By Chris Edwards
There used to be this thing called country music, actually it was an artform.
Under its big umbrella, there existed a long, storied history of great artists and entertainers; everyone from pioneers like The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and Woody Guthrie to early sensations like the great Hank Williams, Bob Wills and George Jones to Texan iconoclasts like Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Waylon Jennings, have all blazed their own respective trails while remaining true to the sake of the song. They all wrote and sang songs about the common man’s trials and tribulations; the joy and the pain came through clear in great, universal melodies and lyrics.
As with any artform that becomes commercialized, an organization popped up dedicated to its welfare.
Formed in 1958, the Country Music Association formed in a Miami hotel room with a small group of industry folks gathering to start an organization to promote and further the reach of country music.
Last week, the CMA hosted its annual parade of accolades, and although the proceedings were conducted in a different way than they had been in the past, thanks to the pandemic, the level of disrespect was high.
Headlines popped up the next day that spoke to that level of disrespect, and with good reason. Jason Isbell, whose mainstream popularity is a big win for real, heartfelt art, along with his lovely wife Amanda Shires, severed ties with the CMA due to the organization’s refusal to acknowledge the passing of three giants of country music: John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker and Billy Joe Shaver.
There were tributes paid throughout the show to other titans of the genre, such as Charlie Daniels and Joe Diffie, but to slight Prine, Walker and Shaver is unconscionable.
I didn’t watch the broadcast as it aired, save for a little bit of Luke Combs performing a song that sounded to me like a rip-off of Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road,” but I watched many of the tributes and talked-about moments after the fact online. Now I enjoy Joe Diffie as much as the next guy, and his passing from the coronavirus (followed closely by Prine) was tragic and served as a wake-up call to many about the pandemic, but no way is Diffie a more influential artist than those other three.
The endless parade of legends passing grew by another a couple of days following the CMA Awards, when Texas legend (and a man I’m proud to call my friend) Doug Supernaw died. Supe was far more commercially successful in his heyday than Prine, Walker or Shaver, but I doubt that even he would have merited a mention in tribute from the CMA had he passed prior to the broadcast.
It’s a sad state of affairs when an organization that claims it is dedicated to country music cannot even mention Jerry Jeff, the man who wrote “Mr. Bojangles,” one of the most classic, beloved songs in the American songbook. The mentality seems to be “let’s ignore legit legends and focus on Florida Georgia Line and Jason Aldean,” and the ridiculous, artless cliches of what “country music” is through a modern lens.
There’s at least some positivity to be found with Combs, who won a wheelbarrow load of hardware from the CMA. Aside from what sounds to me to be a siren call to Steve Earle’s lawyers, Combs at least sounds real. His lyrics strike me as inane twaddle, but he comes across as one of the few artists on what is called country radio nowadays who could actually convincingly sing a Hank, Lefty or Gary Stewart tune.
So much of what is marketed as country music today seems indicative of a problem our culture has, by and large. So much of the buying power is given to young people, and there seems to be a devaluing of things deemed “obsolete.” It’s all about what is new, sleek and shiny, and marketing what the genre has become as a lifestyle signifier, instead of something rooted in reality.
If recent events have shown me anything, it’s that it is an absolutely wonderful thing to be able to choose one’s own set of facts tailored to one’s preferred reality. There’s some solace in that, and hey, anything is possible in this accursed year.
In my preferred reality, these late, great artists mentioned in this column, along with so many others, are still able to sing for us. Also, in that alternate reality, the public still prefers real, honest expressions. Ah well, as long as vinyl is still being pressed and my turntable needle holds up, they’ll all be alive in my house.