Much has been made the past few years regarding the slide of country from traditional sounds into pop-ish tendencies. One of the usual excuses given for this transition is the amalgam of influences that have informed the modern artists making the music. Some artists such as Kacey Musgraves and Maren Morris have used this to move country music in new directions, whereas many of the male artists just sing the same types of songs transposed over the faux hip-hop beat that Grady Smith expertly pointed out.
Everyone is influenced by everything. It’s how you use it that is key.
This was brought back to the forefront of my mind when I heard the fantastic cover of “Hunger Strike” from the Chris Cornell tribute show featuring Chris Stapleton and Brandi Carlile. Imagine, 20, 30, or even just 10 years ago, one of the biggest names in country music pairing with a modern folk/pop/Americana darling to cover a 90’s grunge classic. And not only cover it, but (again) prove their certifiable talents whilst doing so. Stapleton gets dragged by some traditionalists for being too bluesy, but he’s about as country as country gets. Carlile is an alternative country powerhouse who transcends genre and time. They each come from a generation (X, that I belong to as well) that jammed that track for countless hours as adolescents. Young Eddie Vedder and prime Chris Cornell spoke to us through MTV multiple times a day. That song and moment were inescapable. The type of song and content that seeps into your bones and becomes part of your soul. Stapleton and Carlile always expertly emote when performing, but on this night there was a bit of an extra push to honor one of their heroes and one of their favorite formative songs.
Does Soundgarden show up in Stapleton’s original work? Does Audioslave inform Carlile in the studio? The answer is yes, but not overtly. It’s in the nuance. It’s part of the fiber of their music. The line from Cornell to country/Americana is thin. The fact that Stapleton and Carlile could also join in on a tribute to The Fugees or Oasis or any other number of influencers from their youth and pull it off as keenly is a tribute to both their talent and the power of the music that informs you. 25 years from now, perhaps some upstarts will be singing “The Joke” or “Broken Halos” and they won’t be from the field you expect. But, it will make sense because those songs are transcendent.
Nobody is mad that country’s borderlines have gotten a little flexible, at least not in this court. I dig everything from country to blues to hip-hop to pop to metal to jazz. If I dig it, I dig it. If I don’t, I don’t. Artists are no different. But, the ones that elevate themselves either find what they do well and accentuate it or combine the elements in an authentic manner that doesn’t pander. Singing a song about a girl in a truck may be your truth, but at least try to make it sound like you and not like a karaoke track sung over a looped computer beat. Chris Stapleton and Brandi Carlile know that. So, do most of your favorite artists. Chris Cornell knew it too. The man could cover Prince, Led Zeppelin and Michael Jackson with the same verve and passion he made his own music. Music can be as disparate or similar as the artist wants it to be. I’m thankful for the masters who know how to mix it right.
And with that, I’m going hungry.