Decoding The “That’s Not Real Country” Argument

Country music fans know a thing or two about criticism. We hear both extremes: “I like all types of music—except country” or “That’s not REAL country.”

You learn to ignore that first criticism. There’s still hope for people who say they don’t like country. Like Emmylou Harris said, “You have to grow up, start paying the rent and have your heart broken before you understand country.” I guess those of us who grew up on potholed roads with farm jobs might just have a little head-start, is all.

But the second criticism—the one where something you enjoy and relate to somehow inauthentic—that one bites.
I grew up on the old stuff. I played fiddle. (Not violin. Fiddle.) In the era of Britney Spears, I was listening to Johnny Cash sing to San Quentin inmates. It wasn’t because of my old soul or my artistic integrity. It’s just what I grew up with.

Of the two radio stations that played without static in my town, one was country. That station crackles in the background of a whole lot of memories for me. Hauling hay, working cows with my dad, driving, dancing, a pontoon on the lake. This station played Garth, George, Martina, and Shania on a heavy rotation. The DJs spun 90’s country with some “Sixteen Tons” and “Walkin’ After Midnight” thrown in, plus whatever Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan were doing. I used to get ready for church on Sunday mornings with the radio on, listening to the Country Music Countdown. I equated Kenny Chesney with summertime and Jason Aldean with football games and Dierks Bentley with days on the river. Big & Rich songs made me think of our town rodeo. I’ll never forget the look on the DJ’s face at our high school prom when he turned on “Cotton-Eyed Joe” and a room full of 16 year-olds got alarmingly lit.

What do people mean when they say the new stuff isn’t “real?” It’s not like country singers have only recently discovered drinking and raising hell all night. There’s a song Hank Williams sang in 1952 called “Settin the Woods on Fire” that could be the latest Sam Hunt single if you didn’t know any better. And it’s not like country music has always had a specific sound. In 1964, the editor of a popular music magazine called SING OUT! criticized young Bob Dylan for moving away from his folksy roots for a less serious sound; Johnny Cash wrote back telling them to “SHUT UP! … AND LET HIM SING!”

Country music isn’t a monolithic entity. Country music is a melting pot. There are fiddles from Ireland, harmonicas from Europe, and banjos from Africa. Texas cowboy swing, Appalachian bluegrass, African-American blues, Oklahoma honky-tonk, Southern rock, Tejano music from the Southwest and Mexico, folk, rockabilly, gospel, outlaw country, and that “Bakersfield sound.” Barely anyone remembers that Kenny Rogers used to be known as “Kenny the Hippie.” Darius Rucker left Hootie and the Blowfish to achieve success as a country artist. Ray Charles even recorded a chart-topping country song. As a nation, we may be going through the growing pains of accepting diversity. But country music has always been way ahead of us.

As long as people have been making country music, someone has been saying the new stuff isn’t “real.” In fact, this complaint seems to be one of the few consistencies about the genre. You don’t have to like all of it. I certainly don’t. But to delegitimize some segment of American country music is to ignore what country music means. This is a genre as broad, colorful, diverse, and even strange as America itself. Like Johnny said, “It covers a lot of territory.”

Country music is working people music. It is callused hands music, free heart music. It deals with universal life stuff: Love, loss, work, heartbreak. It deals with rebellion, restlessness, and coming home. These are the songs of the American spirit.

And something about liking country music makes you good at recognizing bullshit. We may be the most inclusive genre in America, but we’ve always been pretty good judges of authenticity. Top 20 songs come and go, but the good stuff lasts forever. If it’s worth it, it will endure. The themes—“of emotions, of love, of breakup, of love and hate and death and dying, mama, apple pie, and the whole thing”—are timeless and universal. We’ll hold onto the good stuff, and pass it on to our kids and grandkids just like our parents and grandparents did.

Because of my dad and grandpa, I love Johnny, Merle, Hank, Patsy, George, and Loretta. But I also like the neo-outlaw movement happening now—Sturgill Simpson, Cody Jinks, Ryan Bingham, Chris Stapleton. Cody Johnson might have the best Texas Country sound ever. And I still listen to the Countdown. Miranda Lambert is my girl. Jason Aldean sings the best songs for slow dancing in the headlights. Kenny Chesney will never not sound right coming out of the speakers on the way to the river on the first really hot day of summer. Eric Church is all you wanna hear when you get off work late and drive home with the windows down pissed at the Man. And when I heard Tim McGraw sing “Meanwhile Back At Mama’s” on the Countdown, I was living in a big city. That song made me cry, and then it made me move home.

And when I came back home over my long exodus, I discovered that the funky country station was still playing, still the only station without static, still the same one my friends and I would eventually dial to as kids once we got tired of rap and hip-hop. Usually at night, when we were quiet. Or maybe when we were the most rowdy. We’d be driving too fast over dirt roads, just listening. Maybe we were working, or fishing, or coming back from the Firemen’s BBQ & Dance, or just driving because somebody got new tires. And the DJ would spin George Jones and Dolly Parton next to Jake Owen and Thomas Rhett. Alan Jackson and Willie Nelson and George Strait and Sam Hunt. And none of it felt out of place. It all felt like it was written for us. It all sounded like home.

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