Darragh McManus: What's the big attraction of country music?
Country is big in Ireland: The Late Late Country Specials have consistently sky-high ratings and we have more than our fair share of home-grown country stars. Darragh McManus examines its appeal
If ever there was a clear divide between the self-appointed tastemakers of society and the great unwashed, it’s to be seen in the popularity of country music.
Be that the home-grown variant of Country ‘n’ Irish, the cooler alt-country version, or even good old Garth Brooks-style honky-tonk – the critical view is that it’s awful drek altogether, but the people can’t get enough of it.
To be honest, I’d be in the “awful drek” category myself. Or, to be more fair, I can see why people love country and I don’t feel all superior to them…it’s just not for me. I find it samey, schmaltzy and kind of dull.
But C&W is absolutely massive in Ireland, as proven by the blockbusting ratings achieved by the Late Late Show Country Specials. There’s another one on tonight, which includes a tribute to late country legends Glen Campbell and Big Tom (who passed away this week).
So if you’re not a fan of Stetsons, slide guitars and sentimental songs about lonesome cowboys whose best doggie has died and whose gal has done run offed on them – as is my understanding of the lyrical contents of this music – maybe tune into something else.
Many thousands won’t be changing the channel. Literally: last year’s Country Special pulled in almost 700,000 viewers – a 50% audience share. The first, in 2015, did even better, with a huge 740,000: that’s quarter of a million people watching, which puts these specials (tonight’s is the third) up there with ratings monsters such as the Toy Show, big sporting events, Room to Improve and Eurovision.
That can’t totally be explained away, I don’t think, as merely some rural/urban divide, or old versus young, though those demographics probably do factor in. Simply put, there aren’t enough elderly culchies around to bump up the viewership this much.
I think we can safely assume, then, that C&W crosses all sorts of divides. Its fans come from everywhere, with a range of accents, outlooks, professions and attitudes.
So what’s the big attraction of country music? A few years ago I interviewed Nathan Carter – a superstar whose popularity further proves the point – and asked him that very question. He said, “A catchy song, with good lyrics, will always appeal to people, and they like that family atmosphere too. It’s all very positive in country; it’s straightforward, happy music. Angry, confrontational stuff is fine, but it’s not for me.”
And, clearly, not for countless others. Personally speaking, I could listen to discordant guitars drenched in feedback, or shapeless loops of electronic noise, ‘till the cows come home (so to speak). But I accept that others, odd as it may seem, don’t like that.
They want choruses and funny titles, catchy melodies sung in yodelly-type voices, cheerful and proficient backing musicians, guys with nice teeth, girls with nice teeth and great hair, shiny dresses and shinier suits, and yeah, maybe a little schmaltziness and sentimentality. In a harsh modern world, it’s a comfort.
Most of all, I think, they want classically-crafted, old-fashioned songs with a straight-ahead time signature – in other words, something they can dance to. Guitars drenched in feedback and shapeless loops of electronic noise might be cool…but they’re not great for jiving and having fun with your friends.