By Kurt Wolff
“A little messed up but we’re all alright.”
If you listen to country radio, you know that line from Kenny Chesney‘s “American Kids.” The hit song (it recently reached No. 1 on the country singles charts) and its colorful video are a celebration of life — specifically, the vibrancy and energy that comes with being young.
Related: Kenny Chesney Reclaims His Soul
“American Kids” isn’t a preachy song at all, but it is about tolerance. Young people may not be perfect, they may make mistakes (and, if the accompanying video is any indication, let “their hair grow long and shaggy” in a way that would’ve ticked off Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee”), but the point is, that’s OK. In the end, they — like all of us — are “all alright.”
That message of tolerance appears aimed not at the “kids” themselves but more at their parents. Which makes “American Kids” one of the biggest songs in recent years to address a topic that was all the rage a few decades back: the generation gap.
The generation gap is a term that came into popularity in the early 1960s, thanks to Baby Boomers, who were coming of age at the time and showing interests that differed greatly from those of their parents, many of whom had been Depression-era kids and clung to more conservative ideals. And the Boomer generation’s impact was significant: by 1965 half the U.S. population was estimated to be under 25.
One of the key differences that defined the generation gap was music. Elvis Presley, the Beatles and Bob Dylan all led the charge; the swinging hips, wild beats and free-spirited lyrics and attitudes of these and other young artists drew a clear line in the sand between generations.
As rock became the music of the young, country often found itself on the other side. Rock in fact was one of the main things driving the creation of Nashville Sound, a period marked by crooning vocalists and lush, string-laden arrangements.
Ever since it was developed in the 1920s and ’30s, commercial country music had been steeped in hardscrabble, by-your-bootstraps beliefs, not to mention a healthy helping of old-time religion. So no wonder that, when the “changin’ times” of the 1960s set in, the music came to representing traditional, conservative values perhaps more than ever before. It’s a stereotype that has stuck, for better or worse, ever since.
During the 1960s, the Grand Ole Opry thrived and fans thrilled to the voices of artists like Eddy Arnold, Jim Reeves, Patsy Cline and Marty Robbins. And when Merle Haggard came along, they rallied around his seemingly conservative songs, too, especially “Okie from Muskogee,” which celebrated traditional values over those of America’s growing counterculture. In a town like Muskogee, Okla., Haggard famously sang, “Leather boots are still in style for manly footwear,” while “beads and Roman sandals won’t be seen” and “the kids here still respect the college dean.”
But hold up. While many country artists did sing about traditional values, there were plenty of exceptions.
Johnny Cash was among the most visible artists to embrace the spirit and attitudes of young fans, thanks not only to the aggressive, rock-fueled energy of his songs (a sound dating back to his days at Sun Records alongside Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis) but also to his connection with social causes. These included his famous support for prisoners (recording albums live in both Folsom and San Quentin prisons) a well as the mistreatment of Native Americans, the latter the theme of his landmark album Bitter Tears. That album included what became one of Cash’s best-known songs, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.”
But Cash wasn’t alone in speaking to new generations of music fans. Willie Nelson, Tom T. Hall and Roger Miller were among many other young songwriters bringing new ideas to Nashville. Miller once described his generation of musicians as “caught between the 40’s and the 60’s, between big-band music and rock-and-roll.”
Miller, it turned out, had a knack for bridging the generation gap. While hits of his like “Husbands and Wives” and “King of the Road” appealed to traditionalists, other songs like “Kansas City Star,” “Chug a Lug” and “Dang Me” were just nutty enough to earn him new listeners while never alienating his older fans.
Later in the 1960s, another new songwriter, Kris Kristofferson, took longer to find his niche, thanks in part to his appearance: long hair and bell bottoms weren’t tolerated much by the Brylcreem and Nudie suit set. Taking cues from Dylan, Kristofferson’s music spoke directly to young people with lyrics about hitchhiking, one-night stands and “beer for breakfast”—references that arrived without fanfare but were instead built organically into the story of the song. Support from Miller and Cash (both of whom covered his songs early on) helped earn Kristofferson respect, and now-classic compositions of his such as”Me and Bobby McGee,” “Help Me Make It Through the Night” and”Sunday Morning Coming Down” eventually won over his critics.
Dylan wasn’t exactly embraced by Nashville, but his music certainly had an impact. He recorded in Nashville in the 1960s, even utilizing A Team studio musicians like Charlie McCoy and Pete Drake on albums such as Blonde on Blonde and Nashville Skyline. Dylan sang alongside Cash on the duet “Girl from the North Country,” and when Cash launched his TV show in 1969, Dylan was his first guest.
Perhaps the best example of a clash between generations in country music came in 1968, when the Byrds became the first ‘rock’ group to perform on the Grand Ole Opry (they were in Nashville recording their country album Sweethearts of the Rodeo). Gram Parsons was a member of the group at the time (as was fellow country-rock pioneer Chris Hillman) and deeply loved traditional country. By the time they took the Ryman Auditorium stage, the group had already aroused suspicion among the country crowd for their appearance and their reputation as a ‘Hollywood’ rock band. After they broke from the program and played the Parsons original “Hickory Wind” (instead of a Haggard cover), the crowd responded by heckling.
Even worse was their clash with influential country DJ Ralph Emery during an appearance on his popular radio show. The group’s response? Parsons and Roger McGuinn wrote the biting song “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man” about Emery.
Still, like it or not, country music was changing, and the influence of the younger generations was increasingly taking hold. It was plenty evident in nutty songs like Mickey Newbury‘s “Just Dropped In,” which turned into a minor hit for Kenny Rogers and his psych-pop group the First Edition. Even Earl Scruggs, once a member of Bill Monroe‘s band and one half of the bluegrass duo Flatt & Scruggs, embraced the changing times. Recording with his sons under the name the Earl Scruggs Revue, he cut songs by Dylan and others, quickly proving he wasn’t afraid of the turning tide.
By the start of the 1970s, however — after Woodstock, Altamont, the Beatles, Nixon, the Vietnam War, and so on and so on—the Boomers were now grown-ups, and the idea of the generation gap began to fade. The concept was still on peoples’ minds, and Jeannie C. Riley even released the song “The Generation Gap” in 1970 (see video above). By that point, though, she’d already sung about mini skirts, day drinking and infidelity in “Harper Valley PTA,” a song with far greater impact. Kristofferson, Nelson and Waylon Jennings would go on to turn heads when they showed up at normally starch-shirted Nashville award shows in jeans and long hair, but by that point they were well-respected musically, so they didn’t get the same treatment that Emery and the Opry crowd gave Gram Parsons.
And anyway, by the end of the ’70s, shaggy hair, beards and denim suits were all the rage—just ask Kenny Rogers.
Traditional country had a resurgence in the 1980s (Randy Travis, George Strait), but by this point it was younger artists bringing that old-school sound. Music Row and country radio recognized this change, and in the 1990s began rebranding the music of newcomers like Garth Brooks, Clint Black and Alan Jackson under the moniker “young country.” It worked: country gained a huge, newfound popularity among younger, more urban-based fans. The byproduct? Older artists found it harder and harder to gain airplay.
And it’s a trend that has only grown in the years since. Today, young faces pretty much define the genre, and it’s increasingly rare when ‘veteran’ artists (ironically some of the same ‘young country’ singers from the 1990s) earn spots high on the charts. Strait, Chesney, Tim McGraw and Toby Keith are among the exceptions, but generally speaking most of today’s headline artists are under 40—and many still in their 20s. Older artists often still have huge fanbases, but their exposure is through touring and venues like the still-strong Grand Ole Opry.
Does this ‘young country’ trend of the past couple decades mean the generation gap has closed? Well, not exactly. On the whole young artists probably do earn more respect from older peers these days when compared to the 1960s, but there is still an underlying differentiation. There’s also still bitterness at how country has taken so many cues from pop music over the years. It’s as true today as it was 30, 40 more years ago: Fans of ‘older’ country styles feel ‘their’ music has been overrun with flashy arrangements and stage shows that take away from the music’s heart and soul (and its roots).
An example of this blew up last year, in fact, when Blake Shelton made some seemingly off-the-cuff remarks about the ‘evolution’ of contemporary country music during an episode of GAC’s Backstory.
“Country music has to evolve in order to survive,” Shelton said. “Nobody wants to listen to their grandpa’s music. And I don’t care how many of these old farts around Nashville going, ‘My God, that ain’t country!’ Well that’s because you don’t buy records anymore, jackass. The kids do, and they don’t want to buy the music you were buying.”
This remark ticked off more than a few country fans, among them the legendary Ray Price. “This guy sounds like in his own mind that his head is so large no hat ever made will fit him,” Price wrote on his Facebook page, signing his note “Chief ‘Old Fart’ & ‘Jackass.'” Shelton later apologized for offending one of his musical heroes (“I hate that I upset him”), acknowledged that he probably “could have worded it better (as always ha!).” At the same time, though, he stood by what he said. “The truth is my statement was and STILL is about how we as the new generation of country artists have to keep re-inventing country music to keep it popular,” Shelton said.
So it appears that, as long as music of any kind continues to grow and change—to “evolve”—there will always be a generation gap. No one group of similarly aged folks can be expected to fully embrace the point of view of another, whose members have grown up with an entirely different set of experiences and cultural reference points.
But at the same time, such differences don’t have to be a bad thing. Just like those crazy “kids” in Chesney’s song, being imperfect (“a little messed up”) and making mistakes (“Blowin’ that smoke on a Saturday night”) is all just part of growing up and learning how to live and move forward.
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