Our May 19 hour on the changing sound of modern country was a really interesting exploration of the divide between "bro country" and introspective folk-country. Many music watchers and music makers — we have big audiences in Nashville and New Orleans, among other music hotspots — have continued the discussion on our website, as well as in their own real-life circles. Listener Craig Havighurst, a writer and producer based in Nashville, wrote what we thought was a really interesting critique of our on-air discussion, and he gave us his permission to re-post his reaction on our site.
It’s not my purpose to obsess over NPR’s On Point interview show (see three posts ago), but by coincidence, they’ve pushed my music button again, this time in a not so agreeable way.
Early this week, Tom Ashbrook built an hour around the state of country music with John Marks, senior director of country programming at Sirius XM. Marks was identified as a “hit maker” and “taste maker” and the guy who programmed and promoted the duo Florida Georgia Line until their records caught on, thus helping to ignite the so-called bro-country trend. (My friend and colleague Jewly Hight was also a guest, in the role of contextualizer and advocate for a wider and more intelligent concept of country music. She did a great job, but she didn’t go in as if for trial by combat, which is how the show left me feeling.)
A promising hour of radio it was, but it fell far short of what it could have been, because the host fell into a common trap.
We have to get beyond discussions about country music that hinge on the “traditional versus pop” dichotomy and the the mourning of country music as something defined by the presence of steel guitar or fiddles or twang. Even well-intentioned investigations of the subject miss the tragedy. Almost nobody truly thinks country music shouldn’t evolve as a genre. The question we should be asking isn’t whether country music sounds like Merle, Buck or Hank. The question is whether the music being written, recorded, performed and promoted today is worthy of those giants. If the music was as clever, evocative, haunting, uplifting and challenging as it was in that era, the instrumentation would take care of itself. There might well be a big old hit with a turntable scratching and I’d be cheering if it was simply any damn GOOD.
Left out in he open and almost unmentioned in the interview was the rotting corpse ofartistry at country radio. Marks, like everyone in his business world, refers to every single dude with a hit as an “artist,” but as when Burger King or Pizza Hut refers to its high-dollar food widgets as “artisanal” this appropriation of the term “artist” is just linguistic larceny.
An artist does not ponder on a popular catch phrase like “This is how we roll” (another Florida Georgia Line hit) and think that there music be a lyric or a chorus or a song title there. An artist hears the awkward clang of a cliché and strives to find something original to say. An artist does not defensively pad his own credibility by writing or singing lines about putting Waylon or Emmylou on the stereo and cranking it up, which is by now the most worn out trope imaginable. An artist does not claim mid-field rapper Nelly as a “hero,” but that’s the word Marks used in describing what brought Florida Georgia Line and Nelly together for their hit remix of the soul-sucking song “Cruise.” If Nelly is your hero, you must have a hell of a lot of heroes or have truly no idea what makes a worthy one.
The only people who called Marks out on the cultural bankruptcy he’s enabling were in fact the callers, who were uniform in their disdain for or boredom with FM radio country. They spoke more in sorrow or bewilderment than in anger. Dawn from Buffalo NY said she’d gotten interested in country in the 90s because it was an island of difference where lyrical care and meaningful songs gave her something special that rock or hip-hop didn’t. She’s alienated now because “the lyrics have become homogenous” and because “I’m not a bro.” She cited The Civil Wars as a band that’s moved her recently from the larger, wider world of real country music. That amazing duo will get a chance on country radio next to Florida Georgia Line exactly never.
If pressed, the money-over-music crowd will argue that art is subjective and that my tastes are just out of step with the public. Besides being a diversionary cover fire of ignorance, this position is actually a far more pretentious one than mine. Declaring all art equal takes some freaking gall, whereas the educated try to cultivate a humble reverence toward great artists, whether Hank Williams or Flannery O’Connor. I would very much have liked to ask John Marks if he thinks Florida Georgia Line’s music is truly comparable to that of Charlie Rich, Patsy Cline or Eddy Arnold – all crossover artists who borrowed liberally from pop to make their country better. Others in radio programming to whom I’ve asked similar questions over the past dozen years have tended to duck the comparison and say it’s not better or worse - just different. When you’re a money machine and a power broker, that’s how benightedly you have to act to keep your gig.
Country music may have, as Ashbrook and other commentators have said, an “identity crisis” but that’s just symptom of what it really has which is an esthetic crisis. The lyrics are laughable. The records are more compressed and congested than ever. Commerce and demographic second-guessing has grown and grown in the industry until it is not one factor but the only factor. If On Point had dug further, they’d have revealed that legions of Nashville’s real music-makers - the songwriters and pickers and even many producers and record label people - are flat-out embarrassed by the music that must get made in 2014 to get past the gatekeepers at radio.
I have a new article coming out that I won’t be able to link to because, praise be, it’s in print only and in an excellent magazine to boot. The place is Texas Monthly and it’s a companion essay to the June cover story on the road retirement of George Strait. My piece, called “Strait, No Chaser?” tries to explain what’s happened to country radio since 1981, when King George began his reign. That piece is more analytical, where here I can be more emotional about it. Because I am emotional about it. I sometimes surprise myself with the depth of my passion for the situation in country music and the futility of my fury. It’s just a very rare and important thing when a true folk art could become a fine art and a commercial success, and America made that happen by being, well, America. For decades, the esthetic and the emotional led the way with commercial factors following along, which led down many unpredictable and wonderful paths. But this latest direction is a dead end if ever there was one - an unbearable non-stop party presided over by knuckleheads and consumer brand managers desperate for quick hits, celebrity and ROI.
So when they tell you to put your hands in the air like you just don’t care, consider that’s what people do when they surrender.
-- Craig Havighurst