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Answering the question, “Does Country Music Really Need Saving?”

Editors Note: This article is Part Two in a two-part series. Part One answers what the purpose of Saving Country Music is.

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As strange as it may sound, the term “saving country music” or “save country music” has been said and written more in the last few months than at any other time in history. As the trademark holder of “Saving Country Music” and the proprietor of a website titled, this hasn’t escaped my attention.

No, this phenomenon is not due to the soaring popularity of this particular web property, but ironically, the adoption of this term by elements of the Beyoncé Stan army and others who believe that the release of her recent album Cowboy Carter would “save country music.”

What is Beyoncé saving country music from? Depending on who you talk to, perhaps it’s the racism that’s allegedly pervasive throughout the industry—or as some even more misguided souls believe, she’s saving the genre from a commercial malaise, or the lack of cultural relevancy. For the record, country music has never been more popular so country’s relevancy isn’t a real concern. Country has also never been more inclusive, though lingering concerns about racism certainly remain.

If anything, the term “saving country music” and have never been more polarizing or unpopular, at least in social media chatter, due in part to SCM taking strong viewpoints on certain subjects, adopting heterodox positions, while also trying to to instill nuance into in-depth conversations at a time when delivering soundbite takes that seek the safety of one side or the other in the cultural and political binary rule the day.

Add on top of that the outright ludicrous and verifiably false ad hominem attacks on Saving Country Music often from rivals looking to gain advantage by tearing others down—and often in the vacuum of actually debating or engaging with the assertions made here—it’s also cool to say that country music doesn’t need saving as sort of a shorthand castoff of the misunderstood efforts here.

It is in this environment that journalist Alli Patton writing for Holler asked recently, “Does Country Music Really Need Saving?

As you can imagine, I have some opinions on this matter.

Please understand that this is not meant to be a take down of Alli Patton or Holler. Overall the article is articulate, well-researched, informed, and broaches an important conversation. But before we get to the crux of the issue, there are a few misconceptions forwarded in the article that deserve to be clarified.

In the Holler article, Patton asserts that during the Outlaw era of country music in the ’70s, artists like Willie and Waylon weren’t really interested in “saving” the genre, just earning their creative freedom. The article states,

Songs were meeting the airwaves fresh off the RCA Victor conveyer belt, all glossy and unblemished with that same weepy ‘Stand By Your Man’ perfection. Did that mean the genre needed rescuing, then? The Outlaws seemingly didn’t believe so. They didn’t come to save country music; they came to make it on their own terms. The Outlaws and their music merely acted as the great equalizer, reminding us that country was allowed to be imperfect and unpolished and could still be just as favorable.

This is untrue, and for a host of reasons. Yes, creative freedom over their music was the primary goal of Willie and Waylon’s fight with RCA Records in the ’70s. But the greater Outlaw movement went much deeper than that.

Remember, Willie Nelson didn’t break out as a star performer until his 40s. He wrote songs for Patsy Cline and Faron Young. On his magum opus Red Headed Stranger (1975), he covered classic country singer Eddy Arnold, and had a #1 hit with Fred Rose’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” originally popularized by Roy Acuff in 1947. Willie used his creative freedom to make a starkly traditional country record.

Willie Nelson performed with Bob Wills when growing up, and at his Dripping Springs Reunion in 1972—a.k.a. the Hillbilly Woodstock—Willie included Bill Monroe, Hank Snow, Tex Ritter, Loretta Lynn, and Buck Owens in the lineup. All of these artists at the time were considered the old guard. Even though everyone considered the Dripping Springs Reunion as a big “Outlaw” moment with Waylon and Kris Kristofferson also involved, in reality, Willie wanted to bridge the new with the old through the event.

In 1982, Willie Nelson released the track “Write Your Own Songs.” In the song, he calls out both “Mr. Music Executive” for being too uptight about the lyrical content of songs, as well as “Mr. Purified Country” for being too stodgy and not wanting the music to evolve. This was one of many instances where Willie was attempting to “save country music.” The song was subsequently featured in the film Songwriter (1984) that also delved into these topics.

During the Outlaw era, many chided Waylon Jennings for being more rock than country. And in some respects, he was. It was his drummer and close friend Richie Albright who famously said to Waylon, “There’s another way of doing things, and that’s rock ‘n roll.” This is what inspired Waylon to fight for creative control from RCA, similar to the freedoms rock artists enjoyed. With the two-tone back beat to his music, Waylon also adopted a more rock sound. But that doesn’t mean that Waylon also didn’t see the importance of country music keeping a firm grasp on its roots, or fighting for that cause.

Waylon had a #1 hit with his protest song “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” in 1975. The B-Side to the song was “Bob Wills Is Still The King.” The idea that Waylon was just agitating for his own creative freedom and not for more respect for the forefathers of country music just isn’t true. Waylon also hired steel guitar player Ralph Mooney for his live band, who was already considered a legend when he joined. Any time a purist would chide Waylon for not being country enough, he only had to point to Mooney.

As for Tompall Glaser, he made it his life’s purpose to save country music with his renegade studio, Hillbilly Central. As he once said in the book Outlaws: Revolution in Country Music by Michael Bane, copyright 1978: “Damn it, the fight isn’t in Austin and it isn’t in Los Angeles. It’s right here in Nashville, right here two blocks from Music Row, and if we win–and if our winning is ever going to amount to anything in the long run–we’ve got to beat them on their own turf.”

The Holler article goes on to state,

Over the next several years, country music continued to enjoy a fair amount of commercial appeal. By the 1990s, it had exploded, with the genre beginning to witness stadium-sized success. Acts like George Strait, Garth Brooks and Shania Twain headed the generation in which country officially crossed over, invading the pop charts and possibly forever blurring the line between what qualified as country and what didn’t. As their music became increasingly appreciated the world over, these artists began selling out bigger and better venues. Perhaps to purists, that meant the genre had sold out too. “Save country music”, purists bellowed, this time against a barely recognizable sound, one now buried under all the pomp of pop.

Again, this is an incorrect notion of the era. George Strait and Randy Travis were staunch neotraditionalists. There is a story of the first time Randy Travis crossed over into pop, he got angry and told his label to “Get it off there!” not knowing it was a sign of success. Strait and Travis also struggled to get signed for many years because they were “too country.” They ultimately set the table for the “Class of ’89” led by Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson, who despite their wild commercial success, both were traditionalists as well.

In 2000, George Strait and Alan Jackson would record the song “Murder on Music Row” written by Larry Cordle and Larry Shell. The song laments the incursion of pop into country. Despite not being released as a single, the song became so revered, it won the 2000 CMA Vocal Event of the Year, and in 2001, the CMA Song of the Year. Not only were George Strait and Alan Jackson trying to save country music by taking a stand, the industry as a whole embraced the message, making it an award-winning song.

Sure, as the era elongated, Shania Twain came along and did push the music more towards pop. But eventually she pushed herself so far out, she became a pop star and virtually abandoned country. Incidentally, this is a scenario we have seen throughout the years in country, from Linda Ronstadt, to Taylor Swift, to Maren Morris. This transition to pop is one of the reasons country continues to struggle to keep top tier women within the genre.

But aside from these specific quibbles, the Holler article rightly points out that purists clutched their pearls when Bob Wills brought drums onto the Grand Ole Opry stage, or when the “longhairs” of Willie and Waylon adopted a bit more rock to the sound, or Shania went pop. This has been a part of the country music legacy from the very beginning.

The Holler article also rightly pokes holes in the idea of a country music “savior.” Though there is certainly a host of characters who deserve accolades for helping to right the country music ship in their era—Willie and Waylon, George Strait and Alan Jackson, Sturgill Simpson and Cody Jinks, and perhaps today Sierra Ferrell and Zach Top—“savior” is too much responsibility to lump on any one artist’s shoulders, and perhaps even a little creepy or idolatrous to claim of any performer.

Saving Country Music has explored this “savior” theme previously and come to the conclusion that it’s probably not the best way to portray an artist. Incidentally, Eric Church once read one of these articles, and it inspired him to write the song “Country Music Jesus” in sort of a tongue-in-cheek manner that appeared on his 2011 album Chief.

But there is also a straw man that is often constructed of the country “purist” who never wants the music to change or evolve at all, and only wants the music to sound like Hank Williams or Johnny Cash forevermore. This is what Ali Patton does in the Holler piece.

“This conversation of needing to save country music is often sparked, usually becoming an urgent talking point among pearl-clutching purists and traditionalists, the genre’s self-appointed gatekeepers,” Ali Patton states. “And why? Because something, be it an artist or some new noise, comes out of the left field to threaten the one thing the genre and its devotees pride above all. Authenticity.”

It’s not that if you start overturning rocks or hunting through online comments sections you can’t find these kinds of purists. Certainly they are out there. But they populate such a small minority of country fans that it almost isn’t even worth discussing them.

Of course country music must evolve, and it’s been the eras of country music that have created a strength through this evolution, allowing music that is nostalgic and hearkening back at its heart to stay relevant to modern-day listeners. The battle lines are drawn around just how far country music should evolve, how much it should incorporate the influence of other genres, and when and how it reverts back to the original heart of the music in times of return to the genre’s roots, like the one country music is experiencing at this moment.

“…something must first be in danger for it to truly need saving. So what is country music in danger of, exactly? Evolving? In truth, the genre doesn’t need rescuing. It never has,” says Alli Patton for Holler.

This statement begs the question, can a genre of music actually die? The answer is, absolutely. That’s exactly what happened to the mainstream rock format in the early ’00s, and specifically because the genre ceased its ability to be able to define its borders.

Rap rock acts like Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, and Kid Rock pushed the boundaries of rock music like never before until rock music couldn’t distinguish itself from hip-hop or the rest of popular music. This was also around the same time the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame started letting in acts from other genres, and the overall quality of rock music started to deteriorate thanks to the popularity of bands like Nickelback.

There is no more mainstream rock format anymore. There are legacy acts like The Foo Fighters, and acts that get labeled rock like Imagine Dragons and Machine Gun Kelly. But really, you have indie rock, which is almost entirely grassroots-oriented, as well as heavy metal, which also exists in its own nearly isolated environment from whatever else is happening in the “rock” world. It’s even hard to find any truly new punk bands, while Green Day is considered a legacy act right beside The Rolling Stones.

In fact when you look at many country acts, they’re basically rock bands that exist in the country space. This is certainly the case for Eric Church, and to an extent, Jason Aldean aside from lyrical content. Koe Wetzel and Kolby Cooper are almost entirely ’90s rock-inspired artists that you see being pushed through country channels because there’s no place for them anywhere in the rock world, because the rock world basically doesn’t exist.

Meanwhile, if you look at the top of the Billboard Rock Albums chart, you see Noah Kahan, who many would consider more of a country or folk artist compared to rock. Zach Bryan also has two albums in the Top 5 of the rock charts. These are country-oriented artists dominating the rock format because there are so few artists native to the genre.

Could this happen to country? Of course it could, and arguably it almost did during the Bro-Country era. Who was the godfather of Bro-Country? It was producer Joey Moi who was the mastermind behind Nickelback, and who later latched onto Bro-Country pioneers Florida Georgia Line, and later founded Big Loud Records and is now the producer behind Morgan Wallen and Hardy.

Bro-Country was country music’s rap rock phase, and though it was commercially successful to an extent, it was also short-lived, very polarizing in its time, and eventually became a punch line and a point of ridicule for the entire country music genre. Even the term “Bro-Country” was adopted euphemistically. It got to the point where even sports writers and mainstream comedians were lambasting the music and asking, “What happened to country?”

Luckily though, Bro-Country was a phase. And even though the lingering effects and influence of Bro-Country can still be heard on mainstream country radio, as Ali Patton rightly points out, it was actually the backlash to Bro-Country that allowed artists like Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, and later Tyler Childers, and now Zach Bryan to rise out of the independent ranks, and act like a counterbalance to help push country music back to its center of gravity.

This is all part of the regular rhythms that have persisted in country music since its inception. It’s part of the genre’s mythology, symbolized by the phrase “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” that rings the Country Music Hall of Fame rotunda in Nashville (see above). But just because these natural rhythms often help country music come back into proper alignment whenever it goes too far afield, that doesn’t mean a vigilance to make sure that country music doesn’t get too far from its roots is completely unimportant. In fact, that is part of this natural process.

Jazz used to be the most popular genre of music in America. Now it’s a niche and an afterthought in the popular music diet. Same goes with the blues, which is now seen more as a building block to other genres as opposed to a popular musical expression itself. This fate most certainly could have befallen country at any point in its history. But it has remained a popular American genre over time due to the efforts to make sure it never becomes indistinguishable from the rest of popular music.

“Saving country music” is about caring about something bigger than yourself. It’s about wanting to give back to the music that has given so much joy and amelioration to you. It’s about wanting to leave the genre in as good or better condition than you found it for future generations to enjoy. We’re all looking to be saved or to save something. It gives us a sense of purpose and belief. Some are trying to save the planet, preserve important cultural artifacts or traditions, unearth truth from the annals of history, or to right previous injustices. We’re trying to save country music.

But it’s also important to understand that country music will never be “saved.” If there was ever a moment when all the problems with the genre were resolved, it will immediately start reverting back to problematic behaviors, because that’s part of the “circle.” Saving country music is alchemy. It’s simply an idea. It’s an ongoing purpose. Or in the case of, it’s just the name of a website.

How Saving Country Music got its name is another story.

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