Defining Country Music
Issue #56, Summer 2001
Country music, I reckon, isn't much like pornography. I mean, even when they hear it people don't know how to define it.
Country music fans and detractors alike disagree all the time over whether a particular Nashville offering is or ain't country. To my dad (who became a country-music purist in his 70s, about the time easy listening disappeared from FM), what Nashville is putting out these days is just rock music dressed up in cowboy clothes and hats. All hat, no tractors: that sums up the complaint of traditionalists about the urbanized, rocked-up country that Nashville has cranked out according to formula over the past two decades.
On the other hand, when Garth Brooks masquerades as Chris Gaines by putting on a wig and trying to rock it up, the results still sound too Nashvillean to pass for rock 'n' roll. The rock purist is no less disdainful of what she or he regards as cornball lyrics and motifs sneaking into mainstream rock, and even rockabilly pretty much went out with the Stray Cats. If "alternative" ever meant anything, it was a disdain for the simplistic chord structures (I-IV-V and sometimes II) and hackneyed rhymes beaten into the public consciousness by not only Nashville but Madison Avenue as well. A perennial complaint of rock radio listeners here in Austin — where rock, blues, and jazz far outshine country in popularity — is about the annoyance of country jingles for truck dealers, exterminators, etc. interrupting the rock programming. Ad men appear to believe the annoying stereotype that the local music scene is primarily a country scene. The city's erection of a statue to Stevie Ray — but not, so far, to Willie — should have made this point.
Central Texas cowboy crooner and yodeler Don Walser told the story of giving a performance at a small-town festival when a little girl came up to him after the set and said: "Mister, that's some of the most beautiful music I've ever heard but, tell me, do you know any country?" The girl didn't recognize Marty Robbins or Hank Williams as country and, to hear Walser tell it, neither do the Nashville suits. Walser, along with other Texas-based exemplars of what used to be mainstream country such as Kelly Willis and Chris Wall, has struggled for prestige in the Tennessee capital next to such manufactures as Lee Ann Rimes covering "You Light Up My Life" (the Debbie Boone classic).
Defining country came to have a personal significance to me when I served on the board of directors of a songwriters' organization here in Austin. Losers of the "rock" (and even the "black R&B pop") category in the annual song contest would inevitably complain that the judges had given the prize to an entry that belonged in "country." In my experience, defining "country" can be one of the more acrimonious matters among musicians, fans, and people in the biz.
So let's give it a shot.
Any musical genre can be defined in theoretical terms by its preferred tonality and instrumentation, among other variables. In American music history, beat is often the defining variable, distinguishing among swing, bebop, rock 'n' roll, and so on. But it is also possible to define a genre primarily based on its cultural trappings, especially when that genre is associated with a particular ethnicity.
Consider reggae. The ethnic and national provenance is plain enough: Jamaica > Caribbean > African diaspora. And members of other ethnicities, while not excluded from the musical community, have to pay plenty of dues including mastery of the standard, traditional repertoire, and generally still won't be accepted unless they adopt ethnic trappings such as dreadlocks, the red-yellow-green-black dress code, "dread" patois and of course ganja. Even Bob Marley himself was originally dissed as a "white man" in Trenchtown.
Implicit in the notion of an ethnically based musical genre is the requirement that a work adhere to traditional norms of instrumentation; when it violates those norms it no longer is classified within the genre. Thus, at Austin's Bob Marley festival, a French-speaking band from Senegal (now Paris-based) stays faithful to the reggae tradition by employing essentially the same instrumentation as Marley did. Salsa without drums and horns, tejano without accordion and guitars, mariachi without trumpets would become something else. But rock tolerates just about any instrumentation (including Morphine's guitarless bass/sax blend, or the many forays into pure electronica), while jazz also translates to virtually any instrument ... including, in Edinburgh, the bagpipes.
I define country music as the ethnic music of the mainstream White Anglo-Celtic group in the United States. Why is country's status as an ethnic music alongside the likes of reggae, tejano, and salsa seldom noticed? Probably because this still-dominant group is not recognized as an ethnic minority due to its political dominance and cultural influence, especially in the heartland — and not just the South and Appalachia.
Like other ethnically based genres, country is defined more by its trappings than by anything inherent in the music, as seen by the ability of the Nashville hit factory to coopt rock and pop beats and melodies by dressing them in a Tennessee wrapper.
For starters, that literally means dressing them up. The "hat act" is so staple by now as to be widely ridiculed, but failure to adhere to the dress code will cause the target demographic to change the channel or refuse to purchase the CD. And, for the fundamentalist Christian country fan, this could be an act of sacrilege, as when Pat Boone riled the fundies with his chest-baring leather take on heavy metal garb. Even if Ani DiFranco wrote a cowgirl classic, you'd never see her on CMT. Country viewers (whether on television or live in concert) want to look at fashions more appropriate for the rodeo than for Rodeo Drive.
If a country band strays too far from the standard instrumentation, it will lose its Nashville standing and "cross over" ("If you're gonna play in Texas, you've gotta have a fiddle in the band"). The standard Nashville session crew of guitars, bass, drums, pedal steel, fiddle, and piano will suffice for most recordings — and, if a ringer is called in, it will be a banjo or mandolin guy, not a horn gal or string section. Regardless of where the listeners are located, lyrics will allude to specific geographical locations regarded as cultural capitals for the Anglo-Celtic group, especially Tennessee and Texas, sometimes Oklahoma and Arkansas (but seldom Vermont, which is certainly a "country" location if you think about it), just as tejano lyrics will mention the border or reggae lyrics may reminisce about Kingston.
Jim Babjak and Pat DiNizio of the Smithereens, Nuno Bettencourt of Extreme, Adam Duritz of Counting Crows, Eddie Van Halen, Jon Bon Jovi, Alanis Morissette, Natalie Imbruglia, Lenny Kravitz; the very ethnicity of these names identifies them as outside the pale of Opryland. Dressing those stars in cowboy garb and putting a pedal steel behind them would just prove an embarrassing flop. Nor does country tolerate the pseudonym such as Sting or Flea, and forget about changing your name to a hieroglyph.
Country performers almost invariably have Anglo-Celtic surnames like McGraw, Black, Nelson, McEntire, Gill, Strait. And, in general, these aren't just stage names; these performers actually are from this ethnic group, the backbone of the white Southern population, especially in the border states, Appalachia, and Texas/Oklahoma from whence most of country has sprung. The exceptions (Charley Pride, Freddie Fender, Johnny Paycheck, Kathy Mattea) are so few they can be written off to a sort of tokenism.
When Garth masqueraded as the rocker Chris Gaines, the effort failed to impress the intended rock crossover audience. Several traits marked the performance as inauthentic, traits that reeked of the Nashville hit factory.
Note, to begin with, the moniker. "Chris Gaines" still sounds Anglo-Celtic, a spondee just like "Garth Brooks" or "Clint Black." Then there were the costumes. When "Gaines" played Saturday Night Live the band's garb evoked Dallas rather than New York. There was also the lead player's use of a capo on an electric guitar. The capo is a movable bar popular in Nashville to allow key changes while having to know only a limited number of open-string chords. Rock players usually have a facility with bar chords and don't need a capo. Only a Nashvillean would resort to a capo on an electric guitar. The capo too can be thought of as a trapping of the Appalachian guitar tradition. The use of it in a faux rock performance amounted to a mistranslation into the mainstream multicultural idiom (rock) from an ethnically homogeneous subcultural tradition, the guitar equivalent of first-language interference.
In addition, the songs of "Gaines" betray Brooks's country approach in the lack of African-derived beats and tonality, rock stripped of its blues element. This too can be viewed in ethnic and geographic terms. To rock, rather than to feign rock, would require "Gaines" symbolically to visit the mulatto/creole Delta of Robert Johnson and Elvis and learn to swing.
Had Brooks really wanted to create a viable rock act, he might have chosen a cooler name (maybe a monosyllable like Slash or Beck) and ordered clothes from, say, Milan. He might have picked up some musicians with a sense of funk, maybe a Briton or Aussie, and added instruments verboten in Nashville, such as saxophone, congas, or cello. Any of these steps would have enabled Brooks to escape the regional and ethnic subculture to which he seems limited and join the international and multicultural phenomenon rock has always been — at least since the Beatles' "Michelle" hit the U.S. charts.
If country's subculture is indeed ethnically and regionally circumscribed, then one would expect its market share to begin declining with the shrinking share of this subculture within the American whole. Similarly, polkas have an increasingly marginal share of the American music scene and tejano grows, approximating the relative share of Eastern Europeans and Mexican-Americans, respectively, in the overall mix. The changing demographics of America, in which whites as a whole (let alone the fundamental Anglo-Celtic subgroup) are no longer in the majority in California and are losing their grip on Texas, portend a gradual decline in the popularity of country music. Its market share, reported at 15% just seven years ago in the Wall Street Journal, has been recently estimated at a mere 10%, with the difference entirely made up by growth in hip-hop. Still, the ability of country to absorb aspects of other musical genres by dressing them up in its ethnic-regional trappings probably ensures Nashville's survival well into the 21st century.
Lindsey Eck is a writer, editor, composer, and musician who lives in central Texas.