When country music coalesced in the 1920s and '30s, it was not so much a single style (like jazz or to some extent blues) as it was a marketing category. Hillbilly music was, like the name said, music for hillbillies—or, more precisely, for people who wanted, at least for the length of a record, to see themselves as hillbillies. To some degree, this meant that country became the music of hillbillies. But it also meant that whatever music hillbillies played—whether folk, blues, jazz, or, eventually, rock—became country.
This helps to explain, though it does not necessarily excuse, the Band Perry. The trio of siblings—Kimberly, Neil, and Reid—had a massive success with their 2010 self-titled debut. Their single "If I Die Young" went quadruple platinum and hit No. 2 on the country charts. Their new album, Pioneer, debuted last week at No. 1 on the country charts—not so much despite as because there's not much country about it. Indeed, there's not much of anything about it. Calling it background music is almost an insult to backgrounds. It makes MOR seem innovative and Muzak subversive. Speaking as someone who loves the Carpenters, John Denver, and Bonnie Raitt, this album lacks even the charm of bland.
The Band Perry achieves this badness in part simply by choosing the worst aspects of country to combine with the worst aspects of rock. For example, the album eschews country's winkingly clunky metaphors, knowing goofiness, and sharp eye for mundane detail, and opts instead for the leaden lyrical banality of vaguely medicated radio rock. "When you're young/You can fly/But we trip on clouds 'cause we get too high" from "Don't Let Me Be Lonely" sounds like Stevie Nicks with three-quarters of her brain scooped out. Conversely, for rock's anger and drive, the group substitutes country's maudlin inoffensiveness. "Chainsaw" tries to swagger, but Kimberly Perry's would-be-spunky yodels and a clumsy anthemic backing leaves them sounding like particularly unimaginative eight-year-olds covering a duff Tom Petty track.
But while Pioneer fulfills all the potential downsides of country rock, it also, and even more, makes plain the potential bottomless awfulness of country itself. This is most evident on the almost miraculously execrable "Mother Like Mine."
The song fits into a long tradition of songs in country music and bluegrass, in which mothers stand in for rural tradition and family. In "Mother's Not Dead, She's Only Sleeping," for example, the Stanley Brothers mourn the past and insist on its enduring presence. Mother lives on in heaven as the keening ballad tradition lives on in bluegrass' high lonesome harmonies.
For a genre built basically entirely on a claim of demographic distinction, this is a startling move, and one that leads nowhere good.
Bluegrass itself is an example of one of the central tensions of country music. An innovative form created in the '30s as hybrid of hot jazz, hillbilly music, blues, and other sources, bluegrass's traditionalism has always been self-reflective—a conscious urban recollection and idealization of a rural past. Country isn't about country, then, so much as it's about the space between city and country—a space in which hillbillies can imagine an escape from rural drudgery, and those who have moved away can imagine themselves as hillbillies looking longingly for home.