- - Monday, January 12, 2015


“Something’s going on here, and it just ain’t right,” a friend posted on my Facebook page.

The catalyst was yet another mashup of six pop-country tunes showing what we all know — that mainstream country music is beyond formulaic. Drop the tailgate on the pickup. Watch her dancing in her Daisy Dukes. Fill up the Red Solo cup. Yeah, we all know those are the main themes of today’s country music.

What’s especially unsettling, though, as heard in the mashups, is that the chords, the riffs — all the musical elements — are almost exactly the same among recent hit songs of Blake Shelton (“Sure Be Cool If You Did”), Parmalee (“Close Your Eyes”), Florida-Georgia Line (“This Is How We Roll”), Chase Rice (“Ready Set Roll”), Cole Swindell (“Chillin’ It”) and Luke Bryan (“Drunk On You”).

You remember that the original 2013 mashup was posted when music journalist Grady Smith asked country music fans to “stop settling for this derivative junk.” Now Jay Hathaway, writing for Gawker, proves 2014 gave us more of the same.

I watched this latest mashup just after listening to the newly released Buddy Miller-produced Ralph Stanley album “Man of Constant Sorrow” and attending the Emmylou Harris tribute at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington. Buddy Miller and Don Was were the co-music directors of the event and played in the all-star house band.

As we’ve noted, 20 artists paid tribute to Miss Harris. They included legendary Kris Kristofferson, Rodney Crowell, Lucinda Williams, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Mavis Staples and Alison Krauss, and newcomers Shovels & Rope, The Milk Carton Kids and Trampled by Turtles.

Mr. Stanley, 87, is a Virginia-bred bluegrass icon whose music has influenced a flood of musicians including multiple Grammy Award winner Ricky Skaggs and the late Keith Whitely, both of whom played in the Clinch Mountain Boys, Mr. Stanley’s band.

I wish I could tell you that the audience at Saturday’s tribute at DAR Constitution Hall was filled with young country music fans — teens like my nephew who professes his love for the genre while listening almost exclusively to artists in the mashups — and not fans that, as the friend who accompanied me, said “definitely skew a bit older.” I also wish I could tell you that the presence of Dierks Bentley, Josh Turner, Lee Ann Womack, Elvis Costello, Robert Plant, Old Crow Medicine Show and Mr. Skaggs on Mr. Stanley’s album mean I would never again see him sitting alone at his merchandise table — as he did at an area concert several years ago — while fans brush past him to talk to younger, hipper artists.

I can’t, of course.

That saddens me and makes me wonder whether such music will soon fade away.

I put the question to three artists who played Saturday’s tribute. One household name agreed, saying it would be “very hard” to make nonformulaic music. Despite her deep country roots, she tried and failed before jumping onto the sure-fire hit machine.

Another artist — believe me, you know her — said that not only is it possible but probable for the more distinctive music to survive thanks to satellite and Internet radio that plays the music commercial radio has ignored.

But newcomer duo Shovel and Rope — whose tribute performance was a blistering hot, heartfelt rendition of “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight” — gave me the most hope that what we fondly now tag as “Americana” will live on.

The husband-wife duo Carrie Ann Hearst and Michael Trent talked about how the homogenized hit machine — my words, not theirs — actually fuel Americana. The mainstream hit makers introduce their fans to other legendary or unconventional artists who may not get radio airplay.

“Everyone wants something different and special,” said Carrie Ann Hearst, who grew up in Nashville going to shows and music events with her musician father. “The homogenized music, well that stuff isn’t acoustic and it isn’t down from the mountains. Those are the fertile grounds that spawn unique music. But when [commercially successful] artists record with people like Emmylou Harris, it means she and her music are recognized by more music fans. It’s important to remember that the knife cuts both ways.”

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