This is a reprint of an article I wrote for FairPlay Country, an indie Country Music Magazine in Germany.
Last year I had an interviewer ask me what kind of music I play. I actually had to stop and think about it for a moment. For the first time since I switched to Country from Blues in 1980, the answer wasn’t “Country”.
Like a lot of indie artists, as well as some in the mainstream, I share nothing in common with what is considered Country Music these days. The CMA and ACM are in pretty much the same boat. What they push forward on Top 40 Country radio isn’t Country, and leaves little to no room for many of us to ever get inside. You know what? That’s okay. That’s not where I want to be.
When I made my move in the 80’s, Country was just coming out of the Outlaw movement and moving back into a traditional format with the likes of George Strait and Randy Travis, which Willie and Waylon helped to usher in. I personally loved Outlaw Country, though I hated the name and what it implied. Seems you had to be an Outlaw to play your own music your own way with your own band instead of sounding like a Las Vegas lounge act with a producer picking your songs and using an orchestra and forty backup singers behind you. Anarchy at it’s finest…
As the 90’s came in, music started to move the other direction again and ushered in the Garth, Chesney and McGraw clones. Producers again took over the decision making as to what “your” was and what your style sounded like. Ultimately, they decided that everyone sounded exactly the same again. The greats like George Jones and Johnny Cash began to slowly disappear from Top 40 until they finally weren’t played at all, though they were still putting out great music. You still had Strait, Alan Jackson and Vince Gill putting out real Country, but the times they were a changin’…
I’ve been writing my own music since 1984, when I had my first song recorded. Now, my music encompasses a little bit of everything from straight Country to Folk to Southern Rock, as I feel it should. It isn’t the genre of the song that defines its style, it’s the style of the song that defines its genre. Johnny Cash was recording Bob Dylan and Gordon Lightfoot songs in the 60’s. Waylon was recording Marshall Tucker and Neil Young songs in the 70’s. But they were still Country.
Other than the tunnel vision of producers, it’s the song itself that seems to be the main difference. I grew up learning my trade as a songwriter from the masters. Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and Dean Dillon were the poets of my generation. They wrote of beauty, pain and longing in a way that everyone could relate to their songs, and hear something completely different and personal in their words. Radio playing one song after the next about getting drunk, going muddin’ and having sex on a tailgate by the lake, played to an 80’s rock beat with rappers thrown in, just isn’t that relatable if you’re over 18. It almost seems at times there is only one songwriter in Nashville going by about 40 different names.
If you find yourself in the same boat with your music, you’re not alone. After that interview question I have billed myself as an “Americana Artist and Texas Songwriter”. I feel much more at home in a genre that encompasses the likes of Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Hayes Carll and Chris Stapleton than I ever will with one that has Luke Bryan and Florida-Georgia Line as it’s forebearers. But, that’s me. And maybe you. To each his/her own. The beauty of music is that no matter what you play there is an audience for it. But, bear in mind that unless you happen to be in the age group of 12-20 and look like you either stepped off the cover of GQ or Victoria’s Secret, your chances of getting noticed in today’s Nashville are right up there with finding a set of teeth on a rooster. That may sound a little jaded, but the music business is a lot more about business than it is about music these days. Cute sells and talent is secondary. Could you imagine George Jones arriving in Nashville today?
For the rest of us, there is a whole different world out there in Americana. There is the Americana Music Association for artists. There is a completely different format of radio and online radio. There are magazines out there like No Depression that specialize in music that fits the old mold and covers everyone from Alabama Shakes and Asleep At The Wheel to Ray Wylie Hubbard and Zac Brown. You don’t have to be young and pretty to be heard, just talented. Remember when talent counted and artists didn’t need 400 layers of production and a built-in auto-tuner to sound good? There’s still a market out there.
Music tends to go in cycles every few decades. With the likes of Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson coming to the fore, maybe Country music will come back home eventually. I hope so. Til then, never let yourself feel pushed aside because you don’t fit a mold. The old molds are still around and doing fine. They just have a new home.