Good country music – does it have to include mama, drinkin’ and deadbeat cheaters?

The other day a friend disdainfully commented that there wasn’t any country music on country stations any more. I had to think about that. Yeah, Lady Antebellum doesn’t have too many fiddles in their songs and a lot of Sugarland could easily be played on the pop stations if it wasn’t for that lovely drawl in Jennifer Nettle’s voice. It all sounds like country music to me, though.

I’m a damn expert. Growing up, I heard Patsy Cline and Marty Robbins tunes live in my living room. When my dad’s band wasn’t rehearsing, there was usually a country station softly playing in the background. Later on I started writing country tunes, much to my dad’s amusement (‘cause growing up I hated it).

Much of the country we hear on radio and TV is a lot like arena rock. It’s certainly not classic Loretta Lynn but even she’s not classic anymore — listen to her Van Lear Rose. (No complaints. It’s an awesome album.) And exactly how many fiddles should there be for Real Country? I don’t need to do higher math to know that I like these songs because they’re well-written; they’re memorable and clever fist-pump-in-the-air-sing-along-play-over-and-over-again kick booty tunes. If I could write like that I wouldn’t be teaching ten year olds “Skip to My Lou.” I love my students but given a choice between teaching guitar and writing songs for Tim McGraw, I’d take the latter.

And those voices! Carrie Underwood could record a Barney song and I’d be in the front row waving my open cell phone, begging for more (although it might have to include lyrics about destroying some cheater’s pretty little four wheel drive). I love the energy of the Dixie Chicks, especially when they’re pissed off, and The Band Perry really flips my switch. (I don’t love their name, however. Did they think we’d confuse them with The Orchestra Perry?)

I listen to country radio in Ottawa (that’s Canada, folks). There’s only one station and it doesn’t come in clear everywhere in the city but still, when I’m sitting at a stoplight surrounded by three feet of snow, it just feels good to hear a banjo and a song about fireflies in the summer night. And bonus – they play songs I don’t hear in the states, like Dean Brody’s “Canadian Girls.” (No Nashville song would start off with “She grew up watching hockey.”) One day I started to sing with one of the songs I heard on that station. At first I couldn’t place it – wasn’t even sure how I knew it. Halfway through I slapped my forehead and exclaimed, “The Dixie Chicks! They’re playing the Chicks!” Dorothy, I don’t think I’m in the good ol’ U S of A anymore.

Maybe it’s an age thing. My dad doesn’t like modern country much. The last time I was in a car with him he was listening to a coma-inducing easy listening station. When I asked him about it he grumbled that country today was lousy. I’ve heard that from others around his age. If it ain’t Hank or Merle, it ain’t worth a crap. I’m different – I figure there’s room for everyone and I like the old stuff too. In fact, my band Ottawa Valley Special covers Merle’s “The Bottle Let Me Down:”

I love the stories in country songs. It’s all Dad’s fault ‘cause he sang all those Marty Robbins story tunes like “El Paso” and “Devil Woman.” My first sweetie used to croon Tom T Hall’s “Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine.” It’s a three minute novel I didn’t want to put down. And what exactly did Billy Joe McAllister toss off the Tallahatchie bridge? Today’s country also has some great stories like the climb to stardom chronicled in Sugarland’s “Baby Girl” — made all the more real when I heard it was partly autobiographical. And I hope that handsome hockey player knows better than to cheat on Carrie Underwood. (I know she didn’t write the song but she sings it like she did.)

Most of the music we hear today isn’t purely one genre anyway and why should it be? My band does a bluegrass version of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” If Cyndi Lauper was in the audience I’ll bet she’d pull out her dulcimer and jam with us. Yes, she does play one:

Of course, I have my complaints about country music. I hate that the older stars don’t get the notice they deserve. And like any genre, there are artists who are signed because they look good in tight pants, not because they can sing, play an instrument or write. (What if we hired accountants like that? “No, he can’t balance the books but look at how he fills out those jeans!”) Not all country songs can be as great as Steve Goodman’s “You Never Even Called Me by My Name.” Made popular by David Alan Coe, it mentioned rain, mama, prison, a bar, trains, getting drunk and dead dogs. Could it be more perfect?

If you don’t like today’s country music, quit yer whining. I can’t hear you anyway ‘cause I’ve got Sugarland cranked.

About jamiebobamie

Musician - teacher - writer - gets bored easily. I write an almost-weekly blog that includes true stories gathered from 20-plus years of touring, how-to articles for musicians and profiles of performers. Also, I love dark chocolate, I can play "Brown Eyed Girl" behind my head, and I twirl the baton badly.
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10 Responses to Good country music – does it have to include mama, drinkin’ and deadbeat cheaters?

  1. Jamie,
    I agree with a lot of what you have written, and find it ironic that when I was younger I didn’t care for country music, and now that country is very similar to old rock and roll, and I play numerous old rock and roll songs, to an acoustic guitar accompaniment (ever see folks get up and dance to Kansas City? They did in Dewey Beach last September when I played it!), I still don’t care a lot for country; but I’m warming to the older country songs and often play Ring of Fire in the mix. How crazy am I, anyway?

  2. Jim McKee says:

    I’m not that old (51), but I find most of today’s country boring, superficial, and not very country. In my opinion, no decade can touch the 90’s for great country music (my son is 25, and totally agrees with me). It’s not about the number of fiddles, BTW. Neither fiddle nor steel guitar can magically convert a song into country (Example: “Picture” by Kid Rock & Sheryl Crow — SO not a country song).

    Hank & Merle are fine, but I yearn for Garth & Clint. (And apparently, I’m not the only one. Music Choice on my cable provider has a channel it’s branded as “True Country”, which plays 90’s, some late 80’s and a scant few early 00’s.)

  3. Sandy Andina says:

    Great country “story songs?” How about “Red Ragtop” (though you’ll never hear it on a Red State country station because of the protagonist’s reproductive choice decision)? And my singing partner & I always have “You Never Even Call Me By My Name” on our set list–not only is it funny and an audience fave, but it’s so much fun to sing. (BTW, its co-writer was John Prine, who was so appalled that Goodman let it see the light of day when it was intended to be a joke, that he insisted on removing his name from the writing credits. Coe sold so many copies of it that Goodman bought Prine a Wurlitzer jukebox with what would have been his half of the writers’ share).

  4. Meade says:

    I really hate and despise Rock and Pop music, but I LOVE COUNTRY! i think today’s Country , however, is rather bland. Country music is a very broad and diverse genre of music- and it used to have quite a bit of originality in it. I think Garth Brooks was good, because he was Country, but modern, and I respect that. But today is a lack of good songs and authenticity. I love Country music because just about anything about daily life can be turned into a song. How nifty is that? I really hate Pop and Rock music- its just awful and talentless and so is Rap.

  5. halfmoon-mollie says:

    I, too, grew up listening to Hank SR (the REAL Hank Williams, thank you) and Marty Robbins, Hank Thompson (one of my all time favorite songs – My Tears Have Washed I Love You From the Blackboard of My Heart), Kitty Wells -yeah, all that. NOT a fan of Garth or Kenny Chesney, but that’s my personal taste. What I object to about today’s country – and I agree with you that older artists don’t get the respect they deserve – is all the overproduction. OMG, I sound like my mother.

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