It’s a great time to be a country music fan. It’s an embarrassment of riches as far as the music you can find out there from newer or older artists, in digital forms that make most anything from the present or past available at your fingertips, and now even in the expansion of the vinyl format as part of a physical resurgence. And from the underground all the way to the mainstream, the amount of exceptional artists to discover has never been greater.
When Saving Country Music started in 2009, the biggest artist in country music was Taylor Swift. Now, it’s arguably Chris Stapleton. Independent artists are finding support like never before, allowing them to be able to completely sidestep the pitfalls of the mainstream industry and still have sustainable, and in many cases, very successful careers. Independent artists and older artists are topping the country albums charts on a regular basis. Recently Americana even beat out country in regards to album sales. The tide is shifting, the tables are turning, and it’s opening up the music like never before.
And all of this is not entirely in spite of the stodgy morass that is the mainstream country music industry. Sometimes it is because of it. Chris Stapleton is the most decorated country music artist at the moment when it comes to industry awards. The CMA has announced that a host of legendary artists will be performing at their 50th Anniversary show where Stapleton and a 54-year-old Garth Brooks are nominated for Entertainer of the Year. It seems like every week there is another glass ceiling shattered by an independent artist, or another record falls to an artist that has won creative control over their music, while the acrid singles of artists like Chase Rice and Thomas Rhett flounder from being too behind the curve of a flight to more substance and traditionalism in country music across the board.
We might be heading into the fall, but it is springtime in country music. Yet that is certainly not the way some dug-in and chronically depressed underground and traditional country music fans see things. They see all the successes as a big bamboozle of the music industry to repatriate pissed off country fans with facades of change and fake saviors as opposed to a true future of more equality and a more open format where the best and brightest are allowed to shine as opposed to the prettiest and most well-connected. All they see is problems with newer traditional artists as opposed to focusing on their virtues.
Chris Stapleton wrote songs for Luke Bryan don’t you know, and that William Michael Morgan #1 “I Met A Girl” has Sam Hunt in the songwriting credits. So what that Charley Pride and George Strait are performing at the CMA Awards in 2016? Where’s Cody Jinks and Whitey Morgan? Where’s Dale Watson? And is the latest Sturgill Simpson record really that country?
Even though everywhere you turn in country music chutes of life are springing through the scorched earth for the first time in decades, some have become so habitually suspicious and dissatisfied that even though much of what they have been clamoring for is coming true right before their eyes, they’re even more downtrodden and depressed about the state of the music, and with each positive story become more mired by the scary notion that the music they like might be gaining traction.
Some country fans have become so accustomed to losing, they don’t know how to do any different. So they end up turning on certain artists they otherwise would be fans of simply because they’ve become popular. They pout over certain distinctions because they don’t want more people to know about their favorite artists or bands. And like a lifelong mercenary that knows nothing else than to fight whatever power is in charge, they raise their fist, and shoot their Johnny Cash middle finger in the air at whatever is being lauded as yet another achievement as simply the fakery of the industry.
Of course the effort to return country music to its past greatness is going to be imperfect. Ultimately, the appeal for music is one of the most subjective elements in the entire human experience, and pop has always had a place in country music since its inception. But pragmatism is how such deep inroads have been made into returning country music to its past glory. No, Jon Pardi, Mo Pitney, and William Michael Morgan are not the ideal traditional country specimens to make up a new generation of mainstream traditional-leaning country stars, but it’s a good start. Rome was not built nor destroyed in a day. You first have to take baby steps, and before you know it, you’re striding in leaps and bounds.
Who would have ever thought in 2014 that an album recorded live in a studio with Dave Cobb as producer, with songs written by the artist themselves and recorded with the artists’ own band would be named Album of the Year by the CMA’s? Hell, who would have thought the night of the 2015 CMA’s that Chris Stapleton would become arguably the greatest Cinderella story in country music history? Who would have thought that Margo Price would play Saturday Night Live, or Sturgill Simpson would be sitting down with Charlie Rose, or Jason Isbell would be headlining major festivals, or a traditional country song would be a #1 single on radio again?
Of course there is still much work to be done. Of course there are still incredibly terrible songs and artists out there slotted as “country.” Of course the concern of backsliding is an always-present danger. Of course there are still dozens of artists going unfairly overlooked compared to their level of talent. But unless we celebrate the victories won and the challenges overcome, how are we ever going to build off of that success?
No other outlet has spilled more acidic ink against the country music industry than Saving Country Music, and there is still more to be spilled in the future for sure, while a vigilant eye for wolves in sheep’s clothing, false prophets, and fake accolades remains necessary. But the constant bitching about how Alan Jackson is pop country and Chris Stapleton will put out and EDM album before we know it isn’t doing anyone any good, and most importantly, it isn’t grounded in any bit of reality.
Some people love to hate, but this isn’t Israel vs. Palestine. We care passionately about country music because it’s not just our favorite music, but our cultural identifier, our bridge to the past, and who we are as people. But we don’t have to hate everything that doesn’t fit our exact definition of country music. I’m glad that I don’t have the word “hate” in the name of my organization. Hate is a very powerful draw, but I’ve found over the years that talking to people as opposed to shouting and insulting is a better way to persuade folks to your side.
There is a time for hate, but there is a time for love as well. And right now it is a time to be happy about the way things are trending for country and roots music. Most of happiness is just making up your mind. And if you can’t be happy about where country music is headed right now, chances are you never will be. And that’s a sad state of affairs to be in.