Thursday, January 12, 2012

Dumbing Down - It Happens

As far as conditioned, desensitized, brainwashed, dumbed-down, evangelical "mainstream" Christianity, a scenario from the world of country music comes to mind. The story I'm gonna share here isn't a first hand account. I may not have every fact spot on. It's a story that's become a part of music business and studio world lore - which is where it was communicated to me a few years ago. It's a true story, however.


To set the background a bit, a lot of country music "purists" point directly to Garth Brooks for the poor state country music hit in the mid and late 90s. While he was wildly successful, and a very talented vocalist/entertainer, his artistry was considered rather shallow in a lot of ways - less music-oriented, more flash-oriented. He opened the door for marginally talented people like Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney, and Shania Twain to become mega-stars - while singing shallow songs but putting on elaborate, sexy stage shows. Before long, country music became a bunch of largely urban people (who wouldn't know a billy-goat from their elbow) trying to write and sing songs about things they thought sounded country. It was all very shallow, and something of an affront to people who were devoted to the music. Purists left in droves (which is part of the reason bluegrass artists like Allison Krauss began to find a larger audience in the 90s - country music purists who appreciated artistry needed a place to go). Things got so bad that one major trade paper featured a cover with a caption that said "Can This Man Save Country Music?" under a photo of Brian White. Brian freakin' White. But...the people who weren't genuinely devoted to the craft and artistry of country music stayed with it, and celebrated the shallow, untalented acts and shallow songs, unable or unwilling to discern any difference.


Now, to the story...


Paul Overstreet is one of the greatest songwriters ever in any genre of music. It'd take a week's worth of posts to list all of his hits. Among his hits in the country music genre (as performed by him and by other artists) are "Forever and Ever, Amen", "I Won't Take Less Than Your Love", "Dance A Little Closer To Me", and "Love Can Build A Bridge". Great, great songs. Classics, with deep, moving, and provocative lyrics. 


In the late 90s, he'd spent some time focusing on songwriting (from what I heard, he'd been on a "getaway" of some sort to do this writing), and came away with 6 or 8 of what he considered some of the better songs he'd ever written. He took them into the studio and made demos, and then proudly took them to present them to the record label. Again, he considered these songs to be some of the very best he'd ever written - and considering his catalogue, that's saying something.


The record company hated them. They told him they weren't commercial enough and they wouldn't be able to do anything with them.


He went home furious, steaming at the shallow crap that country music had become, steaming at what passed for a "song" within the industry. He sat down, and almost as a joke and to make a point, he determined to write the worst, most cheesy, crappy, shallow song he could possibly write. This is one of the greatest songwriters ever making a specific, determined effort to write the worst song he could write. He then went into the studio and made a demo of it to give to the record company. When he finished, this was the fruit of his labor...


"She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy"


The record label loved it. They pitched it to Kenny Chesney. He loved it. He recorded it, and it went to #1.




316, anyone?


Might be time to give bluegrass a try.

22 comments:

  1. I loved Paul Overstreet growing up! :) and yes, I have to agree with the shallowness of today's songs in general, most of them are re-runs of the same story, lol.
    Oh, and Alison Krauss is my top listen to in iTunes.

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    1. Yeah, Overstreet's a songwriter's songwriter, like Jimmy Webb. Great artist with words.

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  2. ...as I brace for the responses of people who love "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy", demanding that I present indisputable evidence that the above story is true.

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  3. Ok, I can tolerate some country music, but I started losing my interest about the time Tanya Tucker tried to be Dolly. Nobody can be Dolly.

    I do love Bluegrass. Now I've begun to follow Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers. I love the banjo, mandolin and bass. I listen to it on Pandora so I don't always see what band is playing but I love the music.

    And if you think She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy is a travesty, what about Watermelon Crawl?

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  4. I have to say I don't like country music. My opinion of it is the opinion you hold of the current country crop. However, I do like Western (as in Riders in the Sky). Call me weird if you like; I can take it. ;)

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  5. How funny, I had no idea Paul Overstreet wrote that Tractor song - I've never heard much about him; we used to have a concert CD which included Paul Overstreet, but other than that I had no idea he was so prolific.

    I consider myself a very untalented/undiscerning music person, (though I LOVE listening to musict) but I am proud to say I've always hated She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy. Phew!

    That is a hilarious and awful story. My siblings and I have a few times made short stories spoofing various genres (such as Gothic potboiler romances) and and we had SOOO much fun doing it, but you do tend to want to throw up after writing something with so many cliches - hazardous! ;-D

    L

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  6. I remember Paul Overstreet... had one of his cassette albums years ago. Good stuff. Great story about STMTS! Only in the music biz... :)

    Jim K.

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  7. I love your example.

    It's a shame, really, that this story is even relevant to your cause. Sad that mainstream Christianity has fallen this far, reduced to what amounts to a consumer base, and most of them don't even realize they're just driving up the value of something that wasn't worth what they paid for it in the first place.

    My husband calls it Ringtone Christianity. It's catchy, it's cheap, it gets people's attention and makes them dance for fifteen seconds, and then everyone forgets about it. They download the next big thing and move on to whatever fad catches them next. The bigger the fuss made over something the more money some talentless flavor of the week makes, and he then churns out more of the same empty nonsense.

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    1. Your husband sounds like a smart man. ;-)

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  8. *raises hand* I like "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy". LOL Because it's hilarous and makes me laugh. I don't like it in the same way as I like his other songs, which are thoughtful, beautiful, and sentimental. I grew up with Paul Overstreet. Even saw him live once. It just goes to show what a great songwriter he is that he can purposefully write a stupid song and it STILL becomes a hit! :D

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  9. I'll own up to liking STMTS--mostly because of the cheese factor, though, NOT because it's quality music. Also because my husband and I spent a lot of our 'dates' in tractors and combines. It bring back fun memories of those days. I've mostly given up on current country music and mostly listen to the classic country station here--lots of George Jones, et al.

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  10. Well its the same thing that happened to rock music back in the day when we got punk rock as a reaction to meaningless lyrics and generic melodies. When commercialism takes over a genre, it gets processed and repackaged, though there are some examples where something can be both popular AND real.I have always thought of bluegrass as the punk rock of country music, don't you think?

    Funny thing, though- now when I hear a hit song from the 70's that I would have dismissed as commercial trash back then, I turn the radio up....nostalgia and approaching 55 make it sound better, I guess!!

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  11. Petticoat PhilosopherJanuary 13, 2012 at 6:29 PM

    LOL! I always suspected that "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy" was tongue-in-cheek, even though so many people seemed to take it at face value. Thanks for confirming it! (Completely different thing, but it kind of reminds me of how the 1994 movie "Clueless" was meant to be a commentary on the vapid shallowness of Southern California culture (and based on an Austen novel, no less), but everyone took it seriously and its main characters were held up as idols for young girls. *headdesk*)

    I'm usually a lurker, but thank you for the this post, Lewis! I am a musician also and I play a lot of Irish and Appalachian music (which I'm sure you know are closely related). So country music--REAL country music--has always been something I gravitated towards and I grew up listening to Dolly, Emmylou and the other classic artists. Country music used to be a true folk genre--and folk music is about skilled musicianship, tight lyrics, and great story-telling--the opposite of flash.

    I don't see how the gimmicky, overproduced crap that gets called country now bears any resemblance to true country. Sticking a pedal steel bridge on a crappy, autotuned pop song does not make it country. (Seriously, autotune in country? A genre that traditionally placed a high premium on good vocals?) Count me as one of the people that flocked to Alison Krauss/Union Station. At least we have her!

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    1. The music industry relies on autotune as if it were life support these days. I even know of gospel artists singing through autotune in live concerts. First time I saw it live, in someone's on-stage rack, my first thought was, "What's the point of this? Why even come out here and sing? Just sing on pitch - or find another profession." Geez.

      When autotune started to become really popular 10-12 years ago, it gave birth to an entire cottage industry. There's one guy, in the Christian music world, who stayed booked solid autotuning records. They called him "The Pitch Doctor".

      I love your last paragraph. I always call today's country music "cheap pop crap with some fiddle and steel". That's what a lot of it is. The talent level of the performers has come up a bit over the last few years, but the material still has a ways to go.

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    2. Petticoat PhilosopherJanuary 14, 2012 at 1:58 PM

      Yeah, I remember that time when autotune started to become ubiquitous. I was a teenager at the time and I remember noticing that all the new pop stars that were coming out now seemed to all share this strange voice quality that I couldn't quite put my finger on. Now I know that it was just autotune--even when it's done skillfully, it never sounds completely natural. You can usually tell when it's being used if you listen carefully.

      Interesting that you say the talent level of the performers has gone up. You are far more keyed in to what's going on in current country music than I am, so I'll take your word for it. But, from my point-of-view, it seems like the talent level has really hit rock bottom. Two words: Taylor Swift. An autotuned plastic, pop princess masquerading as an authentic country singer-songwriter, manufactured by the industry, who also markets purity culture to young girls. I bet she's just your favorite person! (I know she's mine.) lol.

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  12. im glad i no longer listen to country music but i would say this is true in many walks of life its all a game looking to draw numbers and never nothing of truth and realty even socalled gospel music of this gen is the same where are the mahalia jacksons of this gen that sing with real feeling and songs that last a life time and never grow old

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  13. I thought the silly tongue-in-cheek song (often with rampant double entendres) was a sort of subgenre of country music. Kind of like campy, comic relief Hee Haw style. STMTS isn't the best example of that sort of thing though. I am old enough to remember the rampantly then-popular Bellamy Brothers hit "If I Said You Had a Beautiful Body (Would You Hold It Against Me?)" from back in the 1970s when country music was ... pretty much exactly as you describe it in the mid-90s.

    I don't find any of that music half as offensive as the ostentatious piety of authoritarian powermongers pretending they speak for anything Jesus would have recognized as his own.

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    1. "I thought the silly tongue-in-cheek song (often with rampant double entendres) was a sort of subgenre of country music."

      It used to be obvious, though, and certain performers were known for having that as their niche. Guys like Mac Davis and David Allen Coe, for instance, were known for it, but even in its silliness, it was often pretty clever, because the people singing about these silly things within the country/rural culture had actually lived the things they were poking fun at. It also helped that for every "campy" tune there was a "Wichita Lineman" or "If We Make It Through December" or "He Stopped Loving Her Today" or "Chiseled In Stone".

      Nowadays, country music is largely being written by city folk sitting in an office somewhere in Nashville, expected to churn out songs in production line fashion rather than from inspiration. They often have no real-life connection to the country way of life, and they write things which they think "sound" like the country way of life. The artistry of the culture is gone. As a result, the campy stuff is the norm, and the songs like I mentioned earlier are few and far between. Look at the crappy songs a guy like Brad Paisley churns out. He's an UNREAL talent as a guitarist, but how can he be taken seriously as an artist when he's churning out country cliches and campy stuff like "I Wanna Check You For Ticks" and "Mud On The Tires"?

      I remember the CMT Crossroads episode several years ago that featured Paisley and John Mayer. Both incredible guitar players (I'd probably give the edge to Paisley by a nose), but Paisley isn't even in the same zip code as Mayer as a songwriter. They were comparing Mayer's "My Stupid Mouth" to Paisley's "Me Neither", and the look on Mayer's face was priceless. Sort of an "I can't believe they're comparing my song to this cheese" look on his face - and he was right.


      "Wichita Lineman" is an example of depth. The guy that wrote it, Jimmy Webb (who I consider the greatest songwriter EVER), was driving near Wichita, saw a guy climbing up a telephone pole, and said to himself, "I wonder what that guy's thinking?" That's art. Combined with the chord progression he placed it over...wow.


      That's the level of depth I'd like to see the Christian community strive for in our faith, but it takes some serious thinking. We go for what's easy.

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    2. I don't think you're exactly wrong, but as long as Nanci Griffith, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, and Mary Chapin Carpenter keep putting out albums, I'm not dying for lack of depth in country. (I don't include Krauss there as she's not a songwriter, but a singer/fiddler par excellence). Of course you won't hear much of any of them on country radio. And for some reason I feel compelled to mention, they're not men.

      Now I'm going to go cue up Wichita Lineman...

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  14. LOL @ Incongruous Circumspection that made me laugh! i have very many fond memories of sitting back listening to the country gr8s while in Colorado. :)

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  15. I think music today is essentially being strip-mined for commercial purposes and the artistic aspect of it takes a back seat to how well it can sell. Write a song, put it out, get everyone to love it (for a time) and just play it until it dies - until everyone is sick of it, in other words. It drives me crazy but then again, I tend to listen to artists who are a bit more off the scope. Someone mentioned "over-produced" - that's a great term and very true. My favorite albums tend to be live recordings that aren't all doctored up. Let's hear the mistakes (rare though they may be). Let's hear the ad-libs and the funny quips the artist comes up with. It's much more authentic and meaningful to me than the musical equivalent of a portrait of a 94-year-old man whose face is airbrushed to look like the skin of a baby's butt.

    Jim K.

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