If you grew up loving country music at all (like us), you may well have turned on a country station in the past year or two and been appalled. But between the rise of Taylor Swift, the collapse of rock radio, and the general dumbing down of our social-media-mad culture, country music has emerged as a peculiar lightning rod for a lively debate.
There's no debating, however, that country is facing a serious identity crisis. Last week Entertainment Weekly published an eye-opening timeline tracking the genre's past few months, leaving little encouragement for people who would be more comfortable if what we heard today at least paid lip service to the proud traditions of Hank, Merle, Willie and Waylon, Loretta, Dolly and King George Strait himself. But no such luck.
The whole thing started in January, with alpha douche Blake Shelton's comments calling traditional country fans "old farts" and "jackasses." From there we've seen a parade of asinine lyrics, including a real song called "Titty's Beer" and so many bad pickup-truck tunes that even young artists like Scotty McCreery have started writing backlash songs. Add to that Music Row's insidious partnerships with pop overlords like Dr. Luke and a supposed craze called "Country Dance Music" (see the darling Laura Bell Bundy video above). Indeed, ill-advised crossovers are the order of the day, be they Nelly closing out the CMT Awards with Florida Georgia Line -- sorry, we cannot get with that whole "Cruise" phenomenon -- or Lenny Kravitz(?!) flipping off the crowd at June's CMA Fest.
All of this has not gone unnoticed outside Nashville, leading to a host of criticism from the likes of New York Magazine, which labeled this phenomenon "bro country"; Alan Jackson, lamenting "there's no country country stuff left"; and Tom Petty, who said what he heard was just "bad rock with a fiddle."
Meanwhile, more sensible artists like Kacey Musgraves have been left to shake their heads at the testosterone-choked genre -- exemplified by the "diamond-plate tailgates" of Luke Bryan's "My Kind of Night" -- and wonder where her six CMA nominations could have come from. (Actually, that's easy for anyone who has heard her stellar album Same Trailer, Different Park.)
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Down here in Texas, of course, fans have a long tradition of disdain for whatever idiocy is going on in Nashville. Never forget we have developed our own style of country music with its own set of strengths and weaknesses, enthusiastic defenders and vicious critics. Indeed, traditionally the knock on Texas country is that it's just as homogeneous, cliched and backwards as its Nashville counterpart, if not moreso.
But could our brand possibly be as bad as what Nashville's "country music" has become? For the past few days Rocks Off has been analyzing the current Texas Music Chart's Top 15 songs to find out.
15. John Slaughter, "Hasn't Everyone" Young stud announces his intention to "drive this truck 'til the wheels fall off" (sigh), but later goes into how much he misses his mama. We'll call this one a push, because it kinda rocks.
14. Randy Rogers Band, "Speak of the Devil" The RRB is one of Texas country's top acts, and one of its most hit-and-miss. They can crank out bracing Red Dirt rockers with sharp teeth like "This Time Around" or melodramatic power ballads such as this one, which is completely unremarkable.
13. Jason Boland & the Stragglers, "Electric Bill" Surely Merle Haggard (and maybe even Bob Wills) would recognize this as country music right away. It's almost as if Boland et al. are playing with a different set of tools than some of these others.
12. No Justice, "Song on the Radio" If Texas country has a default cliche that rivals Nashville's over-reliance on pickup-truck songs, it's how that dang ol' touring keeps the artists away from the ones they love. No Justice doesn't reinvent the wheel here, but its pace mimics the rhythms a tour bus might make over a nice melody.
11. Phil Hamilton, "Back of a '73" That would be a '73 pickup truck (Chevy); mmhmmm. Other than that, this is a stiff little Cross Canadian Ragweed-style tune. Hamilton, who looks like a Civil War soldier (either side), would be a sight at Fan Fair, that's for sure.
10. Kevin Fowler, "How Country Are Ya?" If anyone is too country for Nashville these days, it's this big-drawling big galoot. Fowler is a funny guy whose appetite for the ladies is almost as much as his hunger for grits and gravy; in this rocker he won't let a girl ride shotgun unless she owns one and can fry him up a chicken. Approved.
Countdown continues on the next page.
9. Bri Bagwell, "Hound Dog" One sad way Texas and Nashville are a lot alike is that both country charts are a virtual sausage party; the next female act after Bagwell this week is the Rankin Twins at No. 36. So it's up to this tall drink of water from Las Cruces to contend with all that testosterone all by her lonesome -- by vowing she can be just as low-down as the boys.
8. Mark McKinney, "Stolen Cash" This track is swimming in banjo, harmonica, steel guitar and an irresistible singalong chorus. That's pretty country all right; "spent that night like stolen cash" is a clever line, too.
7. Reckless Kelly, "The Last Goodbye" Nothing fancy, just a simple, plain-spoken ballad about how when it's over, it's really over this time. (Maybe.) In other words, the sort of song Nashville lost interest in about 20 years ago.
6. Kyle Park, "Fit For the King" George Strait tribute ingeniously woven out of about three dozen Strait song titles. Texas country is light-years ahead (or behind?) Nashville in terms of respecting its elders. (See also: Kevin Fowler, "Don't Touch My Willie"; Bruce Robison, "What Would Willie Do.")
5. Wade Bowen, "Songs About Trucks" The pickup-song backlash reaches Texas country... and mentions several different makes of trucks along the way. Nicely done.
4. Green River Ordinance, "If It Ain't Love" Interestingly, but not surprisingly, some Texas country acts (like this one) exhibit a heavy Ryan Adams influence. That's a plus, in case you were wondering.
3. Josh Abbott Band, "She Will Be Free" This Lubbock group has been arguably the hottest act on the Texas scene for a while, and this tearjerker wants to be the moment at every show where guys squeeze their dates extra tight. Frankly it's a relatively dull moment on JAB's otherwise very good 2012 album Small Town Family Dream, but kudos to Abbott et al. for drawing attention to a very serious subject -- sex trafficking, right here in the good old U.S. of A -- in the 12-minute video.
2. Will Hoge, Strong" As heard in a recent Chevy truck commericial. Moving on...
1. Cody Johnson, "Ride With Me" The No. 1 song currently on Texas country radio celebrates the pleasures of female companionship on the open road, but in a convertible. It's no better or worse than an average Keith Urban song, but hey -- at least there ain't a diamond-plate tailgate in sight.
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