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Country's Rap
By Jerry Flattum - 05/21/2006 - 09:24 AM EDT

Bon Jovi is the first rock band to top Billboard`s Hot Country Songs chart. How many rock acts have faired less than number one is unknown, but number one serves as a milestone in music history. Bon Jovi's tune also opens the door to exploring country's current identity problem, a problem existing long before the Bon Jovi invasion.

There are two versions of the song, a band-only and a duet, both available on the band's CD, Have a Nice Day. The CD has already topped a million sold, and the band-only version is a hit on the adult top 40 and AC charts.

The Country version is a duet with Jennifer Nettles, lead singer of country act Sugarland. The duet has influenced sales of the relatively unknown Sugarland's recent CD, Twice the Speed of Life, which topped the million sales mark as well.

Bon Jovi's "infiltration" of country is not new. A duet with Chris LeDoux on the tune, "Bang a Drum" spent a few weeks on the Hot Country Songs chart in 1998. In 2005, country artist Chris Cagle recorded "Wanted Dead or Alive," one of Bon Jovi's biggest hits.

Bon Jovi's promotional efforts contributed to the crossover appeal, from numerous radio interviews to appearances on the CMA Awards, and a video tie-in of the duet with Bon Jovi's charitable Habitat for Humanity efforts (nominated for an Academy of Country Music Award).

Country's idenity problem falls on two fronts: one is strict allegiance to Traditional country--an identity problem in itself--and "New" Country. New Country is a catch-all category that includes a slew of sub-genres.

Just what is Traditional Country? Is it Bill Monroe? Is it Hank Williams? Maybe it's not pidgeon-holed by an artist but by style. It's not rock, it's not blues, it's not jazz. Pushing the barrier, it's not even electric.

Die-hard traditionalists--those who believe Country is an acoustic thing--ignore the sophisticated microphones, amps, speakers and other sound processing gear that goes into most "acoustic" concerts. They ignore how their favorite "Traditional Country" music--however it's defined--is recorded in state-of-the-art recording facilities.

Country music is identified primarily by the use of one or more string instruments other than guitar, such as the dobro, steel guitar, banjo, fiddle and mandolin.

Once in a while a Hammond organ manages to fill a track. Why the Hammond organ is an acceptable sound in Country is a mystery in itself. The piano is honky tonk, not a Bosendorfer, and it's used for fills and solos, not a writing instrument. Electric guitars are kept one stomp box away from metal, hardrock or pop.

New Country rebels. New Country pushes the barriers on electric guitar sounds, leading many to believe New Country is Old Rock.

In terms of being born "Country," well, Shania Twain is from Canada, her producer/husband is famous rock producer Mutt Lange and that they both live in England. Shania Twain's recordings use synths.

Kenny Rogers, Lyle Levitt, K.D. Lang and many other Country artists have each in their own way pushed the barriers of Country.

Kenny Rogers had his roots in folk and one of his biggest hits, "Lady," was written by Lionel Richie, who obviously is not white.

K.D. Lang shocked the Country world by "coming out" long before the Dixie Chicks criticized President Bush in 2003 in what has now been dubbed as "The Incident."

Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" became a hit all over again by Whitney Houston in the movie, Bodyguard. And Dolly's image, with her Dollywood and movie career, not to mention her wealth, is a long way from anything resembling a coal miner's daughter (Loretta Lynn).

Isn't there something inherently hypocritical for Country artists to be millionaires while appealing to their mostly poor country audience? And isn't a "poor country audience" as much a mythical image as humbled artists born in the backwoods, on bayous and in the Ozarks? Aren't most country music fans actually affluent suburban types who spend an inordinate amount of time in front of computers and home entertainment systems?

Why the hold on toothless Appalachian hillbillies drinkin' moonshine, deranged from too much inbreeding?

Country's image problem goes deeper, is more wide spread, and spans across a much longer period of time than what is happening currently.

Classic rock--meaning rock of the late 60s and early 70s--is riddled with 1000s of songs that with a slight twist here or there in the arrangement could easily be called Country tunes. But these tunes were written and performed by "Rock" artists like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Neil Young, Creedance Clearwater Rivival and many more.

Country fans and artists are white, Christian and Republican. They don't do yoga, drink latte's, or shave their heads. They drink but allegedly don't do drugs (Hank Williams Jr. and Willie Nelson aside).

Country is very definitive about what is a man and what is a woman--there is no Michael Jackson androgyny. Country singers sing with a twang. They don't scream or dive into Mosh pits. However, they do leave the Christmas lights up all year long. They cheat a lot and are almost proud to be stupid rednecks living in trailer parks.

Something got locked in the minds of nearly everyone--audience and industry alike--as to just what Country means. And it's not just record labels and the Nashville tourist industry pushing the image. It's an image that seeps into every facet of culture, from rodeos in Vegas to movies about urban cowboys.

Even Clint Eastwood teeters on the cultural fence with Country on one side and jazz on the other. In all his Westerns he's Country. In his cop/agent roles he's jazz.

How did Nashville become the symbol of Country with Country being the symbol of the cowboy--represented by cowboy hats and boots? Why do Country artists persist in wearing cowboy hats and boots while leaning on fences when posing for CD covers? What's the message?

Famed Country artist and guitarist Chet Atkins, along with Country empresario Owen Bradley and others, headed the creation of the Nashville Sound in the 50s. The "Nashville sound" emerged in the '50s as a way to bring country music to a broader pop audience. Strings and vocal choirs were added to the arrangements while hillbilly and honky tonk sounds were toned down. The sound dominated the country charts in the '70s and stayed popular until the early '80s.

One Country image presents women as bare-foot and pregnant. But the truth is, Country women are strong, powerful and rich. And, Country female artists are primarily young and beautiful--a marketing demand no different than in Dance, Rap, Rock or Pop.

Are Country songs really better than other Pop/Rock songs? Country songs do include songs about marriage and the family, rarely heard in Pop/Rock circles. In Pop/Rock, everybody is single.

But other than subject matter in lyrics, country songs are no better structured, more melodic, better arranged or more proficiently recorded than tunes in any other genre. So why do people believe Country is more "song-based" than any other genre? Is it because it's not "sound" based, like the "sound" of Jimi Hendrix" or the "sound" of Techno? Country music is very strict about the sound.

Why the image of Country musicians being home-spun fiddle players born in the mountains or the Bayou? Some of the best musicians in the world work as session players in Nashville studios. These players are thoroughly trained and technically proficient. Nashville uses the most sophisticated state-of-the-art studios, the best producers and engineers, and markets and distributes on a global scale. Not exactly the image of a handful of moonshine-drinkin' country bumpkins sitting on a beat-up porch in front of a delapitaded "Country Store," now is it?

Country's image--or any genre's image--is more a media problem than it is a cultural one. Very few music fans narrowly confine their CD/Mp3 collections to just one genre.

Someone who adamantly claims to hate Country simply hasn't listened to enough Country. What they hate is an image that gets sold via the media, record labels, and a very small handful of Country artists.

There's no reason for all of Country to be pidgeoned holed in a political war between the outspoken Dixie Chicks and the "Flag-waving, Bush-supporting" Toby Keith. In fact, Country doesn't need to be stereotyped by any number of hurtful images, like Johnny Cash's celebration of prison life, Willie Nelson's "alternative fuel" crusade, Loretta Lynn as a baby oven coal miner's daughter or Dolly Parton's chest size.

Even though long gone, the TV show, Hee Haw still and the Broadway musical, Lil' Abner, still has a grip on America's image of what Country is, like playing banjos in cornfields and drinkin' whiskey from a jug. Men smoke corncob pipes and women are either voluptous Daisy Mae types or scraggly old Mammy Yokum types. Today's Country female artists are just shy of super-models, like Faith Hill or Shania Twain.

There are gay people living in Nashville. People wear cowboy hats on the streets of L.A. and N.Y. Nashville is as surbuban as any town in the U.S. People drive cars, not ride horses. Country artists fly around in planes to get from one concert to the next. There are not too many barn dances anymore, especially since most farms are factory farms.

Do father's really protect their daughter's with shotguns while the daughter's run off with some pick-up truck drivin' misfit leaving suds in the bucket and cloths hangin' out on the line?

Country, like any other genre, is entertainment. Entertainment is categorized by image and demographic. Most Country artists singin' about leaving Christmas lights on all year long or washing cloths in a bucket actually live in homes and condos stocked with ice-making refrigerators and 5.1 surround sound stereo systems.

By no means does this image controversy mean Country tunes or artists are without heart or substance. Sometimes these image conflicts get in the way of great Country music, and other times it's the fuel that sells recordings and tickets.

Country, like any other genre, asks the nagging question, "Does music unite, or does it divide?"

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