In Defense of Country Music

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A recent article in the Houston Press touted the headline, “Country Music Is In Complete Artistic Bankruptcy.”

Complete artistic bankruptcy. 

The article starts by claiming that any country music artist that was recording “hard country music” left country music for the greener pastures of “folk and alt-country and Americana and, in some cases, indie rock.” There was no mention of who any of these artists are or how they made the change.  The author did state this “exodus” of  “artists who were recording hard country music” left because, “music fans, by and large, categorize country as ‘bad’ music.”

A quick scan of the best-selling Americana albums on iTunes lists Houndmouth; The SteelDrivers; Shovels and Rope; Ryan Bingham; Robert Plant and Alison Krauss; James McMurty; and the Avett Brothers.

To this writer’s knowledge none of the above artists were ever in the business of recording “hard country music.” Some would argue that Krauss could fit the bill for that description, but Krauss, as an artist, is genre-less. Meaning, someone that talented can’t be put into any one category. Not to mention, the album listed under best-selling is a collaboration with Robert Plant– you know, the former lead singer for Led Zeppelin. I don’t think he felt exiled to folk or Americana.

The SteelDrivers’ former frontman, Chris Stapleton, left the band for a solo country music career. So, maybe that was an exodus in the opposite direction?

The author moved on to state that most open-minded people would never categorize any music as “bad,” but says it is actually okay to do so, because Jason Isbell told GQ, “I believe some music is bad for people to listen to. I think it makes their taste worse, I think it makes their lives worse, I think it makes them worse people.”

Isbell’s quote came after a question about career decisions and money, nothing specific was asked and the quote, read in its entirety, isn’t all that specific either. If Isbell wanted to call out a certain type of music or a certain artist making music (bad or otherwise) he could have. Instead, he said, “Some things you have to refuse, not because of other people’s image of you but because it will gradually erode you until you are making music that’s not good for people and you’re not challenging listeners and you’re not challenging yourself. I believe that, and I will always believe that if I have my way.”

You know what happens when you assume, right? Well, that’s what the Houston Press did with the Isbell quote. Can we really assume that because Jason Isbell, a very, very talented singer-songwriter, says he won’t listen to bad music, that country music is in “complete artistic bankruptcy?”

The author goes on to call Isbell’s quote, “pretty controversial.” I don’t see the controversy in such a generic statement. Wouldn’t most people say they don’t want to listen to bad music? Wouldn’t most writers say they don’t like to read terrible sentences?

To backup Isbell’s statement, the author goes on to say that most criticisms of country music are very surface-y, “The old refrain of ‘trucks, beer, and girls’ is an aesthetic that most highbrow music critics and fans with a certain level of snobbery just aren’t willing to tolerate.” I’m not even 100-percent sure what that means, but he does go on to say the biggest problem with country music isn’t trucks. The problem is, “it is actively harmful to its fans and artists who are trying to navigate the music world.”

Whoa. Actively harmful? I, too, like music that makes me think, but labeling a country music song about a party in a field as “actively harmful” is little too much for me. Isn’t it actively harmful to leave a baby in a hot car? I would argue it is. I would also argue it’s not all that harmful to put your baby in a car (properly, of course) and turn on a song about trucks.

Turns out, the writer was actually trying to say country music is sexist. The actual “largest problem” is that radio stations won’t play Miranda Lambert songs at the same rate they play Luke Bryan songs. But, don’t be confused, the writer also wants you to know that male artists have problems, too. Only one artist, Whitey Morgan, is mentioned.

There is a definite problem for women trying to make it in the country music arena, I don’t disagree with that, but to quote an artist most country music fans have never heard of, Morgan, who sells t-shirts that say, “fuck pop country” and then say, “this is also the reason why people who make the best country music, Isbell included, are saying ‘fuck you’ to the genre too,” as a backup statement for women in country music makes little to no sense to me.

And when did Isbell say that?

Before the Houston Press article finishes up, the writer also mentions that country music (as a whole, it seems), “…happy to borrow influence from hip-hop or blues or soul or mariachi while pretending that people of color simply don’t exist.” The writer also mentions that “too many” artists in country music won’t ditch their allegiance to the Confederate flag. No specific artists were mentioned, but the writer clearly assumes anyone and everyone on a country music label roster is a racist.

No doubt about it, there is a diversity problem in country music, but that’s not a problem limited to country music. Country music cannot be labeled as the poster child for diversity problems. This country has bigger fish to fry.

The article ends by saying that when you add up the trucks and the diversity issues all you get is a “big old pile of shit that can be really, really difficult to defend.”

But, here’s the problem– the writer didn’t try to defend it. The article is 920 words long and there is zero mention of anything that is currently, actually happening in country music. There is one meme referencing Florida Georgia Line and a minor shout out to the Brothers Osborne and Mickey Guyton. There’s no mention of Stapleton, Kacey Musgraves, Eric Church, GRAMMY nominations or anything that could resemble the writer having a current pulse on the inner-workings of country music and the tide that is turning.

How can you write 920 words calling country music, as a whole, a “sexist, racist, war lovin’ utopia” without mentioning anything about country music artistry? Remember, that’s what this article was about originally, right? Country music is in complete artistic bankruptcy.

How can a music critic argue that country music lacks artistry because Jason Isbell doesn’t believe all music is good? How can a music critic argue an entire genre of artists is a “pile of shit” without looking at the other side of the coin? To be critical of something, one has to also think something is good. You can’t criticize something without comparing it something else, even if that is just in your head.

Was this article trying to compare country music to Americana? If so, why not just say that? Was this article trying to say all the artistic creativity in the music industry lies solely in pop music?

The real problem here is that one writer assumed one too many things about one too many people.

Country music isn’t “actively harming” anybody. Country music isn’t a secret meeting spot for the KKK.

And country music sure as hell is not artistically bankrupt. Certainly a critic trying to claim that would, at least, listen to some country music before making that statement.

Just in case, here’s a playlist of creative country music: