I didn't watch the CMAs. What's defined as "country music" these days mostly doesn't interest me. Once in a while I'll hear something labeled mainstream country I like, but I rarely think of it as "country." I usually file it with the rest of pop music, be it Britney Spears, the Black Eyed Peas or Rihanna. No big deal. But I start to feel like Steve Buscemi's character in Ghost World, where he goes to see an ancient bluesman and after the real thing is treated to Blueshammer. It might be someone's cup of preferred tea, but it's not what they think it is.
It's not a puritanical thing. I don't care that this music exists. Celebrate it all you want. But stop calling it country music. Call it Billy Joel. Call it Kiss. Throw a crapload of hyphens together and let it be that. Cosmopolitan-Country-Pop? If music is to continue, it has to cross-pollinate with other genres and these things will happen. The pop machine will determine the prettiest get the most votes. It's always been like that.
But why not take this time to look at some classic artists? They don't pay me to come up with new genres. They request that I compile lists that give people an insight into my soul. (Because it's there you'll find...Gummo, the Sentient Bubble?)
As always the 25 "real" country artists are 25 that came to mind. They're not the only ones worth listening to, but as you get into the top 10, you pretty much have to like it or else you're not a country music fan. I mean, seriously.
The Faron Young fans will be disappointed. The "Cowboy" fans will mourn the absence of Gene Autry and Tex Ritter. Western Swing fans will want Bob Wills noted. And, yes, I know about the Delmore Brothers. But a list is just that. Here's 25 right at you!
And, hey, there's always Dolly Parton to throw in the comments section. Where is She? I dunno. Where is she?
25) Willie Nelson: At this point, Nelson's a national icon and likely to have his likeness carved onto the side of a mountain. He's sung just about every type of music he can find. But his early country sides are as worth checking out as his outlaw days when he got the groovy ponytail.
24) Patsy Cline: Patsy's frequently the country artist for people who don't like country, since she was willing to pad her sound here and there. But that doesn't stop the great voice and material that she sang from being less good. It wasn't like she was blowing up cars onstage or anything.
23) Jerry Lee Lewis: Once he ruined his initial rock n' roll career by marrying his teenaged cousin, Jerry Lee eventually found a home with country music where he could add that "Killer" swagger to everything he sang. If a song couldn't fit the words "Jerry Lee" in them, why bother?
22) Roy Acuff: Roy Acuff lorded over the Grand Ol' Opry as the King of Country Music. Yet the Opry is the place that threw Hank Williams out on his drunken ear. Acuff liked to end his songs in tears because plenty of people died or were already dead in his songs. What a ham. File Under: Beck, Glenn, influences...
21) Carl Smith: A drinking pal of Johnny Cash, Carl was married to June Carter before Johnny got to her and the couple had a child named Rebecca Smith, who decided she would have better luck as a country-rock singer named Carlene Carter. She was right.
20) Johnny Paycheck: Yes, he's best known for the David Allan Coe tune "Take This Job and Shove It," but if you get a chance to hear his recordings made for the Little Darlin' label, you'll know why he's on this list.
19) Maddox Bros. And Rose: It's said that Rose was eleven when she started singing with her brothers in this band. Eleven! For her parents, that's one great return on investment. They even recorded a song called "The Death of Rock n' Roll." At least 50 years too soon, but close!
18) Waylon Jennings: Along with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings became a poster boy for the Outlaw Country Music Scene of the 1970s, but he'd been playing for decades, including a stint with Buddy Holly. He had a long, productive career by avoiding the one airplane ride that didn't go very well.
17) Ray Price: Price's recordings in the 1950s were about as hard country as you could go without actually falling into the rock n' roll camp. The man used drums! You think he would've considered blowing up cars onstage?
16) Kitty Wells: Kitty had such a long recording career that she re-recorded many of her songs because the recording technology had advanced to the point that they could save it on tape. Her nasal delivery would never get her a contract these days. She'd probably have to learn to rap!
15) Ernest Tubb: Ernest Tubb had his tonsils removed and his voice got worse as a result. Which in country music, like rock music it should be noted, works out for the best. His "unconventional" sound makes him sound like a true renegade.
14) Loretta Lynn: She's had her life immortalized with Coal Miner's Daughter. But Lynn is more than just a vehicle for Sissy Spacek to win acting awards. Like most people on this list, she could sing without the kindness of technology.
13) Buck Owens: Owens represents the Bakersfield sound, though he started from Texas. He eventually landed on Hee Haw and people figured if he was on TV, he must be a mainstream star. So he was.
12) Jimmie Rodgers: Jimmie Rodgers was a major inspiration to many folks who went onto country fame. Merle Haggard sings his praises and Hank Snow was considered at first to be an imitator. A railroad man, Rodgers was a natural fit for a singer. It wasn't like he was a hedge fund manager or anything.
11) The Carter Family: Oft-times when you go searching through history for music you find that the stuff of great historical importance is so far from what the modern ear accepts as music that it's difficult to enjoy as music. But the old-time Appalachia of the Carter Family is actually quite pleasing to the ears. Popular in the 1930s, they had the great fortune of having jobs during the Great Depression.
10) Conway Twitty: Take away the name, the hair and the entrepreneurial spirit (Twitty City anyone?) and you're still left with a voice that sounds like it's about to weep and would really like to stay home with the wife and kids but can't. Just can't, darlin'.
9) Lefty Frizzell: Frizzell was once serious competition for Hank Williams. Listening today, Frizzell is still plenty cool, but he sounds so polite. Frizzell had "Mom and Dad's Waltz" where he offers to whatever necessary for them because he wants them to know he loves them so. See, in a Hank Williams song, mom is already dead.
8) Hank Snow: "I'm Movin' On," "I Don't Hurt Anymore" and many more make this Canadian Cowboy the real deal. Known as the Yodeling Ranger, Snow managed to transcend the "Yodeling" tag. After all, who wants to be remembered for yodeling?
7) The Louvin Brothers: The Brothers' harmonies would be a big influence on the Everly Brothers, the Beatles and anyone who decided that singing in unison sounded stupid.
6) Johnny Cash: No list of country acts is complete without Johnny Cash, who also ushered in the rockabilly era with his Tennessee Two. His Sun Recordings are the sound of a railroad recklessly slamming down the tracks. He later recordings are the sound of him shaking hands with Rick Rubin, vigorously.
5) Tammy Wynette: Tammy was married to George Jones and lived to tell the tale. Her own recording career was just as powerful, though very few consider her duet with the KLF to be a true career highlight.
4) Merle Haggard: The country artist who made his name with his "outlaw" image and a couple of live albums. But Okie From Muskogee is noticeably better than Kiss Alive! Noticeably.
3) Webb Pierce: A personal fave of mine, Webb Pierce was an incredibly successful honky-tonk singer in the years following Hank Williams' death. He had a guitar-shaped swimming pool and wore some pretty crazy Nudie suits. His voice could cut glass and often did. No one else could rhyme "you," "blue," true" and "do" with the same gusto.
2) George Jones: It was George who was just complaining that they shouldn't call this new country music "country." Sure, it sounds like the words of an old man, but the old man has a point. Just call it something else! No foul. And if you want to hear a real country singer, start here.
1) Hank Williams: What Tiger Woods is to golf, Hank Williams is to Country Music. Terrible analogy, I agree. I should've gone with Babe Ruth and baseball. Maybe, next time, I will. Note to readers: He didn't sing "Are You Ready for Some Football?" That's Jr.'s idea.