Grandpa’s Music is Alive and Well: A Struggle for Identity in Country Music

Country music in America has long marketed towards and embodied an eclectic blend of common folk: typically, southern, lower-class, God-fearing, hard-working, blue-collar white men, found in Appalachian homes and hollers scattered well beneath the Mason-Dixon line. From the earliest decades of the twentieth century, families across the United States would crowd around their home radios every Friday and Saturday night and tune into the Grand Ole Opry, eager to hear the familiar sounds of their favorite performers. By the late 1940s, the country music industry, thanks largely in part to the Grand Ole Opry, had solidified a home in Nashville, Tennessee and showed no signs of leaving. Over the years though, it became clear that while the industry itself had an established home, the individuals within were merely short-term tenants. Therein lies the all-too-common struggle artists face for recognition, popularity and financial stability within country music. Must one adapt and conform to the industry standards by changing themselves or reject fame and fight for their individuality?

Bill C. Malone opens his 2010 book Country Music, U.S.A., stating that country music “defies precise definition, and no term (not even ‘country’) has ever successfully encapsulated its essence” (Malone 2010, 1). In the past century, the ‘country music’ genre has comprised several different sub-genres, including hillbilly, old-time, bluegrass, the Nashville Sound and the rivaling Bakersfield Sound, Western swing, countrypolitan, outlaw, neotraditional, pop country, ‘bro country’, and many more in between. However, in the last 25 years, country music has become more and more synonymous with the emerging pop and bro country sub-genres, gradually diluting the older, more traditional sounds. All the while, many musicians are regularly faced with difficult career decisions as the music industry mold cyclically changes. One man who refused to contort into this mold is Alabama-born singer and Texas music legend, Dale Watson.

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Photo by John Anderson
“Country music’s gotten so diluted. That’s a good way to put it. It started out with Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams being 100 proof. And now, here we are with Jason Aldean and Big and Rich. We’re like Diet Dr. Pepper. We got no alcohol in it.”

Watson grew up in a family surrounded by country music. His father was a country music fan and performer in his own right, along with his brothers who also played. Watson followed suit, writing his first songs when he was 8 or 9 years old and performing his first paying gig at 14. Watson’s pursuit of music soon found him in Pasadena, Texas, performing with his first band, The Classic Country Band. Later, following the advice of Tex-Mex rockabilly artist Rosie Flores, Watson landed in Los Angeles for a few years before working as songwriter for a publishing company in Nashville, Tennessee around 1991-92.

“When I first started out and I was looking for a record deal…they liked what I did. They said: ‘Okay, we love what you do. Now change.'”

However, with the rise of pop country music in the late 1980s and early 1990s, concurrent with the emergent careers of singers such as Garth Brooks and Shania Twain, country music perpetually hung many staunch, traditional country music artists, such as Watson, out to dry. Nudie suits, AM radio stations, crying pedal steel guitars, moaning vocals, and sepia-toned lifestyles, often linked with our grandparent’s music, were now a thing of the distant past. The industry deserted their long-time, loyal audiences in a lucrative attempt to attract a younger, hipper generation.

“Anybody can write the shit they’re writing in Nashville.”

Watson left Nashville after 10 months in search of greener pastures.  He found those pastures in Austin, Texas, where California-based HighTone Records released his debut album, Cheatin’ Heart Attack, in 1995. Following this release, Watson has spent the past two and a half decades of his life enjoying the honky tonk and beer joint circuit, playing traditional country music and doing things his way.

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Cheatin’ Heart Attack (1995)

In 2013, Nashville recording artist and current host of NBC’s The Voice, Blake Shelton, made some controversial comments towards the current state of country music that many traditional fans and musicians of the genre, notably Watson, found distasteful to say the least. Shelton’s comments would spur a virtually nationwide movement, spearheaded by Watson.

Watson created the “country” music conglomerate genre called Ameripolitan in 2013. According to their website, “This thought provoking word is intended to be an invitation to discuss the future of the music that is important to so many of us. By leaving the hopelessly compromised word ‘country’ behind and exclusively using the term ‘Ameripolitan’, our intention is to reestablish this music’s own unique identity, elevate its significance and help reinvigorate it creatively” (www.Ameripolitan.com)

“Gentrification. That’s what happened in country music.”

“When you…are in an old neighborhood and then they start coming in knocking down all the beer joints that you liked and the old mom and pop stores that you grew up with and tearing down the old houses so they can build a condo…That’s what they did with country music and…that ain’t why I got into it. So it’s just changed so much that it’s not what it was. It’s not the same. It isn’t the country music I knew and now…country music—it is country music because…the industry…decides what is country music and they decided they want the big condos and the gentrified night clubs or whatever you wanna call them. You know, everything is high dollar and hipster and— so I’d rather just…take what was in my neighborhood and I moved down the road. That’s what usually happens…but I can’t call it [Ameripolitan] country because they are country.”

Watson and I spoke at length about his decision to name this new movement Ameripolitan. “I didn’t have the name for it so if I’m gonna be out here—I’m gonna jump on my own island and do what I do—to call myself country isn’t correct. It misleads anybody who’s a fan of mine and it misleads people who are country fans…I wanted something that when people heard it, they didn’t already have a preconceived notion.”

“Anytime you use a root word, you have to form your—your own definition based on the root. And that root word is country and to me, the word country nowadays doesn’t have any roots whatsoever, so it made no sense to use the word ‘country’ in the description.”

“Everything we get that goes good and celebrates independent music, the record companies, Clear Channel, and all the major labels come in to squash it.”

In Richard Peterson’s 1999 book, Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity, Peterson analyze six definitions of the word ‘authenticity’: Authenticated, not Pretense; Original, not Fake; Relic, not Changed; Authentic Reproduction, not Kitsch; Credible in Current Context; and Real, not Imitative (Peterson 1999). Watson said many people wanted him to call the genre ‘real country,’ or ‘classic country,’ but he feared this might pigeon-hole him into a “retro type of thing where people just write you off as something that’s already been done.”

Rather than being written off as ‘kitsch’ or ‘imitative’ of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash or female rockabilly legend, Wanda Jackson, the Ameripolitan movement offers modern-day artists a chance to reach wider, unbiased audiences. Just because it is 2017 and our televisions are no longer black and white, it is still possible to produce real, traditional-sounding country music featuring original songs about real people. Ameripolitan artists, authentic in their own rights, are doing just that; without the support or recognition of Nashville

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Watson and Ray Benson (Asleep at the Wheel) at the 2nd Annual Ameripolitan Music Awards in Austin, TX. Photo by David Brendan Hall.

The Ameripolitan movement harbors artists ranging from four genre categories: honky tonk, Western swing, rockabilly, and outlaw, though artists may participate in multiple categories. Originally, Watson intended to host a one-time awards show to showcase traditional artists of these four categories and to  “let people know that are out there doing it, ‘hey, keep doing what you’re doing, because people do like it. And you do have an audience and don’t listen to that asshole [Blake Shelton].’ That’s what he is–he’s an asshole.”

“In my opinion—I’m talking to Sturgill [Simpson], I’m talking to [Jason] Isbell, I’m talking to all these guys because they’re pissing and moaning about not being on the CMAs—you shouldn’t give a fuck!”

In a way, Shelton’s comments exposed how the music industry in Nashville truly feels about these musicians and their affinitive devotion to their “grandpa’s music.” But, Watson and his peers do not expect every new country artist on the scene to sound exactly like Merle Haggard, or Kitty Wells, or Faron Young. Rather, their mission in developing Ameripolitan is to preserve the legacies of these legendary musicians and their respective sounds. Watson preaches and acknowledges the importance of holding on to these roots because it is the past which will help develop the future of country music.

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Watson with two-thirds of his band, The Lone Stars, at the Continental Club in Austin, TX. Photo by Todd Crusham.
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Fitch performing with Watson onstage at the Continental Club in Austin, TX in 2014.

 

Recommended Listening:

“I Lie When I Drink” 

“Tell ‘Em I Ain’t Here”

“Leave Me Alone”

“Where Do You Want It?”

“Nashville Rash”

Prepared by Jimmy Fitch

 

Works Cited

Ameripolitan Website

Dale Watson. Cheatin’ Heart Attack, HighTone Records, 1995.

Watson, Dale. Personal Interview. 15 November 2017.

Dale Watson Interview Transcript

Malone, Bill C., and Jocelyn R. Neal. Country Music, U.S.A. University of Texas Press, 2010.

Peterson, Richard A. Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity. University of            Chicago Press, 1999.

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