08 February 2020

[Ryan Ralston] - The Death of Country Music

“Well, I was borned a coal miner's daughter. In a cabin, on a hill in Butcher Holler. We were poor but we had love, that's the one thing that daddy made sure of. He shoveled coal to make a poor man's dollar.”  – Loretta Lynn, Coal Miner’s Daughter, 1970

ROOTS
The origins of country music can be traced to the hills and mountains of Southern Appalachia. It was born of working-class Scots-Irish immigrant music, which consisted of ballads with simple folk lyrics and harmonies, accompanied by string instruments and fiddles. It wasn’t until the early 1920’s that country music as an identified genre took root in the US. Historians identify 1927, the year Victor Records signed Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family, as the moment country music was born. 
The term country music gained popularity in the 1940’s as it incorporated Western-style and other subgenres like Bluegrass.   
By 2009, country music was the second most listened to genre during the morning commute – second to pop music - and the most popular in the evening commute.

A COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER 
Loretta Webb was born on April 14, 1932, in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky. Her father, Ted Webb, was a coal miner and subsistence farmer. He died at the age of 52 from black lung disease. 
By age 15, Webb was married to Doolittle Lynn. They moved to Washington State where Doolittle Lynn worked as a logger. He bought his wife a guitar and over a 3-year timeframe, she taught herself how to play. With her husband’s support Loretta Lynn formed a band, “The Trailblazers.” They fooled around in local dives and honky tonks, but it was Loretta Lynn who gained notoriety. 
In 1960, as a solo artist, Loretta Lynn recorded her first single, “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl.” 
Seven years later, Loretta Lynn released her first of 27 No. 1 hits, “Don’t Come Home A’ Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind). 
During a career that spanned five decades, Loretta Lynn received numerous awards. She was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame, won three Grammy awards, had an Oscar-winning film made based on her best-selling autobiography Coal Miner’s Daughter, recorded 70 studio albums, had 55 Top 10 singles, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.
Loretta Lynn was a visionary who pushed boundaries in country music. She sang songs about birth control, societal double standards for men and women, and raised awareness about the heartbreak women suffered while their husbands were drafted into the Vietnam War. Some country music stations went as far refusing to play her music because it was deemed too confrontational. 
If anyone could claim the title of Queen of Country Music it is Loretta Lynn. 

01/28/1986
The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster occurred on the morning of January 28, 1986, when Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into flight, killing all seven crew members aboard. The crew consisted of five astronauts, one payload specialist, and a civilian schoolteacher, Christa McAuliffe. Challenger disintegrated in the sky off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida at 11:39. 
It is estimated 17% of the US population witnessed the disaster live. Television coverage of the launch was widespread, due in part to McAuliffe being the first schoolteacher in space. At the time, 85% of Americans surveyed claimed to have heard about the disaster within an hour of it occurring.  
This was in 1986. Long before the internet, cellphones, and 24-hour cable news networks. 
I was nine years old. 

FLASHBULB MEMORY
A flashbulb memory is a detailed snapshot of an event where a piece of momentous news is witnessed firsthand or heard about secondhand. A flashbulb memory involves a brief shock, like the flash of a camera when taking a photograph. It takes the individual by surprise. These memories are autobiographical in nature. Flashbulb memories are defined by six primary characteristics: Place (Where were you when the event was witnessed or told to you?), Ongoing Activity (What were you doing at the time?), Informant (How did you receive the information?), Own Effect (How did it impact you?), Other Effect (How did it impact others around you at the time?), and Aftermath (Did you recover?). 
As one of the 17% who witnessed the Challenger disaster as it occurred, without hesitation, I can answer all six questions. It is one of my first flashbulb memories. I’ve had many since. The words, “Challenger, go with throttle up,” are forever seared in my heart and mind. 
I suspect, if born by 1976, you identify the Challenger disaster as a flashbulb memory. 

A MERGER 
Prior to 1923, country music was considered music for hillbillies. It told stories intended for one exclusive audience, poor Southerners. 
In the South, between 1924 and 1932, country music underwent a cultural shift. During those 8 years at least 22 documented racially integrated country music recording sessions occurred, with 50 black musicians having played on those records. One of the reasons why it is difficult to accurately count the number of integrated recording sessions are Jim Crow segregation laws. Black musicians were forced to use aliases in studio logbooks and were not given credit for their contributions. White musicians snuck black musicians into a studio, oftentimes after hours, to record music. Country music, like the South, was divided along racial lines. White artists made country music heavy in the tradition of Scots-Irish storytelling and black artists made country music rooted in blues and gospel. One thing that transcended race and racism was the harmony of music. 
The banjo is an instrument made famous in Bluegrass by white musicians. Although, it came to the US from West Africa and was used by slaves and their children to defy restrictions on playing a drum. Black musicians taught white musicians how to play the instrument. 
The merger between “white country” and “black country” music during that time period, forever changed the sound of American country music. 




AMERICA ONLINE
In the mid-1990’s, Americans reveled in anticipation as their modem and phone line screeched and squealed during the process of connecting and going online. We listened for three words, “You’ve got mail.” And so, our national love affair with the World Wide Web began. 
This is not a flashbulb memory. It is significant, though. There is emotion involved. Nevertheless, no corresponding traumatic event exists. This memory is stored within our collective conscience in a different place from the Challenger disaster. 
A flashbulb memory centers on the idea that something dangerous or deeply emotional occurred. There may not be time to analyze exactly what happened, so we store a vivid memory of the situation in our subconscious, to later re-examine and learn from it. Flashbulb memories are not videos of the event, rather, they serve as a warning to stop the same tragedy from happening again. 
Other examples of flashbulb memories are: The terrorist attacks of 09/11/01, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the election of President Barack Obama, the Fukushima disaster, and the death of Kobe Bryant. 

FLORIDA/GEORGIA LINE
Are a country music duo consisting of Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard. Kelley is from Florida. Hubbard, from Georgia. They formed as a cover band in Nashville. Their 2012 single "Cruise" was a breakout hit. It has been downloaded over 7 million times and is the best-selling digital country song of all time, spending 24 weeks at No. 1. FGL pioneered a style of country music known as "Bro-Country,” covering subject matter such as drinking beer from a $400 Yeti cooler, while sitting on the tailgate of a $50,000 truck, parked on a dirt road late at night. Bro-Country often portrays women as only being good for looking good. Their current album entitled, “Can't Say I Ain't Country,” was released on February 15th, 2019. FGL are the first country act to achieve RIAA’s Diamond certification (10 million copies sold). Their song “Meant to Be” holds the record for the longest reign on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart (50 straight weeks). It was dethroned by Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road.” They have sold more than 4.6 million albums worldwide and recorded 16 No. 1 singles. FGL has its own brewery, restaurant, and independent record label. 
The influence of FGL can be heard in the music of other country artists like Sam Hunt, Luke Bryan, and Jake Owens. 

THE QUEEN SPEAKS
Recently, Loretta Lynn sat for an interview with Martina McBride on her podcast, “Vocal Point.” McBride is a country music singer-songwriter. She has recorded 13 studio albums, 2 greatest hits compilations, and 1 live album. McBride has sold over 14 million albums, received the Country Music Association’s "Female Vocalist of the Year" award 4 times (tied with Reba McEntire for the second-most wins), and won the Academy of Country Music's "Top Female Vocalist" award three times. She is also a 14-time Grammy award nominee.
While discussing current country music artists, McBride noticed how Loretta Lynn appeared angry. McBride pushed for a response. The Queen of Country did not hold back, "Yeah. I’m getting mad about it.”  
McBride asked for explanation. Loretta Lynn replied, “I’m not happy at all. I think that they’re completely losing it. And I think that’s a sad situation because we should never let country music die. I think that every type of music should be saved, and country is one of the greatest. It’s been around, as far as I’m concerned, longer than any of it." 
McBride nudged again. Loretta Lynn paused and said, “They’ve already let it {meaning country music} die. I think it is dead. I think it’s a shame. I think it’s a shame to let a type of music die. I don’t care what any kind of music it is. Rock, country, whatever. I think it’s a shame to let it die…”  
Loretta Lynn, country music royalty, went on a national podcast with hundreds of thousands of subscribers and declared country music dead. 
This is a potential flashbulb memory worth examining. 

JOHN 8:32
Reads: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
When Jesus spoke these words, He released us from the bondage of our past. Jesus spoke to those not fully free from man’s tradition. His truth must be embraced through a spiritual maturation process. In the Greek translation truth means reality. To embrace Him and His reality, is to bring freedom into our own lives. 
By writing about her personal experiences with a sincere perspective, Loretta Lynn became a standard-bearer in country music. Someone to be immolated. The spoken truth through music, released her from the bondage of the past; it set her free. Loretta Lynn became something more than a poor teenaged bride from rural Kentucky. 
She sang, “Well, I was borned a coal miner's daughter. In a cabin, on a hill in Butcher Holler. We were poor but we had love, that's the one thing that daddy made sure of. He shoveled coal to make a poor man's dollar.” 
Her audience had no reason to doubt the voracity of her lyrics. Loretta Lynn’s music originated from within her soul and resonated with millions for its plain truth. It was authentic. She told a specific story, for a specific purpose. By the end of Coal Miner’s Daughter, the audience had a connection with Loretta Lynn. They knew she was from Kentucky, raised dirt poor, that her father worked in the Van Lear coal mine, her family grew its own food, her mom made their clothes, and years later when she returned to Butcher Holler, reflecting on life, she was able to acknowledge what made her the woman she is. Her reality is her audience’s reality. 

CRUISE
Yeah, when I first saw that bikini top on her she’s poppin’ right out of the South Georgia water. Thought, ‘Oh good lord, she had them long tanned legs.’ Couldn’t help myself, so I walked up and said, ‘Baby, you a song, you make me wanna’ roll my windows down and cruise.’
This is a sample of the lyrics from FGL’s hit single “Cruise.” The duo co-wrote the words. They did not write the music. They only perform the song. 
What is meant by performance? 
Kelley and Hubbard do not dress themselves. They have an image consultant to tell them what to wear, how to cut and color their hair, which ear to pierce, and what tattoos to get. They employ personal trainers, private chefs, and professional dance instructors to choreograph routines for concerts. 
During recording sessions their voices are overdubbed by computer programs. They hire publicists to prepare written statements, give press releases, and promote their brand. FGL is the byproduct of an assembly line approach to making music. Kelley and Hubbard are but cogs in the wheel. 
During a 2017 interview with Billboard magazine, speaking about “Cruise,” Kelley says that he essentially sees the song as a love letter, especially because of the hook. "The chorus, I think the magic of it was that it’s a love song, but it’s almost in a poem form," he suggests. "I love poetry, and I thought it was kind of cool to bookend it, start the chorus with {'Baby you a song...'} and end the chorus with 'cruise.'”  
Billboard magazine declares, “Baby you a song, you make me wanna’ roll my windows down and cruise," is one of modern country's most memorable lines. 
Memorable is not the adjective I’d use to describe the lyrics of “Cruise.” I’m thinking generic is more appropriate. 
“Cruise” could be sung by Katy Perry, Bruno Mars, Jonas Brothers, Charlie Puth, or The Chain Smokers and sell millions of albums on the pop charts, too. It’s that far removed from country music. 
It’s that inauthentic. 

THE RIGHT QUESTION
The term country music emphasizes its origins. The lyrics and instruments favored by early Scots-Irish immigrants were ways to record an oral history of a culture. It was storytelling set to music. 
Even A. P. Carter of the Carter Family, played and sang songs from an oral tradition point-of-view. Jimmie Rodgers, who is widely recognized as “The Father of Country Music,” like Loretta Lynn, was an innovator. By 1927, he infused “black country” vocal style with Swiss yodeling, while incorporating the Hawaiian steel guitar and jazz trumpet. 
Much like Loretta Lynn, his music was born of personal experience and hardship. Carter’s career only spanned 6 years. He died from tuberculosis. During those 6 years, he sold 12 million records while pioneering a genre. 
Rodgers shed the image of a hillbilly crooner in overalls and embraced a popularized cowboy image portrayed in movies. 
Country music met its match a few years later in Hiram “Hank” Williams.
Williams’ songs were genuine in the context of his life. His music was a blend of hillbilly, honky tonk, and black country instrumental. 
As a child, Williams was taught to play guitar by famed blues man, Rufus Payne. Unable to read or notate music, Williams wrote and recorded some of the most prolific country music songs in American history. He died at age 29 from alcohol and prescription medication abuse. 
To say he lived a tough life is an understatement. 
Williams influenced such artists as: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Chuck Berry, George Jones, and Charlie Pride. 
Williams’ song, “Cold, Cold Heart” is about as specific as one can get. Williams wrote it after visiting his wife (Audrey) in the hospital. At the time, unbeknownst to Williams, she was suffering from an infection caused by an at-home abortion. 
It is well documented, Williams and his wife both had extramarital affairs. Fearing the child might not be Williams’, she gave herself an abortion. It is reported, while at the hospital, his wife told him, “You sorry son of a bitch, it was you caused me to suffer like this.” 
Williams, later that day, was overheard speaking to a friend, “Audrey had a cold, cold heart.” 
An alcohol and drug-addicted genius finds out his wife gave herself an abortion out of fear the child might not be her husbands, and he pins one of the greatest country music songs of all time.  
How authentically tragic.
The right question to ask is not who killed country music but what killed country music.  

BRO, THAT’S NOT COUNTRY
Bro-Country is now played on most country music stations. Bro-Country combines hip-hop, country rock, and computerized electronic vocal tuning. Its generic lyrics confound country music purists.  
For example, taken from Sam Hunt’s hit single, “Body Like a Back Road”: 
The way she fit in them blue jeans, she don’t need no belt. But I can turn them inside out, I don’t need no help. Got hips like honey, so thick and so sweet. It ain’t no curves like hers on them downtown streets.”
Following the logic of FGL’s Kelley, that’s poetry. That’s country music. 
How far from its roots can an art form grow before it loses meaning?  Light years. 

BLAME IT ALL ON MY ROOTS
In the 1920’s, 75% of Southerners still lived in the country. Today, roughly the same portion reside in cities. Modern country music fans no longer face extreme poverty, grow their own food, or suffer the loss of a parent from black lung disease.  
The median household income for the average country music fan is 26% higher than the national average. They can afford to buy $400 Yeti coolers, filled with ice cold “silver bullets,” and drive $50,000 trucks. 
They aren’t country, they’re spoiled brats. 

THE RESURRECTION
Have you heard Emmylou Harris sing about the death of Graham Parsons? 
What about Townes Van Zandt predict his own death from alcoholism in Waiting Around to Die? 
Maybe you’ve heard Lucinda Williams sing Sweet Old World for a friend who committed suicide? 
No? Then it’s likely you don’t know about the new generation of artists who have taken it upon themselves to carry on in the tradition of Loretta Lynn, The Carter Family, and Hank Williams. 
Artists like Tyler Childers, Midland, Sturgill Simpson, Nicole Atkins, Turnpike Troubadours, and The Secret Sisters. Singer-songwriters and musicians whose music speaks for them, not a hired publicist. They dress themselves, wear their hair and beards how they damn-well please, get politically incorrect piercings and tattoos, eat foods high in saturated fat, and dance like drunken heathens. These artists have a specific goal; resurrect country music. 
They are labeled Outlaw Country, Alternative Country, Neo-Traditional Country, and Progressive Country. Their songs are not played on country radio stations. They are shunned commercially. Yet, their concerts sellout night after night. The music resonates with fans for its sincerity.  



WHAT KILLED COUNTRY MUSIC
When it comes to country music, I am a traditionalist. My family is Scots-Irish. We are Appalachian mountain people. When Loretta Lynn proclaimed country music is dead, it was a flashbulb memory for me. One to store away and process at another time. 
I was forty-four years old. 
Sturgill Simpson recorded an entire album about the birth of his son, “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.” The first track is, “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog).” It focuses on Simpson’s heartbreak having to leave his son and go on tour. 
He writes, “And if sometimes daddy has to go away, but please don't think that it means I don't love you. Oh, how I wish I could be there every day, 'cause when I'm gone it makes me so sad and blue. And holding you is the greatest love I've ever known. Oh, when I get home it breaks my heart, seeing how much you've grown, all on your own.” 
A Pollywog is nautical slang for a sailor who has not crossed the equator. I am a Pollywog. 
I am a sailor. I spent six years in the Navy. Four of the six were spent at sea. A week after my son was born, I had to leave for three months. When I returned home, it broke my heart to see how much he had grown, all on his own. 
Simpson’s lyrics are specific. They are authentic. They stabbed me in the heart and twisted the knife around, until our reality was one. That’s country music. 
No, Bro-Country did not kill country music, although it is a contributing factor. 

What killed country music? The lack of specificity. 


4 comments:

  1. Lack of specificity? You can't be more specific than Toby Keith's "As Good as I Once Was". I partially agree, though. It used to be Country Music was about unrequited love, work, trains, whiskey and bars, etc. A good example is Billy Currington's "Good Directions". As long as the song has a good dobro it's passable. The real problem is lack of subject matter. Songs used to be about working in the coal mines and riding on trains. Who wants to hear a song about working on a keyboard and being stuck in a traffic jam?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Mr. Fred, my biggest gripe w/ Toby Keith is how he lamely went after the Dixie Chicks back in the day. It was totally contrived, there's no doubt in my opinion. He's had a few good records, but I wouldn't put him in my Top 10 (or Top 100 for that matter) of Country music.

      There is still real authentic Country out there, you just have to find it. A few of the ones Ryan mentioned I enjoy. A couple I'd never heard of.

      In terms of newer (last 20 years or so) stuff, I'd recommend Elizabeth Cook, and definitely Gillian Welch as well.

      For old school stuff you've maybe never heard of, I'd definitely recommend my all-time favorite Country artist - Jerry Jeff Walker.

      Delete
  2. I was just using Keith's song as being specific. Of course it didn't satisfy all the requirements of David Allan Coe's perfect country song. There's plenty of good country music around, but they are running out of subject matter because our lives are so banal.

    ReplyDelete
  3. So, by your assessment, a person cannot be "country" and [wealthy, middle class], or a brat?

    I tend to think the exact opposite. . . but what do I know?

    I'm a big BIG fan of OLD country - and NEW country - and would probably that both sing of the "issues" of today.....

    ReplyDelete

We'd like to know your thoughts...