I don’t think that’s how that phrase goes, Bobby.
The reason much of country music, bluegrass, blues, folk, and other older genres are referred to as “roots” is because these vital influences to American music are the building blocks for most or all of the music people enjoy today. Before there was rock and roll, and before there was hip-hop, roots music paved the way for all popular music genres.
Just like a tree, without deep and strong roots, American music would have not grown as big and lush, and into the most dominant, popular, and influential music in the entire world. And without roots, American music would implode from a lack of nutrients, vitality, support, new talent, and strong ties to the history of the music that make music not just entertainment, but an intertwined experience to who we all are as people. Music isn’t just a pastime, it is part of our cultural identity.
Illustrating and explaining music as “roots” has been happening for years, and iHeartMedia morning show personality Bobby Bones couldn’t have butchered the idea more when broaching the subject as part of a broader dissertation on Sturgill Simpson’s recent comments about the disrespect of Merle Haggard.
Though generally Bobby Bones offered a measured and thoughtful approach, saying on his August 30th show, “I like Sturgill Simpson. I respect him, because he’s been able to do it pretty much independently … I also love it when artists speak their mind. I love the fact that he’s speaking out, even if I disagree with him,” Bones went on to say…
“There is no such thing as ‘actual country music.’ … That’s your definition of country music. Don’t put it on me. So I have a problem with that.”
And then he also makes the ridiculous assertion, “If you hold on to your roots, you don’t grow.”
Not only is this statement misguided, it is a bastardization of a timeless idea that has been around for eons. Dale Watson may have the most famous utterance of the phrase at the moment, pulled from his song “Nashville Rash” that goes, “You can’t grow if you rip your roots out of the ground.” The trophy of his Ameripolitan Awards is of roots extending out of a microphone to symbolize the importance of the roots of the music.
For years roots artist Ray Wylie Hubbard had a radio show called “Roots and Branches” where he regularly talked about the importance of cultivating and keeping the roots in music so the branches could grow strong and wide.
And as Tony Rice once said, “Music should be allowed to grow and flourish but at the same time hold true to it’s roots and maintain the essence of what makes it that type of music.”
And it’s not just in country and blues music. The famous group The Roots take their name from the fact that they overtly portray how jazz, rhythm and blues, funk, reggae, and other roots influences incorporate and lend to today’s hip-hop and popular music.
And it’s not just in music, either. The illustration of a tree with strong roots giving way to wide branches has been used in business, education, and many other sectors of human life to show the importance foundations play to creating long-term sustainability.
Later Bobby Bones goes on to say, “You can always remember your roots and be influenced by your roots, and even continue to do it … if that’s your thing, that’s great. But to chastise an entire format for growing, that’s not a good look.”
But without the roots of country, without the work that Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, and even later Garth Brooks that helped grow country music into the popular genre it is today, there would be no format for Florida Georgia Line or Luke Bryan to enjoy, and allow them to gain superstar status.
Bobby Bones says later, “We try to focus on our show too to bring in these unsigned independent artists and try to get them deals or let them be known,” and this is true. Despite continued missteps by Bobby Bones, he has made efforts since switching over from pop to understand country music and attempt to be a positive force in the marketplace. He even invited Sturgill Simpson to appear on his show. But like he also said, “We are the biggest country morning show in the world with the most influence,” and so when he mischaracterizes the importance of roots music and for artists and formats to hold on to those roots, it can have a corrosive effect.
Everyone thought that the rock and roll format would last forever and remain the most dominant format in music. Now it’s splintered, divided, and tough to define, primarily because it became the catch-all phrase for popular American music, similar to what country music has become today. Country music will always survive, but without holding on to its roots, without defining its borders, and without bringing in new listeners sustainably and in a way that teaches them about the roots and history of the music instead of luring them in for a short-term sugar high, it doesn’t matter how big your format gets. Because without deep roots holding and supporting you, it could fall over and implode in a moment’s notice.