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This excellent article ran in my hometown fishwrap yesterday:

I’ve given up on country music.

My commute is no longer accompanied by the sound of what passes for country today. If I want pop, I’ll tune to a pop station.

CMT is just a TV station to surf past on the way to something better, unless you want to watch Wynonna introduce the 40 greatest drinking songs for what seems like the 400th time.

I haven’t bought a country CD in years; I don’t even have an interest in browsing that part of the record aisle for fear of running into a 12-year-old whose main options today are Shania, Kenny Chesney and Rascal Flatts.

After a lifetime of living proudly with Cash on the hi-fi and Haggard in my heart, you could say I’ve turned my back on country music.

But the truth is country music has turned its back on me.

I started giving up last November, when it dawned on me that the big winner at the Country Music Association was dead. Johnny Cash deserved every award. But what does it say about country when the best thing it has going is gone — and when country radio quit playing the Man in Black years ago anyway?

That was just one sign traditional country is fading, and that the new stuff being marketed in its place not only isn’t very good and lasting but isn’t as popular. The poets of my day who sang of love, loss, loneliness and poverty have been replaced by Kenny Chesney doing a mediocre Jimmy Buffett imitation.

Amen to every word of this one. Country is dead, and the heart of rock and roll is pretty weak and arrhythmic these days too. It’s sad, but I don’t see much coming down the road to change it. This link requires (free) registration, but the article is worth taking a moment to sign up to read. And there’s a larger issue here too, one that’s very near and dear to my heart. I’ll be talking more or less about rock and roll here, but it applies to country and blues as well.

The straggly, scrawny kid who grabs a guitar in hopes of finally getting some kind of attention from the girls other than sneers and spitballs is no more. He’s been replaced by turntable-wielding, dirty-limerick reciting little turds who might know their way around Logic, Reason, and Cubase better than I do, but who couldn’t plunk out a modal scale if you tattooed a map to the root on their foreheads.

But then, why shouldn’t it be that way? Who’s going to bother with a couple of years of guitar lessons and woodshedding if he can go to a store and grab a couple of turntables for less than the price of a nice tweed guitar case nowadays? Why bother spending the time it takes learning to actually play an instrument when the girls will be just as impressed by the letters “DJ” in front of whatever goofy name he chooses for himself? What club owner is going to hire four guys, two of whom have alcohol and/or drug problems, two of whom can’t stand each other and whose mutual van-life-inspired hatred just might lapse into fisticuffs on stage, and all of whom may or may not show up, over a kid who takes five minutes to set up, will turn it down if you ask, and will play whatever anybody wants to hear – and who will charge about a third of what the four ego-addled spoiled brats will?

Live rock and roll clubs have been closing down all over the country the last few years, and there’s a very good and simple reason for it: there really isn’t much demand for live music anymore. Bands are breaking up right and left, and even long-time road dogs accustomed to making a decent living from their chops are hanging up their touring spurs in favor of playing for dwindling crowds in small local dumps that pay squat. Guys whose primary ambition in life was always just to be able to proudly say the golden words “I’m a professional musician” when asked about what they do for a living are now ruefully searching the want ads for any kind of paying gig they can get. I do not mean “gig” the way it’s usually meant, either. I mean: “shit job.”

Don’t even think of arguing, because I’ve lived it myself; I’m living it right now, in fact. And I’m more fortunate than many, in that I do have at least a bare modicum of other marketable skills. I’ll stop before I start sounding even more like a curmudgeonly old stick in the mud than I already do. But it does make me sad.

And I’m not really assigning all the blame to anybody or any particular thing here, either; times do change, after all, and there’s more than one reason for live music going the way of Al Gore’s political career. But if you value your virgin ears, do NOT attempt to engage me in conversation about how great the latest, hottest CD from the rapper or turntable jockey of the week is. You will not like what I have to say on the subject, I assure you.

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About Mike Hendrix

  • Eric Olsen

    Thanks Mike, rueful indeed. I think it comes down to economics and expectations: a lot of people want to hear a song exactly the way they hear it on the record or the radio.

    But nothing will ever replace the excitement and “thereness” of live music, the pendulum will swing back, as it has at the high-end concert level.

  • I feel really weird having to disagree with this post. I suck at playing guitar, but I practice every free moment I can. I love classic rock, and I love the sound of a good electric guitar tone more than anything else I can think of. I couldn’t find a modal scale if you paid me, but I’m about to go home an practice the pentatonic boxes and I’m smiling just thinking about it.

    That said, I do disagree. Isn’t music about creating beautiful sounds in an expressive way? If that’s the case, who cares what tool the person is using to create those good sounds?

    You know that straggly, scrawny kid you were talking about? Well, he’s the exact same kid who nowadays might be using ProTools, or even a gameboy. If he’s making music that he likes, and that he really believes in, what’s the problem? The fact that he uses a different set of tools shouldn’t make him automatically a turd any more than you choosing to use an electric guitar instead of a nylong string makes you one.

  • David

    Oh, I don’t think real country is dead. I suspect that it’s just out of the limelight for the moment.