Don’t put country music in a box

Photo credit: Richard Hirst

On Saturday night, I attended a Turnpike Troubadours’ concert at Billy Bob’s Texas in Fort Worth. The show was electrifying and the band was enjoying itself, thoroughly, to the sound of a sold-out crowd.

This was one of the best concerts I’ve been to, no smoke and lights, no backup dancers, just good, honest music driven by lyrics about real life. Yet you will not hear the Turnpike Troubadours on mainstream country radio, or see them performing at the Country Music Association Awards.

Country music is a genre that has been robbed of originality. Every song contains a drum loop with some synthesized guitar and lyrics about tractors, trucks and tailgates. Artists like Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan and Cole Swindell dominate the charts and the airwaves with songs about spring break and holding hands in a Chevy.

However, country music wasn’t always this way. George Jones and Johnny Cash never had to sing about how country they were or brag about how many parties they had with their buddies every Friday night. Instead, they wrote songs about joy and pain, loss and love.

Willie Nelson once said, “three chords and the truth-that’s what a country song is.” So how do we get back to this truth? How do we save country music from the gauntlet of mediocrity that has seemed to take over in much of popular music today?

The answer is that country music does not need saving, but rather to be set free.

I used to think that country music was a battleground. I always believed it was Red Dirt country versus Nashville country. I believed that in order to be a true country artist in today’s world you had to carry that anti-establishment mindset on your sleeve and become an outlaw of sorts, just like Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson once did.

However, over time I grew out of that naïve mindset and realized that I was doing the exact same thing that I complained about. I was putting country music in a box.

Country music is not defined by a specific locale, a specific clothing style or a certain type of voice. Rather, it is defined by engaging lyrics and impassioned storytelling that people of all walks of life can relate to.

In order to break out of this chain of stale radio hits that seem to all have the same lyrics, or to get away from this us or them mentality that has arisen from country music traditionalists, we must get rid of the boxes that we put country music into.

Artists like Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton perfectly illustrate this push for freedom. Simpson challenges traditional country lyrics by combining modern philosophical ideas with an old-school country sound. Meanwhile, Stapleton approaches country music with thoughtful lyrics about everyday themes like life and love, yet combines them with his inimitable bluesy sound.

As of a year ago, Chris Stapleton was hardly on the radio at all. However, in November 2015, he brought home three of the biggest awards from the CMA’s, including New Artist of the Year, Male Vocalist of the Year and Album of the Year.

Both Simpson and Stapleton’s success proves there is room in country music for multiple styles and approaches. Yet what each artist has in common is the thing that makes country music unique. They both approach the music with thoughtfulness and honesty, never shying away from the truth or painting a picture that is not accurate to real life of everyday people.

Although I cannot say what the future of country music holds, I don’t think it is condemned to mediocrity, in need of a savior as many people think. I believe that the best thing for country music is for country fans and artists to continue to support and write music that expands the genre, while staying true to its core values of honesty, love, life and simplicity. Country music should remain simple in its approach, but that does not mean it should be void of intellectual and artistic value.

After all, country music is just “three chords and the truth,” and the truth will set you free.

Hunter Hewell is a senior journalism major from Seguin. He is a reporter for the Lariat.