Of course, when I say “Country Music,” I’m referring to mainstream, Music Row-Nashville, ready-for-CMT Country Music. There is a parallel scene of soulful, non-phonies outside the mainstream expanding the genre, embracing the spirit of Cash, Parton, Williams Sr., and Nelson. I know that for every Ron DeSantis-embracing Luke Bryant there are, for example, people like Orville Peck, with epic, passionate ballads about queer love, sung with the same chords, sincerity and longing of the classics (not to mention that his voice has all the depth and virility absent in the Daffy Duck affectations of the Aldeans, Bryants, Keiths and half of the Florida Georgia Line.
But as a person who loves American music and has a love affair with Americana, I don’t think I can grant Country music today any more space and grace, even though I know that as an art form, Country is greater than its current bent devolution towards the far right.
Unquestionably, the most significant contribution that the US has given to humanity is its Popular Music, itself created, preserved, and mastered by Black Americans. It is in the genetic makeup of every form of Popular Music worldwide, as it combines itself with local sounds. Those localized variants of Popular Music would influence American Popular Music, thanks to the ebbs and flows of migration to the US, making even the simplest of Pop songs a product of multiple lines of ancestry. The reverse is true. Some descendants of American Popular Music are so distinctively unique that they transcend their heritage: Think of Argentinian Rock, French Hip-Hop, or J-pop.
However, two Popular Music forms cannot be severed from their context of origin without wholly altering what makes them unique. Or, in other words, they could only have been born in the US: Hip-Hop and Country. One of them, however, multiplied itself and became part of the genes of Global Popular Music in record time. The other shunned the world.
If you had told those kids from the Bronx and Brooklyn back in the 70s that they would kickstart a brand-new Culture by rerouting wires from street lamps to power sound systems. Had you told them they would create a transformative Culture not just within US borders but worldwide, amplified by People of Color and the dispossessed in every urban center, who would adapt it and recreate it to their local contexts. If they had known that they were to create a near-universal, globalized Culture from that very humble and specific context, perhaps they wouldn’t have been that surprised, as their particular context repeats itself wherever you have a city, oppression, community, and creativity. Hip-hop became a global Culture because it was intrinsically linked to Black Americans, the North Americans we outside of the US can relate to because they are the most oppressed citizens within the hegemonic Empire of our times. Is that simple and beautiful?
On an almost literal other side, there is Country Music. In terms of sales, it is perhaps the most popular genre or format of Popular Music in the US because it concentrates the attention and taste of millions of Americans who… don’t usually like to broaden their experiences. A format that, just like Hip-Hop, was created by and for the dispossessed, and that just like Hip-Hop, to quote YouTuber Todd in the Shadows, quickly sold out. But something is happening with Country, something that precedes the former guy’s era, what with Bro-Country and Toby Keith’s jingoistic, Bush-era singles. Something which the women in that industry have been denouncing for decades. See, as long as Black people in the US are oppressed, and as long as the US’ structures of race and class exist, there will be voices in Hip-Hop that will cut through the sell-out bullshit and speak to the times. And better still, those voices do become mainstream.
I don’t see that happening in Country. I see an entire industry tiptoeing into an abyss, pandering to everything that the former guy unearthed in the states that feed the Country Music industry. Artists are pandering to the small minds, racism, and narrow hearts that plague the red states. Jason Aldean’s pro-lynching song tested the waters. The outrage had its intended effect; the track climbed to the top of the mainstream charts by getting the MAGA audiences to rally around it. It quickly fell down in the following weeks. Still, it already set a cynical precedent for the industry, the same lesson every far-right grifter on the Internet learned years ago: You can make a lot of money quickly by pandering to right-wing Americans. Consider the huge success of Morgan Wallen’s second album, you cannot shake off the sensation that his comeback is not despite, but because of the scandal, to “support our boy” mindset, who hasn’t been caught being “racist under the influence”?. Consider the “overnight” success of Oliver Anthony and its “neither left nor right” protest song that somehow managed to slip in a diss against welfare and the obese, in what supposedly is an anti-elite screed.
These are not outliers; they represent a trend in which the Country Music Industry devolves into a Southern Strategy. Music for small towns and small people. Despite Garth Brooks, Faith Hills, Chicks, and the Old School being openly on the Progressive side.
This is a cultural tragedy. Because one thing the Country Music industry has ignored for decades is that they could’ve had the world. For all our anger at the United States’s cultural hegemony, many of us outside hold a complicated but sincere love for Americana. Consider the influence (and freaking sales!) of Country’s cool brother, American Folk. The religious devotion people worldwide have for Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Consider the love French people have for Clint Eastwood’s movies. Consider that Bruce Springsteen fills out stadiums in Spain. Consider how Westerns, the Country’s counterpart in film, have influenced every director that has ever lived everywhere.
And now consider that, and I say this with no disrespect to the aforementioned Old Schools of Country, nobody gives a fuck about Country outside of the US, Canada, Australia, and a sizeable following in Ireland. Outside those circuits, it is deemed almost a novelty, like those American-themed restaurants. It’s not just about sales or Nashville execs failing to promote their music outside of the Anglosphere; it’s about how Nashville failed to recognize, for decades on end, that their Culture could’ve easily transcended their very local scope; it could’ve connected through the elements of Country Music that are universal and that we enjoy in other staples of Americana: Man and Nature, being a mess in your relationships, being poor, the joys of being drunk and above all, storytelling songs, Country’s specialty. But instead, they went with the Aldeans, the Bryants, the Keiths and Wallens, and that entire class of douchebags that, instead of making songs, write lists about Country things, to the detriment of every other voice. They chose the small-town mindset, and there’s nothing really wise about the people who choose their small town over Paris without ever visiting Paris*. This era of Country artists has forgotten that the small town, the hometown, is a place you come back to after having seen the world. It’s not supposed to be a perpetual redoubt assault rifle in hand to make sure those people know they shouldn’t stay here for long. A music that isn’t welcoming of others is bound to become irrelevant.
Alberto Cox would like to give a very belated salute to Hip-Hop on its 50th Anniversary. The world says thank you for everything, but no one should be as thankful to you as the United States itself