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It’s the fastest-growing music in America. It’s a three-billion-dollar-plus industry. Cable stations devoted to it reach sixty-two million homes. And yet, says one passionate follower of country music past and present, its story is over.
November 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 7
Country music was born of the trauma of rural people’s adjustment to industrial society, but that fight has been fought. Millions of country people are settled now in suburbia; they no longer need their struggle cathartically mirrored. That classic expression of the migrant’s homesickness, Tillis and Dill’s 1962 “Detroit City”—“Last night I went to sleep in Detroit City/And dreamed about those cotton fields and home”—means nothing to the migrant’s children; they’re from Detroit, or its suburbs, and they like Guns ’N Roses.
Severed from its working-class origins, country music is becoming a refuge for culturally homeless Americans everywhere. They make strange bedfellows, nineties country-music fans: long-time Middle American followers of the music; baby-boomer professionals raised on sixties rock but unable to stomach its descendants; senior citizens always game for easy-listening fodder; whites who hate rap. Indeed, country’s new popularity has a troubling undercurrent: the widening gap between black and white culture. If whites loved Stevie Wonder and the Suprêmes, most of them still run from rap. As a 1992 Time article pointed out, country’s new popularity is, in part, the musical equivalent of “the urban escapism known as ‘white flight.’”
Late-twentieth-century Americans thirst for pastoral imagery, and that’s what country music can do for them. But Contemporary Country is bouncily, phonily pastoral. “Yearning [for the past],” writes the New York Times music critic Jon Pareles, “has become a standardized product,” in which “Grandma always sings ‘Amazing Grace’ and the water is mountain-pure and Daddy’s advice is invariably sage.” Classic country music, even if it descended into bathos, was never afraid to look death and tragedy in the face, whether in Dorsey Dixon’s 1939 “Wreck on the Highway,” where “whiskey and blood run together,” or in MeI Tillis’s “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” whose crippled Vietnam vet knows “it’s hard to love a man whose legs are bent and paralyzed.” Today’s country has little of the old grit.
The traditionalist tells the country-music listener, ‘Here, buy these old overalls, you can get good and dirty in ’em.’ But the fan says, ’They make me feel like a hick. You can keep’em.’”
But hasn’t the new country music been freely chosen by its public? Tony Brown, Nashville’s hottest producer (Wynonna Judd, Reba McEntire, George Strait) and the president of MCA Records’ Nashville branch, said to me last year, “The traditionalist tells the country-music listener, ‘Here, buy these old overalls, you can get good and dirty in ‘em.’ But the fan says, ‘Hey, these are a little old-fashioned, they smell bad, and you know what? They make me feel like a hick. You can keep ‘em.’ Country music is changing because the fans want it to change.” Brown’s argument is in less than perfect faith. Once, when American regions were more distinct, cultures truly were the expression of people’s wants; they evolved separately, uninfluenced by any central force. Today the public’s desires are channeled, even created, by a few big corporations. Tony Brown’s claim—that people choose their music freely—is a convenient fiction.
It wasn’t always. Willie Nelson, for one, can recall country’s pre-corporate days. “I remember,” Willie said in 1992, “when we’d have a new single out, we’d go around to different country stations. If you could get a record played in enough areas, you could not only sell a couple of records, you could build up an audience by playing in those areas. Then came the computer age, when everything started being programmed in New York. It didn’t do any good to go to a station because it was already programmed.”
So it looks as if it’s good-bye to country music, at a time when it has never been more popular. The apparent paradox, of course, is that it’s good-bye only to country music as we knew it from 1920 to 1980, good-bye to Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, and George Jones (whom the Nashville tastemakers simultaneously lionize and muzzle; elected in 1992 to the Country Music Hall of Fame, Jones, in as fine voice as ever at sixty-three, has a harder and harder time getting on the radio).