Country music is quite unique amongst modern music genres. If you were to break down the popular triumvirate: rock, pop, and country you would immediately notice that modern country shares elements of both other styles, while neither rock nor pop share very much at all with their backwoods cousin. It is a very easy thing to laugh off modern country music when the discussion comes up in conversation. Country music, much like its fan base, has faced a crisis of identity coming into the digital age. Whereas rock and pop have embraced urban and outside influences, keeping pace with the mercurial tastes of proceeding generations, country music has found it much harder to opt into miscellaneous styles.
As American demographics change, so too goes country music, albeit slowly and in overly obvious, sometimes pathetic fashion. Everything went well for country music up until the early nineties. With the industry drying up owing to shrinking markets in rural America, and with a desperate desire to be ‘cool,’ country music went the pop route. The effects can be felt unto this very day, and the next time you find yourself belly aching about whatever the hell Miley Cyrus did, blame country music’s hilarious history of missteps. That’s right, we’re pointing the finger directly at you, Billy Ray, you no talent ass clown.
Garth Brooks tried vainly to take country music in a rock direction, and put out some fine albums at a critical point in country music’s progression away from it’s roots, but even Garth wasn’t powerful enough to save country’s soul from the thinly veiled, sparsely dressed she vamps that sucked the life blood and veritable soul away from a wonderful tradition of song writing and string craft. We’re calling you out here, too Shania Twain.
While there’s always been novelty acts in the country/western arena the genre lacks the tangible credibility of rock music and the hedonistic nihilist ambition of the pop market. It seems country music was shorn in twain at some indefinite point in the nineties, pulling itself apart attempting opposing routes simultaneously. But things weren’t always this way.
One of the most annoying facets of popular country music today is the endless source of pride it’s proponents take from the music they enjoy. Radio country like hip-hop before it has to constantly remind its audience that they are what they say they are. As with most things in life, if it has to be said out loud it probably isn’t true. Country music constantly refers to its heritage while simultaneously producing tracks which stand in glaring contrast to it. The core message is real and valid, but it just isn’t done very well these days. Chart topping country personalities whom I can’t be bothered to research and wouldn’t wish to popularize anyway are shill men, carnival barkers, the used car salesmen of the music industry. The complicit market demographic is just as guilty, buying into a lifestyle that is neither sincere nor very well articulated. It’s a cliché, and (we hope) everybody knows it.
It hasn’t always been this way though. While the rock and pop markets were suffocating under the weight of their own excesses in the eighties country music was enjoying it’s last artistic blossoming. Individuals like Willy, Cash, Straight, and Jones have traditionally enjoyed more popularity than bands or groups due to cold war era sociopolitical norms. Country ensembles were often discounted, but their contribution to the genre cannot be understated. And none in the annals of country music could ever wish to compete commercially or artistically against country supergroup Alabama.
With over thirty Billboard chart toppers you’d be hard pressed to find any group of any genre to match the string of number ones Alabama enjoyed. However long on history country music may be, it does seem to be short on memory. Perhaps that’s the reasoning behind High Cotton, A Tribute to Alabama.
Featuring contributions by musicians and groups as varied as Lucero, Old Crow Medicine Show, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Todd Snider and Jason Isbell, this compilation holds pretty close to original material. Rightfully it should, you don’t step on Superman’s cape. However, one shining example of how a classic country golden oldie can be done, and done well while accommodating modern tastes would be Jessica Lea Mayfield’s treatment of “I’m in a Hurry, (And Don’t Know Why).” Much like Sonic Youth’s treatment of ABBA’s hit, “Superstar,” Ms. Mayfield takes the seemingly innocuous into a dark, post modern direction. The song is more than just a pleasant distraction from the traditional accompaniment on the majority of the track listing, it is a searing dissection of the self defeating, mindless modern lifestyle. Stripped of its original production value and sparsely accompanied by a single, sultry guitar Ms. Mayfield’s contribution is the only of the record that could be considered an improvement to source material.
That’s not to say the rest of the album isn’t listen worthy. Far from it. To ruin an Alabama cover is comparable to ruining a wet dream. It can be done, but it takes work. As well, to imply the disbandment of Alabama in the early nineties was the direct cause of country music’s downfall is a pretty tall order, but the timing works out. Hopefully, High Cotton can introduce a new generation to the legitimate expression of country music.
MP3: Jessica Lea Mayfield “I’m in a Hurry (And Don’t Know Why)”