The Undiscovered Country

Country music is dead. Long live country music.

As it enters the second decade of the twenty first century, the former soundtrack of rural sharecroppers and hard drinking mill workers has spread and mutated amoeba-like into a conglomeration of styles and pseudo-sub categories, rendering it virtually unrecognizable from the hardscrabble sound of its heyday.

One need look no farther than modern FM country radio, that dead zone of the uninspired and clichéd, where even an early-80’s slice of wafer thin, lite-pop like “Eye in the Sky” by The Alan Parsons Project can be spruced up and turned into a mega hit in the form of “I Need You Now” by the hyper-stylized trio Lady Antebellum, which won song of the year at the 2010 American Country Music Awards.

Granted, the music has always contained its share of inconsequential fluff, from “You Are My Sunshine” to “Rhinestone Cowboy,” but it seems the very traits that once defined the music’s core —stories of the basic struggles and hard fought joys of humanity and the rude and soulful creatures that roam this planet—have been scrubbed and sanitized to the point of extinction. In its battle to remain contemporary, to shed itself of the rural, often negative stereotypes of its past, the industry has all but extinguished the very flame that once led people of all ages to gather around the hearth of what was commonly known as “the people’s music.”

It’s a battle country music has been fighting virtually since its inception. The pull between the deeply conservative and the deeply weird and rebellious; the need to honor the past and the need to kick it into the gutter and forge ahead. You can hear that battle play out in the music of country pioneer Jimmy Rodgers, as he folds the sounds of field hollers and New Orleans jazz into the folk music of his youth. Decades later, it’s there in Elvis’s Sun Records recordings, the traditional country numbers sitting alongside the hopped up blues/hillbilly hybrids that would soon be known as Rock and Roll. While many Americans south of the Mason Dixon line like to claim The King and the Singing Brakeman were just simple country boys, the truth is, what made these men great was their willingness to break free of tradition and wade into the unknown and deeply strange waters of their own hyper-accelerated dreams.

At their best these artists and others that followed in their wake created a music of raw force that honored the art of their forebears while adding their own unique voice and rhythm to the musical stew, creating a sound as alien as it was familiar.

It’s a sound that, for those willing to look beyond the glitz and sheen of Nashville, can still be found in modern acts such as Drive-By Truckers, Old Crow Medicine Show, The Steeldrivers and dozens of others; acts brave enough to trade pop crossover appeal for life on the road and the dedication of a small but loyal cadre of fans across the world. If your lucky enough to have satellite radio, they can be heard on the  “Outlaw Country” station and a few college channels across the state, but typically radio play is scant and provides few monetary incentives.

These acts thrive off live performances and word of mouth through the Internet, spreading the gospel the old fashioned way with sweat, determination and sheer belief in the value of their music. In their lyrics, one can recognize the grim truths of hard times learned from Hank Williams and George Jones, while musically they draw on sources as diverse as The Rolling Stones, Delta Blues, 60’s soul and 70’s punk. While the tenor of their tunes may recall the glories of past heroes, their songs are rooted firmly in the present, delving into subjects such as drug abuse, suicide, poverty and homicidal rage, subjects rarely addressed by the legion of New Country, spit-shined cowboys and girls.

Admittedly, some of these acts find themselves stuck in the same musical rut as their mainstream kin, worshipping the past while failing to create a unique identity of their own. But the best, and smartest, of these groups embrace the spirit of the early rockabilly musicians breaking free of the past, of Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys shocking audiences with their relentless drive and abandon. In their eagerness to embrace new sounds and ideas they honor the spirit of Porter Wagoners “The Rubber Room,” a concept album about mental illness, and Johnny Cash’s “American” album series, which saw the music legend staring down the specters of old age and death even as he affirmed the ephemeral joys of life. In their willingness to embrace new sounds, these artists remain true to the spirit of what made the work of those early pioneers resonate sonically and emotionally with so many.

From its inception in the 1920’s, country music, much like the blues, has thrived as a form continuously remade to fit the needs of artists lives, from the gothic twang of Townes Van Zandt and 16 Horsepower to the gentle strum of Gillian Welch and Jimmy Dale Gilmore, in pedal steel melancholia or the sound of shattered glass and blood on a barroom floor, it’s a music as plain spoken and mysterious as the world outside your window.

Call it Alternative Country, Americana, or Hillbilly Punk, if you’re looking for music that truly honors the spirit of this nation, in all its complexity and contradictions, take the next exit off that four-lane Interstate headed to Nashville, onto the narrow blacktop bordered by overgrown fields and abandoned textile plants, where a neon sign illuminates the window of a small road house and a high lonesome whine echoes across the dirt parking lot. Cut the engine, roll the window down and listen—you just might hear the sound of the past calling out to the future.


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