Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Bro-country, Walmart Country, and Authenticity



At her blog, L. M. Bernhardt has written a response to John Dyck’s recent post defending country music. In her post, “…but it’s all right.” she articulates something that worries her about Dyck’s presentation of country music as unsophisticated.

There is an important difference between the music born from the life of farmers and miners and the music that deploys that life as a sign of authenticity for consumers who don’t necessarily live there anymore.

She goes on to explain:

it’s a major feature of contemporary bro-country, which tends to be an assembly-line-produced mess of redneck identity signifiers masquerading as “authentic” country music. A pop-country performer like Brad Paisley (who is good at his job — don’t get me wrong!) bears little to no resemblance to someone like Ralph Stanley or Hazel Dickens. He and his usual co-writers produce songs about country as an identity. Hazel Dickens wrote and sang from it, and I think that makes a big difference — or should make a big difference — in how our aesthetic judgements handle these things. Country music like hers isn’t bad music or unsophisticated music that uses its messiness to signify authenticity — it’s representative of a distinct body of styles with its own natural history and quality markers, which is exactly what constitutes its authenticity.

Readers should check out the whole thing. Bernhardt writes from the perspective of both a performer and a philosopher, and her thoughts on the matter are really interesting.

We’ve given John Dyck the opportunity to respond. His response follows.

I’m really grateful for Bernhardt’s observations! (And I hope this doesn’t count as “@ing”!) I totally sympathize with Bernhardt’s point that country music can be aesthetically sophisticated. My point in the article was that country music is socially ‘bad’, not that it is aesthetically bad. I agree with Bernhardt: Country music requires a delicacy of taste in Hume’s sense! I love the way that Bernhardt characterizes it. I couldn’t have said it better:

… they [good country music songs] possess exactly the sort of delicacy of taste that Hume had in mind, although seeing why requires us to decouple the Humean approach to “delicacy” from our own commitment to the aesthetic norms and assumptions of European classical music of a certain few hundred years …

Bernhardt found the Brad Paisley example a little uncomfortable, and I’m sure others did, too. How could anyone slide between George Jones and Brad Paisley?  Bernhardt makes a very helpful distinction between “the music born from the life of farmers and miners and the music that deploys that life as a sign of authenticity for consumers who don’t necessarily live there anymore.” Music like Brad Paisley’s—so-called “Walmart country”—tends to trade only in cheap signs of country authenticity, whereas the music of songwriters like Hazel Dickens comes from a real place. Paisley merely throws out references about the dirt; Dickens was raised in it. I can’t help but see this as a distinction about authenticity (hopefully Bernhardt agrees): Some country music has faked authenticity; other country music is really authentic.

And if sophisticated country music is really authentic, then Walmart Country is on the losing end of the aesthetic value stick. Dickens, not Paisley, seems to be the one with sophistication. I think this view would find support from a lot of country musicians. I’ve heard many say this themselves.

But I want to stick up for Walmart Country. For one thing, I’m leery about drawing hard lines regarding authenticity in country music. In his fantastic book, Richard Peterson documents the many ways in which country music has faked authenticity right from the start. It is endemic to the economic origins of country music: Since country music was so tied up with radio-play, country singer-songwriters were paid to write new songs that sound old. Further, much of the music that seems authentic now was created by people who did not have the life stories they claimed to have. Debates about authenticity have always surrounded country music.

I have a feeling that at its heart, this distinction between real and fake authenticity often amounts to a counterculture/mainstream distinction. Counterculture is real authenticity, and mainstream is fake authenticity. I’m skeptical about this kind of correlation, although I think it occurs very naturally.

Finally, I hold the heretical position that some Walmart Country involves delicacy of taste—at least, for those with ears to hear it. But that is so damn heretical that I’d better see myself out.

Image credit: “Kerobia. Durangoko Liburu eta Disko Azoka” by Igor Zalbidea via Flickr


  1. No worries re: “@”-ing. 🙂 We’re good, I hope!

    I do agree that this is an interesting authenticity problem, which I think is complicated by the commodification of music in general (and popular genre music in particular). I want to believe that there’s a way to work out a stronger account of aesthetic value relative to authenticity for this stuff, but I suspect that it would require being able to find a useful way to deal with (and maybe escape from) the mechanics of commodification. I have no idea how to do it, of course — I want to lean toward technique as a place to start (I ended up writing a followup post that sort of goes there), but the thought doesn’t quite get me anywhere yet. I have probably just missed someone else already doing it…

    I appreciate the shift in the discussion (which I clearly missed or gave insufficient attention in my first time through Dyck’s really interesting post) to social value/authenticity, although I suspect that even then, we still run into a source of some discomfort (hoo, boy, let’s not get into the deployment of certain forms of social authenticity relative to “American” identity…).

    Thanks for writing about this stuff! Why, I may even forgive you for liking Walmart country! 😉 In all seriousness: I see no reason why the Humean sort of delicacy of taste could not also be invoked with regard to that music.

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