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Is “New Country” Real Country?

Our Country

This week, George Jones told the media that he thinks new country stars such as Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift have "stolen the identity" of country music in general, and that they should "find their own title" for the music they are making, resulting in a flurry of "George Jones Says: Don't Call It Country!"-type headlines across the news.

Of course, this really just boils down to a somewhat hammered-to-pieces argument. You know the drill: Is "new" country as good as "old" country, and why and why not and whatnot.

This "old country" vs. "new country" debate has fascinated me for a long time, for a couple of reasons.

Number one, because country really seems to be the only genre of music, save one, whose fans engage with both regularity and ferocity in this argument. (The other genre? Punk. See this blog entry for demonstration.)

Number two, because the gals in country always seem to take it on the nose in regards to this debate much harder than the boys do.

Let's take a look at both of these points.

"New country" appears to be defined by parameters that don't necessarily use "new" as the main criteria. Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift are new, in the pure sense of the word. There are, however, a load of "new" country artists out there which manage to escape criticism of the George Jones-type.

So what are we talking about when we discuss "new country?" Most probably we're citing pop crossover potential or achievement, plus a large sales record. Artists of just about every other genre seem able to blithely skip in and out of the pop charts and sell more records than God, and still remain credible to their fans. Not country, though.

The pop-crossover factor seems to be a bit more punitive than the sales factor in the country world. George Strait and Alan Jackson, who were sanctioned by Jones as being true-blue to the country category, are both quite well off in terms of making a living at music. But you're not going to find them on the Top 40 chart.

That said, this leads to my second point--why are the women in country the ones who really absorb this critical hit?

Jones was asked about new country using Underwood and Swift as an example, so I can't put any real blame on him for targeting those artists. But why is the media continually using these two female artists as an example of the "new" (i.e. questionable) sound? Why not, say, Rascal Flatts--a band with all the right "new" stuff, including pop appeal and incredible sales? Heck--why not Garth Brooks, for that matter?

Furthermore, if Jones was willing to put Underwood and Swift in the same category as Strait and Jackson--a fairer parallel would be Reba McEntire, who is female and put out her debut album in 1977 (Strait and Jackson debuted only a few years later). If he wanted to cite a female artist who's a little younger, there are plenty of solidly non-crossover girls out there. Lee Ann Womack? Miranda Lambert? Feel free to add your own.

Let's not forget this whole debate raged only a short while ago, but with two other female artists as primary targets: Shania Twain and Faith Hill--both of whom redefined the boundaries of country's audience, and both on the receiving end of "credibility" arguments.

What is it about the Nashville girls? Is it because women in country by and large don't wear cowboy hats anymore? They show up in Louboutin heels and black dresses rather than jeans and boots? Because your boyfriend who hates country music still would probably drool over most of the women on the CMA Awards red carpet? (It doesn't really work the other way. Most girls who think country music sucks aren't dying for a date with Kenny Chesney or Blake Shelton.)

To wit: Tim McGraw, himself the possessor of a massive crossover hit (pairing with none less than a hip-hop star--Nelly), recently noted of his wife, Faith Hill: "If [she] were 300 pounds and dog-ugly, people would think [she was] the greatest singer in the world."

Back to the original "new" vs. "old" argument, however. It's pretty inevitable that newer, high-profile stars in country are going to take a good amount of flak. The general state of country music nowadays is one of rapidly increasing popularity. Country's not only crossing over to a pop audience--pop and rock artists are crossing over to country.

If this makes legendary figures like George Jones feel a bit uneasy about the future of the genre, that's understandable. I truly do get the distinction he's talking about. I'm just not sure we need to keep pointing fingers at every pretty girl who hits the top of several charts at once.

In fact, I'm not sure we need to point fingers at all. How about sitting back and enjoying the music, as well as the fact that country is stronger than ever in the entertainment world overall?

Let me know what your thoughts are on this.

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