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Point of View 

We asked renowned Australian
guitarist singer/songwriter, Mike McClellan
to answer the following question...

Mike McClellan

January 2008

The Question:
Why is Country Music so popular?

Response by Mike McClellan share this - email, favourites, social bookmarks and more

Interesting question. There’s an assumption inherent in that question of course - that it is popular. There are also two definitions that ought to be explored before attempting to answer it. Firstly, what is “country music” and secondly, what do we understand by the term “popular” and how do we measure country music popularity?

Were I to write this brief article as a serious academic exercise I would begin by looking at the statistics by which you might measure the current popularity of country music, i.e. dollars generated by the sale of concert tickets, CDs, merchandise, etc as a proportion of total music industry sales and then compare the figures over the last 40 years or so. I’m not going to do that. I don’t have the time to do the research and am more interested in understanding the deeper question of what is country music and where is it going.

I recall - it was some years ago now - being engaged in conversation with a bloke in a small country town in Queensland after a concert in what passed for the community centre. He began with, “G’day, I’m Doug,” and then asked, “Do ya call yourself a country singer?” The tone of the question suggested that he didn’t and I hesitated before answering. I had barely begun to respond when he broke in, “Ya don’t look like a country singer and some of them songs ya sang tonight and some of those ya do on ya TV show aren’t real country are they? And ya don’t sing about the bush much.”

I conceded him his assessment and as we talked realised that it was he who had yelled out from the audience towards the end the second half of the show, “Don’t ya know any Australian songs?” The irony of it was that among the 20 or so I had sung thus far I had written all but one of them.

I put the question to him, “So what would you call me?”

“I dunno,” he replied, “ … a bit of pop, a bit of folk, a bit of country? Ya tell stories like a country singer, ya know in words ’n that, but, ya tunes are, ya know, a bit country but … something else. I dunno.”

For Doug country music was Slim Dusty. When I asked what else he listened to he confided that he also liked Hank Williams, Loretta Lynne and Johnny Cash.

There’s an audience out there in rural Australia, of which Doug was one, for whom country music has always been defined by Slim and latterly by John Williamson. They have both written without apology about the bush, it’s people, the life they lead and the philosophy they espouse. That it is often myopic and seldom inclusive of modern Australia is of little importance to this hard core country market. It never was to Slim who knew exactly whom he was targeting and how he should talk to them. Ask most city dwellers, in what is one of the most urbanised countries in the world, to define country music and most will begin with Slim, end with John Williamson, drop the odd American country singer somewhere in between and tell you they don’t like it much. They might add that they liked “Hey True Blue”, but for most who bought its sentiments it was simply because it clings to a highly romanticised image of what it might once have meant to be Australian and allowed those whose heritage was Anglo Saxon to indulge in a little nostalgia for an era fading rapidly – and it was catchy.

The failure of 2SM to survive when it made the decision some years ago to become a country music radio station reinforced the belief that the market for country music wasn’t big enough in Sydney to be commercially viable – when your ratings are no more than an asterisk on the chart advertisers go elsewhere. However, I suspect that for many in the urban market a good deal of what was played would have appealed to them, but the label “country music” simply turned them off – many who might have enjoyed much of the music didn’t even sample the station, let alone stay for the ride. Include a lot of the music that this audience enjoys in your definition of “country music” and suddenly your market expands exponentially. But don’t call it “country”. They don’t like the label and what they perceive it stands for.

So, what is this music that this wider audience enjoys that might fall within an expanded definition of “country music” and who are they? First, a bit of history. My musical education began in the 50s. The first record I ever bought (and I still have it) was the Everly Brothers “Wake Up Little Susie.” They were pop stars, but their music was a heady amalgam of country, pop and rock’n roll produced by the greatest country guitarist of them all, Chet Atkins. Then I heard Jerry Lee Lewis singing “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going’ On.” It blew me away. He was all that my parents despised. Wild, untamed and lascivious, he was, as I was later to discover, a direct link to the black R’n B singers whose music was to be copied in the 50s and 60s by every pop and rock singer from Bill Haley to the Stones. It grew out of the music that black Americans brought with them when transported as slaves to work in the cotton fields of the South. But somewhere along the way the blues combined with the folk music of the white immigrants from Europe and produced a hybrid that can best be heard in the singing of Jimmie Rogers and then later in the great Hank Williams. American country music was born out of poverty, deprivation and a search for identity that was to run in parallel with rock’n roll and pop music with which it shared a common ancestry

It is this common ancestry that can be heard at the point where country, rock’n roll and pop music meet. It is this common ancestry that draws the rock’n roll listener to country music (although they mightn’t call it that) and infuses the best pop music with energy, conviction and emotional resonance – attributes to which we all respond. If you doubt it consider the success of Casey Chambers. She isn’t pop or rock’n roll but her music took her to the top of the charts and engaged an audience far wider than what might be regarded as the country music market from which she had emerged. There is a singular lack of pretence and artifice about Casey and her music which is enormously appealing. She’s not “country” as Doug from rural Queensland might define it but, whether he might be capable of acknowledging it or not, she and her music draw from the same well.

“Country Music” like “Rock’n Roll” and “Pop Music” is a commercial construct, an easy means by which to define the product for the benefit of the media and audiences that demand simple to understand labels. Recent attempts to categorise artists who fall uncomfortably between the cracks of the conventional labels has seen the term “Roots Music” developed. In truth it is no more than an attempt to find a definition for those making music that contains elements of all three conventional categories – music that harkens back to the common ancestry I talked about above.

It is this groundswell that is slowly changing the face of country music in Australia and seeing the Tamworth festival beginning to accommodate artists who ten years ago would never have considered playing there or whom the country audience would have regarded with some distain. It is not country music as that label might once have been defined. It is not rock’n roll or pop music either. It’s a little of all three. But, and here’s the real issue, to survive and prosper in this realm it must be emotionally honest, delivered with integrity and utterly convincing. It must first and foremost be about the music, the packaging comes a distant second.

You may have seen the documentary made about The Dixie Chicks recently called “ Shut Up and Sing”. It followed their lives after one of them remarked, in almost throw-away fashion when on stage in London, how they were ashamed that George Bush was from Texas, their home state. The right wing American country audience, supported by the country media, went ballistic. They banned the Dixie Chicks music, burned it in the streets and boycotted their concerts. The reaction was, for this Australian observer, quite disturbing. There was genuine concern within the group and their management that they might have destroyed their career; they might never regain the success they had had within the country market.

They then made a brave decision. They would not apologise for expressing a genuinely held point of view. They would record a new CD expressing just that belief in no uncertain terms. In doing so they knew that they would further alienate their traditional country audience, but they clung to the belief that the groundswell of support that was building for them might see them break into an entirely new and larger market.

They were right. The new CD broke all their previous sales records and went to No1 on the pop charts. They had found a new audience who in the past might rarely have considered buying a country CD but who responded to the integrity and honesty of their music which, in pure musical terms, was little different to the stuff they had been playing for the previous ten years. It was a little tougher, less overtly country, but still the Dixie Chicks. A market that didn’t buy the conservative, narrow minded, insular definition of “country music” came to them – in droves.

In Australia I suspect that the market for “traditional” country music (and that term alone opens up a considerable can of worms) is not growing – in fact it may be declining, it certainly appears to be aging, (a few statistics would help). The market for music that falls within the broader definition to which I have alluded appears to be growing. It accommodates a wide range of political and social opinion, as it has always done – Big Bill Broonzy, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earl and the Dixie Chicks are but a few who have used their music, drawn from the common well, to speak out against injustice.

These thoughts barely scratch the surface in trying to answer the original question and I may have gone off on several tangents without coming to any real conclusions – ah, but then it’s Christmas as I write and tangents are mandatory and sleep in short supply.

I guess in the end whatever change is evident is no more than a reflection of the changing nature of the whole music industry. Where it is going and what it might be like in say 20 years time is a whole other subject and likely to throw up a vast range of opinion for debate that could fill the pages of this site for the next 20 years – as it should.

© 2007 Mike McClellan

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