As I grew up in suburban western Washington, I developed a … strong hatred for country music. Perhaps because it was my parents’ music of choice, perhaps because it was uncool amongst my peers or perhaps because the country music created at that time was easy to hate.
Somewhere along the line, what we call country really became rock or pop music sung with a western accent. Oh sure, bands threw in a few traditional country instruments for appearance sake, but rest assured: a cowboy hat does not country music make.
But as Bob Dylan once said, “The country music is a-changin’ for the better so get used to it.” I’m paraphrasing. Many contemporary artists are returning to the roots of country. Others are taking country in new directions while still leaving it as an identifiable genre. So let us take a walk through this… new country (pause for thoughtful laughter).
One direction taken by contemporary country musicians is a return to the great music of The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills. Picture stunning voices over music steeped in tradition. Songs with stories, heartbreak and the occasional miner. Neko Case, Gillian Welch and Eilen Jewell fall into this new/old-timey genre.
As always, the lines between genres can become as blurry as a narrow freeway lane in a hailstorm. Bluegrass, folk and country often intermingle to the point where exact labels are meaningless. Amongst contemporary artists who play old-timey country with folk and/or bluegrass influences we find Old Crow Medicine Show, Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn and Carolina Chocolate Drops. These bands often present a sparse or quiet sound (although there are still frequent times where one should not go a-knockin’) and focus on banjo, fiddle and other bluegrassy instruments.
As we move further afield from tradition, we can find music that combines traditional country elements with blues, jazz, distorted guitars, punk rock, and hip hop drumbeats. Examples of what might be called alternative country can be found in the music of Lydia Loveless, Angaleena Presley and The Wood Brothers.
Next stop is the world of psychobilly and cattle core in the music of Hank Williams III, also known as Hank3. Yep, he is the grandson of Hank Williams and his music, which contains elements of metal, hardcore and rockabilly, is deeply rooted in country. It’s truly difficult to describe the music of Hank3 as it varies so much from album to album, from song to song. He is equally at home with a traditional country ballad, traditional bluegrass, a speedmetal/thrash bluegrass hybrid or punk, sometimes all within a single song. To further confuse matters, his former record label continues to release albums of old recordings without his approval. So albums can vary considerably in quality. However, Hank3 is well worth checking out. Brothers of the 4×4 is an excellent starting place.
Finally, we move to the bizarre and unthinkable, a combination of country and rap called hick hop. I feel the need to make a disclaimer: rap is my least favorite genre, so I am not the best advocate for anything involving said abomination. However, what I can tell you “rappers” is that the music of both Big Smo and Moonshine Bandits clearly weaves together elements of country music with rap, creating something that never afore existed. Like if Mothra and Rodan had offspring. You get the picture.
The list of country hybrids and new evolutionary branches goes on and on. This is one of the most exciting aspects of music, this continual growth in new directions which brings about strange and wonderful listening experiences. So take a chance on some new/old styles of country music, even if you’re not a fan. As the Dali Lama once said, “Hey, it’s worth a shot.”