Is ‘Country’ an Embarrassing Term for Top Tier Talent?

For years I’ve had the theory that one of the major problems facing country music is its inability to develop talent. Without a system in place to discover truly talented and unique artists and develop them into stars, it has made the genre weak, and open to infection from other genres, as current and new stars must reach out into other forms of music to stay relevant.

Now that mainstream country music has been seen as just another version of pop music by so many people for so long, my concern is that talented musicians are being turned off by the mere mention of the term ‘country’, seeing it as a genre without gravitas, obsessed with money and image, making it even more likely for the one-in-a-million music talent to stay away.

“We call ourselves a honky tonk band.” is how Bloodshot Records recording artist Whitey Morgan puts it. “You call yourselves country and people think you mean that shit they play on the radio.”

Ruby Jane, a 16-year-old music phenom who was the youngest invited fiddle player to ever play The Grand Ole Opry, and was touring with Asleep At The Wheel and Willie Nelson at age 14, iterated in a recent interview that she’s moved on from identifying with the mainstream country world. “I love what I used to do, but I’ve always listened to rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t really listen to that other stuff. I mean, I listen to bluegrass and country, I guess, but I’m not sitting at home listening to George Strait and Carrie Underwood all day.

Justin Townes Earle moved to NYC, partially to distance from mainstream country music.

Justin Townes Earle is a little more pointed on the matter, saying recently on his always-entertaining Twitter feed: The reason I live in NYC and not in Nashville is coming through my walls right now in the form of shit country music! Some people!!! Fuck!!!” And later following up with, “I was born and raised in Nashville and just hate seeing my town defaced. It is still a great place full of great folks.”

The latter two artists were once featured in a group of four that I asked which one might be country music’s next savior. Regardless of their listening patterns or musical style, it appears that neither really wants a lot to do with the term ‘country’, a term that feels so embattled in circles of people that don’t want to be lumped in with Music Row’s mainstream fare, and want to be known for taste and quality above commercial appeal. Justin Townes Earle’s move to New York City seemed very symbolic when it happened, like he was doing everything he could to remove himself from the typecasting environment of his native Nashville.

And speaking of Townes Earle and New York, the title track from his recent album Harlem River Blues just won Song of the Year at the Americana Music Awards. ‘Americana’ seems to be the new chic term for artists whose music has country leanings, but who don’t want to be lumped in with the Jason Aldean’s of the world, just like “alt-country” was the hip term back in the 80’s and 90’s. Alt-country never had their own awards and infrastructure like Americana is attempting to cultivate, and over time, alt-country has morphed into almost a classic genre classification, because it almost implies an outmoded approach that few artists want to be associated with anymore.

One of the problems with Americana is when you look at the list of the Americana Awards 2011 nominees and winners, the names look like they are drawn from a very narrow perspective, zeroed in on the personal tastes of American Songwriter magazine and their readership. But where Americana has the advantage over country is that good artists who want to be appreciated for their creativity and talent don’t mind being called that.

So now not only is the term ‘country’ being diminished by being used to market mainstream pop, rock, and now even hip-hop music, it is also being diminished by top-flight talent fleeing from the term. This is why country is drafting actors and artists from other genres to “go country”, because talent from within, and talent tied to the roots of the music is leaving, or never coming. ‘Country’ used to be a big tent genre. Townes Van Zant certainly was more of a folk singer-songwriter, but never publicly ran from the ‘country’ term, and still fits the classic definition of ‘country’ today.

And parallels can be drawn with the fans of country music. Likely if you’re reading this right now, you’ve caught yourself saying, “Yeah, I like country, but not that type of country.” Just like artists, fans who want to be known for appreciating creativity and talent in music don’t always want to be associated with the ‘country’ term.

I would say country music is in trouble, but as public music education continues to be cut, there seems to be no end to the flow of people willing to consume bad music. The question is, where will this potential talent vacuum leave the term ‘country’ in the long term?