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Country Music Isn't Dead

Photo by Angelina Castillo for Third Man Records

Nearly every day, as I wander aimlessly through the dead-end labyrinth of music related Facebook groups, I read the same, tired statement. “Country Music is Dead”.

It doesn’t even have to be a country music group, or even a Facebook page at all (many memes and websites are dedicated to the shear lack of acceptable country music). And it takes many different forms. Sometimes it’s a question: “Do you think country music is dead?” Often it is brought up as a definitive statement on a post that is not as direct. Such as the post about a new “Country Boy Band” (sorry, not posting the link. Check out Waylon and Jessie talking about Waymore Blues instead) where the original poster said “not bad, but it ain’t country”. You never have to scroll too far down the comments feed to find the first “country music is dead” response.

Country music, friends, is not dead.

It’s not on life support and it isn’t even struggling. In fact, according to statistics compiled by Brandon Gaille country music is the #1 format in the 18-54 age range, 42% of adults in any given community in the U.S. will prefer country music over any genre, and only 22% of Americans claim they never listen to country music. Stadiums (and, more importantly, smaller local venues) continue to sell out when country artists are on the bill, and country fans are among the most loyal of any genre.

So, since we have it cleared up that country music as a genre continues to thrive, lets get to the heart of the matter. We aren’t talking about the pop-country that is almost exclusively played by “country music” stations throughout the U.S. When folks claim that “country music is dead” they are referring to more traditional country like Loretta, Willie, Waylon, Tammy, Merle, Johnny, Patsy, and Hank Williams.

Yes, today’s music on country radio doesn’t resemble old country in the least.

Some (pop-country fans) argue that one cannot define what country music is, and therefore what is on the radio is also “country”. I believe you absolutely can define it. Regardless if you can or not, we know what it isn’t. It isn’t what is on the radio. Radio pop-country has completely taken advantage of its loyal fans, creating cookie-cutter, lyrically clichéd tripe with little to no resemblance to country music. Take a listen to how just a few years ago six of the top country songs were so remarkably similar to each other that you can turn them into one song. And, as you can see here, it has actually gotten worse.

I won’t even get into the fact that country lyrics have gone from story-based, true to life works of art to a selection of 8-12 standard phrases that make their way onto every album. I will just say that the last time I listened to country radio (maybe three years ago or so) I heard four songs, in a row, with the phrase “ice cold beer”. Two of them were in the first couple lines of the song.

So what people are arguing is that traditional country is no longer being made, and therefore “country music is dead”. Again, this isn’t true. When I used to see someone claim this online I would always list a ton of musicians that I thought were worthy of the “real country” moniker. I thought I was helping out these “true country fans” by introducing them to artists that I was listening to at the time.

However, I quickly realized that they didn’t want to hear new music. I quickly realized that the people claiming this didn’t want new country music to sound like traditional country music, they literally wanted to hear songs on the radio from the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s. What they meant when they said country music is dead is that radio no longer plays the songs they like from 50 years ago.

And radio shouldn’t.

They should, however, be playing the new music from traditional sounding country artists rather than pop-country that belongs on nearly any other radio station that doesn’t claim the country genre. I love the old stuff, but they had their radio time back when it was new. That is why we buy albums. We hear something on the radio we like, we go out and buy the album, so when that particular song is no longer being played on the radio we can still throw our copy on the turntable and give it a spin. Then we hear something else new on the radio and start the process over. That is the way it should work, anyway.

The problem isn’t that country music died. It is that as music fans age, they prefer to hang on to what is familiar to them. They don’t want to put any effort into finding new music. They don’t want to take a chance on a new artist. More interestingly, they don’t want to admit that something made today could be the same quality as the music released when they were in their 20’s. They want comfortable, they want familiar, they want the music that influenced and touched them in their younger years. And they want it delivered to them in the format that is the easiest for them: radio.

This phenomenon isn’t specific to country music, either. Ask any person making the claim that “rock music is dead” or that “guitar gods no longer exist” who their favorite bands are and I can almost guarantee that they list bands that are over 40 years old. To them, guitar-based rock music died with Jimi Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughan, when in reality the only thing that died was their willingness to accept and support new music and new artists.

In the end, there are basically three types of country music fans: those who claim that the music on the radio is real country (I believe they are wrong), those who claim country music is dead (I know they are wrong), and those of us who continue to find and support new artists that create country music with a traditional flare to it. And we need more country fans in the third group than the first two.

Those who claim that “country music is dead” need to ask themselves if they are actually giving real country music a chance. If they continue to ignore what is being created today, is it really country music that has died, or is it their willingness to explore new songwriters and give neo-traditional country music the credit it deserves that has expired?

Check out a few of our favorite, modern, country artists such as: Margo Price, Mo Pintey, Chris Stapleton, Holly Williams, Sturgill Simpson, Tyler Childers, Ashley McBryde, Colter Wall, and Sunny Sweeney just to name a few!

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