Pop Country & Traditional Country: Two Sides of the Same Boring Coin

For years I’ve watched fans of pop country and fans of traditional country bicker and argue with each other. I was on both “sides” at some point or another. It’s a never-ending battle of whose sound is better and who deserves a fair shake on radio/in the mainstream. But then one day you see through all the bullshit and smokescreens. You realize like I have that the pop country and traditional country fans are all the same.

These two are simply different sides of the same coin. If you’re wondering where Americana and Texas country factor into this equation, they’re the candy wrappers blowing in the wind that nobody outside of their little niches give a shit about. So why are pop country and traditional country fans the same? Well for one both demand a certain sound to their country music. Traditional country fans demand pedal steel guitar, fiddles and a bunch of tear in my beer lyrics. That’s “real country” in their eyes. Pop country fans want something instantly catchy, sugary and fun. As long as they can sing along with it, it’s all good. So on one side you have a faux integrity and another who doesn’t care about integrity at all. As long as they get what they want, damn the consequences. And what they want is the problem. They don’t want enough. They don’t demand enough out of their favorites artists and music. They want a rigid set of rules that must be followed because it’s the “right way” of doing music.

Making music is not about doing things the right way. The best music comes out of breaking the rules and not following the straight line. All of the heroes and legends they love to praise from Hank to Willie to Garth became the icons they became because they pushed the limits and brought something new to the table. They did it their way, but for some reason they want all of these new artists to do it like they did. It’s quite a paradox. I mean look at outlaw country music. It was built on challenging the status quo and sound, but yet today’s “outlaw” artists are praised for just copying Waylon. How is this outlaw? It’s not. How is this helping the genre? It’s not. In fact both pop country and traditional country fans are simultaneously destroying it’s reputation. That’s right. It’s not the pop collaborators or the major labels or radio, but you the traditional country fan and you the pop country fan that are the problem.

You people accept whatever your favorite artist puts out. You don’t demand enough and quite frankly you’re not listening. I remember when I realized in the past year I had stopped listening to the music. In fact I conducted a little experiment earlier this year that brought this to my attention. I decided to unsubscribe from Spotify. I quit it for over a month. For one I was angry to find one day all of my downloaded music was erased. But more importantly I was dissatisfied with music and I couldn’t figure out why. So for that month plus period I solely listened to new music via YouTube. With all of the ads YouTube likes to shove in your face nowadays, listening to a new album will lead to a lot of ads playing. So I quickly realized I better listen closely unless I wanted to be subjected to more ads. If I truly enjoyed the album, I would purchase it in some form. In addition I also found myself listening to great albums I already had in my library that I had forgotten about.

The realization this led me to: I had become a passive listener as a result of the endless buffet of streaming and a slave to the never-ending music release cycle. In a brazen effort to keep up with the Joneses, I had lost sight of the music and why I listen. It was startling, but at the same time an epiphany. So now I approach all music with a refreshed, honest outlook. Hence why many may be confused why my new outlook clashes with the old one I expressed on my old blog. Trust me I was confused at first too. Artists who impressed me in the past were no longer impressing me with their new album releases this year. First Aid Kit, Wade Bowen, Blackberry Smoke, Brothers Osborne, Ashley Monroe: none of their new albums are good in my eyes. In the past I would have liked these albums because I’m supposed to and a lot of other people enjoy them, so I need to keep listening until it clicks. If you get through five listens of an album and it’s not clicking, you move on. You don’t like it. You don’t keep dogfooding it until you “get it.”

It may sound selfish, condescending and outright arrogant to demand more from artists. But you gotta put things in perspective. I don’t think artists today understand what they’re competing with in the marketplace of attention. In music alone they’re competing with all other current releases, all other artists in their genre and every artist who’s ever released music. An artist has to convince the listener to listen to them over another artist’s new release, their favorite artists’ past releases and all of the classics from Elvis to Tom Petty. So yes I do expect to be impressed. There’s a lot of music out there and if you don’t bring it, I am just going to listen to something else. There’s always another album and another artist.

Now let’s bring it back to country music and the current state of it. I not only don’t like its current standing, but it’s future too. Hip-Hop is becoming the dominant genre. Pop is fading and country is fading even faster. Other than Chris Stapleton and Sam Hunt, nobody is capturing a lot of sales, streams and attention. Creativity is bankrupt across the genre. Everybody is just trying to maintain the status quo. This is a genre in survival mode. Why else do you think pop collaborations are popping up? It’s two genres teaming up in a desperate attempt to remain relevant. The truth is country has nothing for hip-hop. Millennials could not be further detached from country music. But they can’t get enough of hip-hop. Why? Because that genre is innovating and pushing the boundaries. New and interesting music is constant. Look at the charts: Drake, Cardi B, J Cole, Post Malone, Migos, Rae Stremmurd and the Black Panther soundtrack are everywhere. We’re not even to June yet when Drake and Kanye release new albums.

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Right now pop country and traditional country fans are engaging in insanity by continuing to accept the level of quality of the music being produced in the genre. It’s not good enough and country music fans deserve more. But will they ever ask for more? Heads or tails it does not matter because the end result is the same if both sides refuse to change.

15 thoughts on “Pop Country & Traditional Country: Two Sides of the Same Boring Coin

  1. Zackary Kephart May 10, 2018 / 6:45 am

    The 2015 version of myself wouldn’t have understood this. The 2016 version of me would have been pissed at this. The 2017 version of me would have agreed wholeheartedly. The 2018 version of me does agree, but I also have *some* additional things to add.

    Personally, as someone who ran a blog where I covered 55+ albums this year, force feeding myself the music wasn’t the problem really – the problem was the honesty factor which you hit upon. Yeah, I used to easily be influenced by either the critical consensus or the crowd. I cringe at a lot of my earlier reviews. For some reason last year … something just snapped. I wanted to be myself, and lo and behold, I was a hell of a lot happier doing that, AND a hell of a lot happier to hear new music.

    With that said, now that I’ve stepped away from it … honestly? It feels better. I didn’t shut down due to listener fatigue or disinterest. We’ll disagree on this, but I think it’s been a great year thus far. I shut down because of other factors, and now the only time I listen to music is when I’m on my new excercise program. I keep a running playlist of everything from country to Nirvana to Adele to Judas Priest to whatever else. I only began taking a deep dive into grunge lately (hence Nirvana). I can’t believe I missed all this great music.

    Listening in playlists reminds me of your point about YouTube – I choose what to hear. The funny thing is (and maybe you can relate), now that I’m discovering new music on my own, I’m also buying a lot more music. It’s a satisfying feeling. It’s also satisfying and odd listening to music in playlists. It’s like I make my own album, and wouldn’t you know it – I’d say it’s the album of the year! Haha.

    I will say I disagree a little about the experimentation point, but I also may be missing the big picture. Personally I think with FAK, Bowen, …etc, it’s all subjective. None of those albums you mentioned pushed boundaries, and I’m not sure I heard an album this year that actually did. Still, for me they were just solid, well-crafted albums that hit upon something else, either lyrically, production-wise or otherwise. FAK is nice because it’s simpler and yet hits upon a lyrical arc, plus there’s moments it sounds absolutely gorgeous, at least to me.

    I guess what I’m saying is experimentation doesn’t always lead to good results. Look at Jekyll + Hyde, or Shovels and Rope’s Little Seeds. I know your point isn’t always to say that it will, but as someone who enjoyed those albums, I just wanted to offer something in my defense.

    But … are there critics simply following the pack? Oh hell yeah. Hell, it’s even infected blogs because they’re supposed to follow in line with the established outlets. Personally I’m just wondering if I feel into the same trap you did. I was honest with myself from June until now, but I jumped the gun a few times (Lindi Ortega’s new one comes to mind). Nobody’s perfect at this, and that’s why it’s always important for readers to know that they should form their own opinions anyway. I hate it when I see comments like “thank you for offering this perspective, I thought I was in the minority!” What are music fans going to do? Jump through your computer screen and beat you up?

    Onto your major point about pop-country fans versus traditional country fans … yeah. It’s true. Personally I’m more on the pop-Country side these days if I’m being honest. At least there’s no smug arrogance surrounding that scene. Granted, I think everyone should just like what they like, and if people really are into the Jon Wolfes, Kyle Parks, and whoever else in the scene, cool. Hell, I myself like Aaron Watson and Cody Johnson a lot even if it’s not “cool,” but you won’t catch me saying they’re better than the “Nashville trash.” Jon Wolfe’s last album sucked, and I thought the new albums from Jason Aldean, Kelsea Ballerini, Thomas Rhett were pretty decent. Hell, I’m even impressed by Cole Swindell’s new material.

    And granted, calling out these things for not being country is fair. After all, the word has to mean something, right? There’s two problems with that though. One, okay … so what does it mean? Two, that entire concept has become the focal point of reviews and normal discussions. Sure, mention it in a line or two, but focus on the actual music! If you’re going to be critical, don’t use the genre thing as your easy crutch. That’s lazy.

    I think that about covers it on my end. I’ll end with this, as someone in the same boat as you who ran a blog, you lose sight of why you started it in the first place. For me, I found that reason again with TMD, and you found it with Fusion Country. Personally I don’t think I’ll ever write about music like that again. I’m numb to the new releases right now, and while I never once regretted my time at my last outlet, I will say it’s nice to be on the other side.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Josh May 10, 2018 / 12:37 pm

      Thanks for weighing in Zack! And I’m glad WP didn’t eat your comment this time! The release schedule isn’t really a problem for me anymore either, but it certainly was with CP. Which is strange because I still listen to the same amount of new music every week. Perhaps since I’m no longer pressuring myself to review everything. But now I can whip through the new releases pretty quickly, which goes into the whole honesty thing. It’s the biggest demon us writers can face because there are so many factors beyond the music that influence it. For example, I hated that I didn’t like the new Bowen album because Wade is such a good guy and I really root for him to do well. At the same time though I know I can’t force myself to like the album because that would make me even unhappier. The biggest reason I brought up the release schedule though is I think it overwhelms a lot of people and certainly played a role at one point for me.

      I hear you on feeling better about stepping away. I too was set to step away from writing forever. Earlier this year I was ready to retire from blogging for good. I was perfectly content to just listen to the music and never write about it. I even went on the same music safari you’re embarking on right now. It’s freeing to be able to listen to whatever with no release schedules and reviews. And now I’m a more well-rounded listener. Enjoy it! I will say though as you can see I got the bug to write again. But it’s the perfect set up, as I’m writing about the exact music I want to write about at the exact pace I want. So when I post something it’s because I want to post, but I still get plenty of listening time in compared to the writing time. I think many writers end up spending too much time writing and need to spend more time listening.

      You’re right about the experimentation. It doesn’t always lead to good music. You bring up perfect examples in J+H and Little Seeds. J+H I go back and forth on because it does have some good moments. I wasn’t a fan of Little Seeds as I’ve mentioned before, despite the chances it takes. I will say I applaud any artist who at least attempts something different, even if the end product isn’t to my liking. The ironic thing about all of those albums I mention not liking is I find the production good on most of them, but the common thread each share for me is the lyrical content is lacking. The songwriting just isn’t there for me. So I should probably clarify that when I say push boundaries, I mean not just production, but also songwriting. Two of my favorite albums of the year are from John Prine and Willie Nelson because their songwriting is so damn good. It not only challenges you, but makes an emotional connection and is surprisingly fun at times. But the production fits each song well too. So at the end of the day if one is lacking it hurts the other.

      The polarization amongst country fans is perhaps the most disheartening aspect of the genre right now. There’s a complete lack of unity and the division continues to expand. It’s eerily similar to rock in the late 80s and early 90s. I’ve spent time in other music communities in the past year and the only ones close to the polarization of country is rock, metal and jazz. Hip-Hop is thriving, even though they have the same debate between old and new listeners in regards to sound. Electronic is a happy niche. Pop despite it’s waning relevancy lately is still pretty tight nit. I hope country would take after the latter genres and realize it must adapt. Because no genre ever dies, they just become irrelevant, which is even worse. I would hate to see country music be relegated to irrelevancy.

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      • Zack May 10, 2018 / 12:56 pm

        I’m just going to add some extra points I forgot to mention before I reply to your points:

        1.) Another factor that I think is killing music discussions is social media. It’s so easy to be connected with like minded fans and artists themselves. It’s also easy to be swept up with all for the likes, retweets… etc. I’ve mentioned this example numerous times, but Colter Wall’s album is the perfect example. I loved his last album, so I wanted to like this (like you with Bowen as you say), and his father followed me on Twitter. Plus he had such a rabid fan base. I force fed that sucker until it sounded good, and I didn’t snap out of it until I saw you offer a different perspective on Twitter one day. I should say I’ve got you to thank for my epiphany as well.

        2.) On a note regarding my Nirvana kick – beyond listening to the albums, I’ve also been abs0rbed with interviews as well. It’s cool actually caring about what the artists are trying to say with their music and understand it. Hell, one video I saw had MTV visiting college kids to get their opinions on their album, In Utero. Where’s the excitement for this stuff anymore? Where’s the hype surrounding any album this year or years prior?

        Anyway, onto your other points –

        The release schedule can certainly be intimidating, and it takes awhile to really “snap out of it” so to say.

        I do hear you on the lyrical point though. The thing I’ve found with a lot of independent stuff is that it’s vague and meaningless, whereas with mainstream stuff it’s just made to suck a lot of the time. Looking back at those projects … you make an interesting point for sure. Never really noticed this.

        As for other music communities, I’ve noticed Country is one of the few where intellectual discussions rarely exist. I’m not as knowledgeable as you, but from a glance, it at least seems like there’s more room for friendly discussions rather than black and white genre debates.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Josh May 10, 2018 / 1:26 pm

          Definitely agree on social media. It creates a hive mind and sucks you in, especially country Twitter. That’s probably why I doubled down on my dislike of Wall and his album because the circle-jerk around it was insufferable. I kind of feel the same in regards to Cody Jinks. Glad my differing opinion could be of help to you. If everyone could be honest, it would make for better discussions and less of a hive mind mentality.

          In regards to hype and excitement, I think social media plays a factor here too. In addition streaming has kind of stripped the communal aspect of music in more ways than one. Almost every album streams exclusively a week ahead of release. There’s multiple streaming platforms. With all of these streaming platforms, everybody can listen to exactly what they want. All niches and sounds are served now. So there’s no longer certain sounds and artists everyone rallies around like back in the day. Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, The Beatles were artists everybody was listening to and waited anxiously for them to release new material. What artists do we have like that now? Adele. Kendrick Lamar. Maybe Taylor Swift? Stapleton? Maybe hip-hop can become the thing all music fans rally around. But for the most part everyone has kind of retreated into their own niches.

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  2. Zack May 10, 2018 / 1:43 pm

    Can’t reply to your comment for some reason but I totally agree with the first paragraph.

    I remember you had a post about this streaming thing last year, and honestly it holds up. My senior thesis is going to discuss this as well as whether or not radio is still the best choice for marketing new artists in 2018, so I may have to revisit that piece! 😉

    Still, it’s sad to see only two names in that discussion. I like Adele and Kendrick too, I just wish there were more names to add. With Stapleton you also have to wonder how much the praise is stemming from him being the token traditionalist saving country music. I like his music, but I hope that’s what the public sees as well rather than some savior who doesn’t want to be a savior anyway.

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    • Josh May 10, 2018 / 2:07 pm

      I fixed it now. Apparently I had my setting to only going three deep on comments.

      Streaming really fascinates me and I follow almost every news piece on it. With Spotify going public, the discussion has only increased. So I’ll probably continue talking about it throughout the year. It’s something that affects every corner of music. One startling stat I saw this year was that 99% of all music streamed comes from only 10% of all artists. So essentially 90% of all artists are being ignored. That’s insane and highly unbalanced. Something will have to change, but I have no idea what could be that change.

      It is sad the list is so short. I would maybe add Drake too, as he has a ton of popularity. Honestly I don’t think a lot of praise for Stapleton comes from the savior thing fortunately. As I’ve touched on in my “Millionaire” review, I think a lot of people get drawn in by his soulfulness. The Lost in Vegas guys reaction on YouTube to him I think is a lot of people’s reactions to him. They hear “Tennessee Whiskey” and are immediately taken back to the days of Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Ray Vaughn. He brings that soul that is so lacking today and just so happens to be country too. Plus I see a lot of hate from traditionalists towards Stapleton, which is strange. I think it simultaneously stems from him not wanting to be a savior and his massive popularity because traditionalists have a weird possessive nature towards “their” artists.

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      • Zack May 10, 2018 / 3:27 pm

        Wow! I’m going to have to dig up that article. I think something to consider though is if it’s really considering every single artist known to man out there. Like, if it is, that means that we’re ignoring some unknown band from who knows where who plays locally multiplied by … I don’t know, a lot.

        If it’s only considering popular artists of the present and past, that’s highly dangerous. For listeners, I think we owe it to ourselves to branch out, but for artists, it all goes back to your discussion on really branching out. That’ll be interesting to watch.

        Yeah, in a year where apparently only Country people can discuss Golden Hour or talk Country, it’s nice to see two outsiders walk in, admit they’re learning about the genre, and then come into the song with an open mind like Lost In Vegas do.

        How could I forget traditionalists don’t like him? All I have to do is read a certain comment section, haha. I had a discussion with Megan about this concept of what traditionalists may or may not like anymore. Hell, throw then Joshua Hedley (who I don’t care much for but to each their own), and they still complain about authenticity like he’s friggin’ Midland.

        On a side note, the Midland case also helped expose just how much fans actually care about the music on the independent side (they don’t).

        Liked by 1 person

        • Josh May 10, 2018 / 4:29 pm

          It’s not the article, but it cites it within this great article: https://pitchfork.com/features/oped/how-to-be-a-responsible-music-fan-in-the-age-of-streaming/

          Yeah I really dig those Lost in Vegas guys. They’re refreshingly honest, although I was disappointed they cut out their reaction to the reptile aliens made of light part on their “Turtles All the Way Down” video. That’s the best part of the song!

          Yeah a certain comment section is exhibit A. That mob can’t be satisfied ever I don’t think. Midland is one of the most interesting bands to come along in recent memory due to the sheer amount of discussions and arguing they’ve created by just existing. You’re right that they do expose how little people care about independent music. They’re a slave to a certain sound and don’t care what artist is making it. And this is coming from someone who really enjoyed their album. Their backstory was obviously a sham and I had that definitively proven when I saw them live. They’re not bad and they sounded great in spots, but they’re still green and show they don’t have a ton of experience in a live setting. So I don’t fault anyone for liking them when I like them, but anyone saying they’re authentic is lying. I’ve accepted they’re completely manufactured, but that’s okay. So basically the “real country” crowd proves my point. At the end of the day it’s all about if you enjoy the music.

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          • Zack May 10, 2018 / 5:02 pm

            Holy shit! That’s a fantastic article indeed. That’s exactly what I need for my research too, so thanks! That Grateful Dead example is interesting too.

            Yeah, as someone who tried to branch out a little at my outlet, I appreciate what they’re doing. Reactions like that are pretty cool since you can’t really fake your own reaction the first time you hear something.

            The interesting thing with Midland is that yeah, they were a sham after all, but the only reason we know that is because people kept poking around. It began as some weird debate over whether or not they were “worthy” compared to other acts in the scene.

            The nitty gritty details seemed to float around later, but let’s face it, if you were to pull back the curtain with other artists, what would you likely find? The only reason stuff like this happens is because people in power know consumers will buy into this authenticity stuff even more than the music.

            Liked by 1 person

        • countryopinionblog May 10, 2018 / 10:57 pm

          First off, it’s fun to read this discussion. Next, the idea of what “traditionalists” like is so driven by little cliques of people on social media. Some tied to the independent/Texas “scene” will praise “their people” for the exact same things they’ll bash a “mainstream Nashville” artist for. See “a certain site” being okay with Charley Crockett incorporating blues influences, but the same site “making the case against” Chris Stapleton for incorporating blues influences. See a site’s “expose'” of Midland to discredit them while basically saying that the Turnpike guy’s private life was nobody’s business. See that site calling out media members who basically declared the year over in March for Kacey Musgraves’ album, when that site had already declared in an article “2018 Will Be The Year of Cody Jinks in Country,” before Jinks released even a song from his forthcoming album.

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  3. Tezca May 15, 2018 / 7:43 pm

    I wish I knew back then years ago what you all are talking about and what I realized in recent years that you can like whatever you like, who cares if it’s a Luke Bryan song or whatever. In hindsight, it sucks that the first country music related blog I came across was “that site” cause my younger self definitely jumped on the bandwagon and ugh young me was stupid, or more stupid than now at least lol, and the comment section, I remember, just made me worried if I was “country” enough in general I think. The word gatekeeping would be an apt way to describe “that site”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Zack May 16, 2018 / 9:20 pm

      For the record, I didn’t bring up that site to start a flame war. Personally I think many journalists are to blame. It’s all a PR game, and if you don’t comply there’s always another outlet that will. There goes your access. He plays his game just as other journalists do. I’ve learned at this point that it’s all bullshit. That’s why I like blogs better at this point. Then again I always have…

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  4. Dooley May 17, 2018 / 3:12 pm

    I am excited! Excited for having found this blog. Finally someone who seems to review and discuss current trends in country music respectfully. What a relief. I have been following country music now since the Mid-80’s but it wasn’t until very recent, when I (also) fell into the trap of reading certain sites “with a mission”. The derogatory attitude that was prevalent there made me feel almost embarrassed for liking (modern) country music. Or fusion country, as you call it. It is okay to not like everything, but that should still allow for a respectful dialogue. After all it is just subjectiv opinion and not facts anyways, whether we consider something good or bad. At least as long as it concerns any kind of art form. Looking forward to open-minded reviews and discussions here.

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    • Josh May 17, 2018 / 3:54 pm

      Welcome! Glad you found Fusion Country. I strive to make my blog as open and fair as possible and I’m glad it comes off this way. Respect is a key in anything, especially with subjective things like music and art. At the end of the day there’s something for everybody. I hope you enjoy the discussions and reviews!

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