Pop country music and hip hop have usurped rock ‘n’ roll for cultural relevance. The songs topping both the country and rock ‘n’ roll games have morphed into well-oiled machines with interchangeable parts: written by algorithm with a kind of Mad Libs-style, small-town vernacular.
Dial back on the twang and rearrange the fiddle out of the mix. Next, nix the chew-in-the-lower-lip, geographically indistinguishable rural American accent for some rock ‘n’ roll growl. Just these simple fixes, and most contemporary country chart-toppers could be rock hits.
This goes both ways. From hookup anthems to arena choruses and schmaltzy love songs, if there was ever a time when you were, say, at a Loverboy concert wearing a Journey T-shirt, pop country is the place for you.
The southern Willamette Valley is a pop country capital. Many of the genre’s brightest stars perform at our biggest venues, and the popularity of that Nashville sound is best experienced at the 4-day Bi-Mart Willamette Valley Country Music Fest, a sort of Oregon Country Fair for RVers and glamping enthusiasts, held annually near Brownsville.
Eugene musician Jacob Pruzynski, known for playing with local cow-punk band The Koozies, doesn’t consider himself a pop country fan necessarily, but when he checks out this year’s WVCM Fest lineup, he admits he’d kind of like to attend.
“This year’s line-up covers all of those bases with Kid Rock exemplifying my guiltiest of pleasures,” he tells me. Yes, Kid Rock is country now, and performing at the Country Music Fest on Sunday, Aug. 19. Donald Trump is also president. It’s a mad world we’re living in.
“I’ve seen Eric Church before,” Pruzynski continues. Church performs Friday, Aug. 17, at the fest. “‘Smoke a Little Smoke’ is everything fun and ‘cringe’ at the same time,” he adds, describing one of Church’s biggest hits.
No question pop country songs can be catchy, and produced with such air-tight precision they could be sent into space. This is either glorious or aggravating, depending on your point of view. After all, even a broken algorithm can turn out real inspiration once in a while.
Pruzynski has some tips on learning to love today’s country music giddy-up. “The sum of its parts can be less than the cool factor of the individual parts,” he explains. “When it’s all put together and polished up, those parts add up to something a bit too on the nose.”
“All pop music can suffer from this, but this pop country genre really exemplifies it to me,” he continues. “It’s a guilty pleasure in the same way as professional wrestling. You listen to the artist and know what you are supposed to think. Like, ‘That’s outlaw,’ or ‘Those guys are wholesome.’ But it’s fun and satisfying even if a little predictable.”
What I find most interesting about the rise of pop country is how it has paralleled the descent of the American working class from sovereign citizenship to commodity and market demographic.
Once, country music was played by people who lived the lives they sang. Nashville urbanized the sound. It now seems doubtful the oversized-belt-buckle-festooned country stars of today have ever touched a long-haul truck or a hay baler.
But the country music audience is used to being condescended to about what’s left of the American Dream. Their politicians do it. Why shouldn’t their favorite pop stars? Pruzynski says I need to get over myself.
“If you can simply have fun,” Pruzynski concludes, “and enjoy the music, a country music festival can be one of the best times you will have at a summer concert. It’s a whole lot of lyrics to an Eric Church song.” ■
The Bi-Mart Country Music Festival Runs Aug. 16-19 near Brownsville. For a full line-up of artists performing, including headlining slots from Alabama and Lady Antebellum, check out willamettecountrymusicfestival.com.