Is ‘Country’ an Embarrassing Term for Top Tier Talent?

October 15, 2011 - By Trigger  //  Random Notes  //  40 Comments

For years I’ve had the theory that one of the major problems facing country music is its inability to develop talent. Without a system in place to discover truly talented and unique artists and develop them into stars, it has made the genre weak, and open to infection from other genres, as current and new stars must reach out into other forms of music to stay relevant.

Now that mainstream country music has been seen as just another version of pop music by so many people for so long, my concern is that talented musicians are being turned off by the mere mention of the term ‘country’, seeing it as a genre without gravitas, obsessed with money and image, making it even more likely for the one-in-a-million music talent to stay away.

“We call ourselves a honky tonk band.” is how Bloodshot Records recording artist Whitey Morgan puts it. “You call yourselves country and people think you mean that shit they play on the radio.”

Ruby Jane, a 16-year-old music phenom who was the youngest invited fiddle player to ever play The Grand Ole Opry, and was touring with Asleep At The Wheel and Willie Nelson at age 14, iterated in a recent interview that she’s moved on from identifying with the mainstream country world. “I love what I used to do, but I’ve always listened to rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t really listen to that other stuff. I mean, I listen to bluegrass and country, I guess, but I’m not sitting at home listening to George Strait and Carrie Underwood all day.

Justin Townes Earle moved to NYC, partially to distance from mainstream country music.

Justin Townes Earle is a little more pointed on the matter, saying recently on his always-entertaining Twitter feed: The reason I live in NYC and not in Nashville is coming through my walls right now in the form of shit country music! Some people!!! Fuck!!!” And later following up with, “I was born and raised in Nashville and just hate seeing my town defaced. It is still a great place full of great folks.”

The latter two artists were once featured in a group of four that I asked which one might be country music’s next savior. Regardless of their listening patterns or musical style, it appears that neither really wants a lot to do with the term ‘country’, a term that feels so embattled in circles of people that don’t want to be lumped in with Music Row’s mainstream fare, and want to be known for taste and quality above commercial appeal. Justin Townes Earle’s move to New York City seemed very symbolic when it happened, like he was doing everything he could to remove himself from the typecasting environment of his native Nashville.

And speaking of Townes Earle and New York, the title track from his recent album Harlem River Blues just won Song of the Year at the Americana Music Awards. ‘Americana’ seems to be the new chic term for artists whose music has country leanings, but who don’t want to be lumped in with the Jason Aldean’s of the world, just like “alt-country” was the hip term back in the 80’s and 90’s. Alt-country never had their own awards and infrastructure like Americana is attempting to cultivate, and over time, alt-country has morphed into almost a classic genre classification, because it almost implies an outmoded approach that few artists want to be associated with anymore.

One of the problems with Americana is when you look at the list of the Americana Awards 2011 nominees and winners, the names look like they are drawn from a very narrow perspective, zeroed in on the personal tastes of American Songwriter magazine and their readership. But where Americana has the advantage over country is that good artists who want to be appreciated for their creativity and talent don’t mind being called that.

So now not only is the term ‘country’ being diminished by being used to market mainstream pop, rock, and now even hip-hop music, it is also being diminished by top-flight talent fleeing from the term. This is why country is drafting actors and artists from other genres to “go country”, because talent from within, and talent tied to the roots of the music is leaving, or never coming. ‘Country’ used to be a big tent genre. Townes Van Zant certainly was more of a folk singer-songwriter, but never publicly ran from the ‘country’ term, and still fits the classic definition of ‘country’ today.

And parallels can be drawn with the fans of country music. Likely if you’re reading this right now, you’ve caught yourself saying, “Yeah, I like country, but not that type of country.” Just like artists, fans who want to be known for appreciating creativity and talent in music don’t always want to be associated with the ‘country’ term.

I would say country music is in trouble, but as public music education continues to be cut, there seems to be no end to the flow of people willing to consume bad music. The question is, where will this potential talent vacuum leave the term ‘country’ in the long term?

40 Comments to “Is ‘Country’ an Embarrassing Term for Top Tier Talent?”

  • We have the same issue with our band. We always feel like we have to say that we’re not a pop country band…we’re a honkytonk band…whenever someone asks about the music we play. Sad that it’s come to this!


    • Our band has to do the same thing. It gets a bit ridiculous at times, but I don’t want to be associated with the crap pouring out of mainstream radio. From time to time, I tell folks to listen and then they can classify us.


  • i’m very cautious about saying i like ‘country’ music…i always clarify as i certainly wouldn’t want someone to assume i meant the radio crap.


  • Funny thing happened last night … I was in the local shithole dive bar when David Allan Coe’s “You Never Even Called Me By My Name” came on the jukebox. This isn’t a “country” bar, or even a “country” town, but for some reason that song comes on just about every time I’m at said bar, and this time a sing-along ensued. Not quite a “Sweet Caroline” sing-along, but … not far off. I didn’t even notice the sing-along was taking place as I mouthed the words on my way back from the pisser, but then it was brought to my attention that I wasn’t the only one singing. Most people at my table (newcomers to town) said they’d never even heard the song before, and asked who it was. I told them. They said they don’t listen to “country,” to which my girlfriend replied “Kyle listens to a lot of country … but not like, mainstream country.”

    I was glad the girlfriend knew the difference. Her education is paying off.


    • I think that last verse of Never Even Called By My Name is more even relevant now that ever.


  • It’s always been hard for me to call my music ‘country’ or ANYTHING else. I’ve played classical/ensemble, jazz, metal, rock, country, blues, and whatever else in between. Any name I commit to means there are 10 other names left out. That seems to be a common dilemma.

    As far as Nashvegas mainstream, the damage is already done. I say, with all this high-fallutin’ technology and networking stuff, we should start building an infrastructure for talent development. Yeah, I’m not sure what that means either but, stil… Really though, the foundation is already poured right here at SCM.

    Through “Google TV ads”, right now, average folks can place their own commercial on national television. How awesome would it be to watch CMT and see a 15 second ad for SCM?!?! It may not be practical today but I think that type of method is how we can push back a little bit.


    • Saving Country Music is very committed to talent development and discovery, almost obsessed with it, possibly to a fault. I commonly get questions and emails about why I don’t cover more mainstream acts, Red Dirt, Texas singer-songwriters etc. with a name like Saving Country Music. Most of those folks have plenty of support already. I have tried to branch out a little more recently, but it is always going to be an imperative of mine to talk about the up and coming artists first, to try and discover the great artists nobody else is talking about.


      • (Again, ain’t tryin’ to step on toes. I just do a LOT of brainstorming all day and all night.)

        #Occupy CMT

        1. Collect content. SCM posts regarding Jason Aldean, Taylor Swift, Scotty McCreery, Hank Jr. Hank3, SHB, PPJ, HGBB, etc.

        2. Set up ‘teaser’ website (savingcountrymusic.tv) where content is focused to bring mainstream
        fans into the muddy hillgrass.

        3. Kickstarter campaign with incentives from artists/labels who are down for the struggle. Also works as a promotion for everyone involved. Can’t lose.

        4. Produce short video ad with SCM logo and music by Hank3, SHB etc. Something COUNTRY, just not that kind.

        5. Place targeted ads right in the mainstream. Ya know damn well someone will get it. Remember “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in the ‘hair band’ era?

        6. Make an offer. Sign up on mailing list and get ridiculous amount of fresh independent music to gnaw on.

        7. Open Store. Have a bigass store where folks can load up their cart right then and there. Make checkout as simple as possible. (Amazon may be good for that.)

        8. Hellifiknow. Jack Daniel time!


        • I think there’s some good ideas here. Some of them have been embodied by XXX. They have (or had) plans to put a TV show together and a radio format to help promote this music. The problem with XXX is they have been unable to build a consensus, but because they exist, I or some other entity will be unable to build a consensus, and to truly enact a big multi-layered idea that will really have an impact, it will take all hands working together. My feeling is if there is going to be a big movement, it is going to happen organically, through action, not from theoretical idea crunching. It is going to come from something like the explosion of the Muddy Roots Festival into a nationally-recognized event. By products from that national attention is how top-tier underground talent could get national recognition.


          • Yeah, the whole ‘consensus’ thing is why I went solo, for the most part, about 10 years ago. I recorded an album back in March of this year and simply had no money to get CDs printed up. For a budget of around $30 I bought a facebook ad targeted at people who may have kinda sorta knew who I was but hadn’t bought my previous CDs. Folks I hadn’t seen in years, since highschool, since my old band, etc. I sold enough “advance” (home burned) copies to get over the hump and print ‘em. It also got some exclusive airplay that way. I’m by no means an expert but I am a musician without a ‘day job’. My methods work at least that much.

            Basically, a modest campaign could include only those who were willing, without a very broad consensus. XXX (imo) has one glaring problem that SCM won’t have. The most important thing would be to set up a “funnel” of sorts. That’s where I’m getting the http://www.savingcountrymusic.tv idea. That could be a page or 2 that rather than being AGAINST Jason Aldean or Brantley Gilbert, fans of both will suddenly find themselves listening to Scott H. Biram, Hank3, even bands like Left Lane Cruiser.

            I remember being on the school bus when people passed around a walkman with David Allan Coe’s dirty songs. Some unsuspecting Aldean fans could be playing Hank3 in the same way. Some 7th grade girl will be listening to Taylor Swift and find herself listening to Molly Gene’s one Whoaman Band. We could pick a few off that way without a big investment or consensus. If it doesn’t work, there’s not much to lose.

            XXX has stated that they wish to become another genre of their own. That may not be necessary. Everything I’m saying is already being done by each and every band or blogger worth mentioning. The only difference is the we may be able to broaden the base without preaching to the choir. I could be waaay off and I have certainly had a lot of failures but but there’s enough success in there to work with.


  • Love Whitey’s disclaimer and I think I might have to start stealing that to iterate before my shows. Recently I played at a biker bar where a good portion of the second set consisted of covers of stuff like Hank, Walt Wilkins, Townes, Gary Stewart, et. al and some ol’ gal came up to the stage wanting to know if I knew any “country music.” Bemused, I said, “why, yes ma’am, I know a country tune or two,” and was about to ask if she’d just stepped into the establishment (though I’d seen her there for some time). She cut me off, saying, “like Jason Aldean or Kid Rock.” I found it very hard not to laugh. Instead, I muttered a meek, “um, not too up on recent music.”


  • I love this topic. I just wrote a little blurb on this myself for the local college radio station. I always have to specify what kind of musicians I listen to when I say I like country. It’s a damned shame. In regards to the Americana thing, I would say that yes, country and Americana are very closely tied but they do remain separate genres. Folk and country are also very related but separate genres. When I say I listen to country, I do mention Americana, bluegrass, folk, and alt-country artists. I suppose this is why XXX came about but I won’t stir up the pot with that. Great article.


    • One of the big challenges facing XXX and Americana is being able to define what the term means sonically in a way that is intuitive, and easy for listeners to draw 4 solid borders around. I think both have struggled to do so because it is a very challenging task. I also think it is an important task, and a key if either term is going to have any longevity.


  • Just call it Country music and be unapologetic about it. When people act surprised, make fun of it, dismiss it, etc, just explain that they are confused about what Country music is. If you avoid calling it “Country” music, then you have let “them” win.

    15 years ago, you would have been hard pressed to find a metal head who admitted they liked and actively listened to Country music. These days, you would be hard pressed to a find a metal head who wouldn’t at least pretend they like and/or respect Country music, even if they really don’t.

    Guess what? The cat is out of the bag: If you are completely dismissive of the entire cannon of Country music as a legitimate and contributive art form, then you must not like American music. That, or you don’t know shit about music.
    I am not implying everyone should have to” like” Country music, only that it is logically impossible to dismiss it entirely and then turn around and listen to Janis Joplin, ro example, or whatever people who dismiss Country music entirely listen to.


    • 15 years ago I WAS the Metalhead that proudly played the shit out of solid COUNTRY music!!!!! My Headbanger friends didn’t know what to make of it.


    • I know a lot of metalheads and although you will find a few that will only ever listen to metal, most metalheads I’ve met actually have very diverse musical tastes. I know a few who’ve turned me on to some great country, blues, rockabilly, and even classical and opera.


    • I still know plenty of metalheads that would never admit to liking country music of any kind. That said, I think the turning point with that was the first Cash American Recordings album.

      I grew up one of those metalheads that pretty much only listened to metal. I hated country largely because, growing up in the South, it was shoved down my throat. I battled for years with people who saw absolutely no worth in the music that I loved and constantly informed me that one day I’d grow up and listen to “real music” — meaning whatever country radio was playing at the time, which, granted, wasn’t all bad at the time I was being told that.

      I was in college when the first AR record came out, and it was a definite turning point for me. It proved to me that country wasn’t all Garth Brooks and inspired me to go back and dig around in the country archives and discover, or re-discover in some cases, some great music. These days it’s not uncommon in my shuffle to get Amon Amarth followed by Waylon Jennings. It’s a bit jarring to some of the folks around me, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.


  • I think that Steve Goodman/John Prines Great song”You Never Even Called By My Name” is the epitome of what country is all about. That is, telling the truth, but having a sense of humor about yourself.


  • jamey johnson has a song called “they call me country” — NEVER BE EMBERESSED BY THAT!


  • I used to describe myself as an outlaw country singer, and figure that would clear it up. Unfortunately that term is becoming as hazy as just “country”. I am unapologetic about the style of music I love and play, but I really really really don’t want people assuming I play what passes for country music in the mainstream. Nowadays I just say honky tonk, and that seems to work out for me.


  • Genre labeling has gotten ridiculous in all music. It used to be that you were heavy metal, or you were rock… Now it’s like your either mathcore or irish post-black metal. Regardless of what someone wants to call a genre or sub-genre, most of it sucks. When I listen to “outlaw country” on satelite it’s better than mainstream country in so much as the best of it is really good. But most of it doesn’t hold my attention or it just outright annoys me. That’s how it is for all music. But if you took the latest release from Scott H. Biram I personally wouldn’t expect to find it in the country section @ my local record store. I’d look first in the blues section and then maybe even in the rock section before I’d walk over to country. I mean the album has elements of country and a couple songs that are unmistakingly country, but on the whole it’s more of a rockin’ blues album to me. I know that XXX was mentioned earlier and I think that it’s a great idea to give a home to stuff like Biram and Hank3 which is apparently too far off the beaten path for mainstream radio to lump in with their playlists. Problem is that while 3 and Biram and someone like William Elliott Whitmore are all different, they still work together and I can listen to each of them while in the same mood. Throw Alabama Thunderpussy in the mix and it upsets the rythym. I mean I love the hell out of Pantera – even named my son after Dime – but Fucking Hostile has it’s own time and place. The genre can only stretch so far.


  • So Justin Townes Earle moves to New York??? New York is the farthest thing from country in the U.S.!!! who in the hell country ever came from new york? wtf. another fake ass punk


    • Waylon and Willie had help from New York lawyer Neil Reshen when they began the whole “Outlaw Bit”. Moving to New York might be a great move these days if you ain’t Nashville.


      • What does Waylon and Willie’s lawyer have to do with nyc being country? absolutely nothing…


        • In my opinion Neil Reshen is just as important, if not more important than any other character was in the Outlaw country movement in the 70’s, arguably more important that Willie or Waylon. He was the man behind the scenes that got both Willie & Waylon out of their restrictive RCA contracts, and set them up to be able to do what they wanted to do. The importance of Reshen cannot be understated.

          That doesn’t mean someone from New York will make a good country singer, but as I stated before, being once removed from the restrictive environment of Music Row, the same environment Reshen was able to free Willie & Waylon from, may give artists from the North an advantage in making real country music.


    • The idea that real country artists can only come from the South is outmoded. The reason so many real country artists are coming from the Northeast, the upper Midwest, and the Pacific Northwest is because of Music Row’s death grip on culture in The South, and seeing how they only want to promote pop country, many real country artists must flee Music Row’s death grips to actually make heartfelt music. JTE was born and raised in Nashville. And as he said: “just hate seeing my town defaced.”


  • Hey, I’d like to add something to this. I’ve been trying to save country too, but down in here in Brazil. I lived in Texas so I kind started playing hank williams, and other country when I came back home. But it’s impossible to use the term “country” over here, because it means “Sertanejo” and sertanejo means something even more bad than the pop nashville stuff.

    So, if you’d like to, you can try to check about this sertanejo thing. But what I wanted to say is that even over here I’m having to stop using the word “country” and start using “honky tonk” instead. It seams to be better like this, even though honky tonk doesn’t mean much for brazilians.

    Thanx SCM!


  • To me, the genre “country” is a pretty large umbrella that encompasses a lot of different styles and subcategories. Sort of like “rock” music, which has everything from pop to metal to whatever.

    I wish we could approach this issue from the other side. Instead of finding a label for the diverse kinds of music that people on this site love, from III to singer songwriters to “old school country” traditionalists, how about forcing mainstream country to be called “Pop Country”? Make them own their own shit. The word “country” has a proud heritage with legendary icons like Hank Sr. and the Carter Family. I hate to abandon it to the plastic turd blossoms of the CMA.


  • I think the biggest problem XXX is going to encounter is the fact that they are trying to start a new genre and call it that from the beginning. When you look back at the history of music, that hasnt really been done before sucessfully. When you see the punk movement, metal movement, grunge movement etc start, no one said this is what we are doing and trying to be and we are called this. It was always bands just saying they were playing what inspired them and creating their art and didnt wanna be labeled anything. Gram tried to call it Cosmic Rock and that failed. Then it was Outlaw, then alt country, now americana. Its all the same though no matter what you call it. Just call it music and enjoy it!


  • Hey Trig. According to my old boss, in the 70s they described what became “alt-country” as “progressive country”. So the naming divide’s been going on for a long, long time.

    Also, “chic” means cool and a “sheik” is an Arabian prince.


  • Very insightful article Trig. Yep, I think you are right. I can’t even say I like country music here in little old New Zealand. The likes of Taylor Swift are (thankfully) considered more pop than country here, however people still start singing Achy Breaky Heart to me should I mention country music. I can’t call it ‘roots’ as here as that means reggae/dub so I tend to settle for Americana or hillbilly. Neither are accurate but at least both those words have definitive associations which saves me having to explain my taste in music.


  • Music is diverse, taste in music is even moreso. I tried to like Pop Country, on several occasions, I really truley did. But it’s so entwined in crap that I cannot bring myself to be a fan. No bitterness here, just truth and honesty, and the fact that country music has spiraled into the obvious greed, fame and dishonesty black hole that it currently flounders in, I think my instincts are right. Time will tell as to what will become of country music, but one thing I know will always be truth: a good song is a good song because it’s good, not because it was spoon fed to the masses.


  • Having to make clarifications when discussing country music has become a bit of a pain. But I like to think that people who have a real interest in music understand that there’s good and bad music in every of genre and most current stuff on popular radio stations is painful to listen to. As much as it bothers me see some indie kid roll their eyes when I say I’m in to country music, I’m not going to let it get to me because all it does is show how stupid close minded they are.


  • What’s wrong with calling it “Honky Tonk and Juke Joint” music? It seems Amazon is already using that Honky Tonk as a category. This way Hank and Biram can be lumped together.


  • Great post, again you have almost exactly nailed down my feelings and thoughts on what country music should be and where the actual music I feel is true or real country music is at. I try to call the music on my station Honky Tonk because to me that is true country music. I like some of Americana, XXX, Bluegrass, and Alt-country; however, the fringes of each genre turn me off. Americana and XXX is too hard rock sounding, Bluegrass too instrumental and stringy, and Alt-country to rock and jammy for me.


  • This is a stream of conciousness… no disrespect to anyone…
    If artists leave Nashville cause they can’t stand the pop-country politics, and regional bands start avoiding using the term “country”, and fans are skeptical to say they are “country” fans, then there isn’t as much fight in this as I hoped.

    This is COUNTRY. All of it is. Just because some douche bags came in and have had ahold of the commercial success for a solid decade, we are going to start inventing new terms to distance ourself from “them” and let them walk away with the COUNTRY label?

    Fuck that. Some mentioned this weak attitude above. I say, say you are a country band, say you are a country fan. Maybe an extra sentence like “country, like Willie/Waylon country not the radio today” then people get it.

    But by completely dismissing the use of the term “country” I hope those realize the fight is over. We have turned over all the history the icons built because of a 10yr. run of pop country? It is 10yrs. out of what…100+.

    You don’t want to be confused with Rascal Flatts? Then take back the term, the town, the attitude. Your losing to an age group of females 15-24. That’s it. It won’t last forever.
    Don’t go searching for some other term because the CMA’s aren’t calling right now. Fight for the term, the genre, and it will turn.


  • oh and by the way. “They” are pop-country. That is the embarassing term for talent. Let “them” explain what the fuck pop country is. Except for the 15-24 yr. girls, everyone knows what COUNTRY is. It shouldn’t be embarassing if you care about the history of the music.


  • […] Country Music asks if “country” is an embarrassing term for top-tier talent: Now that mainstream country music has been seen as just another version of pop […]


Leave a comment

Del Maguey
Old Soul Radio Show
Modern Roots
Best Of Lists