20 Easy Rules for Writing About Country Music
The Way the Pros Do It!
By Cheryl Cline
There's been a little bit of discussion on the Internet mailing list POSTCARD2
about how rock critics treat alternative country. To tell you truth, the way
rock critics write about country, alternative or any other kind, has always
grated on me. I started thinking about it, then wrote down a list, then cast
it in the form of rules for people who want to try their hand at becoming the
next Robert "Bob" Christgau. Not to pick on Bob, though -- most rock critics
appear to have these rules tattooed on their frontal lobes.
I know that there are some rock critics who can write wonderfully about
country music. This is not about them.
(Note: Some of these rules are contradictory. This doesn't matter one bit.
Mix and match with impunity.)
- Declare that country music deals in "nostalgia" for a "past that never
was." Fail to recognize that this "past" not only *was* but *is* for
- Call it "essentially conservative" music without explaining the term.
- Deplore it's imagined shortcomings when compared to Black music.
(Example: the blues is life-affirming; country is fatalistic.) BE SURE
to mention that country-rock is the domain of disaffected middle-class
- Laud the country artists who display character traits most cherished in
rock, and whose lyrical concerns hew closest to a rock sensibility.
- Play up these traits in country artists you want to make over as rock
icons, while glossing over traits any they might exhibit that are more
prized by country. (example: play up Johnny Cash as an outlaw; play
down Johnny Cash as a Bible scholar.)
- Harp on the "dark side" of country music, saying stuff about how the
twisted psyche of country artists is what makes the best country music;
blithely write about the peccadillos of country artists as if they
really are more nuts than rock musicians.
- Treat the concerns and sensibilities prized by country (religion,
tradition, family) as dysfunctional.
- When writing about women country artists, follow these simple rules.
Men writers: Write off the lyrical concerns of women country artists as
girl stuff, even when they are identical to those of men. Women
writers: Attempt to find subversion in even the most banal lyrics. Both
men and women writers: Be sure to mention "Stand By Your Man" somewhere
in your article, preferably at the beginning.
- Insist country music be grounded in "working class" concerns, while
demonstrating your understanding of working class concerns is based on
- Treat it as an "authentic" "roots" music which rock can draw upon when
the well goes dry; as a sort of naive, primitive, noble-savage kind of
music and not a complex, sophisticated music in its own right.
- Hold it to a standard of museum-quality authenticity and write off new
experiments and new bands.
- At the same time regretfully dismisses it as largely irrelevant to
- Insist it come from the south to be authentic. You, however, do not
have to be from the south to judge it so.
- Display complete ignorance of even the existence of thriving
contemporary bluegrass or old time movements. Be skeptical of the
existence of longstanding, large-scale festivals not named
- Ignore artists who can neither be set on the pedestal of authentic
purity nor comfortably added to the rock canon.
- Memorize the names Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Gram Parsons, John Doe
and Joe Ely. Liberally sprinkle references to them throughout your
articles, whether the reference is appropriate or not.
- Remember this rule: the country-rock band du jour is directly descended
- Notice country or country rock only when it starts to appeal to the
"correct" demographic, that is, young people. Heaven forbid you write
about music that appeals to MIDDLE AGED people. Even WORKING CLASS
MIDDLE AGED people.
- But don't notice it until there's a large base of young people who know
a lot more about the music than you do.
- Ruefully admit there is something to this music, a rough down-home
honesty, a ragged-but-right soulfulness that draws young rock fans &
musicians away from the sterile dead-end of grunge -- once bright with
the promise of a vital and vibrant alternative to toothless corporate
rock, but now broken on the rack of MTV. [Or words to that effect.]
However, make sure you imply that people are turning away from the true
fold towards nostalgia for a past that never was.
Copyright 1996 Cheryl Cline