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The Crumminess of Pop Country

I was in the Nashville airport for a while on Saturday. The soundtrack in the airport is pop country music. I never listen to pop country. I’m not much of a country fan in general, but when I do listen to it, it’s alt-country and outlaw country, plus classics like Merle Haggard, Willie and Waylon, et al. It was awful, this pop country. Every song sounded exactly the same. Every one. I finally went to the airport bar and had a glass of Woodford Reserve and thought of Waylon.

My son Matt has the most eclectic taste in music of anyone I know. He likes alt-country, but hates pop country. I know this because I complained that pop country sounds so boring and monotonous to me. “That’s because it is,” he said.

Matt put me on to the mash-up above, saying it exposes how miserably formulaic mainstream country music has become. Not knowing any of these songs prior to hearing it, it’s really striking how interchangeable they are. Listening to that mash-up approximated two hours of sitting in the Nashville airport hearing the same song over and over. They could have put that mash-up on the tape loop and nobody would have been the wiser.

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78 Comments To "The Crumminess of Pop Country"

#1 Comment By john smith On August 29, 2016 @ 1:20 am

No mention of Whiskeytown or Ryan Adams (particularly the Jacksonville EP and Jacksonville City Nights)? Cold Roses and When Pigs Fly, too.

1989, on the other hand…

#2 Comment By jrm On August 29, 2016 @ 1:31 am

Just 2 words, one name:

Emmylou Harris

Polls Prize winner. Music version of the Nobel Prize

#3 Comment By jrm On August 29, 2016 @ 1:32 am

Polar Prize! Hear me, spellcheck!

#4 Comment By EngineerScotty On August 29, 2016 @ 2:39 am

Glad to see someone else is old enough to remember Barbara Mandrell.

Of course, pop music is equally dreadful, and equally into name-dropping stars of the past in an effort to sound cool. A popular song a while back was entitled “Moves Like Jagger”, and many kids who like that song have little idea who Mick Jagger is. (My kids seem to like 80s music–at least the good stuff that still gets played; they have yet to hear any Poison or similar…)

One issue with country/western–or at least the popular versions thereof–seems to be that the Nashville record industry seems to have a lot tighter control over the music pipeline (production, distribution, radio airplay) than other genres. I have a hard time seeing a rock or R&B group being de facto blacklisted overnight like the Dixie Chicks were–too many players involved, and too demographically diverse an audience. (And that was a shame, too; the Chicks were–and are–a fine act).

Speaking of radio–I wonder if radio is a more important delivery mechanism for C/W than for other genres. In less urban areas, where lots of people spend more time in their cars (or pickup trucks), I could see it having greater importance on listening habits. And since radio doesn’t serve eclectic tastes well, it could impose a homogenizing effect on C/W compared to more urban styles.

And one other comment–the film The Blues Brothers had the infamous joke about “we got both kinds [of music]. We got country AND western”. These used to be two separate genres; more or less representing the South and the West (though with considerable overlap, which is why they were often marketed together and thus C/W is a thing); but Western has pretty much disappeared as its own style (though you occasionally hear songs being played on the radio referencing cattle drives and such). I suspect a big part of this is that most of the major cities in the West have a more urban outlook, and/or demographics vastly different than the rural parts; and the rural West is so sparsely populated.

#5 Comment By Sam Haysom On August 29, 2016 @ 2:58 am

This comment section is an excellent example of why pop country came into being- for some reason people insist on classifying bands like The Band and Wilco (still chuckling about the absurdity of this) as country music. With that level of aesthetic aimlessness of course the music industry is going to try and create a more cohesive sense of why country music is if only so radio stations can have a more consistent sound to play. Now that radio stations are becoming less and less important the Nashville sound is less and less important to the country music industry.

All Motown songs sounded alike too for the same reason- you only get so many stations devoted to subgenre music and you better make sure you are alienating that listener base by playing Wilco on a county station.

Further irony in the fact that many of the aging boomers here are punk fans- talk about music that all the sounds the same and so what if it does there are only so many catchy punk tunes.

#6 Comment By Jeffersonian On August 29, 2016 @ 6:15 am

Some of the best music I have ever heard in my life was when Johnny Cash started doing covers in the 90’s and early 2000s, particularly of “Personal Jesus” by Depeche Mode and “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails. His cover of “Hurt” is probably one of the best songs of any genre in the last forty years, but because of the conventions of the country radio format it never gets any air play.

#7 Comment By Marie On August 29, 2016 @ 7:50 am

I like Wilco, but that ain’t country.

#8 Comment By Gern Blanderson On August 29, 2016 @ 8:46 am

We have had almost 60 years of popular music sounding the same. I see that someone posted the awesome “4 chord” youtube video.

When you start thinking that todays music all sounds the same, then it is a sign that you are getting old. I have re-discovered a the latest top 40 pop music through my teenage kids the last few years, and it is good. There is a lot of talent out there with some really awesome music.

Another interesting thing is kids these days only listen to singles, not albums. This is much different that when I grew up in the 80s. I was telling my dad that kids don’t listen to albums, and surprise, he said when he was a teenager in the early 60s that he only listened to singles too! They were on 45s vinyl records.

So the teenage have gone back to the early 60s listening habits. That really makes me feel wierd that my kids music is more like my dad’s when he was a teenager!

#9 Comment By Sam M On August 29, 2016 @ 9:06 am

This best critique along these lines is the complete discography of David Allen Coe. Most of his country songs are about the banality of country songs. Later in his career he did a lot of crossover work with a bunch of rappers and… Pantera.

Thing is, country music and rap are essentially the same. David Allen Coe and, say, 50 Cent, really aren’t all that different. Especially the maniacal quest for authenticity.

Also, all genres that value authenticity usually have the strongest push for it come from people who, early in their career, were guilty of toeing the pop line. See… David Allen Coe, 50 Cent and Pantera.

“If that ain’t country…”

#10 Comment By Venice On August 29, 2016 @ 9:20 am

As an unabashed music snob, this is pretty much how I view all popular music. Like anything else, there is probably some passable pop country out there but the rest is a total waste of time.
It’s still better than alt-rock music, which is not only musically boring, but also pretentious. If you’re going to play cookie cutter music, you may as well sing about beer and girls in shorts.

#11 Comment By Sam Haysom On August 29, 2016 @ 9:41 am

Jeffersonian that song is 15 years old. 15 year old songs don’t get much air play on any stations. As a a likely boomer you’ve grown accustomed to having old songs from your youth served up on radio stations, but that is not standard. Guess what CMT’s (the home of pop country if there ever was one) top song of 2002 was. None other than Cash’s cover of Hurt. It’s hard to think of a more over played and over praised song. The conventions of country music gave that song so much air time when it was new.

#12 Comment By Cola di Rienzo On August 29, 2016 @ 10:57 am

Jefferson, when saying that Cash’s cover of “Hurt” was the best album of the last forty years, you do realize that Iggy Pop’s The Idiot and Bowie’s Low and “Heroes” were released 39 years ago, right? Just wanted to make sure, haha.

But on topic, a lot of the big country hits from the 50s and 60s were also kind of mediocre. I think the main difference is there are fewer greats that you hear on the radio and the mediocre to bad stuff sounds less and less traditional. Pop country songs are barely distinguishable from pop rock, and as bad as some of the old stuff might have been, you could at least tell it was country.

Oh, and the fact that all music aside from the most mainstream of pop styles have become niche in the modern music marketplace.

But I think we all need to agree that country is just watered down compared to folk. Give me Woody, Leadbelly, Pete, or an old Haywire Mac song any day.

#13 Comment By Joe On August 29, 2016 @ 11:03 am

Today’s country music is just pop with a bit of twang, throw away junk like everything else. Though I love Chet Atkins, he is partly to blame. He did have a hand in producing countrypolitan.

#14 Comment By Jeffersonian On August 29, 2016 @ 2:02 pm

Jeffersonian that song is 15 years old. 15 year old songs don’t get much air play on any stations. As a a likely boomer you’ve grown accustomed to having old songs from your youth served up on radio stations, but that is not standard. Guess what CMT’s (the home of pop country if there ever was one) top song of 2002 was. None other than Cash’s cover of Hurt. It’s hard to think of a more over played and over praised song. The conventions of country music gave that song so much air time when it was new

On our local country stations there is a roughly 50/50 mix of newish and older than 5 years. They play old Oak Ridge Boys, for instance, relatively often, and even old Cash but not his last songs. Anyway, “Hurt” was a good/marginal great song when Trent Reznor wrote it, but it’s not “his” any more. It is completely owned by Johnny Cash.

#15 Comment By EngineerScotty On August 29, 2016 @ 2:03 pm

Some of the best music I have ever heard in my life was when Johnny Cash started doing covers in the 90’s and early 2000s, particularly of “Personal Jesus” by Depeche Mode and “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails. His cover of “Hurt” is probably one of the best songs of any genre in the last forty years, but because of the conventions of the country radio format it never gets any air play.

#16 Comment By mrscracker On August 29, 2016 @ 2:31 pm

I like Alan Jackson. He did a very nice Gospel CD.
I read a story about how he was recognized waiting in line to eat at the Loveless Café in
Nashville & how he refused move to the front of the line. He waited his turn instead of acting like a celebrity.
Didn’t he sing or write a song about the death of real country music?

#17 Comment By Giuseppe Scalas On August 29, 2016 @ 3:38 pm

I don’t find it so bad.
Do I need urgent treatment?

#18 Comment By John On August 29, 2016 @ 3:46 pm

Country music has never been on single thing, and is always drawing from other “genres” of music. A lot of good comes from that, look at the Flying Burrito Brothers or Cash covering Soundgarden (“Rusty Cage”). There is no such thing as pure country music, if there were we would just listen to Mississippi John Hurt, Ralph Stanley, and Sacred Harp hymnody. You could do worse than that. But all country music is, at its heart, traditionalist, and the fusion of pop music with country has produced about the most artistically insignificant, aurally repulsive, culturally neanderthalic bilk since wonder bread. As Uncle Tupelo once said, are you sure Hank done it this way?

#19 Comment By Jeremy Hickerson On August 29, 2016 @ 4:32 pm

You have spoken deep truth here

#20 Comment By MattinTX On August 29, 2016 @ 5:05 pm

Yes, most pop country is mostly throwaway, unmemorable crap. But that’s true for almost every style of music.

Looking at the Billboard Country charts, 2 of the country songs are pretty good (imho): Peter Pan by Kelsey Ballerini and Vice by Miranda Lambert. #1 (H.O.L.Y. by Florida Georgia Line) is almost unbearable. Billboard’s Top 10 Pop would be a complete loss if Justin Timberlake didn’t have a new tune. Top 10 Rock would be dreck without the Lumineers and Fitz and the Tantrums. Top 10 Latin would be unbearable if Carlos Vives and Enrique Iglesias weren’t such consistently good musicians. There would be no good songs on the R&B charts without Lil Wayne. Heck, you know what’s #2 on the Classical Music Albums chart? Star Wars! Blech.

#21 Comment By Bakehouse On August 29, 2016 @ 8:02 pm

There was a young man named Wil (Wilmer) Mills who wrote some wonderful, original country songs. He recorded demos in hopes that some well-known singers would decide to record them, but none did. I believe he has one song called “Grand Isle/Come to Stay,” or something like that, on itunes.

#22 Comment By Gromaticus On August 29, 2016 @ 8:25 pm

I’d rather jam knitting needles into my ears than listen to that it its entirety.

That said, the interchangablity of the songs has more to do with format and genre than quality; I’m pretty sure I could do the same thing with a mash up of six piano concerti from the same era (say the mid romantic period) and it wouldn’t be an indictment of Mendelssohn, Schubert, et al.

#23 Comment By Glaivester On August 29, 2016 @ 9:21 pm

One of my co-workers likes to listen to pop country all day, so I now know more of the recent pop country hits than I would care to…

Two things I noticed, that I want to know if anyone else noticed:

Doesn’t Zac Brown Band’s “Knee Deep” sound a lot like Bruce Cockburn’s “Wonder where the lions are?”

Doesn’t Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffett’s “It’s five o’clock somewhere” sound like Bon Jovi and Sugarland’s “Who says, you can’t go home?”

And going a little outside of American country, compare Mumford and Son’s “Little Lion Man” to David Gray’s “Babylon” (only the verses, not the chorus)?

#24 Comment By Jeffersonian On August 29, 2016 @ 10:03 pm

@Scotty: thank you. I don’t know how to embed video from an iPad so thank you for posting that.

#25 Comment By GhaleonQ On August 30, 2016 @ 9:39 am

@Sam Haysom

The difference, Sam, is that Bo Burnham’s joke is actually funny: poignant lines, overall quality satire, and a dash of absurdity with the scarecrow to keep it interesting. (In addition, you misheard the Jew line. That was a shot at artists/the record industry, not consumers.)

I think you jumped to snark far too quickly, as the point is not that authenticity is key, but “honesty,” as he says (and as the special emphasizes as a whole). Writing with audience contempt and/or to fit standards you may not like is what he is condemning. Whatever you want to say about Uncle Tupelo (or Crystal Castles or Russian instrumental hip-hop), they are honestly writing about their relationship with a culture that didn’t originate with them.

#26 Comment By EngineerScotty On August 30, 2016 @ 11:08 am

Since Glav brought up a few country-ish English bands (country, after all, borrows heavily from the folk music of the British Isles)…

One of my favorite songs from across the pond is Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”.

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Which inspired a fine bluegrass cover from the Del McCoury Band:

#27 Comment By Sam Haysom On August 30, 2016 @ 11:28 am

David Allen Coe’s song was is actually quite funny too and again 30 years earlier than Bo’s. And no Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy are no more familiar with their subject matter than is Keith Urban is with his. Jeff Tweedy is clearly an urban hipster who has likely never spent a day in a dying mill town.

Again this is pure mood affiliation. Listening to Uncle Tupelo makes you feel high status and hip and so naturally you are willing to overlook the complete inauthenticity of their music. That’s fine- clearly music-derived status is a huge part of boomer culture, but be honest about why you like some music and not others. I like Uncle Tupelo a lot more than I like Kenny Chesney, but it’s not because one type of music is inauthentic. If anything someone like Kenny Chesney is more authentically connected to the rural working class because that’s who his fans are. Jeff Tweedy has probably not spoken to a single factory worker in the past 15 years. Think that’s true about Kenny Chesney?

#28 Comment By Marie On August 31, 2016 @ 2:16 pm

“country is just watered down compared to folk”

What? I think there’s a particular use of “country” here I’m not familiar with. The country/folk lines are blurred when it comes to my favorites like Doc Watson. Maybe you mean the 70s country-pop (outlaws) and honky-tonk are separate from the 50s/60s commercial folk? It’s certainly not Appalachian or English, but the traditional music from the mid/west south is folk, and comes to us in the form of what we call “country.”

These Okies don’t have the gorgeous male vocals like Doc and Johnny, but the melodies, fiddle and lyrics (these lyrics!) are country. With obvious rock n roll (that guitar bridge!) influence.

I’m kind of with Dylan when it comes to “purity” of style. But yes, radio music is mostly bad.

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