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How the Music of Country Became Country Music

Res Publica

August 2017

by Clayton Hrinko

Ever since the first pioneers took it upon themselves to move across the Appalachian Mountains, they have carried with them a style of music that has reflected their lives. The earliest form of this music was folk music. It was simple, both in rhythm and melody, and it moved with the souls that played and composed it. Folk music focused on the experiences of these people: the lonesomeness of their rural lives, the hardships they faced, the pitfalls and ecstasies of love, and the promise of eternal reward when their lives on Earth were done. Although this form of music was widespread and varied, in the mountains of Appalachia it reached its height. While the isolation and grueling drudgery of life in these rugged mountains wore down the minds and bodies of those individuals strong enough to bear it, folk music (apart from religion) was the one release left to the soul, and so amidst heartbreak and loneliness and toil, it flourished.

Then, in the early 1900s, country music began to evolve. Pioneers of music mixed this old yet time-honored folk form of music with the blues and jazz styles of the day. This was the first stages of country music, and it was now only in its infancy. Country music would continue to evolve, and new influences were always altering its form. Western music, rock and roll, and even pop music would influence country music. Yet even though these forms changed, the themes and messages of the music remained the same. Country singers still sung about the simple pleasures in life, the hardships of life and love, and the gospel still maintained a large, if dwindling, impact on the genre.

But in the 1960s, country music became something that it had never before: a major industry. While country artists had always strived for fame and success, at this time it reached new heights. New artists strived for increasing popularity, and big record labels wanted to make country music appeal to more and more Americans. Pop music here began its domineering influence over the country genre, altering not only the forms, but the themes of the music. In this new world of country music, those with pleasant voices became more valuable than those who could tell a story.

While some artists who have fought against such influences have achieved varying degrees of fame and success, such as Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, and George Strait, the trend has only deepened today. The themes of modern country music have become fundamentally altered from its roots. This is due to the record labels running country music as a business. They want a genre of music that is not only specific to a certain crowd of people. As such, they encourage and sign artists whose music has broader appeal. Thus the music, which was once meant not just to entertain, but to tell a story, has become filled with simple imagery. This imagery is hidden behind a thin veneer of small-town life, and filled with passing references to trucks and tractors, high school football games, and drinking beer.

This complete simplification of themes in the music was further brought on by the recording company’s obsession with finding talented performers. In the early days of country music, artists were often older and had plenty of experiences and stories to tell. But since record companies value the voice itself more than the ability to tell stories, artists were signed at younger and younger ages. As a result, these new artists have few experiences to sing about. Because the music industry is tough to get into, most of these artists were always practicing and singing since they were only children, and because of this, they had few experiences worthy of telling. As a result, each new generation of country artists has less experiences and stories to tell, and must resort to using simple imagery and clichés in their music. The only stories that they can tell are about love and heartbreak, yet those stories are universal. Country love songs are the same love songs sang in any genre, only with passing references to rural life all sung with a Southern twang.

And of course, the world itself has changed since the days of folk music. The presence of telecommunications and the internet, as well as vastly improved means of transportation, has removed the isolation and loneliness of life in rural America. The toil and sweat of life on isolated farms and small communities is now only a page in the history books, and country music, like the rest of America, has moved on. It was perhaps inevitable that the themes in country music would evolve, but the greed of record labels and modern country artists has left country music almost devoid of meaning, content to pander to audiences who want only to be entertained with simple imagery instead of being moved by powerful stories.

The effects of this evolution in country music do not occur in a vacuum. Just like folk music was a representation of its culture, so too is country music. Because country music is supposed to be an exemplar of the “country” culture, its changing and simplifying themes have influenced how people view that culture. What results is a disordering of the virtues of the country. Hard work and independence are still praised, but these are only a means to an end. Because country music glorifies the simple imagery of the country, these physical things have become the greatest ends of the country. Trucks, for example, have become a status symbol, when before they were only a tool, because country artists tell us that trucks are somehow a symbol of “how country” someone is.

While the current evolution of country music is rather disappointing, there are many older examples of country music at its finest. The albums of Johnny Cash, George Jones, Hank Williams, and others are readily available. Perhaps other artists will arise and prompt a return to a country music that is rooted in meaningful themes. Perhaps people will become tired of listening to the repetitiveness of today’s country music, and return to older artists. Or, just maybe, hardworking and virtuous men of the country can defy a music that attempts to define their lives in the simplest possible terms, and show a nation the virtues of life in the country.