Something of a Response

*This isn’t meant to start drama, and I’m not specifically calling Josh out here. The arguments he made in this piece, however, are more symbolic of what I’ve been seeing a lot of across country blogs recently. It seems as though a lot of writers out there at the moment want music fans to be pigeon-holed into staunchly defending either mainstream country or traditional country and can’t enjoy both. I wanted to use this opportunity to lay out where I stand- especially considering the fact that I enjoy listening to George Jones’ brand of stone-cold country gold, Waylon’s driving back beat, Eric Church’s renegade style of rockin’ country, AND Kip Moore’s California-type country/rock hybrid. We’re allowed to enjoy it all.*

I recently came across this piece on my timeline. Needless to say, it provoked quite a strong emotional response out of me. I immediately began trying to get my thoughts together for a piece countering many of the suggestions and arguments made by Josh.

Many of the arguments of his piece, titled “Pop Country & Traditional Country: Two Sides of the Same Boring Coin,” can be summed up below, followed by my own response:

  1. ) “Americana and Texas Country are…candy wrappers blowing in the wind that nobody outside of their little niches give a shit about.”

I’m on the record as being fair to both the mainstream and Texas Country/Americana worlds. I’m also on record as believing the Texas Country/Americana worlds can sometimes come across as condescending and arrogant with more emphasis being placed on the fact that they’re simply recording music outside of Nashville. Yet I do wish to defend them here. To argue that Texas Country and Americana are little niches is simply untrue. Artists can make a living simply by touring Texas and Oklahoma and never leaving the region. Sure, they’re just regional superstars, but making a living in Texas is no small feat. Listen to any interview with a Texas artist, and they’ll tell you that they could stay in Texas, have a couple of big hits, and never have to tour outside the state. Cody Jinks, an artist who did leave Texas for bigger things, knew firsthand the appeal and success he could have by staying in the region. Many Texas artists, however, have left the region and show first-hand that playing Texas Country isn’t just a little niche. Whiskey Myers tours across the country and sells out venues that aren’t necessarily Texas Country hot-spots. I’ve seen them play twice just outside my hometown of Pittsburgh, and they’ve sold out both shows. There’s a Red Dirt Revival radio show and summer lineup now in Western Pennsylvania. Simply put, from my own experiences and listening to the artists who are in the scene, it’s simply not true to call Texas Country a little niche.

Now as for Americana. Like I said before, I’m on record as thinking a lot of Americana is stale and boring. Too much of it is quiet and recorded without attitude. It’s veered away from the punk leanings of Uncle Tupelo and Old 97s and turned into some sort of coffee shop thing. Again, however, I’m going to defend Americana from being called a little niche. Jason Isbell, inarguably, is a huge artist who fits nicely into Americana. His albums generate a ton of buzz from country and rock outlets. Like Johnny Cash, a lot of people from a lot of different backgrounds can call Isbell their hero. Isbell alone makes Americana a huge niche in the music industry. Americana and its sales obviously don’t compare to Texas Country and pale in comparison to most mainstream genres. But Americana is a niche that a lot of people have time for. The best thing that Americana arguably has going for it is its wide appeal to a variety of backgrounds. Like country music? There’s an Americana artist for you. Like rock? Americana has you covered. Roots, blues, or jazz? Check out Charley Crockett and tell me Americana is just a little niche.

2.) “ It’s not the pop collaborators or the major labels or radio, but you the traditional country fan and you the pop country fan that are the problem.”

I mean, come on. First of all, blaming the music fan isn’t going to get anyone on your side or even allow them to hear your argument. Starting off an argument by shaming music fans for what they listen to or criticizing them for what kind of music they prefer just rubs me the wrong way. There’s a lot of music out there I don’t like, and some of my closest friends in the country music writing community have even started coming around on Sam Hunt. But I’m not going to blame them for being part of the problem, and I’m not going to call them names for liking an artist who I want nothing to do with.

What exactly is wrong with wanting to hear traditional country- or for those that do- pop country? There are plenty of ways to hear listen to country music. Outlaw. Countrypolitan. Country rock. Country pop. Neo-traditional country. All of it can be played on country radio. But how is it the fault of the fan for wanting to hear country music played on country radio?

And more specifically, how is it the fault of the traditional country fan for wanting to see collaborations with other country artists instead of pop artists? This is is particularly pertinent with the lack of female artists in country music. There are a plethora of talented female artists in the genre. So why are record labels promoting cross-genre collaborations instead of looking in their own backyard? Tell me how all of this is the fault of the fan.

3.) “ You people accept whatever your favorite artist puts out. You don’t demand enough and quite frankly you’re not listening.”

The above quote is what really got me thinking about why a response to this piece was needed. (Forgive me if the next several sentences are more of a stream-of-consciousness thing.)

First of all, we’re not all critics. Above all else, we’re music fans. Not everyone is going to sit down with an album and wait to hear it five or six times before forming an opinion of it. Not every fan is looking for deeper meaning in every single album. Country music, more so than any other genre, owns a dedicated and loyal fan-base. Fans flock to their favorite artist- buying merch, music, and tickets. And yes, even if an artist releases an album that critics may see as sub-par, the loyal fan is still going to support the artist. But that’s the point. They’re fans, not critics. So let’s not try to act like every music listener needs to have some big critical opinion of a new album and “demand” more.

Certain artists have their own sound. Some evolve throughout their career. Some stay in their same lane. Both are correct options. An artist like Eric Church, Willie Nelson, Steve Earle, or Linda Ronstadt can probably call four or five different sounds to their music. But artists like Buck Owens, AC/DC, George Jones, or even an act like Florida-Georgia Line have a particular brand of music they play without much deviation. And, again, both approaches are okay. Imagine playing an AC/DC record and not getting straight-forward three chord rock and roll. I’d be upset. If I play a Buck Owens record, I know exactly what I’m getting, and that’s fine. That’s why he’s on my Mt. Rushmore of country artists.

Yet I never know what I’m getting from an Eric Church record, and as a huge fan of his, that’s also fine with me. Yes, there have been times when I’ve been left surprised by the direction of one of his songs. And yes, there’s a part of me that hopes one day he cuts a record in the vein of Sinners Like Me. But he’s on record as saying he never wants to record the same album twice. That’s a totally different approach. But as his fan, I respect and understand his want and need to play different styles. And you better believe that I’ll be listening to whatever kind of record he puts out.

People are listening. And I’m sure sometimes fans are let down. But I honestly believe the country music community has too much respect and decency to throw an artist under the bus even if the fans believe he or she let them down.

4.) “Creativity is bankrupt across the genre. Everybody is just trying to maintain the status quo. This is a genre in survival mode.”

Wow. A lot to unpack here. I just don’t get it. Creativity is alive and well. Stapleton is still writing killer songs. Brothers Osborne are bringing guitar back to radio and winning awards while they’re at it. Eric Church and Miranda Lambert are doing whatever the hell they want. Kip Moore is out trekking across the world and making some serious country punk. Midland and Jon Pardi are keeping traditional country music alive. Dierks has an unbelievable country, bluegrass, rock hybrid album coming out next month. Luke Combs is marrying tradition and pop in a really cool way. And that’s just the mainstream!

Jason Isbell is taking the country by storm with his brand of Americana. Paul Cauthen is making gospel cool again. Cody Jinks, Red Shahan, and Shotgun Rider are all releasing their own spins on Texas country. Margo Price is singing for the working class with a lot of authenticity and traditionalism. And Turnpike Troubadours are the greatest damn band in the world.

Those are just artists off the top of my head. I don’t know how you could see and listen to all of those artists and the varieties of country they play and think everyone is trying to maintain the status quo. The claim just doesn’t hold up.

Are their problems with the genre? Of course. A lot of the Americana world has gotten to a coffee-shop, quiet vibe. There aren’t enough women on the radio. Record sales are down. But country music will never die. The genre will always be here. I’d bet everything I have on that. I seek out good country music, and I’m not disappointed. I’m quite happy actually about the future of the genre- and more-so than I have been in a long time. A lot of good things are happening in Nashville and Texas and across the country. Next time you go to a show, look at the audience. It’s diverse and full of every age you can imagine- including millennials.

Look, I just love country music. I’m a fan and student of the genre. Like I said at the beginning, this piece isn’t meant to be something angry or written out of frustration. But the attitude exemplified by Josh in his piece is really symbolic of how a lot of bloggers and writers seem to be feeling at the moment. And I just wholeheartedly disagree and wanted to lay down a marker of where I stand. Remember, country music is there for us, and it’s not going anywhere. We may all have different opinions of what kind of style of country we like, and we have all been introduced to the genre in different ways and at different ages. But as for me? Country’s been a part of my life for as long as I’ve been alive. I may just be a kid who grew up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, but country music is ingrained in my soul, and I’ll always be fighting for it and willing to defend it.