Friday, August 15, 2014

Country Isn't Country any More? - Essay

The essay below is a lightly edited version of my monthly column posted on the Welcome Page of the California Bluegrass Association's web page. As always, I am grateful to the CBA for providing me this forum and forcing me to spend several hours every month trying to think seriously about the issues and opportunities confronting our music. I look forward to entering into a discussion with all my readers on this one, either in the comments section or in the forums.

I've noticed recently at bluegrass festivals hearing bands say something like, “Does anyone want to hear a REAL country song?” which is always greeted with applause, even cheers. The songs, often covers of George Jones or Hank Williams, but including many other so-called Classic Country singers and songwriters, are very well received. I've begun to think that a major portion of the bluegrass audience is composed of country music fans who go to hear bluegrass because it's the next best thing available. Bands seem aware of this tendency and are including increasing numbers of country songs in their shows. This has got me thinking.....

I made a quick Google search “Country Music Isn't Country Any More” and got fifty-four million hits, so this doesn't appear to be an obscure topic in people's minds. Larry Cordle wrote a great hit when he claimed “Murder Was Committed Down on Music Row,” earning him the 2000 IBMA Song of the Year award. The song was later recorded by George Strait and Alan Jackson, reaching 38 on the country charts, although it was never separately released. David Peterson wrote about 1946 being part of “the best years of our lives,” although this nod to the 1946 William Wyler film, which won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture and is still one of the highest grossing films (adjusted for inflation) of all times, is a deeply ironic title, since the film deals with the difficulty three soldiers returning from World War II experienced in adjusting to peace. We live in a world where nostalgia for a past that never quite existed dominates our imagination, leading us to construct memories we don't really have.

Country music, music actually made on the front porches with guitars and fiddles, and parlor music have long existed. A.P. Carter collected many songs in the twenties and thirties, creating a family band which took advantage of the unique guitar style of his sister-in-law Maybelle to transition from truly folk music into the more commercial music that became known as country. Their music influenced all forms of country and gospel. Bluegrass emerged out of what became known as the great southern diaspora as rural Americans moved towards the industrial cities where the jobs were, taking their music with them, yet longing for home. Bill Monroe fashioned a fast-paced string band music which captured the yearning for a simpler time of dignified poverty (an oxymoron?) on the farm and in the church. His band consisted of what he could afford to travel with in a car, and he created a brand that became known as bluegrass, becoming a member of the Grand Old Opry in 1939, although his music truly emerged when Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt created a sound revolution after they joined the band in 1945.

Monroe's career reflects that of a professional musician seeking a sound unique enough to allow his music to stand out and earn him living. His “true” story songs captured his views of an era already in the pre-war past. Much of his genius lay in his image making and self-promotion as much as in his music. The images still appeal, even though none is part of the shared experience of most contemporary Americans. But who will write with nostalgia about banks of solar collectors and the beauty of wind farms? How can they compare to the warmth of a crackling fire? How can ranks of huge combines crossing gigantic fields of grain provide beauty comparing to a lone farmer guiding a plow behind a horse? But who in suburban and urban America has this image in their mind as direct experience? What experiences fashion the imagination of today's budding song writers?

Gaining a Perspective: I made a brief search for a precise definition of Classic Country. It appears to me to be a classification for a collection of singers played frequently on certain small, rural radio stations which self-label their playlist as “Classic Country.” It includes performers from Hank Williams through Johnny Cash to outlaws like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings and extends to George Strait and Garth Brooks, whose comeback single concert in Chicago quickly expanded to ten dates in order to meet ticket demands. Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, Reba McIntyre and Emmylou Harris should also be included in the list. But...and here's the important realization, a majority of the recorded and performed material of each era is derivative, imitative, bland, and unworthy of being remembered, regardless of whether the work ever reached the charts, or was, for a brief period, wildly popular. Most of the people who recorded in country and bluegrass music, as well as all other genres, is truly better forgotten. But it often takes a generation or more for us to realize this.

One possible reason for the supposed reduction in the quality of music is the enormous demand for content made by the digital revolution. The Internet has made billions of people into massive consumers of content, including music. You Tube alone grows by 100 hours of video every minute, and is accessed six billion times a month. For the most part quality filters have been removed. Anyone can upload a music video or a book. There are no longer significant editors of written material or producers of music to make choices about what get published. By osmosis, a Gresham's Law of music and literature is in effect, that is bad music and writing drive out the good. Anyone can put out a CD and the remaining publishers are desperate to get out material that makes money. Of course, even in the heyday of the recording industry, there were many more failures than successes.

Similarly, in bluegrass, we all recognize, and most of us revere, the seminal pioneer bands. Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, J.D. Crowe & the New South pioneered musical styles, while the Bluegrass Album Band and the Johnson Mountain Boys came along at just the right time to revive these “classic” sounds just as they were fading from memory. Meanwhile, the New Grass Revival, The Country Gentlemen, and The Seldom Scene pioneered significant changes in the music, taking it in new creative directions. However, again, it must be remembered that more bands were unmemorable, better forgotten than played, and some of the Country Gentlemen, for instance the song about Bruce, seems trivial, dated, and in bad taste when considered as among their other great work. They did, and should, fade from memory. In every era of music, there have been creative geniuses who forged the way, along with imitators and copiers. Who knows which, in any particular era, will emerge and be remembered?

Who knows whether The Gibson Brothers, Balsam Range, The Infamous Stringdusters, The Punch Brothers or some other band will still be played and revered in a generation? Who knows what band, now seen as on the fringe, far away from the mainstream, will emerge in history as a trend setter, a new and creative voice influencing the next generation of musicians, and derided as “not bluegrass” or “not Real country?” Predictions can only be speculative, and most likely they are far off base. Much of the story will be told, and retold, after most of us are gone. Only time will tell.....