Honestly, I’m not sure if writing this is the best idea. However, I feel that there is an issue that needs to be brought up not just for me but for every critic out there – genre lines.
For those who don’t know I was once a writer This Is Country Music as well as Country Perspective, two Country/Americana oriented blogs. During my time at both respective places I reviewed songs that I deemed destructive to the genre based primarily on their lack of country sounds as well as elementary level lyrics with more of an emphasis placed on the former than the latter. And over time as I grew more and more hardened towards the state of modern mainstream country music, some people even joked that I had become a “purist”, someone who immediately shunned anything that wasn’t country and gave it the failing grade just because it wasn’t Country.
Of course, I am not solely a purist, nor would I let the song’s genre be the sole reason I like or dislike it. I have liked plenty of country songs over the years that didn’t sound traditional. One of the only albums to score a perfect 10 on The Country Line is Chris King’s “Animal” and it isn’t really Country at all. In addition I also just gave a favorable review to the latest blues album from Sammy Kershaw. I believe in grading music for its quality, not what genre you assign it under. It’s just that as a country oriented critic, a song that is being sent to country radio claiming to be country has to be called out in my book. There’s a danger that results from not calling it out which I’ll get to later on. Of course, there’s a paradox that results from all of this:
For those who wonder why I am a Country and Americana focused critic, it’s a lot like picking a college major, albeit with obvious different results. We choose to major (choose to review) in something because we have a passion for that said subject (genre of music), whatever it may be. Of course, there’s obviously tons of other possible majors (genres) out there that you may even like, and that’s alright. Having an open mind is one of the greatest assets a scholar (music fan) can have. And of course, even if there’s some majors out there that you know you don’t like that’s alright as well. We’re not all meant to enjoy the same exact things. However in the end, we ultimately choose a specific major because it’s the one we feel the most passionate about. It’s the one that we feel comfortable learning about, studying and completing as a profession. Like I said, it’s not the exact same thing but the principals of the system are still there.
Simply put, I don’t review Country and Americana because it’s all I like. I review it because I was raised on it through my grandparents and mother and is a genre that I have loved since I was a young boy. I understand its vast history and feel comfortable talking about in greater detail than I do other genres. It doesn’t mean I hate other genres like Pop, Hip-Hop, Rock, Metal or Rap. I just know that at this stage in my life I am in no way qualified to talk about artists from those genres in great detail.
So how did this conversation even begin and why is it important that we discuss it? Well it began through an article with our friends over at Country Perspective. In last week’s hodgepodge, Josh Schott detailed the imminent rise of the Americana movement, citing how the definition of the genre incorporates an umbrella of sounds that ultimately make it a genre that doesn’t define artists by sound, but rather the freedom they wield to make those sounds. He further went on to state how artists such as Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, and Chris Stapleton all fit this definition of Americana. It’s an appropriate subject seeing as how Billboard just announced that the current Folk album chart would be rebranded as the Americana and Folk album chart.
Sturgill Simpson is a perfect artist for this discussion. His latest album, “A Sailor’s Guide To Earth” caused an uproar between fans over its validity under the country moniker. Now, as a critic who’s berated acts like Sam Hunt, Old Dominion, and Chris Lane for trespassing the genre line, what did I have to say about the album? Well in my review, I stated that I didn’t think it was as good as his previous two releases. However, the reason I said that was mainly because of Sturgill’s lack of enunciation, a criticism that extends towards Sturgill himself, not the sound he incorporated. In fact, I quite enjoyed the adventurous sounds for the most part. So was I being hypocritical in that instance? Well no, mainly because it’s more of a country album that you may think and Sturgill himself will tell you this probably isn’t country, but that really isn’t the point. The point is that I defended the sound of that album by asking, “who cares about genre? Great music is great music”. And you know, I still agree with that, and that brings us to my next point, the danger of calling something it isn’t.
If you’ve kept up with mainstream country news at all in the past years then you’ll know that there’s one word mainstream country artists just love to use – evolution. It’s a term used to justify the incorporation of other genre sounds that ultimately drown out anything that may have been country about a song to begin with. This poses a dangerous problem. For you see, many of these artists have brought in new fans that didn’t like country before. They still don’t, but hey, this new sound is pretty cool. See where I’m getting at? Artists like Sam Hunt, Old Dominion, Chris Lane, Thomas Rhett, Florida Georgia Line and many more represent what country music is to not only these people but to the rest of the world too. All of these artists have roots in many other genres before they do in country music.
And you might be thinking, “well what’s wrong with that? Music shouldn’t have to box itself”. You’re right, it shouldn’t. So why is it boxing itself in Country? Turn on Pop radio. What do you hear? Pop songs. Turn on Rock radio. What do you hear? Rock music. Turn on Country radio. What do you hear? Well, pretty much anything but country music. You’ll hear it occasionally, but not as often as you should. It’s as Sammy Kershaw once said, “country music is the only genre that hates itself”. I don’t hate that these artists are making Pop music. I don’t hate that Zac Brown Band wants to explore EDM music. I don’t even care that Keith Urban went electronic on his latest album. I hate that this is called country music. These artists claim evolution and don’t want to be defined by genre, but the fact is we DO still have genres and these artists DO market to one which is Country, the dumping ground of this music.
Even though I am a Country/Americana oriented critic I feel I need to answer this paradox somewhat. That is why from here on out The Country Line will grade without consideration of genre, so as to be as fair as possible despite some artists lying to us about the music they make.
Ultimately this paradox of country critics and genre lines isn’t as complex as it seems. Mainstream country artists claim to be country, therefore we go in expecting country music as well as songs/albums that are a good representation of what Country music is. When we are lied to it doesn’t look good. Americana is an umbrella of genres and therefore doesn’t have a defining sound, nor does it conform to trends. Therefore, critics are able to give an honest assessment of an artist’s quality.