It comes up often in discussions about many of today’s new “country” artists and fans. Could they even name a song from someone like Ernest Tubb or Roy Acuff if you put them on the spot? Or how about the King of Country Music, Hank Williams? Some may not even be able to name you a song from George Strait, and probably consider Kenny Chesney classic country.
Part of this has to do with the importance of country music’s past being so diminished in today’s popular culture, but part of it has to do with the fact that you have music fans now that were born after the year 2000, and they just need to be brought up to speed on the history of the genre. It’s not their fault, and it’s important that older country fans and the artists of today communicate the importance of country music’s history to them, and exude patience and understanding while doing so.
But can you imagine having the #1 song on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart for the last six months—something Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, Hank Williams, George Strait, and Kenny Chesney never came close to doing—and not even knowing about the massive present-day pop country band you collaborated with to pull it all off before you walked into the room to write the song with one of them?
That’s the revelation that came from pop star Bebe Rexha about her song “Meant to Be” with Florida Georgia Line in a recent interview with ABC Radio. Bebe Rexha admitted she had no idea who Florida Georgia Line was before writing “Meant To Be” with Tyler Hubbard. Now she’s done something that no other country artist except Sam Hunt has done in history—top the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart for an incredible 26 weeks.
There are so many ways to illustrate the absolute absurdity of what has happened with Bebe Rexha and “Meant To Be,” but this one might take the cake. At least Florida Georgia Line know who Hank Williams Jr. and Alabama are, and can cite them as influences. It would almost be endearing for Bebe Rexha to not know who Florida Georgia was if it was due to taste, and not a complete black hole of knowledge about anything that has to do with “country” music.
What is going on with “Meant To Be”—and more importantly the Billboard rules that have allowed the song to completely rewrite the history books, and the gaming of the streaming system to boost certain songs—is unprecedented not just for the chart achievement itself, but because it’s being done by someone who has never been more outside of country music mindset, and more clueless about what country music is. We’ve never had an artist with a #1 song of any length who couldn’t name a top contemporary country artist of their time, let alone pass a Hank Williams knowledge test. Now we have one who couldn’t do either that will now forever be ensconced in the history books, pushing all the country greats from the past and present down a peg.
From the very beginning, country music was founded on paying traditions forward from forefathers and foremothers to preserve the culture of the American South and West, so the voices and stories of country music’s ancestors would never be forgotten, and would act as a living history of a people and a sound. This is what makes country music different from pop or any other genre. It doesn’t mean pop artists can’t make country music, or that country artists can’t dabble in pop, or that they can’t collaborate together, and evolve the sound over time. But preservation of the roots must always be an imperative. That is why anointing an artist such as Bebe Rexha is such a dangerous enterprise. She doesn’t symbolize a continuing on of the country music lineage. She symbolizes the absolute ignorance of it, and breaking of the ties that bind country music to its past.
In 1995, the country music supergroup The Highwaymen made up of Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson recorded a song called “If He Came Back Again.” It was four living legends of country music all coming together to pay tribute to another country music legend, Hank Williams. The song wonders aloud if people would even recognize Hank Williams if he were to walk out among the present-day population. Now imagine someone so clueless about this history of country music, they couldn’t even recognize Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, or Johnny Cash?
That’s Bebe Rexha. And according to numerous metrics published by Billboard, she’s the biggest artist in “country” music stretching back to last year, and counting.
Something must be done.