On Taylor Swift, Britney Spears, and Rosanne Cash…
Confused yet? What am I doing discussing two pop singers on No Depression, especially alongside the great Rosanne Cash? The answer will reveal itself shortly, but first allow me to bring in yet another genre and ask a question posed in 1975 by the band War: “why can’t we be friends”? I’m referring to the world of Americana/alt. country/whatever and the world of mainstream Nashville “country”. Sure, most of what Nashville releases these days is pure pop crap, but do the two not intersect at times? Perhaps overtly in the cases of O Brother Where Art Thou or Walk the Line, but what about individual, commercially successful artists? I won’t even pretend that modern country fans still know who Marty Stuart or Dwight Yoakam is, let alone Ricky Skaggs, but what about honky-tonk singers such as George Strait or Alan Jackson? What about modern-day outlaws such as Jamey Johnson, Miranda Lambert, or even the Dixie Chicks? Hell, why not even Brad Paisley, who despite all of his musical faults had the balls to release an album of guitar instrumentals a few years back? Something like that hasn’t been commonplace in country music since the heyday of Jerry Reed.
Give me Steve Earle, the Drive-By Truckers, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Elizabeth Cook, or any number of other artists over the best of modern mainstream conuntry any day, but the fact remains that there are some folks in Nashville still making decent music. I can’t pretend to speak for him now, but Grant Alden, who we all know as a blogger here and as the former editor of No Depression magazine held similar views at one time (and I just realized that I ripped off his opening sentence for this blog post. Oops). Which proves nothing. We could both be wrong, but something tells me that we’re not.
But nevertheless what the hell does Taylor Swift, Britney Spears, and especially Rosanne Cash have to do with this current discussion?
To answer that we’ll have to go back to 1979 when Cash released her American debut Right or Wrong, or even more importantly her next album Seven Year Ache. That 1981 record’s cover featured Cash looking more like Pat Benetar than Patsy Cline and the music followed suit. Take for instance the title track, which sounds like a lost Fleetwood Mac tune from the same era. It’s a great song and a great album and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise, but is it country? I’m not here to define genres and decide what belongs and what doesn’t. I’m just a music fan, and one who usually enjoys the fusion of different genres at that, but personally I don’t hear much twang on the early Rosanne Cash recordings.
At the risk of sounding slightly blasphemous, let’s move on to her father. In 1985, Johnny Cash, the greatest country singer of all time excluding Hank Williams, recorded a tune by Jimmy Webb (who had written tons of country hits) alongside his buddies Waylon Jennings, who was arguably the best country artist of his generation and one of the best vocalists in the genre’s history, and Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson, the two best country songwriters of all time. The track was called “Highwayman” and I’m sure most of you own it. Go listen to it now if you want; it’s one hell of a recording. But like his daughter’s work of the same era, it featured heavy synthesizers, loud drums, an echo effect, and a production that was pure ’80s.
Let’s discuss Keith Whitley. Nobody knows what direction his career would have taken, but what we do know is how it began: as a member of Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys. In the ’80s, he began a solo career and while there is proof on his albums that he could have been one of the best pure honky-tonk singers ever, look at the hits (“Miami, My Amy”, “Ten Feet Away”, “Don’t Close Your Eyes”, etc). Pure pop, every one of them. There were hints of a country influence in some of them, but for most of his hits his voice was the most country-sounding thing there. Now, personally, I believe that his career would have eventually taken a direction similar to that of his friend Ricky Skaggs, who abandoned commercial country after a while. But what we are left with in his solo discography is some great country album tracks and a lot of pop singles.
Jim Reeves. Conway Twitty. Charlie Rich. I could go on and on but, as I said, I’m not here to define what is and isn’t country and I believe your getting the idea. To be frank, there is no purity test and if there were many of the artists we all know and love would have likely failed it.
Where I live from there are only two radio stations that I can pick up clearly in my car. On the rare occasion when I have no CDs with me, I’m forced to choose between them and the country station is slightly more tolerable than the Top 40 station. Which brings me to the present and today’s biggest pop star Taylor Swift, who also happens to be marketed as country music. A product of her generation, she was brought up listening to Nashville star Shania Twain and her ilk, so can one really blame her for writing odes to Tim McGraw? Hopefully she’ll grow out of that. I personally do not feel Miss Swift is country at all and I’m not a fan of her music, but with that said I do feel that she is doing some good for the music industry. Allow me to explain.
For starters, she isn’t Britney Spears. She isn’t, as Tom Petty eloquently stated, “some angel whore who can learn a guitar lick”. She writes her own songs (although she’s no Joni Mitchell), plays an instrument (although she’s no Jimi Hendrix), and sings them competently (although she’s no Loretta Lynn). Sure, there are much better artists out there (even in Nashville), but wouldn’t you agree that she makes for a better “American Idol” than the likes of Britney Spears or Lindsey Lohan?
Her current output, while far better than most of the Top 40, is still just Nashville pop. But it is her output, nonetheless. She wrote it, she sang it, she played on it. And she’s only 20-years-old and can (and I believe will) certainly improve.
But wait, there’s more. At last year’s Grammy’s, Miss Swift performed a duet with Stevie Nicks. The press mostly focused on her mediocre performance, but the real story was this: she has moved beyond Shania Twain and Tim McGraw. She’s now listening to Stevie Nicks. And who knows where that will lead? Maybe she will explore deeper in Fleetwood Mac’s discography and discover Peter Green and British blues-rock. Perhaps she will hear Nicks’ duets with Tom Petty. And from there the possibilities are endless: the Byrds of course, but also Petty’s Wilbury band mates such as Dylan, Orbison, or Harrison, or maybe even Johnny Cash, who was backed by the Heartbreakers on the Unchained album. Who knows? But the fact is that one of the few commercially successful mainstream artists who writes her own music could now actually be developing good taste and that is a great thing for the state of popular music.
Yes, I will admit that the comparison to Rosanne Cash is ridiculous; Cash has an artistic vision Swift will likely never come close to equaling. But comparisons to Britney, Beyonce, and Miley are also ridiculous (although I can’t in good conscience criticize Miley Cyrus at this point, seeing as how she has absolutely no artistic control over her career path). Taylor has already surpassed them, and although I doubt she will ever be No Depression material she could potentially make great music in some genre sometime in the future. She could even move from pop to country. Rosanne Cash did it. Why not Taylor Swift?