Signs Country Has Lost Its Way

Johnny Cash middle finger country radio Mean Eyed Cat AustinRemember back when Taylor Swift won the CMA for Entertainer of the Year? We thought it couldn’t get worse for country music. There was a lot of surmising of where country music might go next after that win. Would there be a traditionalist backlash? Would country become even more pop oriented to try to mimic Taylor’s success?

No, try a sinister option #3: Take the fervor for a traditionalist backlash and roll it into even more pop oriented, cliche riddled radio ready songs that further trash the soul and name of country music. With new artists like Josh Thompson, and new albums like Gretchen Wilson’s I Got Your Country Right Here, Music Row proved that the depth of their shrewdness cannot be measured.

But maybe the have gone too far this time. Nashville’s collusive reality tunnel has blinded them to the fact that they are becoming the brunt of jokes, literally. And not just in the seeing-eye core of country fandom, but in the overall culture. People who always hated country, are now wondering what the hell is going on with country.

But don’t take my word for it.

Chet Flippo, long time country music writer, whose been a senior editor for Rolling Stone and wrote the introductions to the classic Outlaw country album Wanted: The Outlaws is now getting into the fray. In a Nashville Skyline article, Chet calls out the same Josh Thompson and Gretchen Wilson songs that I’ve been ranting about for weeks:

“Junk songwriting and shallow lyrics and shorthand shopping lists of objects that supposedly should be desired by country fans have always existed in country songs, but I don’t think they’ve ever been as celebrated as they are now. Or as ubiquitous. Or as successful. . . One reason is that there seem to be no — or very few — musically-knowledgeable people at radio because of radio consolidation and perhaps because the bosses don’t want anyone messing up the process with talk of quality or of good songs.”

“Another reason is the old cycle of record labels recording artists and songs that radio says it wants, and that usually calls for the lowest common denominator. And for songs that test well with the right demographic. And then that means songwriters have to write the kinds of songs that will actually get recorded and played. And that cycle repeats over and over.

Chet doesn’t name names, but with his “shallow lyrics and shorthand shopping lists of objects that supposedly should be desired by country fans” he is clearly talking about the Josh Thompson and Gretchen Wilson songs that rip off the Black Crowes and rip off each other.

But Chet is still part of the country music fold, so let’s take a broader look. A recent Wall Street Journal Article about the Pulitzer Prize awarded to Hank Williams wondered if the award was also backhandedly criticizing the creatively bankrupt culture of modern country:

“The acknowledgment of Williams comes at a time when country music seems under assault from within, as its biggest stars promote glossy, cookie-cutter hybrid that owes more to pop than acoustic country and its writers have reduced to a litany of well-worn clichés the kind of lyrical insight Williams displayed. Though Williams was a star in his day who understood the power of image, at the core of his work was his ability to write and sing lines that resonated not only in the mind but deep in the heart of his listeners – which is why his songs so easily cross genres for other performers: His words speak of what we know to be true.”

A lot of people would say people who are not knowledgeable about country music have no right to criticize it. Chet Flippo has said that much himself, and I disagreed with him. But when something becomes so obvious that even people not paying full attention to the country music world can see how ridiculous it has become, how far it has gone, this is the perfect sign that it has gone too far.

When I was down at South by Southwest a few weeks back, I was in a restaurant, and saw this sign below, completely by random. Whether it’s this sign, a Pulitzer Prize, or a Wall Street Journal article, there’s no more need for debate, the signs are everywhere throughout our culture: Country music has lost its way.

Johnny Cash middle finger country radio Mean Eyed Cat Austin