Vol. 2, Issue #16 August 31st - September 13th, 2007

Tiger Bear From Hell at NONzine.com

By: Wilhelm Murg

Whatever Happened to Country Music?

I have to confess that I still have to get my head around a lot of traditional country music. I wasn’t raised with it in the house much, except for the few times during the year that my grandmother would pull out her LPs and have her own barn dance in her head. But even then it was a fairly warped view of the genre; my grandmother made a distinction between “western music,” which she listened to – Bob Wills, Roy Rogers, Jimmie Rodgers, The Sons of the Pioneers, and Buck Owens – and the trailer trash whiners, which she didn’t care for, though the over-produced Nashville sound of Gentleman Jim Reeves and Eddie Arnold did make the cut for her collection. Of course when you asked her about her favorite performer it was, hands down, Elvis, who she saw as a messiah of country music, the man who distilled it all down to...well...Rock’n’Roll.

Being a music writer based in Oklahoma, I’ve always been at something of a disadvantage. When I was a child the Tulsa pop stations, KELI and KAKC, simply played the top forty. It wasn’t that odd to hear Patsy Cline, followed by something from The Beatles’ psychedelic period, followed by something funky like “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder. Hit music was simply hit music to those guys, regardless of genre, and it gave the listener a good overview of what was going on in the entire music world. Radio hasn’t mixed it up like that since the painful death of A.M. radio as a music forum, around the early 1980s. After that I got lost, and it seems like country music did too.

Of course country music went through almost as many radical changes in the seventies as Rock’n’Roll, starting with the cocaine cowboy coolness out from California, like The Eagles, Linda Ronstadt and Jimmy Buffet, who were following the lead by The Byrds and The Grateful Dead. Suddenly that slide guitar changed from being an instrument used in lovesick hillbilly tunes into an instrument that could scale the stratosphere when left in the hands of an acidhead, like David Gilmore of Pink Floyd, George Harrison or Jerry Garcia.

At the same time Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings brought about the Outlaw movement, which sounded like Lefty Frizzell’s honky tonk music, only all the outlaws in the songs seemed to be moving coke rather than robbing banks.

Of course, you can’t forget the folk movement, which allowed its country influences to shine in the ‘70s, like the southern troubadour sounds of Gordon Lightfoot, the late (and still underrated) Jim Croce and John Prine. That line has all but died in our modern age.

All of this got distilled back down with the popularity of the 1980 film “Urban Cowboy,” which probably did more to pop up country than any other force at the time, except for Kenny Rogers, who mixed in The Bee Gees style of vocals just to make the genre that much more miserable.

Unfortunately, when one looks back at what’s become “canonical” out of the ‘70s, the first things that come to mind are all the ballads about loose women and drunken losers, like “Angel of the Morning,” “Looking For Love,” “Help Me Make it Through the Night” and “Behind Closed Doors.” Country music ceased to be about the heroics of the working class and became a virtual Peyton Place of people waking up next to...”who the hell are you?” The comedian, Martin Mull, did a perfect lampoon at the time with “Pig in a Blanket,” about waking up with an actual hog under the covers.

In the mid-1980s The Cramps’ early albums, which were 99% covers of bizarre and obscure rockabilly records, inspired the rediscovery of some of the stranger country songs, like Porter Wagoner’s far-out production about being locked in a mental ward, “The Rubber Room,” Duane Eddy’s “The Girl on Death Row,” Roy Hogsed’s “Cocaine Blues” (better known through the Johnny Cash cover) and Leon Payne’s “Psycho” (better known by Jack Kittle’s cover) – where everyone who recorded the song ended up killing themselves. In retrospect it was really something of an underground forming in the face of the constant watering down of real country. You must remember, this was the period when Dwight Yoakum went to Los Angeles after Nashville told him he was “too country” and played with Los Lobos, X and The Blasters, before country radio paid attention to him.

For me and a generation, that’s where a lot of it ends. Johnny Cash put it best in an interview with Barbara Walters, when he said you hear country music by these guys who, you know, never chopped down a tree or took a walk in the woods. The next thing I knew Garth Brooks took over the world, not because he was an artist (artists don’t retire) but because it was the perfect mix of pop and cowboy hat.

Now I get confused over what’s supposed to be country and what’s supposed to be pop. The two have gotten so close that I really don’t pay any attention to either. Whatever happened to across-the-board great songs like Jimmie Dean’s “Big Bad John?” Where are the normal looking women like Loretta Lynn who make you fall in love with their life of blues, rather than their playboy model looks? More importantly, why do all country performers think they have to sing through their noses? The old-timers didn’t!

With the amount of rockabilly bands in the area as we have in Oklahoma, you can hear some killer country tunes, but it’s part of the punk underground. The people who originally popularized this music will never make it to the clubs. Alternative country was talked about briefly, but it seems to be fading, along with the concept of “Americana.”

So is real country dead? Even Johnny Cash turned to NIN for a cover song on his final album.

I hope not, but like everything else in world where media is breaking down into small groups, the real stuff is getting buried while the ever failing record companies keep pushing garbage out for consumption by the masses. With hope, one day the record companies will fall and the real artists will have a chance at an even playing field again. I might not be the biggest fan of country music, but like the cry of an endangered bird, it’s something I would hate to see become extinct.

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