Time was, things were much simpler. You knew country music as soon as you heard it.
The lyrics were a bit depressing, almost invariably revolving around broken hearts, infidelity, booze and the intersection of all three.
The voices were rich and sonorous, and spoke in an easy to understand, homespun vernacular.
The musical construction was simple and straightforward, mostly comprised of three or four chords, a walking bass figure, maybe some nifty pedal steel guitar colorations, all in service of the storyline.
Country, up until the mid-'80s, was Southern folk music, plain and simple.
Today, things have become much more complex. The stars hanging out in the upper echelons of the country charts look country, they have Southern accents, they still sing about broken hearts and busted bottles, and most of the guys wear cowboy hats.
But listen closely; that ain't your father's country music you're hearing, in most instances. It's a form of pop music that has subverted tradition in service of a sound that is country on the surface only. Shania Twain, Garth Brooks, Faith Hill, Gretchen Wilson, Toby Keith -- most of these folks have as much in common with traditional country music as Ozzy Osbourne does -- meaning, nothing at all. Even Martina McBride, who performs inside HSBC Arena this evening, was firmly ensconced in the pop-country field prior to the release of her latest album, the tradition-heavy "Timeless." (See accompanying story.)
So what gives? What exactly is country music today? Is it a lifestyle? A dress code? A set of "traditional beliefs"? The musical accompaniment to the ascendancy of the right wing?
Country music is at a crossroads today. The genre has subdivided, as those intent on moving the form forward head to the underground, and the watered-down, easily marketable strain of the music grabs the mainstream attention and the lion's share of the money.
Here's a guide to what's what on the current country landscape. There is good, honest music in every category. There's also some trite, shallow and truly awful stuff. Be careful out there; not everything is as it seems.
This is the stuff that sells. Check the most recent Billboard Country charts, and you'll find artists such as Carrie Underwood, Kenny Chesney, Josh Turner, Trace Adkins, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill and Montgomery Gentry dominating the Top 10. These artists don't play what might be called "traditional" country music, but rather, a form of rock-based pop, heavy on balladry and filled with "down home" simplicity in the imagery department.
The artists hitting big in country today are not necessarily from the American South. They might just as likely call Australia or Canada home. That doesn't stop them from using a Southern accent, of course; that, it seems, is considered a part of the gig not to be messed with.
Pop-country is marked by its formulaic simplicity, and the "traditional" values it espouses. Generally speaking, it supports a conservative political and social mind-set. Many country-pop stars have aggressively supported the Bush administration, and led the call to slur pop-country superstars the Dixie Chicks, who broke with the pack by publicly criticizing Bush during his first term.
The biggest song in country music, currently? 2005 "American Idol" winner Underwood, with her "faith-based initiative" "Jesus Take the Wheel," is sitting at No. 1, as is her album, "Some Hearts," the fastest-selling country debut in the history of the Billboard chart.
Gram Parsons is the father of this movement, which sought to blend traditional country music with the drive of rock 'n' roll. Parsons, a pal of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, made it cool for long-hairs to like country, and reconnected rock with its roots in country, folk and blues with his work on the Byrds' "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" album, and on his early '70s solo efforts. He died without ever making much of a commercial impact, but his influence on artists such as Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, Son Volt -- all bands that came from the same talent pool -- Ryan Adams, and Marah, among many others, is palpable.
Alt-country, like the Band, whose "Music From Big Pink" is an ample blueprint for the form, exploded in the mid-'90s, and turned on rock fans disgusted with pop-country but eager for the rustic brilliance of artists such as Johnny Cash, Hank Williams Sr., Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Cash, with the help of American Recordings founder and producer Rick Rubin, was introduced to a hip new audience during this time, and he came to be seen as the spiritual and musical patriarch of the movement that also included icons Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen.
Alt-country continues to flourish, although it has never claimed the same commercial clout as pop-country.
What happens when you mix the influence of Parsons, Cash, Williams and Haggard with the ferocity and uber-attitude of punk rock? Insurgent country, a blazing form of redneck rock 'n' roll, much of which is released under the imprimatur of Bloodshot Records, a Chicago label dedicated to countering the slickness of Music City pop stars with sweaty, honky-tonk authenticity.
Hank Williams III, the Drive-By Truckers, Jon Langford, Neko Case, Robbie Fulks, the Sadies, Wayne Hancock, the Legendary Shack Shakers -- all fit beneath the insurgent country umbrella, and all owe a debt to the father of anti-Nashville rebellion, Steve Earle.
Insurgent country artists are united in their belief that country music has been horribly corrupted by bottom-line-obsessed suits on Nashville's Music Row. Brimming with attitude, bolstered by serious musical chops, and well-schooled in country's history, these folks are country's new traditionalists.
The real deal, the sweet stuff, the music made by folks who were offering honest reflections of their lives long before country music was a multimillion-dollar industry. Hank Williams, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Mississippi John Hurt, Bill Monroe, Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, the Carter Family, Townes Van Zandt, George Jones, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson -- all contributed to the creation of a unique art form blending folk, blues and bluegrass music.
They are the forebears of alt-country and insurgent country, to be sure, but there is little of their influence detectable in pop-country.