Saturday, November 5, 2011

"...This Just In...Country and Pop Find Common Ground...And Grant Is Buried In Grant's Tomb..."

For more than twenty years, Nashville was home.

But it wasn't necessary for me to have had a 615 area code on my resume to know what I know.

And what I know, you'll know in a minute or two.

(CNN) -- There's a standing joke that if you play a country song backward, the singer gets re-hired, wins back his girl, finds whatever he's lost, quits crying and leaves the bar.

Employed, happily married and sober? Doesn't sound much like America these days.

Authenticity is what defines country music, says Karla Lawson, a morning host for Nashville's WSIX country radio station.

"It's so real and accessible and down-to-earth and relatable," she says. "It's really the most honest music out there."

The Country Music Association's 45th annual awards show airs live on Wednesday, November 9, at 8 p.m. on ABC. The show consistently ranks in the top four among the most-watched awards shows on television, alongside the Oscars, Grammys and Golden Globes, says CMA media relations director Scott Stem.

Joining favorites like Rascal Flatts and Kenny Chesney on stage this year will be rock singer Grace Potter, pop artist Natasha Bedingfield and Motown mogul Lionel Richie, who has an upcoming country duets album called "Tuskegee."

"Country as a genre has changed ... and the audience has reflected that," Lawson says.

To be fair, country music's popularity has been on a steady incline for more than 20 years, Billboard country chart manager Wade Jessen says.

Singers like Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood broke down the barrier between plaid and pleather in the early 1990s. Even if you weren't stompin' your boots just yet, you were probably secretly humming Shania Twain's "I Feel Like a Woman," Billy Ray Cryus' "Achy Breaky Heart," or Faith Hill's "This Kiss."

The list of artists who have gone country since then is lengthy: Kid Rock, Sheryl Crow, Bon Jovi, Uncle Kracker, Hootie & the Blowfish's Darius Rucker, Jewel -- even Jessica Simpson. But if the last year has shown us anything, it's that America's gone a little bit country and a little less rock 'n' roll. As Brantley Gilbert sings, "Country must be country-wide."

Things really heated up in late 2010, when viewers tuned in to watch actress Gwyneth Paltrow make her live singing debut with "Country Strong" at the CMAs. Then Justin Bieber sent a million tweens into a frenzy when he announced that he'd be teaming up with country group Rascal Flatts to record a duet in 2011.

In February, Lady Antebellum swept the Grammys, winning record of the year and song of the year. In March, Lady Gaga put out a country version of her single "Born This Way" (although I have to say, Little Big Town did it better).

Even "Footloose," originally pure '80s pop, got in on the action. The movie was country-fied in its 2011 remake. Blake Shelton sang the movie's theme song and was joined on the soundtrack by country artists Zac Brown, Big & Rich, Jana Kramer, Ella Mae Bowen and more. Shelton has invited Kenny Loggins -- the original "Footloose" singer -- to perform with him at the CMAs.

But wait, the roundup is not done yet. The first three national anthem singers at the World Series were country artists: "American Idol" winner Scotty McCreery, Trace Adkins and Ronnie Dunn (of the former Brooks and Dunn). Bieber added a song featuring The Band Perry to his new Christmas album. Jason Aldean and Lady Gaga were the first artists announced for the Grammy nominations concert.

Oh yeah, and Adele wants in on the country action as well.

The 23-year-old reportedly plans to go country for her next album, saying discovering American country musicians was "like (being) a 4-year-old in a candy shop who's discovering sweets again."

CMA's Stem isn't surprised. "I always claim that everyone likes country music -- they just don't want to admit it," he says with a laugh.

Artists like Taylor Swift have certainly added a "hip" factor to the country music industry. But it's the stories and the soul that keeps fans coming back, Stem says.

"We are a very real-life music, based on real-life experiences. Who among us hasn't had our hearts broken? Who hasn't lost a loved one, found love or not gotten the job we wanted? It covers (everything from) the sad to the happy to the silly."

Now that sounds more like America.

Now, as promised, here's what I know.

The rise in popularity of country music, at least the country music defined these days as country music, is, in large part, less about the music than the missing.

And what's missing is pop music.

Today, there really is no such thing.

The top forty chart, traditionally the home of pop songs and singers, today largely consists of hip-hop, dance and/or other "groove" and/or ethnic work. Musically tending to focus on singular beats and/or often monotonous melodies, lyrically tending to limit itself to primal intentions and/or odes to the joys of club life.

And while there are a few, occasional glints of more "traditional" pop sounds, those glints tend to be limited to singer/songwriters who specialize in the always young crowd pleasing angst approach (Christina Perri, Adele, et al).

Put simply, if regrettably old fart fogey-ishly, there ain't a Beatle or Byrd or even an Elvis anywhere in sight in present day pop music.

Country music, meanwhile, has welcomed the homeless with open arms.

And turned country music, for good or ill depending on your age and/or regional affiliation, into the freshly painted home of pop.

Not convinced?

Consider this.

Country music, for generations, was a subset of popular music, featuring rural values, hillbilly musicianship and singers who were as at home on a stage fashioned from a flatbed truck as they were pushing a shopping cart up and down the aisles of the local Piggly Wiggly.

For those same generations, country music's biggest stars had names like Hank...and Patsy...and Kitty...and Buck...and Loretta...and Merle.

Even in more recent years, the core of country was made up of plain spoken, fried chicken preferring, God fearing folks like Alan...and George...and Tammy...and Reba.

Not an Elton or Mariah or Whitney or even Madonna in sight.

Eventually, pop found a hole in the fence and wandered over more than just a little east of California and a little west of Philly, Detroit and all the other ancestral homes of top forty sounds and singers.

Not so much because of wanderlust as much finding themselves with nowhere else to go.

Their traditional stomping ground had been become a haven for hip hopsters, a den of dancers and a cacophony of club dwellers.

In the cultural sense, at least, there went the neighborhood.

And Nashville, having, for years, already had a discreet welcome mat out for rock and roll (Elvis cut many of his hits there, various Beatles, Stones, Monkees, etc also availed themselves of the world class studios and musicians)simply came out of the musical closet and replaced the discreet welcome mat with a big ol' billboard.

Welcome to Nashville. Music City, USA.

Nothing in that slogan restricting the welcome to country music.

And because pop and country managed to share space in the same spirit peanut butter found with chocolate, the evolution revolution was on.

So much so that, often, it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

Because for every Blake, Trace, Miranda and Dierks, there's a Carrie, Keith, Taylor and Lady A.

All of whom are about as down home, corn pone country as I am.

The premise of the CNN article, that the "country" has suddenly "discovered" country music is, essentially, silly.

Mainstream media has simply discovered that the two have been sleeping together for a while now.

No comments:

Post a Comment