Anyone who reads a country music blog for any length of time, is at some point bound to come across a heated discussion about what country music is and what it is not. There are no cut and dry definitions, and a lot of songs borrow heavily from different styles, and are thus, hard to classify. The fact that the genre is constantly changing makes the task even more difficult, if not downright impossible at times. Some people suggest that we should avoid labeling music altogether; however, labels are a useful way for people who like a particular style of music to find more of what they like. It’s when the music gets divided into too many sub-categories that things begin to get too complicated.
The Americana movement has, if you’ll pardon the pun, taken root largely in response to the over-commercialization of mainstream country, which bears little resemblance to the music I grew up with. Americana is even more difficult to define than country; it is best described not by what it is, but by what it is not — in other words, it is a hodge-podge of music that is on the fringes, the music that is rejected by the mainstream.
This leads to the question, what is meant by mainstream? Is mainstream status automatically conferred upon any music that is embraced by country radio and CMT, or does the term refer to anything that is released on one of Music Row’s major record labels? A few weeks ago, a commenter on The 9513 said that he or she (I can’t remember which) didn’t like mainstream country music, preferring instead to listen to artists like Miranda Lambert. That comment surprised me because, as an artist who is signed to a major label, who gets at least some radio airplay, and with one gold and one platinum album under her belt, Lambert doesn’t seem like someone who is outside the mainstream. Admittedly, she’s a bit of an outsider in Nashville, but Americana or alt.country she is not.
A lot of the “fringe” music that I listen to was once very much considered to be mainstream. While I have deep respect for Americana artists and am glad that there is a place for those who don’t get played on mainstream country radio to be heard, it annoys me greatly when people declare that artists like Loretta Lynn and Merle Haggard are no longer considered country artists, and are now categorized under the Americana umbrella. While Haggard himself has gone on record as saying he is not bothered in the least by the fact that his music isn’t played alongside the 80s pop/rock fluff on country radio, it doesn’t seem right that the term “country” has been co-opted by the poseurs, while the legends, like Haggard and Lynn, who built the genre, are cast aside and told to find another outlet if they want their music to be heard.
I came of age in a time when country was not what young people listened to, at least not in my part of the country. It was considered a bit eccentric, if not downright odd, for a teenager to listen to country music. Yet I was never ashamed to admit that I was country fan. Ironically, it is now, when country music is a lot more accepted by the masses, that I feel the need to explain that I like country music, but not Rascal Flatts or Taylor Swift or most of the artists that can be heard on the radio today.
In the past, whenever the genre began to lose touch with its roots and move too much in a pop direction, there would be a backlash and a rediscovery of tradition. Nowadays, instead of the mainstream realigning to what the fans want it to be, fans are abandoning the mainstream. They are turning off their radios and seeking out more roots-oriented, less commercial independent artists on the internet. Instead of the mainstream pendulum swinging back in a more traditional direction, the genre seems to be splitting into sub-categories: the mainstream and the non-mainstream/Americana/alt.country or whatever the term du jour currently is.
What are your thoughts? Will mainstream country eventually rediscover its roots, or will those who want more roots-oriented country have to look elsewhere? Is the genre splitting into mainstream and non-mainstream niches? And what exactly is mainstream, anyway?