Introducing Miss Leslie’s Honky Tonk Happy Hour: What’s In a Name?

Leslie Sloan | July 14th, 2009

“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.

1 Ping

  1. [...] “Drunk Dialer,” the first single from Miss Leslie’s upcoming album, is available for download on her website. She’s also our newest The 9513 contributor and writes her own column, Miss Leslie’s Honky Tonk Happy Hour. [...]
  1. Truersound
    July 14, 2009 at 9:58 am

    great read, I find myself in a a love-hate relationship with music labels as well.

  2. beanbrew
    July 14, 2009 at 11:27 am

    I think it can be very misleading anytime someone applies labels or generalizes, and not just with music. An individual’s beliefs, values and ideas are more complex than a label. You have to dig a little to find out what they really feel and believe on any particular topic.

    As for music, singers/songwriters etc. are usually influenced by many genres and styles. While one song might be straight roots country, another song from the same artist may have some jazz influence.

    So, when someone says they do/don’t like country, ask: Do you mean Merle Haggard or Kenny Chesney; Connie Smith or Taylor Swift; Johnny Cash or Tim McGraw; Tammy Wynette or Carrie Underwood; Dale Watson or Toby Keith?

  3. Sam Sattler
    July 14, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    For several years, I was heavily involved in the fight to win some radio spins for my kind of country music. It was a losing battle but I was saved from going completely nuts by the appearance of internet radio, XM, Sirius, my iPod and even my smart phone. But FM radio no longer exists in my world because they only play one kind of country music, and I will never agree that what they play IS country music.

    When someone asks me what kind of music I enjoy, I tell them bluegrass, blues and country music. They don’t ask many questions about bluegrass or blues but most times I get a question about country music asking me to explain in more detail. I always tell them this: “I like real country music, the kind you will never hear on today’s FM stations – you know, the kind made for adults.”

  4. TCB
    July 14, 2009 at 2:45 pm

    For me it all comes down to what my Daddy once told me. “There are two types of music, stuff I listen to, and stuff I don’t listen to”. He could care less for rock n roll save for Sun Records and mainly liked country AND western as he called it.

    Personally I dislike labels/genres but understand the need as to help promote the different types of “product” being sold or played. Having worked in the industry (record stores and labels) I have seen both sides, one being the fan and the other as a job.

    There are many factors as to why radio put aside real DJs for computerized playlists, but I think mainly its because of greed (a few corporations owning a majority of all stations) and of course the dreaded digital age of downloading. Of course when the listeners accepted the “new thing” of Garth Brooks, Shania and those that followed you knew that the labels would keep signing those type acts. Had the customer revolted and stopped listening, then I bet the stations would have changed their tune.

    You also made a good point of the generation gap. I saw this happening when I had a record store. Teenagers were buying both George Strait AND AC/DC records at the same time. Old-timers in the 60’s would never have bought a George Jones LP along with the latest Who LP…… Times change and so do tastes and attitudes.

    Another factor to blame? Attention spans. With the advent of home computers and video games “our” attention span for everything has shortened by quite a lot. This I believe pushed labels to go for instant “singles” instead of working on a complete album like it used to be. More singles are downloaded on ITunes than full albums. People want instant satisfaction in all they do including the music they listen to.

    That being said, there is still a place for quality music that you and I like. You just have to find the customer that is looking to buy it.

  5. Stormy
    July 14, 2009 at 3:18 pm

    My daddy always told me that the pop crap they were playing on country stations sucked.

  6. WMS
    July 14, 2009 at 3:24 pm

    I was recently introduced to a tractor dealer in a small Tx town. My dad told him I write about country music. The guy immediately asks, “Well, is any of this crap today country music?” I already knew where this discussion was going; he was about to prove his bona fides by telling me “if it’s not Merle or Bob or Hank or Hank, it isn’t country.” Old, tired, pointless argument. I like what the guy said above about two kinds of music: the music I like and the music I don’t. But screw the old ‘is it country’ argument. And don’t even get me started on the bluegrass nazis….

  7. Baron Lane
    July 14, 2009 at 6:43 pm

    Classifications are what we humans use to sort things. Good/bad, hot/cold, edible/poison..and it works pretty well most of the time. Even when a taxonomy becomes more and more refined it still hold up pretty well (Honky Tonk/Bakersfield Sound/Outlaw Country/Countrypolitan anyone?)

    It’s when “branding” gets involved that things go to crap. Nashville, and the dwindling country radio format, has a lock on what is country because it’s what they create, distribute and play. If you want a seat at the lucrative table then play by the rules. Sometimes there’s a Jamey Johnson (yay!) or Big & Rich (Boo!) to shake things up, and the Americana format is quickly growing cache in its stable of talent, but as long as Music City and mainstream country radio looks at the genre as their closely held brand to designate as they see fit then what you will get is mostly a dull product. Like McDonalds.

  8. Ben Milam
    July 14, 2009 at 8:27 pm

    i like both kinds of music. country and western.

  9. Rick
    July 14, 2009 at 8:31 pm

    Wow Miss Leslie, you covered enough ground in this article to make it from Corpus Christi to the panhandle (and back)! (lol)

    To me the overall categories of so called country music fall into two major headings (trunks?) with multiple branches underneath. How old the music is and how long its been around has a lot to do with it.

    1.) Traditional Country Styles (The roots stuff that’s been around a long time and became well established). ~ This includes more traditional sounding forms of folk county, honky tonk, western swing, cowboy music, Bill Monroe style bluegrass, country blues and the older genre defining songs referred to as “Classic Country”. To me its the lack of overt rock and roll influences which helps define the traditional side of country music as pop and country have always intertwined.

    2.) Modern or Young Country (The pop/rock stuff that dominates the mainstream Nashville country music scene and Top 40 country radio these days). ~ This is the music rooted not in any of the long revered country music style traditions but instead is pure pop and rock music being marketed under the name “country music” these days. This is the pop culture oriented mass market product that tends to sound like 80’s arena rock or current pop music. With Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, Rascal Flatts, and Keith Urban being among the top sellers these days, this is the style that currently dominates and defines mainstream country. Because of its roots rock basis, most Texas style Red Dirt music falls into this category as well even though its not commercially targeted like the Nashville stuff.

    I tend to enjoy the category 1 stuff immensely and dislike category 2 music in an overall sense, although there are plenty of exceptions (like say Sarah Buxton).

    The modern practitioners of the kind of music I like best include names like Amber Digby, Miss Leslie, Kimberly Murray, Sunny Sweeney, Brennen Leigh, the Hot Club of Cowtown, and The Quebe Sisters Band who are all Texas based. (And Elizabeth Cook too!) Thank goodness for the Texas music scene continuing to support the more traditional forms of country music that Nashville has cast aside.

  10. Miss Leslie
    July 15, 2009 at 11:59 am

    BEANBREW – I’m just finding that it’s almost impossible to define country – old, new, whatever. There’s a whole range of sounds in Jimmie Rogers, Faron Young, Merle Haggard, George Strait, Alabama, Tim McGraw, Taylor Swift, Dale Watson, Pat Green and Justin Trevino. I’m almost inclined to not use the “country” label anymore. I don’t feel like I’m good at sorting it out – or trying to explain all of the nuances that I hear to some of my friends who, for all practical purposes, are tone deaf.

    WMS – So, yeah, I avoid the tireless, pointless arguments. . .

    SAM and TCB – GREAT point about the generation gap. I think this addresses another issue of music made for a young perspective and music made for all of the rest of us (I’m not old – ha). I actually like Taylor Swift’s writing. But I can’t relate to it anymore. I did when I was 16. My daughter digs it. She’s 9.

    I went on a Girls’ Trip to float the Guadalupe River in early June. We came upon a group of about 15-20 people in their early 20s. What interested me was the music booming from their boom box – one minute it was Led Zeppelin. The next it was a cut from George Strait’s #7 album. I don’t know that the youth of today are as focused on labels and genres. Maybe that makes sense. They’re not buying albums. They’re just downloading MUSIC.

    THAT is my point.

  11. Jon
    July 15, 2009 at 1:56 pm

    Nice meditation, Leslie.

    Genre labels and categories aren’t always useless, but in my experience, it’s important to keep in mind the thought that trying to define them in the abstract pretty much defines “useless,” or maybe “pointless.” Their meanings and usefulness vary in different circumstances. I might tell one person who asks what I do that I play bluegrass, and tell another who asks the same question that I play country music, according to my sense of what those terms might mean to them. I use different criteria in assessing what to call “bluegrass” when I write a Critic’s Pick for the Nashville Scene than I probably would if I were to write something for Bluegrass Unlimited. That doesn’t make the terms meaningless, any more than the fact that “hot” and “cold” mean different things to different people at different times and in different places. Language is a lot more slippery than folks sometimes like to think.

  12. Chip Nall
    July 15, 2009 at 4:19 pm

    We should have held on like they are holding on. I recall thinking how silly some club owners seemed when they wouldn`t allow us to play Johnny B. Goode or Sweet Home Alabama. The club owners were right, even though I still like to play both tunes. Rock and Pop slowly infiltrated the Country scene until Country was chocked out. Nashville music is only country in name.

  13. Wade
    July 15, 2009 at 4:39 pm

    It seems that music has always been a fad or a fashion statement, by that I mean ,most people (especially the 13 to 21 demographic) like what their friends like and if you dont like their kind of music, then your a little weird and may pay the price of being socially rejected by your peers,but if you decide to stand your ground and go against the grain of your peers,you will surely be outcasted or possibly be accused of not trying to suffer by comparison or “your just trying to be different” just to get attention.It seems that most listeners have to be told what is good music (is it socially accepted).
    Im a 38 year old steel guitar player,I play (pardon the label that I gave it years ago)Texas dancehall country music,its Johnny Bush,Ray Price,Faron Young,etc.I catch a ton of slack from people my age and younger “why do you want to play that old folks home music” I constantly feel like I have to defend my music,the truth is, its partly geographical partly historical,if you lived in an area that supported country music and where exposed to it as a child, it probably represented good times in your life,and chances are you love it,if you where not,then you probably dont like it, because you dont understand it.Beach Boy music does not really get me fired up,but I was not exposed to hot rods,surfing and beaches in sunny California….see my point ?
    I play these classic old dancehalls here in Texas and I love how it makes me feel when I look out and see the people dancing around having fun, laughing,drinking and being brought back in time musically with fiddles and steels to an era of the old shuffles and waltzes, when people went out on Saturday night to dance and have a good time after a hard work week,its not a fashion show or a who’s who social gathering meat market.

    So having said all this, I have stopped focusing my energy on the masses who debate on whats real country and whats not and focus on the task at hand ,which is !! as long as traditional country has a breath of air in its precious lungs, I will inhale and exhale the night away !!

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