Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

The Quest for Country Music

Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

The Quest for Country Music

Article excerpt

My friends, colleagues, and students regularly utter that phrase in an attempt to rationalize their listening preferences. Yet the musical styles to which different individuals apply the phrase vary wildly. Fans of acoustic music in the old-time and bluegrass traditions use it to dismiss mainstream commercial country; fans of mainstream country use it to discredit alternative country; fans of the honky-tonk and alt styles use it to deride pop-country crossover acts and their astounding sales figures; and fans who claim not to like country music of any sort use it to defend their allegiance to individual singers or bands. Implicit in such a phrase is the idea that some other music must, in fact, be "real country," but where that identity lies and what delineates country from other musical genres are puzzling questions.



One of the most identifying features of country music is its perennial search for its own elusive, authentic self. The traditions and roots that are so fondly described in song lyrics and the rhetoric surrounding the songs are primarily imagined, for even the earliest days of country recordings featured a hodge-podge of musical styles in an overtly commercial entertainment enterprise. But the quest continues to mythologize country's past, then bemoan its apparent absence from the present scene. In October 2000, the Country Music Association (CMA) gave the "Vocal Event of the Year" award to an unlikely candidate, "Murder on Music Row," sung by country superstars George Strait and Alan Jackson. The song's lyrics accuse an unnamed someone from "Music Row" of cutting out the very heart and soul of real country music and murdering it in cold blood. "Music Row" is the moniker for 16th Avenue in Nashville, the iconic home to the country music industry's major businesses, so the accusation struck at the heart of the industry. Gone are the sounds of steel guitars, Hank Williams, and George Jones from contemporary radio, the song cries, and what an awful situation it is!

The irony of two enormously successful contemporary artists, whose many hit songs epitomize 1990s commercial country music, singing "Murder on Music Row" was not lost on fans, but Jackson and Strait certainly were not the first to eulogize the mythical good old days of country music. In this narrative, the country music industry, represented by faceless record labels, radio stations, and the abstract notion of commercial enterprise, is painted as the culprit who interferes with and threatens the heartfelt honesty and artistry of the country musician. This particular tale has been told in country music for years. In 1973, Willie Nelson penned a slow waltz about a cheating lover who broke his heart, but in a bitter stroke of irony, the lyrics explain, "no one will hear it, 'cause sad songs and waltzes aren't selling this year." Almost thirty years later, The Dixie Chicks scored an enormous hit with a radio single titled "Long Time Gone," whose lyrics announce, "We listen to the radio to hear what's cookin' / but the music ain't got no soul." DJs giddily (or obliviously) spun the song up the radio playlist charts.

Both "Murder on Music Row" and "Long Time Gone" are products of a thriving songwriting scene that coexists with mainstream commercial country, and both were recorded and performed in acoustic versions long before they landed on radio. Bluegrass artists Larry Cordle and Larry Shell penned "Murder on Music Row," and from their acoustic bluegrass band's vantage point, the song stood outside of its own line of fire. Nonetheless, the songwriters' world is inextricably intertwined with the commercial industry. As reviewer William Rulhmann commented, "The people who [Cordle] claims murdered country music record his songs and pay his rent."

The same year that "Murder on Music Row" took home a CMA award, Lost Highway Records released the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers' Odyssean epic, O Brother, Where Art Thou? …

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