Complaining about the current state of country music--it's not what it used to be, it's all just pop now, these kids today don't know what real country is--is almost as old as country music itself. The very first music that was ever called country music, in the 1920s, was a commercial refinement of old-time music, the blues, and jazz, and what's followed has been a regular cycle of innovation, retrenchment, and revivalism. Drums and electric guitars scandalized early purists; rockabilly and countrypolitan string sections blurred the lines that had distinguished country from rock 'n' roll, R&B, and pop. Even Garth Brooks, now reviled in some quarters as a pioneer of pop-country, rode into Nashville on the tail end of a new traditionalist movement spearheaded by George Strait, Keith Whitley, and Randy Travis. The handful of mainstream country artists now who look back to the form's foundations--Jamey Johnson, Miranda Lambert--don't go further back than the outlaw movement of the 1970s.
But country music a year from now really will be different from what it's been for the last 50 years. Both George Jones and Strait, a pair of the finest singers the form has ever heard and two of its most influential and best-selling artists, are retiring from touring, and are stopping in Knoxville early next year.
Jones isn't just a fine country singer--he's an American treasure, and deserves to be considered in the same company as Sam Cooke, Billie Holiday, and Frank Sinatra. A critic friend of mine once called him the American Edith Piaf. He's endured a life of addiction and given voice to his pain, and the pain he's caused those close to him. Autobiographical criticism isn't usually the most insightful way to approach art, but it's hard not to think about Jones' well-documented hard times when listening to "Choices," "If Drinking Don't Kill Me (Her Memory Will)," and "The Grand Tour."
Strait, on the other hand, has been one of country's good guys for more than 30 years. His talents are less obvious than Jones'--Strait's considerable skill as a singer is almost invisible, his sense of understated drama contrasting with Jone's baroque emotional epics. But Strait's list of hits, from "Unwound," "Fool Hearted Memory," and "Amarillo by Morning" to the hard-chiseled "I Can Still Make Cheyenne," from 1996, quietly added up to one of the greatest catalogs in country. (His first two albums are essential, but the career-spanning compilation 50 Number Ones, is also necessary.) Strait has always been a lot more forward-thinking than he sounds on the surface--the influence of '70s rock and pop was apparent on his first couple of albums, nearly a decade before Brooks started name-dropping Kiss and James Taylor. But the industrial-strength glitz of his live shows--the last iteration I saw, at Thompson-Boling Arena, a few years ago, was based on the in-the-round model invented by Def Leppard and Metallica--never overshadowed his carefully constructed illusion of down-home intimacy. He has been close to the perfect country performer for three decades now.
Strait's The Cowboy Rides Away tour hits Thompson-Boling on March 1. Jones is playing at the Knoxville Coliseum on April 6.