What country music needs is another Willie Nelson

In a Texas Monthly cover article devoted to George Strait’s retirement from touring, Craig Havighurst argued that there may never be another George Strait.

George has been my favorite singer since I was 11, so I don’t say this lightly, but I would submit that what country and roots music need is not a new George Strait, but a new Willie Nelson.

Willie’s greatest accomplishment isn’t any one song or album, helping pioneer the outlaw sound, or even managing to make one beat-up old guitar last this long. It was the bringing together of diverse crowds that had always been at odds and finding among them common ground, new friendship, and a powerful movement. Like Bruce Robison sings,

“Like a miracle all those rednecks and hippies // From New York City down to Mississippi // Stood together and raised a brew // When it’s all gone wrong, what would Willie do?”

We need someonImagee to do that again – someone who can unite the red dirt cowboys, the Mumford hipsters and Lumineer moms, and the old singer-songwriter foagies.

Think about it. I went to a Nickel Creek concert earlier this month in Washington, D.C., and the audience was incredibly young – dare I say largely hipster. Now I’m not saying that that’s newgrass’s main demographic. It was the venue, the 9:30 Club, more than anything. Still, it was encouraging to see such a young crowd at a fundamentally bluegrass show.

And take indie folk, definitely a big draw for college students and hipsters. Personally I like Mumford and Sons, but I know a lot of folks find them insufferable. That’s fine, but love them or hate them, there’s no denying the influence folk and bluegrass had on their instrumentation and harmonies. Of course they’re not Americana, they’re British! But while Marcus Mumford, the Lumineers, and their ilk may be more of a response to pop than country, they are still our distant kin.

And yet, I would wager that the Mumford and Nickel Creek crowds of the east coast bear very little resemblance to a red dirt festival in Oklahoma or a Kacey Musgraves home crowd in Texas.

The question is, how can we elevate roots music and take back country music from hick-hop light beer bros? How can we build a coalition large enough to make the record labels take notice, the way they noticed George Strait in 1983 and turned away from Nashville easy listening to the neo-traditionalists? We need some way – someone – to unite the the subgenres and create a movement.

L-r: Drew Ball of the Riverbreaks, Sturgill Simpson, and the author, Nathan Empsall

L-R: Drew Ball of the Riverbreaks, Sturgill Simpson, and the author, Nathan Empsall

Maybe, just maybe, Sturgill Simpson will bring together the hipsters and cowboys the way Willie brought together the hippies and bikers. He’s a country traditionalist but one who’s not afraid to experiment, and after refusing to compromise with the major labels, his independent second album smashed through and debuted at #11 this month. Who are the crowds taking notice and driving that to the top? He comes from Kentucky coal country but has been featured on NPR; are those audiences coming together to give Metamodern Sounds in Country Music such a big boost? And will radio take notice?

I don’t know. But whether Sturgill is the next Willie or not, he’s at least a herald – if not the roots Messiah, then maybe our John the Baptist, proving that a better future is coming soon. That said, I don’t mean to put pressure or expectations on him; his art is already a breath of fresh air that speaks for itself. I’d say let’s just cross our fingers, but you can’t pick a guitar with crossed fingers. Instead, pour another round, play that Uncle Tupelo album one more time, and we’ll see what we see when we see.

UPDATE: After writing this post, I did some more reading, and found that Trigger over at Saving Country Music makes a similar arugment.

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