I miss country music.
I really do.
I used to love it.
After moving to the New York City metro area almost seven years ago I went through withdrawal. There was no country music station. Top 40 was everywhere.
It was awful.
But then something started happening in country music shortly after I moved up here. The neo-traditional wave started by artists like Alan Jackson began to putter out and was replaced by progressively, poppy country music that has culminated in the Taylor Swift-ification of country music.
Country music has been hijacked. It has Stockholm syndrome.
Left bereft of any good music, and the death of radio in general, I ascended the hipster-adorned ladder into the cloud of unknowing that is indie rock.
What I was missing was good music and powerful, gothic lyrics. The ones that were the bedrock of country. What Rebecca Parker calls “sadness, coated with betrayal, layered with loss” in her essay “The Lost Art of the South.”
I began to find this in indie rock. Sufjan Stevens singing about serial killers and hard times. Folk rock acts that actually sang about gritty, dust covered life. Country music was founded on lyrical proximity to the grit of the earth. Now it is just dressed up in poser cowboy boots and abhorently bad musical renditions of arrested development, binge drinking, adolescent love, pseudo-Christian ideals and bad Shakespearean puns (Swift!!!). Country music has even entered into a weird stage of singing about how country music used to be good. I have a message for you Jason Aldean: stop dressing up your bourgeois problems and Hangover-tinged penchant for Las Vegas as some working class revolution song by name-dropping Johnny Cash (the aptly named song “Johnny Cash”) or George Jones (the very creatively named song “Dirt Road Anthem”). How about you actually write songs like Johnny Cash? He didn’t sing about running from problems. He didn’t write an anthem to dirt roads and name drop George Jones to add some credibility to a trite pop-country diddy. Cash actually sang about people dying on the road by railroad tracks (Give My Love to Rose). He didn’t sing about getting married by an Elvis preacher. Cash lamented about sinfulness and approached the darkness in all of our souls (pretty much every Cash song, but the most macabre are Folsom Prison Blues, Cocaine Blues and Deliah’s Gone).
Country music has lost its soul. Thankfully, as she closes her essay, Rebecca provides a call to artists that echoes the beauty and pathos that has been erased from so much Southern and Country art today:
Johnny Cash sang that he wore black for the sick and lonely, for the reckless, and the mournin’, for the poor and beatin’, and the prisoner and the victim. And as artists create today, perhaps it is our duty to take on the strands and fringes of black both to honor and connect us to the spirit, land and people of our place. So we take from the fragmented pieces of our community’s collective conscience, take the black, and take the blood, and in doing so, create an enduring piece of work, reminiscent of this old melancholy.
Here’s hoping that country can find its way back to the scratchy, guttural melancholy of its past.