What’s Real About Country Music?

by Dave Heaton

15 March 2011

James Wesley posing for real. Photo Credit: Broken Bow Records 

Moving up the country radio charts is James Wesley’s “Real”, built on the notion that “reality TV” shows have nothing to do with the real lives of working-class Americans. What’s “real” isn’t The Amazing Race, Survivor, The Bachelor or the Real Housewives of (Fill in the blank) shows, the song tells us. “Real” is weddings, anniversaries, and death. “Real” is a farm being foreclosed on and factory jobs moving to another country. Specific farm-life references to droughts and weevils make the song read as first-hand reporting or memoir. Knowing that Wesley was born in Mound Valley, Kansas (population 418), not far from the Kansas-Oklahoma border, may add to that impression, though of course Wesley didn’t write the song. Two other established country songwriters, Neal Coty and Jimmy Melton, did.

“Real” tells us that putting people in manufactured dramatic situations is less real than actual dramatic situations; kind of a no-brainer. The implication is that some forms of entertainment are more real than others, and country music is the most real. Brad Paisley states this more explicitly in another song on the charts, “This Is Country Music”, an advertisement for the genre that references country classics from the past while arguing that other genres are more afraid to sing about real life. Real life in this case means that country singers will sing about cancer, will proclaim that Jesus is their savoir, and will admit their love for America. Of course, other genres say these things too, or they say different things on the same topics. Is it more real to proclaim America’s greatness than to criticize America? To praise Jesus versus to praise Allah? Paisley sings, “This is real / this is your life in a song”. The logical response to that is, whose life? If the worldview of a particular song doesn’t match my own, does that make me less real? Or not a real country fan, at least?

In that way, the song is crowd control, reinforcing the idea that country fans share one concrete, simple view of the world. It’s as if he’s trying to will into existence an easily managed audience. Country singers often seem to want to do that, so maybe this is country music in 2011. A singer will tell us “how country boys roll”, implying that listeners relate, because of course they roll the same way. Meanwhile, as country remains one of the strongest genres in terms of sales, the audience continues to be less rural, not that it has ever been exclusively so. When Paisley tells us that country music is “real” because it’s our life, it seems a cover for the fact that country audiences don’t all share the same life, a fact that when admitted could make the fabric of so many country songs, based on monolithic notions of the lives of country artists and fans, unravel.

The word “real” is thrown around often within the genre. For example, if country music is especially real, which type of country music is most real? That conversation never ends, and never will. Do an Internet search for “real country” and you get many aspiring stars proclaiming that they play “real country”, unlike the other guys. Songs like Dale Watson’s “A Real Country Song” express a wish that the radio was still playing Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn instead of contemporary artists. There are websites like TakinTheCountryBack.com and SavingCountryMusic.com. There’s a satellite radio format called Real Country (whose main competitor is True Country, according to Wikipedia). In all of these cases, “real” means closest in sound to music at the roots of country, or more accurately at the start of country’s growth as a commercial music genre. So “real country” might be the ‘50s and ‘60s music that made Nashville the industry it is now, or the Bakersfield sound, the so-called “outlaw country” of the ‘70s, Western swing perhaps. And it definitely includes all musicians who try hard to make their music sound exactly like all of that music.

It’s a line of thinking that breeds an us-versus-them mentality. We listen to “real” country. They listen to the pop music that’s dressed up as country, foisted on us not by “real” people but by record executives somewhere. Anything that smacks of commercialism or pop, or deviates from a well-worn country playbook, is definitely not “real”. SavingCountryMusic.com is suspicious of not just pop stars but anyone who might be a pop star in disguise; Jamey Johnson, for example. Read the site’s blog posts Jamey Johnson – Real Deal or Patsy and “Jamey Johnson Is Pop Country’s ‘Black Friend’”, and the related comments, and you’re observing heads exploding at the very notion that someone who writes Waylon Jennings-inspired hard-luck songs can also have co-written Trace Adkins’ “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk”.

“Real country” is, therefore, the style of country that today is accepted as the most authentic, the closest to what right now is thought of as the essence of country. When it comes to contemporary singers trying to emulate past country legends, “real” in its literal sense seems a strange word. A Xerox copy of a visual artwork would be considered less “real” than the original. Does “real” really mean stuck in time? Is the “real country” the country music least open to change? “Real” is a conservative word in this use. Country music will stay “real” only if it never changes. But change it always has, and it will always continue to. It’s not just in the pop-music arena where change happens. What’s considered the purest, realest country music will inevitably change as well, even among those trying hard to believe it can, and must, not. 

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