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I’ve done everything I can do, from helpfully providing her with the above description of her favorite music, to recommending more pleasant alternatives, such as the ‘80s station, or maybe the sound of an ice pick entering my own ear canal, and these suggestions went over just about as well you would imagine. She only gave serious consideration to the latter, but ultimately decided against it.
And so, against my will, I must listen to Today’s Hot Country, too. Such is life, I suppose, but what really hurts is that she has the kids into it. On car rides, I am hopelessly outnumbered. Every time I hear “gurrrrl,” or “cold beer,” or “t-shirt” or “tight jeans” or “partyin’”(pronounced “pawrtyin”) either “on the beach” or “on the farm,” or some version of the proclamation “I’m country!” fake-drawled over canned music, my eyes roll like the wheels on the City of New Orleans, and my heart sinks like a stone.
You’ve heard the old joke about what happens when you play a country song backwards – you get your wife back, your truck back, and your dog back. It’s a fine joke, but never quite fair to good country music, which, while there has always been some goofing off here and there, generally takes pain very seriously.
Nowadays, I don’t think anyone under 30, if the only country they’ve heard is on mainstream radio, would even get that joke.
Because unlike that unkind, strife-filled world you find in traditional Country music and its root ancestors, everything is going great for the singers of Today’s Hot Country. The love songs are straight from Hallmark cards and chick-flicks, sappy, sweet, and fawning. There is no pain to be found, or at least none that doesn’t have some silver lining, redemptive lesson, or happy ending. There is no confusion or doubt. The good times are really good times and they are rolling along with no sign of stopping. Not only has the singer never lost his pickup truck, it’s the greatest pickup truck ever and there’s a pawrty in it every Fraday nat after the bawl game. Not only has the wife not left him, she’s the greatest wife ever ‘cuz she’s so country and don’t mind him feeshin’ and drankin’ ice-cold Bud Light with his freeinds. She luvs Bud Light, too! In long-neck bottles. On a dirt road. In her tat blue jaynes. Everything is a honey-sweet sticky celebration of rural and small-town life.
It’s revolting. It’s a caricature of the culture it purports to champion. I grew up in rural Kentucky surrounded by hill people. In fact, I was one of them (as I later learned). I live in a small town now. Nothing about this music makes takes me home. It’s stupid, pandering, artless, and embarrassing. I’m not suggesting that every song has to be about pain, but at least put some thought into it, something from down deep. Everything is simple and there is nothing below the surface in Today’s Hot Country.
The Bro-Country party songs are exceptional specimens of a pernicious culture-strangling weed. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not categorically against songs about fishing, or trucks, or even blue jeans, and definitely not opposed to songs about drinking – but that’s not what these songs are. These are songs about liking those things, not about those things themselves. They are proclamations of the singer’s likes and hobbies, sung as if someone cares. So, instead of songs actually about fishing, with some artful statement about why it’s relaxing, or whatever, we get songs that just declare (as if it’s controversial), “I LUV FEESHIN! THAT’S ME AND YOU JUST HAVE TO DEAL WITH IT! AND I LOVE ICE COLD BUD LIGHT, TOO!” (reaches for the check from a Bud Light rep) AND GUURLS IN TIGHT JEANS! SO I CAN SEE THE CONTOUR OF THUR BUTT! I’M SO COUNTRY!” (Yes, I’m generalizing and cramming a bunch of songs into one representative sample, but that’s the gist of it.)
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ll reluctantly give you a little sample of it. Luke Bryan is often seen as the poster child for this disastrous development in country music. And rightfully so. Here’s one of his recent hits, That’s My Kinda Night. (Don’t be distracted by the eye-candy in the video; the song is obnoxious and awful.)
Not only are the Hot New Country lyrics trite, the music is terrible, too, filled with generic computer beats. You might listen to a modern country station for an hour before you hear an actual musician playing an instrument. You would have to wait even longer to hear an actual musician playing an instrument who isn’t just going through the motions. They also seem to be doing something with the voices of a lot of the male singers. I don’t know if it’s auto-tuning, but it’s some kind of extra vibration, the auditory equivalent of artificial carbonation. I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s very distracting.
That’s not how it used to be in country music (well, I mean, I guess there was always some silly stuff, but not to this extent). I could, of course, refer you back to Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, etc… those great country legends of the past who are oft-mentioned, but never imitated, in Today’s Hot Country.
But you don’t really have to even go back that far to find good art in Country Music. Even in the ’90s, mainstream Country radio was filled with great songs like Brooks & Dunn’s “Neon Moon,” or Clint Black’s “Better Man,” or Dwight Yoakam’s “Thousand Miles from Nowhere,” or John Anderson’s “Straight Tequila Night,” among many others. Nothing on the radio today comes close.
If you only listened to Today’s Hot Country, you would think a great American art form had died a gross, ignominious death. And for a long time, that’s what I did think. I could only console myself on solo drives with downloads of the classics and try to forget. I missed, and the world missed, good country music. It was a necessary ingredient to our cultural stew, and somehow, in the span of just a few years, it was diluted into oblivion.
Now, I wrote this post primarily just to vent, to find an outlet for my irritation, (one that won’t lead to divorce pleadings.) I really just wanted to complain. I don’t mean for it to be taken too seriously, and I admit my wife has a point when she says I’m no fun when it comes to music. And, it’s true that this divide in the country music world is old news for many. There has been a lot of back and forth among critics and artists over the last few years. But for those like me, who share my despair (there’s a phrase for a good country song), but may not have kept close tabs on the controversy over the years, I also want to tell you there is hope.
First, as bad as Country has gotten, not all is lost in the broader music world. Over the years, I have enjoyed some of the nice new folky, semi-country, bluegrassy, semi-rock Americana style (your Avett Brothers, your Jason Isbells, your Ryan Adams’s, etc.) which are all very good, and some of it is spectacular – (Neko Case – I mean… have mercy.) There is some wonderful new music out there, far better than you will ever hear on the radio, and even if it’s not really country, some of it gets very close.
More importantly, while it may be in a coma, there are signs of life in country music if you know where to look. Appropriately enough, given the history of the genre, these signs of life seem to be coming in mostly, or at least disproportionately, from the hills and hollers of Eastern Kentucky.
To wit: I first discovered it one day, maybe 4 years ago or so, while driving solo, when a song came on the college radio station I was listening to, where I often caught good Americana. I don’t remember if the d.j. announced it or not, I just remember I heard a ship’s bell ring, a snare drum snap, and then an undeniably country voice belt out:
“Basic was just like Papaw said,
‘Keep your mouth shut and you’ll be fine’
Just another enlisted egg
in the bowl for Uncle Sam’s beater.”
And it went on from there – rollicking beat, steel guitars, a singer filled with pain and confusion, story of a Navy enlistment gone wrong. Trouble, anguish, experiences that might actually be interesting and nothing that would ever show up in a Facebook post. A natural Appalachian accent (“Kuala Lampur” pronounced “Kuala Lampawr”; “what” pronounced “hwot”). Good musicians playing real instruments in ways that require thought and skill.
“What is this!?” I thought. “It’s country! It’s new! And it’s spectacular!” What it was was Sturgill Simpson’s “Sea Stories,” and it was the best country song I had heard in decades.
That song sent me down a happy rabbit hole of good, new, country music. Looking further into Sturgill led to Tyler Childers, which led to Ian Noe and a number of others. What they mainly had in common was quality writing, great musicians to back them up, authentic and soulful sounds, true to Country’s roots, all those things missing in Today’s Hot Country. What they also had in common was that they were all from Eastern Kentucky. Chris Stapleton, I should point out, perhaps the only good country artist who still gets a little radio time (but not enough), is also a Kentuckian.
Compare the music of these artists, I’ll call it Kentucky Country for convenience, to Today’s Hot Country and it’s hard to imagine they’re in the same music family at all. Kentucky Country is often very dark, but, to be fair, it comes from a place where darkness has reigned for decades. Tyler Childers, whose album Purgatory has cover art with the outline of Lawrence County, Kentucky, minces no words about this. His great murder ballad “Banded Clovis,” tells the tale of two men digging for valuable ancient arrowheads in “the dark and bloody ground,” (which is what scholars used to say was the original meaning of the word for Kentucky.) Spoiler alert – it does not go well when they find one, a modern killing done over the remains of an ancient one. Even Childers’ country party song, “Whitehouse Road,” is a little twisted, with a narrator who, despite his braggadocio, is ultimately pathetic and doomed, a far cry from the perfect good times found in Today’s Hot Country.
Ian Noe, a native of Lee County, also sings songs unsuitable for social media posts. The narrator in Noe’s song “Meth Head,” for example, has no use for any soft-glove treatment of meth addicts, describing them as zombies preying on productive members of society, and then proposing the following solution:
“It’ll be dark pretty soon,
They love to lurk by the moon,
So I’m outside, shoveling the dirt
I’m gonna dig me a hole,
As deep as I can do,
And when they fall,
I’m gonna cover ’em up.”
But it’s not all darkness and dread in the new Kentucky Country sound. There is some range in themes. Childers, for example, is capable of very nice love songs, and also has an odd but brilliant song called Born Again, in which the singer recounts various adventures in reincarnation.
Here is a good spot for a direct comparison. If you clicked on the link to the horrific Luke Bryan song, which is partially about taking a young lady for a “date” on the water, do yourself a favor and check out Childers’ Lady May. It also features a young man asking a girl to come down to the water with him. But, unlike Luke Bryan’s adolescent mess, it’s a masterful and haunting piece of real music.
There has always been, of course, an outlaw country element – a side of country music that never made it to mainstream radio. But back in the day, there were still good songs on mainstream country radio, and so the outlaw country movement didn’t matter as much. Now, it’s all that’s keeping country music alive.
Now, it’s true that a lot of the music I’ve mentioned can’t be played on the radio. Childers’ “Whitehouse Road,” for example, mentions fairly explicit drug use. In addition to the very dark subject matter, Noe’s “Meth Head” is nicely sprinkled with f-bombs.
But they all have some basically clean, wonderful songs, too. Nothing in this poetry, for example, from Noe’s “Letter to Madeline” will get a radio station fined:
“In the pouring snow, sad but swift,
I headed down the highway hoping that the burden of my blues would lift,
And praying that whiskey would keep me brave,
Oh, but I got caught in the cold,
Lookin’ like a hobo without no mercy from the road,
And feelin’ like a dead man without a grave.”
I know there are new great country artists from places other than the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, but if you’ll allow a homesick Kentuckian, proud of his native state which has often seemed a hard place to be proud of, this indulgence, I would only point out that I’m not the only one to notice. Texas, as always, has a thriving outlaw country scene. But Texas is huge. Eastern Kentucky’s disproportionate contribution is more impressive. The music from Eastern Kentucky also has that Appalachian flavor, the touch of those old hymns and the pathologies of people in a perpetually depressed area, that gives it a certain charm and a certain interesting twist.
And lest you think the examples I’ve given here are just cherry-picked local artists, which can be found anywhere, I would point out that Sturgill’s above-mentioned album A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, won the Grammy for Best Country Album in 2017, despite getting no play on mainstream country radio. Absurdly, Sturgill was not invited to the CMA Awards that year, or any year as far as I know. (I don’t know if Luke Bryan went, but if he did, I’m sure he had big ol’ cowboy boots on his feet, a catfish flapping around in his shirt pocket, some ol’ Hank in his earbuds, and a gurl in tight jeans by his side. ‘CUZ HE’S SO COUNTRY!)
Ian Noe was a protege of the late John Prine, and opened a number of the legend’s shows. (Whose passing shamefully went un-mentioned at the 2020 CMA awards, to give you an idea of how far that organization has fallen.) It’s easy to hear the influence Prine had on him. Noe is doing a marvelous job carrying on that legacy.
Tyler Childers has also gotten a great deal of attention from serious music fans and critics. Likewise shunned by the mainstream Country powers-that-be, he won the award for Emerging Artist of the Year from the Americana Music Association in 2018. In perfect rebel country musician style, in his acceptance speech, Childers told the members of the Americana Music Association, right to their faces, that as far as he was concerned Americana music “ain’t no part of nothin'” and that he considered himself a country musician. They let him keep the award anyway.
In the end, there is little hope that the Hot New Country Goliath can be defeated. It’s just too popular. Why, I have no idea. In that regard Hot New Country is no different a lot of the trends I see but don’t understand – social media posts about what’s for supper, gender reveal parties, watching videos of other people playing video games, and on and on.
So, I don’t know much, but I do know what this new group of alternative, outlaw country artists are doing. They’re taking the good music their culture taught them, and they’re making new music from it. This music is as good as any that America has ever produced. And even if it’s not on the radio, these guys are making a living at it, making new fans every day, inspiring new generations to carry it on. American culture needs good country music, and if these guys can keep going, we will have it. If you search around on Youtube, you can find a video of Tyler Childers singing “Whitehouse Road” at Red Rocks Amphitheater. The Colorado crowd knows every word to that Kentucky song. That’s a good sign.Published in