Country music is still thriving. In a day and age that feels like a lot of music is getting blended in a giant mixer, country is right down the middle of that dirt road. Rock music? What’s that?
Even though modern country music does borrow hints of everything from hip-hop to funk, it’s easy to know when your radio dial finds that good-ol’ new country music.
I don’t consume it exclusively like some of those bow-legged devotees out there, but if I’m passing through and it’s what’s on, I’ll listen. It gives me a taste of another world inside this world. As someone who has spent some time in recording studios, I am able to parse the sausage and know what is going on in the recording.
One thing to appreciate is that country music has given a whole lot of really good guitar players a place to play. Most of the hits have a good old-fashioned electric guitar peeling off an interesting solo. I listen to top-hit pop radio sometimes, and I rarely hear a straight up geetar coming at me.
Country has some predictable elements besides that electric guitar. You get a lot of acoustic strumming — and sometimes a hint of banjo or a fiddle. There are real people playing real instruments. Bands with bass and drums and steel guitars. They’ve got big, deep voices singing heartfelt melodies with Southern accents.
It’s a man’s world on the country radio. Almost every song features American men singing about their pickup trucks, their longneck beers, their whiskey, their small towns, the girls that they’re chasing, the girls that they’re missing, the girls that they see drinking and dancing that are flirting and playing hard to get, how tight the girl’s jeans are, hard work, church on Sunday, tailgate parties, drinking and fishing, flags, patriotism and campfires. On the rare occasion that a woman is singing, she’s likely singing about her daddy, her momma, church, drinking, kissing and dancing.
My unofficial survey shows that it’s at least 13-1, men-to-women artists playing on new country radio. I listened for over an hour on Monday, and it was all guys — except for one song about drinking and making babies that had a woman singing backup, and one other tune led by a country belle. The baby-making tune is called “One Beer” by Hardy, and it’s currently No. 17 on the charts.
“One beer turns into a lit cigarette
Burnin’ into a two beer buzz
Three beers turns into five and six
Then a love drunk kiss in the back of that truck
Just like that, everything rearranges
Life changes out of the blue
It’s just a Bud Light, but ain’t it funny
What one beer can turn into?”
I’m not making judgment here, just checking out the country demographic that’s right there on the dial. Before we had this soul-crushing pandemic, I used to work at the Rendezvous Event Center that hosted some pretty big country acts. Those shows were always sold out, and people were there drinking and dancing and singing along. And if the lead singer was a handsome man with tight jeans, a cowboy hat, cowboy boots and a Gibson acoustic guitar, well alrighty then. The women didn’t seem to mind. No one did.
Those country shows were kind of old school and fun and you could look up on stage and understand which instrument and musician was making which sound. They have the formula down, and they are pumping it out.
I also crewed on some more modern music. Sometimes, it was hard to tell what was going on onstage or in the audience. I worked one show where a guy was wearing a gray undershirt, sweating over and swiping at an Apple computer, which was responding in a sonic cacophony. I was surrounded by people trancing out and tripping. Trip-hop. They seemed to like it.
Just last year, there was a thriving country festival scene: tour buses criss-crossing this great country, filling venues with happy, hard-partying, jean-wearing, cowboy-boot-sporting Americans. And it was all backed up by modern country radio. Those radio stations have a devoted audience and a predictable sound, from the ads to the announcers. It’s all-American all the time. Some say that radio is dead, but it is alive and kicking on the country end of the dial. They know how to party, and they know how to rally.
Steve Skinner is listening to Beethoven now. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org