The latest stars in country music are performers, not artists
Last week I flipped through People magazine’s country music edition.
I sat in the waiting room at the Walmart automotive center, hoping to find some interesting bit about this or that country music artist.
Granted, there were plenty of stories, but none seemed interesting. There were many photos but none wrenched my eyes closer to the page.
Each and every photo created a glossy homogeny of perfectly clean, ironed, air-brushed and teased people posing with decidedly cool mannerisms. Yet every pose and outfit was obviously formulated to depict a wholesome, hard-working all-American boy or girl.
Each country singer seemed more like a trained performer. They seemed ordinary and similar, much like their music.
Gone are the outlaws and heartbroken honky-tonk angels. In their place are gym-rats in designer jeans and V-necks with just enough frayed edges to look laid-back.
Gone are the backwood Barbie dolls, who dreamed of the day they could stop waiting tables or wearing rags; the gals who were thankful to wear the goofy cowgirl skirts and fringed jackets so popular on the Grand Ole Opry, because it symbolized success, new horizons and potential wealth.
In their place are suburban daughters who lucked out. No famed stories of grit and glamor, no legends of sex and sacrifice.
It’s the usual pop-culture marketing scheme. Like all creative operations, music has always been dominated by scheming, clever entrepreneurs.
Country music, however, tended to carry with it the authenticity one would expect from people consistently living below the poverty line, clinging to religious fervor and operating under an unspoken tribalism.
Early country songs dealt with loss in love, in money or in resolve and self-worth. The people singing had lived these experiences and carried on, eventually strong enough to share their tale and lessons learned.
My father wanted to name me Tammy. Not a very popular name for a baby in 1991, but that mattered not. He wanted to bestow upon me the name of a woman he though smart, talented and beautiful. That woman was famed country balladeer Tammy Wynette.
Known for hits like, “Stand by Your Man” and “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad,” Wynette lived these songs. Her first husband thought her dreams of stardom were ridiculous, so she left him. She was married five times and addicted to pain killers. Her heartache and anger fueled her work.
There are myriad examples of the outlaw country star. Young men who rebelled, ultimately finding temporary solace in whiskey, marijuana and pain-killers. Those are some of the most memorable stars. Men like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams.
Undeniably, their music overflows with authenticity in terms of heartache, melancholy, dissatisfaction and unrequited love.
Of course, there have always been the very formulaic and orchestrated country acts. Artists like Buck Owens and his hit television show “Hee-Haw.”
Owens played to the audience and the camera, yet he never denied it. To be caught wearing anything other than ironed slacks and dress shirt with polished boots would have been abhorrent to Owens and his like: other up-town country musicians like Porter Wagoner, George Jones and Ray Price.
But who could blame them? These gentleman grew up in poverty, surrounded by alcoholism, violence and ignorance. They worked menial jobs, owned tattered clothes and broken shoes.
For them, the image they portrayed gave away their credentials. They dressed well and cared how they and their compatriots looked because they wanted to show the world their success.
In the People magazine last week, I saw musicians who most definitely care about their image, yet they really have no reason to. They grew up cared for and well-fed, with pick-up trucks, football games and plenty of spare change.
They dress to look like the rebels that were Waylon Jennings or Willie Nelson, yet they keep clean and shiny like Wagoner or Price.
However, the modern country artist’s tattered jeans and frayed collars are not the mark of counterculture, and their expensive boots and designer watches are not the winnings of a survivor.
These new country singers’ lyrics discuss depression and adultery, love and lust, yet they’re formulaic and standardized. Carrie Underwood, as talented and pretty as she is, hasn’t the history and memories of someone like Tammy Wynette or Dolly Parton.
I understand we shouldn’t want people to indulge in pills and alcohol for the sake of our entertainment, not do we want to enable poverty in the hopes of one day finding a Loretta Lynn. I shouldn’t want to listen to someone sing about finding their husband in bed with her best friend, nor should I wish for lyrics about murder and prison.
What I can wish for is authenticity. I can hope for more George Straits and Reba McEntires. That is, people who see themselves as artists and not copies of classic country musicians. They don’t try to be an outlaw or a gentleman, rather they just play their music.
They don’t pander to the redneck fallacy pervading Country Music Television, they simply sing songs.
They understand that country music is about love and heartache and what could have been. Artists like Strait, McEntire, Alan Jackson and LeeAnn Womack understand what it means to feel a song, to understand a song.
They sound like country music because they simply sing. They do not perform.
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