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Country Music: It’s Easy to Be Cynical

The late-night situation is being talked about everywhere else, so why not on a country music blog?

After getting the shaft from NBC and Jay Leno (who, in this one-time Leno fan’s opinion, should have retired gracefully when all hell started breaking loose), Conan O’Brien concluded his brief stint as Tonight Show host with class last Friday night, urging his disappointed fans to ward off cynicism:

All I ask is one thing, and I’m asking this particularly of young people that watch: Please do not be cynical. I hate cynicism. For the record, it’s my least favorite quality. It doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, I’m telling you, amazing things will happen.

For Conan’s young-ish fanbase, members of the post-Simpsons generations raised from an ironic distance, it was an important message. This being the internet, members of the same age group are probably reading this now. In fact, most of the country blogs I read regularly are written by people who were teens or preteens when O’Brien took over Late Night back in 1993. (They’re not that young… anyone under the age of 36 fits the bill.)

Don’t be cynical. It’s good advice, but how?

If you take it at its word, mainstream country music is one of the least cynical things we have left. This is one genre where people are invited to take everything at face value, without any regard for irony – stories of real lives and real people told in an accessible, straightforward manner. Wholesome songs sung by all-American guys and girls, with uplifting messages and redemption (almost) always following close on the heels of sin. It’s earnest as Oprah, and often far more insipid. When mainstream country fans do embrace irony and sarcasm, it’s the Andy Griffith inspired “aw shucks” of Brad Paisley rather than the insurgent irreverence of someone like Robbie Fulks.

Dare to suggest that something shouldn’t be taken at face value – that the music that serves as the backdrop to so many lives, day in and day out, might be worthy of some critical examination – and you’re accused of overthinking. Dare to arrive at a not-wholly-favorable conclusion about a mainstream favorite or the system that has produced it (because public figures, as distinct from the actual human beings behind them, are as much ‘its’ as they are ‘hes’ and ‘shes’) and you’re called a cynic.

For some of us, though, there’s nothing more cynical than the way the music business itself is run, especially as sales panic leads to ever more desperate ‘save the bottom line’ schemes. Reissues of current albums that add one or two new tracks to inflate sales numbers, label execs and radio programmers who won’t take a chance on anything but a sure bet, country awards shows that give Taylor Swift every other performance slot in lieu of embracing diverse strains of bluegrass, honky tonk, country-folk, Red Dirt, and, yes, pop-country that make up the larger picture. Sometimes the music industry doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of faith in music.

Does Toby Keith, who cut his teeth on Merle and Willie, actually believe Trailer Choir to be the genre’s next great hope? It doesn’t seem likely. A smart businessman, Keith figures there’s more money to be made in gimmickry than artistry. He might be right, but I hope not; he’s betting against the power of good, substantive music. If they weren’t on his label, would Toby be a fan of Trailer Choir?

One of the big stories of 2008 was that Mercury Nashville’s Luke Lewis found a great indie album he believed in, signed the artist, and released the album to a wider public almost ‘as is’ (a couple tracks were swapped in and out). Huh? Shouldn’t that sort of thing happen all the time? Great music should get picked up and spread to a larger audience by major labels. Artists should be signed on the basis of existing musical quality, not movie star looks and the promise of marketable music several dubiously-credited ‘cowrites’ and countless layers of studio trickery later. That Lonesome Song was testament to what can happen when you put the music first.

It’s tempting to fight cynicism with cynicism, to assume nothing good can come of the major label system and stop paying attention to it altogether. There are heaps of country and country-related (alt, roots, Texas, bluegrass) sites that won’t waste a minute on anything mainstream. Even mentions of relatively indie-friendly mainstream acts like Jamey Johnson and Miranda Lambert are accompanied by apologies and qualifiers, as though reputations are made and broken by proximity to Nashville.

But there’s plenty of good music in Nashville, and there’s even good major label music being made by people not named Jamey or Miranda. As with anything, you just have to keep wading around long enough to find it. So, that’s what I’ll keep doing here. I can’t very easily change my tastes, and I won’t pretend to like stuff I don’t, but I can watch the show and give my own take on what’s interesting about it, in ways both good and bad.

As long as I’m doing that, I think I’m answering Conan’s call. Because the opposite of cynicism isn’t blind, thoughtless optimism: it’s engagement and belief. I keep engaging in these discussions, time and again, because I still believe in country music.

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  1. A well written piece and a very nice read, C.M. It is hard not to be cynical when it comes to the current state of country music, but I like your strategy. I actually need to seek out more indie stuff.

    And yes, I occasionally tuned into Leno before, but I definitely prefer Conan’s humor to Jay’s and will not be watching his return to The Tonight Show. NBC made an incredibly foolish decision and, in my opinion, Jay Leno’s image is tarnished even more than it was before this fiasco. Probably beyond repair. We’ll see though.

  2. Excellent editorial, CM. I wish I had something profound to add, but instead I’ll just offer kudos.

  3. “the music industry doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of faith in music” is exactly correct.

    I have seen Trailer Choir live and I really, really like them. Love their harmony and the range of the emotions in the songs I’ve heard from them.

  4. Nice read, but I’d like to add that if Conan was pulling the needed numbers, if enough people watched his show, I doubt the network would have asked him to agree to the movement of the show back a half hour. NBC didn’t make Conan quit the show, they were just making a time period change, which again, had the numbers been there, wouldn’t have happened. To hold Conan’s decision to walk away from The Tonight Show against Jay seems a bit harsh.

  5. Holy crap, if I stripped away my cynicism and sarcasm towards AirHead Country radio / comtemporary Nashville mainstream product and Odumbo and the Demoncraps, there would be nothing left but an empty shell. Fortunately I’m far past the age 36 target audience cut-off and do not care what a young’un like Conan thinks about anything! WHEW, that was a close call…

  6. Seriously good and thoughtful editorial.

    I’m with you on Jay too. He should have bowed out. The man supposedly retired from that show, though I suspect he was actually initially pushed out by NBC too. Conan’s just funnier anyway. I hate the way Jay delivers his jokes. He doesn’t just deliver the punch line; he has to follow them up with strange noises along with saying stupid things like “what’s up with that?, “it’s ridiculous…”, etc. Anyone else notice that?

  7. Excellent piece. This rings particularly true to me: “Because the opposite of cynicism isn’t blind, thoughtless optimism: it’s engagement and belief.” If both parties –the music industry and the cynical fans– adopted this belief, a lot of good would come from it.

  8. Interesting piece – I disagree about the Leno / Conan comments (I find Conan insufferably infantile) but otherwise I concur

  9. Toby was a fan of Trailer Choir before he signed them. So the answer to your question If they weren’t on his label, would Toby be a fan of Trailer Choir? is yes. They are great entertainers and very talented writers.

  10. I really couldn’t have said it better than CM. It’s over. It really is. Am I being cynical?


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