Opinion

The decline of country music

Photo of Mark Judge
Mark Judge
Author, A Tremor of Bliss

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.

  • PhonyToby

    Country Phony #1 – Toby Keith.   Ask him where that guitar with the American Flag painted on it was made.   (Hint – it wasn’t the USA)

  • FinnMcCool

    You sound like my father when I was growing up ranting about “rock n roll”–you are becoming a parody. With all the issues of the day, this is not even on the radar–get over your writers block and think of a new topic. Cheers!

  • temporalshadows

    While you make some great points that I agree with, there’s one part that I disagree with.
    Quote:
    “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 song you refer to is a tribute to the band Alabama. “Back-home, come-on music” is a line from Alabama’s song “Mountain Music”, and the song is full of references to other well-known songs by the band. It’s simply a tribute to an earlier artist who influenced him; in fact, the members of the band join in about 2/3 of the way through.

    I agree about new music becoming one big cliché, and not just country. Pop music is one of the other obvious examples. I feel that the problem largely lies in commercial radio: they play whatever the record labels feed them, whether it’s trash or not. “I didn’t like this song at first, but it gets played all the time, so it must be good!”

  • Thinkman

    The whole state of music is in decline. Everyone with a computer can record an album, so there is a sea of mediocrity out there. People now accept screeching tinny voices since they are used to hearing inferior sound on their earbuds and dancing and putting on a show have become more important than the music itself. Lets appeal to the lowest common denominator rather than trying to elevate ourselves. It is true that country music in particular is now less about the experience, which can be universal regardless where you’re from, and more about political view and beliefs.

  • tab55731

    Are you kidding me with this article. I have to say that aside from spouting off some random opinions there is really no sense in what Mr. Judge is trying to say. For example I will agree modern country music has definitely strayed from its roots, I mean Johnny Cash did that by being one of the first to plug in. However it has gone through a modernization that has made several new artists sound more like pop than traditional country. However, Mr. Judge is pointing to 3 artists. Patsy Cline was considered more of a jazz inspired vocalist who sang some songs that were more set to music that followed a 3/4 time or step time. That is why many now look at her as country. Johnny Cash, well lets forget for a minute that he actually toured with Jerry Lewis, Elvis Presley, and Roy Orbitson. That couldn’t mean that he was as much rock n’ roll for his time as country. Then George Jones. He was country, but he sang with as much twang and about as many hillbilly things as all the other artists Mr. Judge brings up. And oh lets not forget in aaron lewis’s transition to country he was standing right there when Charlie Daniels goes on about taking his guns. It must only be when a new artist says these things that we have to worry. It is call sources and research Mr. Judge. Even in opinion columns any high school graduate should know this. Lets reboot, try it again, and hopefully not sound so much like a guy who has had one to many at his local watering hole.

  • caseyinaustin

    Stop looking to the major record label controlled radio stations for talent. If looking for what country music should be, check out songwriters like Justin Townes Earle, a duet like The Civil Wars, or bands like The Avert Brothers and Old Crow Medicine Show. If a fan of Johnny Cash listen to the band Murder by Death. There is very little “country” coming out of Nashville.