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If you read music criticism in the ’00s, you were conditioned to fear a certain group of people frequently cited for angry, reactionary judgments. I refer to “hipsters,” a faceless hoard distinguished by their “skinny jeans” and “horn-rimmed glasses” as well as a tendency to get really upset whenever a “cool” indie band made pop-sounding records.
For a while overcoming the sourness of mythical hipsters — who, if they ever really existed, were marginalized to the depths of comment boards and egg-avatar Twitter by the dawn of the ’10s — was a crucial narrative for underground artists looking to seize upon a mainstream audience. Because there are few stories that music fans enjoy more than seeing snobs put in their place, even when it’s abundantly clear that snobs have a fraction as much power and influence as, say, corporate-backed streaming platforms. Tweaking hipsters will always seem noble. It feels like punching up, no matter if you’re actually punching the air.
Lately, a version of the “judgmental hipster” stereotype has been recurring in reviews and profiles of critically adored and semi-popular country artists. Coverage of Kacey Musgraves’ excellent third album, Golden Hour, often included swipes at “purists” who supposedly dropped their monocles over Musgraves’ delectably twangy update of Fleetwood Mac’s Tango In The Night period.
Ah yes, the purists — those backward-looking troglodytes who think country music went to hell when Hank Williams perished in the back of that baby blue Cadillac. When was the last time you read or heard from a person of consequence who actually believed that? Pardon me for squinting into the dimmest corners of the dwindling blogosphere in order to find anyone who still resembles a purist. Are there old-school grouches who turn their nose up at pop-country tunes that cannily integrate synthesizers and vocoders? Of course. But has that had any real impact on Musgraves, who is among the most well-reviewed country artists of the decade? Of course not.
Seriously: Who are the figureheads for “purity” in country music these days anyway? Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson? The former makes soul-tinged southern-rock records, and the latter is a psychedelic prankster who loves Tool and Skrillex. Jason Isbell? He is John Prine trapped in the body of Bruce Springsteen. Any of the acclaimed singer-songwriters — Margo Price, John Moreland, Colter Wall, Tyler Childers — that get lumped under the country umbrella? They’re all children of outlaw icons like Kris Kristofferson and Townes Van Zandt, who led country away from its roots and imbued the music with a poetic, Dylanesque sensibility. Even the purists don’t seem so pure these days.
Last week, a battery of good-to-great country albums further illustrated the uselessness of the pop-vs.-purist binary. Ashley Monroe put out another beautiful, strings-laden folk-pop record, Sparrow, that sounds like the sweetest AM radio station of 1974, though she’s probably still best known as Miranda Lambert’s sidekick in the supergroup Pistol Annies. Old Crow Medicine Show reaffirmed its reputation as the scrappiest and most invigorating string band on the planet with the boisterous Volunteer, though the inclusion of electric guitar (a first for OCMS since 2004) gives the album a decisive rock edge. Even hickory-voiced Joshua Hedley, a dyed-in-the-wool Countrypolitan throwback signed to Third Man Records who poses in a Nudie suit on the cover of his debut Mr. Jukebox, can’t bring himself to take potshots at Luke Bryan.