Saturday, February 18, 2012

Country Goes '80s

Millions of mid-western housewives might disagree, but for me, "real" country music ceased to exist right around the time I was born. What's been called "country" ever since is basically, in my opinion, Adult Contemporary rock with a twang and a truck.

What's the official distinction? To me, it's this: before 1980, country music was made, predominantly, by people who had, at some point in their lives, actually lived in the rural American countryside. Country music used to be exactly that: music made by people who lived in the country. Gradually, throughout the '50s, '60s, and '70s, American society became more and more urban, to the point where hardly anybody genuinely lived in the "country" the way they did before.

What I love about pre-'80s country music, or the best of it at least (because there was always a hilariously fake, corny side to the genre that was obnoxious), is that it was music about hard living. And I don't just mean "drinking" and "fighting" and some sort of lame macho stereotype. I mean struggling for survival: being poor, watching your siblings die young, having a flood destroy all your crops, and yes, your dog dying. It was music about suffering. But it was often music about the beauty of suffering.

And sure, by the '60s and '70s the average American was doing a lot better, and hardly anybody actually lived on a farm anymore. But the country stars of the '60s and '70s had at least grown up in that earlier world. These people had lived through the Depression, and World War II, and even though they were now living in mansions in Nashville, they still held a genuine connection to that older era and that older way of life. But country musicians who were reaching their twenties by 1980 had never really known that world, and didn't really have that sort of experience from which they could draw. How can you sing about suffering when you grew up in the suburbs?

There was a fundamental change in that side of American culture. You couldn't just keep making country music because you liked it. In my opinion, "real" country music could only have existed in a certain time and place, and once that time and place disappeared, you couldn't make it anymore. You could make something that might have the surface elements of that older music, but it wouldn't mean the same thing to its creators. It wouldn't serve the same function. I see country as essentially a dead genre. And it died right around the time of my birth.

I killed country music.

The thing is, I think for a little while at the dawn of the '80s, people kind of realized that "true" country music was dead. And they were OK with that. They thought, "You know, we could just have country-tinged rock and country-tinged AM pop and we'll be all right."

Exhibit A: Urban Cowboy. In 1980, the film Urban Cowboy, starring John Travolta and Debra Winger, appeared in theaters. I haven't seen the movie, and I'm probably not about to, but if your idea of a good time is watching John Travolta ride a mechanical bull, then you should probably watch this movie.

But see, what the hell is an "urban cowboy" anyway? By definition, a cowboy should be rural. An urban cowboy is just some guy in a hat. An urban cowboy is nothing.

Nonetheless, Urban Cowboy did for country music what Saturday Night Fever did for disco. But the soundtrack album, featuring artists such as the Eagles, Bob Seger, Jimmy Buffet, Linda Ronstadt, and Boz Scaggs, was basically a rock album. Even some of the more country-leaning artists, such as Mickey Gilley, Anne Murray, and the Charlie Daniels Band, all had crossover appeal.

If someone could tell me the concrete difference between the country music and pop music of this era, please do so. It seems to me that a song was mostly "country" because some record label exec said it was, not because of any particular stylistic touch or instrumental choice. When you listen to the songs I highlight in Country Goes '80s, you will see what I mean. You wouldn't know these were "country" songs unless somebody told you. For about two or three years, country music was just soft rock without any R&B - and sometimes it even had R&B!

Then some enterprising souls found a bunch of artists whom no "pop" fan would want to listen to, and "country" music as a separate entity somehow made a strange, but somewhat inauthentic, return. There wasn't much crossover appeal to Alabama, George Strait, Reba McEntire, Randy Travis, and The Judds. No siree.

This series will not venture into that side of country music. No, this series is about that odd, brief moment where country music was huge, but huge precisely because it was hardly country at all.

1 comment:

Hugh G. Rection said...

Actually you are incorrect about Alabama not having crossover appeal, and about Mickey Gilley having it. Alabama had four Top 40 hits: "Love in the first Degree"(#15); "Take Me Down"(#18); "Feels So Right"(#20);and "The Closer You Get"(#38). Gilley on hit the Top 40 once with "Stand By Me"(#22).
I recently discovered your blog and really enjoy remembering the '80's with you. But dude, you are really OBSESSED with one Belinda Carlisle!