The Melting Pot is a recurring feature where I discuss various topics related to country music.
I had originally planned to divide these into their own separate posts and topics – “these” being some various music-related discussion points that have been on my mind lately. This is a bit off the beaten path from what I usually do here, and is kind of indicative of my earliest days of writing when I’d ramble on about various philosophical topics and approaches to music. So I’ve decided to cluster those topics into one long think piece that, while hopefully cohesive and coherent, is meant to be taken as me addressing a wide variety of discussion points over anything else. Hopefully I make at least one decent argument or point. A loose guideline to the topics would go something like this: The constant search for the “next big thing” and the perils of having little time to hear new music, the pressures of conforming to “hype,” how everyone’s got an opinion on something, how knowledge is both powerful and dangerous, and finally, trying to discern what kind of country music fan we all are.
As music fans – especially country music fans, in a genre that has traditionally prided itself on those artist-fan relationships – I think we’re always in search of the next artist who’s going to “blow up,” so to say. We listen to an artist, tell our friends, make predictions, and watch everything unfold. Or we’d like to, that is. In an age of endless discovery opportunities, it’s easier to do that, but also harder to find actual consensus. Perhaps it’s just because “country” music has become such an all-encompassing umbrella of sounds (for better and worse) and is typically associated with “Americana” in the same way that “Texas Country” and “Red Dirt” usually get clustered together (which in and of themselves are also part of that big-ass umbrella). It’s fun, but it can also be draining to try and keep up with it all. While streaming services have eased the burden of financial costs over the past decade or so – ideally to have more to spend on merchandise and live shows (someday again), but let’s stick to reality – there’s still a problem of having too little time that will likely never be fixed. Beyond the new music constantly being released, there’s an entire library of artists we likely haven’t gotten to yet because … again, time doesn’t allow for all of that.
So, how do we solve that? I don’t know, you’re asking the wrong person. I’m not sure we should solve it anyway. While the ways we find music have changed over the years, the one constant remains that we look to other like-minded fans and friends to help us sift through it all and find the “good” stuff, whatever that is. But there’s also the added burden of the modern day to try and keep up with it all, and I think that’s a backwards way to approach art. We should cherish what we love and let that feeling linger. I think what we’re really looking for is to constantly reignite that “first time feeling” with music, the moment where we listen to a piece and wonder how something like that never existed until now. And we want to know if there’s more like it from the act we’re listening to. It’s one of the best feelings.
But … does the endless supply of new music somewhat dilute that? Again, I don’t know. That’s more of a personal opinion kind of thing. Personally, I think so. We’re never going to hear everything at least once in our lifetimes anyway, so there’s no sense in trying to rush through a certain percentage of it just for the sake of “keeping up” or “staying ahead of the curve.” On another personal note, it’s one reason why I advocate more for discussions than recommendations with my work on this particular blog, because one person’s trash is surely another’s treasure.
I feel like we as music fans are always trying to predict the next “it” moment for country music – who will be the next Simpson, Price, Childers, or whoever else. A fun game, for sure, but it feels like we try to crown that moment much too early and way too often. Not to say there aren’t artists deserving of it out there, but in trying to act like authoritarians on the genre, I think we forget how to have fun with music and embrace our own weirdly personal tastes. I’m delving mostly into discussions of “stan” culture with this, to an extent, but for the artists who come to close to attaining that meteoric rise – recent names including, say, Zach Bryan or Morgan Wade – there’s always a group of cynics who act contrarian just for the sake of … and ones who genuinely have an opposite opinion, and that’s OK. We get made to believe that certain acts are above criticism or that everyone else has to either love them or else face shame on social media or wherever else, with no in-between. And that erodes the most beautiful element about music – that it’s completely subjective.
Which is not to say that music is necessarily meant to be debated and discussed from a “both sides” perspective. I mean, I’m the sort of nerd who made a music blog because he enjoys doing that, but it’s important to remember how to be a fan first and foremost. But I want to circle back to that other perspective, because I feel like the general fragmentation of country audiences fed up with country radio (and, naturally, those not fed up with it) has created this weird cluster of certain “types” of country music fans, where one can only enjoy certain names within that cluster. Ultimately, I’m a big believer of the motto “like what you like,” and I hate when we’re made to feel like we either have to like or can’t like something. Music was never made to be a black-and-white entity that had a set formula or code to it. It can surprise in ways nothing else can sometimes.
On another note, let’s face it, if you want to be a country music fan, it helps to know your history. That means that in addition to keeping up with everything current, we’re made to feel like we have to know every single Johnny Cash or Hank Williams song before we’re true country fans. And if we don’t know this or that, we can’t possibly actually enjoy what we’re hearing. I’ve never been a fan of the term “gatekeeping,” per se – as a wannabe historian, I think it’s important to encourage knowledge of the past and spotlight names that no longer receive as much attention as those current acts. But it’s important to lean into that, rather than force it and ruin it for someone else. A tool like Ken Burns’ Country Music documentary, for example, provides an easy, accessible, and immeasurable start to that, and again, the advent of streaming services has allowed that discovery to be easier than ever before. It all circles back to that paradox of having too much to listen to and not enough time. It’s important and healthy to listen to what you want to at your own pace. Again, discovery and capturing that “first time feeling” is special and shouldn’t be taken for granted.
So, then, what kind of country music are you? As for me, I often feel like I’m too traditional to mingle with pop-oriented country fans and too pop-oriented to mingle with traditional fans. I like music from Nashville and Texas and beyond, and that’s weird, ain’t it? Country music is for everyone, and it’s important to remember that a love and appreciation for the music can stem from anywhere for anyone, and that while we’ll always have our own opinions, it’s important to never discount someone else’s experience or their likes and dislikes. I read something the other day that essentially stated that music is a reflection of our lives and experiences, and that it’s a unique soundtrack we can share, but never quite replicate for someone else. It’s important to embrace that and remember what comprises those individual tastes. We’re country music fans, and we’re ourselves. It shouldn’t be any more complicated than that.