some throwbacks, however. Somehow, Lee Ann Womack, also beautiful, also sometimes blond, managed to become the fifth nominee, even though she actually sings country music and is more than twice the age of 19-year-old Taylor Swift, today’s Nashville “it” girl.
How did we get to this strange, alien land where there’s a country-awards show that honors pop-music teeny-boppers and a lot of the songs aren’t really country by even the stretchiest definition? It didn’t happen overnight. Ever since the Carter Family made their famous Bristol recordings in 1927, people have been arguing about what country music is, was and should be. Traditionalists got bent out of shape in 1962 when Ray Charles recorded “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music,” which took the genre and transformed it into something more approachable for a mass audience. Now it’s considered a groundbreaking classic.
Willie and Waylon ushered in a more hard-core “outlaw” country in the late ’70s, but then in 1980, John Travolta rode into town on a mechanical bull in “Urban Cowboy,” and traditional country music took another hit. And of course there was the great “folk scare” of the 1960s, which threatened to kill off traditional bluegrass. But the truth is, bluegrass had been around for only about 20 years at the time.
Then the 1990s brought us Garth Brooks, more commonly known as just Garth, who I originally thought was all hat and no cattle, surely the final nail in the honky-tonk coffin. His pop-sounding megahits and his wacky flying over arena stages on a wire in his way-too-tight Wranglers made my skin crawl. Almost two decades later, and by today’s Rascal Flatts-ian standards, I consider him almost a modern-day Hank Williams.
It hasn’t been a straightforward march toward bubblegum pop, though. Over the years, the so-called neotraditionalists have had their moments: singers like John Anderson, bluegrass crossover Ricky Skaggs and the Honky-Tonk Man, Dwight Yoakam, managed to sell millions of records. [Editor’s note: Records are big, flat, round things made out of vinyl that you used to put on something called a “record player,” and music came out when you put a needle on it. Seriously, ask your dad.] In 2000, the soundtrack for the Coen Brothers movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” was a runaway hit, won a Grammy and went to No. 1. It’s sold more than 7 million copies since, and has brought late-in-life fame to the most traditional of mountain-music artists, Virginia’s Ralph Stanley.
As the years have passed, I’ve learned to relax about the changes in the music I love. I’m past the anger and denial, and fully in the acceptance stage. I could never in my lifetime listen to all the traditional country recordings that already exist, so who cares if only a handful of alt-country types are still at it? Besides, I knew my habit of mindlessly clinging to the past was finally licked last year when even Merle Haggard, he of the late-1960s anti-hippie anthem “Okie From Muskogee,” wrote a campaign song for Hillary Clinton: “Let’s Put a Woman in Charge.” Uncle! Uncle!
In the old days, there were many, many songs like “Banks of the Ohio,” in which a man stabs his girlfriend and heads down to the river, where he “threw her in to drown, and … watched her as she floated down.” (Dirty secret: folksy, gosh-darny traditional country songs have violence that would make 50 Cent blush.) Today’s producers are just giving people what they want, navigating the market as best they can. It’s a business, after all. Today’s suburban music buyers don’t labor in coal mines or cheat on their wives. Well, they don’t work in coal mines, anyway. Songwriters and hit makers write about what they know, just as their forefathers did, except now what they know is driving the kids to Target in the minivan, or staying at home because they’re unemployed.
So maybe country sounds and lyrics veering a little toward spit-polished pop music aren’t a sign of the end of the world, but something gritty and real has been lost. They borrow the vernacular of country music, the genuineness and masculinity of that hard-knock life, but they morph it into something that’s barely recognizable. The rough edges and authenticity have been sanded off. As the great songwriter Larry Cordle wrote about this very subject in his hit “Murder on Music Row,” “They said no one would buy them old drinkin’ and cheatin’ songs. Well, there ain’t no justice in it, and the hard facts are cold.”
I couldn’t agree more. But to put it in terms Lonestar might understand, at some point, we all have to put on our big-boy pants and move on. The traditional stuff is still out there, if you take the time to look. How can you blame Nashville? Even a legend like George Jones, 77, the man Frank Sinatra allegedly called “the second-best singer in America,” played to an arena that was three-quarters empty last week in the Virginia suburbs. The voice that gave us arguably the greatest country song of all time, “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” went on gallantly with the show. In the so-called good old days, he might not have shown up at all.