Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Gone country...but which one?

What is country music? It seems that most people would have a hard time answering that question, at least in a definitive way. that is often (but not always) about life in either the rural American South or the wild West...involving immorality (drankin', cheatin', carousin') or deep religious belief or both...played and sung with a people wearing cowboy hats. But even the most casual listener knows this description is more stereotype than reality.

Giving examples is easy enough: Josh Turner, Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley, Kenny Chesney. Only one name is needed for some: Dolly, Garth, Reba, Cash, Merle, Buck, Hank (Sr., Jr. or rarely, III). The history-minded might reference Jimmie Rogers or Roy Acuff. Usually the names a fan mentions will come from a certain era, the one they consider golden by comparison to the rest; the older the fan, the better the old days of "real" country (whatever that is). Never mind that the old-timers of (name the period) were making the same complaints about how the artists of the day were destroying the tradition.

Most people would probably paraphrase what someone once said about obscenity (you do the Googling), and say "I may not be able to define it, but I know it when I hear it." Or at least, I know when I'm not hearing it. Most agree that much of what's on "country radio" is as much rock, pop and even hip-hop as it is country, and plenty of country music is not even considered for airplay.

So does country music have certain distinctive stylistic features? Time signature? Instrumentation? Lyrical approach? Number of lines or verse/chorus structure? Is country whatever is played on country radio and put in the bins labeled as such in Wal-Mart? Can you sing it with a Northern accent? Or British? Or even (shudder) Russian or French? Can Jessica Simpson sing country? Is it too late to stop her? Do you have to have stories of a poverty-stricken upbringing or look good in tight jeans ("not that there's anything wrong with that") to be an authentic performer in the genre?

This ambiguity is apparent even--especially--in Nashville, which long ago claimed its place as "Music City USA", the heart of country music for those who heard it via radio and recordings and saw it performed live at the Grand Ole Opry shows. Every award show is as much an opportunity for debate as it is a celebration of the music that has been a moneymaker and/or a heartbreaker for artists, writers, industry execs and wannabe's. Like sports, the music industry is a point of fascination and sometimes downright obsession for onlookers and pro's alike. Even if you don't have a stake in the race, it's hard not to feel the need to express an opinion (but then, I have that problem with a lot of topics).

I'm interested in the ongoing discussion for what it reveals about the participants as much as anything. But before we get into whether Big & Rich should be applauded or tarred and feathered for their long-term impact (if any) on Nashville (have you seen the picture of the monstrosity--er, house John Rich is building?), it's helpful to get some historical perspective. May not help answer the question but it does reveal that the argument has been going on for quite awhile, even before the Opry conceded to such modernities as the use of drums (gasp!) and electrified instruments (oh my!) on stage.

Two books--one I've read and one I plan to read--should be a big help.

I just finished reading "the official inside history of the home of country music," written by Colin Escott. It's titled The Grand Ole Opry : the Making of an American Icon. Found this one in the library, but it's available online as well and I'm sure at the Opry gift shop and bookstores everywhere.

The story of the Opry is told using lots of quotes from artists and staff, with plenty of pictures. Having ushered at the Opry House for a few years made the book that much more interesting to me, even though I had heard or read some of the information elsewhere.

This book covers many of the controversial issues that are inherent in an enterprise that has the combined goals of entertaining, turning a profit and preserving the dynamic, shifting culture of country music...while maintaining its balance amidst the tug-of-war of those who claim it (management, artist, and the public).

On my literary to-do list is Air Castle of the South: WSM and the Making of Music City by music journalist Craig Havighurst, heard occasionally on NPR and a former Tennessean reporter. Havighurst has written what he calls "a history of Nashville's music business told through the historic broadcaster that made it all possible." WSM was the station that birthed the Grand Ole Opry, the radio show (not "concert" as solemn host Eddie Stubbs likes to point out) that has become to country music what Atlanta is to Delta customers; if you haven't played the Opry, you're not there yet.

I spoke with Havighurst a few months ago, and he mentioned that this book is not the "authorized" story, and in fact it may ruffle a feather or two in it should be even more interesting than the Opry book above, especially regarding the controversies of how WSM and the Opry have been managed. The book was instigated by the "what were they thinking?" incident of not long ago when the powers that be considered turning WSM into yet another talk radio station.

He'll be signing his book at Davis Kidd in Nashville tomorrow (click for info).

Meanwhile you can preview the first few pages (click this link and use side arrows to advance pages)

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