Where in the world is real country music? It sure ain't on the radio. You might hear a second of steel guitar, a loud blast of fiddle, or a little twang in the singer's voice on modern country radio these days. But the things artists like Toby Keith and Faith Hill sing about have more to do with life in suburban Chicago than anything remotely related to honky-tonks, cheatin' hearts, or the white-boy blues. In a world where masters like Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris and Johnny Cash aren't allowed on the radio anymore--not to mention brilliant younger artists like Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch--where the hell is country music these days?
It's alive and well, dadgummit. You just won't find it on the air, except on obscure college or rural AM stations that haven't bought records since 1975.
Every once in a blue Kentucky moon, a traditional-style recording makes the big time, raising the hopes of real country music fans that our music has a chance to reign supreme--to prove us right. The wildly popular Dixie Chicks, whose album Home hit No. 1 on Billboard magazine's pop charts in September, are the latest bragging right.
The Chicks dared to make their new record sound old; there's a good bit of fiddlin', and a rootsy sound that probably hasn't been heard on a big-time country album since Emmylou Harris' comparable and stunning "Roses In The Snow" in 1980, throwing traditional bluegrass and Celtic sounds at a country music world that was enamored with Kenny Rogers and blaring trumpets. The result for Emmylou--one of the most distinctive and stylistically brave artists in popular music over the past 25 years--was her fastest-rising album on the country charts, peaking in the Top 10.
Why didn't country radio get the message back then? Their heads were up their molasses because country was crossing over into pop, and record companies and radio stations were hitting it big. Quality singers like Ronnie Milsap were scoring hit singles with glossy arrangements that kept country's soul but sounded a bit more uptown. Southerners and rural ears liked what they heard; they were part of the rest of the world, making more money, leaving the country state of mind for a place where people took home more pay and downed less whiskey. Urban audiences dug the soulful pop music as a legitimate alternative to new wave. But like the Rubik's Cube and Renaults, uptown country didn't last.
But instead of retreating to old-time sounds, or to legitimate artists who could take the traditional sound and build on it, Nashville kept wandering around musical strip malls. It found John Michael Montgomery and Shania Twain. It found drum machines, country-rap, girl-power songs, and dance mixes. It talked good singers into bad material, into careers that wouldn't survive much past a decade. It found suburbia, and it stayed there. Just 'cause you wear a cowboy hat, brother, doesn't mean you've been to the rodeo. Get these people off the radio, and play O Brother, Where Art Thou? songs like millions of people are doing at home right now--because the former No. 1 album and Grammy Award-winning movie soundtracks can't be found on the radio. If the executives ever put the good music where it belongs, they'll help more people discover some of the best music ever made in this country, and they'll make good money doing it.
For now, fans of real country music are stuck with radio stations that play nothing but twanged-up pop that has the sonic banality of contemporary Christian music. We're stuck with Shania Twain's new video, in which she plays a motorcycle-riding Blade Runner space-bug.
We're stuck with Toby Keith (the guy who stars in TV commercials with Alf) and his sexist, stupid lyrics in big hits like "Who's Your Daddy?" that make Hank Williams Jr. look like a poet. We've got songs about angels and minivans; this is how country music executives have blessed the airwaves since the major record labels dropped Johnny Cash and George Jones from their rosters. Who the hell gets rid of Johnny Cash?
If I could answer that question, somebody's country-white ass would be redder than strawberry wine right about now. (Actually, nobody except the good Lord himself will ever get rid of Johnny Cash, and the legendary singer-storyteller has proven it with four excellent albums on Rick Rubin's American Recordings, duets on his wife June Carter Cash's lovely "Press On," and tracks on a recent Hank Williams tribute album and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's terrific Will The Circle Be Unbroken--Volume III.) Excuse all of that, because Cash needs no damn defense.
Then again, who needs the radio or major record labels? People whose ears won't tolerate such nonsense have a good bit of our own music to enjoy. I prefer National Public Radio anyway (which plays a lot of bluegrass and roots music where I live, in Washington, D.C., and down in the Carolinas, where I'm from). Do I really want my favorite artists, relegated at present to "alternative-country" or "Americana," to really make the big time?
I can't imagine North Carolina native Jim Lauderdale joining bluegrass greats Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys to film a music video, even though their remarkable two albums together probably deserve greater attention. Emmylou Harris would sure look (and feel) dumb in a Reba-style music-video-epic. Lauderdale and singer-songwriters like Darrell Scott (who wrote the Dixie Chicks' "Long Time Gone" and "Heartbreak Town") are making real nice livings from writing hits for others, but recording on their own terms. Merle Haggard and others seem to have grown from the freedom their small-label status has brought them; just check out Haggard's album If I Could Only Fly, released in 2000 by the death-punk label Epitaph. Yes, Epitaph.
But I'm not talking about Country Music Television. I'm talking about the radio, and artists like these don't necessarily want or need to be huge stars. They just need to be heard. I realized this clearly last year when, during a conversation about favorite songs with one of my teenage cousins in rural South Carolina, I told her of my love for Cash and Harris. She didn't even know who I was talking about. One reason listeners might enjoy more real country is that it brings together different, classic styles of American music. Just like Elvis Presley did, the songs on the O Brother soundtrack reach back to places where we all come from--the hills, the woods, the fields, and even the islands. They reach across oceans, and they reach down into our guts. They're songs about love and heartbreak and work and the sunshine.
People have been singing them for almost a hundred years, and with the technology that allows us to preserve music like never before, they can be sung for centuries. The work of bluegrass songbird Alison Krauss and her band Union Station, as one example, really is that good.
I have to admit that people make music for different reasons than the Carter Family did when they first sang "Keep On The Sunny Side" into a recorder in Bristol, Va., in 1927. They sang because that's what they did. Faith Hill makes songs that sound like Bon Jovi because that's what people will buy. Or maybe it's because that's what they've grown accustomed to buying, and hearing. Maybe traditional music tells us too much detail about who we are, and where we came from. Maybe increasingly white audiences don't like old-time country because it brings back too many harsh memories, like Delta blues does for some of my African-American friends in Mississippi.
Traditional country music--like other forms of original American music, including the blues--is a gift to be shared, not sold. So maybe I don't want my favorite artists to become bigger stars than they are. They probably don't even want to be. I just want their singing, and what they're singing about, to be heard. The stories this music shares, in verse and note, are what we really need to know and understand about ourselves as Southerners and people who come from traditionally rural communities.
Until the 'burbs started to boom in Cary, many of us came from the country. Country music shouldn't bring shame, as some young listeners and New South older folks sometimes suggest. (My parents, who turn one-syllable words into two every day, told me they don't like Ralph Stanley because he sounds too twangy.)
This is our music, and it's plenty cool, as singer-songwriters like North Carolina native country-rockers Tift Merritt and Ryan Adams are proving (among lots of others). I did hear Merritt the other day while shopping in The Gap someplace, which shows the strange new quasi-popularity roots music is enjoying these days. I still haven't heard her on mainstream country radio, and might never will, and maybe that ain't so bad after all. Nirvana sure was cool until every rock band started sounding like them and alternative grunge-rock became rock radio's staple.
Plus, I'm not sure you could play The Cox Family's sorrowful "I Am Weary Let Me Rest," from the O Brother soundtrack and follow that with the morning traffic report and prank telephone calls from a disc jockey.
Maybe I should just let my music be. It's survived for this long, and even made a comeback. That's a lot more powerful than 100,000 watts and carries a whole lot farther.
Alan Richard is a freelance writer. A South Carolina native, he hopes Emmylou Harris might let him write her biography one day from his current base of Washington, D.C.