What is Country Music? An Anthology of Artists’ Responses

Staff | December 30th, 2009

In 2009, we asked a number of country artists for their answer to the question “What is country music?” Here is an anthology of their answers.

    What is country music?

    “Well, I’m a traditional country artist. I always have been and I always will be. I love it so much—I always have—that when you speak of traditional country music, it’s like a religion to me. I didn’t get started seeking glory or seeking big dollars or being somebody big. I came into it because I loved what I was doing. I think Waylon Jennings put it the best way—I’ve got a plaque in there with a quote from him, I wish I could remember all the words to it. You can’t come to Nashville, New York, or wherever you’re going to try to get a start in the business…you can’t go in there with it in your mind of being a big star, making a lot of money and getting glorification out of it. You got to go in there with your heart and soul. My wife ran and got this plaque, and I want to read it to you: “You’ve got to care. You’ve got to care about the music. You work with other musicians who care, and your audience cares. You better care too, hoss, and if you don’t, you shouldn’t be doing it. You better not be doing it for the publicity, the fame, or the money. And you sure better not be doing it because it’s a way to make a living, ’cause that ain’t always gonna be easy. You got to believe it, believe in the music, you got to mean it, that’s all.” He told it like I’ve been trying to explain it for years. And I said “doggone, I can’t believe you came up with that.” (Laughing). George Jones

    “It’s definitely my life. From an early age, I’ve never wanted to do anything else. And I’ve never doubted it for a minute. There have been times in which I’ve asked if I’d ever get my chance or shot. I’ve kept with it and I love it. I don’t know what I would do without it. There’s really nothing else I’d rather do.” — Whitney Duncan

    “Country music, I believe, are ordinary stories told in an extraordinary way, certainly by extraordinary people in most cases. I think it’s just real life, and it’s almost like life’s soap opera, with all the pain, all the joy, all the heartache, all the emotions that a human being has. Country music has a way of doing that in the best way possible.” — Dolly Parton

    “It’s a slice out of real life. That’s what country music is supposed to represent. It’s stuff that real people can relate to. For me, it’s songs that you can call real. That’s what it’s supposed to represent- things that people can relate to.” — Rodney Atkins

    “Country music to me is real life. Just real life. That’s it.” — Tammy Cochran

    “That question covers a wide spectrum of answers there. It’s been such a big part of my life from day one. I mentioned my dad being a huge country fan. I grew up listening to all of the great country artists through the years. Besides my family, I’ve derived more enjoyment and more emotions from my life in country music than anything else in my life.” — Joe Diffie

    “I think it is real music for real people. It’s a very lyric-driven genre. It’s not about how many chords you can put in a song or what the production is like. That’s what I really like about it. It’s about a song. It’s really as simple as that fact.” — Phil Vassar

    “For me, country music is really just all about the song. Songwriting is such a big part of country music. From Johnny Cash to Waylon to Hank to all these others great songwriters–all those great writers that came before us make it really inspiring to go back and listen to their songs and then go write a song. It’s cool to me to see that they were writing about some of the same things back then. It’s just the world evolving and moving on a bit. It’s about relationships and the things you love. It’s all about the songwriting.” — Eric Gunderson of Love and Theft

    “It’s the fans. It’s these people that are passionate about it. They put it on as they’re driving across the country or are listening to it as they’re working in the shops or whatever it may be. This is their soundtrack of their life. And they embrace it passionately. We’re constantly blown away by what it means to people, what a huge part of people’s lives it is.” — Brian Bandas of Love and Theft

    “The best thing about country music is that it is simple and it’s pure. And honest. It’s music of the heartland. It’s middle America. Those are all of things I get much more now. I appreciate country music and the history of it and where it came from. And I appreciate, more than ever, great songwriters. That is a gift. There are those that are extremely gifted with songwriting. And for others it’s hard work. For me, I’m just one of those guys that has something to say but it’s going to take awhile for me to figure out how to say it. Sometimes it’s being around somebody else to help you get there. But I’m grateful. Country music has saved my life in a lot of ways. I don’t mean to be cheesy but it has. To have music in my life is amazing. I really don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t doing these. I’m grateful for all of the things I’ve had a chance to do because of country music. I’m just grateful to be in it.” — Bryan White

    “It’s the truth. It’s absolutely the truth. It’s my favorite genre of music to write because of that. I look forward to writing country songs because you can just tell it like it is. You don’t have to be complicated about it. It’s just three chords and the truth.”– Sherrie Austin

    “Obviously, it’s our means of existence. It pays the bills. But I just believe that I have such a passion for it. Any time that you find something that you love to do and you can make a living doing it, you are a blessed person. It’s almost like you don’t have to go to work anymore. It’s very intense and it’s very time-consuming and it puts a lot of stress on my family and our personal lives. But it’s making music out of little pieces of real life and putting it out there for the public. It can be therapy for them and it’s an opportunity to put to use a talent God gave us and hopefully make people smile.” — Darryl Worley

    “Country music is always changing. I think people’s opinions of what country music is are changing. There are a lot of different opinions. There are artists like Taylor Swift right now that are making a fortune right now and doing well. And I think she’s great. I’m proud of the fact that she writes all her own songs and she does a great job. But then you’ve got people like the legends that I think are overlooked. Guys like Merle, Waylon and Willie. Guys like Gene Watson. Guys that made this my music of choice. I wish that people could go back and rediscover them. I think a lot of those guys that paved the way for guys like me are all too often overlooked. Like George Strait’s early stuff. People today just don’t know anything about that and that music is just awesome. I’ve loved him since I was a kid. I don’t know how to wrap this up. Today, country music is a pretty broad spectrum. I’m just thankful that I still get to be a part of it.” — Wade Hayes

    “It’s storytelling. It is about making people think. It is about making people feel. It’s making people learn something about themselves. Whether it’s soul-searching or just having a good time, it is about making people feel. It’s real people doing real things.” — Jack Ingram

    “Country music to Ronnie Milsap is much more traditional I would say than country music of today. My roots are deep in Appalachia. Now I’ve certainly proven that over the years you can mix in a little R&B and rock and pop in the middle of it so I guess I’m a little mixture of all those kinds of things. But basically I’m more rooted in traditional country music than one might think.” — Ronnie Milsap

    “I hate to regurgitate a quote from someone we talked about earlier, but Ray Charles always said it was the stories. I think, unlike any other genre, it’s about keeping it simple. It’s not a lot of rocket science involved. It’s not about being cute. It’s about real emotion. You don’t have to bang your head trying to figure out what they mean or what they’re trying to say. I think that when I first began singing and entertained the idea of performing, I wrote songs that fell in those parameters. It’s real music that anybody can identify with. They’re emotional lyrics that you can feel. I’m a big fan of every kind of music genre. But I think country music, more than any genre, has a number one goal of trying to move somebody. I think of all the genres, it’s the most successful at that.” — David Nail

    “It’s my heart and soul, really. That’s all.” — Tracy Lawrence

    “Maybe the question might be, what is Steve Azar to country music? I know I am a bit of a mutt and I keep saying it. It matters to me, because where I grew up it is the closest genre to blues. The way you write songs, it is about real life and real stuff and every event matters. I was drawn to this town when I was a kid and I still think that as a songwriter, it is about being around all these great songwriters and gravitating toward them. To me it has been the biggest jump of my life. If I wouldn’t have been here, there is just no way I would be where I am today as far as a writer and as comfortable as I am writing about things and as open I am. You learn to truly be open. I credit this town for that. It isn’t just country music, it is this town and being on the road (which I run from now, because I itch when I am over there.) It is really about Nashville and how I was attracted to certain writers who helped mold me into who I am today.” — Steve Azar

    “Country music is the greatest representation, musically, of real life. Simply, it’s become American music. Rock and roll used to be American music, I think it’s become country now. We’re a pretty big umbrella—we’ve got some pop, we’ve got some country, we’ve got some rock. We’ve got this thing to pull from that’s pretty broad and diverse. I think the great thing about it is the growth we’ve seen country have from time-to-time. The contraction period—it always contracts to a truer place than it was before. I think that if we go through boom and bust and boom and bust, I think I see some really cool things right now. There’s a lot of really good singer-songwriter-driven music, a lot of real cool country music out there right now. I haven’t seen the fan base this songwriter-driven in a long, long time. I’m very excited about the future, and I can’t wait to be a part of it.” — Eric Church

    “Country music, to me, is the heart of the flyover country. That’s swinging a little bit of a narrow loop because there are country music fans all over the place. I think these songs, for the most part, are about simple people, people that work for a living. To a big extent, it’s the blue collar crowd. It’s good honest God-fearing people who work hard and enjoy their off time. They’re raising families and paying bills and paying taxes and get out to vote when it’s time to vote. Of course, there’s a lot of heartbreak songs and a lot of country music that’s any part of life. It’s a train whistle blowing at midnight like when you listen to Hank Williams and you get that old lonesome feeling there. It’s a honky-tonk with people line-dancing. Or it’s somebody somewhere sitting mad about some dog that they can’t spend any time with. It’s about looking at the world through the window of an eighteen wheeler. It’s about doing things. It’s about workin’. It’s about workin’ people. Just people. Ordinary people. You don’t think about country music playing to the people on Capitol Hill up in Washington. Or penthouses in New York–although they may. I’m not saying they’re not fans, but it don’t normally talk about their times in life. We talk about the life of the common folks. So, basically, that’s what country music is to me.” — Charlie Daniels

    “Country music to me, done really really well, is an entire novel written in three minutes. It’s a Broadway show in three minutes. It’s an entire lifetime in three minutes. A great country song can be a guiding post for someone’s life. It can really be that important. I love the fact that in country music, a lot of different styles can move in there and still be considered country music lyrically. To me, it’s about lyrics and storytelling. That’s all.” — Chris Roberts of One Flew South

    “Storytelling. It’s good honest storytelling. The best country music songs have always been based on something very real to the writer. The musicianship can be absolutely incredible but for me it always comes down to the storytelling. I’ve loved pop songs and can sing you every word, but can’t tell you what the hell they’re talking about. A good country song that’s start to finish good storytelling will mean a lot to a lot of people.” — Katie Cook

    A few variations on the question:

    What are your thoughts on the current state of country music?

    “When I look at the young people today, they’re catering to a young audience. It’s not as adult as it used to be…at the same time, at the age of 12 I was singing the songs of Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline. Loretta Lynn, she was a young girl writing songs about married life; you know, she was married at 14. So when you stop and think about that, it’s kind of bizarre. But I think for the most part, the music I hear today has a little bit more of a pop and ’70s, ’80s rock influence. That’s what a lot of the young people were brought up on: not only country music of the ’90s, but also what their parents listened to, which was the rock & roll music of the ’70s and ’80s.” — Patty Loveless

    What is the difference between pop music and country music?

    “Well, first off, country music, to me, is storytelling. And I know you could say that all different kinds of music are storytelling, but country music is a place for real musicians and, in my opinion, real songwriters and real singers. Nashville is the Mecca for people who are serious about music, whereas a pop artist might be serious about their dance moves or their body or their image. Country music is for people who are serious about their music.” — Tom Gossin of Gloriana

    “And you know what else it is, country music also has this element of respect for all of the artists who have put the foundation in place. And with pop, it’s like “What’s the next new phase?” What’s the next cool thing? With country music it’s all about tradition and paying your dues and being respectful. And loving the artists that came before you, even if it was 50 years ago.” — Rachel Reinert of Gloriana

    What does is mean to be a country music singer in 2009?

    “I think that at the place where country music is right now, being in the middle of it and being able to look around and see what all is going on, a lot of the people who we know and look up to are starting to kinda fade out a little bit. They’re starting to maybe explore their own personal lives a bit and maybe not do as much music. And so we’re seeing a whole new generation rising in country music right now. And it’s kinda wild to be a part of it, just for the fact that it’s like all of these new acts kinda control where it’s going. So I feel like it’s our responsibility to do country music justice and be loyal to the actual genre, not to be something other. There’s a lot of people out there that love good country music. And we can’t forget that that’s what we are. We’re not rock and roll, we’re not anything other than country. It’s cool to bring in our rock and roll influences and pay our respects to people of other genres who we’ve grown up listening to. But at the end of the day we’ve gotta be loyal to what we are. Because the torch is being passed to all of these new groups. And it’s an honor to be one of them.” ” — Will Snyder of Caitlin & Will

  1. Andrew
    December 30, 2009 at 11:48 am

    To add a couple, here’s what I got from the Eli Young Band back in October:

    “Country music has always been about real life stories and the lyric is always the most important thing. It’s what’s driving the whole genre, I think. People are listening for that story and listening for that moment of wow and that last line that knocks it out of the park.” – Mike Eli, vocals

    “We really like that it’s driven by the melody and it seems like a very honest type of music. That’s what we really like about it. The song is the most important thing about the music, if that makes sense, whereas in a lot of other types of music there’s so many other hype things that country music can be a little more pure.” – Jon Jones, bass

    “I was reading a quote the other day, and it was Eric Church talking in Rolling Stone and he said, ‘Country music is the new American music.’ I really agree with that. Just like the Chuck Berrys and the Elvis Presleys back in the day when all that first started rock and roll. It was R&B and it was soul and all of that. That’s what I think country kind of is now. It’s the voice of American music.” – James Young, guitar

  2. plain_jo
    December 30, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    My fav response is Tracy Lawrence.

  3. Nicolas
    December 30, 2009 at 12:17 pm

    I love Dolly Parton’s response =)

  4. Dan Milliken
    December 30, 2009 at 12:54 pm

    I really think Dolly captures it better than just about anybody I’ve heard. All this “real stories about real people” stuff is like skating around what she was able to articulate there. Chris Roberts’ response is also very insightful. I think you could put the two together and have a good basic understanding of how country music works.

  5. Steve M.
    December 30, 2009 at 3:16 pm

    I love the artists who talked about themselves in the third person. Pretty revealing.

  6. Rick
    December 30, 2009 at 5:54 pm

    Oh, this one is easy to answer these days: “Taylor Swift”! That’s just freakin’ awesome…

  7. CJ
    December 30, 2009 at 9:51 pm

    Here is Taylor Swift’s definition as can be read at The Boot site:
    “I think a country song is when you are singing about being proud of your life,” Taylor tells CNN. “I sing about love and boys, and that’s my life. So that’s what fascinates me — feelings. And so I think if you’re singing and writing songs about the way that you live your life, that’s a country song.”
    Wow, so deep.

  8. Tara Seetharam
    December 30, 2009 at 10:57 pm

    This is fascinating. Thanks for compiling.

  9. BRETT ROBERTS
    December 30, 2009 at 11:47 pm

    Harlan Howard said it best it’s three chords & the truth

  10. Charles Murphy
    December 31, 2009 at 9:00 am

    –Country Music today is auto tuned singers recording songs that won’t be remembered after the promotions department pays/favors/pushes it up the charts to whatever position they (labels) decide is acceptable.
    –Country Music today is about hearing an artist on record that cannot come close to singing the same stuff live.
    –Country Music today is about cliche after cliche about how country or rural some singer is.
    –Country Music today is about the “breakdown” in the arrangement after the guitar solo…not the steel or fiddle solo because there are less and less of those in each song.
    –Country Music today is about artists that refer to themselves in third person and belive they control their universe when in fact it is the label they are signed to that decide how far they will soar or how quickly they will fall. Meaning it is more about politics on Music Row than the songs or the show.
    –Country Music today is about singers so desparate for the possible short time attention that will be paid to their narcissistic personalities, they will sign deals that benefit the powers on The Row and leave them broke and unknown in a few years.

    Give me the country music of older, true artists when it seemed to be more about the song and the true talent of the artists.

  11. Jon
    December 31, 2009 at 9:34 am

    So, I recently acquired a number of back issues of Bluegrass Unlimited that filled in some gaps in my collection, and I was interested – though far from surprised – to note that letters to the editor regularly complained about how far the country music (usually with quote marks around “country”) had strayed from its roots, how untalented its biggest singers were, how forgettable the songs, etc., compared to the country music of older, true artists, in issue dates ranging from 1967 to 1971.

  12. BT
    January 1, 2010 at 7:04 pm

    I wonder what David Allan Coe would say…

  13. Jon G.
    January 4, 2010 at 12:31 am

    I need a bracelet that says that: WWDACS?

  14. GM Jones
    January 13, 2010 at 4:24 pm

    I agree with Wade and think some of the older greats and their music have been surely overlooked. Why can’t there be room for both? There is nothing sweeter to the ears than a good ol’ honky tonk song…………….

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