By John Latta
Not far from where I live was a small grassy hill with a classic old red barn at its foot. A vestige of farmland in the suburbs. Inevitably it would become a housing development with a silly name. Inevitably the gentle slopes of the hill would be obliterated by earthmovers so that building could begin on flat land. The hardwoods would disappear along with the scrub pines to create the moonscape for the contractor to work on. Later a few designer trees would be planted to give the appearance of a natural landscape. “Look,” would say the developer when it was all built, “what a beautiful place.”
Think of country music as that hill.
Some years ago Alan Jackson’s “Gone Country” lamented the way just about anybody could find some faux country in their background and make money by exploiting their rural roots. It’s still largely true. Seems today that if you’ve driven through Iowa you can sell country music. And if you haven’t, the industry will come to your big-city apartment, grab some digital stills and video and use software to set you down in a cornfield with cows. A little practice and you can take the “raised on a farm” line in your new bio and make it sound real – nothing like the two weeks at camp that inspired your PR team to write it.
It’s not that I don’t like some of the new country music. I do. It’s just that it’s not what it’s sold as. I’ll buy a Pontiac and enjoy driving it, but don’t tell me it’s a Ferrari and expect me to pretend it is, too. So create new country music, but don’t package it as the real thing if it isn’t. Some new artists are the real thing. Most aren’t; they’re commodities, products the country music industry has built because they will make money for the industry. If the market enjoys it, terrific. But it’s still a Pontiac.
I really don’t want music from someone who decided in junior high they were going to be an astronaut or a doctor but opted to be a country music celebrity because dressing up and talking about themselves was easier and more ego-building than math. If being themselves won’t work, they will be what the market demands. It’s not about being an artist; it’s about being a star. They are two different things.
It’s possible computers are replacing cornfields as the crucible of country music. OK, our new stars-in-waiting ask the computer, give me tear-jerking honesty, searing loneliness and soul-baring heartache with a pickup truck (old), Momma and a dog. (Would the computer produce Steve Goodman’s classic verse?) Now, let’s get that music video company to bring their actors and models to play salt-of-the-earth country folk from Las Vegas, and we’ll launch this baby.
Willie Nelson left Nashville for Texas rather than deliver the commercially defined product the growing industry wanted. Somewhere in Nashville today a singer-songwriter is packing up and getting ready to go home and write what he wants and play what he wants where he wants to the people he wants to play it to. But a crowd of wannabe singer-songwriters are clamoring to take over his apartment and get to work delivering product.
Today the industry likes to tell us what country is, and we buy into it. And it is not the only cultural industry in America that is doing this. How’s it feel to really get into a rapper or hip-hop artist only to find there is a gap the size of the Grand Canyon between their words and their lives? Yes, I know, it’s only entertainment, but when it’s sold as genuine and it’s not, you’re being taken by the industry. What you value and enjoy and let move you isn’t art; it’s a sales gimmick disguised as art and sold to people who increasingly can’t tell the difference or don’t bother to try.
We used to find value, recognize our lives and see ourselves in Johnny Cash, to believe in him enough to think about what we heard from him and let it influence us a little. We’ve meekly abdicated, and now we leave the choice of what we like and don’t like in our entertainment up to the people selling it to us at a considerable profit.