Part and parcel with the recent uproar over Lil Nas X and his song “Old Town Road” being removed from the country charts—and previously when Bro-Country acts like Florida Georgia Line or EDM country stars like Sam Hunt would stir dissent among some country fans—defenders of these performers along with members of the media would profess that country music must be inclusive to these new sounds and artists or risk losing its “relevance.”
Often these media members and fans are not native to country music, and don’t understand why it has always been the place of country to pay homage to the past, and offer something different from the rest of popular music as opposed to playing follow the leader. Furthermore, these theories that country music must evolve or it will go extinct seem to be completely out of touch with the fact that country music is doing just fine at the moment, if not excelling compared to many periods during its history.
Though these cautionary tales of this supposed “relevancy” threat are shoved down the throats of country fans, theaters and arenas continue to be sold out, sales and streaming numbers continue to be strong, and new artists continue to be supported, including ones with more traditional-sounding music. There are no signs that country music is weakening or being left behind due to supposed “relevance” issues. In fact country music appears to be going through a Spring of more country-sounding songs and talent.
Country music’s two biggest superstars since the implosion of Bro-Country in 2014 have been Chris Stapleton and Luke Combs—two artists who regardless how you may feel about their music, don’t mix electronic beats or rap verses into their songs, and don’t fit the natural model of a sculpted superstar. These artists are also doing very well in crossover appeal. Who has been the one of the biggest concert draws for the last few years in all of music, country or otherwise? Garth Brooks, whose heyday was well over two decades ago.
On June 4th, AXS-TV aired an interview with “Class of ’89” country artist Travis Tritt conducted by Dan Rather. The veteran journalist once again broached the concern that country music must stay “relevant” to survive, asking Tritt, “As time moves on, and new generations of people for example have difficulty translating to a train song. But people are trying to make country music relevant for the current generation. Let’s talk about how you do that when Travis Tritt is off saying, ‘We got to sing the old music. We’ve got to sing the old themes.'”
Travis Tritt’s response was spot on.
“How many young people go through heartbreak? How many young people are out there looking for the right person to share the rest of their lives with … looking for love? How many young people are out there that get fired from their job for whatever reason, or they’re frustrated because they can’t find a job? The frustrations that go with that, and all those different feelings—the acquisition of love, the loss of it—all of those different feelings, those are no different than the same feelings that were behind the great songs of yesterday.”
Country music has never drawn its strength or appeal from whatever happens to be relevant in the here and now. Country music is unique in how its themes remain timeless and eternally relevant regardless of the trends that may influence the rest of the popular music world. Country is also one of the few places listeners can go to hear something that isn’t all rosy, but speaks to real life and its common struggles.
“[Love and loss are] not reflected in most of the [new] stuff,” Tritt continues. “You know, if you go to a country music radio station right now, and you ask them, ‘What are you looking for on your playlist?’ 99% of them will tell you, ‘Well, we want something that’s upbeat and positive.’ Life is not always upbeat and positive. As a matter of fact, far from it.”
And this is what makes country music appeal to so many people, even if some of the sounds or modes feel a little antiquated. If anything, country music’s behind-the-times nature reminds listeners that people have always gone through tough times, if not tougher, which breeds comfort through the shared commiseration that country music provides.
When Billy Ray Cyrus decided to collaborate with Lil Nas X on “Old Town Road,” it was heralded as an important time in country music’s evolution, and it was believed that Cyrus would be handsomly rewarded by a massive resurgence of interest in his career. Though “Old Town Road” has been the #1 song in all of music for 10 weeks and counting, that successes and attention hasn’t translated to Billy Ray Cyrus, or to country music whatsoever. Billy Ray’s latest album The Snakedoctor Circus released in the midst of “Old Town Road” and its wild popularity sold an abysmal 425 copies.
Media pundits and prognosticators—many with ulterior motives that have as much to do with politics as anything—will continue to prescribe trend chasing and the adoption of influences from other genres as a way to buffer country music from irrelevance. But for 70 years, country music has done just fine focusing on what makes it different from other genres as opposed to trying to be something it isn’t. Adopting the sounds and modes of pop and hip-hop might make country music cool to some, but the genre’s most existential threat is not dying because nobody wants to listen to it, it’s going extinct as an art form because nobody can distinguishing it from anything else.
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Unfortunately, AXS-TV has not made video available of the interview, but the segment of the interviewed quoted in this story can be seen here.