This is “Country”?

To be perfectly honest, I’ve never been a huge fan of country music. I grew up as a drummer, and as far as traditional country music, a drummer is either unnecessary, or reduced to playing “boom-chick-boom-chick” kinda stuff that is mind-numbingly boring. I tended to agree with one of my idols, Buddy Rich, on the topic. When he was admitted to the hospital not long before his death, he was asked “Mr. Rich, are you allergic to anything?” He replied, “Yes. Country music.” When I began to play acoustic guitar, I discovered that there was actually some music that would qualify as “country” that I liked. I developed a taste for bluegrass, traditional folk music, newgrass, and even some pop country. (Still not that crazy about the Porter Waggoner/George Jones/Johnny Cash stuff. Your tastes may varry.)

This evening, I took my daughter and a friend of hers to the Tri-State Fair and Exposition here in Amarillo. I’m probably not the best person to talk to about fairs – I used to love the Louisiana State Fair in Shreveport (my home town), and of course the State Fair of Texas in Dallas. Now THAT’S a State Fair. By comparison, the Tri-State Fair is a carnival, with some livestock exhibits. But they do have one real outdoor stage set up, and they booked a recording artist with some national exposure to play the fair, for one night. (I’m sure they had others, too – I was just too busy to pay much attention to the fair’s schedule.) The artist in question, James Otto, was billed as a Country act. I therefore expected to hear a country act. What I heard was not what I expected.

I checked out the stage an hour or two before the show started. For those of you that are musicians, you’ll see from the list of instruments on stage that this didn’t seem like a country act. I saw two keyboards – one of which was a digital version of a Hammond B3 organ. There were a half-dozen guitars on stage – a Gibson Explorer, a Gibson Jumbo acoustic guitar, and a host of other instruments that would be at home on any rock acts’ stage. The bass player had a Fender and a Hoffner (the famous “Beatles” bass favored by Sir Paul in their early years). The only thing that suggested a country act was a small pedal steel and a Dobro.

The guy behind the mixing board chose “We Will Rock You” (Queen) for the warm-up music to lead in to the show. I remarked to a guy in line with my daughter, “Wow…this must be a rock act…I can’t believe they’d use Queen to open for a country act. I was wrong. They did.

Otto came out, and opened with a song that would have been at home at a Allman Brothers or Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. He followed that with “Night Moves” by Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band. Decidedly NOT country. It wasn’t until the fourth number that he did anything that sounded even remotely country, and that was only due to the fact that the arrangement had a pedal steel guitar solo in it.

I don’t know anything about Otto. He said that he’d recently had a song that had reached number one on the charts for a couple of weeks, and had been on tour with a number of big country acts, including Hank Junior. Impressive. In person, he kind of looks like I imagine Kid Rock would look like if he’d put on a shirt, ditch the pneumatic Pam A., and hit the honky-tonk circuit. He wasnt’ bad, but then again, I’m a little jaded. Do acts go to some school that teaches them to say things like “Goooooood Evening AmaRILLO!” and “If you wanna rock this town, put you hands together and lemmee hear you!” and my personal favorite, “I’d like to thank each and every one of you personally for helping make my song “____________” the NUMBER ONE SONG IN THE COUNTRY for “X” weeks in a row!” I don’t wanna rag on this guy, but I’d find it refreshing if he’d come out and say some thing like, “Guys, I’ve been on the road for a while now, and me and the guys play pretty much the same stuff, the same way, every night. We wanna give you a great show tonight, but you can really help us do that, if you can crank it up a notch. The more excited you are, the better we can be for you, so make some noise, and we’ll give you a show that’ll rock your world.” At least THAT would be honest, and not come off as some variant of “Thank you Amarillo…I’ll be here through Thursday…try the veal!”

What strikes me as really interesting, is that there doesn’t seem to be any difference between mainstream country and mainstream rock. Lose the pedal steel guitar, and Otto and his band could be billed as a rock group. There might be fewer cowboy hats in the audience, but the music would be otherwise unchanged.

Frankly, while I don’t see anything wrong with Otto’s playlist, or the fact that they are actually a pretty good rock band, I do find it a little sad that country has evidently become interchangeable with rock (plus the obligatory pedal steel/banjo/fiddle to provide a little country street cred). I’d much rather country offer something different to the musical conversation, and not simply take the rock less traveled route.

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