This is an indictment of modern country music.
Not that there needs to be one. Fans of pop-country are an unapologetic bunch, either proudly aware of their lack of taste or blissfully unaware of how completely awful the music is in the first place. Neither is excusable yet both are understandable.
To comprehend the mindset of a pop-country fan, one must trace the lineage from the early days of country & western, which enjoys a rich and diverse history until around 1980. From Appalachian mountain music and its Southern variants in the ’20s through the rise of the Grand Ole Opry and the Nashville scene (including the popularization of bluegrass, Western swing, et al) of the ’40s and continuing through the outlaw country and rockabilly movements (’50s-’70s), the music kept evolving, sometimes upsetting the establishment, but always pushing boundaries. Artists infused elements of gospel, blues, folk and rock, and new forms loomed forever on the horizon.
Then the ’80s happened, and country music entered an indefinite holding pattern.
Why this unsolicited commentary on the state of pop-country? Normally, I wouldn’t give a donkey’s haunches about such a broken-down, mind-numbingly useless subgenre. But when asked to review an album by a Jacksonville-based pop-country artist (we’ll get to that in a moment), I feel the need to be frank regarding my utter disdain for the genre and its adherents. In the harsh light of this criticism, I also feel obligated to offer substantive support for my position.
It’s not enough to just scream, “I hate this shit!”
To be fair, most musical genres stagnated in the ’80s, the worst decade in American music history. The experimental prog-rock of the ’70s turned into laughably complex, completely unmarketable simulacrum. Jazz fusion, subsequently, went smooth. Funk and disco died, replaced by bland MTV-driven synth-dance and horribly goofy hip-hop. Trendy but still commendably rebellious punk morphed into generic goth. And metal – good fudgin’ god, look what happened to metal.
But many of those genres broke free in the late ’80s and ’90s, moving into new territories, even within the confines of pop markets (grunge, industrial, math rock, house, dub step, gangsta rap, new-wave ska, etc.) Pop-country, however, decided to stay put, and there it remains, nearly three decades later. Nothing new, exciting, inventive or even interesting. And so Billy Ray Cyrus is Clint Black is Garth Brooks is Alan Jackson is Jason Aldean is Florida Georgia Line and so on … and so on.
I don’t blame the artists; I blame consumers. As with most post-’70s pop, consumers live in constant fear that listening to new or different music forms will somehow permanently damage them. Either that, or they’re too lazy to seek more challenging avenues. Either way, their money speaks, and the industry listens. And so we have guys like Jacksonville’s J Collins, who in promotion of his CD Come Get Some, sent a copy to Folio Weekly Magazine.
I needn’t write another word at this point, because you can guess the rest. His look: torso-hugging T-shirt, even tighter gently aged jeans, leather shit-kickers, brow-obscuring cowboy hat. Songs: Predictably twangy, just-this-side-of-rock foot-stompers with an obligatory tear-in-my-beer ballad. Lyrics: Rote, stale, easy-to-rhyme-and-sing-along-with. Subject matter: Permissive country girls, small-town blue-collar values, summer lakeside Bud-soaked partying and, of course, the good ol’ USA.
And pop-country fans will eat it up. J Collins, bless his metro-rural heart, is a marketing goldmine, tailor-made for a three-year run at the top of what’s left of the charts. He’s muscular, attractive, and he’s mastered all of his forbears’ poses – legs provocatively spread, arms thrust to his sides in a perennial flex, steamy but approachable gaze. This guy’s got it down. And it should pay off for him. Indeed, he headlined the Coke Zero 400 in Daytona in 2014. Soda endorsements = big money. Seems he’s on the fast track.
Who can blame him? As long as he plays it safe, Collins can make his bank with little effort. Follow formula, don’t make any waves, cash those checks. But alas, there are thousands of artists just like him banging on Nashville’s doors, offering identical packages. As tidy as his path to stardom may seem, it is littered with speed bumps, road blocks and potholes, most of whom are dressed up and sing just like him.
Chalk my cynicism up to my oft-criticized elitism, my disdain for anything remotely popular or my contrarian nature. Chide me for my inability to abide anything consumed by the masses. Upbraid me for being a typical music critic (the adage: Music critics are failed musicians). That’s fine. I’ve got a thick skin.
Let’s hope Collins does, too.