My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

The truth behind the music

A few pieces of news struck me last week. Apparently the new biography of Buck Owens paints him as a sometime-unscrupulous businessman, and Sugarland lead singer Jennifer Nettles’ comments on former band member Kristen Hall’s contributions to the band make her sound more than a little arrogant. A little earlier in the week, John Berry admitted to having been “a rude and arrogant individual who wasn’t much of a team player, I’m afraid. It was my own fault that they dumped me off the label”. Much as I would like to believe all my favorite artists are nice people, I fear he is unlikely to have been unique.

So that conjunction led me to think about how our perception of an artist’s personality affects our appreciation of their music. My gut reaction was that art is not an aspect of morality, but thinking about it more seriously -and honestly – it is a more complex issue. For me, it depends in part on how much I liked the music to start with.

Both George Jones and Keith Whitley were destructive alcoholics who must have been very difficult to live with in real life. Knowing that does not affect my love of their often sublime music at all. George in particular actually used his alcoholism to create great music many times, in classic songs like ‘A Drunk Can’t Be A Man’, right up to ‘Ol’ George Stopped Drinking Today’. After he sobered up he even felt able to refer back jokingly to that period in songs like ‘No Show Jones’ and the video for ‘Honky Tonk Song’.

In contrast, I’ve never been able to think kindly of Troy Gentry since the tame bear-killing incident. But I was never a big fan of Montgomery Gentry to start with – I quite liked some of their singles but they never made it to my purchase list. Their chart success does not seem to have been much affected by the controversy – unlike the reaction of some Dixie Chicks fans to their political storm.

It has been suggested that Sara Evans’ messy divorce contributed to her slowing career in the last few years, and the breakdown of LeAnn Rimes’ marriage, and that of her new boyfriend, has attracted a lot of online opprobrium. Only a minority of country stars seem to find divorce hurts them professionally; perhaps it depends on the level of publicity, and who is perceived to be at fault, or perhaps it depends partly on their fans’ level of investment in their public persona?

Country music is so often rooted in real experience that sympathising with an artist’s real-life tribulations often feeds into our appreciation of their music – think of Loretta Lynn’s autobiographical songs about living with a philandering husband and Tammy Wynette’s many tales of marital breakdown which mirrored her own chequered marital career. There is an added frisson listening to Vern Gosdin’s deeply sad Alone album knowing it was largely inspired by the collapse of his marriage. Hearing that an artist wrote a particular love song for his or her spouse (for instance, when Trace Adkins wrote ‘The Rest Of Mine’ for his wedding) often makes it strike home with a little more emotional force. But then if the relationship fails, does the song stand on its own? I confess personally to finding Vince Gill’s ‘I Still Believe In You’ less resonant as a love song after he left his first wife (for whom it had been written) – but my own reaction is also colored by that song’s conection for me with a failed relationship of my own. Many years later, I can appreciate the song’s beauty again in its own right.

In parallel with these thougts about whether an artist’s bad behavior affects how their music is perceived, I have noticed that many younger fans appear to believe that their special favorite should be immune from criticism because of that artist’s sterling character. Personally, I think being either a nice person or a total jerk does not affect musical ability – although either may conceivably limit someone’s ability to convey a full range of emotions in a song. But what we know about the background does often affect us, sometimes subliminally.

What do you think? Have you ever soured on an artist because of their offstage actions?

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14 responses to “The truth behind the music

  1. Pingback: Jamey Johnson Releases New Single; Charley Pride Bids On Texas Rangers; Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Lineup | The 9513

  2. Craig R. August 9, 2010 at 2:26 pm

    I do believe that how I feel about the artist defines how I feel about their music. But for me it has to do with reality. If I believe that the singer is sharing their real life with me, telling me the truth through their song, then I tend to like their music, or at least I listen to it with more of an open mind.

    But if I feel that the artist is selling an image, I am usuallly turned off by the first note. I believe a great many country singers are nice to their fans- but are selling an image. It is easy to confuse the two.

    Garth Brooks is a great exmple of this belief. I never believed a word out of his mouth because it always seemed that he was selling a brand: Garth Brooks. I know he was great to his fans, but his songs all rang hollow to me because I believed he was a business person first, and not an artist.

    But even though I don’t like Taylor Swift’s music I believe her when she sings. I believe in her pain, desire, and growth. I know very little about her. But I see the effort she is trying to put forth in every song. Her words and voice sound real- if only real enough for her age.

    We live in a media dominated world. You can said something at noon and by suppertime everyone and his brother has heard, seen, or read it. It would be harder to be a George Jones or Buck Owens today. With that in mind country singers try far harder to create and secure a safe image. But that only works against their music. I don’t care what their real life is like as long as they can translate it into a song that rings true.

  3. Vicki August 9, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    Simon on American Idol once said, “You have to be a good singer but it’s the like-ability factor that plays a part of the success you have”. It is true for the most part. I admit, I like Carrie Underwood. She’s a fantastic singer and very likable but with my music brain, I know most of her songs are lyrically weak as far as good country songs go. But I still like her.

    Then you have singers like Trisha Yearwood, who can sing up a storm and knows a great country song when she hears one and sings that yeck out of it! I absolutely LOVE HER!

    Adam Lambert: I hated and was totally turned off by his AMA awards display of pure in your face sex. But then I heard that man sing on a pure up straight song and gosh that man can sing. Right now I’m a closet Adam Lambert fan.

  4. Paul W Dennis August 9, 2010 at 3:06 pm

    It takes something severe to turn me off an artist. Spousal abuse, pedophilia, commiting a violent crime, cruelty to animals (but not hunting and fishing) would turn me off but merely being a crud is not sufficient. As far as political behavior, the only one I can think of that I actively boycott is “Hanoi Jane” Fonda. She crossed a line that I cannot and will not forgive

  5. Ken Johnson August 9, 2010 at 4:24 pm

    If fans TRULY knew what their favorite stars were REALLY like, they would be mortified. Perhaps it’s a function of the type of business that they belong to or the types of individuals that the business attracts. Sex and drugs (including alcohol) are not just a major component of rock & roll. By the way despite their public statements that state otherwise, the private distain that most performers have for their fans is most disappointing. In some cases it rises to the level of contempt.

    Long ago I learned to just appreciate the music that these often tortured, twisted and demented individuals make and don’t put their personal lives under the magnifying glass. Trust me – it’s better that way.

  6. Matt Bjorke August 9, 2010 at 7:31 pm

    Artists and celebrities are more wont to dislike (have contempt for) their ‘fans’ if they’re more stalkerish than anything.

  7. Matt Bjorke August 9, 2010 at 7:34 pm

    I should add that the majority of stars, especially country stars, truly do appreciate their fans.

    Also, I am with Paul with his assertion that it ttakes something extreme to dislike an artist. Honestly it’s pretty easy to separate the artist from the man unless it’s entwined to everything they do or they reach ‘talking head levels.’

  8. Traveller August 10, 2010 at 6:42 am

    …i couldn’t care less about the lives of show-biz personalities and their public image. mostly, what you learn about them in the media is what they want you to know. so barely newsworthy, really. as long as they do a good job in what they are doing, i am happy to raise an eyebrow about one or the other astonishing escapade, every once in while. when it comes to country artists in particular, it helps to live on the other side of the atlantic ocean. there is hardly anything that makes headlines over here – even if it was considered “shithot” over there.

    however, one incident i cannot forget: chris cagle hitting his date/girlfriend with her handbag a couple of years ago. no hat, no boots, no buckle will make that guy a man in my eyes anymore. especially, since “handbagging” was rumoured to have been a ministerial treatment that former british prime minister, mrs. margaret thatcher, reserved for cabinet members in britain. so girlie.

  9. Ben Foster August 10, 2010 at 9:19 am

    I have lately been very irritated over hearing about LeAnn Rimes’ philandering antics, but I’ve been a fan of hers long enough that it hasn’t really affected by enjoyment of her music.

  10. lanibug August 10, 2010 at 9:33 am

    I think that we all have to realize that each and every one of these people that we listen to are a person – and I think that in this age of Facebook and Twitter, etc. that we are getting to know more and more about them and I have to agree that it would take a lot to get to not like a an artist.

    i.e. – I cannot say that I dislike Leann Rimes or her music for leaving her husband and moving on to someone new – she is not the first artist to do it and she will not be the last – it was just pushed further into the medias eye because of the fact that they are both in the medias eye -

  11. bob August 10, 2010 at 9:48 am

    I stopped buying Toby Keith’s music because of his obsession with what I consider to be irresponsible drinking songs like “get drunk and be somebody” and “gotta get my drink on”. I loved his earlier music – songs like “Should’ve Been a Cowboy”, “Me Too”, “My List”, “I Wanna Talk About Me”, etc.

    Like most of the others commenting here, I don’t care to hear about an artist’s personal life. It’s none of my business. I don’t even hang around after shows to get an autograph.

  12. Jane August 10, 2010 at 9:49 am

    I quite enjoyed Leann Rimes’ last album, but truth be told, all of the stuff that’s happened in her personal life has left me with a sour taste in mouth for her. On the flip side, there’s artists that I love, and not just musically. I adore both Carrie and Martina because they come across as real people, care about others and do a lot of charity work (Especially with animals, in Carrie’s case). I try not to let people’s personal lives colour how I view them but it’s hard these days to separate a person from their professional and their real self.

  13. Kevin August 13, 2010 at 11:05 am

    Toby Keith is the artist who angered me the most in terms of country music, particularly when he said that you couldn’t be patriotic and not like his “Red White and Blue” song. But aside from never liking that particular song, it hasn’t affected my appreciation of his music.

  14. Brad Hardisty September 1, 2010 at 8:53 pm

    Apparently the same strength that comes from being bipolar can also be destructive, In the case of Buck Owens, had he been starting out in 2000, he would have probably been diagnosed and medicated. Then again, if he had been diagnosed maybe we may never have heard of him. Part of the drive comes from the illness.

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