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Is Country Music Treading Water in 2011?

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It's been a dead enough year in country music to make fans wonder what's going on. Is the genre taking a year off, or just jogging in place for a while?

What’s happening in country music this year? So far, not much to speak of. Few major or even moderately major albums have been released. No attention-getting new stars have emerged. No established superstars have made grand statements. Instead, the usual country tours roll along, while country radio and sales charts have been dominated by albums and singles from the last year or so – at least until late spring and early summer, when a handful of 2011 songs made it to the top of the charts, along with two or three relatively noteworthy albums.

For the first half of the year, the #1 country songs in Billboard’s charts were from 2010, or older, like Miranda Lambert’s “Heart Like Mine”, from her 2009 album Revolution. The #1 country albums were from last year – by Jason Aldean, Taylor Swift, Zac Brown Band, Lady Antebellum, Rascal Flatts – with only a couple of relatively well-known groups releasing albums this year that made the charts (Sara Evans and Thompson Square, for example). By June we did have new albums from Brad Paisley, Ronnie Dunn and Dolly Parton, and more big-ish albums are on the way this summer… but still, the pickings have been slim.

Even outside of mainstream country, there haven’t been many notable releases, besides albums of varying quality from sort-of-country/folk/Americana legends like Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Alison Krauss, but, even in those cases, there’s little that speaks to the future, or even the present, of country music as a genre. It’s doubtful that even the most omnivorous, easily pleased country fans have found all that much to get excited about. While plenty of new albums are on the horizon for late summer and for fall, it’s not exactly a flood of new music.

Why is that? In part, it relates to recording industry habits, across the genre, of releasing the most music in spring, summer and fall. But how relevant are those practices anymore, in our anything-goes era of music consumption? Besides, it sure feels like most, perhaps all, recent years were more bountiful by this point on the calendar. Is it related to music-industry changes in another way? Perhaps musicians don’t feel the same impulse to make albums that they used to, since albums aren’t what’s making them money?

Country tours seem especially successful, financially, even in our tougher economic times. Even singles lately seem more like "I'm still here" reminders (for established stars) or calling cards to get your foot in the door (for newcomers), than like musical statements that stand on their own. Has a general malaise set in? Has nonchalance become the dominant mood for country music as a genre?

Even the most popular new 2011 singles, precursors to coming LPs, don’t seem too interested in making a splash. There’s little ambition in evidence. These songs don’t say much about where country is headed, or what is distinct about country in 2011. They mainly seem like placeholders, relying on clichés and fitting archetypes instead of making new statements. That’s true whether it’s a love song/romantic come-on, like Chris Young’s “Tomorrow” (essentially: baby before we break up please sleep with me one more time), Lady Antebellum’s “Just a Kiss” or Blake Shelton’s “Honey Bee”, the current #1 country single.

That last one at least has some Southern details, rooting it in a geographic place to make up for the overall generic qualities of it. Still, it’s hard to take lyrics like “you’ll be my sunny day / I’ll be your shade tree / you’ll be my honeysuckle / I’ll be your honey bee” with a straight face, even if the song's narrator has some self-awareness about his inability to say what he feels without resorting to cliches. (Maybe it's a fitting anthem for the year in country music, after all.) Justin Moore’s tearjerker “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away” gets specific too, with stories of people who passed, but it also gets predictable enough that an alt-rock radio DJ, here in Kansas City, did a pretty good job guessing several of the lyrics from the title and instrumental music alone, in an on-air “country psychic” segment.

There have been a couple of cute, lightweight parenting songs: Trace Adkins’ “Just Fishin” and Martina McBride’s “Teenage Daughters”. And there's a small batch of country party songs – from Dierks Bentley, Jake Owen, Luke Bryan -- which at least contain a touch of rowdiness to liven up the scene. Each basically amounts to country guys drinking cold beer, either at a lake or a bar, and meeting a mysterious country girl who only wants to hang out with them and start trouble. A “country cutie with a rock ‘n’ roll booty”, as Bentley puts it. She’s a cipher, a stock character, like most of the people in these songs. In a way she seems a representative figure for country music in 2011: familiar yet hollow. Eric Church’s single “Homeboy” might stand out as the most unique song, or at least the strangest, but that’s not really a good thing, unless you think a song admonishing small-town, white youth for acting too black represents progress.

The atmosphere in country music today feels stale. Artistically, has the genre pressed 'pause'? As a music industry, are musicians and labels alike just trying to ride out the storm of downloading and empty pocketbooks, hoping they’re still doing relatively well when they come out the other side?

The biggest LP of 2011 so far has come from Brad Paisley. Titled This Is Country Music, it's in part an attempt to make a statement on what country music is today. Along with that, it's a statement on what Paisley wants to be seen as in 2011; that is, still a good ol' country boy at heart, even if he won over citified critics with his last album American Saturday Night. It says something about country as a genre that Paisley feels the need to reassert his country-ness after making rather mild proclamations, uncontroversial in the larger world, like America is a melting pot and it was historic for Americans to elect a black man as president.

This Is Country Music is reactionary, so perhaps it's fitting that, in trying to define country, Paisley first looks backwards. He references classic country song titles as evidence that country deals with real-life concerns, brings the group Alabama back together to celebrate themselves, and plays with country archetypes like cowboy movies and railroads. At the same time, he includes plenty of today's country templates, too. Don Henley and Sheryl Crow are appropriately along for the ride. There's a song about finding redemption through Jesus that turns into a song about finding redemption through the institution of marriage, killing two birds with one stone.

There is also, of course, a song about romantic dalliances at the lake, one about a Mexican vacation, and one where he's stuck in rush-hour traffic, getting angry, until he remembers that boy with cancer who he saw on TV that morning, which makes him feel lucky to be alive. Together the songs -- like many on country radio these days -- portray today's country folk as living in the suburbs, going to church, working 9 to 5, teaching their kids to brush their teeth, and occasionally escaping to the lake, travelling to Mexico, or lusting after the girl next door while she sunbathes.

There's one song on This Is Country Music that does what at least some of us want country music in 2011 to do. "A Man Don't Have to Die" ("to go to Hell") takes the traditional beating-heart of country music -- the sadder than sad heartbreak song -- and rewrites it for today. Paisley paints vivid pictures of lonely, beaten-down people facing financial and existential struggles of the most severe kind. The song puts age-old pain in the context of 2011. It faces the music's traditions and furthers them. There's a point where he sings, "there ain't no end to the stories we can tell". Paisley, and country music as a whole, should take that as the gospel truth, instead of walking again and again over the same ol' tired ground.

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