This article was originally posted in Stereo Embers Magazine.
Do you have a case of the Quarantine sulkies?
Let’s rub a healthy dose of musical debate all over the place and see if it helps.
Good plan, party people?
Question for the group: Have you found yourself inexplicably drawn to what passes for country music these days?
Is there a baffled part of you that finds yourself outright JAMMING to Keith Urban and then feels sad and ashamed about it?
I mean, how can this be happening? You consider yourself a purveyor of good music. You have decent taste, right? You like The Replacements. You love Brandi Carlile and even subscribe to the theory that Clapton is, at very least, adjacent to God. You struggled mightily through the Boy Band era. Generally speaking, it’s safe to say that you have your musical shit together.
So what the fuck-sticks is going on and why are you so secretly so happy when that one Chris Young tune shuffles on?
Have you lost your mind completely?
Quite simply, much of what currently qualifies as country music these days IS basically your beloved late 90’s rock repackaged and spoon-fed back to you.
Yes indeed. Commence the brain implosion. Even a cursory glance through the sounds of the current country soundscape proves that the pop rock of the late 90’s/early 2000’s is merely being replicated over and over.
First things first – the country music of today is not the country music of yesteryear. Gone are the days where Cash, Jennings and Kristofferson told us stories of whiskey-soaked sadness, while simultaneously educating us on the Hemingway-esque plights of the common man. That much is clear, but you know that already.
No judgment here. It just doesn’t look the same (what on earth is Florida Georgia Line wearing?). Nor does it sound the same (pretty sure that Kane Brown is rapping on a few of his hit country songs).
And yet, here we are: occasionally liking and even car-singing the shit out of Eric Church tunes.
As previously stated, this phenomenon is likely explainable via the imprinting that our formative years as music fans made on us. There is soooooooo much pop rock in current country, really it’s insane how similar it is.
Some of the main players are even the same. An obvious example would be your friend and mine, Darius Rucker. The guy is one of the biggest country stars on the planet. HUGE! All well earned, he’s an amazing artist all round. But don’t get it twisted – his solo country records are essentially Hootie and the Blowfish tunes filled in with occasional peal steel for effect. And while we’re on the subject of the great Mr. Rucker, do yourself a big favor and cue up his current collaboration with Jimmie Allen and Charley Pride “Why Things Happen.” You’re welcome.
There’s other notable rock and rollers that also made the successful jump into the country game. You might remember Sister Hazel from your high school days (still a great band, btw). They are now considered full country and sound exactly the same as they did in 1997. There’s Aaron Lewis. Yes, the dude from 2000’s hard rock stalwarts Staind–full on solo country singer these days. Michelle Branch, who was “Everywhere” (pun intended) in the 2000’s, put together a country duo in 2006 called The Wreckers and had a big hit with a tune called “Leave the Pieces.” More recently, Steven Tyler tried on country with fairly cringeworthy results. Do I even have to bring up Kid Rock? Please don’t make me…
As you know, the list goes on and on.
I’m talking about you, Sheryl Crow.
That said, there is really nothing new about rock acts bearing heavy country hallmarks. Both Ray Charles and Jerry Lee Lewis were heavily influenced by country and swing music. Clearly both of those dudes were hugely responsible for what rock and roll became. I mean, could you honestly classify The Eagles in either the rock or country genre and feel good about it? For that matter, Uncle Tupelo? Highly doubtful, people. There’s an excellent argument to be made that genre as a concept has no real place in music anyway, but that’s a feature to be written on another day.
There’s also an economical aspect to this whole situation. Country music famously has one of the only remaining fan bases that still BUYS music. It’s a genre that is built upon songwriting and songwriting still pays big in country. Many artists from rock eras gone-by have had highly successful second acts as songwriters in Nashville. Folks like Ross Copperman, Dave Barnes, both Will and Josh Hoge and Linda Perry have all written some huge country tracks. Crow and Kelly Clarkson, too. Semisonic’s Dan Wilson has become one of the most sought after songwriters in the music business and has penned songs with The (Dixie) Chicks, Chris Stapleton, and Taylor Swift. Yours truly even spent time signed to publishing deals writing country music in Nashville. So if some current country songs are giving you rock vibes, it might be because the songs are being written behind the scenes by many of the same folks whose rock bands you loved in the late 90’s.
While we’re on the subject of country music, it’s worth noting that there are plenty of current country acts that are breathtakingly good. If the punk rocker inside you has not yet allowed Chris Stapleton records into your life, please rectify. Obviously so much of what is now being called Americana has country music splattered all over it, too. We also have the issue of how small the gap is between country, rockabilly and your beloved punk rock (Mike Ness, ladies and gents). But, I digress…
For now, I want you to feel some relief that your guilt-inducing affinity for certain songs by Miranda Lambert, Sam Hunt, Old Dominion or Rascal Flats does NOT make you a musically flawed human (although your Sonic Youth record stack might disagree with me). It just means your musical biology is recognizing a version of itself.
So breathe easy my friends and turn up that Dierks Bentley jam!
Although I might suggest following it up with a Replacements pallet cleanser – that’s just me, though. Do you, boo.