So there I am last night, watching Friday Night Lights (our current Netflix binge) and keeping track of the Cubs via social media. I started to see a couple articles about Beyoncé’s surprise appearance at the Country Music Awards. “Country fans” were upset she was there. But why? The answer is obvious and complicated.
First, a little background. I grew up in a Nashville suburb. My father’s house was down the way from Twitty City (Conway Twitty‘s house and fun park) and on the weekends my father would take us out on the lake and we would pass by Johnny Cash‘s house. Reba MacEntire lived on the same lake and I played with her son once while waiting for a table at a restaurant. I spent my summers at Opryland Amusement Park and my Christmas at the Opryland Hotel.
Just about everyone in Nashville is trying to make it in the music industry. They may be working as photographers or construction, but they are song writers and open mic night performers at heart. They write the songs that in their wildest dreams would make the whole world sing, if they could ever get anyone to hear them. There is just as much talent in one square mile in the city of Nashville as there is in London or New York. There’s a reason why non country musicians like Ben Folds live in Nashville.
There was a lot of talk in the 1980’s and 1990’s that country had lost it’s soul, that the days of Patsy Cline and Merle Haggard were gone. Or that Nashville had been stripped of it’s Music City title with everyone buying time shares in Branson, Missouri.
Now, I was never really a “country fan”except in the ways that most kids my age were when country started making “superstars” like Garth Brooks. There was a lot of upset in Nashville at the time. Country Western was re-branding into the pop sensation that is now known as “Country” and Nashville didn’t know what to do. Nashville had once been the epicenter of country music, but in the early to mid-80’s Madonna and Michael Jackson ruled the world and Nashville was slumming it.
SO… re-brand they did. The Grand Ole Opry got a face lift and Gaylord Entertainment took over that part of Nashville. The Ryman Auditorium also received a face lift, 2nd Ave became the Beale St. of Nashville and there were all kinds of music festivals everywhere. Country had moved to the arena and the theaters of old opened their doors to all types of music. Nashville became an epicenter for music as a teenager I benefited seeing artists like Widespread Panic and Bonnie Raitt at the same concert.
But not everyone is pleased about this. Why? For the same reason people are upset that Beyoncé sang at the Country Music Awards.
The first defense to why people where upset was to say, “She’s Not Country” which begs the question, What is Country these days?
When “country” music went to the arena it turned pop, everyone in Nashville thought so and said so, even if they liked it. “Crossover” became the buzz word of the 1990’s. But what is really behind the upset? Well, all things southern- Race (and gender), Money, and Politics
In a comment discussion on Facebook last night I was responding to a “She’s Not Country” argument by saying- no, Beyoncé isn’t “country” but neither was Justin Timberlake and he performed last year at the CMA’s and no one cared.
So we come to our first challenge- Race (and gender). Here’s a great article on the history of women in country music. Not only are there not that many women who sing, the view of women in the songs reaches as far as Daisy Duke shorts and Confederate flag bras. The reality is southern women as strong as brass. But like many things except homemaking, women haven’t always been welcome, and last night was a testament of feminism with their tribute to Dolly Parton.
But the bigger issue here is Race, it is not to be denied. Here’s a long, but great article on the subject. It cannot be denied that the outrage last night was over a black woman being on stage. And anyone who denies that, is not really looking at the truth. “Country” equates itself with the confederate flag and in 2016 that stands for white supremacy. Name one “popular” black country musician besides Darius Rudker? Thought so… (popular is in quotes because I could write a whole other blog on Darius here…)
So I continue in my Facebook discussion and then it comes: “The Dixie Chicks shouldn’t have been there either.” And here we have it. What is country? It’s “good old southern values. God and Country.”
One of my favorite (albeit crude) comedians Bo Burnham points out that Springstein can sing about a Turnpike and it’s art, but country gets a bad wrap for singing about a dirt road (watch this, it’s funny).
Which brings us to #2 Money.
The joke goes like this:
Q: What do you get when you play country music backwards?
A: You get back your wife, your dog and your truck.
Country lost it’s mojo the moment it got money. Country lost it’s soul for the almighty dollar. It was about hardship, oppression, it came out of the roots of Appalacia and the blues. Two groups who were highly oppressed and sang because the sorrow had no where else to go. Country adapted into the poor white version of the African-American spiritual. When the Beatles came along country firmly planted itself as the poor white man’s music. Country was always about being down on your luck and appreciating the small things of life.
Like most of us in the civilized world money became the god and God and Jesus were just ways to sell tickets.
Politics– The comment about the Dixie Chicks has nothing to do with the music, it has everything to do with their politics. They do not fit the “southern values” mold. Because they speak out against War, against misogyny, against racism. Well then sorry country, if breaking the political mold of conservative republicanism is not country then neither can Willie Nelson or Johnny Cash be yours either…
The “Country Music” you love today has come a long way from the country of old. Like everything else in this world it has adapted and changed with the times and Beyoncé’s presence on stage is nothing short of what’s next for Country Music.
Now, listen to this, it’s not “country” but it’s country.