January 13, 2015

Let’s Talk About Country Music

I make no bones of the fact that I’m not a big fan of Country Music. The closest I get to enjoying the genre is the fact that I love Johnny Cash, but I make a special exception for him in my head: He’s not country, he’s like really good folk rock or something.” And though I was blown away the first time I witnessed Garth Brooks stage presence (through a YouTube video, no less), I could not in good faith call myself a country music fan, and have often made and laughed at many jokes at the expense of the genre and those who like it.

Likewise, I was prepared to laugh and join in the fun-poking when I saw an article on Gawker about how all country songs sound the same. You should click through, and watch the video all the way to the end. It’s background for the rest of this post, and entertaining as hell.

I reacted, as many of you may have reacted, with an amused smile followed be hearty laughter. How unoriginal those country artists are! How funny this compilation is! We were right to laugh at them all along!

Except. Spectacular, wildly popular art is often created when the artist is under some set of constraints. We respect well-made stained glass because of the constraints of the medium. We respect poetry because it is more constrained than prose. We admire Shakespeare in part because of what he was able to do in the restrained structure of iambic pentameter.

As I listened to the video above, and listened again, I noticed that while the instrumentals were almost identical, the lyrics and the stories being told were unique. Six songs, six stories, all constrained by the definition of the most popular country melody. I realized that the musical composition that has been consistent in popular country for years is the canvas that the artists paint their stories on.

And it’s a hard constraint. The most popular country songs from the past few years are about the same length, with about the same structure, and about the same time given to lyrics as instrumentals. With the tiny bit of writing I’ve done, I can easily see how shoehorning the story the you want to tell into that structure would be quite a challenge.

This was a eureka’ moment. Everything about country, from the audience to the marketing, to the songs, to the artists themselves is geared not around the musical composition, but around the story. Hell, popular culture even refers to the purveyors of the genre as artists more often than as musicians. They know they’re story-tellers more than rock stars. (When was the last time you heard of a rock or rap artist?) They know their music is really about the stories they’re telling, and they smile their kind genuine smiles waiting for those of us who turn up our noses to realize this.

As and aside: My wife grew up in an area where Country is King, and country’s core audience knows that music is secondary to the story. They’re waiting for the rest of us to get off our high horses too.

I’m not saying that Garth Brooks is the next Shakespeare, or that Taylor Swift is channeling Emily Dickinson. And I’ll probably continue listening to the same eclectic mix of electronic, classical, and indie rock that I’ve listened to for the past decade.

But the next time I think or hear the phrase Country music all sounds the same”, I’ll remind myself that it’s so the story might flow.

country music

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