Sunday, June 23, 2013
Dale Watson tore up the Road Rocket Rumble in Indianapolis last night (6/21) with a blistering honky tonk country music set.
This, however, is not a concert review. This is about a new genre of music -- more precisely, a new label on existing music -- that Watson is championing.
Over the past few weeks a new term has been coined for country-based roots music. The term is Ameripolitan. Watson is a main sponsor of this new term, and he mentioned the first awards show, scheduled for next February in Austin, during last night's show. He also said it is his intention to present David Letterman with the first "Ameripolitan Man of the Year" award during his appearance on Letterman's show this coming Monday (6/24), given that Letterman will be the first national show to feature an Ameripolitan artist.
Part of me doesn't like this in the least. I am in complete agreement with the late Charlie Louvin, who told an interviewer in the early 1980's that he failed to see why he, the long-established country artist, had to coin a new term for the music he had been making since about 1932 in order to differentiate it from the soft rock disguising itself as "country music." "If they want a different term," Louvin said in his no-nonsense way, "let them put it on their music." For years I have often quoted Louvin's words. He is correct: he was here first, it's HIS music. He and his contemporaries (the Stonewall Jacksons, George Joneses, and Merle Haggards of the world) should not have been forced to kowtow to any of these acts who couldn't be country standing in a pile of cow manure (as opposed to country singers who "couldn't go pop with a mouthful of firecrackers," as Porter Wagoner once famously said of Waylon Jennings) and subsequently rename the honest-to-goodness country music they have made for decades -- just so the rocking Johnny-come-latelys could run around calling themselves "country" because it is chic to do so.
Last year I wrote an article online in which I said it was high time modern "country music" gave itself a new name. I declared that something had to be done to make certain there's a "truth in advertising," for lack of a better term, in this music. I pointed out that there's no crime in coining a new phrase when there's a radical shift from the origins of a genre, citing terms like "disco," "punk," "techno," "heavy metal," and "grunge" that have accompanied new sounds in rock and roll. And, given my fondness for Louvin's remarks, I said the modern music is what should change its title.
The problem is that we are now into our second generation of fans who think that Billy Ray Shania Dixie Urban Swift is "country music." Most modern country fans cannot tell Hank Williams from Vanessa Williams; worse, they don't want to. These are the people who shrugged over the fuss made over some "old has-been" dying a couple of months ago. Even the so-called "classic country" radio stations have forsaken classic country. They play the people who were ridiculed 20 years ago for sounding "too rock" and completely ignore acts like Buck Owens or even the more recent neo-traditional acts such as Ricky Skaggs.
Enter Dale Watson. Watson's father was a Marine, and Watson himself wanted to enlist but failed his physical. With this background Watson obviously sees nothing wrong with marching into the teeth of the battle. He may die trying (career-wise), but he is going to do everything in his power to save country music. Since the term "country music" has apparently been too corrupted to be saved Watson is advocating the new term, Ameripolitan, to give a home to country-based roots music.
Watson has correctly pointed out that the genre known as "Americana" has failed to do this, given that Americana is far more based in rock than country. I attended the Americana Music Association conference in 2007 and I can attest to this: while considerable lip service was paid to Porter Wagoner (who had died a couple of days before the conference began) and the song of the year mentioned Hank Williams in its title, the music performed was more rock and blues than country. One of the showcases featured Webb Wilder. Wilder is a superlative performer, and I highly recommend seeing him live. Just don't expect him to be country, even if he does his cover of Jennings' "Nashville Rebel." (Wilder, to me, is an example of what "Americana music" is: rockers who listen to country music and can even speak articulately about country, but don't actually perform country.)
So what is Ameripolitan? Watson defined it as country-based roots music -- honky tonk, hillbilly, Western swing, rockabilly, Cajun and outlaw -- being ignored by other genres such as Americana (and, sad to say, "country music"). Ameripolitan is the general umbrella under which established acts such as Asleep at the Wheel, Riders in the Sky, Doug Kershaw, and long-forgotten country acts such as Stonewall Jackson can find their music honored and promoted. Additionally, newer acts such as the Quebe Sisters, Mad Max and the Wild Ones (Watson's opening act last night, three teenage brothers from Utah who do rockabilly music), Jamey Johnson, and Amber Digby (Watson's opening act in Nashville next month) will find a safe haven for their music in an arena where it won't have to compete for auto-tuned pop singers proclaiming themselves to be "country;" and, more importantly, won't be asked (or told) to compromise their sound.
Perhaps it could be considered an admission of defeat to leave the term "country music" in the dust and instead promote the "Ameripolitan" tag. As much as I agree with Louvin's decades-old assertion, I'm all for anything that will acknowledge the difference and allow fans and promoters to find country music without wondering if they're getting a female singer who's more Pat Benatar than Patsy Cline. Hopefully one of the good consequences would be to persuade NARAS to split the Grammy categories into "traditional country" and "contemporary country" (the way "traditional R&B" is awarded separately from "contemporary urban" music and "traditional folk" and "contemporary folk" were split in the past) so traditional-sounding country releases don't have to compete with the double-platinum rock and roll releases spewing out of the "country music" genre.