OPINION: What happened to country music?

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The 2017 Kicker Country Stampede at Tuttle Creek State Park on June 24, 2017. (File Photo by Emily Starkey | Collegian Media Group)

The Kicker Country Stampede is right around the corner, ready to start its 23rd year of rural twang and mud in weird places for people from all over the country. I’ve never gone, but its proximity to Manhattan is making me think about something that’s bugged me for ages.

What happened to country music?

Country music is traditionally associated with rural Americans, farmers especially, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that most modern country is more like pop music with a disingenuous Southern accent.

Much like pop music, modern country is very repetitive and samey. There’s usually a truck, a can of beer, a thing about God and probably some tight jeans to make it saucy. It’s been like this for years.

It doesn’t help that every male country vocalist sounds almost the same, and their choice of instruments is hardly original. For a fun drinking game, pull up a playlist of country love songs and take a shot every time you hear a twangy guitar note when the singer ends a verse.

More than anything, the subject matter is what really seems to have changed in popular country music. Most of the popular stuff is about parties or having a good time, leaving little room for meaningful expression toward the reality of rural life — probably because country stars don’t live in simple farmhouses anymore.

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The 2017 Kicker Country Stampede at Tuttle Creek State Park on June 24, 2017. (File Photo by Emily Starkey | Collegian Media Group)

I really like old country music. I like the genuine songs about persevering through rural American troubles with soul and heart. Folk music and bluegrass are very close to what we used to call country music, but these genres unfortunately don’t get as much play on the radio as, say, Florida Georgia Line.

I’ve often wondered why country made the switch from soulful songs about hardship and optimism to parties, tractors and beer. Maybe it has something to do with the increasing income and efficiency of your average American farm? Being a farmer certainly isn’t as bad as it used to be, but I don’t see many of them partying every weekend like they do in country music videos.

Maybe it’s about chasing an image. Life in rural America can be tough — you have to drive a lot to get anything done and all the big city kids look down on you. Not to mention the tornadoes.

Country music producers surely know this, so maybe modern country is supposed to show a better version of reality for its fans. It’s an escape from rural life rather than a commentary or celebration of it like in days of old.

In essence, being “country” isn’t really about where you’re from and what you’ve learned there, it’s just wearing a hat. A big, audacious hat that lets you fit in with all the larger-than-life country heroes and their wannabe fans for a reasonable fee. Is that really what we want from a genre of music that’s so uniquely American?

I’m not a musical historian, but the rise of modern country music is something worth thinking about. In the meantime, I guess I still have the sweet words of John Denver and the like to listen to: “Country roads, take me home.”

Kyle Hampel is the opinion editor for the Collegian and a senior in English. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Collegian. Please send comments to opinion@kstatecollegian.com.

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Kyle Hampel
Those words you just read were written by me, Kyle Hampel. I am a 2019 graduate in English. I have strong feelings about barbeque pizza and the Oxford comma. I am a former copy chief, community editor, feature editor, designer and deputy multimedia editor. Beloit, Kansas, is proud to call me their own, along with several other towns I've lived in that aren't as special to me.