In pondering whether mainstream country music can be extricated from its current position as the 21st century equivalent of '70s/'80s "heartland" rockers (Tom Petty, Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp) and the country-inspired stainless-steel pop-rock of acts like The Eagles, a more useful question must first be posed: should country be saved from its role as Middle American mall music?
Let Country Be Country
The answer is: maybe not. Those who lament the current state of country radio, longing for the days of "real" country music, either have short memories or weren't around to begin with, say, 30 years ago, when middle of the road, almost adult contemporary acts like Kenny Rogers, Eddie Rabbitt, and Ronnie Milsap ruled the mainstream country realm in the wake of the somewhat ironic success of the John Travolta vehicle Urban Cowboy, which spawned a thankfully short-lived period where the Middle-American discos that popped up in the wake of Travolta's previous hit Saturday Night Fever turned into faux-country roadhouses. In other words, things were actually a lot worse back in the good ol' days. At least today you occasionally get a little grit mixed in with the cheese, since the influence of those aforementioned Americana rockers has been fully assimilated by contemporary Nashville. And speaking of John Mellencamp, he once stated something in an '80s interview to the effect that getting mad at radio for focusing more on marketability than innovation was like getting mad at your teenage sister for staying out all night long. Perhaps we need to let mainstream country be mainstream country.
Living on the Fringes
For at least the last 40 years or so, if not longer, compelling country music has been most frequently found below the radar. That phenomenon may have intensified over the last couple of decades, but it's far from a new scenario. So if the likes of Elizabeth Cook, Corb Lund, The Turnpike Troubadours, and Chelle Rose aren't exactly racing to the top of the country charts, that's fine. After all, ever since the days of The Velvet Underground, much of the most interesting rock 'n' roll has been found on the fringes, so why should country music be any different? Those who want something beyond what's right in front of their faces have always managed to figure out how to go about finding it.