THE SECRET OF COUNTRY MUSIC’S SUCCESS

Country music has been around for quite some time.  In the beginning,  it was known as “Country and Western” music because of it’s obvious relation to rural areas and the music of the old west, which was primarily folk music. The early country stars were storytellers in the folk music tradition, relating stories of life’s struggles and strife.  As time passed, country music changed with the times, took on a more contemporary sound, and dropped “western” from it’s name.  In recent years, country music has seen it’s sales figures rise to unprecedented numbers, with acts such as Brooks and Dunn, Garth Brooks, and Shania Twain rivaling and even matching sales of pop legends The Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel.

But to what does country music owe it’s current success?  Is it to such intellectually stimulating accomplishments as “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” and “Man, I Feel Like A Woman”?  It may come as a shock to today’s country fans, but country music’s rise to the top is not really a result of the wonderful “talent”of Nashville’s stars and songwriters, but more a product of perfect timing and changing sounds.

In the late 1980s, pop music, which had always been the dominate musical genre, was going through drastic changes.  Older pop and rock stars were  slowly being displaced by the young, up and coming stars of two new styles of music:  rap and grunge. These two new sounds proved to be divisive in their effect on the music buying public.  Young audiences  embraced  the new sounds, while older pop fans were turned off by the sheer lack of musical integrity to be found in both rap and grunge. It was during this period of transition that today’s version of country music entered the scene.

Country music had always flirted with copying pop and rock style.  In the 1970s, after denouncing the shaggy haired hippies of the 60s, many country stars began growing long hair and beards, adopting the look of the rock stars they had earlier criticized.  In the 1980s, country stars added synthesizers and electronic drums to their recordings, wore puffed up 80s hair, and copied a lot of the pop sounds of the day.  By the early 90s,  country stars like Travis Tritt and Sawyer Brown were blatantly mimicking classic rock styles and sounds.  Garth Brooks has said many times that he grew up listening to rock music, not country music.  But because of his rural Oklahoma upbringing,  he felt he could not succeed in rock,  so his idea was to perform a country version of a rock show.  Shania Twain’s first recording was a little known pop/rock album produced in the late 80s.  It failed, and she went country.  It was this type of new,  pop influenced country musician who opportunistically filled the void created by rap and grunge, giving displaced older pop and rock music fans something they could relate to, something that sounded familiar.  It was this initial shift in musical styles that led to the eventual success and popularity of today’s country music,  NOT the irresistible appeal of country twang .  Country simply moved into the space once occupied by classic pop and rock music by imitating it’s sound, and taking over it’s audience. Which is why we see classic rock acts such as Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top, Bon Jovi, The Eagles, and others appearing side by side with today’s country acts.  Rock bands like these had previously been unwelcome in Nashville during their heyday.  Many young country singers site these classic rock acts as major influences rather than old time country stars.  Country purists have bemoaned the fact that today’s country is little more than twanged up pop music with cowboy hats, but Nashville has no intentions of stopping the gravy train. So in reality, country music owes it’s current mainstream popularity and large sales numbers not so much to the incredible “talent” of today’s country singers and songwriters, but rather to the extinction of classic pop and rock music.

SO YOU WANT TO BE A COUNTRY SONGWRITER?
Unlike other forms of music which often deal with any number of diverse subjects and views,  country songwriters apparently only need four or five topics to round out their collection of songs.  There are exceptions, of course.  Some country stars such as Keith Urban (who is actually an ex-pop star from Australia, not a redneck from Tennessee) have managed to make some appealing music over the years with more interesting lyrical content than your typical Nashville product.  But the fact is most country songwriters follow a paint by numbers pattern of simplified storytelling, and country fans, oblivious to it all, don’t seem to mind.  Most likely, it’s because country fans see the world from such a limited, narrow, one dimensional viewpoint, the same repetitive song topics are actually what they expect to hear. Here is a breakdown of the typical country song topics,  male and female:

MALE SINGERS

Honky Tonk party songs

Broken heart songs

Happy love songs

Proud country “attitude” songs

Patriotic or religious songs

FEMALE SINGERS

Leavin’ songs

He cheated, is cheating, or will cheat songs

Comical, silly “the way men are” songs

Family songs (children, babies, etc.)

Religious songs

Just mix and match any of these topics with any singer and you’ve got a bonafide modern country hit.  Again, there are exceptions, and some of these topics have been expanded by creative songwriters over the years, but in general, this is all you need if you are a country songwriter.  Of course, fans of country music will say “So what if this is all that country singers sing about?  That’s what makes it country”!  But to non-country fans who prefer music with a wider scope of thought, the constant repetition of these topics, copied many times over, only exposes country music for the limited,  small minded genre that it is. The fact is country songwriters only tell narrow, one dimensional stories that reflect the views of narrow,  one dimensional rednecks.  Country star Trace Adkins said it plainly in his hit “Songs About Me”, which seeks to describe the appeal of country music to a non-fan; “It’s songs about livin’, lovin’, family, and God”,  Adkins bellows in the main chorus.  Livin’, lovin’, family, and God?  See the above list of topics.  I rest my case.

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