Country

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It’s possible to argue, as some critics do, that country music can indeed flourish apart from its vanished rural roots; that today’s country fan, who may well be a native Long Islander—or a Parisian—is making an aesthetic choice, like a city dweller who favors cowboy boots. “Country,” the argument goes, is only a set of symbols; it need not be the expression of a living culture. “Authenticity” is a meaningless criterion in country music—the music has been artificial for decades. An interesting line of thought, this perspective see country’s life span as potentially infinite. But it begs two questions. First, how far from its social origins can an art form grow before it simply loses meaning (or turns into something different)? Second, the argument seems naively apolitical, ignoring the fact that popular tastes, including the taste for country music, are less and less freely arrived at, shaped more and more by a few corporations.

It would not be surprising to see a Nashville marketing campaign emerge in the next few years and try to replace “country music” with something new—“American music,” say, or “heartlands music.” For “country music,” unfortunately, smells too much like those old overalls. As Dwight Yoakam told me in 1993, “Ultimately we’re going to lose contact with that white rural experience—we already are. And that’ll lead to the demise of country music as a collective genre. I’ll lament its loss. But lamenting it too much is like lamenting the fact that we drive cars today. Where will tomorrow’s great cavalry riders come from? Well, they aren’t going to come. Because there are no more horses to ride.”

It’s not like in the movies; no, the cavalry won’t be riding to the rescue. All we can do is count the bodies, and who better to count them with than old Ralph Peer? He not only started it all; he could see the end coming too. “I came in before the old life was destroyed,” said Peer in 1959, retired to his camellia garden, “and I picked up the things that had floated to the top. But nowadays there’s not too much difference between the standard of living in Georgia and the one in Illinois.”

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