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Will Country Music Ever Be Cool Again?

Taylor Swift at CMA Festival

In recent years you’d be forgiven for thinking that Country music had let off a bit of wind in pop-world, as some of its youngest adherents have just recently left the room. Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift are among the most prominent of the genre’s performers whose gaze has shifted from the old-school southern sound and have now set their eyes firmly on full-blown unadulterated pop stardom. Where does the style’s historical hesitancy to be absorbed by the fashionable and trendy come from? Is its apparent “un-coolness” and reluctance to be absorbed by the young wired into its DNA?

Perhaps it’s because it looks back when most musical movements claim (and sometimes only claim) to look forward. Bluegrass, for example, might not be a centuries old musical form but when it crashed onto the scene it deliberately sounded as old as the hills it came from. It embodied the very things its performers and fans thought sacred: simplicity and sense of history. Not prime ingredients in a career-handbook for those with good-girl-gone-bad pop ambitions.

Icons of Country like Hank Williams had a performance style and charisma that seemed like something taken straight out of the rock n’ roll book, a momentary glimpse into the future. Hanks spiritual home was the Honky-tonk, a modern incarnation of the saloon bar for tough-talking hard-drinking farm folk – there’s some cool points. He was a divorced man before such things were socially acceptable, and an alcoholic and prescription drug abuser on top: things tantamount to conducting coitus with Satan himself in the most Christian part of the most Christian country in the Western World. This was different, not the unsophisticated show business of costumes and managed routines that had come from the likes of Vaudeville. A popular form of variety show that dominated much of American performance from the 1880s to the early 1930s, and who’s ways cast a long shadow over much of country music culture. When he died of his vices at the age of 29 in 1953, Country music had lost an icon, but refueled on something that would delay fears of the art form’s demise – simple star power.

Hank William’s legacy was the towering precedent of authenticity. No longer was it enough to rock up in a cowboy suit with your country boy staples: young farm-boy head, old-school spirit. The people and the industry now demanded an exceptional tale of woe, grit and heartbreak.

If country had been left with a star quality prototype in the memory of Hank Williams, the formula would very quickly become obsolete only a handful of years later. Elvis Presley – who had always seen himself as a country singer – might’ve been a country boy at heart but the sound he was plying was something sexier, faster and more urban. Suddenly cowboy hats and shiny suits felt like relics in a 1950s world now populated with shaky hips, screaming girls and these new things called ‘teenagers’ who weren’t succumbing to sweaty palpitations at the mention of cotton-picking and falling on hard times. Elvis might’ve been a man from the Country rank-and-file but the sounds he was making were so obviously something else that this is proof, if anything, that he left what ‘real’ country was far behind the minute he slipped on those Blue Suede Shoes.

Somewhere along the line that Country sound had become so swinging and so sexy that it had ceased to be country at all. If Country music was anything it was the story of small-town folk, modest living people on hard to tend land. Throwing sexuality into the mix confused things. The moral certainties and simple fantasies of family, tradition, solidarity and honesty that Country represents seemed to line up on one side of a moral and cultural battle that still rages today in the Jukeboxes and Ballot boxes of the American South. Young versus Old. Simple versus Complex. Rural versus City. Tradition versus Innovation. Country versus the World.

This isn’t a mind-set thrown away so easily. Simplicity and modesty are values still seen as paramount even in the 21st century. In 2008 when pop starlet Jessica Simpson took a Country turn she responded to criticism of her performance at Country Thunder Festival in Wisconsin with a predictable piece of Country-style PR: “I just want you to know that I’m just a girl from Texas; I’m just like you”. However, as hipsters will no doubt of let you know by now, being “just like you” isn’t a component in the cool formula.

The music is as much about fantasy as any other. Although many who had dreamt of mounting great horses and riding until the dawn during the post-war years would end up side saddling lawn mowers and riding around the lawn instead. The pull of adventure in the wide open country was strong, but the allure of a safe and secure place in the new post-war affluence, a suburban lifestyle hugging the bigger towns and cities was apparently even stronger. Even this is a lifestyle the young and the brave wouldn’t easily buy in to. For them at least this was the status-quo, old men and women pining for old times.

That’s not to say that Country didn’t stick its middle finger up at the done thing of the day. Female performers like Kitty Wells and Tammy Wynette provided the soundtrack to the lives of an entire generation of women newly emancipated by divorce and more liberal social attitudes. Women like Loretta Lynn would lay down the law in song to the husbands who they had chattel to not so long ago: “Well you thought I’d be waitin’ up when you came home last night, You’d been out with all the boys and you ended up half tight. But liquor and love that just don’t mix, leave a bottle or me behind, And don’t come home a drinkin’ with lovin’ on your mind.”

The American folk revival that peaked during the sixties with the likes of Bob Dylan was another kick in the teeth for Country’s sense of identity. It had taken things like authenticity and speaking truth to power (something Country had claimed ownership of for years) and exported them to a new audience, one that didn’t wear half-tonne belt buckles or sing about the Dust Bowl. These guys were young, progressive and ultimately far ‘cooler’ than Country had felt in a long time.

If it hasn’t been cool for everyone, it’s at least been cool for some. Artists like Darius Rucker and Sheryl Crow have ‘countrified’ their sound even in a climate where cashing in on Country’s cool-points pays little dividends. Although, is this down to their new found lust for American frontier sounds? Or a crafty realization that there’s a healthy and buoyant market for the stuff ready and waiting to be tapped into? Saves getting a job at WALMART, right?

Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift might be turning their back on country music today in favor of riding the pop zeitgeist like some Southern Californian surfer dude. But the country sound and ethic will be there to draw from in later years when posting pictures of smoking weed on Instagram and swinging butt-naked on wrecking balls will look like the musical equivalent of mutton dressed as lamb. Making money in your 20’s and 30’s as female pop stars will be a different kettle of fish to doing the same in later years. Country might not be ‘cool’ in the traditional sense of the word, but it’s the sound of people not bothered enough about ‘cool’ to subscribe to any of its whimsical notions of fashion or modernity. The coolest cool of all.

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