Opinion: What is Country Music?

Country Music is what – as a friend of mine told me Friday – you grew up with.

Written by Chuck Dauphin
Opinion: What is Country Music?
BeyonceŽ and The Dixie Chicks; Photo courtesy Country Music Association

And, the question of the day is…What is Country music?

A simple question, you say? Perhaps. But, a look back at the history of the format begs many answers.

If one were to look at the dictionary of Merriam-Webster online, the “simple” definition says, “a style of music that developed in the southern and western U.S. and that often contains lyrics relating to the lives of people who live in the country.” Throw in the “full” definition, and it says, “music derived from or imitating the folk style of the Southern United States or of the Western cowboy.” Then, later, on the Merriam-Webster page, it states the first use of it took place in 1952.

To quote Dick Enberg, “Oh, my.”

So, does that mean that any song that is set up north does not qualify as “Country?” Does that mean that one has to sing about the “Red River Valley” or “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” to be considered “Country?”

The answer…well, it’s complicated.

Of course, all this comes to the surface after the recent 50th Annual Country Music Association Awards aired last Wednesday on ABC. There have been many grumblings around the Country music fan base about what is, and isn’t Country music. Let me first say that Sarah Trahern and her staff – as well as the producers – are to be commended. Out of the roughly 200 minute telecast, 194 went by cleanly – without a hitch. To be honest, it might very well have been the best CMA Awards I have ever seen.

And, then there was Beyoncé.

The pop music icon – as you might have heard, unless you were under a rock – teamed up with 2000 Entertainers of the Year the Dixie Chicks for a collaboration of her country-tinged “Daddy Lessons,” a track from her recent album Lemonade.

Simple enough…not hardly.

Many people are upset because that A) Beyoncé is a pop artist. B) She was provocatively dressed, according to some. C) The Dixie Chicks were involved in the broadcast. D) The song didn’t fit people’s opinions of what “Country music” is.

So, let’s dissect this.

A. Beyoncé is a Pop artist. A damn good one for my money, as a fan of her music. I knew when I first saw her step away from Destiny’s Child in the 2001 TV film Carmen: A Hip-Hopera that she was destined for big things, and she has delivered. She excels musically at everything she does. Dance music is her specialty, but have you ever heard her “If I Were A Boy” or her tribute to Barbra Streisand on “The Way We Were” on the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors telecast? She’s a brilliant vocalist, pure and simple. (For the record, she does have political views that she chooses to express. I’m not going there. So does Clint Eastwood, for that matter. I may agree or disagree with some or all of either’s opinions. I respect their art.)

Is she a Country artist? No. Just as Justin Timberlake wasn’t last year. Just as Ariana Grande and Meghan Trainor weren’t in 2014. Just as Anita Pointer wasn’t in 1986 or Pat Boone in 1968. The awards show has always had a history of inviting artists from other genres. I think that, overall, is a healthy thing – though I will say that with the 50th anniversary of the show, the performance was somewhat out of place with the theme. But, in 2017, I think she would fit just fine.

B. Beyoncé dresses like a pop star. If that was all that offended you, let me point out that Shania Twain was quite provocative in her CMA appearances. So was Faith Hill. Styles change. Simple as that.

C. Oh, goody. Let me start off by saying out of all the acts in Country music the past twenty years, nobody has – in my opinion – the musical talent or integrity of The Dixie Chicks. I was a fan of them during their pre-Natalie Maines days, and I stand as a fan of their music. Home remains one of the format’s greatest artistic triumphs. That being said, in spite of the CMA inviting each Male Vocalist, Female Vocalist and Entertainer of the Year winner from years’ past to be a part of the show, it kind of irks me they were there. Hear me out on this. Natalie Maines has made statements over the years that make the entire Country community look like a bunch of backward-thinking hicks who don’t have electricity or running water. It has been said that the Country music industry turned their backs on the group. Not so. It was a group of radio stations – one company in particular – that pulled their music. Not going to name the company (even though my odds of working there just shrunk), but you can Google it. You’ll find some interesting articles concerning a congressional hearing where Senator John McCain was grilling the owner about their decision. Draw your own conclusions from there. Natalie has made every effort to distance herself from the industry since then. But, it wasn’t the entire industry. Comments aside, however, I’m a fan. And will be a fan, but if you want to distance yourself from Country music, why accept the invitation?

D. “Daddy Lessons” isn’t a Country song, you say? By whose definition? By virtue of my increasing age, I grew up in the late 70s / early 1980s, where my first memories of Country music were records by Barbara Mandrell, Kenny Rogers and Anne Murray on my mother’s 8-Track player. If you compare their music to that of Carl Smith or Ernest Tubb, it wasn’t Country. It was very much popular-influenced. In 1965, Buck Owens took out an ad in Billboard saying where he pledged never to record a song that wasn’t a Country song. In 1969, he had a number one hit with Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” Two years later, he took Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to No. 9. What changed?

I bring up Ernest Tubb because now – in 2016 – he is looked at as a Country music legend who was ultra-traditional. In the 1940s, he plugged up his guitars on his records. A simple expansion, you say? It sure was different than Uncle Dave Macon or The Carter Family. As legendary as Jimmie Rodgers was – and he is rightfully known as “The Father Of Country Music” – his music was equal parts jazz…and hillbilly.

What makes a song Country? Take, for instance, “Crazy” by Patsy Cline or “Welcome To My World” by Jim Reeves. If you listen to the arrangements, it makes for an interesting discussion. Furthermore, as my colleague Brian Mansfield wrote on my Facebook wall over the weekend – what made Patsy’s “Crazy” a Country classic, and Brenda Lee’s “I’m Sorry” a pop hit. Same players. Same record label. Same studio. Heck, Ray Price was once spat on by a fan who felt that with his string-laden version of “Danny Boy,” he killed Country music – in 19-freaking-67.

The answer – it’s all in the interpretation. And, it has always been. Country music is what – as a friend of mine told me Friday – you grew up with. Just as I can appreciate Gid Tanner & The Skillet Lickers, I can also tip my hat to Florida Georgia Line and what they bring to the table. I also don’t fault their fans either. You are what you’re around when your musical tendencies are formed. Am I at fault because the music of Mandrell and Rogers are what brought me to the table? No. I am not, or am I wrong that I thought Doyle Singer was actually Don Rich growing up because I was born in 1974? No. Do you fault younger fans who grew up recognizing Luke Bryan or Jason Aldean? By that same definition, you can’t. They are not wrong or bad for not knowing the significance of “Peanuts In My Coke,” “The Fifth Of June,” or “The T.B. Blues.” Maybe, by virtue of them becoming hooked on the new stuff like I did in the 70s and 80s, they become a fan, and can one day quote you the 1964-1967 lineup of Buckaroos, and know which former member of the band actually named them that…and, maybe not.

If the Country audience lived by my rules, we’d be feasting on an endless supply of Rogers, Owens and Womack – with a little Twitty thrown in for good measure. There is not one of us – not a single damn journalist, record executive, or artist – with the exception of Marty Stuart, perhaps – who is qualified to be “The Keeper Of The Country Flame.” It changes. It evolves. But, what you loved about it – as evidenced by the bulk of this year’s CMA show – never goes away. Put in a CD. Tune into a classic Country station. Go to YouTube. It’s out there…and, it will always be.