15 April 2011

Memo to Country Music: Drop Name-Dropping!

Country music has always paid homage to its trail blazers, from Hank Williams to Bob Wills, from Jimmie Rodgers to the Carter Family.  There have been countless cover versions of those original songs, and there's no shortage of songs written about those older artists.  Recently, though, homage has been reduced to crass name-dropping.  The most victimized artist of the last decade has to be Johnny Cash.  His collaborations with Rick Rubin (the American Recordings series) were critical darlings, but the country music industry itself ignored Cash's creative renaissance.  Grammy after Grammy, country radio continued to snub the Man in Black.  Then, in 2003, he left this world.  (I like to believe he's been on a non-stop, sold out tour in Heaven ever since.)  And even though radio still wouldn't play Cash's music, songs about Cash came out of the woodwork.

I don't think he built his legacy so lazy songwriters could exploit it.

I try not to be too cynical, and I'm sure many of those songs were well-intentioned.  I still think highly of "Nickajack Cave (Johnny Cash's Redemption)," by Gary Allan.  Maybe I still dig it because it was an album cut and never released as a single for radio to bombard us.  I think, though, that I still like it because its tone and subject matter isn't base pandering; it's about a moment in Cash's life that he himself wrote and talked about.  Contrast that with "Johnny Cash" by Jason Aldean, which is little more than a rock song masquerading as a country song, shamelessly shoehorning Cash's name into its chorus.  In that song, Aldean sings of having a good time in his small town, "blasting out to Johnny Cash" in his car.  You know, because what every happenin' young cat in the country does is crank up "I Still Miss Someone" every Friday night.  Cash's legacy wasn't enriched by that song.  Rather, it shamelessly expects Cash's legacy to validate the song.

We hear all too often songs on country radio decrying the absence of Cash, Hank, Waylon and Willie, and audiences keep applauding the name-dropping.  It's one thing to mention Merle Haggard, but who's out there actually writing and singing about the things that made Hag's music so special?  I haven't heard one song on radio about inmates, Native Americans or the impact of climate change on our farmers, but I've heard a lot of songs about artists trying to claim the mantle of Hag's heir apparent.  And don't even get me started on how the aesthetics of these songs bear no resemblance to the styling of the veteran artists.  I don't expect a song about Willie to be built around a gut string guitar, but I also don't have any use for a song so far removed from Willie's music that I have to read the lyric sheet to find out that the song was supposed to have something to do with the Red Headed Stranger.

I'm sick of this shameless exploitation of country artist legacies.  You grew up listening to their music?  Terrific.  So did I.  And I'm very devoted to some of those folks, and I'm not falling for you co-opting their legacies for your radio play.  You want to impress me that you were "influenced" by Cash?  Sing about a social issue.  God knows there's no shortage of them.  Of course, you can't do that today.  No one in country music would have the guts to sing a song in defense of immigrants, bullied gay kids or how the "drill, baby, drill" crowd would decimate our environment.  In short, there's no one with the courage to stand up for marginalized segments of our population like Cash, Willie, Hag, et al built their legacies doing.

1 comment:

  1. Travis,

    You do a really fantastic job bringing up and discussing topics that no one else really does! I LOVED reading this!!

    Thank you!