All music evolves. This goes all the way back to when the first humans started banging on their bodies to create the world’s first drum solo. (Sadly, solo percussion hasn’t gotten much more creative since then.) Nowhere is the evolution of music more evident than in the world of country music.
Once touted as “three chords and the truth,” today’s country has become an amalgam of rock, reggae, rap, hip hop and many others forms of music that have little to do with what used to be considered country. Listen to your local country radio station for an hour or so and you’ll hear what I mean.
Back in the 1960’s, Phil Spector created the famous Wall of Sound where a large group of various instruments were arranged to create a solid “mass” of music. But even with the ancient analog technologies of the day, you could hear all the instruments and easily distinguish between them. Most of today’s country sound features a wall of indistinguishable noise backing up vocals that are rarely loud enough to hear the lyrics let alone which instruments are playing.
Today’s country music doesn’t allow the instruments to “breathe.” They put so much sound together in an attempt to create what they feel is a compelling track, but it just sounds muddy. If Spector could give all the instruments in his Wall of Sound breathing room using 1960’s recording technology, surely today’s digital recording techniques can easily create separation of the instruments so listeners can experience all the music. I suspect that today’s artists and producers aren’t aware that their own Wall of Sound was done much better decades earlier.
While I mentioned that you can’t really hear the lyrics in today’s country music, maybe that’s a good thing. After listening to country radio for many months, it’s clear that most songs are about excessive drinking, revenge, driving fast and recklessly and growing up in a small town. The latter is laughable because while today’s country strives to create images of life on the farm, musically most of it sounds like 1980’s hair metal or twangy hip hop.
Excessive drinking, a/k/a alcoholism, is an extremely common topic in today’s country songs. At 63, I’m old enough to remember when alcoholism was funny (Otis on the Andy Griffith Show, Foster Brooks and Carlton Your Doorman on Rhoda). America collectively came to its senses and realized that drunks are pathetic and need help. I guess no one told today’s country songwriters or radio programmers.
Granted, a lot of classic country songs deal with drinking. But it’s always in reaction to a lost love or other crisis. That doesn’t make it right, but at least it’s not just, “Yehaw, it’s a great day on the river. Let’s get drunk and hope we see some boobs!” Whatever the topic, most of today’s country music seems to distill it into having a good time and drinking lots of booze. Getting drunk on a plane? Get ready to deal with the flight crew and possibly the TSA. The alleged joy in modern country music is mostly alcohol fueled.
I’m not suggesting a return to lots of three-quarter time with heavy fiddles and steel guitars. I think the use of distorted guitars and rock and roll rhythms add a lot to country music. Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and many other artists have done a nice job of giving their music a more modern sound without sounding like the latest pop or hip hop release.
Many people criticize Taylor Swift for “abandoning” country on her latest release. I applaud her honesty. She was evolving as an artist who wasn’t all that “country” in the first place. She has found her path in pop music and I hope she does very well with it. If she ever returns to country, it will be nice to hear what a few more years under her belt will mean for her music. It would surely be interesting. I admit that the vocals on her new songs are a bit difficult for my old fart ears to hear. But at my age, her angst-laden, somebody done me wrong songs are way out of my purview, so it doesn’t really matter.
It’s interesting to note that country music is the only genre that still produces and regularly shows music videos via the two country cable TV networks. While MTV still hosts a video music awards show for rock, pop and rap, the videos that are produced appear primarily online. With all the sex and relationship-based reality shows on MTV, maybe they should change their name to STD.
Full disclosure: I am a songwriter currently writing country songs. So far most of my rejection emails are all stressing the same things – my songs don’t fit current country styles. They’re telling me I need to incorporate more elements of rock, rap and hip hop into my songs. As someone who has written and scored many commercial tracks, I could easily do that, but I won’t. It has nothing to do with being a country purist; it’s about what works for my words and music. I write about life experiences, not drinking and driving my pickup truck to pick up some big chested woman. I couldn’t imagine anyone rapping the things I write about.
I might be a musical dinosaur but I am sticking to my guns. The song linked below is one of the best songs I’ve ever written. I know that if I can get a major artist to sing it, “Take Me Home” will do very well. It’s a song about how most of us are “homeless” in our own way. The many people who have commented about it when I play it live say it could be about them. That to me is a hit waiting to happen. It has a lot of instruments in the accompaniment but they are all allowed to breathe.
While I am tempted to write “Let’s Go Drinking and Drivin’ in My Old Pickup Down by the Lake and See How Many Girls We Can Get,” I’ll leave that for other songwriters – you know, the successful ones.
Take Me Home – Copyright 2014 Steve Bryant