The Magazine


Exposed Navels and Other Reasons for the Decline of Country Music

Mar 8, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 24 • By ANDREW PEYTON THOMAS
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The Smithsonian should give Dale Watson a fellowship, if only to make up for the money and stardom that have eluded him. The iconoclastic thirty-six-year-old from Austin, Texas, has emerged as a leader of the traditionalist backlash against today's country music. But rebellion in defense of tradition is an eccentric enterprise, and, despite the acclaim of critics, country music moguls find Watson "too hillbilly" for the big contracts.

One might think that calling a country musician "too hillbilly" is like calling Tchaikovsky "too classical." But Watson's lonesome peregrination from beer joint to beer joint is symbolic of the wilderness to which nearly all traditionalists have been exiled in the 1990s. Interviewed recently for Naked Nashville (a British documentary that aired in America last October), Watson put his finger on the crisis of country music: "Strangely enough, I'm considered alternative country nowadays because country-music mainstream isn't anywhere close to country. It's pop."

Over the last decade, that mainstream has exploded in popularity. Between 1990 and 1997, country music grew from $ 700 million a year to $ 1.8 billion a year. CD sales have quadrupled. Two of the five best-selling albums of 1998 were by country artists (Garth Brooks and Shania Twain), as were three of the ten highest-grossing concert tours (Brooks, Twain, and George Strait). Brooks's new album, Double Live, set a record by selling more than a million copies the first week after its release in 1998. One of the hottest acts to pick up Grammies last week was the Dixie Chicks, a young trio of scantily dressed country musicians with significant pop success.

In exchange for this popularity and prosperity, country music has been asked merely to surrender its soul. And it has. Except for an occasional, mournful chord from a fiddle or a steel guitar, added like an afterthought, this new music is a southern version of poprock -- adult contemporary with a drawl. The dominant cacophony of electric guitars and percussion, the signature instruments of rock 'n' roll, make today's acts sound more like Lynyrd Skynyrd than Lefty Frizzell. On Country Music Television -- a sort of newfangled Grand Ole Opry and the industry's answer to MTV -- the performers appearing on country videos form a bizarre parade of ersatz cowpokes. The men are either permed dandies in brand-new cowboy hats or scruffy, long-haired, garage-band types; the women sport the scant clothing of MTV and a strained, pseudo-feminist attitude.

It is oddly appropriate that Naked Nashville showed Dale Watson being honored at the British Country Music Awards -- a ceremony that sounds like something Monty Python might have dreamed up. But in fact, country music owes a great deal to Britain, or at least to British folk songs. Some country songs -- "The Great Speckled Bird" is one -- can be traced back to English colonists before the American Revolution. Others, such as "Sallie Gooden," come from the Scotch-Irish immigrants of the nineteenth century. "Frankie and Johnny" has more than a hundred variants, all deriving from a Scottish ballad.

Even more than British folk songs, however, country music derives from lower-class gospel music -- the hymns of the eighteenth-and nineteenth-century Methodist and Baptist revivals. The camp-meeting songs of the Second Great Awakening molded the nascent music of the South. Leaders of the camp meetings would "line the hymn," reading aloud verses to the congregation, who would then sing them back. Those hymns stamped on country music a simple structure and revivalist view of human responsibility that endure to this day.

Of course, in time, those same southern roots would bring country music into contact with a formidable rival, the blues. The blues' influence on country music was evident even before the birth of recording. Early in their careers, many of the first country stars performed in minstrel shows, paying a backhanded compliment to the popularity of black music at the turn of the century.

At that time, the fiddle (a traditional Celtic instrument) and the guitar (an upper-class instrument in eighteenth-century England and America) produced country's standard harmonies. It was, however, in the 1920s and 1930s that the music found its most distinctive modern sound by adding to this the steel guitar (like the ukulele, an import from Hawaii). Its familiar, doleful twang -- the perfect complement for lugubrious lyrics -- made the steel guitar what historian Bill C. Malone has called "virtually the defining feature of country music."