Your Take: Musical Influences on Country Music

Karlie Justus Marlowe | June 6th, 2009

In her review of Eli Young Band’s new single “Radio Waves,” Juli noted the song has a considerable resemblance to the tunes of ‘90s rock band Gin Blossoms. I also found a similar influence on Darius Rucker’s “Alright,” which contained some of the sounds of ‘90s pop-rock band Sister Hazel.

This trend comes on the heels of the recent bubblegum pop influence on country music, which reader Jon noticed in the comments of Juli’s review. Here is his response to a previous comment by J.R. Journey, in italics:

“[I]’ve slowly come to appreciate the EYB as the anti-Flatts. Their melodies and lyrics, while equally catchy and aimed at the same demographic, convey a coolness and aplomb that all the Rascal Flatts power ballads are lacking.

This comment, along with others and the tenor of the review itself, confirms an observation I made some time ago (and which has been fortified on innumerable occasions since) – namely, that arguments about what is or isn’t country often are displaced arguments about tastes in the different kinds of musics that influence country. Alternative rock influences are cool, so they don’t prompt “that’s not country” rants; pop influences aren’t, so they do. But of course, from the perspective of a knowledgeable country music fan, they’re all just influences that bring new materials and ways of doing things into what’s always been a broad genre, and hence they’re fungible. As a country fan, why should I prefer country music that’s been influenced by Semisonic or the Gin Blossoms to music that’s been influenced by Britney Spears? And why should I consider it less “non-country?”

What do you make of Jon’s observation–do different influences from other musical genres (pop, rock, bluegrass, hip-hop) make a song more or less country? Is this a matter of personal taste, groupthink mentality or just a cyclical commercial influence?

  1. Paul W Dennis
    June 6, 2009 at 7:47 am

    a pox on all the pollutants !

  2. Vicki
    June 6, 2009 at 8:05 am

    You can’t say that Paul. What about Bob Wills? There was definitely some swing, blues and jazz in his music. What about Dwight Yoakam? He had some 50’s rock in his music.

  3. K-Man
    June 6, 2009 at 9:29 am

    If all music on the radio sounded like George Strait, radio would getting very boring, very fast. So it’s nice when artists shake things up and add some different musical flares to their music.

    Obviously “She’s Country” and “You Belong With Me” aren’t as country as some of the other stuff out there, but that’s OK because it gives us some variety, so that the radio isn’t filled with the same sounding music all the time.

  4. Razor X
    June 6, 2009 at 9:43 am

    Obviously “She’s Country” and “You Belong With Me” aren’t as country as some of the other stuff out there, but that’s OK because it gives us some variety, so that the radio isn’t filled with the same sounding music all the time.

    But that’s precisely the problem — radio is filled with the same sounding music all the time. The music has been watered down to appeal to a wider demographic and has become mind-numbingly dull in the process. Introducing some new sounds to the genre would be fine, if everyone wasn’t simultaneously offering the same “new” sounds.

    Back in the ’80s, there was a lot of the same argument going on about the music becoming too pop-oriented, but the difference between then and now is that there was much more variety on the radio. You could hear Kenny Rogers, Lee Greenwood and Rosanne Cash alongside Ricky Skaggs, Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard. Today, with the notable exceptions of Jackson and Strait, hardcore country music doesn’t get much airplay.

  5. Drew
    June 6, 2009 at 9:54 am

    I’ll echo what Razor said… there’s not even a juxtaposition anymore as far as radio goes, unless you’re on SIRIUS or something. All the country stations endlessly subject you to the same pop all day, sparsed with the dying breed that’s still relevant like Strait.

  6. Jon
    June 6, 2009 at 10:53 am

    Thanks for picking up on my comments, Karlie, but my point wasn’t that different influences make music more or less country, it was that when people single out *some* kinds of influences as “watering down” country while approving of others, or even just ignoring them, they’re basically serving up arguments about other genres disguised as an argument about country music.

    So while I disagree with Paul about “pollutants,” because I see country music as having been heterogenous from the outset and always subject to influences from other kinds of music (and that’s my answer to your question), I think his comment underlines the validity of the observation. He seems not to care whether they’re rock, pop, hip-hop, jazz or other influences; they’re “all” pollutants (though I have to add that his list of 70s favorites includes quite a few “polluted” entries ;-) ), and the difference between that attitude and the ones that informed much of the discussion of the Eli Young Band’s record (not to mention a lot of other discussion here) is what I wanted to focus on.

    As far as country radio goes, when I read comments about how it all sounds the same – watered down to the point of mind-numbingness – I always wonder whether those making them aren’t listening (and therefore speaking largely out of ignorance) or whether they are – and therefore ‘fessing up to having numb minds ;-).

  7. J.R. Journey
    June 6, 2009 at 10:56 am

    I’m going to have to think about this some more …

    This is an excellent talking point though – so many of us are guilty for permitting some influences into country while poo-pooing others, because they are ‘cool’. I am guilty too.

  8. Paul W Dennis
    June 6, 2009 at 11:02 am

    Obviously music evolves and just as obviously artists will have their influences. The problem arises when the influence supplants the original genre to the point where the genre is indistinguishable from the influence. Bob Wills is sort of an interesting example because he comes at the dawn of the modern country music era (western swing really was not perceived, at the time,as being country music). Western swing has many influences yet it clearly cannot be mistaken for blues , jazz, pop or country music – it is unmistakeably western swing as are practitioners such as Alvin Crow, Milton Brown, Johnny Gimble or Asleep At The Wheel.

    Unfortunately much of today’s country music is insufficiently country to be instantly recognizable as such. When I travel I usually need to listen to several songs in order to tell what kind of radio station I’ve tuned in. If they play some Alan Jackson or Brad Paisley I know I’ve hit a country station. If following an ambiguous song (as to genre) I hear Cat Stevens or Aerosmith, I’ve hit a rock station: if I hear Celine Dion its an AC or pop station.

    That never was the case 25 years ago, with the exception of tuning in a station playing a Kenny Rogers or Anne Murray number – then I might need to wait to hear a second song

  9. Stormy
    June 6, 2009 at 1:06 pm

    The big prtoblem with “influences” these days is that they are more imitation than inspiration. When a bandthrows a big Def Leppard-esque guitar solo into your song, they aren’t being inspired by Def Leppard, they are ripping them off badly. We already had a bad Def Leppard rip off band–it was called Poisen–we don’t need another one.

  10. Kelly
    June 6, 2009 at 2:22 pm

    “when I read comments about how it all sounds the same – watered down to the point of mind-numbingness – I always wonder whether those making them aren’t listening (and therefore speaking largely out of ignorance) or whether they are – and therefore ‘fessing up to having numb minds ;-)”

    So Jon, one isnt allowed to make general observations about what they hear on the radio and deem that there are similarities from a broad standpoint as it pertains to the generally bland and “vanilla” product that is often-times receiving the most airplay? I dont think the people you are referring to are saying that “What Huts the Most” sounds the same sonically as “Love Story”…

  11. Noeller
    June 6, 2009 at 5:16 pm

    The reason I’m a huge Eric Church fan, is that he brings a lot of influences to Country that I also enjoy. I grew up as a fan of both Rock and Country in the 90s, and it’s apparent that Eric did, too. I love Waylon Jennings, and I love Nirvana. For me, Eric brings both of those and creates something that I can really get behind.

    With that said, it raises a good point: Am I allowed to complain about the influx of pop-style music in Country, while praising the Rock?

  12. Jim Malec
    June 6, 2009 at 6:27 pm

    The problem I have with Jon’s comment is that he presents an all-or-nothing scenario where a genre either has inflexible boundaries (e.g. his constant demand that we definitively answer what country music is) or no boundaries (e.g. that country music is defined only by how it is marketed and consumed).

  13. Mike Parker
    June 6, 2009 at 7:04 pm

    I think the simple truth is that in order to encompass the contemporary country music that I enjoy, I have to let my definition of country expand to include a lot of the stuff I don’t. I don’t like watching Rascal Flatts win awards, but hey, I got to see Jamey Johnson take one home too.

    I’m also pretty sure that RF really does have a lot of genuine fans. Whether or not those fans are simply unenlightened is debatable, but I don’t think RF’s belonging in country music is.

    Doesn’t matter if I like it or not, it’s not like there’s a missing link here. The genre spun into what it is, and it didn’t change overnight. Country has always been influenced by outside artists, and those outside artists have been influenced by country. Maybe what we have here is the melting pot of music, with pop music morphing into a combination of all popular genres. Still, there will always be those artists who refuse to conform, who prefer to stick to their roots and turn their backs to the money of the masses… and my playlist will be full of ‘em.

  14. Chris D.
    June 6, 2009 at 9:13 pm

    As long as the music is good, I really don’t mind. Music can be really country, but still terrible and it can be poppy, but excellent.

    As of now, radio music does sound way too much alike, and I hate boring-ness, so risks and being different is cool. Right now, on radio, being more country is being different, but that may not always be the case, nor has it always been the case.

    I just like good music, and the unoriginality of the current radio songs is what really makes it bad.

  15. Razor X
    June 6, 2009 at 10:40 pm

    So Jon, one isnt allowed to make general observations about what they hear on the radio and deem that there are similarities from a broad standpoint as it pertains to the generally bland and “vanilla” product that is often-times receiving the most airplay?

    Apparently not. And no matter what we say, we’re all wrong anyway, as I’m sure will be pointed out to us momentarily.

  16. Lazeras
    June 6, 2009 at 10:44 pm

    My biggest gripe at modern country radio is all the songs are based on the same theme and same lyrics. Take that song “Smalltown USA” that freaking song makes me want to smash my radio, all it is is one tired worn out cliche after another. And the song “where I’m from” is another cliche-riddled monstrosity. It seems like someone in nashville is just sitting around chopping up tired old songs and mixing the lyrics together in other tired new songs, and the freaking radio stations play the crap and the public listens to it. And all the male singers have exactly the same irritating wanna be country voice, makes me want to take their guitars (that most of them can’t play) and bash them over the head with it. Most of the females are the same way, exactly the same style of singing, and over-singing every bloody lyric in the songs, makes them unlistenable.

  17. Steve Harvey
    June 7, 2009 at 12:51 am

    I agree with Lazeras.

  18. Ben Milam
    June 7, 2009 at 2:30 pm

    i think there are fewer country artists coming from the “country”. as there are fewer and fewer people living in rural areas and therefore fewer people have the experiences that defined the roots of country music. back when hank williams and jimmie rogers were honing the songwriting craft, every other person (40%)you met worked on a farm/ranch or lived in a rural area.

    today that number is less than 2%. so if 98% of the population lives in a metropolitan area, then why wouldn’t the music reflect that? our society is changing why wouldn’t our music and culture change? i think its just a matter of more listeners being unable to relate to “real country” themes. for example: i was talking with a friend who said she loves country music except for certain kinds. when i pressed her on the issue she said she didn’t like the moaning, whining sound that some of the songs had. i played her the song “a ghost to most” by the drive-by truckers. the song features lap-steel work by jon neff. the truckers aren’t what i call country. anyway, she says “that’s it, that’s the sound i can’t stand!” she can’t stand the sound of a steel guitar. which for a country music fan to say, is to me is like christians against christ. or like clayton bigsby the black “white supremacist”.

    but think about it, how much modern country music has the steel guitar and fiddle anymore? i mention these two because it seems to me that they are two of the main ingredients in traditional country music. i think with out these two essential instruments, you don’t get the same feeling of a country song. anyway, that’s my take. country music is changing because society is changing. i have ribs to grill and longhorn baseball to watch. enjoy your sunday. ben

  19. Stormy
    June 7, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    But country music was not just rural music, it was also the songbook of the working class.

  20. Rose
    June 8, 2009 at 12:05 am

    Yeah, I don’t think it’s fair to make the statement that pop country isn’t real country but rock-influenced country is. I think it’s fair to say that you LIKE rock-influenced country over the pop stuff (or vice versa) and even that you think it’s better quality, but I sure don’t like getting into that “REAL country is…” territory. Music evolves. Not necessarily in a great direction, but it still has to run its course whether we like it or not. Only time will make us look back and think, “Yeesh, we actually listened to that?”

  21. Jon
    June 8, 2009 at 8:35 am

    Kelly: “So Jon, one isnt allowed to make general observations about what they hear on the radio and deem that there are similarities from a broad standpoint as it pertains to the generally bland and “vanilla” product that is often-times receiving the most airplay?”

    One is “allowed” to do whatever one likes. My point relates to the inescapable logical conclusions of some observations. If what’s on the radio is “mind-numbing” and you listen to it enough to make knowledgeable observations about it, then your mind has been numbed, and if your mind hasn’t been numbed, then you can’t have listened very much, and hence your observations aren’t very informed.

    Jim: “The problem I have with Jon’s comment is that he presents an all-or-nothing scenario where a genre either has inflexible boundaries (e.g. his constant demand that we definitively answer what country music is) or no boundaries (e.g. that country music is defined only by how it is marketed and consumed).”

    In the first place, that sidesteps, rather than addresses, my comment with respect to different influences on country music; what it addresses, instead, is either a misunderstood or misrepresented version of comments I’ve made at other times. I’ve made no “constant demand” that anyone definitively answer what country music is (though I would think that folks who express themselves so belligerently with respect to what is and isn’t country would have at least the broad outlines of an answer); what I have typically asked, with respect to specific songs, is for folks claiming that they aren’t country to identify which essential country elements are missing or which elements are present that can’t be present in a country performance – generally without any kind of coherent or meaningful response. And, on the other hand, taking the other point – that, as Jim crudely reduces it, “country music is defined only by how it is marketed and consumed” – at face value, it’s apparent that such a position isn’t in any way tantamount to saying that country music has “no boundaries,” for there is a great mass of music that is neither marketed nor consumed as country music.

    Anyway, I see that a couple of folks – J. R., Noeller, Mike Parker, et.al. – got the point. It really is worth thinking about.

  22. Chris N.
    June 8, 2009 at 10:34 am

    Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Also, zzzzz.

  23. Jon
    June 8, 2009 at 1:26 pm

    Surely you could have spared one more “z.”

  24. Chris N.
    June 8, 2009 at 3:43 pm

    Z.

  25. Jon
    June 8, 2009 at 5:15 pm

    ;-).

  26. Guy
    June 12, 2009 at 11:02 am

    Artists, writers and producers often use the Country “market” to get airplay and have success — regardless of whether or not they’re loyal to or “really” Country at all.

    That’s the main reason there are so many “non-Country” influences in “Country” music.

  27. Guy
    June 12, 2009 at 11:07 am

    What we would need is another “market” / another “chart” / another “label” for the Pop-Soft Rock hybrid stuff that’s filling much of the Country airwaves these days.

    Maybe a “Real Country” chart versus a “Flatt Country” chart (??!?!!)

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