I didn’t leave country music. Country music left me.
When news of the passing of the Possum, George Jones, hit me yesterday I instantly thought about the song largely dedicated to him, “Murder on Music Row.” Alan Jackson and George Strait sum up the angst most traditional country musicians have felt the past 20 years or so:
Legends like Hank Williams, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, and Johnny Cash epitomized country music. They didn’t just sing about a life of hard drinkin’ and harder women, they barely lived through it. Country music used to have grit and authenticity. Now it has pop rock metrosexuals in bedazzled jeans and whitened teeth.
Who would you choose to have your back in a theoretical bar fight: Merle Haggard or Kenny Chesney? 1. Kenny Chesney is a midget with a fake tan. 2. A dude with a name like “Merle Haggard” has to be able to throw down.
I partly blame Garth Brooks. When the biggest country music star in the ’90s went and tried to create a cheesy pop rock alter ego, “Chris Gaines”, it knocked the wind out of traditional country’s soul. Hank Williams caused a minor tornado turning over in his grave after that spectacle. The timeless image of a worn lonesome cowboy with nothing but a guitar and broken heart was replaced by pyrotechnics, a rock band, and stupid antics that would make “Kiss” blush.
Don’t even get me started on country artists who try to rap. That genre mixing mess is a new kind of awful in my book. If you’re not good enough to primarily sing country or primarily rap, then. do. neither. please.
I’m not positing to be an expert. Just a concerned observer. My teenage angst years were spent with “Pearl Jam” and “Deftones”, but I always found a way to come back to my long-lost relative, Charlie Daniels, and the man in black, Johnny Cash. They seemed like kindred spirits on the dusty journey of life.
And that’s one thing I appreciate about traditional country. It’s transparent about human struggles and the dirt of life. It rarely celebrates infidelity or drunkenness, but it serves as a cautionary tale for those vices. There’s a visceral sorrow that accompanies those pictures of human depravity. A deep longing in the Possum’s voice that hopes to be better than his worst moments.
I don’t see reality in the carefully crafted public images of artists like Jason Aldean and Keith Urban. They talk about dirt roads and young loved lost but I can’t completely believe they’ve lived it. Same goes for disingenuous rap artists like Kanye West who talk about how hard they are (Taylor Swift could beat you in a slap fight bro). In my opinion, modern country folk artists like The Avett Brothers or Lone Bellow are picking up the mantle men like Jones and Cash have left behind. The rough mantle Rascal Flatts could never pick up due to their soft manicured hands.
So here’s to the restoration of men in modern music. And here’s a salute to no-show George Jones, I hope his legacy finds a good John Deere lawn mower and sunset to ride off into.