Did you hear the good news? Country music has been saved! The streets of Music Row are now paved in gold, heavenly choirs are singing in unison from the heavens above and country radio is using its powers for good. With the release of Jon Pardi’s new album earlier this year and William Michael Morgan’s debut album Vinyl this week, this seems to be the overwhelming sentiment I’m hearing from all corners of country music. Since Pardi got a #1 song at radio with “Head Over Boots” and Morgan got a #1 at radio with “I Met A Girl,” that means country music is all well and good now. It’s been saved!
Give me a damn break.
First off let me just address the absurd notion of “saving” country music. It’s an idea built on sensationalism and propaganda to appeal to the gullible and rebel hearted. Country music has never needed to be saved and it never will. It’s a marketing tactic that people will use to paint us vs them themes and build up a fictional battle taking place right in your backyard. It’s pandering to a natural human instinct to rebel against “the man” if you will. It’s no different from Toby Keith singing about having sex on the American flag on the back of an F-150 truck while fireworks go off in the background and bald eagles fly overhead. If you look me in the eye right now and told me country music needs saved I would laugh and point to Sturgill Simpson, Whitey Morgan and Margo Price. If you did this same thing in the 90s I would point to Alan Jackson, George Strait and Reba. In the 80s I would point to Dwight Yoakam, Keith Whitley and Randy Travis. I think you get my point. Every time in country music history where people think the genre needs “saved” a couple of traditional artists come along and gain popularity to appease the traditionalist masses. It’s a natural cycle that everyone tends to forget about and even yours truly at one point bought into the stupid idea country music needed saving.
This year in particular has really made me open my eyes up to what the real problem has been all along. It made me realize how exactly mainstream country would solve its traditional problem and would do it in the most predictably wrong way. The real problem all along with mainstream country music the past several years has been songwriting. It’s very easy to get hung up on all of these pop sounding songs and their terrible production that doesn’t resemble country in any way. Music Row wisely saw this, so you’ve seen a lot of acts this year go back to a more neutral/pop country sound. Just listen to Blake Shelton and Cole Swindell’s new albums. Zac Brown Band has just promised they’re going back to their roots on their next album. They’re all adjusting to a more country sound to easily appease a lot of people, all while they’re lyrics have not/will not change. Jekyll + Hyde pissed me off more with its lazy songwriting than its two EDM songs. That did more harm to the album than Brown’s egotistical attempts at making EDM music.
But this sound adjustment goes much deeper and clever than this. Music Row knows they can’t fool everyone with these slight pivots and the rest will have to be won over with more elaborate maneuvering. The rest is traditional country fans and what better way to win them over than with pedal steel guitar and a fiddle. Enter Jon Pardi, William Michael Morgan and Aaron Lewis. Pardi and Morgan both don cowboy hats and give numerous interviews talking about how proud they are to be country. Lewis’ leading song when joining Dot Records was about how things just aren’t country nowadays and he’s here to bring it back. All feature generous amounts of steel guitar and fiddle in their music. It all helps these labels frame and paint the exact narrative they want to spoon feed the public.
Now I’m painting a picture here insinuating that these artists aren’t genuine in their intentions. In the case of Morgan and Pardi, I don’t think they’re being disingenuous. I think they’re being quite sincere in their efforts of releasing traditional country music. I think Lewis on the other hand is a sleazy con man using traditional country as a vehicle to revive his career from irrelevancy because he pretty much admitted to it when he said he talked shit on pop country artists as a means to pander to his crowd at shows. Pardi and Morgan while sincere, make the perfect pawns for their respective labels and for the industry at whole, but they don’t realize it and won’t until years later.
These three artists being championed by country circles is the industry’s way of saying, “Ha! We still put out traditional country. Happy now? We gave you what you wanted.” While it may have given a lot of people what they wanted, it didn’t give the industry what it needs and that’s better, more honest songwriting. Many people and outlets are going to applaud Morgan and Pardi for bringing traditional country “back.” If you enjoy their music, that’s fine and I don’t knock you for it. Enjoy the music you want to enjoy. But there’s two artists in mainstream country this year that have run circles around everyone else and nobody is talking about them like they should: Tim McGraw and Eric Church. These two have been showing the real change that’s needed at radio and that is deeper songwriting. But because they’re not part of some propaganda movement or don’t have overwhelming steel guitar in their music, their accomplishments are glossed over. Church in particular has been doing more for country music with his songs and attitude than he’s ever done before.
So while Pardi and Morgan’s sound may harken back to Strait and Jackson, their lyrics certainly don’t measure up to the two titans. Both albums suffered from sub par and bad songwriting (yes, I’ll freely admit I overrated the Pardi album and it did not deserve the grade I gave it). But thanks to bringing back a sound many people craved, this was overlooked by many and including yours truly at first. While this traditional revival may sound like the real deal, its substance is still as fake as the pop country it opposes (Morgan and Pardi’s intentions are real, but their respective labels and the industry certainly aren’t). And the substance that is songwriting is something that cannot be faked no matter how hard Music Row tries. You’re not going to consistently get heart and soul out of the assembly line writers on Music Row. The music of Strait, Jones and Nelson is remembered not only for its great instrumentation, but heartfelt songwriting. A song is not just about how it sounds, but what it says.
The point of this post isn’t to bash Pardi and Morgan, who are great, talented artists with very bright futures ahead of them. I’m coming from a place of honesty and genuine care that you the country music fan is being treated like a fool. The point of this post brings me back to something Jason Isbell once said to a fan on Twitter. Isbell said who needs genre, citing off numerous great acts in different genres. A fan said critics need genres and Isbell replied, “Only the lazy ones.” Another quote I leave you with comes from poet W.H. Auden: “Propaganda is a monologue that is not looking for an answer, but an echo.” The country music industry is being lazy and wants you to buy this propaganda that’s being pushed and it’s not right. Don’t be manipulated by what’s taking place and think for yourself. Otherwise you’re playing the part of the echo they desire.