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John Whitehead's Commentary

Whatever Happened to Country Music?

John Whitehead
"Don't lose sight of our roots," Vince Gill, host of the 1999 Country Music Association (CMA) Awards in Nashville, said. "They're important to us."

Gill obviously realized what is happening in the country music world. As various award recipients such as the Dixie Chicks and Shania Twain performed their numbers, it quickly became apparent that very little pure country music was coming forth from the hallowed rafters of the Grand Ole Opry last Wednesday evening.

The country awards show opened with the Dixie Chicks emerging from beneath the billowy sequined skirts of dancers high on stilts. Standing amidst smoke and disco lights to sing one of their current tunes, it was reminiscent of MTV. The glitz and glamour that followed in the rest of the show made it painfully clear that the people who run CMA have indeed forgotten the humble beginnings of country music.

The roots of country music are found in the field holler of the southern black slaves as they sang while picking the white man's cotton. The lament of the slave eventually fused with the folk music of the Scotch-Irish settlers who populated the southern United States, evolving into the country music that many came to love.

The yodeling of Jimmie Rodgers and the ballads of Hank Williams created a new form of music. Adapted to the electric guitar by Ernest Tubb and others, the twang that characterizes country music was born.

Sadly, few Americans know the history or remember the people who helped establish country music. By the mid-1950s, country music-bred Mississippian Elvis Presley had adapted the country style to rhythm and blues and helped breed a new music, rock 'n' roll.

Always at the base of country music was its distinctiveness, largely gospel-inspired, in that it was the music of the people of the church-going South. Its base lies in the morality taught in southern churches. Real country music was also distinctly folk in its origin, and it was tied to a particular people--country folk, not city slickers. Thus, in the true sense of the word, country could never be pop.

Vince Gill, after the Dixie Chicks had won yet another award, said, "There's three new sheriffs in town, folks. Get used to it." Gill was serving notice that things have changed in music town. The crossover success of Canadian-born Shania Twain and the giggly Dixie Chicks has shown that country music, as we have known it, may be a thing of the past.

In an effort to justify this switching of horses in mid-stream and make it more acceptable to the country music fan, pop stars Jewel and the group 'N Sync performed for the crowd. Jewel's duet with country giant Merle "Okie from Muskogee" Haggard made them both look out of place on the Grand Ole Opry stage, however. This attempt to "pop-ize" country signals that pop reigns supreme, even in Nashville.

Sadly, the demise of country music into its new pop form of glitz and glamour has its origins in money. Faith Hill, for example, threatened to boycott the show rather than sing her latest single which the CMA's TV committee preferred. CBS stepped in and told the committee to make sure that she got on the show. When New York executives are pulling the strings in Nashville, money is taking precedent over music.

This was evident in what should have been a premiere award of the night--Best Musician. The CMA's decision not to give the same stature to what is the backbone of country music--the award was presented before the telecast and briefly acknowledged during the show--was a shameful example of priorities gone astray. Guitar legend Chet Atkins captured it perfectly in 1988 when the award was also kicked to the sidelines by saying CMA "forgot what the 'M' stands for."

Another poignant example of television's domination of the show was country music legend George Jones's absence. Jones had pulled out of the show when CMA asked him to perform an abbreviated version of his hit song, Choices. CBS wanted to keep the ceremony moving along quickly so the viewing audience would stay glued to their sets, but many lesser-knowns were allowed to perform longer songs. Choices was nominated for best single of the year but lost to the Dixie Chicks's Wide Open Spaces. When Alan Jackson registered a protest by interrupting his performance of Pop A Top to sing a few bars of Jones's song, the crowd gave him a standing ovation.

Country music has come a long way. What developed as the language of the people, though, has now become the tool of the money industry.

As Bob Dylan said, "Money doesn't talk, it swears." In this case, a true art form has lost its roots and integrity. Moreover, money and the desire to be in the media spotlight may end up destroying a national treasure.

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Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His new book Battlefield America: The War on the American People  (SelectBooks, 2015) is available online at Whitehead can be contacted at

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