Sunday, 20 October 2013

Authenticity in Country Music

'The man come to shake my hand
and rob me of my farm.
I shot him dead and I hung my head
and drove off in his car'

Listening to Americana singer-songwriter Ryan Bingham can at times be a true test of emotional strength. Born and raised in rural Texas, ranching and competing in rodeo competitions during his teenage years and living alone through most of this time, Bingham's hard-living gives a real feel of authenticity to his music, embodied in the whisky-drinking, gravely nature of his vocals.

Authenticity is one of the most defining features of what good Country and Americana music should be. It is often said that you have to have lived it to be able to sing it and this is certainly the case with Bingham. But what does authenticity in Country music actually mean and is it really all that?

Authenticity of experience

Take the example of one of Country music's most famous names, Johnny Cash. Born in Arkansas in 1932, Cash picked cotton in the fields from the age of five and sang Gospel songs taught to him by his mother to help them through the day. At every opportunity J.R., as he was known, would listen to the family radio, especially the Grand Ole Opry on WSM radio where he would have heard the likes of the Carter Family and Roy Acuff. Many of the experiences Cash had as a child would later re-appear in his songs. 'Five Feet High and Rising' is about the flooding of his family's farm:

This is authenticity at its highest level.

Another example can be found in Hank Williams' melancholic 'I'm so lonesome I could cry':

'Hear that lonesome whippoorwill
He sounds too blue to fly
That midnight train comes whinin' low
I'm so lonesome I could cry'

True poetry from The Hillbilly Shakespeare, no doubt inspired by the sounds he heard in the wild, growing up in Alabama.

The case put forward by many traditional Country music fans is that modern Country stars lack authenticity because they haven't lived the 'hard life' and therefore cannot sing true Country music. It certainly seems that country artists have to have the right background to be accepted in the genre.

However, there are exceptions to this rule - take the Americana artist Slaid Cleaves for example. Born in Washington, raised in Maine and majoring in English and Philosophy at Tufts University, Cleaves' upbringing was as far away as you can get from the likes of Bingham and Cash. But this does not have any effect on his ability as a singer and songwriter in the genres of Country and Americana. One of the most authentic features of his sound is his extremely impressive yodelling ability, highlighted in the album, Sorrow & Smoke: Live at the Horseshoe Lounge in Austin, Texas on the tracks Texas Top Hand and Rolling Stone from Texas. 

Authenticity of Sound

The music of the Honky-Tonk era (1940-53) is seen as the most traditional and purest form of Country music with its focus on the twang of the steel guitar and the raw nature of the Southern accent - Hank Williams called it 'pure, unadulterated country' and the Honky-Tonk sound would be emulated in many different guises throughout the remainder of the 20th century.

But authenticity isn't simply gained with the addition of a steel guitar. For eample, the Gram Parsons' dominated Byrds' album Sweetheart of the Rodeo had a strong emphasis on the steel guitar, yet the band were shunned when they played at the Ryman Auditorium, the Mother Church of Country Music, in 1968.

Shania Twain was one of the main figures of the 1990s 'Country-Pop' scene - her sound often incorporated the vibrancy of the pedal steel guitar but every other aspect of her music comes from the 'Pop' world - the slickness of production, the semi-tonal key changes and the song topics - The use of the steel guitar doesn't make her music country!

On the opposite side of the spectrum, the very early music that Johnny Cash produced at Sun Studios in Memphis didn't use the steel guitar at all and instead innovated the new boom-chicka-boom sound. Yet, Johnny Cash is seen as one of the most authentic country artists to have ever lived, and rightly so.


So what are Country music fans actually looking for when they talk about the need for authenticity in their music?

I see authenticity as more about feeling and expression than anything else - the ability of the artist to relate emotionally to its audience. It certainly helps to have lived the 'hard life' and to adopt a pure Country sound. However, with the 'hard life' having already largely disappeared, it is rare to come across artists like Ryan Bingham.

Thus, with little authenticity of experience remaining in Country music, we now have to place heightened emphasis on its sound and the replication of traditional Country music. Of course, the genre must move forward with the times but it must do so by looking to its past. The roots revival of the late 1990s, peaking in the soundtrack to the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, showed how Country music can still remain authentic and relevant in today's society. This also highlights the importance of Americana music in keeping the tradition of American roots music alive.

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