Merle Haggard at Billy Bob’s 2015
Porter Wagoner’s trademark, colorful, sparkling blazers.
Charley Pride’s country song, “Kiss an angel good morning.”
The Oak Ridge Boys’ sing-a-long, “Elvira.”
Merle Haggard. Buck Owens. Loretta Lynn. Alabama harmonizing about “Mountain Music” or “Tennessee River.”
Alan Jackson’s “Chattahoochee” or sentimental “Where Were You?”
I knew they were country music artists, writing and singing country songs.
No gray areas in this music genre.
Country songs had a country twang to them. Pickup trucks with a gun rack. Cowboy boots. Big silver belt buckles. A toothpick resting on your lower lip when a Marlboro wasn’t lit.
Songs about rivers, red dirt roads, cold beer, whiskey, dogs, highways and lost or new love.
I watched the Academy of Country Music Awards last Sunday night. There was not a baseball or hockey game on TV. No golf. No Andy Griffith or Gomer Pyle reruns, either.
I needed mindless TV. I settled on the country music awards show. And I ended up debating with myself on what’s country music and what’s pop music?
Question: What is country music today?
Answer: If it’s played on a country music radio station, well, then, it’s country music, right?
Country music today doesn’t always include fiddles, banjos, steel guitars or a guy blowing in a jug.
This transformation didn’t happen overnight. It’s been a gradual evolution from Merle Haggard to Blake Shelton, from Dolly Parton to Kacey Musgraves. I watched it from a distance. I love most genres of music, including country music, old and new.
I grew up listening to country-rock music. Poco. Pure Prairie League. Marshall Tucker. Charlie Daniels. New Riders of the Purple Sage. Ozark Mountain Daredevils. Sneaking in the back door to hear Arrow Memphis at the old Ricco’s Lounge in Belleville.
I know George Strait is a country music singer. A good one. He wears a cowboy hat. He doesn’t yodel but probably could. There’s a twinge of pure, pure country in his voice and music. Great songwriter.
Jason Aldean, too. He looks and sings like a cowboy. Tough. Deep voice.
Reba McEntire is a country music singer. Her voice is 100 percent country. She’s a redhead, too. I like her, too.
Chris Stapleton looks like a country singer, too. Or a member of Grand Funk Railroad or Marshall Tucker Band. Or a guy who used to work security at the old Mississippi River Festival concerts. I like him.
Garth Brooks is a country singer. I think. He wears a cowboy hat. He sings about friends in low places, a popular redneck anthem which I’m not sure we need today.
Rascal Flatts? I like the harmony. That chubby guy can sing. I always cheer for members of the Chub Club, right?
Jerry Jeff Walker was one of my favorite country singers and songwriters. Mr. Bojanges. L.A. Freeway. I think Jerry Jeff was a country singer. He wore a cowboy hat anyway.
Today’s Dan and Shay? They seem more pop, like Hall and Oates than Brooks and Dunn.
Carrie Underwood’s pool party? I can’t see Loretta Lynn singing at a pool party.
Willie, Waylon and Merle were not Hunter Hayes, Keith Urban and Kenny Chesney.
Growing up, country music was what Grandma Tockstein watched on Channel 11 on Saturday evenings. The living room had to be quiet for a few hours while Grandma watched her “cowboy music.” Porter Waggoner. Buck Owens. Roy Clark. Charley Pride. Charley Rich. Hee-Haw. Waggoner sure had a lot of sparkle in his suit jackets. Minnie Pearl was a hoot.
Once, we were on a family vacation in Colorado. Mom got us tickets for a campfire meal with cowboy music. We drank lemonade from a tin coffee cup and got barbecue stains on our white T-shirts. The music at the campfire “cowboy” dinner was pure country & western. Band members wore big cowboy hats. Their best song was something like “Who Spit Tobacco on Tess’s Wedding Gown.” Steel guitars. A fiddle or two. A guy blowing into a jug. We clapped our hands to the beat, even if there wasn’t one.
I watched the country music awards show last Sunday night. I’m still not sure what’s country music or pop music or what’s in-between. If it was nominated or received an award, then it’s country, right? I know George Strait is a country music singer. No question. He wears a cowboy hat.