Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Why Shouldn't We Have A Country Music Program?

Although it's common knowledge that when it comes to making money in music, jazz doesn't seem to be the easiest way to do it; although there are people who make a good living as jazz musicians, the majority of professional jazzers have to augment their living with teaching at the very least, if not a full time day job or outright separate profession altogether. We know that the market share in the United States  for jazz is around 3%, if even that. Despite the doom and gloom, college jazz music programs chug along, churning out musicians who, if they are talented and work hard, will face challenges, and if they are less talented and work less hard, are going to be in for a rude awakening.

Meanwhile, south of the Mason-Dixon line, another style of music (which shares some common heritage
with jazz) is flourishing: Country Music. Although not as popular statistically as Rock or Pop, according to the Nielsen Soundscan Sales Records, you can see that Country is moving up faster than other categories. For example, in Digital Album Sales, Jazz was down by 3%( the only genre that went down in this category, sadly.) while Country went up over 37%! That's more than any other genre.
Genre Total Album Sales Genre Digital Album Sales
(In Millions) (In Millions)
Genre 2012 2011 % Chg. Genre 2012 2011 % Chg.
Alternative 52.2 54.6 -4.30% Alternative 26.7 24.4 9.50%
Christian/Gospel* 22.9 23.7 -3.40% Christian/Gospel* 5.3 4.8 11.10%
Classical 7.5 9.4 -20.50% Classical 2.6 2.3 14.60%



4.20% Country


8.1 37.80%
Dance/Electronic 8.7 9.9 -12.00% Dance/Electronic 4.9 4.8 1.20%




Jazz 2.5 2.6 -3.60%
Latin 9.7 11.7 -17.60% Latin 1.4 1.1 23.20%
Metal 31.9 31.9 -0.30% Metal 11.2 9.6 16.30%
New Age 1.7 1.9 -12.90% New Age 0.6 0.6 13.60%
R&B 49.7 55.3 -10.20% R&B 16.3 14.8 10.20%
Rap 24.2 27.3 -11.40% Rap 10.7 9.3 14.70%
Rock 102.5 100.5 2.00% Rock 43.1 36.3 18.80%
Soundtrack 12.3 13 -5.20% Soundtrack 6 5.4 12.70%

Country has been doing so well in the past few decades that SESAC (the Performing Rights Organization which I utilize to collect my royalties for airplay and so forth), which used to seek out indie jazz musicians in the 90's, put a halt to that and moved their offices from New York to Nashville( Music City U.S.A. and the center of Country music recording).

If we care at all about whether our students are able to earn a living in music, is it not within the realm of possibility to consider that perhaps we are leading them down the wrong path by pushing jazz on them? I say this because many of my students have a sort of vague idea of what they want to do in music when they graduate. It ranges from , "I wanna teach," to " I wanna do studio work," to " I want a job like the one you have, " to "I wanna be in a sweet-ass rock band." I find that many young jazz students don't automatically have an ingrown love of jazz music, or much of a relationship with it outside of playing in their high school big band and maybe a few youtube videos. Many students, even ones who diligently practice, still have trouble playing jazz authentically because they don't listen to it on a regular basis and don't hear the nuance in the rhythm and phrasing. Furthermore, the skills required to be a really great jazz musician take hours of practice and even then the goal of being able to play something like "Giant Steps" can still be somewhat elusive for some.

I know some of you are going to think I'm insane, and I probably am( it was the CRNs that pushed me over the edge, ha ha) but why should we not have a Country Music program? Indeed, whether you love country music or not, you have to admit that there is a demand for it. It's certainly way more popular than jazz. It's probably a lot easier than jazz, in terms of technical skill( no value judgement, by the way.) If students don't have any predisposition for any particular genre, why not steer them towards one which will give them more possibility of financial gain?

I was thinking about this because I am actually fairly ignorant regarding country music. This is in part because, being an East Coast College Educated Liberal Elitist whatever you wanna call me, I have a probably unfair prejudice against country music; I associate it with white people in cowboy hats, pick up trucks, voting for Republicans and terrorizing minorities. Although it would be naive to think that many country music fans don't fall into the Conservative- Pro- Gun -Anti- Abortion -Hate- Non -White- South- Will -Rise- Again box, things have changed and it's not as cut and dry geographically. Look at Austin, Texas; it's almost as weird and liberal as Portland. Heck, the entire state of Texas, in political terms, could potentially be a blue state by the next election(due to the rise in the Latino population, and maybe because white folks are waking up? Maybe because Governor Rick Perry is so embarrassing?).

It's unfortunate that my own political prejudice kept me from listening to certain music. It's interesting to note that Johnny Cash, considered one of the greatest heroes of Country Music, would probably be considered a bleeding heart liberal in today's climate. Here's a quote from an article from The Daily Beast:

A few years after he recorded Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian (1965)—a record filled with references to Native Americans being marginalized—Cash performed at the St. Francis Indian
Johnny Cash
Mission in South Dakota to help raise funds for a new school. He clearly related to the economic despair he saw, but could not understand why the government had not stepped in the way it had intervened to help his family during the Great Depression. “I wonder where in the hell’s the federal aid, the state aid, where’s the funds the people’s supposed to have for things like this?” This was an artist whose politics came from the gut.

Another interesting thing to note about Country Music ( white as we believe it to be , and which before the 1940's was referred to as hillbilly music), is that Wikipedia claims it owes a debt, just like every other form of American music, to the African American experience:

Country music is often erroneously thought of as solely the creation of European Americans. However, a great deal of style—and of course, the banjo, a major instrument in most early American folk songs—came from African Americans. One of the reasons country music was created by African Americans, as well as European Americans, is because blacks and whites in rural communities in the south often worked and played together, just as recollected by DeFord Bailey in the PBS documentary, DeFord Bailey: A Legend Lost. Influential black guitarist Arnold Shultz, known as the primary source for thumb style, or Travis picking, played with white musicians in west-central Kentucky.

I also found this tidbit about another God of Country Music, Hank Williams, interesting:

Rufus Payne(an African American street performer) met Hank Williams Sr. when Hank was eight years old and according to his Jr., Rufus would come around and play Hank Williams Sr. guitar. Tee Tot(Payne) is best known for being a mentor to Hank Williams, Sr. His influence in exposing Williams to blues and other African American influences helped Williams successfully fuse hillbilly, folk and blues into his own unique style, which in turn expanded and exposed both white and black audiences to the differing sounds.

I'm starting to open my mind towards country music. I spent all weekend with a Johnny Cash CD in the CD Player in my car. It's a "Lost Session" album; I bought it at Starbucks. It's not bad; I and my 4 year old son found Cash's bass -baritone voice to be soothing(my son said, "This is relaxing music!"). Meanwhile, my jazz pianist wife kept begging me to turn it off!( I think she believes I've gone batty. Blame it on the CRNs.....)

Clearly, I'm no expert in Country music. If we were going to add country music to our curriculum, I wouldn't, at this point, feel remotely qualified to teach a class on it, much less teach a class on melodic metalcore( so many types of metal, bro....). So where would we look to find a model for our new Bachelor of Music in Country Music Studies? Yes, I did a search for this, and all I could find was at East Tennessee State University, they have in their Department of Appalachian Studies a Bluegrass, Old Time, and Country Music Studies program!

Founded 30 years ago in 1982 by Jack Tottle, Bluegrass, Old Time, and Country Music Studies at East Tennesse State University is the oldest established program of its kind at any four-year institution. This unique program has thrived on the philosophies of preserving the musical traditions rooted in Appalachian culture while at the same time encouraging creativity and development of prevailing styles. Students from around the globe come to ETSU exclusively to study the music of the mountains in the rich cultural hearth of Northeast Tennessee.

If you are serious about pursuing a full-time career in music we suggest you look closely at our new Bachelor of Arts degree in Bluegrass, Old Time, and Country Music Studies – the only degree of its kind in the world.

If you look at the alumni  page and see how many "Album Of The Year" awards their graduates have won( including Kenny Chesney), then maybe you might start to wonder if we should change our tune, literally. Maybe, although I believe that success in any musical genre is not guaranteed. A graduate of a jazz program might wanna think about moving to New York City, whereas a Country Music person might want to consider Nashville; both are almost impossibly competitive. Check out this article on what NOT to do in Nashville. It's clearly not a walk in the park. It seems as though musicians on both the jazz scene and the country scenes experience a lot of paying dues more often than overnight stardom and success.

I actually asked my Guitar Heroes class the other day, " If you had a choice between a country music program and a jazz program, which would you choose?" Well, they all said jazz, and the reasoning was that studying jazz gives you the skill to learn any genre of music. Ok, Cool!
I suppose in theory this is true. I don't believe you can play jazz on a high level if you don't really commit to it. Do we want to graduate an army of musicians who, because they look at jazz as a stepping stone to some other unnamed genre of their choosing, play jazz only well enough to pass their classes? I'm not really sure. My gut says no. (But this is already happening, unfortunately.)

But what is the definitive answer to my original question? Should we add Country Music to our program at PSU? Well, if you read this article, the answer is a resounding NO! While browsing for information on Country Music, I happened upon this by Steve Slack of Wayne University and Jim Gundlach of Auburn University; they have done extensive research on " The Effect Of Country Music On Suicide." ( I am not making this up!)

In this article, we explore the link between a particular form of popular music(country music) and metropolitan suicide rates. We contend that the themes found in country music foster a suicidal mood among people already at the risk of suicide and that it is thereby associated with a high suicide rate. The effect is buttressed by the country subculture and a link between this subculture and a racial status related to an increased suicide risk.

Holy Waylon Jennings! It's an 8 page article which links Country Music airplay to white suicide. I guess we might want to hold off on changing our curriculum. Perhaps Country Music albums should come with a warning label? We don't want to lead anyone to suicide, that's for sure. I guess I'll have to put a hold on my outline for a Norwegian Black Metal ensemble as well.......

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