It began with Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family in the 1920s, but country music has come a long way since the days of “Blue Yodel No. 1” and “Wildwood Flower.” In the early 1940s it was Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs, and later honky tonk was born with Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams. Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson came in the ’70s with what’s known as outlaw country, and Dolly Parton, Alabama and George Strait found success among the pop charts. The ’80s brought Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson with country-rock, and the ’90s can be summed up with just two names: Brooks & Dunn.
But with an “everything-but-country” attitude among many music lovers today, it’s no wonder the Country Music Association took a liking to pop-crossovers Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood. Platinum sales mean big bucks, right?
A quick glance at Billboard’s Top Country Chart will reveal listeners want to groove with Kenny Chesney, cry with Chris Young and dance with Joe Nichols – but what ever happened to Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee?
“Country, in its top version, has always tried to mirror what’s going on in pop music,” said Jason Boland, of Jason Boland & The Stragglers, a band that prides itself on playing Red Dirt country with outlaw voltage. “It’s always tried to crossover, but what’s out there now is God awful.”
It’s more about what sells than singing about homegrown southern roots, Boland said. “Are we really gonna start writing songs about Twitter now that country people and rural people Twitter? People are making videos of backcountry woods and bonfires, which is stuff people don’t even really do. Is that what’s going on in the sticks these days? And the next 12-year-old girl who plays a guitar is gonna write a song about her boyfriend … I’m so done with what is out there that I don’t even care anymore.”
And Boland’s criticisms pretty much parallel what Haggard told The Boot in 2009: “I don’t hear anything spectacular like you used to hear. Where’s the ‘Ring of Fire’? Where’s ‘The Gambler’ or the ‘Okie From Muskogee’? Where’s those songs that didn’t go wrong for 40 years? I don’t hear those.”
But others see this progression as natural. “It’s like a changing of the guard,” said Saguaro Road recording artist Patty Loveless. She was influenced by Emmylou Harris and Loretta Lynn when she first came to Nashville in the 1980s, but Loveless said she enjoys listening to Underwood and country-rock artists like Miranda Lambert. “Miranda reminds me of me, sometimes – she has an edge to her music and southern rock ‘n’ roll feel. Carrie is more pop,” she said.
Despite the flux in what’s considered to be actual country anymore, The Stragglers’ latest release, “High in the Rockies: A Live Album,” has peaked at No. 3 on Billboard’s Heatseekers Albums chart, and No. 27 on the Country Albums chart.
“We’re touring and playing music for our fans on whatever radio stations we can get on,” Boland said. “I’m a middle-America town kid. I’m not a bull rider or anything; I grew up fishing and running around in the woods with my friends. If it comes down to us being the ones that play semi-backwoods music that’s really personal, then we’ll be it.”
The lead-off song to The Stragglers’ live album, “Hank,” reflects on country music’s lost past: “What happened to the music I loved so long ago? It seems it’s been forgotten on our Country Radio. Where a steel guitar and fiddle have become a novelty, what I’d give to make things like the way they used to be. Hank Williams wouldn’t make it now in Nashville Tennessee.”