|http://www.sina.com.cn 2003/03/04 09:55 北京青年报|
Flipping through CDs in a music store in central Beijing recently, I was pleasantly surprised to find a small "Country Music" section. Being from Texas and a big fan of country music, I took a look at the CDs there. The covers were encouraging: there were pictures of cowboys, ranches and cat-tle. But as I looked at the titles of the songs, I discovered that almost none were what Americans would consider country music. Aside from a few classic John Denver hits from the 1970s, these "country" songs generally fellsintosother categories: folk, light rock and even blues. Absent from the compilations were the names of huge contempo-rary American country stars like Brooks and Dunn, the Dixie Chicks, Alan Jackson, George Strait, Garth Brooks, Mark Chestnut and Alabama. It occurred to me that few of my Chinese friends have ever heard true country music.
Country music has its roots in the American drive west in the 1800s. Not many people outside the United States realize how popular it is among Americans. Today country music boasts more radio listeners than pop - some 80 million from coast to coast. Though country music has traditionally been the music of rural America - in particular, the South (e.g. Tennessee, Georgia), Southwest ( Texas, Arizona), the Plains States (Oklahoma, Nebraska) and the non-coastal West ( Montana, Wyoming) - it now has a large and growing audience in urban centers and suburbs too. Still, country music's roots are, as the name suggests, in the countryside. A drive across the United States makes this clear. In cities, a survey of radio stations yields music of every kind: pop, hard rock, soft rock/adult contemporary, soul/rhythm and blues, rap/hip-hop, country, jazz, blues, and even classical. But as you leave the cities and wind your waysintosrural America, the only music you continue to hear on the radio is country.
Last week's American Grammy Awards offered powerful testimony to country music's broad appeal: country music artists were nominated for two of the top awards (the Texas femalesgroupsDixie Chicks for "best album" and Alan Jackson for "best song"). Even more tellingly, four of the ten best-selling CDs in the United States in 2002 were by country artists (including "Home" by the Dixie Chicks and "Drive" by Alan Jackson). Clearly, country music is extremely popular in the United States.
Unlike pop, rock and rap, however, country music has a very limited appeal to foreign listeners. In China, for example, you can hear Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey, Britney Spears and N-Sync at dance clubs and in bars, and you can easily find their CDs in Chinese stores. But you never hear hits by even the biggest country stars, nor can you find their CDs here. This is true in most other countries as well.
Generally, the two most important musical compo-nents of country music are stringed instruments (usually, an acoustic or electric guitar, and often a steel guitar and fiddle) and the singer's voice itself. Country music eschews the "electronic" sound so typical of much pop music. Above all, the singer's voice is what puts the "country" stamp on the music. Country singers almost always have a southern, or at least rural, accent.
As important as the music itself, though, is the music's message; here again, country music is very different from pop, rock, rap or other popular music forms.shavingslistened to country music for years, I've identified eight major themes: 1) love, 2) love gone bad, 3) cowboy humor, 4) partying, 5) the country lifestyle, 6) regional pride, 7) family, and 8) "God and country". The first two themes are by no means unique to country music. But the other six themes do distinguish country from most other forms of American popular music. In short, country folks have a sense of humor all their own; love to party cowboy-style; live life very differently than their urban counterparts; take great pride in their hometowns, states and regions; attach tremendous importance to family; and aren't shy about expressing religious and patriotic feelings. These themes set country music apart from the music of, say, Britney Spears or N-Sync. Country music's message tends to appeal mostly to rural white southerners and westerners. As a group, country-music listeners tend to be farmers and blue-collar workers; they are generally poorer than average Americans. They are also somewhat more conservative in their political and social views.
Country's thematic versatility enables it to draw on subject matter that is beyond the reach of other forms of popular music. Country music was the first to dare to take up the very painful subject of 9/11, for example. Alan Jackson's huge country hit "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)?", a deeply moving ballad about how Americans reacted to the terrorist strikes, instantly touched a chord across the country. Other country singers took up this difficult subject too.
Country music, rooted as it is in quintessentially American experiences and circumstances, has much to say about American life, and it says it with an eloquence and sincerity that are hard to match.
(For more information on David's upcoming lecture on American country music, please see the notice on the right.)
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