The Sad Truth About Country Music

Nick Reed, Contributing Writer

I’ve always felt that country music is one of the most wildly underappreciated genres of music. Every time someone discusses their music taste, Country always comes up as a caveat. “Everything but Country”.

That’s not to say a lot of these feelings aren’t deserved. The most popular sounds of country usually penetrate into the mainstream as memes or gimmicks (see Lil Nas X or Jason Aldean), and the Country music charts are dominated by the absolute worst the genre has to offer. Pop-Country has long dominated Country music, the likes of Luke Bryan and Florida-Georgia Line dominating the charts and the airwaves, with the musicians behind these sounds either thousands of miles away from the genre’s spiritual center in Nashville or fully embracing the worst stereotypes of the American South. 

One of the worst offenders in this regard is Country singer Morgan Wallen. Wallen skyrocketed to country music stardom after making it to the finals on The Voice. His stardom has however been interrupted recently, upon the surfacing of a recording of him saying a racial slur. Shockingly, this did not interrupt his popularity. Despite his label and most radio stations dropping Wallen, his music has continued to soar in popularity, with his single continuing to sit comfortably on the Billboard Top 200 for the fifth week in a row. Fans from far and wide have come to defend his use of the slur and his weak apology. Many have come to defend him despite this, too, saying his music is “just too good”. The most interesting part is; his music isn’t even that good. Wallen’s music can be best described as your run of the mill “Bro Country”, with limited lyrical complexity and even more limited sonic variations. It’s the same thing that the Florida-Georgia Line has done a hundred times before.

Although it’s hard not to judge country music as a whole for the abhorrent behavior of its biggest stars and many of its fans, I think it’s important to remember that this isn’t necessarily what all Country music is like, nor is it the best the genre has to offer. After all, “Bro Country” hasn’t always been the face of the genre. So, what can we find when we start looking away from the Luke Bryan’s and Toby Keith’s of the Country world?  For starters, there’s several artists that have made waves in the alt-country underground. One of those is Orville Peck; an openly gay, and perhaps more shockingly for country, an openly Canadian singer-songwriter.  Peck launched into underground stardom with his 2019 album “Pony”, a strange piece of music combining disparate genres as far apart as goth and punk with Pecks own specific brand of Outlaw country. “Pony” made waves in the country and alternative underground; so much so that he came to the attention and recorded a song with Country titan Shania Twain. For a more classic, accessible sound there’s also The Byrds fantastic 1968 “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” indulges in a Rock/Country crossover sound that can still be heard today. Although divisive at the time due to the band’s status as outsiders to the genre, it has since become an Alt-Country classic.  There’s also Sturgill Simpson, who pays homage not only to the Outlaw Country that was pioneered by the likes of John Wayne but also to a slew of other southern sounds; most notably Soul and Gospel. In doing so, Simpson pays tribute to the often-overlooked black musicians who played alongside and often inspired Country music.  Just like any other genre, from Punk to Metal to Rap, Country is a large and diverse genre and not one that can be simply encapsulated by the songs and artists at the top of its charts. It is a storied genre with sounds that vary through time, style, and region.

So if there’s so much great country, where does the negative perception come from? For one, there’s the obvious association with conservative Middle-America. Part of this is justified, as an association with conservatism is a turn-off for anyone who doesn’t ascribe to a close-minded ideology. There’s also the more unfortunate end of that reasoning, which is classism. Country music has historically been associated with working-class white people from rural parts of the country, some of those the most historically poor regions, like the South-East and Appalachia. The sad truth is that classism directed at the American South is extremely common and normalized, so much so that shaming people for where they come from, regardless of their voting record, has made its way even into the rhetoric of newscasters. It is not uncommon to hear white, upper-middle-class, East Coast liberals calling southerners “trailer trash” or “rednecks”. This is in no way an excuse for the oppressive voting policies and republican leadership in these Southern states; but to blame southern people as a whole is simply classism, and with Country music’s inherent link to the Southeastern united states, it’s fate with white, East Coast liberals was sealed from the start. Many, even within the music criticism community, are not willing to give country music the same consideration that is given to other genres. While many take it as a given that the songs that dominate the rap charts cannot speak for the genre as a whole, that same consideration is not levied at Country music. While this is not to say country is an accessible genre, or that it is for everyone, I would argue that few have given it much of a chance to begin with.

So to every white liberal from the East Coast who’s made a decision about country music as a whole, I urge you to reconsider. Just like the worst aspects of the American South shouldn’t remain the whole picture, so shouldn’t the Morgan Wallens of country music be its defining trait. Remember the quiet voices of dissent in the dark, and just maybe give them a chance.