“It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.”
I don’t enjoy playing the CMAs. The last time I did it was the one before last, and my three minutes of so-called work were preceded by hours of wandering the dreary, concrete bowels of the Bridgestone Arena, steering clear of the very important people, keeping low so not to breathe the airs of ego and insecurity. But there was one moment worth recalling. As fate had it, I found myself caught in a pop history vortex between two approaching entourages: the one on the left led by Lionel Richie; the right by John Oates. Backed against a wall, I watched them meet with a handshake, exchange courtesies, and then move on, all right before my eyes. And what was the price of their admission to this modern genre? They had both shaved their iconic mustaches and replaced them with soul patches. I thought, “This is what pop country does to the great ones. This is where the heroic yapstacks come to die.”
I’ll bet the New York Times would agree with the Hesiod of a year and a half ago. In a recent article, Jon Caramanica criticized the newest releases by Gary Allan and Randy Houser (my current employer) for showing “how smooth exteriors can put complex interiors at risk,” an indictment of the primping and marketing that compromises otherwise visionary artists. He argues that Allan and Houser’s new albums stoop to shill the pablum of their lesser contemporaries, presumably folks like Luke Bryan who dare sing songs about having fun*. This opinion implies a common assessment of what country music has become, namely a bastardization of an expired songwriting medium, polished and mass-produced for an undiscerning audience. This is an arguable claim, and I’d like to argue against it.
First, the undiscerning audience. Who the hell can stand to listen to another song about drivin’ trucks or drinkin’ beers? Populists can, because that’s what populists do: they assert their culture ad nauseam, because the only protection against elitism is an obstinate alignment under the surefire things they can all agree on. Fans of pop country aren’t undiscerning, it’s just that what they discern is distinctly populist: this guy is really one of us, or that girl’s just like me and my friends. One of the goals of a good pop country song is to convey a sense of collective self-recognition, and this achievement is often misunderstood as being marked by a lack of imagination or a resort to using lazy cliches. It’s not. Those cliches are necessary colors in a country songwriter’s pallet.
But is it sincere? Doesn’t the integrity of those big dumb colors get compromised by all the studio polish and mass-production? Pop music sakima Robert Christgau believes that those who are “plagued by competence” are incapable of making a true blues noise or a true rock’n’roll noise—two fundamental components of the pop country compound. As a session player, I’m puzzled by the imaginary divide that exists between people of style and people of talent, as if folks who can read music and play with a certain level of facility can’t possibly understand the appeal of Pavement or the Velvet Underground, or folks who can’t or don’t do those things can’t truly engage bebop or the Second Viennese School. I believe that the best producers, engineers, and studio musicians are people of both style and talent. The top studio “cats” in Nashville add up to about a hundred total, and they are all way more proficient at playing songs than anybody I can think of, me included (I’ve recorded on a few master sessions, but no big hits). For the last six years, I’ve toured and played bass lines originally recorded by mostly three different guys: Michael Rhodes, Jimmy Lee Sloas, and Glen Worf. I’ve played for five times as many pop country artists, but these same three bassists laid down the original studio tracks on almost all of those artists’ records.
So why do they get called for all the sessions? Let me illustrate: listen to track two of Randy Houser’s new album, a song called “We’re Just Growin’ Younger,” a harmless tune about harmless things. I’m no slouch, so I was able to cop Michael Rhodes’s bass line note for note after one listen, but, after having played it on the road for about six months, I haven’t once achieved a feel as righteous as the one captured on the recording, and he laid that shit down in a matter of a couple takes. So-called people of talent can’t tell the difference between a note-for-note transcription and the real thing, and the people of style don’t even care because they rejected this thread at the word “cat.” Here’s my point: “competent” is often confused with “polished,” but they’re not the same things. True musicians are competent, and they know and love all music, and they know and love it in the same way that the Dalai Lama knows and loves all people, even the people who suck. They say you can’t polish a turd, but you might be able to send it up the charts if you get Michael Rhodes, Tom Bukavac, and Greg Morrow to play on it. Those guys can make anything sound sincere.
In a paradigm where hip hop has turned the pop single into a sequence of loose associations between verse and refrain—almost all about sex and self-adulation—has the time of the narrative country song expired? Let’s check the scoreboard. “Pontoon” by Little Big Town, “Springsteen” by Eric Church, and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” by Taylor Swift, are three certified-platinum singles from last year, and they all have a narrative arc. Maybe those narratives aren’t as substantial as, say, “Tin Angel” by Bob Dylan, but they’re enough to prove that the story song is alive and well.
Well, alive anyway. Aren’t these cheap little ditties just the bastard children of the gospels according to Willie, Waylon, Hank, and Merle? Simply put: yes, of course they are. And Nirvana was just the Butch Vig-ified bastard child of Pixies and Wire.** So why is it that country music is derided for being derivative more than most other genres? It is because country intends to be a reactionary genre, and that intent is rejected by fans of more radical forms. I don’t mean to suggest something political here; I’m talking about how a genre develops its stylistic lexicon. To participate in indie rock, you either need to sound like something nobody’s ever heard, or look so good that nobody cares how you sound. To participate in country, you need to operate within strict stylistic parameters, because invention alienates an artistically conservative listening audience. To an educated fan of rap music, “Dirt Road Anthem” by Jason Aldean would be hilarious if it weren’t so goddamned painful to listen to. But for fans of country music, and for people who are tolerant of multiple contexts, that song actually brings a sexy club vibe to the hollers and the backwoods. I fucking hate it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a great song; it’s the best example of Affliction-core I can think of.
Besides, not all old country songs are created equally. How many times have you heard someone say “I like old country but not new country.” Really? You like “Country Boy” by Little Jimmy Dickens? “Po’ Folks” by Bill Anderson? I’ll bet you’re just crazy about that tour du force “I Love” by Tom T. Hall. Me too, actually! I’m just surprised, you know, because you seem to hate triteness, hokeyness, and cloying sentimentality in modern country. What you meant to say was either: 1) “I hate young people because I’m old,” 2) “I hate the way digital recordings sound,” or 3) “Johnny Cash is cool because they made a movie about him.” Now I don’t doubt that there are sincere and knowledgable fans of the classic artists who reject modern pop country music on defendable grounds. My accusation is that those people are listening to these artists on the terms of a different genre, mainly rock. They hear the punk in Hank Sr.’s voice, the pained darkness in Cash’s, and they admire the freewheeling spirit of Willie and Waylon. They like these artists in spite of their country twang, not because of it.
Probably the best way to defend pop country music is by presenting a challenge. If you’re reading this, you’re likely a creative person, perhaps a writer. Why don’t you try writing a country song? People get the inspiration for them all the time. I met a guy who had a million dollar idea about using “deer” and “dear” in the same line. Sure, that could work. But I guarantee that the pun itself will not make the song successful. It takes a lot of hard work to make song sound easy, and every country single on the charts—even the bad ones—have in common a genuine respect for country music. Those beer drinkin’, truck drivin’ populists all over the world can tell the difference and won’t settle for anything less.
In closing, please allow me to namedrop again. I’ve come to know Luke Bryan as a kind, funny, and intelligent man, but I first met him five years ago when he was opening up for the artist I worked for at the time. I was brand new to Nashville, and his first single “All My Friends Say” had just started to take off. When I shook his hand, he was wearing gym shorts, a baseball cap, and had a guitar on his lap. I told him that I didn’t know much about country music, but that his song was one of my favorite things I’d heard that had come out recently. He thanked me and said something to this effect: “All I wanna do is write songs that make people feel as good as my favorite songs make me feel.”
If that ain’t country, I don’t know what is.
*As of 2013, having fun still isn’t cool unless it bears the inevitability of negative consequences, i.e. skateboards and cocaine (cf. recent debut by FIDLAR).
**Say what you will about Bleach and/or In Utero, Nirvana would not have been canonized without the popular success of Nevermind.
Hesiod James is a Nashville sideman. He plays bass.