Can Country Music be Cool Again?

I’m no expert, but I did grow up just down the street from the county fair in Michigan’s highest hog producing county.  Country music permeated parts of my childhood to much chagrin of my parents. I grew up with pop country radio in the 90’s that told me stories about tractors, boots, and empowered women in a space that is traditionally masculine.  By the time I hit high school, it was not culturally useful for me to casually quote Garth Brooks or Shania Twain anymore and I started to develop a socially induced gag-reflex to country music. The 200X’s came and went and in the mid 201X’s we’ve all been invited to rally around a common hatred of bro-country on our social media feeds.

I became absolutely charmed by a DIY country musician from Alabama that toured through our area named Abraham Partridge earlier this year.  Abe is the full package with charm, grit, and beautiful musical talent. The light clicked on in my mind that there’s probably more like him out there.  What is this country music that exists on a DIY level? Who are these artists that differ from the modern radio country that we all hate but hold onto the roots of the genre?  Maybe it’s time for country to be cool again.

This is in no sense a comprehensive state of union of country music in 2019 but just some light-hearted thoughts and arguments I have about the intersection between DIY culture and country music.  

As I mentioned above, the empowerment of female artists was at the forefront of the social conversation in country music arguably many years ahead of the conversation in the DIY scene.  Female empowerment is a historic theme in country music and we need to continue to give platform to that message. I didn’t realize it at the time but the few pre-teen years where I was really into radio country was dominated by female artists paving the way for women to progress as important artists on the radio in all genres.  There have been some ups and downs in gender equality in the country music industry and certainly no lack of problems, but there exists a great history of bringing that issue to the forefront of conversation.

When it comes to the things that most of us ‘hate’ about country music, we quickly point to modern bro-country style. No one actually likes that. This is not a good reason to avoid country music.  It’s so easy to react to the awful modern country that we see pass across our social media pages with electronic drums and soaked in cringy values. But the reality is that you’re seeing that video because it’s been shared for it’s ridiculousness, not for its popularity. I’m sure there’s some folks out there that are into it, but trust me, that’s not what you should be thinking of when you hear ‘country’. Not a good reason to stay away from it.

Vice’s music channel Noisey has produced a series of short music genre documentaries called Under the Influence narrated by the one and only Tim Armstrong.  Back in 2017 they released an episode on Outlaw Country. The show makes a great case for the ties between early outlaw country music and punk rock. The Godfather of outlaw country, Johnny Cash, sits as a heavy influence in so many punk bands because of the anti-establishment, lawless nature that he held. Three chords, rough around the edges, and a glance at raw emotion; what’s not to like?  That spirit lives on in some country artists today who reject pop country stylings and hold strong to the roots. Check out that Noisey episode, it’s got a lot of great things to say.

There are some great artists who have been slowly acting as influence to bring me to this place where I feel okay about having a country playlist on my Spotify profile.  Once I started looking for it, the influence was all around me. Think about where you can find country influences in artists like Nick Cave, Hop Along, and our own Dead Birds.  Punk bands continue to cover Johnny Cash. Hardcore scene influencers post country covers of Four Year Strong songs. Southern DIY artists are expanding their touring circles to the whole country.  Jump on the train before it passes you, outlaws are already on board.