Introducing Miss Leslie’s Honky Tonk Happy Hour: What’s In a Name?
“Mainstream, Red Dirt, Texas Country, Americana, Bluegrass–whatever your style is, we’ve got it covered. The 9513 is the place where everything with country roots comes together.”
I’ve run unto a gamut of terms to try to describe the music I love; roots country, traditional country, classic country, honky tonk, hardcore country, Americana, Ameripolitan (a Dale Watson invention), and various configurations thereof. I have believed that a name could help the music. Every music needs a movement. And every movement needs a name.
But the Bard said:
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
And I wonder, is he right? Am I finding myself caught in the same mentality that commercial radio and major record labels use to block out roots music? Are names, categories and definitions what are important? Do I need to worry about the question, “What is country music?”
And I find myself asking one question with growing frequency: Does the name “country music” matter anymore?
I grew up playing bluegrass. In the 90s, my husband (at the time) was playing bluegrass professionally, and the debate at festivals and online message boards was always the same. What is bluegrass? Can you call music “bluegrass” if it has an electric bass, drums and/or no banjo?
When I started my honky tonk band 5 years ago, I found myself in the middle of essentially the same debate. I knew hardcore traditionalists who thought country should be recorded with the vocals way in the front of the mix and with a really raw, flat sound–with upright bass and drums relegated to the back. I also knew “Texas Music” artists who felt like they were leading the charge against what they considered to be the glossed and glammed-out pop Nashville.
In my quest to understand how to be an artist in the digital age, a fellow musician turned me on to Bob Lefsetz and I realized the rock world endured the same continual question. What has happened to Rock-n-Roll? Classic rock enthusiasts lament that rock is dead–and that the record labels seem to care less.
There is a reason for roots. It’s the beginning of something. It’s a cornerstone and a foundation. But eventually you get things like branches. And we are logical animals in a quest to organize and label everything in an effort to understand. So we look at these roots and branches and try to separate everything so that it will all fit nicely into categories and somehow make sense.
But music? Can you agree on every facet of something so subjective, something that hits our senses and infiltrates our emotions? I have many musician friends who I respect greatly, but among us we all hear things so differently. There is a wide range of sensitivities in hearing.
And emotions? We’re all over the map when it comes to what touches our souls or captures our hearts.
So how can we agree on a definition of country? Or even “roots country”? We can split hairs over guitar tone, instrumentation, drum configuration, how the beat is defined and a hundred other things, all the while never getting to the essential question:
Do we need to agree? Do we need to break everything down and split it up into its own separate categories? Isn’t that the heart of what is killing commercial radio and major record labels?
Commercial radio is tough on music that’s “too country” or that which ventures too far from where music is currently. So where will we find our modern innovation? How will we get the natural cycle of traditional-to-progressive music that has occurred in music history since the beginning of time? How does a listening audience with such a wide variety of taste get exposed to more of what’s out in the music ether and not just some limited version of music that’s viewed as “current?”
Do we really want to polarize the debates so much that neither side opens its ears to anything different?
I have to remember that labels are contextual. My dad was born when his father was away fighting in WWII. When my grandfather returned home, my dad was 3. Everyone tried to tell him the person standing before him was Daddy, but my father kept pointing to a picture on the wall saying, “No, that’s Daddy.” He’d been told his whole life that the picture on the wall was his father. He couldn’t comprehend that the picture was just a representation.
If you’re 60 years old, the music that comes to mind when someone says country is completely different from what enters the mind of a 16 year old. The frame of reference is completely different.
I remember when I first heard Alison Krauss. My family had been living in Houston for a while and had missed the bluegrass scene we were heavy into when we lived in Louisville, KY. I first heard Alison on the music video for “I’ve Got That Old Feeling.” I loved it. But it wasn’t bluegrass to me. When I thought of bluegrass I thought of Bill Monroe, Jim and Jesse, The Stanley Brothers, The Seldom Scene, JD Crowe and Jimmy Martin.
But Alison was good. Didn’t matter to me what you called it. That was just a great song and a great recording.
I get caught up in debates like everybody else. Debates can help establish boundaries and encourage new ways of thinking. But debates can also polarize us and isolate groups.
So what’s more important to you? Clear cut labels and lines? Or a big forum where innovation and creativity can thrive?
Me? I’m working really hard to choose the latter. The only thing I believe we gain from major record labels is even less of a chance of genuine music outside of the mainstream format thriving–and if I want the playing field to level for me, I’ve got to keep it level for the mainstream music.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m gonna rant about pop Nashville. I’m gonna shake my fist at the industry. But I’m not going to toss out music solely because it doesn’t sound hardcore or because it’s released on a major record label.
I love classic country music. It is my heart and soul. But my beef with modern mainstream music isn’t that it doesn’t sound “classic,” but that it has been isolated to one branch of music so much so that there is no room for consideration of roots or even branches.
So what’s in a name? For me, lately, nothing. I try to look at music as music–rock, country, blues, bluegrass, whatever. Do I have my own categories? Sure. But do we need to agree on definitions or do we just need to share music that touches us in an effort to try and touch someone else?
At the end of it all, isn’t that really what music is–an attempt to connect with ourselves and the world around us?
So I call it country. You call it classic country. Someone else calls it hardcore. Whatever you call it, is it good? Is it genuine? Is it worth listening to no matter what “genre” you’re into?
Aye, there’s the rose. Here’s a place where we can come together.
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