Quarantine Country Discussion

As we find ourselves stuck at home during the COVID-19 outbreak, I decided to reach out to my good friend Zack, a frequent collaborator and confidant, to engage in a wide-ranging open forum about anything and everything country music. What follows is the discussion. Nothing was thought out, and the conversation ranges from topic to topic. Follow him on Twitter @themusicdivide.

Nate: Alright, so I was thinking about a piece I wrote a long time ago about the modern day Highwaymen. My choices ended up being Alan Jackson, George Strait, Vince Gill, and Dwight Yoakam. I didn’t want to include younger artists because what made the original Highwaymen so influential was their collective bodies of work. Who would you go with?

Zack: I think that would depend on a lot of factors. For one, by the time the group formed, all artists — especially Johnny Cash — saw their commercial success slightly wane, at least compared to earlier decades. One of the coolest aspects of the Highwaymen, to me, has always been its precise timing; 1985 was a transitional year for the genre in the wake of decreased sales, and considering older artists suffered the most from this transition, it was comforting to see four friends (and legends, of course) come together, record a badass song named after the group, and have it become a huge hit.

I wrote a piece last year about how we’re kind of in that transitional phase again, only this time, it’s tougher to say “who’s gonna fill their shoes.” Older artists have faced a steep climb at representation and success for years now, and with George Strait “retired” and Alan Jackson’s current musical drought, again, it’s tough to say. If it were up to me, for as much as the class of ’89 gets the most attention, my first pick would definitely come from the class of ’86 — Dwight Yoakam or Steve Earle, namely, and likely Yoakam because of his stronger ties to the genre. Different and bold without beating listeners over the head with it, Yoakam would easily make the coolest case for induction.

Next, well, if we’re going for artistic synergy, Alan Jackson would also likely be my next pick. For one, it could hopefully end that aforementioned musical drought, and two, like Yoakam, there’s a quiet, commanding grace to Jackson’s presence in song. After that I’d have to differ from your picks. First, I’d say John Anderson, mostly because he’s already working on new music and because I’ve always thought he was highly underrated in terms of influence in the early ’80s. Lastly, your recent tweet about Marty Stuart makes me think he’d be the perfect artist to round out the project. To me, he’s had the biggest artistic ambition the four, at least when it comes to crafting some of the best concept albums ever. I think he could push everyone to some really cool heights … you know, if it ever actually happened.

Sorry for the long opening response, but I guess that has me thinking of my own question: what’s your favorite piece of country music literature and why?

Courtest of “Rolling Stone”

Nate: Marty and John are FANTASTIC choices. Marty would bring a ton of musical brilliance on multiple instruments to a new collection of Highwaymen.

Favorite piece of country music literature…that’s tough. Bill Malone’s Country Music USA is an easy choice, and it’s a book I find myself going to a lot. But there’s just so much in it that I view it more as an encyclopedia than a piece of literature. At the moment I’m reading Peter Cooper’s Johnny’s Cash and Charley’s Pride, and that’s proving to be an unfiltered and unbiased look at some of the more hidden stories behind country music’s biggest stars.

But as far as favorites, I’ll go with two: Waylon’s autobiography and Michael Streissguth’s fantastic Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville. Waylon’s autobiography is just pure, unbridled honesty. He speaks about Nashville’s strict way of doing things and his own successes in such a humble way. Waylon wrote it in a manner that allows the reader to know *what* he accomplished without being arrogant about it (George Jones’ I Lived To Tell All is also written in the same way. I can’t recommend either autobiography enough).

Streissguth’s Outlaw is more of a historical examination of the outlaw period in country music and all of the variables that led to the musical explosion. I feel as though the outlaw period in country music is often overlooked and misunderstood by so many from across the country music spectrum. Streissguth just lays out the facts in an entertaining and yet serious way and allows the reader to get a true sense of just how much the outlaws changed Nashville.

Any new additions to your country music library lately?

Zack: I must admit I’ve had Cooper’s book on my “to read” list for quite some time. There’s just a plethora of great books out there, which is a great thing for country music, though I do wish there were more modern looks at the genre. With the Internet and the rise of blogs like ours and others, tracking those day-to-day stories happens quite regularly, enough to where we probably don’t stop every now and then and consider what it all really means. Even Ken Burns’ documentary from last year stops at 1996.

But I digress; I agree about Streissguth’s work. I read it around two years ago, and what I loved about it is that, you see Waylon, Willie and Kris on the cover, so you know to expect. But it turns into this bigger picture look at Nashville as a whole, criticizing the system rather than the town itself (another misunderstanding).

I’m currently reading a Rodney Crowell autobiography called Chinaberry Sidewalks, which, considering its source, is widely entertaining. It’s more about his early life than it is his music career, but through his stories, you can see where the inspiration really takes hold. And that’s the thing about autobiographies — if you’re looking for a good starting point to learn about country music, there’s likely “better” options (like Country Music U.S.A., as you said), but stories like his, Merle Haggard’s My House Of Memories or Loretta Lynn’s Coal Miner’s Daughter are among my favorite reads.

That actually has me thinking about one of your earliest posts — the “country music starter pack,” in which you detailed the best albums, songs, websites and books for aspiring country fans to get acquainted with. Personally, my favorite may be Nicholas Dawidoff’s In The Country Of Country; each chapter takes a different look at various country music legends, some of which are obvious picks and others not so obvious. I don’t believe anyone has to be from the “country” to enjoy the music (if so, we’d both be disqualified), but it’s a fantastic look at the genre’s rural roots and how that shapes it as a unique art form.

Nate: Alright, so jumping to another topic, Steve Earle once called the neo-traditional revival in the mid 1980s the “Great Credibility Scare.” Earle, Dwight Yoakam, Lyle Lovett, Randy Travis, Ricky Skaggs…those that came before the neotraditional revival of the 1990s. At times an overlooked period in country music, sandwiched between the Urban Cowboy movement and the era of Garth. Of the artists of the mid 80s, who is your personal favorite?

Zack: It’s definitely overlooked, and honestly bigger than what history really shows, at least to me. Urban Cowboy provided that temporary boost, sure, but there’s no doubt the genre was losing its identity to become a glorified marketing term for country attire, rather than music. The class of ’89 gets its fair due, but like I said earlier, the class of ’86 was pivotal in giving country music a fresh restart, which isn’t meant to discount what artists like George Strait, Ricky Skaggs or John Anderson were doing at the beginning of the decade either.

In terms of a personal favorite, I’m torn between Earle and Yoakam. Earle is likely the one I’d choose for the stronger discography (though it’s damn close), but there’s an entire essay that could be written on Dwight Yoakam’s appeal and legacy in the genre. Of course, Randy Travis likely has one of my favorite debut albums of all time with Storms Of Life, so I can’t see a “wrong” option, really. I’m guessing you’re going with Yoakam?

Nate: I’m also between Yoakam and Earle as a personal favorite! I think Yoakam is the slightly more influential artist. Bringing Buck Owens back to radio and essentially out of semi-retirement. Making it cool to play “hillbilly” music. Dwight has always embraced the country legacy and never ran from being called a country artist. And most importantly, his blend of country and punk at LA rock clubs with Los Lobos and The Blasters before he became a star in the early 80s can never be discounted.

But I think as a *personal* favorite, I’d have to go with Steve Earle. Guitar Town is a top ten country record of all-time, and the title track is a personal favorite song. The songwriting is just unlike anything else in the history of the genre. Such a seamless blend of country and straight-forward rock. Then, of course, you’ve got Earle’s own story. Palling around with Guy Clark, Townes, and Rodney Crowell in the 70s, finally hitting it big in the 80s, falling to the depths of addiction and hitting rock-bottom in the early to mid 90s while still giving the music world material like Copperhead Road, getting sober in jail, and now becoming a seminal figure in both the alt-country and Americana scenes. Much like a Hank Williams or George Jones, Steve Earle is the definition of a country artist.

Dwight, Steve, and Lucinda. Courtesy “fans.com”

Zack: You know, that’s actually a great point. Not to say that alcoholism and personal torture are necessary prerequisites to becoming a country music legend, but it’s that simple embrace of the hard times that really colors all of country music. Some of our heroes didn’t make it through to the other side, and so to see someone like Earle reach some of the lowest depths of any artist (arguably, I guess) to release a string of all-time classics and still be an important figure to the conversation … yeah, I guess Earle is a country star more than he isn’t when you put it that way.

But, hey, people like Earle and Yoakam come from a very unique point in time when record labels were actually seeking out creative newcomers. And it’s because of the artists that country music entered its biggest boom period the next decade after that aforementioned downward spiral.

Obviously, the country music industry (well, just about every industry) will face another downward spiral from COVID-19. But let’s put that aside and think about last year. What, to you, were some positive developments for the genre? And issues that still need to improve? And hey, where do you think country music actually stood, in 2019, in terms of representation?

Nate: 2019 was truly a mixed bag for the genre, in my opinion. A lot of good came out of last year. Several mainstream albums were released that brought a new edge and spark to Music Row. Midland, Jon Pardi, and Justin Moore, each at different points in their career, had something to say with their music. Midland embraced a new sense of debauchery. Justin Moore finally brought it all together after radio has essentially abandoned him. But Jon Pardi was the brightest spot in the mainstream world. On California Sunrise, Pardi doubled down on his Bakersfield sound while still making a few concessions to radio. And then we have 2019’s Heartache Medication. Pardi tripled down on the kind of artist he wants to be without making ANY concessions to radio. I’ve said for the longest time that I wish Jon Pardi, not Luke Combs, was the artist most profiting from a neo-traditional revival.

And that leads me into the downside of mainstream country music in 2019. Just a lot of albums, songs, and events that made me go “eh, okay.” The fact that Luke Combs is seen by so many as carrying the banner for a traditional country revival in the mainstream climate isn’t some offensive affront. Rather, it just goes to show how far our expectations have fallen. Combs isn’t a bad artist; but he shouldn’t be treated like a legend. There’s just a serious lack of quality on Music Row.

Then, of course, we have the Americana world. Some of my favorite artists released standout albums. Chris Shiflett’s Hard Lessons, Vandoliers’ Forever, Whiskey Myers’ self-titled, Joseph Huber’s Moondog, and Ryan Bingham’s American Love Song. Each of those albums lived up to my expectations. Yet I have a problem with the Americana world failing to truly *embrace* a wider sound and audience. The Americana and modern alt-country worlds, as much as mainstream Music Row, picks their favorites without even listening to the music. Isbell, Sturgill, The Highwomen, Cody Jinks. Personal feelings aside, there are just some artists that are given the benefit of the doubt ahead of time, for whatever reason. Almost as if there’s an inherent laziness in truly embracing new artists. RS Country or The Boot or whatever publication you want to name will trot out a new artist for window dressing, but there’s a sense to me of a detachment from the music.

So, to put it more succinctly, I want a wider tent. I want a stronger embrace of those willing to challenge norms. And 2020 bodes well for that, even if we’ll have to wait a little longer in the year now. A new album from American Aquarium will energize alternative country. And it looks like we’ll be getting new music in mainstream Nashville from Kip Moore and Eric Church- two renegades who you know will do things their own way. I just want some energy and drive put back in country music (both the mainstream and underground worlds).

That was a bit long, but what are your thoughts?

Luke Combs. Courtesy “Ticketmaster”

Zack: Luke Combs’ rise is interesting to me. Just four years ago I remember the big candidates for the neotraditional revival being Pardi — who has managed to keep his momentum going — William Michael Morgan and Mo Pitney, both of whom aren’t quite in that conversation anymore.

I will, however, disagree on Combs being an average representative for the mainstream. Personal feelings aside, it’s refreshing, at least to me, to see an “everyday guy” like him break through, even if I wouldn’t say he’s leading any kind of movement, per se. And that’s the thing — it’s all middle-of-the-road stuff, which means it can sometimes be profound (“Even Though I’m Leaving”) or just average (his earlier material, or “Beer Never Broke My Heart,” for instance).

To me, there seems to be a disconnect from mainstream country in Nashville and everything else considered an offshoot of it in Americana, alt-country or whatever else artists want to identify as. Given our options compared to a few decades ago, it’s like there’s something for everyone now, which can be good, but also means certain genre institutions like country are losing a specific meaning. Personally, I’m pretty open-minded as far as the “country or not country” debate goes, but I do think it’s important to at least care about what’s going on at every level — mainstream, independent or otherwise. You’ll see a rare bridging of that gap every now and then — Morgan Wallen covering Jason Isbell’s “Cover Me Up,” for instance — but that usually just leads to uglier debates from both sides. Impurity versus evolution, in a nutshell, and while those conversations are also an integral part of country music’s history, I think it’s more important to care about what it actually means for the country music genre, rather than solely dwell on personal feelings regarding the music.

Which segues into the next point, I suppose, about what you said about publications having their favorite artists. There’s obviously more pressing issues at hand than this, but it is pretty disappointing to see most reviews these days just act as extended PR for artists, publicists and labels. Not that I’m actively looking for anyone to be the bad guy, but you’re right, it’s often predictable, and I wish more people just shared — you know — actual opinions; it’s all about a fair balance of praise and criticism.

But I think there’s plenty of artists challenging norms; it’s just that, again, the sounds and scenes they identify with can make for a bloated genre where that “diversity” can sometimes sound unfocused.

I also think, overall, there’s plenty of reasons to be excited about country music right now, current issues notwithstanding. My list of artists energizing the format would look different from yours, and if we asked any other random person, they’d likely have their own list.

Nate: The point you make about some publications being just an extension of an artist’s PR is spot on. I think you nailed it. Especially when viewed in context of your last point. We all have different artists we see as energizing the format, as you said. And I guess that speaks to my larger point of wanting a bigger tent and an understanding that there’s no need for gatekeepers in country music (or the independent world); all our tastes are different, and there’s no need for publications to spoon-feed artists to the listeners and fans.

Switching gears now, we lost Kenny Rogers, an American original and true legend, today. Initial thoughts and memories of him?

Zack: With everything going on, when I first heard the news, I was basically in a state of disbelief. Kenny Rogers is one of those few artists who really transcended music itself, and losing him feels like losing an old friend.

I actually saw him in concert in December 2017. In hindsight, I guess his age was taking its toll on him then. He mostly sat on a stool and performed, but I can honestly say it was an incredibly fun show. The main idea was for him to walk the audience members through his entire career, and with Linda Davis as his guest on stage, the camaraderie and banter between them just made for a fun, relaxed time. But don’t ask me about my favorite song from him — some days I’ll tell you “The Gambler,” and other days I’ll tell you “Lucille.” How about you? What are your thoughts?

Nate: It was the first thing I saw when I woke up. Texts from family. Tweets. It didn’t seem real. Over the past decade or so, he’s slowly entered true *legend* status amongst the entire country music community. There’s no doubt that he enjoyed a tenuous relationship with the industry at times; he loved stretching boundaries. But a lot of people forget he came from more of a classically pop background to begin with. But as I’ve come to realize and understand, country music is primarily based on storytelling. And there have been few better storytellers than Kenny Rogers. He’s up there with George Jones, as far as I’m concerned, with the ability to take any song and make it his own. The lonesome desperation of “Lucille.” The hopeful, optimistic cheer of “Love Will Turn You Around.” And, of course, the wise, sage advice of “The Gambler.”

Songwriting is a cherished tradition in country music. And yet the ability to impact an audience through interpreting a song written by someone else and making it his or her own cannot be understated. And the warm, friendly way Kenny always delivered a song will be sorely and sadly missed. I have such fond memories of listening to Kenny Rogers as a kid. It was just damn good music. Even as a young kid, I just seemed to grasp how good he was at telling a story.

Courtesy “Seattle Times”

Zack: One thing I’ve seen with many reactions to his death is how Rogers shaped so many peoples’ childhoods. Some of my earliest memories of country music were either listening to the radio with my grandfather when he picked me up from school, watching CMT with him or listening to his old collection while he worked around the house. For Rogers, I have fond memories of hearing my grandfather sing along to “The Gambler,” and it was probably my first pick for the best country song of all time as a kid. I don’t think there’s a better genre of music to shape those adolescent memories than country music. In some ways, it’s musical comfort food, but not in the traditional sense where it lacks depth. I just want to say thank you to Kenny Rogers for those memories and for an excellent discography. His legacy is definitely secure.

Nate: His legacy is most assuredly secure. I think something as we serious fans of country music/critics sometimes can overlook is just how much of an attachment people can have to artists that we may gloss over or not take seriously. Country artists have such loyal fans, for various reasons. That’s, of course, not to excuse songs released by an artist like a Luke Bryan or Jason Aldean that we may consider underwhelming or straight-up bad. But the cool thing about country music is the friendship and camaraderie among the artists, despite their backgrounds. It’s rare to have a feud or an artist calling out another. And I think that’s just something really cool and refreshing to be a part of. It’s something that I can take for granted from time to time.

Zack: And that’s the thing with all of these musical discussions, even this one; it all boils down to one person’s opinion at the end of the day. I mean, yeah, there’s definitely artists with questionable singles, but obviously someone likes them, and it’s important, but tricky, to question the “why” of all of it, as fans and critics without disrespecting anyone’s reasoning. But yes, I think that for as broken as the country music family can be sometimes — traditional, pop-country, Americana or whatever your preferred taste is — we’re ultimately more alike than we aren’t. And I think we’re really seeing that now in wake of the virus and the recent Nashville tornadoes. The town itself has such a thriving heartbeat, and it’s all because of the music, and I can’t think of anything more awesome than that.

Nate: That’s so well said. And I could go on talking about this stuff forever, but before I get too far down the rabbit hole with my own questions, something fun I was thinking…if you could go back and listen to one album again for the first time, what would you pick and why? First one that comes to mind.

Zack: Oh man, that’s tricky, but I think it’d be Gary Allan’s Smoke Rings In The Dark. I probably first heard that album in middle school, and what I remembered first and foremost was loving that title track — dark, sweeping with a cool atmosphere and all punctuated by Allan’s equally icy delivery, it was, and still is, one of my favorite songs from one of my favorite albums. Plus, given the time I heard it, I can honestly say I didn’t understand the influences behind it at the time or what it really meant for Allan’s career; I just knew I had never heard country music sound like that, you know? I don’t know what this says about me, but I loved how unflinchingly dark it was — before I knew it as a George Jones song, I couldn’t get enough of what a masterclass song “Don’t Tell Mama” was, no, is. And I still think “Lovin’ You Against My Will” is one of his most underrated singles.

So yeah, I can’t say nostalgia doesn’t influence my choice, but at least it’s in the spirit of the conversation. I’m going to take a guess at yours — Eric Church, probably Sinners Like Me. Am I right?

Nate: First off, that’s a great choice on your end! Here’s to hoping Gary Allan releases new music soon. He keeps saying it’s coming, and I know we both keep waiting. The title track off Smoke Rings In The Dark, man, it’s something special. It’s one of those songs that defines the essence of country music.

As far as mine…Sinners Like Me is a great guess. And it’d honestly be my second choice. What that album meant for me as a young fan. How I grew with Eric Church as an artist from the beginning. It’s hard to pick anything else.

But the album I’d choose to listen to again for the first time is Waylon Live. It was explosive. It was revolutionary to me as a young fan. I’d never heard steel guitar like that before, but I knew I wanted more. I’d never heard such rebellion against classic norms. My grandpa played plenty of Waylon records for me when I was young. So I knew a little about what he was as an artist. But live? Man, I can’t describe what I felt the first time that album kicked off in my headphones during my senior year of high school. So much aggression and raw talent from Waylon and the entire band. From that point on, I knew exactly what I wanted as a country fan. It didn’t need to have the same sound. But if I wanted to like something new I heard, it had to have that raw, unbridled passion that Waylon played with. I want to know an artist is passionate about the music he or she is making, and that’s what Waylon Live gave me.

Zack: I had either Waylon or Dwight Yoakam for my second guess, so I’m glad I wasn’t far off! But I totally hear what you mean — studio recordings can be wonderful, especially when you hear certain “tricks” (for lack of a better term) pulled off that completely warp what you thought music could sound like. But that’s just it — it’s a carefully orchestrated piece that’s polished to a fine degree. Hearing something live is an entirely different experience, even if it’s just on a recording in the form of a live album. Your experience sounds similar to the one I had with Dwight Yoakam’s live album in my freshman year of college.

And this talk of legends has me thinking — in my sophomore year of high school, I was excited to see the one and only George Jones live in concert. It would’ve been my first time, and the sad part is I never got to that show. He died two months prior to it. Ever since then I’ve made it a stronger priority to see the legends in concert, because while their music will always live on, it’s important to appreciate them while they’re here. I saw Glen Campbell in 2012, Merle Haggard in 2013 and, as I said before, Kenny Rogers in 2017. Obviously you’re not getting the most “raucous” show, but those are among the best concert memories I have.

So my question for you is, if there’s one artist who’s gone who you never got to see but would like to, who would it be? Since I can see the answer already coming, feel free to throw in a few candidates. Me? Waylon is an obvious pick, as is Johnny Cash.

Nate: Great question! Waylon is the obvious choice, though as you said, I’ll throw in a couple of others. But as an aside real quick, I’ve always admired the fact that even as Waylon was going through his $1500/day cocaine addiction, he still rarely missed a show. That’s incredible.

I’ve been blessed to see both Willie and Merle. Two incredible shows that I took in with my Grandpa. Both just song after song for what seemed like hours. It was like time stopped. George Jones would’ve given me chills to see live. Johnny Cash…man, it would have been a dream. Tom Petty is up there. The original Eagles lineup. I’m still waiting to see Bruce Springsteen as I came to him rather late though now he’s a top three favorite artist for me. Pearl Jam as well. I’ll give you one though. Imagine traveling back in time to see Hank Williams Sr. knowing what we know now about his career and life?

Zack: You know, I once had a DVD I found at a garage sale that had a performance of a make-believe Hank Williams show, and honestly it wasn’t half bad. That’s kind of the tricky part about today versus then; artists will often show audiences everything going on behind the scenes through social media, and hey, when it’s good PR I can’t blame them. But Hank, Jones, Jennings … I can’t honestly say we may not fantasize a different reality with them sometimes, but I can’t imagine broadcasting those demons to anyone. But then you read the biographies and find those darker secrets. It’s easy to look at it all in hindsight and imagine it as an easy battle to come out on the other side, but in the moment … I imagine we’d be one of those happy fans in that DVD I mentioned, unaware of what “Cold, Cold Heart” really means.

Nate: I’m always amazed, knowing what we do now, that George Jones lived into the 2010s. That Hank Sr. wrote and recorded the songs he did despite an almost 24/7 state of intoxication. That Waylon survived his cocaine addiction. Johnny overcame the pills and booze. That Willie lived through a housefire and laying down on Lower Broadway outside of Tootsie’s because he felt like no one would ever *get* his music. Country music is the story of America. All its scars and wounds and triumphs and victories. PR firms can’t hide that stuff from thirty years ago. I know both of us could go on and on and on about this stuff, and I have no doubt we’ll revisit some of these topics in future collaborative pieces. But are there any last questions or topics you wanted to bring up? This is as fun as it gets for me.

Zack: The same goes for me! But even with all the time in the world lately, I can’t think of anything else. Granted, we covered a lot of different topics and didn’t waste a single moment, so I guess I’ll end by saying this — thanks to anyone who read this piece, thanks to Nathan for inviting me to collaborate on something different (but just as much fun), and stay safe out there.

Nate: Right on, man! We’ll be back soon.

Courtesy “Saving Country Music”

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