Progress vs. Traditionalism in Country Music

The war vs. pop influences and progress in country music, and the purity yearned for by the traditional elements of the genre is almost as old as the genre itself. The introduction of electric instruments on The Grand Ole Opry stage, drummers in country outfits, it was all met with stiff resistance from purists in their time. Steel guitar might be one of the most identifiably “country” elements in music, but think what shock must have ran through traditionalists’ minds in the late 40’s when the appeal of this strange electrified sound was brought back from Polynesia by WWII GI’s.

This continuous country music cold war tends to go hot periodically, as it did over the last couple of weeks. The ACM Awards, a following brushup pitting Miranda Lambert and Justin Moore against Ashton Kutcher, followed by a prominent Fox News story on the matter, had the old standard battle lines being cast, and like most battles in the culture war these days, both sides being defined by extremes as opposed to a more true measure of feelings, creating a polarized environment where little understanding could be garnered.

So in an attempt to power through the rhetoric, here is a cool-headed attempt to explain some of the differences between the traditional and mainstream mindsets, a detailed look at the term “progress” and how it relates to country music, and how it all relates to radio, still the most important medium for relaying country music to listeners.

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“There needs to be more old stuff on country radio”

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“Nobody wants to hear that old stuff on country radio”

Country radio is the real battleground in the country music war. Radio programming is reflected at country awards shows, and that is why they become battlegrounds as well. When the argument is made that more older music, or more traditional-sounding new music needs to be on country radio, the reaction from mainstream and pop country fans usually is that country music needs to “progress” (see below) and that the old stuff is outdated.

You can’t argue taste when it comes to music, but it is impossible to argue against statistics, and the statistics released by Edison Research at the Country Radio Seminar in Nashville this February conclusively state that country radio is on a dramatic downhill trend, and that one of the reasons is because country music’s big traditionalist demographics are being undeserved.

Conversely, traditionalists that think that pop country has no place on country radio and that they should only play Hank, Cash, Willie, and Waylon are doing just as much of a disservice. By saying the current radio formula needs to swing in the complete opposite direction and wholesale eliminate pop influences, they negatively typecast the more common pragmatic traditionalist argument that is simply looking for balance. Country music and radio has always had pop influences, even in the 50’s, and it must continue to. A complete flip of the radio format would in turn disenfranchise the mainstream audience and put radio on just as much of an unsustainable path.

That is why balance and quality is what must be strived for on country radio. As Edison Research pointed out, at this moment there is an imbalance towards the pop or mainstream. Something commonly misunderstood by mainstream fans is that just because something is “traditional” country doesn’t mean it needs to be classic or “old”. There are scores of traditional, neo-traditional, post-punk, and progressive country artists putting out relevant, commercially-viable music receiving little or no mainstream radio play. Touching on all of country’s current styles, along with paying homage to its roots with a classic song or two, with an overall emphasis of showcasing the the best and most appealing music the genre has to offer is the way radio, and in turn country music, can preserve its viability as a medium.

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“Country music must progress”

This is the argument commonly made by pop country fans whenever traditionalists and purists push back on pop, rap, or other influences entering the genre. However “pop” doesn’t necessarily translate into progression. It many times results in regression. You can have progress in country music while still keeping the music firmly attached to its roots. That exact formula was what “alt-country” was founded on, with artists like Uncle Tupelo, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, and Bela Fleck. A term often used in exchange for “alt-country” is “progressive country”. Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Townes Van Zandt were also labeled as progressive country in their day.

One of the reasons progressive country came into existence is because the progressive approach was met with resistance from both the pop-oriented, commercial influences of the country music business, and traditionalists. But many alt-country artists went in the alt direction in the 80’s because they were embarrassed of the way country’s roots were being treated by the mainstream country genre. And the mainstream, by not showcasing or attempting to re-intergrate the tremendous talent gravitating to the alt-country world, found itself in one of its darkest periods in regards to both commercial success and artistic appeal.

Today there are many great country artists with progressive approaches to the music, yet they must compete with pop, and now hip-hop oriented “country” acts that many times frame country music in a submissive role to these other genres and are leading to the formation of a mono-genre.

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“Tradition is important in country music”

More than in any other genre of music, tradition and a tie to the roots of the music is a vital element that makes country music work. My favorite illustration of this is to compare it to religions, and compare country music to the Jewish faith. Anybody can be Christian or Muslim as long as they are believers in that faith, but being Jewish is just as much a culture and a bloodline as it is a belief.

Country is a roots genre that other genres are derived from, with a pure bloodline running through its past, just like the blues. Rock & roll for example has always been an amalgam of blues, rockabilly, country, and other influences. Hip-hop was founded on borrowing beats and modes from other genres. Country did draw from other influences too, but it also ties its traditions into its sonic structures and lyrical themes with the nostalgia and reflection found in its songs. The traditions and roots are fundamental elements of the style, just like the rapping of hip-hop, or the back beat of rock & roll.

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Without the tradition and roots of country in the music, it begins to fall apart as an art form. Without any pop or other outside influences in country, it begins to lose its commercial viability. The war for the heart of country music will continue on, but what must not is the imbalance favoring pop that has paralleled the most daunting and undeniable decline in the country music industry in its history.