Country Music is Dead. Long Live Country Music.
The opening musical performance of the 52nd Annual Country Music Association Awards featured Luke Bryan and a cavalcade of stars belting out the title track to Bryan’s latest album, What Makes You Country. The song is an invitation to join the country music club regardless of how you might define both the music and your right to call yourself a fan:
People talkin’ ’bout what is and what ain’t country
What gives ’em a right to wear a pair of beat-up boots?
Is it the size of your tires and your fires, or your wild ass buddies?
Well, give me a minute, let me hit you with some hometown truth
You could be a cowboy on the Texas plain
Or a plowboy waitin’ on the rain
We’re all a little different, but we’re all the same
Everybody doin’ their own thing
In case you didn’t get the point that Bryan wants us to know that country music has a big tent, he was joined by artists who neither look nor sound like the country performers of yesteryear, not the least of which were Lindsey Ell and her rock and roll electric guitar and the tattooed Ashley McBride, who Chris Stapleton has described as a “whiskey-drinking badass.”
It is worth noting that this is the same award show that sounded the alarm in 1974 that country music was surely on death’s door as pop singer Olivia Newton-John took home the Female Vocalist of the Year honors, Ronnie Milsap won Male Vocalist of the Year, and Charlie Rich was the CMA Entertainer of the Year. The following year, a gin-and-tonic-soaked Rich slurred his way through the presentation of that same award to John Denver, who thankfully was appearing via satellite and did not see Rich set the card with Denver’s name on it on fire. For many, Denver’s name going up in flames was a prophetic statement about the state of country music in the 70s, even if it did get Rich banned from participating in future CMA ceremonies.
There have been enough words written about country music’s demise that they could fill the Grand Ol’ Opry. Seemingly every generation of the latest iteration of country music produces lamentations about the future of a genre of music that stopped being the thing that many seem to want it to be a long time ago. What has happened to country music is no accident.
In the 1950s, Alan Tolbert was the station manager of KSFO San Francisco, which had a middle of the road format that was so appealing that KSFO was the most popular radio station in the Bay Area for 20 years. Tolbert followed that up by purchasing the country and western station, KRAK, in Sacramento and serving as the station’s general manager. Eddy Arnold, Buck Owens, and Porter Wagoner were KRAK staples. By the late 1960s, Tolbert had established his own radio consulting firm.
In 1968, Tolbert’s consulting company sent a memo to country radio stations around the nation — many of which had recently changed to the country format — to explain what the “modern” country music radio station represented. Of equal importance is what new country did not represent.
The Tolbert memo said new country should be viewed as “national” music. “Modern country has no relationship to rural or country life. You find no screech fiddles, no twangy guitars, no mournful nasal twangs…”
Tolbert was positioning country radio to compete with rock and roll. To do that, country radio had to broaden its appeal. The city slicker not only could not identify with the hillbilly or bluegrass music of the the first half of the 20th century, he did not want to. However, he did not need to have spent a single minute sitting on a porch in Mississippi tapping his toe to the sounds of spoons and washboards to identify with the stories of traditional country music. If there is anything that everybody with a stake in country music can agree on is that more than any other genre, it is the story that has historically made country music “country.”
The wheels for this new approach to country radio were set in motion when Elvis Presley forked over four bucks to Sam Phillips at his recording studio in Memphis to make an acetate recording of “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin” as a birthday present for his mother. That was the summer of 1953. The following summer, “That’s All Right (Mama)” was released to WHBQ radio in Memphis and by 1958, country music was scrambling to figure out how to stem the tide of music fans rushing to buy rock and roll records. The Country Music Association was created in 1958 to address that very issue: How can country music sell more records?
The 70s get a fair share of the blame for country radio’s movement away from its roots and toward pop and rock. It’s not Olivia Newton-John’s fault. It’s not John Denver’s fault. It isn’t the fault of Glen Campbell, or Crystal Gayle, or Kenny Rogers, or any of the “bro country” bands like Florida Georgia Line. If there is blame to go around, it is country music itself. The 70s country-pop stars were just walking through the door opened for them by Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” and Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley PTA” at the end of the of the 1960s.
In 2016, six of the 10 country radio stations with the most listeners in the United States were in cities not located in the South. Number one on that list is KKGO-FM in Los Angeles. The other four stations are in Texas: two each in Dallas and Houston. Country is virtually unrecognizable from the chart toppers of the mid-20th century. It is not simply because of the addition of the electric guitar and the subtraction of fiddles. It is the lack of story. If you want a good story about making something out of nothing in your life, you will have better luck with modern hip-hop than modern country. Trucks, booze, and women are the themes of the day. Triple point score if you get all three in one song.
In what is shaping up to be the biggest country hit of all time, “Meant to Be,” is a collaboration between Florida Georgia Line and pop singer, Bebe Rexha. A sampling of the lyrics of the song that has been #1 on the country charts for nearly a year:
Baby, lay on back and relax, kick your pretty feet up on my dash
No need to go nowhere fast, let’s enjoy right here where we at
Who knows where this road is supposed to lead
We got nothing but time
As long as you’re right here next to me, everything’s gonna be alright
If it’s meant to be, it’ll be, it’ll be
Baby, just let it be
There has been much written about how a song as, well, average as “Meant to Be” has become a mega-hit, including this excellent piece by Rob Harvilla. While how this specific song has been so popular might be puzzling, the environment that country radio created that allowed space for “Meant to Be” and every other song like it is no secret. The fact is that country music is exactly what country radio programmers of the late 1960 and early 1970s wanted it to be. Luke Bryan seems to get that. Maybe he has the key for country music. Get a big tent and if it’s meant to be, it’ll be, it’ll be.
You can listen to my podcast episode “Countryish Music of the 1970s” here or download the podcast, For the Record: The 70s, on your favorite podcast app.