Thursday, 28 July 2011

What do I know or care about your backwoods?

A recurrent theme on country music blogs in recent weeks has been debating what makes country music truly country. One criticism often levelled is how obligatory it has become in the last couple of years on country radio to shout out about how country you, the person, are, and how artificial and forced this is.

"All day, you've been singing rock songs to me about how country you are. And even country songs about how country you are. It's been 'dirt road' this and 'back road' that, and 'party in the woods' this and 'redneck, hillbilly' that.
"I don't believe you"

To me, it's perhaps less about the issue of the music itself 'not really being country' (or rather, while sometimes it is, that's not what I'm going to focus on in this blog entry). It's more about how this focus on 'being a real country boy' excludes people like me. I'm a fan of country music, and have been for a few years (though not as long as many), but I'm not from the country. Hell, I'm not even from America. Therefore, I don't really care much about that big green tractor you probably didn't actually drive around, or the backwoods you've probably never driven out to in your pick-up with a keg on the back. Because I can't identify with that. And I really don't appreciate being told that 'the countryside is the only place you'll find people who pray, feel proud of themselves, and hold doors open for old women'*.

What I can identify with is stories. Stories about real people and real emotions. Stories about life's struggles and dilemmas, about loss and heartache, about what's wrong but feels right. It's what Reba McEntire does so right. So many of her songs are identifiable to so many people, and she sings them like she's experienced them, like they're her own words of wisdom. She doesn't need to shout at me about how she's so country. She just is. I can tell that by listening to her music. Someone else who is clearly identifiable as country, from her own songwriting this time, is Taylor Swift. Sure, she's basically a pop singer – again, it's not about the music 'not being country' here. It's about telling those stories about real people, and that's what Swift pulls off every time.

But, you could argue, why is it a problem? Why can't I just ignore this music that I don't like? And it's a fair argument, I really could. But the problem for me is, I know country music can do better. Sure, I could hunt it down on the dwindling independent recordings, but I don't want to have to do that. I want to be able to hear it on the radio, and in the mainstream. I don't want to go to a bar in Nashville and effectively be insulted for being who I am.

In addition, I know that the artists themselves can do better. Blake Shelton's first few albums are great, full of complex themes and strong melodies, before they degenerate into the Hillbilly Bone posturing of the last few years. Jason Aldean's The Truth is an excellent song, passionately delivered and full of real emotion that anyone can identify with (and he even pretends to be away in the city!). Effectively, it's a selfish wish on my behalf: I want country music to be what I want it to be – the real people and the real stories I fell in love with.

I'd also add as a postscript that much of the problem is that I feel these songs are relying on the hook of 'I'm a true country boy and I'm proud of it, the country is the best place on earth' to substitute for actually having a good song. Because there are songs that play on this and also have engaging melodies and arrangements that build to a crescendo to really engage the listener and complement the lyrical themes. An example I'd give (and I know this is where I'm going to lose a lot of people) is Jason Michael Carroll's Where I'm From. The song is sappy, completely typical and predictable once you know the formula and even mentions the big C word (Brad Paisley would be proud). But I love it. The emotion in it gets me every time, even if that emotion is totally manipulative. And that's the key for me – country music is about emotions, and it's about people and it's about storytelling.

*this quote is stolen from CM Wilcox over at Thanks for summing up how I feel so succinctly!

Some thoughts on my own writing and why I do it

These days, I often think about what I'm doing with my life. More specifically, I often think about my writing. Obviously, I enjoy writing. That's why I set up this blog, so I could write about various things that interest me. That's why I write articles and blogs over at ESC Nation, so I can write about something that particularly interests me.

When I was younger, one thing I always wanted to be was a journalist. Clearly, that didn't work out. I didn't particularly pursue it. Part of me isn't really sure why. On the other hand, I can't imagine myself as some super journalist working for a national newspaper, under pressure of getting scoops and exclusives, with a demanding boss on top of me and the spectre of losing my job if I don't deliver the latest crime, celebrity or world events story first. Similarly, I don't see myself interviewing disgruntled local residents about the amount of dog poo on the pavement on the street outside their house (though sometimes I think it could be a lot of fun). Neither of those things is me, so I'm glad I didn't go down that road.

I do write a lot in my job as a fundraiser, composing application documents to try to convince funders that our project is worthwhile of their donation. The parallels of successful writing are evident in both applications and blogs and articles - a well-written article will engage the reader, draw them in and perhaps even make them laugh. A well-written application will hopefully allow the reader to identify with the beneficiary and the cause and convince them of its worth.

One thing that's therefore very important is the standard of my writing. That’s perhaps a problem I have, both at work and in my more recreational writing. It's not so much that I don't have the ideas; it's putting those ideas down on paper in an eloquent and engaging manner. One problem I often have is timing. When I'm at work, I often think of an article or blog entry I want to write, and start to formulate it in my head. When it comes time to write it down, I'm devoid of inspiration. Similarly, lying awake in bed I often think of great application ideas, but when I'm at work, they've gone from my head and it doesn't flow like it should.

I know I need to improve the standard of my personal writing if I'm going to make more of it. I’m enough of a realist to know that, the way it is now, I have no hope of taking it any further, if I decided I wanted to. And obviously, the best way to improve is to keep doing it, to practise. Clearly, I don't do that enough, as can be seen from the amount of content on this blog. And I know I should write more, and I do have the ideas, but that lack of inspiration hits all too often. Not even lack of inspiration necessarily, more a lack of motivation. I can't think how to phrase something succinctly, and so I give up. I lay about on the couch, put the TV or watch videos of kittens falling down on the internet. If I'm serious about this, I need to, well, get more serious. I need to get off my own backside. I need to care. I need to stop letting small setbacks get me down and frustrated.

And more than anything, I need to decide what I really want. And what I'm willing to do to get it.