For many years, the greatest foes that Saving Country Music was charged with vanquishing were pop country artists.
These days, as country music continues to improve in the mainstream, and we’re seeing incredible support for independent country music like never before, one of the biggest issues emerging in country music is not bad artists making bad music. It is journalists and columnists of all people, some of which exist within the country music fold in one capacity or another, and other entertainment journalists that only know country music from the outside looking in who are using the forum of country music to forward political agendas aimed at what they see as a great bastion of racists, sexists, and red state Trump voters.
What was country music during the George W era? It was Toby Keith’s “The Angry American” played over and over again for eight years. Well, six years, until Taylor Swift came along. At least that’s how it was perceived by many outside of country music. And as we enter the era of Trump, once again blanket assumptions about the bigotry of country listeners will make the genre a political punching bag that will cause collateral damage to many of country music’s politically agnostic and progressives as politically-motivated hit pieces in the press portray country music with a broad stroke of vitriolic judgementalism.
It would seem like a strange problem to have in country music—journalists. But as the ranks of professional country journalists get pilfered by both the evaporation of support for print media and recruitment of journalistic talent into the publicity side of the industry, we’re to the point now where finding credible, knowledgeable, experienced, and thought-provoking voices within country music’s press corps is becoming difficult to impossible. Instead, pop journalists and young progressives are veering onto the beat more and more, and are bringing their biases towards their favorite pop artists and their poor knowledge of country music’s complexities with them.
This is what we saw in the aftermath of Beyoncé’s performance at the CMA’s in November, and now with the continued fight to label her song “Daddy Lessons” as country, including the characterization that the pop diva was snubbed by the Gammy Awards in its country categories. Forget that even if “Daddy Lessons” was universally-recognized as a country song, it is still competing with thousands of other songs released in the genre during the eligibility period to be considered the “best.”
But of course, pop media just won’t let it go. Yet another article in Billboard recently attempts to argue the historical context for Beyoncé’s inclusion in the Grammy’s country categories, pointing out that The Pointer Sisters once won a country Grammy, and how Ray Charles had an era in the format. This is what Millenial journalists love to do—compile skin deep knowledge on a certain subject, and then with an air of superiority, speak down to the audience about how ignorant they are on the subject, especially when it comes to country music.
Billboard‘s Natalie Wiener—who wrote the article about Beyonce’s Grammy gripe—mostly covers pop and hip-hop music, aside from naming Beyoncé’s performance at the CMA’s as the #1 performance of the night, while not even mentioning Eric Church’s performance with Rhiannon Giddens of “Kill A Word” (like the rest of the press corps who ignored the evening’s true moment of love and inclusion). These Grammy do-gooders also ignore that in the country subcategory of Americana, William Bell received a nomination this year for Best Americana Album.
This issue of Beyoncé and the country Grammys has nothing to do with race or inclusion. It has everything to do with Beyoncé fandom and forwarding political agendas by the folks writing these pieces. And it was this line from Natalie Wiener’s article—though otherwise well-researched—that shows she has absolutely no authority to speak on matters pertaining to country music. “There is (some) room to cross over [onto country radio]– as long as you stay true to the orthodoxy of radio-friendly slide guitars and twang,” Wiener asserts, “something Beyoncé’s New Orleans-brassy, boot-stomping anthem definitely didn’t do.”
So wait a second. In 2016, you’re really going to say that the “orthodoxy” of country radio is “slide guitars and twang”? First off, you don’t mean slide guitar. You mean steel guitar. Slide guitar is a signifyer of the blues. Steel guitar is a signifyer of country. And if you think that “twang” is what you need to fit the orthodoxy of today’s country radio, then you have absolutely, certifiably no idea what you’re talking about. Spend half a segment listening to commercial country radio, and see if you hear anything anyone can construe as “twang.”
A similar mistake was made by Betsy Phillips writing for The Washington Post recently. Yes, even major newspapers now feel like they must comment on Beyoncé’s country music “controversy.” Along with saying that if Beyoncé’s not considered country, then the Father of Country Music Jimmie Rodgers must also be excluded (which is ridiculous), Betsy Phillips says,
“Country music has a long history of making boneheaded decisions about who is not country music. After Johnny Cash won his Grammy for Best Country Album in 1998, he and his producer, Rick Rubin, ran an ad in Billboard that featured Cash flipping the bird to the camera. The text read, ‘American Recordings and Johnny Cash would like to acknowledge the Nashville music establishment and country radio for your support.’ That would be the utter lack of support they gave a man they ignored for years, whom they’ve now retconned into a country music legend whom they always loved.”
But nobody ever asserted that Johnny Cash wasn’t country. By awarding him the Grammy for Best Country Album, they were outright verifying where they believed Johnny Cash belonged. It also refutes the entire premise of the Washington Post article. The reason Cash was ignored by country radio has nothing to do with genre. It’s because the format is rife with ageism, and Johnny Cash had been put out to pasture decades before.
But enough about the Beyoncé issue. Lord knows I’ve said enough on it. It is just one of many issues country music is going to have to face in the next four years as we enter the Trump era.
Believe it or not, both Americana and alt-country have now come under fire in the last couple of weeks in the form of politically-motivated and pointy-nosed hit pieces dressed up as progressive punditry, setting an entirely new precedent on how patently clueless the current crop of entertainment and political media is on the true nature of American roots music.
The first offense was perpetrated by Charles Aaron of MTV. In the 35-paragraph attempted dismantling of Americana for being a whitewashed bastion of Lynyrd Skynyrd-listening racists, Aaron also asserts that an African American artist named Adia Victoria should be considered Americana, even though in the same exact article, Adia Victoria swears off the label.
Craig Havighurst of Music City Roots and WMOT wrote a proper and respectful rebuttal to Charles Aaron, explaining to him how his logic is completely skewed, and his understanding of Americana is skin deep at best.
“I was interested that a veteran rock and pop writer—a long-time music editor for SPIN—would spend so much ink on our musical community,” said Craig Havighurst in his rebuttal. “But what might have been an important exploration of Americana and race—a conversation we should always be having—reveals itself on closer scrutiny as poorly reported and unfairly argued.”
The fact that Craig Havighurst is even having to broach this subject is beyond belief. Following Havighurst’s Twitter feed for the past few months, it’s fairly clear that this is a guy whose political compass falls left of center, just like the majority of people in the Americana community who aren’t just committed to diversity in Americana, but are rabidly obsessed with it. But the corrosive mindsets that are looking to draw blood on any institution they perceive as tied to the Trump administration will apparently hold no quarter, even in the face of obvious alliances across political and cultural boundaries.
“Mr. Aaron is enthusiastic about a lot of Americana artists, exhibiting an admirably wide view of the format’s possibilities,” Craig Havighurst continues. “But he defines Americana as a ‘crucial star-making base’ and a ‘mainstream farm team.’ I’ve been working with this community for 15 years and if these were its priorities, rather than building platforms and support for authentic artistry, I’d have drifted away long ago. Americana, as manifested by the artists, bookers, agents, managers, radio and label folks I know (hundreds of them), stands opposed to commodified music and packaging-over-substance, and it’s kind of depressing to have such a prominent article out there asserting otherwise based on cynicism instead of observation and inquiry.”
And as for the subject of race, Havighurst is spot on with his assertion that, “Mr. Aaron blows off easily discernible facts to support the most injurious and false charge in his article.”
Yet believe it or not, Charles Aaron of MTV is not the one responsible for posting the most injurious and stupefying article on the subject of politics and country music in the last couple of weeks. That distinction would fall to Molly Osberg writing for fusion.net in an article entitled, Not just Nazis: Alt-genres have always been ‘safe spaces’ for white people.
That’s right, an article that had a catchy idea for a title and should have been killed in the idea phase actually got written and published in a major American periodical.
“Depending on who you ask, the [alt-country] genre is either a punk-inflected brand of country or a throwback to the genre’s Depression-era origins or something more reminiscent of the Delta Blues,” says the article. “But as the music historian Diane Pecknold notes, as hokey, supposedly ‘effeminate’ country music topped the charts in the ‘90s and hip-hop mainstreamed: ‘Hip urbanites embraced alt-country as a counterculture, looking to older country roots as a way to express their mainstream popular music of all sorts and reconfigure burlesque abjection into a familiar, deeply nostalgic form of white guy cool-supremacy in the process.'”
That’s right folks, we’re now going after alt-country—a subgenre founded by overtly politically-motivated left-leaning artists like Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Uncle Tupelo and Wilco, James McMurtry and the Drive-By Truckers, who often sing overtly politically-motivated songs, as a front for the alt-right? This is the most irresponsible article I have ever seen posted in the history of country music. It’s not even worth arguing against since that would be an indirect acknowledgement that the subject is even worth discussing. Trying to tie Nazism to the efforts of Drive-By Truckers and Steve Earle is the height of stupidity.
Certain people are angry that Donald Trump won the election, and they want a bowl of blood. And their idea of how to get it is to stick a knife in the belly of anyone or anything they believe to be opposed to their ideologies in a “total war” stance that is not just finding them inadvertently trampling on their own ideals, but attempting to character assassinate music artists and institutions that are either actively working to stay politically neutral, but in many respects are these do-gooders’ direct allies.
The idea that tribalism is a one way street is a myth that’s shattered by these irresponsible “think pieces,” that along with spreading ridiculous misnomers about country music and its subgenres, only work to divide us even further. Music should be a place apart from political punditry and vitriol, and it has been astounding how careful mainstream country music’s traditionally conservative artists have been at staying on the sidelines of the political fray and respectful of other people’s beliefs through this season, despite the efforts of the media to suck them in by asking repeated questions on Presidential politics, which are inappropriate. Meanwhile the people speaking out in country, alt-country, and Americana are mostly the political left, which is their right to do.
But everyone should understand how music should be a place where we all come together and enjoy something regardless of underlying political ideologies. Not only are the assertions of these politically-motivated journalists and think pieces incorrect and hurtful to the causes they’re attempting to champion, they’re eroding the effectiveness of music as an institution that can bring people together and bridge understanding.
Does country music, and even alt-country and Americana have a diversity problem? Yes, they does. But this is something that is being addressed by both artists and the industry like never before.
Donald J. Trump is going to be the President of the United States for the next four years, and comparing alt-country singers to Nazis, or complaining about Beyoncé not getting a Grammy nomination in country is not going to change that. But what we can all do is use music as a vehicle to diffuse the vitriol, and promote diversity and understanding—but only if it’s not continuously smeared in the press by frankly idiotic and irresponsible assertions by ignorant, do-gooder keyboard warriors.
Leave country, alt-country, and Americana, and music in general out of your political witch hunts.