Monday, January 16, 2012

What Happened to Country Music?

Today I was listening to Waylon Jennings' album Hangin' On, a great album that includes the Harlan Howard-penned tune "The Chokin' Kind". It's the same song that Joe Simon recorded in 1969 that ended up #1 on the R&B chart. Jennings' album came out in 1968. It's incredible in this day and age to think that an R&B artist would cover a country song, but in the 50s and 60s there seemed to be an open border between the two genres. Artists like Ray Charles inhabited both worlds comfortably. This isn't surprising since both genres have roots in the blues. If you listen to the lyrics of classic country songs and classic R&B songs, they aren't that different. It's the presentation that differs.

Howard defined country music as "three chords and the truth". I suppose that could also define R&B and rock music. It seems that the differences between the musical two genres began to harden in the 70s, fed by identity politics resulting in a feedback loop between social forces and music-making. The border between country and R&B began to close. One could conjecture that as legal and mandated geographic boundaries began to dissolve between whites (the primary country audience) and blacks (the primary R&B audience), other borders were created in the cultural realm to reinforce ethnic identities. Could whites really understand songs about growing up in the projects that came to be prevalent in 70s R&B to the rap music of today? Could blacks really understand--what?--the appeal of cowboy boots and hats and gung-ho patriotism? What defines country music these days? It seems to be about nothing but cultural markers. Where is Charley Pride when you need him?

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