The decline of country music

It’s time to abolish country music. Just ban it outright. It has become a toxin in American culture, retarding the cerebellum of the body politic.

At some point in the last 20 years, country music became a form of meta-music. If you listen to classic country songs by Patsy Cline or George Jones or Johnny Cash, one is struck by two things: the quality of the music and the relative lack of Southern affectation. Hearing Patsy’s “Walking after Midnight” or Johnny Cash “Ring of Fire,” it’s possible to forget that they are even “country” songs at all. The impression is that these are musical artists who happen to have grown up in the South. They didn’t garnish their sound with fiddles and slide guitar in order to authenticate themselves as legitimate country artists. They did it because they thought it would make the song sound better. And they weren’t afraid to stretch themselves; Dolly Parton wrote outright pop songs, and Faron Young’s “Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young” is practically punk. It’s often hard to detect any accent at all in Patsy Cline’s music.

These days, country music is not music, but music about music. Country superstar Brad Paisley has a new album out, and the title song is called “This is Country Music.” It’s a song about a genre of music and its fans. If you like to drink beers, tell your boss to shove it, and think Brooks Brothers is a honky-tonk, then you love country music. So “turn it on, turn it up” and celebrate it. There’s no need to learn anything else, contemplate the meaning of suffering and the grandeur of the universe, or even switch from Pabst Blue Ribbon. Hell, get arrested while you’re at it. The low point of Paisley’s record is a song where he is trying to seduce a fellow redneck. “Forget Sinatra and Coltrane,” he sings. This woman can only be bedded with steel geetairs and fiddles — some “back-home come-on music.” Yeah, who needs “A Love Supreme” or “Ebb Tide”?

The love of country music has become a signifier ever bit as much as hardcore rap. Love of country music says to the world that you are authentic, that you don’t like learned people, and that your attitude imbues you with a special kind of virtue. A couple of weeks ago, I was at a store in Ocean City, Maryland, when the clerk, a woman in her 30s, announced to me that she was going to a country music concert that night. “Who’s playing?” I asked. “Oh, I don’t care,” she said. “I’m going to hear my kind of music — I’m a country girl!” People often declare that they are “country” people, but it’s difficult to imagine someone saying, “I’m going to see a band tonight, and I don’t know who it is. But I’m going because I’m a rock-and-roller!” Rock and roll fans pledge allegiance to certain bands, which is easy because the music is so diverse. Country music has become one song — beers, guns, women in cut-off jeans, granddaddy’s advice, USA, and if you don’t like it, shove it, Yankee. The music valorizes ignorance, crude behavior, poor hygiene and illiteracy.

Defenders of country will pounce on that characterization, claiming that country is the music of “real Americans” and tells “real stories” about people living “real lives.” In fact, modern country music is the phoniest music in the world. I’m writing this while listening to a new album by the country artist Justin Moore. Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn sang beautiful songs that, although informed by their lives growing up in the South, had universal appeal. “Coal Miner’s Daughter” can move anyone who saw their own father work himself to exhaustion. But Moore’s album, “Outlaws Like Me,” is so larded with hyperbolic country-centric clichés that it could easily pass as parody. It’s as if the South has yet to get indoor plumbing and electricity. Moore sings about drinkin’ beers, drivin’ down back roads, learnin’ life lessons from daddy and granddaddy, and women who fish and drive pick-ups. The only thing missing is the outhouse. What is most noticeable is the deep resentment. Songs like “If You Don’t Like My Twang” and “Redneck Side” bitterly criticize people who live in clean houses, have manners, and are articulate.