…to beverly hills : a reflection on ken burns “country music” documentary pt. II

Read Part I Here

“There’s a paradox that’s always existed in country music. How much change do you embrace? And how much change can you make without completely obliterating what you were and what you came from?”

— Bill C. Malone, Historian

The synchronized growth of the City of Nashville and Country Music is something with which I have a deep love-hate relationship. We now have tons of interesting restaurants, breweries, and free music events going on all over town. But we also have a crap-ton of tourists. And the music that represents this city now, well, it’s not always my cup of tea. It doesn’t hold up with the kind of magic that once ran its way up and down all of Music Row.

Ketch Secor, of Old Crow Medicine Show, says it best in an interview with Rolling Stone: the institutions of Nashville need to have a “moment of reckoning….in which they are able to talk about ways in which they allowed and supported a particular paradigm to exist”. The change, he says, isn’t needed on the stage. It’s needed on the Row. It’s needed in those office buildings, for those people making the decisions – for those who have let their greed for success make a lot of faulty decisions about the direction in which country music has been going for the last decade or more. (OK, that last sentence is entirely my opinion, but I have a feeling Secor would agree with me more or less.)

There are bands and artists out there, like OCMS, that are doing their best to perpetuate an older, more timeless devotion to many of the acts that made country music great in the first place. But they’re not on the radio. They’re not gaining the national attention that is necessary for change. And if it’s only the people who are already fans – who are already going to those shows and buying those records – listening to those songs, then change can only move so far before it’s brought to a halt.

I first started listening to country music in the early 2000s. I loved the smooth, familiar sounds of Rascal Flatts, Keith Urban, and Carrie Underwood – familiar because most of their music could have easily crossed over to my favorite Top 40 stations, I’m sure. I had little interest in the past, because that was long gone and it was too much to catch up on, anyways.

But as I’ve gotten older (to the ripe old age of 28, mind you), my curiosity in the roots of country music has deepened. Maybe we need to get older to search for deeper meaning than a drunken party out in a field – maybe we’re just bored and seeking something new and different. But Nashville doesn’t seem to see it that way – and it makes me sad.

This place that once made me feel so unique, so different, so much more in touch with the world, has now left me feeling alienated within its borders. There’s still goodness here – there’s history, southern charm, and creativity at every turn – but so much of it is being hidden, built around, and obscured by taller and taller boutique hotels.

The Concrete Jungle, I believe they call it.

Walking downtown the other week, I found myself no longer at home, but at war with a thousand scooters, a dirty stench, and a certain sadness that lurked behind the closed storefronts promising new rebuilds – another celebrity bar here, a new shopping mall there.

But watching Ken Burns Country Music has renewed my hope in the past – and my hope that the past might make its way into the future of Music City. Because Nashville doesn’t need to sell its fans on more bros – it needs to challenge the status quo and find promise in preserving the past. As depicted in the documentary, every great era of country music evolved from a need for change: The Outlaws, for example, were not dwelling on the past, but seeking for meaning amidst the growing commercialism of the genre. And eventually – they became the artists we now uphold as “classics”.

I’m not saying we need to throw away our progress – in fact, we could be a hell of a lot more progressive in a lot of ways – and not every country singer should be wearing overalls and a straw hat with blacked-out teeth. But there is a simplicity to the songs of The Carter Family, Hank Williams, Dolly Parton, and Merle Haggard that only a handful of modern artists are using as their inspiration today.

In fact, I’d have to wonder if many of our modern artists do seek influence from those older acts, but feel prohibited from exploring those songs due to the pressure of Music Row wanting another #1 hit.

It’s an endless cycle. If all you offer to the public is the same thing, then they’ll keep eating the same thing – because they have to survive. But if you place something new in front of them – if you truly give them the opportunity to make a different choice in satiating their appetite – you might be surprised what they’d choose. At least, some of them. And maybe the more you put those different choices in front of them, the more comfortable they’ll be with making a new choice. It could take some time – but that’s all the more reason to start today.

Now that the documentary’s run is “over,” I can’t help but miss it. There was something so comforting about coming home to it every night, feeling its inspiration weave its way into my psyche, watching the charts as older artists infiltrated the Top 40 on Spotify and iTunes. Maybe I just miss the promise of something new, the hope for change, the possibility of a revolution. Or maybe I – like everyone who found enjoyment in the 8-part series – just needed to be reminded of the past, to dig a little deeper into it, to remember that there’s so much more music out there than what’s being laid out for us by iHeartRadio.

Back in 1962, as country music took on more “suave” and countrypolitan tones, The Beverly Hillbillies series premiered on CBS, featuring a “hillbilly music” theme song performed by a nearly-forgotten Flatt & Scruggs. It revived their career. And silly as the show’s premise was, it actually painted the simple-minded hillbillies as more likable and lovable characters, compared to all the rich city-slickers already living in their flashy neighborhood.

Now, you can type “country music” on Youtube and find music videos like “Rednecker Than You” – an annoying use of words highlighted by visuals of slick, brand-new trucks that your average redneck probably couldn’t even get the proper loan to pay for. The country lifestyle has become a cliche – one that doesn’t even relate to the real country. I should know, because I drive through it every day. Even the genuine countryside here in Middle Tennessee is being encroached upon by golf course communities and Stepford Wife subdivisions. Rather than appreciating the real country for what it is, it seems like our society is doing everything it can to tame it, to make it a greater extension of the growing urbanization of Nashville.

And it just makes me wonder:

What will “country” even be in the next 20 years if we don’t have any country left from which to draw our inspiration?