Home / What Do You Do When Nashville Isn’t Making “Real” Country Music?

What Do You Do When Nashville Isn’t Making “Real” Country Music?

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Okay, so if you’re anything like me, when you hear the words country music, your stomach tightens up and you reflexively control a gag. Not because you hate country music, far from it, you’re just pretty damn sure what they play on so-called country radio and what seems to be coming out of Nashville these days is about as far from country music as, say, Hank Williams, Sr. is to heavy metal.

Yes, I invoked the hillbilly troubadour. He, along with the likes of Loretta Lynn, Jimmie Rodgers, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, The Carter Family and all the outlaws, hillbillies and what-not are real country music. If all you did was listen to the radio, you’d have no idea that there are bands out there today who carry on the legacy – I’m going to give you a primer on where you should start to build your anti-Nashville collection.

Leave it to a progeny of the Williams line to once again carry the torch leading country music to a different way. Williams, Sr. infused deep-southern blues into his playing, radical at the time, bringing the music of the southern delta to a whole new audience. In that same line stands Shelton “Hank” Williams, III.

III is the undisputed king of the movement away from Nashville with his now near legendary fight with monolithic Nashville label – Curb Records. I won’t go into the details of all that, as it’s as much fiction as it is fact in its retelling these days. Suffice to say the label and the artist didn’t see things eye to eye.

See, III also thought the country music out there was a “buncha fuckin shit to me!” III wanted to do things his way, the way it was done in the past, honest music for honest people. So far, it’s worked with three successful releases under his belt. Start out with III’s second release, Lovesick, Broke and Driftin. It’s closer to what III has said he wanted to do but still has the touch of “Nashville” on it. This will get you good and prepared for what is III’s strongest release to-date – Straight to Hell.

Straight to Hell is the album III wanted to release, it was done his way, with his players, at his studio. Hell, Curb records even made a new “label” (Bruc) to release Straight to Hell. Then pick up Risin Outlaw, the first official release. Risin Outlaw is definitely a good album but it’s easy to see that III was still abit innocent to the dark forces of Nashvilles and didn’t have anywhere near the clout in the industry he does today. If for no other reason, Risin Outlaw is worth the cost for the last track on the album, “Blue Devil.” If you like Hank Williams, Sr. “Blue Devil” will give you chills.

Next up is Wayne Hancock, the man Hank Williams, III has said sounds more like his granddaddy then anyone he’s ever heard.

When Hancock released Thunderstoms and Neon Signs back in 1995, I think just about everyone who heard it thought to themselves “Who the hell is this?” Seriously, both stylistically and vocally, Hancock sounded like someone who shared the stage with Williams, Sr. “There’s some big black clouds rollin in from the west/I’ve been driving all day, lord I sure could use a rest./There’s a motel up-a-head where I can unwind/Cause I sure love them Thunderstorms and neon signs.” Long gone, by this time, was the standard 1-4-5 chord progressions in modern country music but here it was in Hancock’s music – all over the place. If you had grown up listening to old country music, you immediately recognized what Hancock was doing and it felt as right as a summer rain. “Thunderstorm and Neon Signs,” the song, follows the very easy E-A-B7 chord structure and progression, so typical in country music.

Hankcock still tours religiously, having just released Tulsa this past year. Through the years, Hancock has remained true to his roots, never giving in to the machine that is Nashville. Any of Hancock’s albums are a sure-fire winner, but for me, Thunderstorms and Neon Signs, That’s What Daddy Wants, and Wild, Free and Reckless are his best. I mentioned Tulsa earlier, great album that sees Hancock trying on a Bob Wills country swing, more so then in his other works. Solid album but go for the ones I mentioned first.

Dale Watson is so sickened by the state of country music today, he’s gone so far as to say he no longer calls his music country, coming up with the moniker of Ameripolitan. "It would be more accurate to leave country out of it," Watson said in the The Exponent, Purdue University's campus newspaper. "They own it now, and you can't change it. They've stolen country. To me, it automatically means crap." Well Watson can call his style whatever he wants, to those of us who know any better, it's country – real county.

Watson’s been at the gig as long as Hancock, releasing Cheatin’ Heart Attack in 1995. Watson’s blood runs Texas Lone Star blue – born in Alabama but moving to Texas at a young age. His music is a direct descendant of that lineage. Think Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and other artist who left Nashville in the early/mid-1970s and invented the “Texas Sound.”

This all seems like it’s coming full circle doesn’t it? Start with 1998s The Truckin Sessions and from there grab up Dreamland. Watson has a new release set for April of this year full of songs he recorded while spending some time at the cabin that once belonged to Johnny Cash, I can’t wait for that one to come out.

Real country music's always been about the hard life – your women left you, you drank too much and it’s time to catch that rolling freight train and get the hell out of dodge for awhile. Now I ask you, what the hell does Toby Keith know about any of that? Hard to talk it, when you’ve never walked it. J.B. Beverley has walked it and his songs do the talking.

Full disclosure here, I’m one-third owner of the record label that put out Beverley’s latest release, so I am, of course, biased. I’ll put it like this, if I didn’t think Beverley is the real deal, I’d have never agreed to release his first album.

If I were to try and draw a parallel between artists of yesterday and artists of today, I would say Beverley is closet in ilk to Jimmie Rodgers. Beverley spent time hopping trains and viewing the American landscape from the open door of a boxcar. His music is the music of real people, of real living and real heartache and pain. To hell with this crap of “Whiskey for My Men, Beer for My Horses” saddle up to “Drinkin Bourbon.” If you can find a copy of American Highball, get it, as it showcases Beverley and his band, The Wayward Drifters, at their best – live. In lieu of that, grab a copy of Dark Bar and A Jukebox. In addition to the Nashville barn-burning title track, the album is from start to finish what real country music is all about.

I’m very happy to say that it’s not only the men-folk out there making damn good country music. No conversation about the subject would be complete without mentioning Neko Case. Siren – it’s the best word I’ve heard used to describe Neko Case. To see her, is to disbelieve your own eyes. Not for a minute would you believe that such a powerful voice is coming from such a tiny package (I’m going to guess, but I wouldn’t put Case at much over 5’).

Case gives Patsy Cline a run for her money. No, actually I think Case beats Cline in power and diversity. Furnace Room Lullaby and Blacklisted are my two favorite Case’s albums. Many people have put Case’s most recent release, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood as one of the top releases of 2006. Not that I disagree with them but I’m of the opinion that most of the critics who did so, have only recently discovered Case and were, rightfully, blown away.

So there you go, a damn good start down the path of “real” country music. From these seeds, your eyes will open to an entirely new underground scene of music that’s out there. Our music – the American artform that, like so many other things, has been hijacked by the corporate powers that be in the name of a dollar. It’s time we took it back and it all starts right here.

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About Mr. B

  • Damn you Cossel! Now I have to order every one of those and have them shipped to the UK!

    Great write-up, and I look forward to trying out your suggestions. Cheers!

  • Benjamin Cossel

    Oh man, that’s just the tip of the iceburg. From there you can dig into the likes of William Elliot Whitmore, Scott Biram, the .357 String Band and on and on.

  • leftyaxe

    Great article, Ben!

    You hit the nail right on the head!

    There are a lot of great acts that put “mainstream country” to shame, you mention the cream of the crop, though!

  • Jean

    You obviously don’t know a thing about Toby Keith. Why don’t you check things out before you right about them. Toby got out of high school and worked with his dad in the oil fields. He was married with a baby and when it closed they lost everything. He tried semi pro football and then ended up going into music and had to work his ass off more than any of the other singers because he wasn’t a copy cat like the rest of them, cookie cutter molds because they are afraid to do anything on their own. Toby has been through a lot more than most of them and is still out there and will be for a long time. Don’t say anything about anyone unless you know the facts.

  • Benjamin Cossel

    Let’s just for a second assume I don’t know anything about Toby and say that everything you just said is true. That only makes it worse, cause then he’s a sell-out caring more about style over substance, pop crap over true music.

  • Jean

    No it’s a man that isn’t like anyone else. One that knows what his fans like. He’s not a sell out he takes chances, he’s not afraid to try something knew. He doesn’t want to be like everyone else. He is more country than any of the other ones are, Rascal Flatts, Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, they are all played on all radio stations, Toby isn’t. I’m sick of everytime you hear some of them sing it’s the same old crap. He is far from pop, those mentioned above are pop. Drinkin’, cheatin’, broken heart’s that’s country.

  • gomer

    you didnt mention Leeann Womack who gave the world an outstanding COUNTRY album last year….”There’s More Where That Came From”

  • Vern Halen

    So, where does alt country or country rock fall into this? I think of a group like Jason & the Scorchers, who don’t sound country in one sense, but I’d listen to them over 90% of the Nashville crew any day. And Marty Stuart – his last couple of releases weren’t aimed at the modern country audience at all – a concept album about the Lakota and a traditonal bluegrass live recording.

    Yeah, mainstream country – no better than mainstream rock after all.

  • Big Al from Texas

    Great article Benjamin. You hit it right on the head. Today’s country is crap and sounds all the same to me. Thank God Loretta, Ray Price, Mel Tillis, Charlie Pride, Jones and a few of the others are still out there turning out what we all know is real country music. Don’t miss them in concert if they come to your area. Country musice is dieing fast.

  • leftyaxe

    Some great acts are Splitlip Rayfield, The Weary Boys, Scott H Biram, Big Sandy And The Fly Rite Boys, Joe Buck, Those Poor Bastards.

    (The last two are kinda hard to define, but great nonetheless.)

  • Good article. There isn’t much good country on radio or anywhere else that can be heard when not standing right in the front row at a concert anymore.

    Yes there are lots of great new and current artists and bands doing great country music these days (country music, not pop), but let’s not forget all the great country music from past days.

    Living where I do we don’t get many of these artists/bands that play good country music, so I started up an online radio station, 10 Gallon Radio I’m just trying to spread the word musically about what REAL country music is.

  • Ding ding ding.
    Don’t forget the fake accents. I always say I hate country .. except for Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Haggard …

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  • Charlie Frederick Music Enterprises-Ebay

    Good article! To understand country music you must have lived it and understand life. Too many current artists are merely faking it! Hank Williams Sr., Cash, Haggard, Jones and a few others are real! On the female side, Patsy Cline, Lynn, Parton, Wynette and a few others are also real! Great artists and great music stands the test of time. Where will the newbies stand in 50 years? This is the real test! I have lived long enough to actually witness this truth.

  • Benjamin Cossel

    Jean, You like Toby. OK Cool. Whatever. I don’t and I don’t think he’s real country. Ok cool, whatever.

  • Nice read Ben. Everything you said was true. These guys aren’t alternative country, they are real country, not 80’s pop music with a fiddle thrown in here and there. I’m glad I discovered JB Beverley, III, etc. They are the hank Sr.’s and Marty Robbins’ of the modern day.

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  • Repohellbilly

    Keep Country Music Real and buy the albums in the article!!! Hank III , Wayne Hancock,JB Beverley & The Wayward Drifters & Dale Watson are the REAL DEAL!!! Thanks Ben for helping get the word out about REAL COUNTRY MUSIC!!!

  • Good article! I wonder why you didn’t mention the term “Americana,” though – it’s a pretty vague “genre,” but it’s where a great many of the “real” country artists are hanging their hats these days, both old-timers and new acts. Ray Wylie Hubbard, Jim Lauderdale, Lucinda Williams, Hayes Carll, Patty Griffin, Darrell Scott, Emmylou Harris, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Shooter Jennings, the list goes on and on…

  • Benjamin Cossel

    Hi Jon,

    Great point, I cause I didn’t label it Americana because it just seems wrong to have to classify the type of music made by the above listed artists, which is in the same vein as Hank Sr, Johnny Cash and others, as anything but real country. In my humble opinion, it’s today’s country music that needs the relabeling as it’s certainly not country.


    Great articles, I’ll be looking for a few of these bands.
    When in Nashville, go to Third and Lindley (sp?) to see Webb Wilder, he’s real country, real rock, and real, real gone.

  • Alan

    Check out Joey Allcorn or Those Poor Bastards

  • misfit138

    Great article Ben.! I grew up on real country music and then the Garth Brooks era hit and has since turned into complete garbage and I stopped listening to it. Thankfully guys like Shelton, Wayne and JB came along and restored my faith in country music. I get so tired of these artists singing songs they know nothing about while wearing their damn flip flops. We have a local band here called Whitey Morgan that sticks to the country roots and is damn proud to say they play real country music. One of their songs is called “if it Ain’t broke”.. you should give it a listen sometime.

  • Sal

    Nice article, Ben. I, for one, cannot turn on country radio anymore because it immediately makes me nauseous. The crap they call “country music” these days is disgusting. If somebody in Nashville would be so wise as to bring real country back, he would be called an innovator and a genius. That’s how far gone those people are!
    Seems to me that ever since Garth Brooks hit the scene way back when, it’s been downhill all the way. I would rather listen to Barry Manilow than that crap they play over the country airwaves these days. Seriously!!

  • Benjamin Cossel

    Well, ok but there’s only so much Copacabana I can take before loosing my entire biscuit.

  • stevenb

    fuck this discussion. mainstream does its thing, the underground does its. neither is more “real” than the other. end of story.

  • Derek, The .357 String Band

    Thanks for mentioning us, it’s an honor to be considered as part of the same iceberg that the people and bands in your article are the tip of.

    Two points – first of all, mainstream anything generally sucks, no matter if it’s Garth Brooks, Good Charlette or The Monkees. Second of all, in my opinion, who gives a fuck if Toby Keith grew up in a field, a mine, or the surface of the moon? He still sucks.

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  • ghosty

    One of the problems with Nashville country is it’s preoccupation with style over substance. And I’m not talking musical style, I’m talking their trying to make the pretty boy/pretty girl into “stars” rather than focusing on making good music.

  • Honkytonker

    A few more: Rosie Flores (Rockabilly Filly my fave), BR-549, Delbert McClinton, The Derailers (before Tony left, not now), Cornell Hurd, the Fabulous Cherry Bombs, … wow, I could go on all night. So much great music out there, never on so-called country radio. Check out KHYI Plano in the web. Great Americana station. FWIW, my daughter got married in Austin and Dale Watson played the reception. Nicest guy you will ever meet.

  • So The Toby Keith song… “Let’s Talk About Me” is real country? Doesn’t he even try to rap in that song? It’s kinda like The Spice Girls “Tell me watcha want, watcha really, really want…” You hicks are just like the fish you catch. Gullible and stupid.



  • There sure is a lot of unrest these days about country music. I don’t listen to the radio anymore because I don’t like the sound of so called modern country either. Here is my take on where country music came from (The roots of country music):

    Whether or not someone is country, is hard to define now days. Language with its many definitions is constantly changing and is being re-defined everyday. Country music started out as a WAY of life not some genre or style of music. Country music was born from America’s back-country farm and rancher type people, not city folk. The roots of country music came from hard working people who were generally poor and had little or no entertainment but to sit in the shade after a long hard days work on the front porch or wherever and express his or her soul of ordinary country life lived everyday in the form of music. Most of the instruments used back then were homemade guitars, fiddles, banjos, mandolins, and what not. Over a period of time, music of this nature developed into a genre or style and became very popular. The genre, “Country Music” was born.

    Now days just because someone produces a certain sound or style, they feel they are country. The problem is… that certain sound has evolved over the years into something entirely different than it’s roots, not only the music but also the lyrics. Country music is no longer clearly defined as country. There has always been a rift and lack of understanding between country people and city people. Country people feel they are more closely in touch with the land and therefore feel more of a simple down home connection with nature and the earth with it’s way of life. City folk commonly do not have the same connection with the country way of life and therefore do not feel or express their souls with the same style of music. Consequently, Country music and city music have been mostly very different in lyric style and musical score. Now that most feel it’s all about the style or genre instead of a way of life, the true definition of country music has been lost. Genre’s and musical categories are subject to constant change…not so with the country way of life. The country way of life and its people change very slowly if at all.

    Because of this, the genre or style of country music has changed dramatically as more and more city people have gained access to the country music industry. It takes lots of money to produce music and push it over the airwaves. City people seem to have more of the green stuff so naturally the style of country music has been altered by people who were born in the city and have very little real connection with the original grass roots country music sound. Like it or not, this is the TRUE definition of COUNTRY MUSIC!