Bluegrass, Real Country, and the Death Throes of Genre
With last week’s incredible achievement by Chris Stapleton, who won three major Country Music Association awards, issues of genre definition have been turned on their head as melody, authenticity, and story-telling re-emerged in country music.
For years, many have characterized what’s called “country music” these days as not being “real country,” of having lost its soul. But along with Stapleton’s rise, bluegrass music — where he had had his first public success as a performer with bluegrass band the SteelDrivers — has come increasingly into the spotlight of American roots and popular music.
Stapleton’s CMA Award-winning album Traveller, released earlier this year, clearly shows his growth as both a performer and songwriter since his days with the SteelDrivers. It was with that band that Stapleton first achieved prominence, albeit hindered by bluegrass’s reputation as a niche music. But the SteelDrivers were a ground-breaking bluegrass band, combining elements of bluegrass, country, and blues into an attention-grabbing new acoustic sound. Here’s Stapleton with The SteelDrivers singing his song “Guitars, Whiskey, Guns & Knives.”
Traveller signals an emergence for Stapleton, whose prowess as a powerful songwriter for other Nashville performers has long been recognized. The recording serves as a counter weight to the the forces that have dominated country music for some years, leading many to suggest that the music being played on top 40 country radio stations isn’t country music at all, but a form of pop/rock dressed up to look like a highly burnished image of what they conceive country music to be — with its emphasis on trucks, sex, beer, and mostly empty fun-seeking.
Traveller, on the other hand, is largely a contemplative collection of songs which, while still featuring inordinate amounts of whiskey, emphasizes booze’s destructive power. It also focuses on the singer’s need to find change within love, redemption, and family. There’s also a sense of regret running through these songs.
The plastic beauties clustered around the stage at the CMAs bore little resemblance to the loneliness and desperation so many of the songs in Traveller portray, but I thought Stapleton’s duet with Justin Timberlake of his own “Tennessee Whiskey” brought together Nashville bluesy, boozy country with Memphis soul and pop glamor, with stunning effectiveness.
So I got to thinking — when people comment that a piece of acoustic music “ain’t bluegrass” because it lacks a banjo (such as Tony Rice in “Manzanita” or anything by Della Mae) or that a song isn’t “real” country, they’re emphasizing form over substance. When a song carries with it authenticity of emotion or spirit, when something in it speaks to something in me, when it touches me, captures my attention, has melody, tells a story, etc. — does genre matter?
According to Wikipedia, classic country is a “radio genre” that is, a classification invented to help give radio stations an identity. To attract an audience. Classic country can be anything from late 1950s to mid-’80s country music, depending on the program directors and radio DJs. What then is the effect of narrow genre classifications on XM/Sirius? How are those stations different from the weekly Discover playlist constructed for me by Spotify and delivered first thing Monday morning? All I know is that the computer-constructed playlist made from my previous choices changes each week and has introduced me to a number of new-to-me performers whom I enjoy, and some of whom I will return to.
I try to imagine myself as a young man responding to rap music and hip-hop. I hear lots of people say they like “all kinds of music … except rap,” the exception suggesting the denial of the initial statement. But here’s a segment from Sixty Minutes on November 8, suggesting the extent to which rap music can connect us with a large and rich musical world. In this interview, Charlie Rose talks with Lin-Manuel Miranda — a McArthur Genius award winner — who demonstrates the power of the form. He has, in a sense, de-racialized it and applied it to a Broadway musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton. Take the time to watch and listen to that rather lengthy segment.
But what does that have to do with bluegrass? The genius of the younger Bill Monroe may have lain in his ability to transcend the limits of genre, creating a synthesizing moment in musical history which found connections between diverse elements in American life and culture through its music. The weakness in institutionalizing what he founded into bluegrass as a narrow format lies in denying the connections of race, religion, social class, background, and creativity into which Monroe tapped.
Those who create and innovate through art give us the ability to make new connections, discover new expressions, develop new formats which help keep us connected to all the elements in our musical and social history. The risk lies, always, in becoming hardened into the format rather than seeking to discover the ways that music can connect us in meaningful ways to the ever-growing, changing, and developing elements of society.
Whether it’s Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake onstage together connecting bluegrass, country, blues, and pop, or Lin-Manual Miranda turning Alexander Hamilton into a rapping hip-hopper, these honest expressions of music mark the possibility of the end of genre in music.