Ideology forms the basis of the way we live our lives from the music we listen to, to the books we read - we all follow a set of ideas and values that we have either decided for ourselves or have been prescribed by the society we live in. Ideology effects every single area of our lives and music genres are certainly no exception to this rule. The very nature of Country music is determined by the ideology that the genres' 'initiates' subscribe to.
After the awarding of the 1974 CMA Female Vocalist of the Year award to Australian Pop singer Olivia Newton-John, twenty-two Country artists gathered at the Nashville home of George Jones and Tammy Wynette to discuss the future of their music. A week later they announced the formation of the Association of Country Entertainers (ACE) - an organisation restricted to Country performers (those who they deemed worthy of performing Country music). They even set up a committee to determine the Country credentials of prospective ACE members.
In Country music, as in most other genres, there are a set of embedded rules founded on the social and cultural climates that the music emerged from - this has created a form of exclusivity, highlighted in the actions of the Association of Country Entertainers, separating those who subscribe to the music (initiates) and those who do not, thus forming an invisible 'bubble' around the genre. Yet it is evident, from the example, that the 'bubble' of Country music is somewhat penetrable by the forces of popular music.
It is this idea of exclusivity which has defined and characterised Country music throughout its history and will continue to shape its future.
Anti-Commercialism and the Country 'Canon'
In a recent interview with the Chicago Sun Times, Americana artist Slaid Cleaves expressed a view held by many traditional Country music fans about the state of modern mainstream Country:
"I guess I just can’t stand that bigger-than-life, good ol’ boy kind of country music. It’s all pretty cheesy if you ask me. Whenever I accidentally come across any nationally-recognized music, it turns my stomach pretty much. All the videos are sexed up with people just trying to push buttons and get people all riled up. I have a friend who writes for a living in Nashville, and he tells me that last season it was all about banjos and now it’s all about tailgates and trucks. He tells me you got to hit those notes if you ever want to get your song cut. I mean, c’mon."
Cleaves continues, "I mean, don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the craft, and sometimes you can just tell that if a particular song had been done acoustically, it could have worked. There are well-crafted songs out there. I don’t know. Let’s just say I am very comfortable being on the tiniest little fringe of country music these days."
The purists of Country music believe that their music exists or should exist in a World outside of the commercialism of Popular music. It can be said that Country music strives to be Anti-Commercial! But how can music be anti-commercial in such a commercial industry? In its purest form, Country music doesn't tend to sell outside the genre's 'bubble'. For example, stars like Dwight Yoakam who have been revered by 'initiates' have often been scorned by the press on tour in Countries like England. On the other hand, Country music which abandons traditionalism for aspects of Popular music in order to achieve commercial success (e.g. the music of the Nashville Sound and the Country-Pop of the 1990s) have been rejected by traditional fans but have gathered a following outside of Country music's traditional circles.
If we take a look at the Canon of Country music, we can see a clear hierarchy in its ideology. Authentic and traditional Country will automatically rise to the top of the genre - the music of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and George Jones will always be seen as the highest form of Country music. (For more on this, read my previous article on Authenticity in Country Music).
There is no doubt that the incorporation of pop elements into Country music in the form of the Nashville Sound of the late 50s and early 60s SAVED Country music from potential commercial extinction. Rock & Roll had taken the music industry by storm and threatened the very existence of the Country music industry.
However, the Nashville Sound opened the doorway for the merging of Country music with popular styles to the extent where we now have very little pure Country music in the Country charts today. The 'bubble' has been fully penetrated, allowing the pure air of Country music to be contaminated. This has caused many aspiring, traditional Country artists like Slaid Cleaves to become disillusioned with the industry to the point where they no longer want to label themselves as Country. We may have already reached the stage where Country music as a pure genre now ceases to exist!