Your Take: What’s In a Name?

Karlie Justus Marlowe | July 17th, 2010

Yesterday, Juli posted a profile on Hellbound Glory, a Reno-based band with a mash-up of sonic influences. The group characterizes its sound as “scumbag country,” the latest in a recent spurt of country and bluegrass sub-genres:

Though the band’s lineup has changed often over the past five years, their sound, which Virgil describes as “scumbag country,” (a blend of classic country, rockabilly, and a dash of bluegrass) has remained the same. The term, more endearing than it may seem, was actually coined by fellow country singer Johnny Dilks. Virgil explains, “[We] stayed up until about 5 AM picking guitars and taking pills and drinking booze and all that stuff. The next day he woke up and said ‘You know what, you’re just a scumbag.’ I said, ‘You know what, you’re absolutely right.’ We took on the term ’scumbag’ as kind of a good thing; I don’t think anybody’s used it before and I got tired of describing our music as ‘outlaw country.’”

The always-reliable Wikipedia lists more than 50 different sub-genres of country and bluegrass, from Cowpunk and Gothic Americana to Techno-country and Nu-grass. (And Death Country, and Pop-Country, and…)

Back in January, CMT’s Chet Flippo wrote a Nashville Skyline article titled “Why the Term ‘Country Music’ May Disappear” that looked at country music’s many names:

Some people regard all of that as country music — and some don’t. Some like all or many parts or sub-genres of it — and some like only one or two or three areas. Many fans of ’70s rock have discovered that today’s mainstream country is ’70s rock. And some bluegrass is actually closer to jazz than to country.

So, will those genres continue to exist as genres or even sub-genres if all the artists therein will be regarded mainly as providers of songs (or “tracks”) to be downloaded? As albums increasingly cease to be a dominant factor, which areas of country will fade and blur into some other area or simply disappear altogether?

What’s your take on the ever-expanding umbrella of “country music”? Do you think sub-genres help music listeners identify their own favorite niches, or do they fragment the industry as a whole? What are your favorite sub-genres of country music?

Also, what are your thoughts on Flippo’s question on the current popularity of single song downloads – will genres or sub-genres as we know them continue to exist if their artists are regarded mainly as providers of songs (or “tracks”) to be downloaded?

  1. Rick
    July 17, 2010 at 10:39 am

    I do think that sub-genres help fans identify new artists they may like that exist within that particular stylistic and marketing niche. I’m glad that current neo-traditionalsit female artists like Amber Digby, Miss Leslie, Kimberly Murray, Teea Goans, and Brennen Leigh (among others) all get lumped together because if you like one of these artists you’re inclined to like the others as well. It makes the process of discovering new artists in those niches much easier.

    As for fragmentation, I personally don’t mind the country music realm being a big tent embracing a wide variety of styles, well except for all the rock music masquerading as country these days. The increasing marketplace fragmentation occurs partly due to Top 40 country radio having such a narrow focus these days. Mainstream country has become a thin (and repetitive) slice of the country music pie and to hear anything else apart from that music typically requrires an active search. This can be in the form of satellite radio, syndicated bluegrass and Americana radio programs, and all the internet has to offer, but none of it is as simple or easy as turning on your radio while driving in your car.

    Sadly I feel traditional, mainstream country music styles from the 40’s through the 60’s have become a niche and are heading for near extinction among younger artists and listeners as the primary fan base is older people. Also there are no organizations to support this style of music on any broad scale, ie no festivals or awards ceremonies for such music. Like cowboy music and western swing before it, I think the historic forms of “classic country” music (apart from bluegrass) will become ever smaller and isignificant niches in the country music universe.

  2. Paul W Dennis
    July 17, 2010 at 1:20 pm

    I agree with Rick entirely. The term country music really doesn’t mean much anymore, not when you have acts such as Rascall Flatts and Bomshell that no country fan of 30 years would have recognized as being even remotely country had they heard the band back then. Other acts (Lady A, Love and Theft) might have been recognized by fans from 30 ago as having some remote country influences.

    Still, bluegrass was almost dead 30 years ago and has enjoyed a revival so maybe honky tonk can yet be resurrected

  3. Michelle
    July 17, 2010 at 1:24 pm

    I never realized sub-genres existed in country music, until discovering The 9513. I would hear a song on the radio and wonder, why are they playing this pop song on a country station. What I consider traditional country is pretty much history except for a select few, but I like a lot of the newer artists. It doesn’t have to be traditional for me to like it, but it should sound like it belongs in the country genre(imo). What I think sounds country may not sound country to the next guy. I resent pop music being played on country stations, though. Country songs about tractors,and farming doesn’t bother me. It amazes me to hear people say, “Oh, he’s trying to sound too country” by singing about those things. I don’t think todays country music sounds like 70s rock.

  4. Thomas
    July 17, 2010 at 2:03 pm

    …if i don’t recognise a song as a country song anymore, it’s simply not a country song in my book, no matter what kind of fancy name it’s given to position it. actually, it still may be good music – just not country.

    my favourite sub-genres are: bottom of the ocean country, edge of cornfield country, west of new jersey country, cactus-blossom country, tumble-weed free country, west virgina shopping-mall-exit country.

    single downloads are a cheaper way of downloading eps without paying for fillers.

  5. Stormy
    July 17, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    Sub genres in music exist because they are necessary for word of mouth promotion. I don’t even know if subgenre is the right word, or if its more “descriptive short hand.” For example, if you tell someone that Jill King is “Lilith,” they know she fits between “Sheryl Crow and Sara Mclachlan.” “Sub-genres” are useful because you don’t have to go into the whole “Kind of like artist A with a dash or artist B and C, but a fiddle player that sounds like artist G and lyrically more like artist M.”

  6. K
    July 17, 2010 at 5:03 pm

    “I agree with Rick entirely. The term country music really doesn’t mean much anymore, not when you have acts such as Rascall Flatts and Bomshell that no country fan of 30 years would have recognized as being even remotely country had they heard the band back then. Other acts (Lady A, Love and Theft) might have been recognized by fans from 30 ago as having some remote country influences.”

    Are you honestly going to use Love And Theft and Lady Antebellum as examples of remotely country acts?

    Love and Theft had ONE song out-even as a huge fan of modern country music, I found the song to be a perfect fit for pop radio.

    Lady Antebellum had more of a country sound when they first started- now I would argue that they are probably the most pop-leaning group on country radio. “Need You Now” was blantantly remixed to Shania-esq proportions. This song makes Taylor Swift’s remixes seem appropriate for country radio. Listen to “Our Kind Of Love” next to “Unstoppable”- I would openly call LA much more pop.

    Listen to the earlier work of Rascal Flatts next to the modern work of any popular group today- you will find more country influences than you think. A lot of their work has great storytelling- something that’s a huge part of country music-and something acts like Love And Theft and LA openly lack in their music.

    That’s my biggest problem with discussing pop-country and sub-generes of country music. People are always too busy griping about how “so and so isn’t country” instead of focusing on the quality of the music.

    Judging by these comments, I’d venture to say most people griping about current country music don’t listen to enough pop music. There’s little storytelling, and most of it is so overproduced and cluttered you won’t get anything out of it by the end. Current pop music seems to focus more on the sound and production of songs, rather than the storytelling element embeded in country music.

    Let’s put it this way: The Zach Brown Band may be “more country” than most of the acts on country radio, but even they cannot please fans of Waylon and Jennings. Nothing they ever hear on current country radio will satisfy them- what’s the use of complaining about it? It won’t matter which act is more “country” than another, because most of the most would fit under the same qualification- it’s not country.

  7. Julia Hughan
    July 17, 2010 at 6:49 pm

    I feel that the ever-expanding umbrella of “country music” is a positive thing. I think that people are becoming less concerned with the term ‘genre’ (I am not referring to core audiences but the wider casual music consumer).

    If audiences are not thinking about labels (pop country, bluegrass, newgrass, neo-trad etc) then one of the benefits is that audiences will be more willing to consider new ideas and listen to a wider range of music.

    With that said, the biggest challenge for me this year has been defining country music. What I have found is that it is a loaded term, ever evolving and open to interpretation. Purists will disagree with me but the definition of country music has never been more subjective and that is reflected in this ‘ever-expanding umbrella’.

  8. Ben Foster
    July 17, 2010 at 8:41 pm

    I sure hope the term “country music” doesn’t disappear anytime soon. At the very least, I won’t abandon it easily. I have become somewhat attatched to the term because of all the pleasant things I’ve associated it with.

    I think subgenres are useful in helping listeners identify their favorite kinds of music. It’s hard to say what my favorite country subgenre is, though I do highly favor traditional country. Many of my favorite country songs are those that strike a balance between traditional country and contemporary country. I often enjoy country music that has a hint of pop influence while still showing a strong connection to traditional country. The mainstream country hits of the 80s and 90s exemplified this quality, in my opinion.

    Even though country music is becoming increasingly pop-heavy, I think it is still recognized as a seperate genre, and I can’t see that changing in the foreseeable future.

  9. Nicolas
    July 17, 2010 at 10:58 pm

    I don’t really care for sub-genres… I just listen to something and decide if its country or not and move on.

  10. Matt Bjorke
    July 18, 2010 at 1:40 am

    Genres exist and will always exist. I think, by and large, listners are changing. They like a wider variety of sounds and want a radio station (if they even listen to one) to play all those kinds of songs. “Pop” used to be this but it seems that now, more than ever, “Country radio” has become the place for this to happen, even if it leaves out – for the time being – rap or ‘spoken word’ songs.

  11. Thomas
    July 18, 2010 at 1:50 am

    @ K

    …i’m a fan of waylon and jennings as well as zach and brown. yep, i like the whole bunch.

  12. Benny
    July 18, 2010 at 7:41 am

    I don’t think the term Country music will go away anytime soon and don’t see it threatened by Pop-Country either. There’s always been Pop-Country anyway, in the 60s there was Eddy Arnold or Ray Price (who got a lot of shit when he abandoned the shuffle in order to become a MOR-singer). In the 80s Kenny Rogers, Eddie Rabbitt and others were closer to Adult Contemporary than hard Country in sound and often crossed over etc. I like a lot of Pop-Country myself when it’s good (Rascall Flatts or Lady A are NOT).

    I don’t think too much sub-categorization helps much, it should be kept more general, though a term like “scumbag country” can be used to describe an individual sound pretty good and they’re also good for marketing the “individuality” of an act, in these postmodern “anything-goes” times you’ll find any combination if you look and all kinds of revival acts too. The main thing is that it’s good of course.. just “play the song and let the people decide..” etc.. Personally i like my classic Honky Tonk most of all, also the old Nashville Sound as well as neo-traditional stuff and yes some Country-Pop.. So mainstream Country of the past and present if you will, with passing interest in Bluegrass, Alt.-Country & Songwriters..

    I don’t think downloads are dangerous either, I have a feeling what Country fans like is the close connection to the artist, that the artist is more than just a provider of song. What’s also special about Country is the line of tradition that’s kept, older and newer acts interacting for example as they appear at the Opry at the same time and new acts cover old songs, duetting with legends etc. etc. you don’t find that much in other music..

  13. Paul W Dennis
    July 18, 2010 at 8:06 am

    K – you apparently didn’t read my post with much comprehension. Since 30 years ago we’ve had artists who were influenced by the Haggard & Frizzell, artists who were influenced by artists who were influenced by the Eagles, Haggard & Frizzell, and artists who influenced by artists who were influenced by artists who were influenced by the Eagles, Hagggard, Alabama & Frizzell. That connection to Haggard & Frizzell is getting ever more watered down

  14. Ben Milam
    July 18, 2010 at 10:24 am

    i can’t tell you what country music is. but like irony, i know it when i see it.

  15. Jon
    July 18, 2010 at 10:43 am

    That connection to Haggard & Frizzell is getting ever more watered down

    Well, of course it is. We are almost 60 years away from Lefty Frizzell’s heyday, which is even further than, say, George Jones was from Eck Robertson, Fiddlin’ John Carson and the Carter Family back in the 70s – and his music’s connection to theirs was no stronger. It’s called the passage of time, and this kind of “watering down” is not only inevitable, but natural and healthy.

    But – and this gets to the question Karlie asks – back in the 70s, you could find musicians whose music was much closer to those OLD styles, and the same holds true today, though just as you didn’t hear the Highwoods String Band on mainstream country radio back during Haggard’s heyday, you’re not going to hear MIss Leslie on mainstream country radio today. The challenge is to create infrastructures that are capable of sustaining a variety of country music styles without mainstream radio airplay. And in this respect, I think Rick is largely right – for various historical reasons, such an infrastructure basically exists for bluegrass (kind of the granddaddy of “sub-genres”), but no so much for other categories.

    More broadly, let me suggest that it’s worth keeping in mind that categorization and definition might serve different functions in different contexts.

  16. Paul W Dennis
    July 18, 2010 at 1:06 pm

    I don’t know – I hear a lot more connection to Jimmie Rodgers & The Carter family in George Jones’ music than I hear a connection to George Jones in the music of Lady Antebellum or Rascal Flatts.

    I also don’t know about bluegrass being the granddaddy of “sub-genres”, since honky-tonk actually sprung up before what we would recognize as bluegrass. Bluegrass tends to get credited with the roots of acoustic country (stringband country), whereas in reality bluegrass is an offshoot rather than a linear descendent of stringband country. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people refer to Roy Acuff, Grandpa Jones, the Carter Family,the Bailes Brothers and Doc Watson as ‘bluegrass’ when they are nothing of the kind

    Currently the infrastrucure for bluegrass exists, but I suspect its hold also is tenuous

  17. Jon
    July 18, 2010 at 1:38 pm

    I call bluegrass the granddaddy of “sub-genres” because it’s the first of the surviving sub-genres to have been marginalized, largely banished from mainstream country radio decades before honky tonk was. And it’s not in any danger of disappearing, either.

  18. Fizz
    July 18, 2010 at 1:46 pm

    I don’t mind the different subcategories. It’s useful as a way to describe an artist’s sound. Just saying “country music” only goes so far, because Carrie Underwood, Waylon Jennings, Becky Hobbs, and Those Poor Bastards are all country artists, but all sound completely different from one another. What I don’t like is when categories get too rigid, or people take them too seriously, and don’t give an artist consideration because somebody else put them in this certain little box.

    This sort of fragmentation has been happening in all kinds of music as well. It’s been going on in heavy metal for three decades now, with thrash-metal, pop-metal, death-metal, black-metal, doom-metal, and all these other nitpicky sub-subgenres like Swedish melodic death-metal or symphonic black-metal or southern sludge-metal, or whatever.

    And then, it can just be fun to come up with your own names for different styles. Hallmark-card country, ‘burb-billy country, teabagger-country, whatever.

  19. Fizz
    July 18, 2010 at 1:47 pm

    It’s different from “movements” in country’s past, where a term like “Bakersfield sound,” or “urban-cowboy country” referred to a specific time period or place. Now it all goes on at once.

  20. Razor X
    July 18, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    I’m not sure why Flippo thinks that genre classifications will disappear once digital sales overtake physical ones. Take a look at the iTunes store; everything is still broken down by genre, and presumably music will still be marketed to radio as distinct genres.

  21. Matt Bjorke
    July 18, 2010 at 2:39 pm


    I agree with you here. Genres are and will still be around. Digital sales will overtake physical in one way or another, either as downloads, a cloud streaming/download service (where your purchases are ‘stored’ online) or a pure streaming service a la Rhapsody.

    People still want to ‘own’ the music, especially for their car. until all homes have the access to high speed internet, country fans are going to get their music from somewhere, or not get it at all and be ‘slaves’ to their radio dials. Part of the problem with this issue is that if they can’t access the internet easily enough to download and Walmart stores stop selling music, where will country fans get their music if they’re so rural as to be far away from any stores that would carry music.

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