Each week in God and Country Music, Nick Rynerson gives country music a chance and examines the world of Americana, folk, alt-country, and popular country music.
We all know that structure well, even if we’re not conscious of it: subtle banjo, simple song structure, clean guitar, fiddle, twang in the voice and a story. And what a mold this has been. There is beauty in the tradition. Which is why there are bluegrass purists who dislike “spoiled” bluegrass (quick lesson: drums + bluegrass = not bluegrass).
But a formula can easily become something that it was not meant to be. A pure musical expression of form, beauty and truth can be twisted to serve another master. Form and formula are good until the reasons behind them get forgotten. And I fear that this is the state of mainstream country music today.
Until I started writing this column I listened exclusively to country-less-traveled (bluegrass, alt, old timey hillbilly, rockabilly, etc) but for the sake of expanding my knowledge, I turned on the radio. And to my surprise I found some amazing musicianship, some great songs and some really poor mishandlings of the form of country music. For example…
I am worried that rural America is being exploited as some idealized caricature of what it is. What happened to hip-hop (you know, the complete misrepresentation of black America…) has happened to country and there are many high profile musicians bastardizing the rich tradition and form of country music for commercial gain. All because we have forgotten why we, as humans, sing: to tell a story.
This is a tragedy. Country music started because people had a story to tell. A story of shared cultural experiences, hardships and resources. Then country music exploded because people related to the story. Then that story got lost in the storytelling process.
But there is still a story to tell. So faithful artists have been constantly reinventing the format to tell the same story. That is the thread between great mainstream country, Americana, bluegrass, honky-tonk, rockabilly, folk and old-timey music: the story. Listen to this song, Ben Nichols (of Lucero) explains better than any paragraph could. The song is based on a character from Cormac McCarthy’s great Blood Meridian
This is essentially the story of the American church. We constructed a method of gospel proclamation and gospel enjoyment that made sense to who we were culturally: we have great story to tell in our own language. But sometimes, we (collectively) get so lost in the formula that we miss the story. So we must reinvent ourselves. We change the language we use (seeker, purpose driven, gospel-centered, Missional, etc.) and we change up our methods a little bit. But like the endless subgenres of country music, there is that one thread that ties it all together. The story we have to tell.
As an evangelical and a country music guy, I need to constantly be looking at the purpose, not the form. Because the story behind the formula is more important than the style and really, those who get the story will make the formula more beautiful. This makes it easier to enjoy the traditional formula (Hank Williams and Garth Brooks or John MacArthur and Billy Graham) for the story they told but also look for that same soul in new form (like Lucero or Acts 29).