x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Country music still trying to prove its relevance

The inaugural American Country Awards may have shown poor ratings, but that's no indication of country music's influence

It was billed as the "show for the next generation of country music fans". And the inaugural American Country Awards certainly tapped into the thirst for very public talent shows: the winners weren't voted for by an electoral college of crusty industry experts, but by the fans themselves. The prime-time ceremony continued with the idea that this was fan-focused entertainment rather than an orgy of record-company self-congratulation; the emphasis was overwhelmingly on live performance and acceptance speeches were perfunctory.

All very impressive. The only problem was: it bombed in the television ratings.

The ACAs staggered to fewer than six million viewers - a dreadful performance for a primetime Fox show in the US. But it was less a case of country music losing its allure than an indication that there's only so much celebrating of its stars one nation can take. Lady Antebellum, Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift have already been feted this year at the Academy of Country Music Awards, the Country Music Association Awards and the Country Music Television Awards. The presence of four major awards in the calendar does at least prove one thing, though. Surely, no other style of music is so obsessed with protesting about how relevant it really is.

That might be a strange assertion to make about a genre that dominates American radio (there are more than 3,000 country stations in the US) and, in Garth Brooks, has the best-selling solo artist ever. But because country is older than pop or rock'n'roll, it's often suffocated by notions of authenticity, orthodoxy and nostalgia. Indeed, it struggles to translate beyond the borders of the US. And to understand why, you have to go way back to the states of the American South in the 1920s.

The music evolved from a unique set of circumstances - a British and Irish immigrant population imbued with a folk tradition stretching back centuries, melding with African-American musical forms. It's an odd quirk of history that country is often regarded as a predominantly white musical style, supposedly producing songs for the rednecks of the South. But its most evocative sound comes via the banjo - an instrument from Africa brought to America by slaves. It has the emotional pull of gospel. And right from those early years, the universal themes upon which country's inimitable lyrical style was built - love, despair, hope, redemption - reflected both the black and white experiences in the rural states of America, which remain the heartland of the music.

In that sense, it's not really such a surprise that pure country isn't that exportable: it speaks to a very specific grouping of people.

Still, the names from the early days of hillbilly (the term "country" would come later) remain key to the development of popular music. Jimmie Rodgers, one of the first to meld hillbilly with other popular styles at the time - gospel, blues and jazz - produced enough recordings in the six-year period between 1927 and 1933 to earn him the sobriquet "The Father of Country Music". Meanwhile, the Carter Family were the first popular country group, the beginnings of an illustrious musical dynasty that eventually included one of country's most famous stars, Johnny Cash.

A full 30 years later, Cash would embody a dark, outlaw strain of country that captivated a nation. And music in the 20th-century is pockmarked by the influence of the genre. Hank Williams may have been responsible for one of the most archetypal country laments ever, 1949's I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry. But he could also turn his hand to stunning, forward-thinking pop, such as 1951's Hey Good Looking. It's no exaggeration to say Williams changed the course of American music - the pioneering likes of Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis and, of course, Elvis Presley, all recorded Williams songs early in their careers.

Indeed, in 1954 Presley freely admitted: "My stuff is just hopped up country." The new sound he popularised - rockabilly - was an interesting development for country. In taking many of its tropes - the instrumentation, the lyrical focus on working-class life - but speeding them up and framing them in nascent rock'n'roll, he dealt the music he'd grown up with something of a blow. The excitement surrounding Presley made country music seem a bit staid and conservative.

He wouldn't be the last to fall in love with this strange, quasi-mystical version of old America documented in song, and then twist the sound for his own ends. Gram Parsons, as a member of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, was the prime-mover in the country-rock scene that spawned some of the most exciting acts of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Neil Young (outside and as part of Buffalo Springfield), the Grateful Dead and the Eagles all had noticeable country elements to their evocative rock sound. The record widely regarded as the Rolling Stones' masterpiece, Exile On Main Street, has an unmistakably raw, country feel. Years later, Wilco, Band of Horses and the Fleet Foxes would all recognise this period in their music.

Back in the 1960s, the traditionalists' response was to regroup in Nashville, and be as pop as possible. The "countrypolitan" sound, which gradually morphed into straight "country pop", certainly made stars of Tammy Wynette, Glenn Campbell, Dolly Parton, John Denver and Kenny Rogers - although, they've also been responsible for some of the more toe-curlingly cheesy country that baffled anyone not fortunate enough to drive a pick-up truck.

And it's possible to trace a direct line from these multi-million selling artists of the 1970s and 1980s to the hugely popular country stars of today. Listen to Taylor Swift's latest record alongside a Hank Williams number, and it's difficult to find musical similarities beyond the odd fiddle and vocal affectation. But she genuinely does sing songs about pick-ups and breaking the heart of a redneck. There's just enough there - as there are in Shania Twain's and LeAnn Rimes' songs - to appeal to the all-American country music fan. Although Twain wasn't taking any chances. Bizarrely, her 2002 album, Up!, had the exact same songs in country and non-country formats. Bases were covered.

And unsurprisingly so because country is still such a huge potential market. Hence the reason Fox devoted a prime-time slot to a celebration of country music's latest stars. But it's been ever thus. As Time magazine said, "Nashville is Cashville". The year? 1964.