As part of my Apple TV+ phase I’ve been scouring their strange content until something caught my eye—‘a new kind of competition series’, the TV reality show My Kind of Country. Another venture from Reese Witherspoon, this time partnering up with country music star Kacey Musgraves, the series looks to find the next big thing in country music.
But there’s a twist— they want someone who doesn’t look like a country singer. This in itself is exciting. Country music has stagnated, going through a bit of an identity crisis for the past few decades. Does every country singer have to come from Nashville? Do they have to have a cattle ranch, or know what it really feels like to drive down a dirt road with a truck full of cold beer?
In my home state of Montana we have a phrase for fake cowboys—‘all hat and no cows’. It’s the ultimate insult. Real cowboys in Montana tend to wear filthy baseball caps, the color long-faded by sweat and engine oil. Authenticity matters in country music more than many genres. Like rap music, there’s a lot of singing about where you came from.
In pop you can create a separate identity, adopt a persona like David Bowie or Lady Gaga. Country is unyielding in this regard, and seems to eject its most popular artists, Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus included. But if they’re making great music, who cares? Listen to Keith Urban’s duet with Pink, ‘One Too Many’, and I bet you won’t care what genre it’s in—it’s just a great song.
My Kind of Country follows three unusual country stars— I have no idea who they are but apparently they’re big— Jimmie Allen, Mickey Guyton and Orville Peck. Two of these artists are Black and one always covers his face with a fringe-moustache but wears his queerness openly. The three of them are scouting for talent from unexpected places.
The premise of the show is fantastic—who says a Black man from Delaware can’t be a country singer? Country music has its roots in hardship and migration. It comes as much from African slave songs as it does from Irish laments.
In the first episode of My Kind of Country, Jimmie Allen judges the performances of his four contestants, artists from all over the world. His choices include Camille from North Carolina, Justin from South Africa, Ale from Mexico and Dhruv from New Delhi. It’s worth sitting through the whole first episode just to hear Dhruv’s rendition of ‘Ring of Fire’. The Indian guitar player and singer tunes his instrument a half step higher, or something like that, which gives his sounds a lovely, upbeat quality. His cover made the legendary Johnny Cash song sound entirely fresh.
There’s a lot of leadup to the actual performances and this is how they hook you in reality TV shows—by milking the backstory till it runs dry. One contestant lost his father and plays music in his memory; one was abandoned by her parents and raised by grandparents.
This artist, Camille, is a Black woman from North Carolina who had a promising early career but was dropped from her label when she sang Johnny Cash’s ‘Folsom Prison Blues’. They decided that a Black woman singing country music was not commercially viable. Stars as big as Taylor Swift have faced such prejudice—she even had to switch genres to carry on making music at the highest level. Some of her best songs were in her early country phase—it’s a shame that she left it behind. Perhaps with the efforts of Reese Witherspoon and Kacey Musgraves, the industry will realise that old image of a country singer is unnecessarily rigid.
With this TV series they’re attempting to ‘shake things up’ in Nashville: ‘Stop limiting people and start opening doors.’ The remarkable thing is that these cliches are quite affecting in this show. The whole thing has a kind of endearing earnestness.
It does seem as though Witherspoon and Musgraves are correct that the industry itself places restrictions on who counts as ‘country’. Even a blatantly country/folk singer like Chris Stapleton, born and raised in Kentucky, faces the damning charge of verging on pop. Maybe what these critics mean is his sound is too catchy. If it’s popular it must not be authentic. Chris Stapleton’s mistake was probably having a close friendship and jamming with John Mayer, an artist from a different genre. All creative industries face these kinds of internal battles as they go through a phase of development and change. My Kind of Country looks to me like one of those rarest of things—a reality TV series with a positive agenda, and damn good music to boot.