What Happened to Mainstream Country? | The Watered Down Whiskey Theory

Posted by: Pat Watters
July 25, 2015

Whiskey is not for everyone. It’s strong, it burns, and it’s an acquired taste. And the people who have acquired that taste, love it. That being said, you can water down whiskey (or add enough honey or cinnamon) to the point where everyone could drink it. But nobody’s going to love it anymore.

Before I begin, a disclaimer. There are still a handful of mainstream artists making great, traditionally-rooted country music. I know, and I like them. There are also hundreds of excellent independent artists doing it, who I am rabidly fanatic of. This article is not about either of those groups. It’s about the majority identity of mainstream country music in 2015. Alright, let’s get started…

In 1992, 11 year old me flew like a moth to a flame to mainstream country music. I was all in. With three older brothers, I’d had unlimited exposure to Van Halen, Def Leppard, and Metallica throughout the 80s and early 90s. I’d spent years listening to John Denver, Chet Atkins, and Tom T. Hall with my dad as well. And I liked all of that stuff. Still do! But when a friend of mine introduced me to Garth Brooks, George Strait, Sawyer Brown, Ricky Van Shelton, and everything else that was “country music” in the early 90s, I was hooked. This was me, and the love affair began.

All throughout my teenage years, it was about country music. Every country concert that came within a 35 mile radius, my brother Dave, my buddy Eric, and I went to. Every dollar I could earn was earmarked for a new album, a concert ticket, or a shirt to profess my allegiance to country music. Even as the bulk of kids my age were all about Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Nine Inch Nails, I proudly marched through my middle school, high school, and college years as a flag waving country music fan. At that time, if ten songs were played in a row on the radio, I liked nine of them. Hell, I loved them.

I stood up for country music, like it was a friend. Because it was. I never had to, but I would have fist-fought you in defense of George Strait’s “Pure Country” soundtrack. When people made lame jokes claiming country music was twangy garbage about dogs dying, women leaving, and losing your job, I got mad. I knew the depth of emotion that went into writing a timeless country song. I knew that in terms of intelligence and substance, country music was for intellectuals. And I recognized pop for what it was, catchy and trite lyrics laid to a catchy and trite melody. I knew that 20 years later, Shenandoah and Alison Krauss’ “Somewhere in the Vicinity of the Heart” would still be as powerful as the day it was recorded. And the #1 pop song of 1994, Ace of Base’s “I Saw the Sign,” would be a punch line and a jeopardy question.

I left for college in 1999. About that same time, I noticed something happening to my country music. The trademark twang I fell in love with was starting to fade a little bit. I’d bring it up to people, and they’d say something that’s grown to be a statement that makes my blood boil: “Country’s gotta evolve.” As if to suggest that lowering the role of twin fiddles and pedal steel in the mix was a sign of country moving forward. The songwriting began to slip a little too. Shania’s “That Don’t Impress Me Much” was a far cry from the early Martina McBride and Faith Hill hits. I started to get concerned for the direction things were headed.

Of course, what I was witnessing was the beginning of mainstream country music’s decades-long (and still active) identity crisis. It’s become like a middle schooler, desperate to fit in and find acceptance among the cool kids. “Hey pop culture… T-Pain is on our award show. Are we cool now? Bon Jovi is recording a “country” album. Are we cool now? We’ve got a couple of tools grunting about getting girls drunk enough to make bad decisions down by the river. Aren’t we the coolest?” All the while not realizing it already was cool, because it was unique.

I know WHY it happened. As a marketer by trade, I recognize the goal of any product is to grow the audience for that product and make more money. I don’t blame people for recognizing that dumbing down country music and replacing its most identifiable sonic features with electronic drums could make it more acceptable to the masses. They added water to the whiskey. They made it something everybody could listen to. But 20 years from now, will “Cruise” be anything more than today’s “I Saw the Sign?” We sold out to be “catchy.” Like pet rocks, slap bracelets, and the flu.

Even though I understand why it happened, I am sad because I miss what it used to be. People like me, who once would have bloodied our knuckles to stand up for the flag of country music, are in a weird spot. When people ask me what kind of music my band plays, I don’t know how to answer that question anymore. I still call it country music. But to the general public, that doesn’t mean what it means to me. I don’t have the same pride I used to have when answering that question. It’s almost embarrassing now.

I know that to some readers, this article will sound like sour grapes. They’ll claim I begrudge mainstream country music because I secretly wish it was me wearing ladies’ jeans and dancing like a clown for 30,000 people a night. But the truth is, if that’s the price I’d have to pay to carve out a superstar’s career in country music, I’ll pass. We’re independent. That makes it hard to get radio play, and it likely means we’ll never play the Opry or Madison Square Garden. But our whiskey has no water in it. And we’ll take the small, passionate audience that comes with that over an arena full of people any day.  
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