Apple’s “My Kind of Country” Gets It All Wrong

On Friday, March 24th, independent country artist Jesse Daniel released a live album called My Kind of Country: Live from the Catalyst. A triumphant work from an artist that went from a drug addict in Santa Cruz, California to now one of independent country’s most promising performers, the album captures Jesse Daniel and his band playing a sold-out show at a place that Daniel once worked at as a stage hand and bar back, dreaming of becoming a country artist.

The phrase “My Kind of Country” is one Jesse Daniel has been using for years now as a signature to delineate his authentic honky-tonk style of country music with a strong songwriting element from what many characterize as “country music” today that dominates the mainstream. Jesse Daniel has put the “My Kind of Country” phrase on T-shirts and such, and it’s come to symbolize a rallying cry of independent country fans who’ve been disenfranchised by the mainstream.

The same day Jesse Daniel released the new live album and played a packed show at the Sagebrush honky tonk in Austin, Apple TV debuted a new singing competition of sorts also called My Kind of Country. Produced by actress Reese Witherspoon with Kacey Musgraves, the TV/competition also features “scouts” Mickey Guyton, Jimmie Allen, and Orville Peck. The idea is they scout all around the world for the next big country superstar who will eventually be signed to the Apple record label.

But the very fair question to ask about this competition is if any of the individuals involved are in any way qualified to be making judgement calls on supposed “country” artists. And of course, everything on this competition is hyper focused on identity and a false notion of what country music actually is.

In the current country music landscape, it is not country radio, it’s not the major labels on Music Row, it’s not even the media, or pop or hip-hop artists trying to break into the country mainstream that are blurring the lines of what country music is more than ever before. It is Apple Music above all entities that seems almost maniacally focused on reshaping what country music is in the minds of the public through their original Apple Music programming catered to the country genre.

For example, in late July Apple launched a new show called “YeeDM” hosted by DJ Telemitry. It focuses on country and EDM collaborations and remixes. “Country musicians are working in pop music and people in pop music are working in country music,” says DJ Telemitry. “Someone may say they don’t listen to country music, but if they hear something they like, they may dig it. So what I am trying to do is take that person who is a genre-free listener and just loves great music and blends those worlds together.”

Up and down the Apple Music Country roster, the emphasis appears to be attracting these “genre-free” listeners with music that has little or no loyalty or even affiliation with country music, yet Apple still feels the need to call it “country,” while at the same time eschewing the idea of genre as doltish and dated. The new My Kind of Country series takes this rather contradictory approach and sends it into hyperdrive.

“Country music should stop limiting people, and should start opening doors,” Reese Witherspoon says at the beginning of the series, which is completely true, but not for the reasons Reese Witherspoon believes. The premise of the series is that country music is completely restrictive on performers solely based on identity.

This is definitely somewhat true from a historical perspective. Country music has always been harder to break into for Black and Brown performers, and for women, even though all of these groups had a hand in originally helping to form the genre. But in the modern era, often it is these identitarian factors that open doors for artists who otherwise would not receive opportunities based on merit or the level of country cred they carry. The Apple Country Music roster and My Kind of Country are examples of this.

In truth, the most widespread and rampant discrimination in country music in 2023 that artists from all backgrounds, ethnicites, and gender identities face comes from if they have the audacity to actually play actual country music. If you’re a true country artist, good luck getting attention from a major label. In many instances, you will be ostracized from the business. Once again, this new Apple competition My Kind of Country is an examples of this.

What first deserves to be questioned is the credentials and credibility of the individuals involved in this series. Aside from being raised partly in Tennessee and playing June Carter in the 2005 film I Walk The Line, it’s unclear what gives Reese Witherspoon the capability to decree what country music is or isn’t. Though some love to accuse those who try to enact at least some sort of reasonable sonic qualifiers around what is country of “gatekeeping,” in truth, it is people like Reese Witherspoon, and major corporations like Apple that are more actively working to define what country music is, and do so upon ideological parameters as opposed to musical ones.

Kacey Musgraves most certainly has country music credibility as one of the most awards country women of the last decade. But the recent turn her career has taken makes her qualifications at choosing who and what is country or not much more questionable. For her last album Star-Crossed (2021), Kacey’s label MCA Nashville decided it needed to partner with pop label Interscope because the album was so far outside of the country genre.

When Kacey’s Star-Crossed was submitted to the Grammys, a panel of country music professionals determined it was not country enough to compete in country categories and sent it to pop. Kacey and her label protested, which in many ways proves Kacey’s definition of country is outside of how the rest of the country music defines the genre. The career moves of Musgraves in many ways parallel this worrisome Apple Music boundary stretching across their country platform.

There was certainly a point early in Mickey Guyton’s career when she would be a more than capable judge of country music, since she started out mixing more traditional sounding country with pop sensibilities. But her more recent output is purely pop, with little or not semblance to country.

Purely pop is how Jimmie Allen’s career started, and has remained. Allen defines the very bleeding edge of pop in country. In introducing Allen on My Kind of Country, they talk about how he “broke down barriers” by collaborating with Jennifer Lopez and Pitbull, when it’s these exact kinds of things that erect barriers for actual country artists who don’t yearn for crossover appeal. My Kind of Country‘s characterization of Jimmie Allen’s career as groundbreaking and unprecedented for a Black artist in the modern era also actively works to erase the work of Darius Rucker and others, similar to Amazon’s For Love & Country documentary did.

If you have confidence in anyone involved in the series being able to judge country music accurately in 2023, it might be Orville Peck, even though he was born in South Africa, and came up playing indie rock in Canada. At least Peck seems to have a foundation of influences that includes classic country stalwarts. And unlike Kacey Musgraves, Orville Peck seems to be moving in the direction of wanting to sound more country lately as opposed to less.

But the personalities on the show are far from the only problem. My Kind of Country establishes a self-fulfilling narrative that if you look different, or are from a different country than the United States, you can’t and won’t make it in country music. It also helps to define “making it” in country to mean being part of the mainstream and finding your way onto corporate country radio, while these corporate-produced productions always ignore the groundswell of independent artists in country that represent a significantly more diverse population, and increasingly, a larger portion of the market share. There is a reason all of the competition’s scouts are signed to major labels. It’s because everything not on a major label is relegated to “Americana.”

The music director for the competition is Adam Blackstone. His credits include Nicki Minaj, Justin Timberlake, Eminem, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Demi Lovato, Maroon 5, and not a single country music artist. You could have had Shane McAnally or half a dozen other country producers and fulfilled your identitarian requisite. But instead they didn’t even try to find someone from the country world, damming every performance on the show to take a turn away from country. It’s like they didn’t even try to hide that the point of this show was to make “country” music that doesn’t sound like country.

Throughout the first episode of My Kind of Country, the commentary and moments often come across as canned. Reese Witherspoon and Kacey Musgraves supposedly talking backstage and brainstorming the idea was so rigid. Jimmie Allen looked ridiculous in B-roll footage of him riding around on an old tractor. The series tries to center their “scout” personalities in the frame, but the entire thing is so clearly producer-driven, from how the contestants were selected, to the fake suspense and sentimentality.

What doesn’t feel fair to flagrantly dismiss outright is the contestants themselves. They deserve to be judged on their own merits. Searching the world for a good country star is not a bad idea in itself. Just because country music is indigenous to the United States doesn’t mean there are not quality country artists from around the world. Saving Country Music has showcased many of them over the years, from Ags Connolly in Britain, to Shota Adamashivili from the Republic of Georgia, to The Country Side of Harmonica Sam from Sweden, and so on.

As strange of a phenomenon as it may seem, sometimes souls from different parts of the globe find a home in authentic country music, and can represent country music just as good if not better than many American-born performers. But the issue with My Kind of Country is they’re not actually looking for country artists as much as artists they can slot into an identitarian checklist, even if the kind of music they play has little or nothing to do with country music.

On the first episode, a guy from South Africa named Justin Serrao performed “Wild World” by folk rock artist Cat Stevens in a rendition that was arranged by Adam Blackstone, who is a pop/hip-hop producer. Another contestant named Ale Aguirre from Mexico performed “Home” by American Idol winner and acoustic pop performer Philip Phillips. So no, these really weren’t country artists, or performances.

A contestant Dhruv Visvanath from India sang Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” that hit a little bit closer to country, even if his style was inferred much more from other influences. The fourth contestant was Camille Parker from Durham, North Carolina. She was raised by her grandparents who instilled her with a love for country music, and she started singing in her church. She told a story about how it was tough to be considered “country” as a Black woman. This is one of the places where country music has suffered from blind spots, and for way too long. She sang “Space Cowboy” by Kacey Musgraves, which is a country song, even if the arrangement was very much pop. It brought some of the scouts to tears.

All four of the contestants on the first episode of My Kind of Country were quality performers that delivered great performances. But it’s fair to question if any of them were legitimately country aside from maybe Camille Parker, who could have been pushed more pop by the pop musical director of the show.

And perhaps the most telling part of the first episode is that when it came time to cut at least one contestant from the show, guess what happened? Spoiler alert: they cut nobody. That’s right, on My Kind of Country, everybody wins, and nobody loses. Everyone deserves to be a superstar in country music playing arenas with #1’s on the radio, and the only reason it could ever be any different is because country music is too closed-minded, not because being a musician is an elective occupation with a finite amount of slots for top performers.

Presumably, at some point contestants will start to be cut from My Kind of Country and a final victor announced. But not cutting anyone from the first episode really shows the kind of privileged, participation trophy mentality that this show was crafted with.

It’s important to emphasize that country artists can be Black, can be Hispanic, can be Native Americans, or a guy from Nashville of Taiwanese dissent like Gabe Lee. They can be a gay guy like Orville Peck. But the most important thing is that they also have to be country. They have to embrace a sound and approach that is emblematic of country tones and sentiments. Otherwise, even if you do instill diversity into a population of performers, it will have no meaning if you’re just presenting another version of pop. To integrate country, the artists have to play country music.

The fatal flaw behind My Kind of Country is the same fatal flaw behind much of elitist, academia-driven ideas on diversity in country music, which is that country music needs to resolve its diversity issues by sounding like every other genre via inviting artists from other genres in. But that’s not the point of country music. That’s the point of pop. Country is the sound of rural America and its inhabitants, and those that carry a love and respect for that sound in their hearts no matter where they’re from.

What’s so beautiful about music from all around the United States and the world is how different, diverse, and unique it is across so many vibrant and stratified cultures. That is diversity. And trying to resolve that diversity by forcing genres together is misguided, and ultimately damaging to diversity. Hip-hop is far and away the most popular and dominant style of music in the United States and the Western world. Popular music is indisputably disproportionately represented by Black and Brown people, despite Black and Brown people making up minority populations in the United States.

Of course it’s not okay if Black and Brown performers want to make country music and their either shunned or find a harder time than their White counterparts. Every artist should be able to achieve based upon their own individual merit. But it’s also okay if indigenous White rural performers have a tiny sliver of representation in popular culture through country music, and for people of all races and nationalities to enjoy that music as an authentic expression of rural America.

Of course the worry is that Black and Brown people don’t have an equal footing in country music, and that’s why things like Apple’s My Kind of Country are needed. But by importing performers from pop, hip-hop, R&B, or other countries, this often comes at the expense of actual country artists who happen to be Black and Brown already struggling for attention in country music.

Right now there are scores of true country artists from minority populations that deserve major backing in country music, artists like Chapel Hart, Aaron Vance, Wendy Moten, Triston Marez, Cleto Cordero and Flatland Cavalry, and the aformentioned Gabe Lee just to name very few. When artists from pop and hip-hop come into country, they often cut in line in front of these native country performers because they can draw more attention from corporations like Apple, and draw fans from the other genres they better represent.

All of those previously-named actual country artists from minority groups are here right now, unquestionably making country music, and they have paid dues and have proven resonance and appeal with fans. You don’t need to scour the globe to find more country talent. There is an entire world of country artists deserving of more attention in the independent ranks that are already going scandalously ignored right under the public’s noses, including by those calling for diversity in country music.

In truth, many of these diverse independent country artists are doing just fine. They don’t necessarily want superstardom. They’d rather take staying true to themselves, and growing sustainably to overnight success via a realty TV competition. Corporations like Apple often shoot their gaze over these kinds of performers, label them “Americana,” or generally cast them as second class simply because they’re not mainstream.

The simple fact is corporations like Apple use programming like My Kind of Country as a smoke screen. It is the equivalent to sticking a “Black Lives Matter” sign in your corporate office window, while at the same time bilking the public via insane markups on iPhones made with what is tantamount to slave labor in China in factories where they have nets around the buildings from all the workers jumping off, while they mine cobalt for their batteries in Africa via people dying from exposure every day and making pennies on the dollar to ensue egregious corporate profits continue to pour in via streamlining supply chains.

Meanwhile you have independent country artists out there like Jesse Daniel who aren’t asking for anything more than what they deserve to have coming to them. He has a Hispanic bass player in his band, and recorded two Spanish language songs for his 2021 album Beyond These Walls. Did he do it to pander for positive press for diversity? No, he did it because it was the music that was in his heart.

Jesse Daniel may never make it on corporate country radio and sell out arenas. Or maybe he will. But either way, he’ll be playing “My Kind of Country” until the day he dies because that what’s in his heart and he knows no different. He’ll never run off to the greener pastures of pop once his career starts to take off in country. These are the kinds of performers—no matter who they are or where they’re from—that country music should stake its future on. Because unlike some of the principle participants in Apple’s My Kind of Country, Jesse Daniel is loyal to the genre.

And no matter what Apple Music or any other company tries to portray, the hottest thing in country music at the moment is country music. And if country is going to survive into the future, it needs to distinguish itself from other genres, not diversify to sound like them. Then and only then will country music forge a more promising future, and hopefully one where everyone gets an equal opportunity to make it in the genre, no matter who they are, as long as they have the love of country music in their hearts.

© 2024 Saving Country Music