The Two Singer-Songwriters Are Reshaping Modern Country Music
There are twin currents running very strong in country music right now. Both are serving what once were niche markets. One movement is now powerful and didn't exist a few scant years ago. The other used to be powerful but has been dormant for years.
I'm taking about the music and the followers of Jamey Johnson and his Outlaw Army and those of Taylor Swift and her Terrific Teens.
I know the very whisper of Taylor's name brings out the extreme country wingnut crowd in an absolute frenzy, eliciting the howling, dogmatic mob that knows everything and is very willing to tell you so. I love the fact that most people in the world -- except me -- know exactly what country music is and what it is not. They know with certainty. I only know what I know. And I know what the accepted country definitions over the years have come to be -- that it is primarily a storytelling peer group music.
The usual dictionary or textbook definitions go along the line of "music derived from or imitating the folk style of the Southern United States or of the Western cowboy" (from Merriam-Webster).
In The Encyclopedia of Country Music, country historian Paul Kingsbury writes, "Country music is simple music. It is a music of nostalgia and sentiment. It is a music that speaks of tension between sin and salvation. It is a music of human stories, hopes and failings."
The pre-eminent country music historian Bill Malone wrote in his landmark book Country Music U.S.A. (published in 1968), "Country music sprang from diverse folk origins in the rural South. In the decades since 1923, it has changed as the South and the nation have changed. Successive changes have served to erase the old folk patterns and move country music toward a closer, and sometimes indistinguishable, amalgamation with popular music. Future investigations may reveal, however, that new folk traditions are being created within the commercial form."
His observations especially in that last sentence have proven to be very prescient. How many of the wingnut crowd hold onto old attitudes without admitting that there can be evolution within the country tradition?
Country music has also, since its early days in the 1920s, been a commercial music. Therefore, for current purposes, I'm proposing that we go by the venerable standard of the Billboard charts. If Billboard lists a group or artist or song or album as country, so be it. It's country. Case closed. The soundtrack album for Hannah Montana is the No. 1 country album this week in Billboard? Yes, sir. I personally don't agree that it's necessarily country, but I won't argue because the Billboard chart right now is the official arbiter -- and history will be the ultimate judge.
To the wingnuts: Taylor Swift is country -- every bit as country as Rascal Flatts or Keith Urban or Kenny Chesney or any of the other current country pop acts on country radio and on the Billboard charts.
She writes realistic peer group music for and about a young audience that was not viewed as a feasible county audience as recently as three years ago. As a result, Swift is the only true superstar that country music (and the entire pop scene) has created in recent years. She sells CDs and downloads in enormous numbers and brings thousands and thousands of fans to concerts in the name of country music and introduces them to the genre of country music.
She and Jamey Johnson are the best things to hit country music in recent history. Each is leading a movement. Taylor's is a monster tide. How many young girls has she inspired to try to write songs, to take up guitar and -- for God's sake -- to wear nice dresses and cowboy boots? And to not drink or dope or screw around? Mothers love her.
Jamey Johnson is finally starting to gather a larger audience. I saw a very graphic example of it at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium on May 28, at his Traler [sic] Park Revival show with Jerrod Niemann and Randy Houser. As he said early in his performance, "Who the hell ever would thought we'd be playing the Ryman?" But the minute he took the stage of that storied old tabernacle, an organic roar rose from that crowd, a sound unlike that you hear at a standard kick-ass country show. These were people hungry for a message. And Jamey brought one. His music is ferociously authentic.
One of my colleagues described Jamey's concert as witnessing a movement that is starting. Another described it as a "force." Whatever it is, I saw the same thing in Waylon Jennings' early concerts, when he was finally hitting his musical stride, and I'm seeing the same thing now in Johnson's shows. That kind of electric moment that happens when an artist and an audience bond.
The same thing is happening with Swift and her audiences. Swift and Johnson both have created their own audience, and that's very much the future of a country audience made up of niche groups of fans. I can't think of a great deal of audience overlap between Taylor fans and Jamey followers (other than Jamey's producer and co-writer Buddy Cannon, is a Taylor supporter). But, I'll tell you this: She has the genuine ability with her songs to bring in older listeners who remember exactly the adolescent moments that she is describing so well.
Taylor Swift has country music's heart right now, but Jamey Johnson for damn sure has its soul.