The CMA’s happened the other night. Again. From what I’ve been told, there were some attempts to pay homage to the past. Maybe some of our favorites were there and even a couple of them may have performed. That’s nice. But it misses the point completely. A forced nod to a past that few Nashville folks give two shakes about doesn’t quite do it for me.
Then there was the Twitter hub-bub over the apparent Eric Church snub in favor of Garth Brooks. To me it is like folks who argue over whether or not the quarter-pounder is better than the Big Mac at McDonald’s. Does it really matter? And I’ll have more McDonald’s analogies shortly.
So the 2019 version of what we call “country” music rolls on. Some of us hang our heads in disappointment while a few latch on to some new voices that aren’t too bad. The masses though eat up Dan and Shay like it was the latest bag of Hot Pockets in the frozen section of your local IGA. Hot Pockets indeed.
And this is really what causes a hand full of us such consternation. Because when you have had the real thing, hot pockets just won’t do. I went to Chicago years ago and one of my goals was to eat an authentic deep dish pizza. If you have had the experience you know they are not at all like a Hot Pocket. Although one could argue the two are essentially the same type of food. Both are bread and tomato sauce and some fillings or toppings. Sort of.
Of course, once you have had a real Chicago style deep dish pizza, you really can’t go back to Hot Pockets, and even the generic Domino’s attempt at the deep dish just falls short. You see, once you have tasted something delicious it is hard to go backwards, even a little.
I grew up in relative ignorance when it came to music, but my parents had some great old records. I was swimming in and around some great stuff but had no idea. Then something happened that pushed me in the direction I was destined to go. I had my teenage heart broke. It wasn’t permanent thankfully, but it led me to a music that spoke to me…country music. Real country music.
Unlike most, I didn’t stop there. Once I had had a taste, I went completely down the rabbit hole. And once you have gone there, there just ain’t no turning back. Merle and George and then Waylon and Kris and off I went.
In college, I continued and found some kindred spirits. One friend in particular was a guy named Ben “Cephus” Johnson. And he had found a local guy playing downtown named Larry Redmon. The first time I saw Larry there were about 10 of us sitting on chairs planted on a cold concrete floor in old Taswell’s. It was life changing. For me.
I began playing guitar as a teen. Cephus played as well. We spent many a day and long night wailing those old tunes. Sometimes a big crowd would gather, but by the time it was over it was just the two of us and our good friend Hogleg. “Hello Walls” was a favorite to end the evening.
And the point is this.
For most folks music is just a thing. A small thing. Not really much of significance. And for those folks, Hot Pockets or a Big Mac are fine. And Nashville thrives on the fact. They know the masses will eat those things and be satisfied, maybe even glad of it. And Nashville is more than glad to take the money. That is all it is. A money grab. It has always been a business in Nashville.
My good friend and fellow HNP bandmate once wrote a guest piece that explained it so well. And the Ken Burns piece recently reaffirmed his hypothesis. In its infancy country music was a raw and wild thing with no real commercial intent. It was poor folks passing the time and trying to find some comfort from a tough old world full of toil and heartache.
Then somebody noticed that people liked it. So they went and found it at its source. Then they recorded it and produced it and sold it. Then , once the people were hooked they made the talent come to them. In Nashville. And eventually, my guess is sometime in the mid 90’s Nashville figured out that it didn’t have to sell a good product to sell a lot. Analytics found the right cliches, the right guitar licks and the right computerized drum beats. And they put those things in every song. Every single one. And it sold. Like hotcakes. Mostly to people who didn’t and still don’t know the difference.
It is advertising at its best.
And music at its worst.
But as for me, I can’t unhear what I have already heard. I can’t act like that Big Mac is really good when I have had the cheeseburger at Taylor’s in downtown Richmond. I just can’t. But the sad truth is this. McDonald’s has chains everywhere and sells thousands of Big Macs by the second. And Taylor’s closed its doors long ago.
I can’t unchange that anymore than I can bring Waylon back to life. Or Merle or George or my friend Ben “Cephus.” They are all gone. And it will never be the same. But at least I have the music still to listen to. And that is what I will do while the rest of the country is busy watching the dadgone CMAs…