Tuesday, November 22, 2005

I'm Not Even a Little Bit Country

I haven't seen Walk the Line yet (though I am one of the few people who has managed to sit through even a portion of I Walk the Line, a movie known only for the title song and for Gregory Peck looking ridiculous as Tuesday Weld's love interest). It did get me to thinking, though: have we reached the end of the era of universally-popular country singers? I'm not saying everybody likes Johnny Cash, but I don't think I ever met anyone who didn't like Johnny Cash. He's a performer like Elvis or Louis Armstrong or Sinatra whose work transcends his genre and appeals to everybody, even people who aren't into "that kind of music."

Now, even beyond Cash, I can think of plenty of country singers who are popular performers and/or personalities even with people like me, who aren't country-music buffs. But they're either dead (the first and best Hank Williams; Waylon Jennings) or elder statesmen of one kind or another (Loretta Lynn; and, yes, Dolly Parton, who is cool for every possible reason). Are there any current country performers who have that kind of "crossover" appeal? I wouldn't be surprised if there are some and I've missed them -- I miss a lot of stuff that's contemporary -- but most of the contemporary country musicians I hear, or hear of, are clearly "niche" performers, as much as any other type of specialized musical performer.

Now, I know there are a bunch of obvious explanations for the disappearance of the universally-loved country performer. Start with the obvious point that country stars are stars, building their careers and images like any other kind of star, and therefore they can't have the kind of authenticity that Johnny Cash projected; even if they have colorful biographies (and a colorful biography probably helps someone get signed up by a recording company), they just don't feel "real" once they get on the stage in their carefully-chosen wardrobe and those damn hats. (I really don't know what it takes to look "authentic" wearing a cowboy hat indoors, but I know most people don't have it.) Dolly Parton created a persona for herself, but the persona is unique and funny. Some guy with a beard and a cowboy hat is not playing a part that I find particularly entertaining.

The music, or what I've heard of it, tends to be more obviously market-driven and to shy away from anything really dark or potentially controversial, so there goes the chance to hear another "(Mama's Got) the Pill." (Though the point of a song like that is not the "controversial" aspect of it but the realism of it; it's a celebration of a real-world fact that nobody had mentioned, let alone celebrated, in song.) The appeal of a good country song is that more than any kind of popular music -- more even than the folk-rock style of Cash's friend Bob Dylan -- it sounds like one man or woman talking directly to us through song, telling us what he or she has been through. It may be simple, it's sometimes crude, but it's direct and sounds like it hasn't been filtered through the formulas of popular songwriting or the demands of the marketing people. (Of course country songs have their formulas and their marketing strategies, like any other kind of song; the point is that a good country song sounds unfiltered and direct.) It seems to me, again, speaking from a position of less-than-complete familiarity with today's country music, that country songs now sound like any other commercial pop music.

Probably a simpler way of saying this is that Johnny Cash could kick the ass of any living country star with one hand tied behind his back and the other hand strumming a guitar. And he'd make them take off those hats.

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