As an artist, I feel it impossible for me to be truly objective about things. I cannot pan another artists' work because my own art is not perfect. I can praise, and only praise. But I never thought I’d see the day that Rock and Roll would ever be as dead as, to quote David Allan Coe again, the cum stains on the pillow where you once laid your head.
Forgive the vulgarity, but I am not kidding. Rock and Roll is dead. It has become a novelty. Rock and Roll was once a thriving genre of progression, youth, blues, expression and rebellion. This spirit died in the post-grunge era. I, even at a ripe age, tried my hand at reviving the art with my first rock band, but it was even more apparent, once trapped in the Sunset Blvd vacuum of showcases and glad-handing, that Rock and Roll was a limping corpse.
Now a lot of you will say that Jack White and his multiple bands have revived Rock and Roll, and while, yes, anything that dude touches, in my humble opinion, is cool and fresh and full of Rock and Roll’s key ingredients of defiance, cool and mystery, but he is a Rock and Roll renaissance man, an anomaly, not to mention a music genius, WAY ahead of a nation of wimpy Strokes and Interpol copycats out there trying to cash in on whatever the latest trend is. White, Trent Reznor and the few artists of this caliber that have graced our ears will always remain leagues ahead of the game, and will carry a torch alone in a very dark fog of bullshit for others who dare to enter this murky basin hoping to lead the way to a brighter day. God bless them, but for now, they must STAY AWAY from the land mines of Rock and Roll cliches all while dodging cannonballs fired by Busch league spiky haired make-up wearing Hollywood rock stars.
This article was born this morning as I watched TV with my four year old daughter. A show called Bubble Guppies on Nick Jr featured a band of Guppies with human heads playing in a Rock and Roll band. The song they were playing was a direct rip-off of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way”. It struck me then. It’s become a gimmick, nothing more. One of the best Rock and Roll bands in history (pre-Perminant Vacation, of course) had been reduced to a novelty moment in a kid’s show. In the 1960’s Captain Kangaroo would have never tread on this territory as it would have implied the drug use and excesses of the current thriving era of Rock and Roll. But this is different. It’s 2011 and REAL Rock and Roll has been forgotten. The children who grew up on the Ramones and the Sex Pistols have had children who grew up believing Green Day are the godfathers of Punk. Now their children watch Bubble Guppies or the Fresh Beat band and Rock and Roll will be first introduced to them as a nothing more than a parlor trick. A costume. We all know the term “Rock Star” has been killed for years. What was once a term referring to the upper echelon of debauchery and consumption has become a novelty phrase, bedazzled across the chest of a fifty year old mother who picks her child up from school in their family van. Disney has tarnished the term, turning it into the new “stud” for this generation. Energy drink companies and Nickleback have furthered that monicker degradation. When my daughter wears sunglasses or a leather studded belt, the seventy-five year old lady at Starbucks calls her a “little Rock Star”.
This pisses me off.
I want to run so far away from the word “Rock Star” and “Rock and Roll” and hide under a blanket of Adult Contemporary or Bubble-Gum pop, or any fucking word but “Rock and Roll”. This concept then becomes clearer to me as a funnel of pop-culture that is fairly new to our society because of the introduction of Television and Radio and new medias like the Internet. New dangerous concept is created, and over time homogenized over and over until it becomes the least offensive, most safe concept on earth. It’s part of the nature of things. Rock and Roll is a joke, Punk rock is a joke. Rap is quickly becoming a joke. Pop was always a joke, but to some degree, always wore it’s heart on it’s sleeve as a Popular trend meant to feed into and cash in from trends, so for that Pop gets points for being honest.
The only thing that these failing styles can do to try and separate themselves from the corporations waiting to process and shit out culture-complacent versions of them to masses of teeny-boppers waiting to consume them at alarming rates, is Shock-and-Awe methods. Cuss a lot, offend a lot, and you’ll stand out… but longevity is not an option. Look at the once-alarming-now-very-lost Marilyn Manson. Poor guy. I bought and LOVED this guy’s first four albums. “Antichrist Superstar” was the soundtrack to my later years of high-school. While I never dressed the goth part or really even was cool enough to fit into the “cool uncool” crowds, bands like Marilyn Manson, Ministry, Skinny Puppy and Nine Inch Nails, were a pressure-release valve for my teenage angst and offered a fresh, visceral spin on what was an already dying genre. Rock and Roll was a dead corpse and thanks to Dr. Trent Frankenreznor, a mechanical heart and limbs were installed on our dearly beloved Rock and it came to town to murder every man woman and child within a million miles.
Then the batteries died.
The only styles that have stayed clear of this kind of life and death are Country and Rhythm & Blues. The latter became contemporary R&B with the help of folks like Mary J Blige, Babyface and John Legend, and still sails the seas in all it’s honesty, but it’s a sinking ship. If folks don’t jump off this ship and jump into the AAA territory that folks like Norah Jones and the new-and-toned-down Ryan Adams rule, they will suffer a fate much less like Rock and Roll and more like blues. Just fade away to be re-introduced through certain artists who are fans, but never survive as a strong genre again.
Which brings us to Country music. Country has never been “cool” per se. Sure to undergrounders etc, it’s cool and hip to do something not cool and hip so Country is cool. But what is happening now with Country is it’s broken into 3 categories in which there are very vague boundaries. First is the most popular form, “Pop Country” as we call it. This is what dominates the Clear Channel-controlled radio these days. One of good taste will listen to “Pop Country” radio for 24 hours and probably hear 3 songs that he/she enjoys. They are out there, but there is not near enough of them to make a change. Albums like Ronnie Dunn’s current solo offering, Miranda Lambert’s new album “Four The Record” as well as her side-project “Pistol Annies” are progressive, well-written and original and offer a glimmer of hope in the gloom and doom of the current state of mainstream country. People say mainstream music goes in cycles, but honestly we haven’t had radio and video formats long enough to prove this correct, and if Rock and Roll is going to have a “comeback” it’s going to take an entirely new approach and danger injected into the genre, so don’t hold your breath for a new “Outlaw Country” movement in mainstream.
The second category of Country music is what I call the “Ship-jumpers”. This applies to two very different sects of people playing country now, neither of which gave a fuck about Country music at a previous time and now they all of a sudden do because it serves them. Lee Ann Womack (one of my favorite artists in the mainstream of country) said it best “Country isn’t a place for you to come and die”. This statement to me is aimed squarely at Jon Bon Jovi, Sheryl Crow, Aaron Lewis, Kid Rock and all the other rock and rollers who realize they are in a dying genre, and jump ship and start playing mainstream country because it’s easy to cash in on the fact that the Country audience is older by nature and contains a lot of folks who bought their records at a younger age. Nashville as a whole is usually very impressed by Hollywood, Hip-Hop, Rock and Roll, any big international money making entities, starfuckers to put it bluntly. This can be seen in the way that they will embrace any celebrity that decides to shine a bit of attention towards their humble home (see Jack White being given the keys to Nashville universe just for moving there, or Justin Beiber’s Rascal Flatt’s duet/CMT award appearance) And it’s just plain easy to have a few Nashville hit-makers, co-write with you or write for you a big dripping pop hit and disguise it with some fiddle and steel and BAM you're a bonafide Country star with a bonafide Country hit!
(Can you believe that Bon Jovi attempted to replace/erase one of the most recognizable titles in Country music history with his debut Country release? I can't. Do you think he was completely unaware of the Hank Williams song of the same name? If so this is an even BIGGER reason why he is in way over his head. If he was aware, shame on him. His record title is writing checks his music can't cash.)
The other half of the “Ship-jumpers” are the mostly-AA-going tattooed ex-punk rockers and hard edged rock-and-rollers who ten years ago were hanging out in a New York or Los Angeles rock club, hanging on to what was left of the glory days of the 80’s and when left without a home, decided they liked Johnny Cash a lot, picked up a rockabilly Gretsch guitar and now are country. These folks litter both the underground and mainstream. While their intensions are much more like poor orphans whose orphanage was closed due to economic difficulties, and they wandered into the Country orphanage with hopes to still be hip at the ripe young age of 48. As much as I’d love to say that I believe Country should stand with open arms to all that come, these folks rarely have done their homework and are perpetuating a national misconception about what Country music is. It is rooted deeply in the traditions and folklore cultures of the poor and working class, and an education on Country music does not come from just listening to Hank Williams Sr and Johnny Cash records. It’s understanding WHY they played the music they play, and who their influences are. Can you name two Webb Pierce songs? Can you name a Jimmie Rodgers song besides one of the Blue Yodels? Can you name any of the Carter family besides June? If not, you’re most likely a “Ship-jumper”. No offense.
I don’t mean to sound like a pompous prick here. Yes I was raised in a Country family, but I was a rock and roll kid myself too. It’s the nature of growing up in the MTV generation. Garth Brooks was NOT cool growing up to me. Danzig was. But when I finally understood Country, I dove in head first and tried to absorb ALL of country. Folks like Jamey Johnson can school me on certain aspects. That dude can name EVERY song by EVERY artist that ever came up the ranks of Nashville inside or outside the system. He can stand on the stage at Tootsies and point at every artist painted on the wall and sing three songs by them. That’s fucking devotion. I’m a little more expansive in my musical tastes than him, but when it comes to Country and pure Country, he embodies that. Even my dad was less pure Country than Jamey. My dad was mentored by Rock and Roll itself, Buddy Holly, and he listened to the Stones, Dire Straits and Fleetwood Mac more than he ever listened to Vern Gosdin or Townes Van Zandt. It was just his nature. We watched Woodstock ‘94 together and he fell in love with Primus of all the bands on there. He always surprised me with his taste.
Back to my point, the third category are the “Outcasts”. Not to be confused with the “Ship-Jumper” the “Outcast” is someone who has an undying love for Country music and it’s roots and refuses to play by the rules of Nashville and with-or-without success will continue to play it. The “Outcasts” will always be cool in any genre, but in Country even more so. It’s why we started the XXX website over at www.GiveMeMyXXX.com. Because I think there is hope for this brand of folks to have their chance at the mainstream, but it won’t come through Country Music as a whole. Thanks to shifts in music that started with bands as early as Cracker or later with darker, more progressive artists like Hank 3, there is definitely a very strong foundation here for this type of music. It will come through an entirely different type of recognition, I believe. I’m not sure if it’ll come soon but I know it will come. I don’t think that it’ll be because of a movement like XXX or Anti-Country or any of the movements started before, but I think they all will help. These folks play what they want to play, bringing in influences from all across the board fearlessly and are creating a new Punk, a new Rock and Roll. That’s why it’s so exciting to watch because the scene is growing and growing and growing faster than ever. “Pop Country” doesn’t have a chance. This isn’t music that you’ll find on a kids show or in a Jack Black movie at any point in the near future. This is music much too real to be made into a novelty. And it’s dangerous. This is where the future of Rock and Roll lies in my opinion.
(Reno, NV's "Outcasts" Hellbound Glory)
Now as you will probably notice, I’ve skipped over Americana as a whole, because to me, this is a topic all unto itself. It’s a very gray category that isn't clear on it’s boundaries. Unlike the music of Country “Outcasts”, in which you know right away what it is without having to be told, Americana is too broad of a stroke to enter into this category. It is essentially, I guess, best categorized as "roots music". I think ultimately all things Americana will rest in AAA (Adult Contemporary, Progressive Radio, etc which is ultimately Adult Pop), Country, Pop or Rock and Roll. But that is a future left to be seen. Until then the Americana crew will continue to try and be as aggressive and progressive as they can in trying to make people aware of these fringe artists. And they should be commended for that.
So to wrap my whole story up. Rock and Roll is as dead as a doornail, but the spirit is alive in underground Country. And it’s gonna break one day folks, just like Rap broke away from R&B, these voices will be heard. They’re too strong in importance and number. I predict within five years this will be what we are hearing on the KROQ’s of the world (who are still stuck in the 90’s because they can’t figure out where to go next since Rock and Roll’s railroad tracks just stopped at a million mile down drop of a cliff). That is, if terrestrial radio even still exists. The ‘Outlaw’ name is dead, and as it should be. It was a movement that belonged to a generation that has long since gone, riding off into the sunset and taking with it it’s rebellion and rambunctious nature, so I think we should all give the ‘Outlaw’ thing a rest. Maybe we should hold two funerals at once. A dual-funeral. Rock and Roll and Outlaw Country both laid to rest with one great ceremony. That would be one hell of a hangover for sure.