I have been reminded, yet again, why I don’t listen to today’s country music—because it isn’t country music.
What passes for country music today is…oh, hell, I don’t know what it is.
The Country Music Association Awards singalong has become a total misnomer. More accurate would be a title something along these lines: The Anti-Merle, Anti-Waylon, Anti-Willie, Anti-Patsy, Anti-Dolly, Anti-Emmylou Show.
I mean, what I watched from Nashville on Wednesday night was country like Faith Hill’s right leg is short and stubby. (If you observed Faith’s right stem while she sang a duet with hubby Tim McGraw you’ll know what I mean. If not, be advised that Faith’s stems are noticeably unshort and unstubby.)
George Strait and Alan Jackson had it right when they sang Death On Music Row at the CMAs at the back end of the 20th century: Someone killed country music/cut out its heart and soul/they got away with murder/down on Music Row.
The chorus of that Larry Cordle/Larry Shell-written song goes like this:
For the steel guitars no longer cry and the fiddles barely play
But drums and rock ‘n’ roll guitars are mixed up in your face
Old Hank wouldn’t have a chance on today’s radio
Since they committed murder down on Music Row.
Once upon a time, country music was three chords and the truth. It was about the song. Now it’s…again, I don’t know what the hell it is, but apparently few folks can sing these days without distracting, blinding strobe lights, smoke and the volume cranked up so high that you can’t hear, or understand, the lyrics.
A lot of them look country, but they don’t do country.
Miranda Lambert looks country. Does it, too. Chris Stapleton looks country. Does it, too. Any coincidence that they were saluted as female and male vocalists of the year?
I like Lambert. A lot. She can get after it like a hell-ya girl, but she doesn’t need gizmos and gadgets. She can stand on stage with nothing more than her acoustic guitar, her voice and her pain and deliver pure country music. She did the girl-and-her-guitar thing earlier this year with Tin Man at the Academy of Country Music awards. She was spellbinding. On Wednesday in Nashville, she genuflected in the direction of traditional country music with To Learn Her. This time she had a backing band and the performance included—wait for it—a pedal steel solo. The only one I heard in three hours. Imagine that. Pedal steel in a country song. What a concept. Miranda was Patsy, Loretta, Dolly, Emmylou, Tammy and Reba in a petite, powerful package.
What Miranda Lambert did is what country music is supposed to look and sound like.
It’s supposed to look and sound like what Little Big Town (with Jimmy Webb on keyboards) did with the Glen Campbell classic Wichita Lineman. Beautiful, four-part harmonies. It’s supposed to be what the Brothers Osborne did with Tulsa Time (a tribute to the late troubadour Don Williams). It’s supposed to look and sound like what newly minted Hall of Famer Alan Jackson did with Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow.
Instead, we get too many like Luke Bryan, a terrible singer singing a terrible song (Light It Up).
I thought it fitting that Jackson closed the show with Don’t Rock the Jukebox, because that tune pretty much sums up my sentiments about today’s country music:
Don’t rock the jukebox
I wanna hear George Jones
My heart ain’t ready
for the Rolling Stones
I don’t feel like rockin’
Since my baby’s gone
So don’t rock the jukebox
Play me a country song.
Sadly, too many of today’s performers can’t, or won’t, play country music.