On the spurious search for authenticity

Country Music Hall of Fame
Country Music Hall of Fame (Photo credit: Reading Tom)


genuineness, originality; rightfulness, legitimacy, legality, validity, bona fides. ANTONYMS spuriousness.

This whole discussion of authenticity is spurious.

I was watching that repeat of the BBC4 Joy of Country Music thing the other night and its continual harping about authenticity bugged me, as it always does. Not to come over all postmodern or anything, but the whole notion of a search for the authentic, particularly with regard to music, is a fool’s errand. This is especially true when your shining example of authentic country music is Johnny Cash.

It always depresses me to see that Cash cover of “Hurt” riding high in the UK iTunes country music chart. Its presence there says much about the kind of self-pitying fool who downloads it and it only resonates at all because Cash really was a sorry sack who had pissed and boozed away what talent he had and dined out on his early repute for 40 years or so. As for its authenticity, there you go: a cover version of a rock song created in collaboration with a rock producer and selling mainly to fans of, well, rock.

That’s okay, though, because if that’s your idea of authenticity in country music, then allow me to introduce you to Ms Taylor Swift, who seems to sing quite autobiographical songs that she writes and produces herself.

The other thing that bugged me about that BBC4 thing was the implication that because Johnny Cash’s band just played that stripped-down twangy b-doing b-doing style (because the guitarist could barely play), then he was more legitimate and real than, what? The fast chicken-pickin’ of the top session guys, or the taking-turns-to-show-off of the bluegrass players? What?

Hunt all you want for authenticity, it’s all artifice, born out of radio, and target-marketed to lost souls since the beginning of, well, radio. You take that Appalachian mountain music, the Blues, Western cowboy ballads, and you mix it all up and stick it on the radio, you’ve invented country music. But it didn’t exist in some far off land of authenticity before that. And the very essence of country music is that push-pull between commercial expedience and soul baring. Patsy Cline was recording at the height of the so-called “Nashville Sound”, which was a smoothed-off show business version of the kind of stuff they were playing on back porches. But that’s what country music is. Dolly and then Reba were releasing a similar kind of thing: the commercial cross-over stuff called Countrypolitan. Hank Williams wore a rhinestone Nudie suit and a cowboy hat but he weren’t no cowboy. It was an act, and country music is that: the act, the event, the putting on of the hat and the singing of a song. Cover yourself in makeup and put on some fancy clothes and sing a song about drinking yourself to death. Funny how they’ll forgive Dolly Parton all the plastic surgeries and the false nails and eyelashes just because she came from poverty. But not everyone is that lucky. Sometimes all you have is the bit where you spend hours and hours getting really good at something.

This means Garth is as authentic as Hank who is as authentic as Steve Earle, who is as authentic as Sugarland and Taylor Swift. The BBC4 programme dismissed the last thirty years in a snap of the fingers: yeah Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift, not as authentic as Dolly and Merle. But whether you put on a rhinestone suit or a black shirt and jeans, it’s still a costume in a show you’re putting on. I’d say the last thirty years have seen an absolute explosion of talent; but of course you’re not going to see it if your sole criterion for authenticity is that you either grew up in a shack without shoes or spent time in the pokey.

People who tell you Johnny Cash is the real thing are saying that it’s more real because it’s shit. Those other people are too good at what they do to be real, they’re saying. Listen to this man who can barely sing because he killed his voice with booze. Fantastic.

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