Trouble with Truth

Are you going to write the songs that matter to you, with your own unique voice?  Or will you create something that is only commercially crafted, chasing the perceptions and needs of some music marketer’s fondest demographic fantasy, and having the lasting literary value of a grocery jingle?I understand there’s been some controversy of late, down in Music Row, about the nature of the music being released as “country music”.  This is scarcely news, any more than it is news that parents will disapprove of how their adolescent children choose to dress.  (You’re not going out like that … ) But I’ve been reading comments from various artists who are polarized about the outcomes of these recording decisions. 

How do you know when you’re about to step over some line that you can barely see, and which varies from person to person?  Well … it’s your line. If you step over it, step back in a hurry.

A lot of what we’re hearing these days is the product of a country music industry that has learned to parody itself:  its voice, its messages, its clichés, its own sounds and rhythms.  And yet, at the same time, it borrows its clothes and its clues from a more popular sister – from rock, or hip-hop. These are not “fusions” or “influences”, but the brazen attempt to sneak into a public consciousness using borrowed ID.  However, it may be that the market these chameleons are chasing doesn’t really know what it wants. It’s sure a long way removed from Harlan Howard’s “three chords and the truth”.  Because they seem to be having trouble with the truth part.

You have songwriters writing about front porch swings, moonshine, and fishing with cane-poles (when your basic bass fisherman of modern vintage goes out with enough technology to make NASA smile).  In fact, Pam Tillis released “Betty’s Got a Bass Boat” back in 2002, more than a decade ago.  So … cane poles?  Really? 

We need to ask ourselves if the current market for country music is the same as the market for Clearasil and teenybopper apparel? Whose reality do they think this reflects, anyway?  Just because Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber began stellar careers while they were very very young, has it escaped notice that even they, the teenage wonders, have turned into grown-ups?  That Hannah Montana turned into Miley? And is twerking the new line-dancing? (Don’t tell my part, my achey-breaky part?) 

Those sure aren’t the realities I’m writing about.  And as a songwriter, I’m looking to mine the realities that touch me, or that I can observe and write about at least somewhat truthfully.

On the other hand, doesn’t pop music freely ignore such “precious” concerns? Maybe it’s ok to just simply rock out, to entertain, to have a little fun? Even for the country or roots artist. I’ve written my own share of songs with no greater intent than to make folks smile or laugh.  Maybe that’s what music is about?

Except, except … if you wanted to write the next “Live Like You Were Dying”, or “I Hope You Dance”, or “Where’ve You Been” or “When Fallen Angels Fly?” or “Whiskey Lullabye” or "Whiskey and Wine"… and oh how I wish I’d written any one of them … you’re probably going to have to dig a little deeper than cane poles and front porch swings.

But here’s the other point …  even with a ditty, I’m trying to be truthful with it.  Trying to be creative, even if I don’t always succeed. Anything else is insulting to an audience, and demeaning to the artist. And it’s a wasted opportunity.

Life is short – write your songs!

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