Even 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?