I don’t like Taylor Swift. Never have, probably never will. I’m not about to get into all the reasons why, but I’ve found one of the biggest reasons helps explain my motivation to rant about the continuing decline of country music.
Because it is in my opinion the launch of Swift’s career was yet another nail in the coffin of traditional country music, and it was almost the one that sealed it away. What does “traditional” mean for this genre, though? There are obviously countless beliefs on that, but I like to think mine’s fairly valid. Mainly because my formative years of age 0 to 11 were spent listening to almost nothing but the country music that had been created between 1940-1993.
The legends of this half century are names almost anyone can identify, whether they listen to this style of music or not: Hank Williams, Sr., Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Waylon and Willie, George Strait, Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks, etc. And what does the music of these artists have in common? Simple yet mesmerizing lyrics, backed by chord progressions and rhythms both powerful and unforgettable. Whether it be a slow movin’ love song or honky tonkin’, havin’ a good time tune, these musicians and their songwriters knew how to connect the words to the music in a way that was emphatically country. There was always a steel guitar in there, or just enough twang, plus a defiant or all-knowing personality that told you how things were with their harmonizing vocals.
Each tune had a topic of interest their fans could easily relate to, and they were generally stories centered around rural living. George Strait and Chris LeDoux were terrific at honoring the cowboy lifestyle with their lyrics, and Loretta Lynn would sing of the trials and tribulations of growing up in Kentucky’s “Butcher Holler”, or lend strength to women with songs such as “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)”. Lynn wasn’t the only one offering support to the ladies, though – the female singers of country music have long been advocates of women empowerment, and standing up to wrongdoin’ men. And they always did it in either a playful or serious way, both of which were highly effective at getting their point across.
Whether it be a male or female country musician, however, the songs were always compelling because the artists were such good storytellers. A lot of that had to do with their songwriters, as well, but those front men and women were so authentic with their delivery. It’s almost impossible to not get chills when you hear Cash sang “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die”, because he has a way with that guitar and those words that just convinces you he’s telling the truth.
Fast forward 50 years or so from Cash and the like, and what have we got? In comparison with the founders and torch bearers of this genre, very little that could stand up as actual country music. Sure, every genre out there requires advancement and innovation, but that does not mean it should be reshaped and morphed into another, however, like country has done under the pop-driven influence of artists such as Swift. Or get whittled down to nothing more than redneck party music that features the same idea and tone, from song to song.
Swift, someone who now barely associates with the genre that founded her, obviously wasn’t the first country starlet to mix some pop into her music – it’s safe to say the ’90s were rife with such musicians, all yearning to have a bit of crossover success with their catchy tunes. No surprise, then, that I stopped listening to country music around that time. I will admit to having enjoyed songs like Deana Carter’s “Strawberry Wine”, or “Wide Open Spaces” by Dixie Chicks, but I was also a teenaged girl, and more or less felt those songs had been written for me.
As country music entered the 21st Century it was also devastating to see the way politics would come to heavily affect its brand. The carnage of 9/11 did implement a more patriotic spirit in most Americans, but it also riled up country singers like Toby Keith, and this left country radio heavily populated with songs about “the no good Middle East” and how we should rally to kick the Taliban’s ass. While the sentiment might have been one shared with many people at that time, the construction of such tunes felt tacky, and was veering away from what country music meant.
I’ll be honest in that I don’t know much about the vast landscape country music is potentially comprised of these days, but it’s because every time I’ve been subject to it in the past 15 years, it’s been the same song, slightly reworked from another. And it’s usually not very good, so I don’t listen further. That’s why it was great to see Entertainment Weekly writer Grady Smith publish this video last December, which correctly defines the state of country music today:
It’s tough to make it all the way through that video. Which is so sad for a genre that was once vibrant with entertaining lyrics and appealing music to back it. Here’s hoping the industry will somehow find its way back to its roots, and resurrect some of the respect it once held with fans. I feel we owe legends such as Hank Sr. that, and so much more. ‘Til we can be so lucky, click here for a reminder of what’s been lost.