A Way Out of the Ghetto of Genre
Gallons of ink has been spilled on how the mariachi horns that open “Ring of Fire” grow directly out of the Mexican music Johnny Cash might have heard on the radio as a child or how Otis Redding’s (or insert the name of your favorite soul singer here) vocal style was a direct outgrowth of their church upbringing. This role as part of an ongoing musical tradition further robs the musician of agency, of the ability to break out of that tradition without seeming to betray the authenticity that is part of their perceived artistic value.
The trouble here lies somewhere in the always unpleasant idea of appropriation. With Clapton (or take other genre-jumpers if you’d like: Blondie, the Rollng Stones, Randy Newman, Stephin Merritt, noting that most if not all of them fall into the corner of the music market known as “rock”), the artist has before him all available genres like aisles in a supermarket, and part of their art includes this aspect of appropriation or pastiche. The results of this kind of cherry picking can be emotionally or artistically compelling, can even arguably revolutionize the genre they appropriate, but they are always somehow removed from the real roots of the music and lack the sort of reverence afforded genres like country and soul.
Appropriation by the rock artist elevates their music critically into the sphere of art, but only because the critical definition of music as art includes the idea of appropriation. It’s when appropriation works the other way that the real trouble starts.
While there’s plenty of respect given to that strain of rock musician who simultaneously appropriates country and soul (since I’ve written a book on the Flying Burrito Brothers , you might be able to guess who I’m talking about), there’s precious little treatment of musicians who attempt to break out of the genre ghettoes of country or soul to experiment with other sounds. Part of this comes from the fact that somehow, Willie Nelson is just supposed to sing country songs, just as Ray Charles is supposed to sing soul music.
To bring us back to Ken Burns (just for a second), while his monolithic documentary grows up from the damp soil of New Orleans and expands to include the early tonal experiments of Coltrane and Davis, both performers drop off the sonic map for Burns as soon as they begin to appropriate what he (and his muse, Wynton Marsalis) consider non-jazz sounds: African tonalities in the case of Coltrane and rock in the case of Davis. Once Miles plugs in, he drops out, since Burns’ vision of the genre cannot include a type of jazz that opens for Neil Young & Crazy Horse at the Fillmore East.
Similarly, when an artist like Willie Nelson puts out an album of jazz standards or reggae songs, critics have difficulty filing it, since clearly it can no longer be considered “country” because country doesn’t include reggae or jazz. Even when the reggae or jazz is performed by one of country’s living legends.
I’ve written previously on the careful excision of Hank Williams’ gospel material from his body of work by his record label to “protect” his rowdy image (see
“Hank’s Other Side: Religion, Radio, and the Roots of Country Music”). I made the case that the trend in the country music industry’s current trend of appropriating all possible genres of music into itself—from the crafted teen pop with twang of Taylor Swift to Kenny Chesney’s cover of “Three Little Birds” backed by members of the original Wailers at the Country Music Awards—might signal the end of country as a genre. Or, it might signal the first steps by country musicians to fully embrace the ideas of stylistic borrowing that have long been the domain of rock musicians.
These and earlier efforts to make the concept of country music more expansive are, in a way, a reaction to external constraints put on the genre. That’s done often by critics; constraints rarely applied to rock.
The mid-‘60s country efforts of the Supremes and the better-known country albums by Ray Charles (Modern Sounds in Country and Western beat out Shania Twain and Johnny Cash on Country Music Television’s list of the all-time greatest country albums) perform several tasks at once. Like the best rock and experimental music that partakes of genres other than itself, they reconnect the listener with what is vital about the original genre by translating it into a new and vibrant form.
Charles in particular illustrates the emotive power of the country songs he interprets in a manner that might be more immediately palatable for a listener unaccustomed to country music. In doing so, he gives that new listener a key to unlocking country music, a kind of introductory course, in the same way the Rolling Stones may have (hopefully) introduced a whole lot of middle class white kids to the blues.
These albums also highlight the affinities between the two genres, drawing the listener’s attention to the similarities that lie deep beneath the surface trappings. But finally, and perhaps most importantly as it relates to country music today, these albums point a way out of the ghetto of genre, past the strictures of market pressures that encourage the successful “artist as product” to churn out more of the same for consumers the market suspects will not accept novelty.
By crossing the boundary between soul and country—a transgression critics could potentially decry as “inauthentic”, even though it comes from a love of music more authentic than the artificial idea of genre— these artists reassert their own identity as artists. They are no longer of a single, particular genre, but have become part of a creative force, savvy to all the musical tools at their disposal and unwilling to limit themselves to an endless string of repetition.
Funny then, that as modern country broadens its scope to embrace the myriad genres that have long laid outside of its borders, it finds not only derision from rock critics as being no longer “real country”, but an audience and market expanding faster than that champion of musical appropriation, rock music. Rock seems to have already stolen everyone else’s tricks and now finds itself stuck trying to find new tricks of its own. Maybe a trip to the local record store would help.