Based on various reports, country music has taken a huge drop in popularity. I've touched on this subject before, but thought I would bring you an update.
Several people attached to country music as performers, promoters or in managerial positions have called me asking for my thoughts pertaining to the serious situation. I suppose the fact I've been a part of the scene for almost 60 years qualifies me as a country music conversationalist.
Honestly, I'm not surprised at the demise in what was at one time the most popular sound in town. It's been a process of slow suicide, brought on by terrible decisions made by unqualified "experts.”
Although categorized as "country," most of the product today is simply watered-down "rock" music. To tag it as "country" is an insult to the real thing. And if you really want to approach the subject with honesty, referring to it as "rock" might be an insult to the true "rock" fans. I've also been a fan of some of the "rock" music I've heard down through the years. I have almost every recording "Fats" Domino ever made. Same for the fantastic Ray Charles and others. However, most of the stuff we're hearing today doesn't fall into this category. Ray Charles is gone; "Fats," now in his 80s, has retired. "Rock,” like "country,” has changed.
What we are hearing today is confusing. A friend of mine who has been in country-radio for almost 50 years refers to the current sound as "assed" rock. No, not "acid" rock, but "assed" rock. It's pronounced the same.
When the first country recordings were released, they were categorized as "hillbilly,” since the basic singers and instruments actually originated in the hills of Kentucky, Tennessee, and other areas of the south. The most popular instruments were fiddles, guitars, banjos and mandolins, none of them amplified. Those instruments are still utilized today, although the majority of recordings are referred to as "bluegrass.” The tag, "hillbilly,” was dropped by Billboard and other chart-referencing magazines back in the 40s. Most of today's "country" music radio outlets refuse to program "bluegrass.” One well known radio program-director informed me: "We don't program 'bluegrass' on our radio stations because we don't consider it as being 'country.'"
I asked, "Do you play music recorded by Bill Monroe?"
He replied, "No. Mr. Monroe was referred to as being 'The King of Bluegrass.' I just told you that our affiliates do not play 'bluegrass' music."
Then, I inserted a question that seemed to stall him for a few seconds: "Are you aware of the fact that Mr. Bill Monroe is in the Country Music Hall-of-Fame, in Nashville?"
The country music expert said, "Yes, I know Bill Monroe is in the Country Music Hall-of-Fame, but we still refuse to play his 'bluegrass' music."
I attempted to keep the conversation running by asking, "If a performer is respected so highly that he is placed in the Country Music Hall-of-Fame, I would expect to hear his works on radio stations claiming to be 'country music outlets', such as those you program."
He gave me a serious stare and growled: "Bluegrass music is too damned 'country,' as far as I'm concerned!"
I realize our short conversation was a bit confusing, but he was responding with his sincere attitude toward "country music.”
Tastes in "country" music are so diversified that it has become almost impossible to produce a hit recording. One big reason is that we have lost so many of the traditional hit makers. All of the "Hanks" have passed away. Since the passing of Hank Williams, Hank Thompson and Hank Snow, you seldom see a "Hank" listed in the music charts anymore. Hank Williams Junior is still around, but he hasn't had a hit in years.
With the passing of Johnny Cash, Eddy Arnold, Marty Robbins and other giant, authentic country singers, the interest in the traditional sound of our music began to dwindle. The reason was because "country" radio put a stop to airing the real stuff. Instead, those in charge of programming, wanting to grab a younger set of listeners, changed the music lists to a strange "rock" sound (assed?), referring to it in such terms as "Modern Country,” "Today's Country,” etc. In order to escape offending the millions of authentic "country" fans, it was a gradual change, hardly noticeable in the beginning. George Strait, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, George Jones and dozens of other dedicated super-stars were still packing the halls and selling an unbelievable amount of recordings. Then, the programmers began insisting that the fiddles and steel-guitars be dropped from recordings ("Too country!"). This is when "real" country began to flop in importance. The country arrangements, lyrics and melodies also began changing. It just wasn't "country" anymore, and CD sales began to drop in a big way.
Radio was highly affected by the music situation. Many of the country-music outlets were on AM radio. However, FM was programming "country" with a clear stereo sound, picking up high ratings. Most of the AM stations decided to switch to the "talk" format. Rush Limbaugh and the bunch replaced the singing hillbillies. As would be expected, most of the music "experts" in charge of the FM stations began airing the new sound of "country" rock (assed?). When FM first jumped on to the "country" music bandwagon, their ratings shot to the top. As I write this, most of those stations have fizzled out of the "Top Ten" in listener ratings.
One would expect the so-called experts to realize that by ignoring the country music tastes of the majority, the product is going to crash in value. This applies to recordings, radio, and television. Ratings for the Country Music Association (CMA) and The Academy of Country Music Awards programs have taken a tremendous drop on television.
Will the sound of authentic country music ever make a grand return? It's doubtful, although it won't completely fade out. It seems the interest is gone. As with the "Big Band" sounds of Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller and others that were so popular during the 30s and through World War II, a pattern of change-in-taste has set in. The same thing happened to New Orleans and Memphis "Jazz" and the "Real-Rock" sounds of the 40s and 50s. Too many so-called music geniuses took control of production and promotion. Of course, these clowns don't remain in the arena very long...but it doesn't take very long to "destroy the sound,” which many have managed to do.
Hear Bill Mack daily from 12:00 Noon until 4:00 p.m. (ET) on XM Satellite Radio. The program is replayed from 8:00 p.m. until Midnight (ET). Bill’s book, “Bill Mack’s Memories From The Trenches of Broadcasting” and recordings can be ordered via his website: www.billmackcountry.com.
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