Watching the 2011 CMT Music Video Awards Wednesday evening, broadcast live from the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, had to have been a grueling experience for country music traditionalists. The show being hosted by quasi-rapping southern rocker wannabe Kid Rock and littered with presentations and nominations of artists from folk to pop to rap could not have set too well, either. In fact, watching the awards ceremony no doubt brought up the unforgettable lyrics penned by Waylon Jennings in “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?”
Over the years, country music flirted with the crossover hit, occasionally scoring one now and again with hits from the likes of such artists as John Denver and Willie Nelson, Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. But in the past couple decades or so, crossover hits have become commonplace. And with more and more acts going the way of Shania Twain, Taylor Swift, and Lady Antebellum, not to mention songs of more traditional artists like Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney finding traction on the Billboard Hot 100, it would appear that today’s country music has found a place in the music industry mainstream.
And nothing reflects the change from a nearly isolated niche genre to widespread acceptance as the current state of country music videos, the celebration of which is displayed at the annual CMT Music Video Awards. This year’s nominees included songs recorded by and with pop/folk singer Sheryl Crow, pop heartthrob Justin Bieber, more pop than country Taylor Swift, “American Idol” pop singer Kelly Clarkson, more elevator music than country Lady Antebellum, pop singer Aaron Lewis’ wannabe “Country Boy” song featuring icons George Jones and Charlie Daniels, and the versatile Kid Rock (who collaborated with the aforementioned Crow).
No, it is a little doubtful that Hank would have done it this way. In fact, it is quite doubtful that Hank Williams would even recognize most offerings of modern country music as actual country music. But the legendary performer was an innovator himself — and who knows? He may have loved it.
Still, there are traces of old country in the new that Hank would have most likely not only found recognizable but perhaps enjoyable. There is little doubt that Blake Shelton’s winning “Who Are You When I’m Not Looking” (Male Video of the Year) would be recognizably country to him, not to mention Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me” (Female Video of the Year). And then there is The Band Perry’s “If I Die Young,” a song supported by a banjo and mandolin melody, which won Breakthrough Video of the Year. The traditional sounds and trappings of country music are still there, they just seem a little more difficult to find in the more commercially accepted trappings acquired by the genre.
So if Taylor Swift winning Video of the Year (for “Mine”) at the 2011 CMT Music Video Awards or Justin Bieber winning Collaborative Video of the Year (with Rascal Flatts for “That Should Be Me”) make the more traditionalist-minded yearn for the days of Hank Williams and Merle Haggard and George Jones and Loretta Lynn, it should be remembered that Hank may not have done it this way, but he might have if he had had the chance. Music, like most things, is always in a state of transition, whether we like it or not. And as Waylon Jennings observed in his ode to the country music pioneer:
“Singing my songs and one of his now and then/
But I don’t think Hank done ’em this a’way/
No I don’t think Hank done ’em this a’way.”
He didn’t. But country music artists of today do not, by and large, perform in the same manner as their predecessors, no more than Waylon performed like Hank. No, Hank Williams may not have done it this way, but if he had lived in the days of 24-hour television, YouTube, and music videos, he just might have ended up doing ’em this a’way — although recording with Justin Bieber might have been a bit of a stretch.
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