We have reached a new area in music that has drastically changed the ways that artists gain traction in the music industry; this has especially become the case in the country music industry. While artists transition to taking an independent approach to making their name in the scene, some artists are choosing this approach simply because the evolution in technology is now giving them the ability to share their music from home right from their fingertips, without needing a record label to back them. Meanwhile, other country artists are taking the independent approach to stray away from the modern radio country sound that labels tend to promote to insure higher sales; instead this allows artists to be more hands on by writing their own songs and producing an unique original sound. It’s safe to say that there’s basically a tense “war” between Nashville country and Texas Red Dirt country music industry as both styles prove to be successful in their own ways. However, the two sounds that intend to counteract each other might be becoming more alike than you would think, and this is nothing new in the Country music industry. In fact, it seems to be an ever going trend.
Since the beginning of country music you can notice a trend of seeing new artists evolving the sound of country music into something Country music fans find “popped up.” This has led to sub-genres becoming more popular – such as Texas Red Dirt Country has – as they promote different styles of country music. These sub-genres tend to believe in a more raw, less polished sound that’s rough around the edges. Texas Red Dirt was founded on this belief and though it might have started that way, the artists and the music it now promotes doesn’t seem to carry out this belief. To be clear, I’m not discrediting any artists nor their success in the Red Dirt scene; in fact, we are very fortunate to have a wide variety of artists and styles coming through the Red Dirt scene. However, I fear that the industry is confusing an artist being independent with how their music displays the sound Texas Red Dirt music was built to promote. I believe this is due to the consumers natural desire of wanting a well rounded, clean, polished sound. Since this has kind of always been the case, we must know a little background of the beginning of country music to where it is at now and how we have seen this recurring trend of creating sub-genres that believe in a past sound.
As most should know, all the different styles of country music today have derived from different genres over the decade. The earliest origin of Country music was heard in the late 1910s in a Southern Appalachian fiddle player recording; however, it wasn’t until the early ‘20s that country music – as a viable recorded genre – took place. Thus, the first commercial country record was made by Eck Robertson in 1922 under the Victor Record label; the first national country hit was “Wreck of The Old ‘97” in 1924 by Vernon Dalhart. This era of country music – early 1920's country – was known as “the song of the people.” It brought upon artists such as Jimmie Rodgers, The Allen Brothers, and Carter Family. This era shared a similar structure with folk tales and the performances were typically live while the songs and instrumentation would vary depending on the geographical location. Even during this early period, musicians who studied and pursued this traditional sound started to “pop-up” the sound over time, which led to fusion between the styles in different regions.
Pushing into the 1930’s “singing cowboys” era of country, country music went down a Western path closely knitted to Western films, the most popular film genre at the time. Artists such as Roy Rogers and Hank Williams were some of many that rose in the scene during this heroic cowboy country music era. This was the first sight of country music taking a Hollywood popular approach as it took influence from Western flicks. I would credit this era for establishing much of the stereotype standard image of a country artist as well as the instrumentation and lyrical theme in a country song.
What came next could possibly be the most impactful stage for the controversy today. In the 1940s as rock n roll became popular, its high-energy rock riffs inspired the sound of country music. This led to the “Honky Tonk” style in country music which was a lot rawer and roughed up than it had been before in country music. Unfortunately, the “Honky Tonk” sound did not compete well with rock n roll genre at the time, causing music executives to start seeing country music as less commercially viable genre than previously. Nonetheless, artists such as Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, and Kitty Wells stuck through this style and it has paid off in today's music as it’s one of the most cherished styles in country music, often defined as “real country music.” Could this lack of attention in the past have caused the idea we have built around the sound today?
In the 1950s country music made its return through the rise of the Nashville Sound. During this era, the sound of country music was reinvented focused on being a smooth, polished, and sophisticated sound. A collection of producers and record companies out of Nashville including Columbia Records, RCA Records, and Decca Records – who are still leaders in the country industry today – ended up taking America by storm with artists like Chet Atkins and Patsy Cline. Instead of trying to compete with the rock n roll genre with the “Honky Tonk” style, this more polished, unique sound coming out of Nashville allowed labels to stand alone. However, the first time we see artists rebelling against the popular sound came soon after in the 1960s through the Bakersfield sound.
For the first time, the slick songs coming out of Nashville had generated controversy as some believe the song was too commercialized and didn’t have enough artistic range; in other words Nashville was simply generating songs that were the best to sell. Much like punk rockers who tried to put rock music back into the hands of the people, the Bakersfield sound wanted to try to bring humanity and passion back into country music. The face of this sound was Buck Owens, whose breakout hit single “The Street of Bakersfield,” would define the sub-genre.
Further over, the rebellion brought about Outlaw Country in the 1970’s, a classic style with a modern twist. This Outlaw country sound was an evolution of the Bakersfield sound that followed the theme and lyrical concept that could be compared to that of the 1930’s singing cowboys. However, the image for this sound was less as a heroic, cleaned up cowboy and more of an anti-heroes, bad guy, outlaw cowboy. Some of the most iconic artists in country music history such as Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Merle Haggard were staples of this time.
Carrying into the 1980’s we start to see artists that this generation is more familiar with such as Dwight Yoakam, Hank Williams Jr., Randy Travis, and George Strait, all artist who carried into the 1990’s. Hearing this era of country you can tell that country music still retained a more polished sound, with artists with a clean cut cowboy image like that established in the 1930’s, all while reinforcing and reinventing the Honky Tonk sound. But you also see artists like Garth Brooks in the 90’s turn country music into a very performance based market, a quality we look for in artists today. Artists like Brooks and Dunn, Alan Jackson, and the Dixie Chicks also shined in the 1990’s and influenced much of the sound we hear today. Furthermore, into the 2000’s the sound kept evolving while it focused on what sells; it took influences from sub-genres which has ultimately caused modern country music to evolve into pop-country; some would say this mainstream sound shouldn't be classified as country music at all.
Today, modern country music that tends to make country radio only has elements such as instrumentation and its theme to consider it country, thus the reason people turned to Texas Red Dirt Country. We continue to hear and see the influences of other genres with the sound of country music as well as the image of the artists. When you think of country music you think of cowboys singing about their country lifestyle, typically accompanied by fiddles and steel guitars that can be two stepped to. However, if you take modern country artists like Kane Brown or Sam Hunt you can see that country music is no longer focused on artists fitting the cowboy image or having songs that are themed around country lifestyles, not that this discredits the amount of talents these artists bring to the table. But given this is the case, the Nashville approach has allowed a lot of leeway for the genre. Sure they may still have fiddles and steel guitars and they may even sing about working on the farm all day, but the sound is extremely produced and very polished. So, why not take the Nashville approach to making it a better selling song by adding pop influenced instrumentation with it like snap tracks.
With the controversy that has come from modern country music, country music fans have turned towards Red Dirt country music. Red Dirt music is classified by a rebelliousness, a refusal to bow to Nashville standards. The genre really hit its stride in the 2000’s when people started to separate the country music coming out of Oklahoma and Texas from Nashville. The genre was built to have a more raw, rough around the edges sound taking musical styles from heavy rock, blues, folk, and perhaps more any style of music. Often fans of this genre speak of their desire for the old school outlaw sound with artists that lean more towards that image. However, the reality is that this idea that the consumers have created is not carried out in a way that truly supports that notion. In fact, many of the artists that are staple in the Red Dirt industry today are found with a very Nashville polished sound that’s more often than not recorded in Nashville studios with Nashville musicians.
The reputation Red Dirt country music is built on is being more authentic in instrumentation and is a little more rough around the edges, as it shows the clear expression of an independent artists. But somehow this has molded into one belief to where an artist being independent makes him a Texas Red Dirt artist and that a true Texas Red Dirt artist must be an independent artist at least for much of the starting success of his or her career. This is why you see so many different sub-genres fall under the umbrella of Texas country music, which is fine given that Red Dirt supports that idea. But let's separate an independent artist and clearly identify that it means to better understand.
An independent artist is an artist that’s doing it all by himself, not signed to a label. The reason we are seeing more and more independent artists is not only because of the industry's demand for such but also because artists don’t really need labels to make a name for themselves like they use to. Technology is now allowing artists to market themselves in a way you couldn’t do without a label before. They can market their music through social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter and distribute their music through online distributors such as Cdbaby, Distrokid, and Tunecore among others on music major platforms such as Spotify or Apple Music without ever having to be signed. Some artists like Parker McCollum, Cody Johnson, and Koe Wetzel can be credited for laying the blueprint for taking this independent approach into the music industry that has proven to work. Like those artist after creating a name they eventually signed to a label and this has built them controversy in the Red Dirt scene, but then again who wouldn't signed to those opportunities.
So let's look at this time line:
1920’s - Beginning trend of the sound becoming “popped up” and controversy forming depending on regions.
1930’s - Created the stereotype image for a country artist along with what the theme and instrumentation in the songs are. Country music also takes its first step towards what's popular.
1940’s - Rock n roll introduces the “Honky Tonk” sound that can not compete with rock but it’s the beginning of the demand for a raw sound and is probably the first time see the belief Red Dirt Country holds today.
1950’s - The Nashville sound is created to be clean, polished, smooth to stand alone from rock n roll.
1960’s - The first time we see artists be rebellions of the Nashville sound and wanting it to have humanity and passion.
1970’s - The Outlaw sound is introduced following the idea of rebellion. It can be credited for what drive the Red Dirt style.
1980’s - We see clean cut cowboy image, honky tonk music, and country ballets that are all very well produced similar to the Nashville style.
1990’s - Country music carries on with the style from the 1980’s while making country performance oriented.
2000’s - Country starts taking in a lot of sub-genre that ultimately led to pop-country.
This is what we can gather from the trend in country music. Texas country music wants artists to rebel from mainstream Nashville standards but the reality is the consumer really only promotes artists and music that are pushing a polished production similar to the Nashville style, while being labeled as independent. This idea comes from the rebellion notion that took place in the country industry between the 1960’s to 1970’s but it naturally reliant on the 1950’s polished production style. Texas country also holds value for the 1930’s stereotype image for a country artist but given that it wants independent artists that do as they please it allows influence from any sub-genre similar to the way Nashville views its sub-genre influences. Lastly, the industry has a pattern of saying the new guys are wrong as sounds tend to “pop up” with a sub-genre that rebels against the industry standards but eventually mold into their production quality to compete making it no longer raw or rough around the edges. By the way Red Dirt country music that’s being promoted is sounding now, it’s becoming more and more like mainstream country. The only difference is it has the Red Dirt stamp of approval. We must make it clear what Red Dirt music is or what we want it to be. If we aren’t careful, in a few years I won’t be surprised if it becomes a war against Red Dirt music.