These first three articles were originally written as my response to questions posed by Greg Foster at Music Biz Australia.
Why is Country Music So Popular?
Interesting question. There’s an assumption inherent in that question of course – that it is popular. There are also two definitions that ought to be explored before attempting to answer it. Firstly, what is “country music” and secondly, what do we understand by the term “popular” and how do we measure country music popularity?
Were I to write this brief article as a serious academic exercise I would begin by looking at the statistics by which you might measure the current popularity of country music, i.e. dollars generated by the sale of concert tickets, CDs, merchandise, etc as a proportion of total music industry sales and then compare the figures over the last 40 years or so. I’m not going to do that. I don’t have the time to do the research and am more interested in understanding the deeper question of what is country music and where is it going.
I recall – it was some years ago now – being engaged in conversation with a bloke in a small country town in Queensland after a concert in what passed for the community centre. He began with, “G’day, I’m Doug,” and then asked, “Do ya call yourself a country singer?” The tone of the question suggested that he didn’t and I hesitated before answering. I had barely begun to respond when he broke in, “Ya don’t look like a country singer and some of them songs ya sang tonight and some of those ya do on ya TV show aren’t real country are they? And ya don’t sing about the bush much.”
I conceded him his assessment and as we talked realised that it was he who had yelled out from the audience towards the end the second half of the show, “Don’t ya know any Australian songs?” The irony of it was that among the 20 or so I had sung thus far I had written all but one of them.
I put the question to him, “So what would you call me?” “I dunno,” he replied, “ … a bit of pop, a bit of folk, a bit of country? Ya tell stories like a country singer, ya know in words ’n that, but, ya tunes are, ya know, a bit country but … something else. I dunno.”
For Doug country music was Slim Dusty. When I asked what else he listened to he confided that he also liked Hank Williams, Loretta Lynne and Johnny Cash.
There’s an audience out there in rural Australia, of which Doug was one, for whom country music has always been defined by Slim and latterly by John Williamson. They have both written without apology about the bush, it’s people, the life they lead and the philosophy they espouse. That it is often myopic and seldom inclusive of modern Australia is of little importance to this hard core country market. It never was to Slim who knew exactly whom he was targeting and how he should talk to them. Ask most city dwellers, in what is one of the most urbanised countries in the world, to define country music and most will begin with Slim, end with John Williamson, drop the odd American country singer somewhere in between and tell you they don’t like it much. They might add that they liked “Hey True Blue”, but for most who bought its sentiments it was simply because it clings to a highly romanticised image of what it might once have meant to be Australian and allowed those whose heritage was Anglo Saxon to indulge in a little nostalgia for an era fading rapidly – and it was catchy.
The failure of 2SM to survive when it made the decision some years ago to become a country music radio station reinforced the belief that the market for country music wasn’t big enough in Sydney to be commercially viable – when your ratings are no more than an asterisk on the chart advertisers go elsewhere. However, I suspect that for many in the urban market a good deal of what was played would have appealed to them, but the label “country music” simply turned them off – many who might have enjoyed much of the music didn’t even sample the station, let alone stay for the ride. Include a lot of the music that this audience enjoys in your definition of “country music” and suddenly your market expands exponentially. But don’t call it “country”. They don’t like the label and what they perceive it stands for.
So, what is this music that this wider audience enjoys that might fall within an expanded definition of “country music” and who are they? First, a bit of history. My musical education began in the 50s. The first record I ever bought (and I still have it) was the Everly Brothers “Wake Up Little Susie.” They were pop stars, but their music was a heady amalgam of country, pop and rock’n roll produced by the greatest country guitarist of them all, Chet Atkins. Then I heard Jerry Lee Lewis singing “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going’ On.” It blew me away. He was all that my parents despised. Wild, untamed and lascivious, he was, as I was later to discover, a direct link to the black R’n B singers whose music was to be copied in the 50s and 60s by every pop and rock singer from Bill Haley to the Stones. It grew out of the music that black Americans brought with them when transported as slaves to work in the cotton fields of the South. But somewhere along the way the blues combined with the folk music of the white immigrants from Europe and produced a hybrid that can best be heard in the singing of Jimmie Rogers and then later in the great Hank Williams. American country music was born out of poverty, deprivation and a search for identity that was to run in parallel with rock’n roll and pop music with which it shared a common ancestry
It is this common ancestry that can be heard at the point where country, rock’n roll and pop music meet. It is this common ancestry that draws the rock’n roll listener to country music (although they mightn’t call it that) and infuses the best pop music with energy, conviction and emotional resonance – attributes to which we all respond. If you doubt it consider the success of Kasey Chambers. She isn’t pop or rock’n roll but her music took her to the top of the charts and engaged an audience far wider than what might be regarded as the country music market from which she had emerged. There is a singular lack of pretence and artifice about Kasey and her music which is enormously appealing. She’s not “country” as Doug from rural Queensland might define it but, whether he might be capable of acknowledging it or not, she and her music draw from the same well.
“Country Music” like “Rock’n Roll” and “Pop Music” is a commercial construct, an easy means by which to define the product for the benefit of the media and audiences that demand simple to understand labels. Recent attempts to categorise artists who fall uncomfortably between the cracks of the conventional labels has seen the term “Roots Music” developed. In truth it is no more than an attempt to find a definition for those making music that contains elements of all three conventional categories – music that harkens back to the common ancestry I talked about above.
It is this groundswell that is slowly changing the face of country music in Australia and seeing the Tamworth festival beginning to accommodate artists who ten years ago would never have considered playing there or whom the country audience would have regarded with some distain. It is not country music as that label might once have been defined. It is not rock’n roll or pop music either. It’s a little of all three. But, and here’s the real issue, to survive and prosper in this realm it must be emotionally honest, delivered with integrity and utterly convincing. It must first and foremost be about the music, the packaging comes a distant second.
You may have seen the documentary made about The Dixie Chicks recently called “ Shut Up and Sing”. It followed their lives after one of them remarked, in almost throw-away fashion when on stage in London, how they were ashamed that George Bush was from Texas, their home state. The right wing American country audience, supported by the country media, went ballistic. They banned the Dixie Chicks music, burned it in the streets and boycotted their concerts. The reaction was, for this Australian observer, quite disturbing. There was genuine concern within the group and their management that they might have destroyed their career; they might never regain the success they had had within the country market.
They then made a brave decision. They would not apologise for expressing a genuinely held point of view. They would record a new CD expressing just that belief in no uncertain terms. In doing so they knew that they would further alienate their traditional country audience, but they clung to the belief that the groundswell of support that was building for them might see them break into an entirely new and larger market.
They were right. The new CD broke all their previous sales records and went to No1 on the pop charts. They had found a new audience who in the past might rarely have considered buying a country CD but who responded to the integrity and honesty of their music which, in pure musical terms, was little different to the stuff they had been playing for the previous ten years. It was a little tougher, less overtly country, but still the Dixie Chicks. A market that didn’t buy the conservative, narrow minded, insular definition of “country music” came to them – in droves.
In Australia I suspect that the market for “traditional” country music (and that term alone opens up a considerable can of worms) is not growing – in fact it may be declining, it certainly appears to be aging, (a few statistics would help). The market for music that falls within the broader definition to which I have alluded appears to be growing. It accommodates a wide range of political and social opinion, as it has always done – Big Bill Broonzy, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earl and the Dixie Chicks are but a few who have used their music, drawn from the common well, to speak out against injustice.
These thoughts barely scratch the surface in trying to answer the original question and I may have gone off on several tangents without coming to any real conclusions – ah, but then it’s Christmas as I write and tangents are mandatory and sleep in short supply.
I guess in the end whatever change is evident is no more than a reflection of the changing nature of the whole music industry. Where it is going and what it might be like in say 20 years time is a whole other subject and likely to throw up a vast range of opinion for debate that could fill the pages of this site for the next 20 years – as it should.
Is “three chords and the truth” enough?
Each year, for the last 6, I have been going to Tamworth to teach at the CMAA’s Country Music College (now called The Academy of Country Music – yeah, I know, I don’t like the title either). Admission is by application and a rigorous selection process culls the many who apply down to the 21 we invite to join us. It’s among the most stimulating things I do in my working life – and among the most exhausting. We cram into two short weeks a massive amount of information, demand an enormous amount of both students and teachers and conclude with a graduation concert that almost invariably exceeds all our expectations. And almost all of the songs performed on that final night have been written during the previous two weeks. Inevitably, some in the audience have protested that among the songs are several that “aren’t country”.
One of the things we ask each student to do before they come to college is to define what they mean by the term “country music”. Invariably the definitions are as diverse as the students we accept for we have gone out of our way in the last few years to be as broadly inclusive as we can believing that a contemporary definition of “country music”, at least in Australia, ought to accommodate quite a wide range of what might be defined as very different genres – folk, blues, roots, bluegrass, country, bush ballads, even some rock and pop etc. Call them what you will, they all spring from the same well. (See my earlier article.)
Asked to define country music the great Nashville writer Harlan Howard responded with what has become an oft-quoted cliché – “three chords and the truth”. That definition could be applied to many of the forms I have referred to above – the blues is essentially three chords, as is most folk music. Early rock’n roll (and for that matter much of contemporary rock’n roll) was no more than a sanitised version of the R’n B that thrived in the Chicago clubs of the 40s and 50s, which in turn grew out of the blues of the deep south where three chords were often two more than many blues men needed.
During a college workshop on song writing I encouraged the students to explore the songs of writers whose work would not be classified by most as country music, using the songs of Jim Webb, Paul Simon, The Beatles and Danny O’Keefe to illustrate several aspects of the craft. The point being of course that among a rich catalogue of outstanding songs each have several that might easily be called “country”. Indeed Jim Webb’s “Highwayman” won a Grammy in 1985 as country song of the year although few would suggest he’s a “country” writer.
During the workshop one of my students threw Harlan Howard’s famous line at me saying, if that’s all we need why are you saying we should listen to “all this other stuff”. My response was brief, to the point and probably too glib – “because writing great songs, irrespective of the genre, isn’t just about how little you put in, it’s about how much you leave out.” I then went on to expand on my response suggesting that you don’t “write” a song you re-write it and in the process you may eliminate much of what you began with, musically and lyrically, before you might consider it finished. But of course that process of elimination assumes that you have started with much more than you might finally need, which in turn suggests that you are fully aware of the range of song writing tools at your disposal and, having explored several, have retained only those that make the song you are working on come alive.
Let’s back pedal a little. What is this mysterious process called “song writing”? The Nashville song writing industry, at least at the professional level, functions pretty much like New York’s Tin Pan Alley that dominated the publishing business in the USA during the latter part of the 19th century and well into the 20th century. If you’re a staff writer for a major US country publisher (which usually means you have been paid an advance against royalties) you clock on in the morning, work with a co-writer through the day and clock off when you’re done. Pinned to a board somewhere in the office will often be a list of producers who are looking for songs appropriate for the next act they are about to take into the studio – “Hey guys, Garth Brooks is looking for some new material, want to have a crack at something for him?” Of course when you sell as many CDs as Brooks does every writer in the country is trying to pitch “his next guaranteed No 1. Smash” to his producer. Writing like this usually means analysing the style and content of each act to whom you might want to pitch a song and creating within those constraints. And often those constraints will be tight. Every top country act (or every act for that matter) wants a hit, whether it be to repeat a past success or establish a new career. And country hits are frequently very close to Harlan Howard’s simple formula – mostly three chords tied to lyrics that will be someone’s version of “the truth”. And if you have enough “someones” you’ve got yourself a hit.
Harlan Howard wrote within those constraints, frequently for specific performers. The classic “I Fall To Pieces” was written for Patsy Cline who turned it into a huge hit. While the formula was elegantly simple his ability to find new ways to apply it was remarkable. He apparently wrote more than 4,000 songs (most were solo writes) during a career spanning more than 5 decades, constantly refining the art of the three or four chord melody. However, he also believed that the real strength of his songs lay with the lyrics – he is often quoted as saying that his best songs were 90% lyrics and 10% melody.
So, at this point you might well suggest that my student was right – if you want to be a commercially successful country writer you don’t need much more than three chords and lyrics that make an emotional connection with the target market. However, few of us are Harlan Howard with the ability to constantly reinvent the formula, to create melodies that, for all the simplicity of the chord structures, stay with you. (I can still sing one of his 50s hits, “Heartaches By the Number”, note for note. It has a melody so irrevocably tied to the lyrics that I cannot imagine one without the other – which, for me at least, is one of the most compelling arguments for the greatness of a song.)
In the hands of lesser writers “three chords and the truth” has become a formula for mediocrity. Too much country music is bland, simplistic and uninspiring. There is little melodic invention and many lyrics are often no more than a string of clichés, revisiting the same themes without any new insights and precious little emotional “truth”. Slick production, clever marketing and a fiercely loyal audience have enabled the US country market to thrive but these days the commercial end of the market rarely encourages or even supports innovation – that’s coming from the fringes of the country scene. (There are many who might suggest that it never has, but that’s a subject for another day.)
Harlan Howard’s belief, that the most important part of his songs were the lyrics, has given too many aspiring writers an easy “out”. Great lyrics take time and hard work to achieve. Writer Gene Lees notes that the great Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics to “Autumn Leaves” in around 15 minutes but “Skylark” took him a year to complete. Most write pages of lyrics before refining them down to the few lines that will make up the song. And great lyricists are rarely completely satisfied with everything they write. Oscar Hammerstein, who like Mercer wrote lyrics to some of the classic songs of the last century, among them “All The Things You Are”, was never happy with the way he’d used “divine” at the end of that song and according to Lees (Songwriters and Poets Modern Rhyming Dictionary, Omnibus Press 1981) vowed that before his life was over he’d find a better way to finish it. He never did.
(Lees, incidentally, is a very fine writer himself. Among his best known songs being “Quiet Night of Quiet Stars” which was recently recorded by Dianna Krall. I have used his rhyming dictionary for many years.)
During the years when I was touring extensively I accumulated volumes of lyrics given to me by enthusiastic fans with the assurance that within these pages were the words to what were certain hits – if I could just write a melody for them. Most were abysmal, many downright hilarious and some no worse than what passes for lyrics in every second country song you hear. Inherent in these requests was the assumption that, as I had written the music for a hit or two, I would have no trouble putting a melody to their words.
The art of writing great melodies remains as mysterious a process to me today as it did when I first began back in the 60s. Listening to my first recorded efforts now I can hear the influences of my heroes in almost everything I wrote. In some instances far too obviously – much to my embarrassment. But I was learning and as I frequently tell my pupils at Tamworth the best way to learn is to analyse what great writers do, absorbing their influences until you reach the point in your own work where those influences are no longer apparent and an identifiable style of your own has emerged. But if all you ever listen to are three chord country melodies you will be bound to repeat the clichés and unless wedded to a brilliant set of lyrics it may never be heard beyond a small circle of friends.
It has long been my contention that the best writers draw from a wide variety of sources for their inspiration. They listen to and absorb everything. “Three chords and the truth” is where we all start and indeed is where all popular music started, but if you never go beyond Harlan Howard’s adage you may never discover enough to unearth the real beauty in what those three simple chords can provide.
Words? What words?
I went to see Leonard Cohen recently. I had seen him in concert on several occasions in the past and always left feeling deeply touched. It was no different this time. I walked out of the auditorium surrounded by others who were clearly very moved. Remarkably, the audiences for this and the concert I saw last year were much broader than I recall them being in the past. Sure, there were plenty among the audience who had grown up on his music and bought his albums when audio was analog but their kids, with their kids, went in great numbers and, to judge by the conversations around me as we left the venue, were no less enthusiastic.
But it was not the enthusiasm that spills out of the arena after a Kylie Minogue or AC/DC concert. It was quiet, almost reverential, perhaps best exemplified by one of those rare moments in his concert (a moment that every performer treasures) when at the conclusion of A Thousand Kisses Deep, which Cohen recites, the audience collectively held their breath for what seemed an eternity, almost as though they never wished to break the mood, before bursting into prolonged applause. There were people around me with tears welling in their eyes.
It left me wondering why it was that a songwriter, who for so many in the past had been regarded as too depressive (“music to slash your wrists by” was the phrase) should return, in his 76th year, to such an extraordinary reception. The reviews for his performances around the world have been nothing short of rapturous. There’s a gravitas to his voice that has come with age, deepening the timbre of what was always a limited vocal range but beyond that, and a band of exceptional musicians (although he has always employed great players), little has changed. We’ve witnessed a resurgence in his music prompted by others covering some of his best songs – notably Hallelujah – and a couple of years ago the Sydney Festival staged a concert of Cohen songs performed by an eclectic mix of singer songwriters paying homage to a writer whose work they have long admired. People who once had only a passing interest in Cohen now declare themselves long time ardent fans. Others have gone in search of his back catalogue quietly lamenting the fact that they tossed out their vinyl copy of his first album Songs of Leonard Cohen many years ago – probably the only album of his they bought.
So where does the answer lie? It’s too superficial to say, as I heard one radio presenter recently remark, it’s just the baby boomers reliving their youth. The audience mix at the concerts quickly dispels that notion. He’s never been a chart topper and his performances have always been understated affairs, enlivened by a wry, intelligent, self-deprecating sense of humour. It lies in his ability to speak to us in words that reveal himself, and us, in equal measure. What might at first appear in his songs to be intimate and intensely personal reveals itself to be open and universal for, in the end, he draws from the common well of human experience, finding words to express what most of us struggle to articulate, even clumsily.
And that brings me to the point of this article, one that I keep bashing away at during the song writing course I teach at The Australian International Conservatorium of Music – it’s about the words. It has been prompted by a comment from a student who determinedly declared, “I’m not worrying too much about lyrics, I’m trying to write hit songs.” We debated the point for some time, he producing any number of examples of hit songs whose lyrics could at best be described as adequate and at worst as simply awful, while I trotted out the usual suspects – Dylan, later Beatles, Paul Simon, Don Henley, Leonard Cohen, Bacharach and David, etc, etc – all the while mindful that I was once very envious of the success the late Billy Thorpe had some years ago with a song called Mashed Potato whose lyrics consisted entirely of the title with “yeah” tacked on to it.
I doubt I made much headway for he, like so many others, doesn’t really listen to the lyrics. He had only a vague notion of what one of the hit songs he quoted was about and entirely missed the irony in another. And that for many is how they listen to music. It’s background to what ever else they might be doing in their life at the time. Not many of us, particularly the young, put on a CD and sit and really listen to the words. Now we listen via ear buds while working out in the gym or in the train to work. Music is entirely portable, instantly downloadable and instantly disposable – Don’t like it? Wipe it. I don’t have an argument with those that enjoy music that way – at least they are listening. But I do struggle with those who are writing songs who conclude, as a consequence, that lyrics are far less important than the production and the melody.
Of all the attributes required to create good lyrics there is one that to me stands out – bravery. It is a characteristic of all our great songwriters of the last 50 years or so. It’s the ability to open their lives to unflinching self-examination and express their findings in language that illuminates their conclusions with great clarity. It’s ultimately what gives their careers longevity and sustains them creatively. It’s a quality that can be found in abundance in Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon and Paul Kelly (listen to his song If I Could Just Start Today Again if you need confirmation) among many others. And of course it’s there in Cohen. He and his music have survived and prospered for so long because of the quality of his lyrics; because he has brought insight and a willingness to explore his own life with such honesty, and hence our lives, that when tied to the elegant simplicity of his music touches us emotionally in a way that only the best creators, in any art form, succeed in doing.
So where does that leave us? Is there a great divide between those who write to create hits and those who write to illuminate our lives? No, not at all. The craft is no different. The work required to write finely tuned lyrics for a good pop song is as demanding as that undertaken by any of the writers I may have nominated during this essay. The evidence can be found in the lyrics of any number of beautifully crafted songs that have become hits. And for most songwriters, whether they be singers or not, a hit gives you instant credibility and a base upon which to build a career. However, and this was the heart of my argument with my student, if all you ever aspire to write are hits, and you assume that hits don’t need much in the way of good lyrics, you run the great risk of not growing as a writer – and not sustaining a career. Working within the confines of what you perceive to be currently popular requires no bravery and rarely demands innovation. Additionally, most current hits are as much a product of the marketing campaign as they are of the creativity in the song writing – and frequently the writing has nothing to do with pop success, it’s all about the marketing.
And, of course, even if you do write what you and others might believe has “hit written all over it” there is no guarantee that it will deliver. No one has the magic formula – there isn’t one. Often those who have been fortunate, or gifted enough to put together a string of hits concede that they never fully understand the process. They understand the mechanics of a good song but the creativity that turns inspiration into a piece of magic can seem quite mysterious and, as I frequently point out to my students, cannot be taught. You can teach techniques that help them go in search of inspiration but it’s a journey that all writers undertake alone. And if you’re only ever travelling in the middle of the road you might never find the sidetrack that leads to genuine inspiration, or you’ll get stuck in a traffic jam of creative stagnation or run over by a B-double in a hurry.
To conclude – artistic longevity demands bravery. For a songwriter bravery finds its expression in the lyrics. It is what has sustained Leonard Cohen’s career for so long and it is what will sustain the careers of the young writers whom I see each week at the course I teach. The best writers explore the darkness within themselves and within us, searching for illumination. The search is what drives them and the journey never ends. As Cohen so eloquently put it:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in