PREVIEW: Bring on the urban cowboys

A friend of mine figures real country music is … well, if not dead, then certainly about as lively as the economics of family farming: you sure can enjoy it, but you sure can’t live off of it.

He’s talking country from the old school as Canadian Finals Rodeo week kicks off in Edmonton: Johnny Cash immortalizing Kris Kristofferson’s Sunday Morning Coming Down; Marty Robbins’ El Paso; maybe a little Patsy Cline or Tammy Wynette.

Y’see, back then, country sounded different. A lot different … at least, a lot different from other types of music. It had its own twang, its own sense of introspective mortality. It was poor Southern white man blues, which isn’t surprising, since much of it derived from Texas Swing, which derived from Delta blues.

And it had more musical variety; country was played to shuffles, to polkas, to jugband arrangements. It had twang no matter what, but the structure of the songs was designed to please the artists, not the marketplace.

Now, country is as original as Nickelback (or as original as bashing Nickelback.) Familiarity doesn’t actually breed contempt. It breeds comfort and, via communal appreciation, a sense of security. People enjoy modern country for the same reason they enjoy dance music: they can enjoy it without thinking about it, a soundtrack to their lives, a backing track to a night on the town or Saturday afternoon barbecue.

Johnny Cash, on the other hand, sang about the Western outlaw mythos, the hard-done by man for whom things go wrong — towering tales of toughness, cut with moral fables Aesop would’ve been proud of.

And that’s the difference between say, CFR headliner Blake Shelton and someone like Johnny Cash (who carried black leather business cards that read “House of Cash.” I have one somewhere): the latter sang his soul into every song, then threw the odd novelty hook-laden pop hit out there. The former sings cookie cutter pop hits, then throws the odd piece of real introspection out there.

Country music used to be so close to the bone because it reflected real country living, which has always required rigorous discipline. It’s always been tough for most people in rural America to make a fair buck, and so tales of family and faith and community become that much more important.

But country now is as often-as-not churned out in Nashville hit factories, just like pop music. There’s so much similarity between the two that artists frequently cross between the two charts now, and two-thirds to three-quarters of every album are basic takes on love-story-gone-wrong.

This musical shift is apt at the CFR, which is a national rodeo title held in a city of a million people, where the averge resident is about as country as a 24-story highrise. And yet, all over the city this week, you’ll catch people wearing cowboy hats and big buckles, even though the smell of a real pig barn would literally make them weep, and the inability to get a selection of pizza in 30 minutes or less would be deemed barbaric.

It’s country CULTURE these people all crave, not real country living. And the latter is what classic country songs were all about, for the most part. That’s why they couldn’t be homogeonized, cranked out en masse. This week ain’t about Robert Earl Keen anthems any more than the average dance pit attendee at the Edmonton Blues Fest really has the blues; it’s about how much folks loved Blake on The Voice this summer. That, and mom, dad, God, Apple Pi…er, the Maple Leaf, The Oilers, the military, a vaguely right-wing political ethos and God again, not necessarily in that order.

Oh yeah, that and the rodeo, of course.

The CFR Entertainment Schedule kicks off Nov. 9 with Brent Kissel performing the Anthem and “Speciality Act” Tomas Carcilazo, a bonafide old-school wild west gaucho -style rope trick peformin’ cowboy. On Nov. 10, Julian Austin performs the Anthem and Shelton headlines, 7 p.m. at Rexall Place. Check out full schedule here.