Box Full of Letters from Issue #40
And rock ‘n’ roll too?
I thought Grant Alden made an important point in his Mike Ireland review [ND #39, May-June 2002] — that, mostly, real country music is no longer the music of “country people.”
I’ve often been struck, for instance, that the country acts featured in this magazine — from Junior Brown to Robbie Fulks to Mike Ireland — play shows not in the honky-tonks and so-called country music bars, but in the college and rock clubs. And, as we all know, you’re as likely to hear Journey-style guitar solos and bashing drums as you are to hear chicken-pickin’ and slapping string bass on country radio. Has rap replaced “outlaw country” as the music of choice for blue-collar rebels? Has country radio become so slick and “hot” and “new” that the real stuff has been forever wiped from the mainstream map? That seems to me to be the case.
But here’s what bothers me as much or more: I think we’ve about lost rock ‘n’ roll, as well. You know, the blues-and-country-based stuff that used to be an essential part of American youth culture. What’s the last tune with the classic Chuck Berry riff to hit the Top 10? How many rootsy, blues-based rock songs have been in the Top 100 in the last 5 years? I would guess you could count them on one hand. Why was Neil Young a hitmaking rocker, but Son Volt marginalized as “alternative country”? How come “classic rock” stations still play the Rolling Stones and Skynyrd, but the Bottle Rockets and Tim Carroll can’t scratch a rock radio playlist? And why did Southern rock become replaced by rap-metal and Creed?
I admit that I wasn’t raised on country music. I wasn’t a fan of country radio as a kid. So, while the loss of country-music-for-country-people is sad to me, it’s the move of rock and pop music away from rootsy sounds that worries me most, because that’s the stuff I — and I would guess most readers of this magazine — grew up on.
And, yet, I’ve noticed something else. At a recent Junior Brown show I attended, the crowd was noticeably diverse (well, as much as an all-white group of people can be), and many of the folks on hand looked more like your old-school country fans than the hip “alt-country” crowd. They went absolutely bananas when Junior struck the first lick of “Highway Patrol”. I went to a George Jones concert at the Gaffney, South Carolina, Peach Festival. Gaffney, I’m thinking, isn’t home to an intellectualized, NPR-style roots revival; these people just wanted to hear their man, the Possum. And while many in the audience, I’d guess, were 50 or older, I was surprised by how many of those whooping it up that night looked to be in Shania’s age-demographic.
And a few years ago, Southern Culture On The Skids played at the Spartanburg, South Carolina, “Spring Fling.” I identified some SCOTS fans I knew in the crowd, but most there looked like your longtime Marshall Tucker Band fans (this being Spartanburg and all). Didn’t matter: the delirious crowd danced, ate the SCOTS-provided fried chicken, and cheered for several minutes straight after the band went offstage.
My point? Just that, if given the chance, people can still dig the good stuff. But the thing, I guess, is that there are trends in music, and in the corporate environment of radio (rock and country) it’s a winner-takes-all world. So as long as hip-hop, hippie jam (or whatever you call Dave Matthews now), rap-metal, and “Hot New Country” are in favor, I guess “country fans” won’t get to hear Mike Ireland and “rock fans” won’t get to hear the Bottle Rockets.
— Baker Maultsby
Spartanburg, South Carolina