Alex Massie

Monday Night Country: Gillian Welch & David Rawlings

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Bryan Curtis has an excellent piece at the Daily Beast on the current state of country music. Well, the state of commercially successful, Grammy-nominated country music anyway. As you might expect, it's depressing stuff. Basically, you have a choice between Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift and perhaps the best that may be said of this is that it might be marginally less gruesome than the era of Shania Twain and Garth Brooks. Marginally. As Bryan explains:

To reduce Taylor vs. Carrie to style points would be a mistake. Their music has deep thematic differences, too. If you favor Swift, you are embracing a Weltanschauung that says that all of life is a high-school melodrama. Swift’s aesthetic is unapologetically teen angst; her songs can be divided into “Yay!” or “Darn!” From the former, we have a freshman girl told by a guy that he loves her (“Fifteen”), a crazy, head-over-heels crush (the excellent “Hey Stephen”), and an unrequited attraction to the star wide receiver (“You Belong With Me”).

Swift’s “Darn!” songs are less convincing, partly because you can’t quite imagine her ever being upset. The worst sins a boy can commit are apparently telephonic. From Fearless’s “Forever & Always”: “I stare at the phone, and he still hasn’t called.” From “You’re Not Sorry”: “You don’t have to call, anymore, I won’t pick up the phone.”

In an Underwood song, by contrast, the heroine gets drunk and wakes up in the arms of a Pinto-driving cowboy. (Swift would no doubt faint at such a scenario.) But Underwood’s music, while more adult in theme, is not more sophisticated. She is likely to shoehorn her pain into lugubrious scenarios that are perfect for country-music videos. Thus, we get treacle like “Just a Dream,” in which a would-be bride (played by Underwood in the video) finds her fiancé has been killed in action. Or “Temporary Home,” a telethon-style song that reels off tragic cases: a boy in foster care, a single mom in a halfway house, a dying man in a hospital.

The complaint about Swift is that she only sings about high-school stuff. The complaint about Underwood is that she only sings about the stuff of high-school essays.

Yup, country sure has come a long way. Well, commercial country has anyway, just to not to many places you'd really wanna visit. 

Happily, there's more to country music than the Nashville glitz. So here's one of my favourite contemporary artists, Gillian Welch performing Look At Miss Ohio with her partner David Rawlings:


Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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