Roots Watch: Lights in the Country Tunnel?

Barry Mazor | July 23rd, 2012


A half-year in which such major contributors, true giants, as Kitty Wells, Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson are suddenly no longer with us (among too many others, it sure seems, lately), could produce a major case of seasonal distress disorder in itself for a lot of us, Meanwhile, so many have been taking to the net and what other media are left (another story) with their own, usually similar sorts of blues for the current state of contemporary country music. Can’t we at least replace some of that thin and thumping, clichéd list-making, chest-beating posturing (and that’s just the women; sorry, couldn’t resist) with some thicker sort of thumping and posturing based on fresher lists?  I mean, it’s nice to see a hit that moves away from auto-pilot references to Johnny Cash to a fresh reference to Bruce Springsteen, but I suspect that record would be an easier fit on a rock chart if that chart wasn’t so late-stage sick itself. (Blake Boldt captured some of the ongoing unease nicely this week with his basically positive Underwood review that notes the record won’t “assuage the fears of those who are concerned about the state of country.”)

Well, I don’t want to overstate the case­–easy to do, given, a) the slow pace of releases that could serve as evidence pro or con  and  b) a possible dose of wishful thinking on my part—but I might be detecting early signs of a shift towards more substance  in content, and a more robust and convincingly “genre’s own” mix of sounds traditional and contemporary in at least some new country records this summer.

The new Alan Jackson, for instance.  I know, I know; he’s been more substance-oriented and more interested in mixing the traditional with the contemporary than most for the past couple of decades, but what’s interesting, I think, is that having gone more independent with the new Thirty Miles West CD, he turned to his maximally-talented nephew Adam Wright (and Jay Knowles) for what’s now the video single, “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Any More,” one of the more gripping, specific, fresh and potent country songs I’ve heard in some time now, utterly unmistakable as country.  Listen to it; that’s a real-life situation and feeling that’s fresh in song.  What a concept! Shawn Camp and Chris Stapleton songs are on there, too; the latter’s “Gonna Come Back as a Country Song” being a particularly novel piece of reincarnation.  I like that Jackson’s looked to a younger generation of writers in their prime—family included—and especially the result.  Writing with his son Bubba has worked some recent wonders —if not necessarily commercial ones—for George Strait, too, witness last year’s “Drinkin” Man,” a hard-hitting song that couldn’t be further from the overworked “Why Can’t We All Just Get a Long Neck?” par-tay beer mode.  (I demand, by the way, a five-year moratorium on all song references to beer.  There are other ways to go:  “This vodka will rockya.”  “A guy likes his rye.”  Anything.  Try water; the Sons of the Pioneers did.)  But I would encourage more performers to look to members of their family who happen to be talented.  Worked for Earl Scruggs and it can work for you.

 Also: An advanced thumbs up to some releases on the way that will remind people that substance and identifiably country sounds—not all retro and over-self-conscious, but understanding what tones are available form country old and new, are on the way in the weeks just ahead—from Easton Corbin, from Joey + Rory, to an interesting degree from Love and Theft, and, oh yes, from Waylon Jennings.   The current country chart is still chronically devoid of female presence except in groups, but some of the youngest men in the Billboard Top 20 are ones who’ve shown a proclivity for content and sonic surprises (Hunter Hayes, Brantley Gilbert), and some of the established acts are those who’ve shown strong leaps into surprise and harder country from time to time.

And then there’s something I’ve noticed in the image-making department, which, things going as they do now, may tell us more about what country music marketers are thinking, and where things may be going, than the songs or sounds.  Both Edens Edge and the even newer songwriter-rich band The Farm, are repeatedly depicted with one or more members of each trio grasping instruments—banjos, fiddles and guitars—which they actually play.  If this signals—and the sounds further suggest that it might—an attempt to pick up musically where the Dixie Chicks left off on chart country, musically, and in perception and presentation of the acts as committed country music makers—that could be significant.

And one more thing: nothing demands, especially, now, that everything in the country tent be radio-accepted, be designed to  generate massive hit singles, or to  be on a few major labels to reach country fans who care about matters substantive and sonic.  Kellie Pickler has not left the building, she may have just made sure she stays in it.  Seriously.

Fo now, these small signs all seem like light at the end of the tunnel from here.  If that’s just a train coming at me in the dark, well, there’s always room for trains in country.

1 Ping

  1. [...] ‘A guy likes his rye.’  Anything.  Try water; the Sons of the Pioneers did.” I loved this whole thing. I will now make my millions writing a love song using Diet Dr Pepper as the central metaphor. I [...]
  1. Ken Morton, Jr.
    July 23, 2012 at 10:32 am

    Kellie Pickler has not left the building, she may have just made sure she stays in it. Seriously.

    Barry, I sure hope you’re right here. When I heard the news, I couldn’t help but think that one of the few major label country artists that took a terrific big leap into the deep end of the lyric pool also took a bullet to her record deal in the process.

  2. Jon
    July 23, 2012 at 11:10 am

    Dean Berner of Edens Edge is definitely a serious player; among other things, he was the last dobro player in the Harley Allen Band.

  3. Rick
    July 23, 2012 at 10:13 pm

    Cheryll Green of Eden’s Edge was raised in a bluegrass family band and that gal also has some serious musical chops. I’ve twice seen them perform live acoustic sets in smaller venues and those young’uns flat know how to make good music. I’d love to hear the result if they went to Rounder and recorded a “Family & Friends” style album like Ricky Skaggs did back during the 1980’s. I’d highly recommend they invite Megan Mullins along too! (lol)

    Hey, it’s about time for Joey and Rory to step up and become the George and Tammy, or the Conway and Loretta of the new century! Somebody’s got to do it….

    PS – I rarely spring for new CD’s any longer but did buy the “Swings & Heartaches” album from Lilly of the West off CD Baby recently. Released back in April its a Bulgarian acoustic string band approach to some classic songs and it totally swings. Even the two Bulgarian traditional folk songs are starting to grow on me. Highly recommended for fans of “The Hot Club of Cowtown”. Rating: 4 Stars

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