When Did "Country" Become The Truck Nutz of Music?


A fair argument can be made that mainstream country music has always sucked.

Granted, those Willie Nelson and George Jones albums in the '80s were just a tad too slick for their hardcore fan base, but, back then, country music radio programmers were as conservative as they came.

But right around the time Billy Ray Cyrus' scored an unexpected worldwide smash with "Achy Breaky Heart", radio programmers found themselves having to bend a little to keep this new audience, beginning an endlessly entertaining tumble down the slippery slope of "soul selling".

Before long, you had drummers wearing Ramones t-shirts in their music videos and songs where the only "hair metal" and "country" was the barely audible cry of an obligatory pedal steel guitar.

This morning, right about the time my morning coffee was pulling me out of the fog, I read an interview with Tom Keifer from New Jersey hair metal band Cinderella, who has been living in Nashville since the late '90s and, surprise, has a new country album.

In said interview, it seems Keifer was too busy cashing royalty checks from his '80s hits "Nobody's Fool" and "Don't Know What You Got (Til It's Gone)" to realize that country music had gone from propping up the careers of Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam and Lyle Lovett to allowing the likes of Vince Neil, Jon Bon Jovi and Bret Michaels to trade in their snakeskin leather pants for some good old fashioned $400 pretty-boy jeans with pre-fabbed holes in the knees.
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And, hey, they still get to play county fairs!

Who do we have to blame for country turning into hair metal minus the metal?



Sad as it is to say, the likely suspect is producer Robert John "Mutt" Lange, who got the hots for Shania "the future ex Mrs. Lange" Twain and the rest, as they say, is history.

By marrying his bombastic production style to her modern country formula, the country music world stepped quite boisterously into the mainstream and has never looked back.  Mercifully, Twain has been oddly absent from country music since her last album, Up!, in 2002, but the template that she and Lange created is still the industry standard, leading to further bad experiments like "hick-hop" and "Bro' country".

While country always had it's glossy side - have you heard some of Willie's or George Jones's '80s records? - the current landscape is littered with guys who never stood a chance in the rock world and are merely jumping on the country bandwagon because the standards are lower.

I mean, it's Nashville: home to the two cheesiest genres of music, Christian and Country.  In those genres, it isn't so much about the song, but the story that the song tells.  In the late '90's, though, some thought was actually paid to coming up with story-songs that could compete in the pop arena.  As a result, country was more palatable to Top 40 radio programmers, thereby enabling artists like Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Collin Raye, and LeAnn Rimes to connect with a huge female audience.

Only recently, though, have the dudes flocked to country music, lured in by recognizable -  albeit botoxed - faces of Bret Michaels and Vince Neil, who quickly adopted the fake knee holes, trucker caps and boilerplate tats of country the same way they'd embraced flannel in the '90s.  With newcomers like Dierks Bentley, Brad Paisley and Keith Urban murdering country's tradition in cold blood, it was only a mater of time before the "truck nutz" demographic got its own genre and, alas, "Bro' country" was born.



Of course, that still doesn't explain "hick-hop", which, near as I can tell, appeals solely to folks who find Insane Clown Posse too musically sophisticated.

Thing is, if country music doesn't check itself, it will wreck itself by embracing the mainstream to such an extent that it ceases to exist.  It used to be that, at the very least, there was always a plaintive pedal steel to remind you that what you were listening to was "country", but now they don't even bother.  In a way, you've got to respect that decision, but I can't help feel that the country music world gave away the last bit of its soul by doing so.

And this month, Taylor Swift, whose album 1989 became the only album to sell over a million copies the whole year, delivered the final merciful stake to country music's heart by making an album with Britney Spears svengali Max Martin.

Like the snake that it is, country music's head is dead, but the body doesn't know it yet, flailing around in growing desperation, no longer able to think for itself so all sorts of misguided projects and artists are bound to come out of the woodwork in hopes of saving it.

I, for one, have popped plenty of popcorn for the occasion and will take endless joy in watching its demise once and for all because when the Bon Jovis and Motley Crues move on to the next wave, "alt. country" will just be "country" and all will again be right with the world.

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