Guest post from Chuck Dauphin, Country Editor, Billboard’s “the 615”
Last week’s announcement of the CMA Awards nominees have many people in the industry talking.
The nomination of Kelly Clarkson for Female Vocalist of the Year is one of the most buzzed about aspects of this year’s show. “That’s not Country Music,” a lot of people have stated. So, I ask you, what exactly is Country Music?
There are so many different answers to that question. If you go back to the beginnings of the genre, the definition was cloudy even then. Jimmie Rodgers, known as the “Father of Country Music,” had many elements to his music. Yes, there was some ‘Hillbilly’ to his sound, but you could also make arguments that his music was just as jazz-oriented as it was “Country.”
Then, we move to the late 1930s, and a couple of musical innovators – Bob Wills and Bill Monroe. Wills, of course, is credited with creating what is known as “Western Swing.” Go back and listen, and you will find….horns? As Marty Stuart would so eloquently state, “Now That’s Country.” But, Wills’ music found an audience – as did the music of Monroe. A native of Rosine, KY, Monroe created his own style of mountain music that we now refer to as “Bluegrass.” In a sense, from this writers’ opinion, bluegrass might very well remain the most pure sub-genre of Country (although some wouldn’t like for it to be referred to as sub-genre).
Step into the 1940s, and you will find an exciting new sound called “Honky Tonk” made famous, in part, by Ernest Tubb. Inspired by Rodgers, Tubb took that sound, added a high twang factor with electric guitars, and created something fresh and vibrant. However, was it as “Country” as what had come before it?
Then, in the 50s, you did have artists like Webb Pierce and Carl Smith. Their music was very traditional sounding – but, when the Rock and Roll boom of the late 1950s took some of Country’s audiences away, they adapted to the times. At the same time, Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline were making some great recordings in Nashville. But, have you listened to them? By the definition of the format before them, they weren’t “Country.” Classic recordings, they were, though.
A few years later, Buck Owens began to have a huge amount of success with the “Bakersfield Sound.” But, he did have a rock and roll energy to his records, and his one-time Buckaroo who supplanted him as the leader of the west-coast sound, Merle Haggard , was as influenced by Bob Wills as anyone.
And, we could go on from there. Billy Sherrill’s classic records on Tammy Wynette, Kenny Rogers’ crossover hits of the 1970s and 1980s, Alabama’s Southern Rock inspired flavor of Country, or the Tom Collins hit machine of that same period that included Ronnie Milsap, Steve Wariner, and Barbara Mandrell? Country chart hits they were, but were they….Country?
Of course, now we have so many different styles of music under the Country umbrella. Country-Rock, Traditional Country, Alternative Country, Crossover, etc, etc. I write this partly in jest, because the truth is there never really has been a definition. There are people who consider Patsy Cline as “Country” as Roy Acuff. I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, and to me, the music Rosanne Cash was releasing from Nashville was as good as it got. That fits my definition. What’s yours?