GRUMPY OLD MAN?


“They’ve stolen our identity…. So what they need to do really, I think, is find their own title, because they’re definitely not traditional country music.”

That’s country legend George Jones, 78, in a recent interview, expounding on the musical merit of the new crop of country stars, including Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood.

When asked if he would ever pull a Johnny Cash (who, in his final years, covered rock songs like Nine Inch Nails’s “Hurt” and Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” to great critical acclaim) and try out another genre, like, for instance, rap, George was resolute. “Rap? That’s tacky…. How can you call that music? Now, I love music, too. I love all kinds. I really do. I’ve got Brook Benton. I like his singing. Ray Charles. I’ve got an open mind. But now, you can’t call rap, talking stuff like that, music. No, no, no, you’ve got to have another name for that.”

Rap tacky? Indeed, some of it is. But are all those if-drinking-don’t-kill-me-her-memory-will country songs (to directly quote the title of one of George’s ’80s hits, which, by the way, I love) paragons of elegance? I wonder what old George thought of “Justified & Ancient,” his late ex-wife Tammy Wynette’s 1992 collaboration with the UK techno group the KLF. Or Stardust, Willie Nelson’s seminal 1978 foray into the Great American Songbook. Would artists like Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire not be filed under “country” because they didn’t/don’t always play by the Nashville rules? I have a music collection that says otherwise.

And what about those recent detours into country music by established pop stars like Kid Rock, Bon Jovi, Michelle Branch, Jewel, Jessica Simpson and Hootie & The Blowfish singer Darius Rucker. I suspect George is neither amused nor entertained.

Now I adore George Jones. He was a huge deal in my household when I was a kid, but his assessment of what is and isn’t country feels a bit crusty to me. To expect ’00s country to sound like the genre did in decades past, would be like expecting rock & roll, pop or soul music today to sound like they did in the 1960s.

Interestingly, artists like the Black Crowes, Lenny Kravitz and Joss Stone who embrace more traditional rock & soul sounds, particularly from the ’60s and ’70s, are derided as being unoriginal or stuck in the past, while retro-minded country singers are lauded for their traditional musical values. Taylor Swift’s music doesn’t strike me as being particularly country either, but much of Carrie Underwood’s does. Such a narrow view of country as George’s ultimately hurts the genre and prevents it from devoloping and evolving.

His dismissal of rap as “tacky” and not qualifying as music strikes me as being even more narrow minded and perhaps just a tad racist. Notice that when he qualifies his disapproval of rap by mentioning two non-country artists he admires, they both happen to black. It’s like he’s saying, “Yeah, I can disrespect and disparage the sound that defines and represents a vast number of blacks in the U.S. today, but it’s okay because some of my best friends are black.”

Times change, music does, too, and it’s time for George’s thinking to follow suit. But considering that his latest CD, A Collection of My Best Recollection, is his umpteenth revisiting of past glories, evolution and revolution may no longer exist in George’s musical vocabulary. In other words, don’t expect to hear him duetting with Shania Twain on her next album.

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