My Kind of Country

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

What makes it country?

buckleEven after a good three years of listening to my local country station, rooting around on the internet and exploring country music blogs, I still often wonder to myself, “What makes country music, country?” There’s such a variety of artists with a diversity of sounds and looks these days. Is there a definitive element that makes them country?

While watching the ACMs this last weekend, a friend commented during Lee Ann Womack’s wonderful performance of  ‘Solitary Thinkin’, “Boy, she’s real country — not pop at all.” Another friend was trying to describe Jamey Johnson’s look and style, and summed it up by saying, “He’s just…country!” At the same time, Brooks and Dunn kicked off the show with their energetic ‘Play Something Country’ which features the line, Crank up the band, play the steel guitar. Yet what followed didn’t have too many obvious steel guitars: Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, Sugarland and Rascal Flatts.

So what makes country, country?

Is it the instrumentation? Does it have to have fiddles and steel front and center to qualify? If so, that sure knocks out quite a bit of what is considered country these days. Some argue that the genre would be better off without these folks, but I’d miss Sugarland.

Is it the subject matter? Is that old joke true that if you play a country song backwards the guy gets his girl and his job back, finds whatever he’s lost, quits crying and leaves the bar sober? Or does a country song need to take place on gravel roads down south or out west driving a pick-up past Old Glory? If so, then you’d eliminate Dolly Parton’s ‘9 to 5’, Reba’s huge early hit ‘Whoever’s In New England’ and so many songs that have more of an urban, northern setting or don’t have a setting at all. And if you played certain country songs backwards, the ending wouldn’t be happy anymore — country love songs or those finally-growing-up songs like Jack Ingram’s ‘Measure of a Man.’

Is it the artist’s accent, clothes, or life story? J.R. Journey wrote a great piece called ‘To twang or not to twang’ here on the blog not too long ago. If you take the twang out of the country does it become pop or rock? If you put boots and a buckle on the singer, or if they grew up in small-town Oklahoma, Texas or Tennessee ridin’, ropin’ and roughin’ it, does that figure in somehow?

Is it the melodies, harmonies and structures of the songs themselves?  Perhaps, but there’s so many styles of country influenced by every other musical genre — blues, blue grass, rock, folk, pop, the islands, swing, you name it.

Is it some combination of the above, or is there another characteristic that’s less stereotypical that defines country as country?

What is it that’s at the core of country music in your mind and heart? What’s YOUR kind of country?

14 responses to “What makes it country?

  1. Razor X April 12, 2009 at 11:58 pm

    I don’t think there’s any one component that determines whether or not something is country; I think it’s more of a synergy of instrumentation, subject matter, song structure, and vocal style among other things. I think too many times producers and artists try to break music down into these components and think they can make something country that is not by adding some superfluous steel guitar licks or fiddle to an otherwise middle-of-the-road track. That’s why there’s banjo thrown into the mix on Taylor Swift tracks, which are then removed for the remix that’s sent to pop radio stations.

    Something you don’t hear much anymore on modern “country” recordings are steel guitar, fiddle or banjo solos. Those used to be staples of country records. The instruments are still used, much less prominently, but they are part of the mix, in the background so to speak. That way they are there to give a more country “feel” for country fans, but they’re subtle enough that they don’t alienate pop fans — or if they do alienate pop fans, they easily removed on the remix, which is something that can’t be done on records that have solo breaks featuring those instruments.

    It’s interesting that your friend thought “Solitary Thinkin'” was really country, because it’s the least country track on Lee Ann’s album. I’m guessing that your friend doesn’t listen to a lot of country music. Pop fans have an entirely different perspective; music that we would consider very pop or middle of the road, they often think is hard-core country.

    Though it may be somewhat of an oversimplification, Harlan Howard once famously said that country music is “three chords and the truth.” Try to imagine some of today’s country hits, stripped down to just a singer and a guitar. How many of those songs would you still consider to be country, and how many of them would be considered acoustic pop?

  2. Steve from Boston April 13, 2009 at 1:39 am

    Great topic and questions Megan, and comments, Razor…very thought provoking.

    I think intrumentation has something to do with it, and twang, …although adding fiddle and steel , and a twangy voice doesn’t automatically make a pop song into a Country song. This touches on the whole remixing discussion …and I like Razor’s observation a few months ago that many “country” songs currently being remixed for Pop audiences were never really Country songs to begin with, but were actually already pop songs remixed with fiddle and steel in order to masquarade as country songs. By ignorance or design, most of these songs were never anything more than Nashville Pop..

    Subject matter? I think that is also a component, but again, not all real Country songs are story songs, or necessarily songs about heartbreak or rural lifestyles.

    It’s really hard to say,…But like Razor said, there is some truth to Harlan Howards definition, And I would also add an implied definition from George Strait’s lyrics to “Heartland” ..”When you hear twin fiddles and a steel guitar…”

    It’s hard to say what real Country is, but I think I know it when I hear it, and I know what it ain’t…. And I didn’t hear very much of it at all on the ACMs…

    I have another semi-serious suggestion a VERY limited definition to offer, and this struck me after listening to Hank WIlliams “Unreleased Recordings”, …If a song contains the words “blues”, “honky tonk”, and/or “heartbreak” in it’s lyrics, it’s probably a real Country song, (especially if those key words are used in conjunction.) And if the singer in question can yodel or make his/her voice crack while singing those words, they are most likely a real Country singer. 😉 Just ask Hank. 😉

  3. BLL April 13, 2009 at 12:23 pm

    I think Razor is on to something; very little that is currently being played on country radio today would pass the singer/guitar test. The only two people off hand I can think of that can pull that off consistently, are Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood. Steve Wariner may be another person who can. I just don’t think Carrie Underwood or Kellie Pickler could, and Taylor Swift has shown on the awards shows that she’s another autotuned ‘star’.

    As to content, I think there’s some pretty good country lyrics being writen, but being sung and arranged by some very non-country singers and producers.

  4. robin April 13, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    I think “I Told You So” by Carrie Underwood is very country. The fact that she can sing only makes it more country for me. In country the requirements for female stars and male stars are very different. It is similar to other genres but very obvious in Country. You need a voice to sing country if you are a female and want to stay popular. In the POP genre and others it is the music not the person or the lyrics. Females just need to look good. They loose there stature as they get older. Not so in country. We have some really bad looking females that are very popular in country. haha
    You still have people that think bluegrass is the only country sound but country is very diverse. I think we have acquied some rock people from radio when they had to leave those station for rap and all. You still get POP singers like Taylor Swift in the mix but they don’t last. You will always have Reba and Trisha and now Carrie on country radio.

  5. Razor X April 13, 2009 at 3:14 pm

    You need a voice to sing country if you are a female and want to stay popular. In the POP genre and others it is the music not the person or the lyrics. Females just need to look good. They loose there stature as they get older. Not so in country. We have some really bad looking females that are very popular in country.

    I disagree. I think country music is every bit as looks-obsessed as other genres are, which is why older artists are usually put out to pasture by radio. Reba is the only female over 50 who can still get some radio airplay — for the time being, at least.

    Who are these “bad looking” females who are popular in country music? Taylor, Miranda, Carrie, Kellie?

  6. J.R. Journey April 13, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    This is way off topic: but … I disagree with females losing their stature in pop music as they get older too – look at Madonna, Cher, Tina Turner, etc. – all who gross millions and millions every time they go on tour, and all well over 50.

    I never bought into the ageism argument so much anyway. I think it’s a factor – but even for someone who started having hits at say 20, their star almost always burns out in 10-15 years max. Very few entertainers – male or female – have remained relevant on the charts for much longer.

    The best two examples of this have always been George Strait and Reba. Strait has stayed on top of the charts for some 28 years now with a very consistent sound. Reba, on the other hand, has recorded a variety of styles and seems to change as the trends in popular country music does. So it’s really hard to pinpoint exactly what works for each artist. But my opinion has always been that it’s the songs. Especially in today’s music market, singles are the ultimate indicator of success.

  7. Paul W Dennis April 13, 2009 at 8:41 pm

    This topic is too tough for me to address. Like Justice Brennan once said of pornography “I know it when I see (hear) it”

  8. Leeann Ward April 13, 2009 at 9:30 pm

    This is a difficult one for me to address as well.

  9. Meg April 14, 2009 at 1:26 am

    Great thoughts folks! Since I’m a relative newbie to country, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by its diversity and depth. It seems that country music as a genre is really a mix of all of those elements I wrote about, just in different recipes and with varying degrees of emphasis.

    What I’ve learned in my short experience is that much of the diversity and depth isn’t what you hear on radio for the most part. Perhaps that’s common with most genres due to radio budgets tied to their markets, marketing, our culture’s obsession with countdowns and award shows, etc. Music is big business.

    I imagine that in the earlier days, country music was more uniquely regional because there weren’t the national vehicles that own so many stations or dominate how we receive country music. What came out of different parts of Texas was different than what came out of parts of Tennessee or Alabama or Oklahoma or further west. And artists didn’t have all the electronic tools they do now either — instruments, production equipment, etc. It had a much more acoustic sound and feel.

    In a way, it’s sort of like restaurants — the big chains used to be smaller local restaurants somewhere that were ramped up and mass marketed due to all of the inovations in technology and equipment and marketing. Some lost their flavor in the process. Others managed to maintain it somehow — Cracker Barrel, Red Lobster, Applebees.

    I like some of those big chains — you know what you’re going to get. But my favorite restaurants are the local ones that are one of a kind, sometimes holes in the wall.

    Country has that kind of diversity — the big names like George or Alan where you know what you’re going to get for the most part and it will be good — and the unique more local artists with a lot of flavor like a Miss Leslie or a Jamey Johnson — and those rare artists that can do a wide variety of styles like Garth or Reba.

    But whatever the instrumentation, or tools, whatever the inovations, it seems like a core element of country music (IMO) is what you both commented on, Razor and J.R., the content, the “truth”, the song itself. The “good stuff” in country music has that “real” quality about it that isn’t for sales or ratings, and that gets at the soul of things, whether that’s a song you can cry to or dance to.

    Granted that will be somewhat subjective, because what touches one person’s soul might not touch another’s, but still… Tex Sample wrote a book about country music. He called it “White Soul”.

  10. Mike K April 16, 2009 at 1:19 pm

    Country is sittin’ on the back porch listen to the whippoorwills late in the day
    Country is mindin’ your business helpin’ a stranger if he comes your way
    Country is livin’ in the city knowin’ your people knowin’ your kind
    Country is what you make it country is all in your mind…

    Country is workin’ for a living thinkin’ your own thoughts lovin’ your town
    Country is teachin’ your children find out what’s right and stand your ground
    Country is a havin’ the good times listen to the music singing your part
    Country is walkin’ in the moonlight country is all in your heart

    That goes for Tom T. and me.

  11. Ashely July 22, 2012 at 8:08 pm

    I think that country is story telling, I an an aspiering singer and songwriter and im afraid just cause I am an african american that it would be hard to be acepted but at the same time i have to acept that i love my music and that i love country music so much and I lisen to it all the time.

    • Ken Johnson July 23, 2012 at 9:37 am

      Hang in there Ashely. Most importantly you gotta have great songs so work hard on your craft and accept criticism from those qualified to give it so that you can improve. Family & friends usually love everything that you do so don’t ask them.

      In show biz being different can be a very good thing and makes you stand out from the crowd. Charley Pride was first noticed for his great voice before folks even knew that he was a black man. Thankfully it’s a different world today than it was 50 years ago and acceptance is much easier. Find your unique niche and exploit it.

      Good luck to you.

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