The Death of Country Music: Natural Cause or Homicide

Some days my bones feel weary. It especially hurts when I get down on my knees, slowly bend over, and flip through dusty shelves of old, used books. Years ago it was record stores, but I can barely recall the last time I opened my wallet for a hunk of plastic. It’s so much easier to stream it,  and when I leave home I can fit a few thousand songs inside my phone. But when it comes to words on a page, I still prefer paper to pixel.

A few months ago I found a copy of Nicholas Dawidoff’s In The Country of Country: Peoples and Places in American Music that was published almost 20 years ago, and I just got around to reading it. Named “one of the greatest all-time works of travel literature” by Conde Nast Traveler, Dawidoff’s series of short profiles and conversations with some of the pioneers of country music at times feels more like a eulogy to the music than a tribute to a living tradition.

The question of what or who killed country music has been discussed and written about endlessly, and it inspired a song called “Murder on Music Row” which you may recall was popularized in 2000 by George Strait and Alan Jackson.

While most people agree that it was pressure from New York record label executives on Nashville producers in the ’60s to sweeten up traditional country songs with syrupy orchestrations and arrangements that could appeal to a suburban audience, that’s just one of the theories about what went wrong with country music. Another finger points at the 1980 film Urban Cowboy, which re-calibrated the story from Saturday Night Fever and changed up the music.

While Urban Cowboy spawned a fashion trend in big cities of men wearing cowboy boots and women in tight denim jeans doing line dances and two-stepping at strip-mall bars, I’ve always believed it was the pop-country radio playlists — along with the emergence of the Walmart consumer driving a pickup truck and watching Shania Twain doing a virtual lap dance — that killed off hard-core country.

I might have been wrong.

The Stanley Brothers “Rank Stranger” is a beloved country classic, and Dawidoff spent time with Ralph Stanley talking about what it was like growing up in rural Virginia. No running water, no electricity, no bathrooms. They had a horse to plow the field and a washboard to clean their clothes. They were Primitive Baptists, and as such they sang sacred music without instruments on Sunday mornings. When the family moved to Smith Ridge, their father acquired a Philco battery-operated radio, and as they listened to the music of the Manier Brothers and Carter Family, Ralph and his brother Carter would sing along.

The Louvin Brothers grew up in Henagar, Alabama, on a five-acre government allotment where their father grew vegetables and sorghum cane. The town had a post office and cotton gin. Charlie was 12 and Ira 15 when they saw Roy Acuff pass by in an aircooled Franklin, on his way to a show at the Spring Hill schoolhouse. They didn’t have the money to get in, so they stood outside with three or four hundred other folks.

Buck Owens was born in Texas just ahead of the Dust Bowl exodus, in 1929. Seven years later, the family of 10 loaded up their old Ford coupe and a trailer to head West in search of a new life. They settled in Arizona and were “fruit tramps,” picking grapes, carrots, peaches, and cotton. Many nights, Owens went to bed hungry, with only cornbread and milk in his stomach. The whole family would travel to California when the seasons called for field work, and they stayed in migrant camps that were often filled with music. According to Dawidoff, “The Mexicans sang folksongs, the blacks sang the blues and spirituals, and the whites sang country gospel and Jimmie Rodgers’ songs.”

These are only three stories he captured, but Dawidoff also profiles Harlan Howard, Johnny Cash, Lester Flatt, Bill Monroe, Chet Atkins, Sara Carter, Kitty Wells, Patsy Cline, the Maddox Brothers, Sister Rose, Merle Haggard, and Iris DeMent. Along the way he meets many other musicians, and there is a common thread.

Pretty much all of the early country artists came from rural areas and their families were, if not poor, then of barely modest means. Religion was a large part of their upbringing, and there was also a consistent tug of “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” behavior. Liquor, drugs, gambling, womanizing, and other diversions were often mentioned.

Seems as if, more than anything, what killed country music was our own country. The population has shifted from living off the land in sparse areas of small populations to larger towns, cities, and suburbs. As much as there is a financial divide of the haves and have-nots, even the poorest of the poor have iPhones and access to popular music and culture.

If you’re searching for a type of music that shares raw stories of people’s lives and experiences, you’re more likely to find it in hip-hop or rap than in the studios of Nashville or on the airwaves. And while we’re fortunate in these times that there is a new generation of great musicians embracing old-time music, bluegrass traditions, folk singing-songwriting, honky-tonk, classic country, and alt-whatever, it all flies under a flag called Americana, which sometimes feels too encapsulated and formulaic. Beware of an Urban Cowboy backsplash and whiplash.

In 1997, Dawidoff closed out his book with an epilogue appropriately titled “No Depression”:

To call today’s mainstream country music county at all is a misnomer. Hot Country is really pop music for a prospering, mostly conservative white middle class. It’s kempt, comfortable music – hyper-sincere, settled and careful not to offend nor surprise. A lot like Disneyland, in some ways its model, contemporary country thrives because it is sleek and predictable, a safe adventure in a smoke-free environment.

In this final chapter Dawidoff offers up a bit more hope and optimism. He cites Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Junior Brown, Alison Krauss, Suzanne Cox, Dwight Yoakam, and Lucinda Williams as having “fresh things to say about life.” He mentions Son Volt and Golden Smog as the heirs to Hank Williams and Gram Parsons. And to close out the book he quotes Joe Ely: “You know, good stuff, people’ll want to hear it.” I hope so.

This was originally published as an easy Ed’s Broadside column at No Depression dot com. 

Image from 1947, Carnegie Hall NYC: CC2.0 Wiki