Thursday, September 26, 2019

What is Country?

One of the great conundrums that Ken Burns’ massive “Country Music” documentary tried to solve, with mixed results, was the very definition of the musical genre itself. Just what was, and is, country music?

“It’s white man’s soul music,” Kris Kristofferson opined in an early episode of Burns’ documentary. Well, not exactly, as Ray Charles demonstrated in the early 1960s with his massively popular album “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music,” and as Charlie Pride refuted with a string of hits in the first half of the 1970s. Rhiannon Giddens (and her former band Carolina Chocolate Drops) would dispute the claim as well, going back to even earlier sources as a tireless champion of the music of early African American string bands; bands, incidentally, that everyone from Stephen Foster to the Carter Family “borrowed” from without credit. But that’s the folk tradition, some might argue. Nah. That’s country music.

Country music is music with a twang, some would argue, a theory refuted by Eddy Arnold, a bland and very much twangless crooner of vapid pop ditties in the 1950s, who was inexplicably marketed to the country audience, and thus became, by default, a singer of country music.

Country music is music performed by people from the southern U.S. and derived from rural or Appalachian musical traditions, say the anthropologists. It is music that consciously hearkens back to the past, sentimental and nostalgic, fundamentally conservative in nature. Not really, said the long-haired hippies, who rocked it up but kept the twang, and earned the ire of the Nashville establishment. Witness the one and only disastrous Grand Ole Opry appearance of The Byrds, who were booed off the stage, and the subject of condescending snark from legendary Nashville DJ Ralph Emery.

The hippies got their revenge in a song co-written by Roger McGuinn and Gram Parsons of the Byrds:

Well, he don't like the young folks I know
He told me one night on his radio show
He's got him a medal he won in the War
It weighs five-hundred pounds and it sleeps on his floor

He's a door store truck drivin' man
He's the head of the Ku Klux Klan
When summer rolls around
He'll be lucky if he's not in town

"This one's for you, Ralph," McGuinn sang as the song faded. And you bet, that was country music.

Burns cut if off in 1996 (except for a coda featuring the deaths of June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash), so subjects for further debate weren’t available. But they are out there. Here’s a prime example, with thrashing guitars, pedal steel, and the weariest of world-weary lyrics: “This trickle-down theory’s left all these pockets empty/And the bar clock says 3 a.m./Fallout shelter sign above the door/In other words, don’t come here anymore.”

You want my opinion? Oh, yes. Country music.

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