No genre has come and gone and come back like country music.
Q: "So what kind of music do you listen to?"
A: "Oh, I'm not picky, anything really. Except for country!"
It's a pretty standard question, and today's standard response.
Country music has had a long and colorful history in the psyche of the American public. Starting off in the early part of the 20th century as "hillbilly music" ' a term that was later abandoned as "denigrating" ' country music has developed into a form that boasts the two highest-grossing solo artists ever - Elvis Presley, who took the world by storm and emerged as number one, and Garth Brooks, the heartthrob crooner who is currently the second highest-selling solo artist in the United States.
In its various avatars ' country boogie, honky tonk, bluegrass, rockabilly, and country rock ' country music has garnered a group of loyal fans, many of them country-lovers for generations. However, country music has long been considered a pariah in the musical genre fraternity. Maybe it's the association with the Deep South and pickup trucks, or perhaps it's the rustic, lonesome sound reminiscent of expansive prairies, far from any hint of civilization. Barring those few die-hard fans, country has never really gotten a strong foothold in music fandom. Burdened with a reputation as a musical form which true music aficionados shun, country music has struggled long and hard for a chance to be part of the nationwide ' and even international ' mainstream music scene. Success has been elusive.
So what's it going to take for country music to speak to today's music-loving youth? The answer may be that the music itself has to change a little, to adapt to the new generations and what appeals to them. Or maybe its spokespeople have to appeal more to American youth. One thing it is for sure is an identity crisis for the music, its proponents and its fans alike.
As American culture has moved from the authenticity of the countryside to the gritty veneers of city life, only those artists who adapt their style to mold to the new realities of the here and now can hope to stake a claim on the loyalties of young America.
Maybe the process has started already. Willie Nelson, almost synonymous with country music, is a national sensation thanks to his activism and his incredibly wide and eclectic array of collaborations. Having worked with country stars like Allison Krauss and Emmylou Harris as well as representatives of various other styles ' Wynton Marsalis and Norah Jones to name just a couple ' Nelson has put himself and the music he stands for on the map. Walk the Line, the Johnny Cash biopic starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, brought listening to country briefly into vogue. Leann Rimes a decade ago, Taylor Swift for the last couple of years and now new stars like Danny Gokey, who was recently gleaned from American Idol, are examples of young, fresh talent constantly revamping the face of country music.
The best and most visible example, though, is Carrie Underwood, a young woman whose rise to stardom came on the tailwind of her 2005 American Idol success. Hers is a story representative of the facelift to which country music has been the beneficiary over the last few years. This week, her hit single "Good Girl" from album Blown Away
which came out last month reached platinum status. A multi-platinum recording artist, Grammy winner, Golden Globe nominee and Billboard
's reigning Country Music Queen, Underwood may just be that shot of adrenaline that country music needed to make a comeback.
Not only is the singer of "Jesus, Take the Wheel" a musical star, she has even made political headlines. Earlier this week, Underwood came forward in support of gay marriage, declaring to London's The Independent
her belief that "we should all have the right to love, and love publicly, the people that we want to love." Controversial as such a statement is when it comes from any well-known personality, it is a particularly fiercely divisive point from a star whose fans tend to be die-hard right-wingers. But hey, it puts Underwood on the map in a much bigger way than her music alone does.
So is a pretty-faced, golden-voiced, politically-opinionated superstar from Oklahoma enough to launch a marginalized musical genre out of its wallflower status?
Kellie Dawn Pickler (born June 28, 1986) is a country music artist and television personality. She gained fame as a contestant on the fifth season of the Fox reality show American Idol, eventually finishing in sixth place. In 2006, she signed to 19 Recordings and BNA Records as a recording artist, releasing her debut album later that year. | Photo: Getty |
It all comes down to a question of evolution. Every genre of music has gone through an evolutionary process, losing those flaws that were pulling it down and shining through with new, sometimes controversial but always attention-grabbing changes. Rock, blues, pop ' they've all started somewhere and ended up in an entirely new place. Country is the only genre that has remained ' or at least attempted to remain ' the same for over a century. Whether that has helped or hurt the cause is a question that could be debated to no end. But there is something to be said for the integrity of holding onto the art. As important as adaptation is, holding true to what you stand for as an artist and as an individual is equally vital. And that is what makes country music something unique and special.
Yes, country music is making a comeback. And in many ways, that's a fantastic thing. In some ways, maybe it isn't.
The question, then, is this: what is it worth to keep an art form alive? If one were to ask die-hard country fans what it is that speaks to them so much about country music, there would of course be widely varied responses. But there is always a common theme: honesty in telling real stories. Country, even as it is morphed into pop and rock, is known to be true to itself, to the artists who choose it as their art form of choice. Yes, they are sometimes saccharine and sometimes maudlin, but the stories country singers tell are real. The sentiment they express is real. The talent they possess is real. This honesty, integrity, and genuine loyalty to the art is ultimately what country music is all about. As long as we hold on to that, we remain true to the music.
So even if we have to sacrifice a bit of our loyalty to the traditional styles of country, even if it requires a bit more adaptation than some old-timers are willing to accept, as long as the principle behind the art is not lost, maybe it's worth walking the line to keep the music alive.