I remember this being a very fashionable response to “What kind of music do you like?” back in junior high California. Country wasn’t a cool thing to like: too safe and too corny, too all-American for an age when kids are excited by anything that claims to challenge authority, like the aggressive punk and rap to which my friends and I gravitated.
“Everything except country,” besides being a non-answer, really only addresses the genre of music that is currently played on “country” radio. These songs are far in sound, style, and substance from the music that formed in the American South as an amalgam of blues and folk. There is really nothing on country radio today that is simply country. Much of it is straight-ahead rock with flourishes of country instrumentation, or “country-pop,” a style that Taylor Swift’s musical evolution has proved succeeds better the farther it moves towards pop.
Of course, current Nashville country’s main offense isn’t its dependence on other forms; it is its complacent, jingoistic and proudly ignorant songs. The Rhett Akins-penned “Kiss My Country Ass,” made famous by the otherwise mild-mannered and inoffensive Blake Shelton, is a sampler of everything that is wrong with Nashville country: a hostile, belligerent attitude to anyone different than the “backwoods redneck” narrator (see title); celebration of the “rebel flag flying” from the back of the narrator’s truck, with a blind eye to the offensive implications of the flag; the ludicrous balancing act between celebrating oneself as an outlaw and claiming to love the nation, as well as a rabid support of the American military. The narrator confusingly tells us that we can kiss his country ass both if we’re not “down with [his] outlaw crowd” and if we “don’t love the American flag.”
It saddens me that the term “country” has essentially suffered a hostile takeover by this numbingly repetitive and vapid brand of rock. Country can be beautifully wistful without sinking into saccharine clichés, and defiantly individualistic without devolving into bigotry and us-versus-them rhetoric. So much eloquent, moving, and catchy music is made by artists working in the country style. Steve Earle makes a rootsy and rocking blend of country, folk and rock, and has written more great songs about America than anyone other than Bob Dylan and (maybe) Bruce Springsteen. Lucinda Williams’s uniquely broken voice lends more emotional weight to her spare, poignant lyrics than any over-emoting belter’s. The Drive-By Truckers may be the closest thing to the William Faulkner of music, writing songs that explore the complexity and contradictions of the South through intense and detailed character studies. Uncle Tupelo and its more famous offshoot Wilco transformed the themes and sounds of early, rootsy country into vital and thrillingly rocking music. And these are all artists working outside the world of Nashville; within, there are some that subvert and challenge the machine they work in, like Kacey Musgraves, Ashley Monroe, and Eric Church, who mutters on his most recent album, “The devil walks among us, folks / And Nashville is his bride.”
I’d like to take the remaining space to name three country songs that I think best represent the genre’s potential. These songs that both fulfill and transcend the stereotypes named above.
Steve Earle, “Guitar Town”: Earle spent the rest of his career after this debut stretching the lyrical and stylistic boundaries of the genre. This isn’t Earle’s best song, but it is his most purely country; it fulfills pretty much every sonic and thematic cliché of country, and manages to still be a clever and affecting song. “Guitar Town” proves that country can be unabashedly country, and be great.
Lucinda Williams, “Those Three Days”: Heartbreak is a common theme in country music, to the point of stereotype. This song may be the most painful breakup song I have ever heard: Williams’s ex-lover is described entirely in terms of an invading force on the body, an insect and an illness that has “built a nest inside my soul.” The album version is good, but the live version from Live @ the Fillmore is one of the most moving and unsettling performances I have ever heard. When Williams sings “scorpions crawl across my screen / make their home beneath my skin,” you can feel them gnawing at your own.
Kacey Musgraves, “Merry Go Round”: The best thing about this beautiful, smart and melancholy song is that it works within the frame of Nashville country, exploding its parameters from the inside. This is a song about real people in real small towns, rather than an ode to an idealized America of “small-town” values. “Follow Your Arrow” from the same album more explicitly attacks close-minded traditionalism, but “Merry Go Round” subtly upends country radio’s sepia-toned view of small-town America by depicting a cycle of people suffering from of a hypocritical and failing culture.
Jack Jones is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. Despite all the Amputations appears alternate Fridays this semester. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.