“Mr. Campbell, you won’t believe what happened!! Loretta Lynn died!!” The school secretary was shouting through my classroom phone.
As our school’s only music teacher, and a huge nerd, our faculty enjoys dropping musical trivia on me whenever possible – even in the middle of classes.
Apparently, Loretta was a country legend, but I hadn’t heard of her. I knew the most obscure names in blues, rock, and reggae, yet not country.
Chances are, if you’ve spent time around music aficionados, you’ve heard someone say “I love all types of music EXCEPT FOR COUNTRY MUSIC,” punctuated by a disgusted face. Why is this?
I really believe every genre can be redeemed, but it seems like the majority of people agree that country music sucks. I happen to agree with them, to a degree. Here are my thoughts.
Table of Contents
Reason 1: Lifestyle
Modern country music romanticizes a “southern cowboy” lifestyle, complete with farms, hats, and tractors.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this. However, it can alienate listeners. Nowadays, most listeners can’t relate to American cowboy life.
It’s true that we can and should learn from people of all backgrounds. The best lyricists make their personal stories universally relatable.
Unfortunately, country lyrics generally don’t encourage intellectual stimulation, or particularly care to.
Reason 2: Overdone Themes
Have you ever heard the joke, “What happens when you play a country song backwards?” The answer is, “Your tractor gets fixed, your dog comes home, and you get your wife back!”
Modern country music is rife with overdone, shallow themes. Once you’ve heard one, you really have heard them all.
See, I’m a genius. The next song on country radio will talk about: beer, girls, heartbreak, tractors, BBQs, ‘MERICA!, guns, more guns, tank tops, swimming in a lake, God’s country …
Get the idea?
Reason 3: Fake Accents
While researching, I was surprised to learn how often country singers fake a southern drawl.
Again, there is nothing wrong with southern accents. After all, a blanket statement shows more closemindedness than insight.
But faking something you’re not is a problem. It’s disrespectful to the real thing and cheapens the product you’re making. ‘Fake accents’ are symptomatic of the other reasons.
Reason 4: Modern Country is Just Lightly-Disguised Pop
I’m getting this out of the way now: I don’t think all country music is bad. At the end of this article, I’ll talk about older country legends who I believe made fantastic, universal music.
Unfortunately, country music has been watered down and cheapened to the point of redundancy. Take away the problems of themes and accents mentioned earlier, and you end up with unoriginal pop songs.
Musically, modern country rips off an already-derivative genre.
Here, “pop” refers to music made as simplistically as possible for the sole purpose of making a profit. Money, not artistic integrity, runs the business.
Reason 5: Country’s Musical Tradition Doesn’t Encourage Innovation
Now we’re delving beneath the surface to look at deeper problems.
All types of music reinterpret existing materials in some way. Rock bands often cover other bands’ songs. Jazz is built entirely on the concept of reinterpreting prewritten songs. Even classical composers like Beethoven copied melodies from their idols.
When country music first worked its way into the music industry, it copied jazz’s idea of singing prewritten songs. However, country musicians were musically conservative.
What do I mean by that? They weren’t adventurous. Jazz music was built on raw creativity, completely reinventing other songs.
Country music, by contrast, just copied originals note-for-note. Nothing is wrong with this, per se.
But inevitably, in a matter of years, country musicians had played all that could be played. Even if someone tried to be original, the market they created wouldn’t buy it.
Reason 6: Pandering Lyrics
Songs have two important elements: their music and their lyrics. If reason 5 explains country’s lack of musicality, then reason 2 explains its boring lyrics.
There is a bigger issue with country lyrics than artistic laziness though.
If you read into the lyrics, you’ll notice strong blue-collar themes. Characters in country songs aren’t rich. They work with their hands. They don’t always have a higher education.
The issue here isn’t the blue-collar characters, of course. Rather, it’s the kitsch identity being portrayed. Every genre has its stereotypes, but most have authentic, rich, multilayered explorations of identity.
Country music does nothing to improve or challenge blue-collar identity. Sure, it’s catchy and mentions things you find on a farm. This was original the first time, but not anymore.
An industry and genre that truly respects its origins will seek to elevate its listeners through genuine artistry, not cheap entertainment. Blue-collar people are too complex and inspiring to deserve banal music.
With my six reasons, you can see why modern country music sucks. It seeks to entertain at the expense of artistic originality. It does create a community, but not one that fosters improvement and exploration.
Country Music that Doesn’t Suck!
Fortunately, as I mentioned earlier, not all country music sucks.
Modern country music deviated drastically from its roots. Originally, its lyrics were evocative and focused on social issues, making original statements about the human condition. In this way, it reflected some of the best qualities in hip-hop and rock.
Here are some musicians worth your time.
The Carter Family
Country music started out in a little studio in Tennessee. Its owner, Ralph Peer, offered to record anyone who walked into his studio.
He wanted to record raw, unedited Appalachian music. The Carter Family was his first success, representing the authenticity of original country music and American music in general.
In a very real way, Peer was an ethnomusicologist. He wanted to experience the world around him, and encouraged his clients to do the same. This illustrates how the first country music did foster exploration.
No list of country musicians, let alone songwriters, is complete without Johnny Cash. He had a deep gravelly voice and carried himself like an outlaw. His songs were brooding, with a personal life to validate them.
Cash represented the underdogs, outcasts, and all-around controversial rejects of American society. Needless to say, this is lightyears away from the drivel of modern country.
I’ll admit his guitar playing isn’t virtuosic. But I think his lyrics represent why classic country was actually good.
Certain genres like jazz and funk focus on musicality. Others, like folk and rap, focus on lyrics. As long as they challenge and inspire listeners like Cash’s dark lyrics did, I think either is fine.
As you can see, there are lots of reasons why modern country music sucks. It’s a perfect case study for what happens when artistic integrity is rejected for cheap gain.
Next time someone says they hate country music, ask them why. They’ll probably mention some of the reasons I did.
But as the saying goes, don’t “throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
I’d be the first to say country music sucks. But I’d also be the first to encourage people to explain their reasons. When you dig, you might just find something worth keeping amidst the garbage.
Identifying both the good and bad benefits everybody – but you have to be the judge.