Last night I watched the CMA Awards in anticipation for a night of the typical acts getting awards, with a few nods to the handful of Country artists I enjoy. For a while, I was not a fan of country as it stands today. You either have to sing about girls, trucks, and beer if you’re a man; and if you’re a woman you have to sing about your plans to kill your significant other. Of course I’m ridiculously broad brushing but I don’t think I’m that far off. We are long gone from legends such as Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and George Jones but to be honest, that’s OK. They did their thing for as long as they could and to say they left an impact on music is an understatement. Now a few years ago I thought that Country was completely lost from these heroes of the past but I was mistaken. It wasn’t until I was introduced to the music of Chris Stapleton.
Chris Stapleton already had a successful career as writer when he recorded his own first solo album. He plays an older brand of country with songs of heartbreak and problems with that devil whiskey. Since his debut album he has risen to become one of Country’s biggest stars. Even saying that makes me both happy and sick at the same time. Happy that Chris and his wife Morgane have finally found the recognition they deserve while at the same time almost gagging at the term “Country’s Biggest Star”. Last night he came out on top with Album of the Year and Male Vocalist of the Year. That was a pleasant surprise for me. Now don’t get me wrong, I love Chris and his music and I would choose him to win most of the categories but I’m not used to seeing people I like in the country community winning things. For instance, while announcing the nominees for Album of the Year, a list I did not see, I saw Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit nominated for their new album Nashville Sound. I was so happy to see his band nominated and pleasantly surprised to see Nashville give him a nod at all.
That brings me to the topic of Alt-Country. This is a subgenre of country that strays away from the mainstream pomp and circumstance that you see at these country concerts and award shows. They are the underground of country. I found this goldmine of music shortly after discovering acts Chris Stapleton and Kacey Musgraves. Artists who weren’t afraid to push the envelope on subjects their genre tends to stay away from like bad apple pie. It wasn’t until I started listening to Kacey Musgraves that I realized country artists can really be quite outstanding lyrically and sonically. She opens up on subjects like accepting all people, being less judgemental, and just doing your own thing. What country is really all about. It was wrong of me to hate on country for so long without really opening up the old crate and finding those records. Whether they are satirical or not, this is the genre that is really moving country forward. I don’t think mainstream country is going to keep moving forward and that’s ok. As long as cheap beer is flowing, cheap music will always be there to provide the soundtrack to your mistakes.
Now the one thing I was really able to take away from last night was compassion. Whether it was outside the venue or not. Inside, Carrie Underwood performed an incredible rendition of “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling” which was enough to tug at your heartstrings alone but they displayed pictures of victims from the Las Vegas shooting. Although they tried to keep the show politically lukewarm, the pictures should have been enough for someone who is questioning their ideas on gun control to take a second look at their second amendment right. I hope that even this subtle message was able to change people’s hearts. Outside there was a less subtle message being made. Sturgill Simpson was playing tunes outside the venue in a protest of the stale stance country takes on politics. Broadcasting it on Facebook, Simpson was busking and everything he got from that night he was donating to the American Civil Liberties Union. While playing he had a sign that read, “I don’t take requests but I take questions about anything you want to talk about because fascism sucks.” If that isn’t punk rock I don’t know what is.
This is why I love to follow Alt-Country. It is as Harlan Howard would say, “Three chords and the truth.” Country hasn’t died or gone away. It has gone into hiding. Playing on small NPR radio stations and curated Spotify playlists. I almost want it to stay that way. Just so that the few of us who have found these records can buy them without Nashville getting their dirty hands on them. So for me, I’m going to keep my antennas up for any incoming country that I should know about, try to ignore the mainstream takeover sponsored by Walmart, and be as open as I can possibly be with all music.
** Thank you for taking the time to read this. You can follow me on Instagram and Twitter for updates on posts. My Instagram is @soundchefofficial and Twitter is @soundchef. You can also find my movie podcast at tortelliniatnoon.com **
*** I apologize for the odd paragraph breaks. I’m working on fixing that. ***