Don’t you miss the way country music used to sound before it lost its soul? You know, back when Shania
Twain and Toby Keith ruled the charts?
Brooks and Reba McEntire? Alabama and The
Oak Ridge Boys? Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson?
George Jones and Merle Haggard? Hank
Williams and Lefty Frizzell? Roy Acuff and Ernest
Tubb? Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter
Well, we know country was pure somewhere back there. Wasn’t it?
Not really. Country music is replete
with complaints about how bad it is now and how good it was then. The problem is that “now” keeps inching forward and turning
During the International Country Music Conference held recently at Nashville’s Belmont University, critic
Karen Raizor presented a paper that was whimsically titled That Ain’t No Hank Williams Song: Country Songs About How Country
Doesn’t Sound Country Anymore.
The first part of her title comes from the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers.
It’s the line sputtered by the indignant manager of a country honky-tonk after Jake and Elwood Blues take the stage and break
into “Gimme Some Lovin'” — to the bottle-throwing consternation of the crowd. The brothers make amends by switching to the
theme from the old TV series Rawhide.
Raizor used the clip to illustrate the level of hostility musical betrayal
— or the perception of it — can generate. Singers we now look back upon as exemplars of traditional country were not always
considered so, she said, noting that the eminent music collector and scholar John Edwards had once labeled Webb
Pierce a “citybilly.”
In 1965, Raizor continued, Buck Owens bought an ad in
the Music City News declaring, “I shall sing no song that is not a country song. I shall make no record that is not
a country record.”
This pledge did not prevent him from subsequently recording Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” and “Johnny
B. Goode” and Mickey Sylvia’s “Love Is Strange.”
Raizor also noted that Waylon Jennings, the very essence of
Outlaw country, had once recorded Jimmy Webb‘s psychedelic confection,
“MacArthur Park,” and won a Grammy for it.
That permeable barrier between what is and isn’t country, Raizor said, was
more recently breached when The Band Perry covered Queen’s “Fat Bottom Girls” on a
TV show and Jimmy Wayne recorded a version of Hall Oates’ “Sara Smile.”
her presentation of shock waves in country music, Raizor carefully avoided uttering the names “Achy
Breaky Heart” and “Billy Ray Cyrus,” instead referring to them in mock horror
only as “that which must never be mentioned — ABH/BRC.”
As further evidence of the ongoing clash between country
traditionalists and progressives, Raizor cited Justin Tubb’s “What’s Wrong With the Way That We’re Doing It Now,” which emerged
just after the movie Urban Cowboy pushed country music into the national spotlight.
More recent examples, she
observed, were Alan Jackson and George Strait’s
“Murder on Music Row,” which lamented that real country music had been killed by commercial considerations, and Brad
Paisley‘s “Too Country,” a doleful tune that essentially shamed people for looking down on old-time themes and singers.
songs Raizor offered as evidence that the battle still rages included Doug Sahm’s 1999 protest, “Oh No! Not Another One” (with
the immortal lines “There was a young dude walking across the stage like a gazelle/Hell, I’ll bet he never even heard of Lefty
Frizzell”), Larry Gatlin the Gatlin Brothers’ “Johnny
Cash Is Dead and His House Burned Down,” Hank Williams III’s “Not Everybody
Likes Us” and comedian Tim Wilson’s “Back When Country Was Ugly.”
Some troubadours have been particularly vociferous
and profane in their lyrical condemnation of modern country, Raizor warned, rolling out such prickly examples as Hank III’s
“Dick in Dixie,” Robbie Fulks “F**k This Town” and Dale Watson’s “Country My Ass.”
also played Watson’s response to Blake Shelton’s recent comments about “old farts” in
Heather Myles was a tad more gentle in her scolding, Raizor admitted, merely asserting “Nashville’s
And now the war between purity and pollution has spread to bluegrass, Raizor announced as she prepared
to leave the podium.
She reminded the audience that the International Bluegrass Music Association’s song of the year
last year was Junior Sisk Ramblers Choice’s indictment of apostates, “A Far Cry From Lester Earl.”
we all just get along?