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.
Today, and really for the last half century, much of popular music has not been written by the performers. And in all genres of popular music, and country in particular, ghostwriting has turned into a legitimate profession. Let’s look at it this way, just about every country song that you have heard on the radio in the last twenty years has been written by someone other than the songwriter. Independent and alternative musicians have long used this verity to criticize Nashville acts and a whole sub-industry has emerged of writers hoping to sell their songs to big name acts. For example, remember that Dierks Bently/Miranda Lambert hit from a few years back, “Black Angel”? Not only was it annoyingly catchy, it was written by one of Nashville’s host of talented songwriters, Verlon Thompson. While guys like Guy Clark have made entire, astoundingly successful careers sending tracks off to Alan Jackson, Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill and Brad Paisley.
But what does this say about the country music industry? Country isn’t like Top 40 radio, where every artist has to be a beauty and old, fat guys in the A&R department are writing the songs. Country has always been about authenticity, honesty and grit (okay, okay, and drinkin’, gamblin’ and cheatin’ women), but never as image focused as other genres. Look at Toby Kieth. He is no Brad Pitt. So why in the world aren’t the myriads of talented songwriters making the radio?
It is a complicated question with a complicated answer. There are numerous factors: money, connections, image, marketing, branding and charisma, to name a few. For the Christian who wishes to not simply reject culture or take culture at face value, this facet of country music begs for some inspection. Ghostwriting should not simply be written off as evil, it feeds a lot of families and makes a lot of careers. But also, realistically, the music we listen to isn’t being sung as an expression of creativity and emotion but simply as a product. Which makes country music a bit more prone to emotional pandering and subcultural propaganda. Essentially, many writers write what they think the pop country audience wants to hear. This is how we end up with songs about red Solo cups.
So while ghost writing may seem at first glance inconsequential, it is helpful to understand and wrestle with both sides of the artistic argument of issues likes this. It can be a good exercise in assessing culture within an orthodox Christian worldview. And while I look at the practice with the suspicion on the grounds of greed and lack of artistic integrity, maybe there is no right or wrong answer. That is for you to decide.