The UK’s love affair with country music at this moment in time is apparent and, as a country artist myself, it is a very exciting time for both fans and musicians.
The Country 2 Country festival (founded in 2013) has enabled country fans in the UK to see the very best figures from the world of country music including Brad Paisley, Reba McEntire, Tim McGraw, Carrie Underwood, Marty Stuart and Little Big Town. UK country duo The Shires became the first UK country band to break into the top ten UK album chart with their debut album ‘Brave’, and their follow up album ‘My Universe’ got to number three in the UK album chart. In September 2016 sibling duo Ward Thomas managed to surpass the success of The Shires by reaching number one in the UK album charts making them the first ever UK country artists to claim the top spot. This appreciation for country music in the UK has put country music under the microscope and a pertinent question seems to have arisen…is what is being labelled as “country music” these days ACTUALLY country music?
It’s a very loaded question and one that doesn’t really have a definitive answer. I’ve heard before that “anything can be country if you think it is”, suggesting that the answer to this question is subjective. Personally, I think you just KNOW when you hear a country song. It’s got certain conventions (like all music genres) that identifies itself…as simplistic as it sounds, you can generally tell whether a song is country or not upon hearing it. The instruments, the structures, vocals (including harmonies), tones, themes and lyrics all have their parts to in identifying country music, as all genres do. Having said that, like all forms of art, genres of music evolve over time and are open to creative inputs; I think this is necessary to keep the product fresh otherwise you’d end up with all songs from a particular genre starting to sound the same. Country music is no exception to this and has clearly grown and developed over time.
Take two legends from the country music world: Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. Hank is often considered the King of country music and rightly so. His songs are more than classic country songs; they’re songs that define country music. One of the first songs I ever learned on the guitar was actually ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ and his distinctive songwriting set the standard for country music for a long time (in fact it still kinda does today). Johnny Cash is one of the most recognised musicians in music history (let alone country music history) and although his songs are quite clearly country songs, there is a notable difference between the two artists.
It would require a lot of time to do a fully comprehensive comparison between the two so I’m going to pick one song from each which is regarded as a classic: ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ and ‘Ring of Fire’. These songs are regarded as classic country songs but are so different, in sound, tone and production. “Lonesome” is a melancholy, heartbreaking track that is quite simple in its structure and musicality however it’s the lyrics, delivered with Hank’s strong southern accent, that really make the song. The song includes guitar, bass, fiddle and pedal steel and has undoubtedly a classic country sound. Released 14 years later, ‘Ring of Fire’ is a stark contrast, beginning with the classic brass which the song has become synonymous with, an upbeat tone, a country guitar rhythm and delivered in a more rockabilly style. Johnny doesn’t foreground a southern accent instead opting for his classic, unmistakable baritone. Both songs are considered classic country songs but are evidently very different. Clearly, there is room for interpretation in country music and while I believe that there are conventions that music has to have to be considered “country”, the contrast between these classic country songs demonstrates that the genre is not completely restrictive in what can be considered “country”.
As an artist this can be liberating because you have more artistic freedom. In my band we want to retain the classic country sound but also add individuality and uniqueness.
One of our main priorities is for us to use three-part, blended harmonies in all of our music. Family harmonies are often referred to as “blood harmonies” and as we are all vocalists (and grew up singing harmonies in church) this is something that we feel is vital to our music. Harmonies have always been a key convention of country music from the days of the Carter Family through to bands such as Alabama and contemporary acts today such as Little Big Town so their inclusion in our work is something that we feel very strongly about.
Another priority for us is for our music to be relatable which is why we write personal songs about our own experiences. Ultimately everyone is on the same journey in life and often experience similar things. This is something that is also common in country music from the days of Hank Williams up to contemporary artists like Brad Paisley or Chris Stapleton.
On our second album ‘Never Slowin’ Down’ we made a conscious decision to firmly go down the country route after our first album ‘Writing on the Wall’ (which was a hybrid between country, folk and pop). As a country band it was important for us to compliment the songs by sounding as authentically country as possible and we ensured to include traditional instruments central to country music such as fiddle and pedal steel. Adding these instruments enhanced the songs and enabled us to find our “sound” however it was also important for us make our music accessible to everyone. With this in mind the album ended up consisting of energetic, catchy and relatable songs, with a country backbone. We continued this formula for our most recent release ‘Built With A Dreamer’s Hand‘.
Country music has certainly evolved and often leans towards pop country these days. Some artists are “country” in a very minimal sense and personally I do not necessarily feel that everything labelled country music today is TRUE country music because it doesn’t conform to many (if any) traditional conventions. However the genre is evidently open to interpretation, experimentation and evolution and as the genre continues to change I believe it is important for country musicians to find the right balance between innovation and ensuring that there are universally recognised elements of country music in their work.
Find out more about Orfila online from their official website, Facebook, and Twitter. Orfila’s lastest single, ‘Snow, Rain and a Hurricane’ is from their EP, ‘Built With A Dreamer’s Hand’ and is available on iTunes.