In which I explain the problem with Country Music

There’s this idea floating around that the problem with country music is that it is somehow less “country” than it used to be, that it’s tainted by the Shanias and Faiths and Kenny Chesney/Uncle Kracker duets, that the problem with country music is Nashville. Living in my unnamed city, I can tell you that this argument is stated over and over again in every honky tonk and beer joint as if it’s the gospel truth.

I’m not going to go into a long diatribe about what utter crap this line of reasoning is; Richard Peterson has done an excellent job spelling it out in his book Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity. For those of you who aren’t going to run right out and buy it, basically he argues that the tension between “real” country music and “produced” country music has been with us as long as recorded country music has existed.

Think he’s wrong? Take a listen to Hank and Patsy one more time. What makes Patsy Cline “country”? Now, of course, she’s considered part of the “authentic” country music sound, but could her music sound any more different than Hank’s?

For whatever reason, country music thrives on the creative tension between “true” country and “popular” country (ah, popular, isn’t that word the ugly truth? All this “non-country” country music sells or it wouldn’t get made.) and it seems to purposefully recreate the cycles that lead us from Rhinestone Cowboys to Outlaws to Hat Acts to to Faith, Shania, and the rest of the pop princesses to Gretchen Wilson.

Even the larger roots music scene seems to understand the creative power in this dichotomy. But, instead of setting themselves up in opposition to “popular” country, they’ve set themselves up against “Nashville.”

But, let me tell you, they all come to Nashville; they all want to make it here, er, there.

It’s really interesting to watch it play out over and over again. It’s like there are a few set stories and everyone is trying to figure out what part they will play in which narrative, as if reenacting the same story that brought their idols to fame will also bring them to fame.

All this is kind of beside the point: here’s what’s wrong with Country Music, and I’d guess the rest of the music industry: They think that if one is good, a dozen is better. If there’s one guy in a cowboy hat in the early 90s, why not have every guy wear a cowboy hat? If Faith and Shania can have huge cross-over success, why can’t we get Martina and Leanne and the rest of them on the pop charts? If folks like the Dixie Chicks, how much will they love SheDaisy?

You can even see it starting to happen with this crop of young, blunt, women. No, they all aren’t as blunt as Gretchen Wilson, but I can’t remember ever hearing so much talk about being down to one’s last rag and sex being good but not right. And let’s not talk about all the boys with terrible hair. Warren Brothers, you want to know why you’re not quite famous? Because people think they’re helping you when they buy Rascal Flatts’ album. Dirks Bentley, Billy Currington’s stealing your career and your shot with Shania Twain.

Also, let’s talk about file sharing. To hear industry folks tell it, you’d think file sharing was single-handedly ruining the music industry. I’m not convinced that’s true, but let’s assume it is. Who’s to blame for music fans thinking that they’re not hurting anyone by downloading music?

Who’s either showing off their multi-million dollar houses (in which case, if they have that much money, what’s it hurting if I download music) every chance they get, either on TV or by being a happy stop on the Tour of the Stars’ Homes, or bitching about how the record company has screwed them out of their money (in which case, I’m not hurting the artist; I’m helping stick it to the industry who’s done him wrong)?

And I really think it’s the second half of this equation that is a problem for the record industry. Fans believe that artists are getting screwed by record companies. If so, and if the fan likes the artist, isn’t the fan morally obligated to help screw the record company right back?

To put it another way, if fans know that artists don’t make any money from records–that most of their money comes from merchandise and other subsidiary rights deals–they don’t necessarily feel like they have to buy albums to show their support for artists.

The other problem the industry has, I think, is ProTools. It’s an open secret in Nashville that a lot of famous folks don’t sound in person how they sound in the studio. You know why Martina McBride gets standing ovations at awards shows? Because that girl can really sing.

When the Nashville Scene did its story about ProTools, it claimed that Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, and Sarah Evens all use it to fix pitch problems.

Okay, I can understand that not everyone has the patience or talent to cut a perfect record. But why should I feel bad about “stealing” music that’s performed, in the end, by a computer? How does it hurt the computer program that takes the raw performance and turns it into something listenable if I download that performance onto another computer? Manipulatable data is manipulatable data. Just because I manipulate it in a way you don’t like doesn’t necessarily give you a right to bitch.

Art produced by computer consumed by computer. It sounds okay to me.