Was It Really Better Back Then?

How many country musicians does it take to screw in a light bulb? Ten - one to do it and nine to talk about how much better the old one was. I have learned the hard way that fetishizing the styles of the past can really be a distraction.

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We use this old recording console built in the late 70’s out at the studio. There is really no arguing that it sounds great. There is also no arguing that the music that has been made using this particular model of console, the MCI 500 series, has less to do with the electronics in it than the creative artistic explosion that was AC/DC or Elton John. But a tool is a tool. It can be a great thing that helps you achieve something you couldn’t have even imagined without it, and in that way it heavily affects the creative process.

Technology has had an undeniable influence on modern music. Beginning with recording onto a phonograph, then on to amplification, then on to radio and pushing rapid changes ever since, technological developments have drastically changed the way we write, play, record, and listen to music over the last few decades. Musicians have more or less embraced the newest technology of the time. Mechanical recording to electronic.  Amplified instruments to electronic synthesizers. Multitrack tape recorders to Pro Tools. Big rooms and live recordings to isolation booths. All the way up to sound manipulation and sampling of this very moment in time, the kids these days play Ableton instead of guitar and if that isn’t proof of embracing technological change than I’m not quite sure what is.

The changes in technology may have changed the way we make or listen to music, however, what will remain is that honest expression of the self that will become a part of the story of that moment of our time here on this planet. Technology of the time will be marketed as a panacea and then will slowly give way to the next big thing. But how does the music change, really?

One of the things that drive me CRAZY in popular country music nowadays are what I call the endless laundry list songs, a list of indicators of your hometown bonafides - daisy dukes, Jesus, armed forces, etc. But, as David Allan Coe reminded us in “You Don’t Have to Call Me Darlin,’” that has been going on forever in country music. Even some of these songs going all the way back to the 50’s allude to a previous era that seems somehow better no matter how freakin’ dirt poor they were. Jamie O’Hara wrote in the song “Grandpa (Tell Me About The Good Old Days)” made famous by the Judds:

Everything is changing fast,
They call it progress…
But I just don’t know.
— Jamie O'Hara

I don’t know either. But I do believe old is getting younger all the time. No getting around it. And I know that in the same way that people will always pine after times that have long since passed, country music will continue to take really complex situations, and, in a simple way, express them very effectively in a way you can really feel it.

Kelly Willis’s new song, Flower On TheVine, is about as far from a cryin’ love and leavin’ song as you can get. I doubt anyone knows the ways time is continually measuring and our culture is stacking us up against the other like a woman does. I do know that another thing that doesn’t change is women and girls will remain much more emotionally complex and sophisticated than boys and men. Rather, my wife of 20 years and my daughter of 13 are way beyond the four boys in the house. It is not even close. As a parent, the fascinating thing with my daughter is that I would say that since she was two years old. I could give you a dozen examples of how my two year old baby girl was already more complex.

And while the complexities of life continue to grow and change with technology and culture and new generations, the truth of the matter is that our humanity remains the same. Was it really better back then? There’s no way of knowing for sure. If you are the kind who embraces the future, happy birthday, it’s already here! If you love the past, take comfort in Faulkner, “The past is never dead, it’s not even past.”