The Country Music Industry
An Essay Written for My English 11 Class
At UNC-Chapel Hill

Crossover Music

    The country music format is in itself a cultural phenomenon in that it has thrived throughout the years as other music fads have come and gone.  The format was born and remains a geographically distinctive genre which over the years, has grown to appeal to listeners nationwide.  Today, country music is said to be “the nation’s most popular music format” (Corliss), with fans all across the United States.  Many critics though, question the classification of the wide range of songs that are classified as “country” music.  Currently, the new country music industry is promoting a lot of material that is having amazing amounts of success in both the country music charts and pop charts. This “crossover” music has attracted many fans to the country music format who subsequently are not fans of the traditional country music. The influence of today’s country music is shifting from being not only an important part of southern culture, but of an integral part of American popular culture. And because the country music audience has expanded, the industry must respond with what the new audience wants.   “Nashville encourages anything that sells records.  Right now the song is king…a great song, regardless of its origin, is probably the most important aspect to a label,” says Paul Williams, a popular songwriter (qtd. Schmitzer).  Critics complain that the country music genre is becoming too “anything goes,” while traditional country fans are feeling that the industry has stopped producing the music they enjoy, but instead is catering specifically to the new audience who craves the pop-influenced country music.  Journalist, Stephen Henkin comments, “Diehard fans of traditional country music are complaining about being sold out by money-hungry acts who are ignoring their roots and crossing over into the arena of mainstream pop music,” (Henkin). Country music of today is divided between two separate sounds; one, holding fast to tradition, and another breaking apart to move forward with the modern sounds of today’s American pop culture.

    The first images brought to mind by the words “country music,” are not necessarily that of MTV, Rick Dee’s Weekly Top 40, or headlining world tours as the country music industry has done within the past five years.  Images are more likely to include songs with lyrics about “mama, or trains, or trucks, or prison, or gettin’ drunk,” as stated by David Allan Coe in one of his hit songs where he describe the perfect country and western song. Country music is strongly identified by the white, low-to-middle class, southern culture that it represents, and is sometimes mockingly called “redneck” music.  The songs of country music have been a historical and sentimental biography of the white south and heartland for over sixty years. The artists are people whose roots are deeply grounded in their southern culture, which includes the way of life and values that the people who generally enjoy country music hold most dear.  In addition to the song lyrics, the music has the distinct southern sound.  Artists, especially older ones, play their own instruments, and have their own background harmonies.  The steel guitars, fiddles, mandolins, pianos, banjos, and drums all complete the unique country sound.  The music is more than entertainment, it is an important part of a lifestyle and culture, as well as an identifying common ground for a large group of Americans.

    The consistency of country music over time is the greatest appeal to longtime country fans. Country music is made to last longer than a fad. The reason an older album is just as alluring to a true fan as the latest hit, because the industry holds tight to tradition.  The Grand Ole Opry and CMA awards are prime examples of this.  The Grand Ole Opry is the longest running radio show of all time.  It is a venue for older artists to perform and allows newer artists to be introduced to the traditional audience.  The Opry features all artists who shaped or are still shaping country music.  The CMA awards show has been nationally broadcast for thirty years.  The awards show is extremely popular, as it shares with the entire country where country music stands at the end of each year (CMA History).

    George Strait and Alan Jackson are among a new era of country stars who are still classified as traditional artists.  Their music has remained popular since they became names in the business, while their style has remained pure and unchanged. Their music reflects the influence of older country styles, yet popular because their sound is unique to themselves.  It is artists like these who are not getting the media attention like that of artists such as Garth Brooks, who appeals to the larger, less traditional audience.  Brooks’ music has evolved over the years to be more of a “crowd pleaser” than reflections of his own work.

    Radio plays large part in unifying all country music.  Many country music radio stations continue to keep older music in rotation as well as the assortment of many new songs.  Though this is seen as a disadvantage to those who feel that pop sounding music has no place on country radio.  Some fans are almost insulted by the fact that radio pushes the pop songs on the listeners, trying to pass off “a fake product and not giving… fans what [they] really want,” comments a concerned fan from an internet forum, (Henkin).  Radio stations classified as “country” are forced to mesh all types of country music because it has yet to be subdivided into separate genres.
Country music would seem to appeal to only a distinct audience.  Having such a selective appeal, why then has country music become so well liked?  As revealed by national and even worldwide popularity, it is obvious that country music is appealing to many more people than those by and for whom it was created. Barry McCloud makes the claim that “country music has always been both a sponge, soaking up outside popular music, and a magnet, attracting noncountry performers who couldn’t make it,”  (McCloud). Based on these two qualities, it is implied that country music has become a venue for outside musical influences as well as a haven for music that couldn’t be classified as pop.   Each of these qualities suggest a constant change as new sounds are introduced to the format.  It is when a large number of songs or an entire artist’s work begins to “crossover,” that the question arises if the new sounds should be classified in a new genre. Most recently songs such as, Faith Hill’s “This Kiss,” and Shania Twain’s “That Don’t Impress Me Much,” each of which soared up country music and pop charts alike, as well as many songs in country music past, have effectively crossed over.

    There are two reasons why these crossover songs have fared so well in two different worlds.  The first is explained well by Rich Kienzle, a writer for The Comprehensive Country Music Encyclopedia, “Record buyers were far more segregated in previous decades than today.  Pop music fans bought records by pop artists, country records by country singers,” (Kienzle).  We live in a nation that is constantly becoming more aware of the diversity, and more eager to take it the diversity in and enjoy it all.  Today, more people are open to listen and enjoy many different types of music.

    The second reason is attributed to the appreciation of the country music that is currently crossing over.  Today, part of the country music continuum is overlapping with the path of pop music.  The songs of country music that break the consistency of tradition are those which crossover as they are more easily compared to the songs of the ever changing and evolving pop music.  Artists like Hill and Twain have created songs that have lost their distinction as songs of the south, and appeal to a more diverse people.  The lyrics in these songs are ones that are destined to appeal to general group of listeners just because they lack the lyrical and musical content that would restrict them to be classified as a “country song.”  Richard Carlin, author of The Big Book of Country Music, asserts that “almost any music that has strong lyrical and melodic content with a semi acoustic backup is lumped as new country music, and fans… are as likely to drive BMW’s as pickup trucks” (Carlin).

    In the past, country crossover music has never been given its own classification or genre, because it always is the music of the time.  This music tended to have a short lifespan, and is part of the grand evolution of country music (McCloud).  For example, artists like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson contributed to country music what is now called “rebel country.”  Rebel country is part of country music history.  The new country music crossover should receive its own genre.  A simple classification should apply to such a largely accepted type of music.  The artists who are producing this music have completely changed their style. These artists, such as Shania Twain, have more than one song that has been totally accepted by the pop audience.  Martina McBride’s most current music is more pop than country, yet remains classified as a country artist because she records in Nashville (Corliss).

    Good music is good music no matter the classification. “The media love to pigeonhole musical styles rather than say there is good and bad music.  What may be called country because it emanates from Nashville may be called rock if it comes from Seattle,” says Musicologist Barry McCloud.  The classification of music is meaningless to many fans and artists.  The problem occurs when a genre begins to sell product and not the quality of the product.  The country music industry must adjust to make the greatest amount of profit.  As adjustments are made, the overall image of country music is damaged.  Traditional music is unjustly bunched with a new sound. “The problem nowadays is that there are too many influences—and not all of them good.  Does country become the jack of all trades and the master of none?”  (Henkin).  By separating country music into different categories, each will have room to grow and excel on its own.
 

Works Cited
Carlin, Richard.  The Big Book of Country Music.  New York: Penguin Books, 1995.

Corliss, Richard.  “Can Garth Save Country?”  Time 15 Dec. 1997: Time Online.
     Online.  Netscape. 30 Sept. 1999.

Henkin, Stephen.  “Country Goes Pop!”  World and I 14.10 (1999):  126+.
    “History.”  CMA Awards.  29 November 1999.  Available
    http://www.cmaawards.com/history.html

Kienzle, Rich.  The Comprehensive Country Music Encyclopedia.  1990 ed.

McCloud, Barry.  “Bring Country Music Back Home!”  World and I  13.5  (1998):  112.

Schmitzer, Lauren.  “N’ville Songwriters Find Success By Bridging Country/Pop
    Divide.”  Billboard  111.39 (1999):  36.

Vaughan, Andrew.  Who’s Who in New Country Music.  New York: Omnibus
     Press, 1989.