September Exchange: Authentic, Genuine, & The Integrity of Songwriting Debate

by: Thomas D. Mooney
Editor-in-Chief

Editor’s Note: Jeff Dennis is a singer-songwriter in Lubbock, Texas. As one of my good friends, we typically talk about music on a daily basis. While it’s commonly either through text message or on Monday Nights at The Blue Light, we’ve decided to make the exchanges of ideas and commentary into a monthly piece. Follow Dennis on Twitter hereGet an insight on what Dennis is listening to here on his curated Spotify Playlist, Rust & Reverb, here.

Thomas Mooney: Is Colter Wall genuine and/or authentic?

I didn’t know how to really start this off other than to just plunge head-first. The debate on genuine and authenticity of artists is a sprawling subject with no end or beginning.So, I just ask, is Colter Wall genuine and/or authentic? Is Tyler Childers? Aaron Watson? Jason Isbell? Sam Baker? Paul Cauthen? Does it even matter if they are?

I think more than anything else, the sincerity of an artist is what we’re both never wanting to know and desperately trying to learn. It’s essentially the whole “Never meet your heroes” thing because they’ll ultimately disappoint you. You kill the magic if you learn the absolute truth of a song or songwriter. But still, you want to some kind of validation.

Jeff Dennis: I ran a Twitter poll on this a while back (i.e. whether it’s more important for music to be genuine or authentic), and I got a mix of answers, yet many saw no difference between the two and others don’t seem to care. What it brings up is what authenticity in music really means. Do you really have to go to prison to sing about prison? Do you really have to have a hound dog and a Dodge truck to talk about letting the tailgate down for your dog to howl at the moon?

I think authenticity is perhaps a bit overstated. I might argue that we are looking more for artists to be genuine. By that, I mean, even if they didn’t go to prison, that they are making an earnest effort to tell that story honestly. Or do we have to limit storytellers to only tell the stories they have experienced? I see a distinct difference between authentic and genuine, and I’m not sure that most music fans care on the surface, but ultimately those play into our views more than we admit.

So start with Colter Wall. Young Canadian kid, channeling something along the lines of Johnny Cash, with a raw, folk-driven approach. Turns out his dad, Brad Wall, is the Premier (similar to a governor) of Saskatchewan and has been since Colter was 12. That fact doesn’t necessarily make him a “rich kid,” but it has to come with resources and connections. Given that, maybe he’s not authentic in relation to his lyrical content. But he can still be genuinely trying to tell stories and be true to his craft, right?

Townes came from money and Guy’s dad was a lawyer. Does anyone hold that against them? Rarely. But take some famous person who releases an album–Kiefer Sutherland, not only a famous actor, but the son of a famous actor–is there anything he could ever do artistically in music or songwriting that people would really take seriously? Is that unfair or just something we base off past experience?

TM: That’s an interesting parallel and comparison–acting. There’s plenty of similarities between the crafts of songwriting and acting. In essence, you’re trying to tell a story with both. Every year, we praise those who gain or lose 50 pounds for a role and go full method. People went ape-shit when they learned Leo DiCaprio slept in animal carcasses and ate bison in preparation for The Revenant. In part, that’s what finally earned him an Oscar. But still. Ultimately, everyone knows actors are, no matter how hard they try, are pretending.

Songwriters, on the other hand, they can make those lines as blurry as they see fit. Townes came from money. But he also lived in trailer houses, became an alcoholic, and was pretty much an asshole in every sense of the word. We applaud him for writing “Lungs,”  “Nothin’,” “Tecumseh Valley,” “Waiting ‘Round to Die” and so on. It was genuine, sincere, and many times, authentic. He put himself in that position for the benefit of writing some dark, depressing, and haunting songs. It was all or nothing. He couldn’t–or maybe wouldn’t–do it any other way. It’s not as simple as how I’m going to frame it, but in many respects, he did that for us, the listener.

He may have thought we all wanted authenticity. He may have thought that’s what made the songs. But like you mentioned, what makes those songs is the sincerity and genuineness. You can fake the rest and it be OK–for the most part.

The largest sentiment among the songwriter community is to “write what you know.” You hear it from everyone. It may be the single idea that everyone from Jack White and Jerry Jeff Walker to Evan Felker and Eric Church. I think what that means is to write with conviction, write with sincerity, write about something that personally moves you. But, how often do you think an artist is full of shit? How often do you think a songwriter is out of his or her depth? How often are you questioning an artist’s motives?

JD: Yeah, Townes put everything into authenticity, and one wonders if the addiction and despair he suffered in that experience should be necessary to write about the depths of despair. He created a mythology, no doubt, but was it worth it for all the people in his life?I think songwriters look to tell a story in a genuine way, but we let marketing overplay the authentic side. Chris Knight is a well-respected writer who I’ve heard many give more credence to for being authentic. “He worked in the coal mines. He’s the real deal.” Yes, that’s true to an extent, but he was a mine inspector with a college degree. The truth is, our country has long depended on storytellers to tell the stories in an accessible way, often when they didn’t experience the event themselves. In my mind, you’ve got to be close enough to understand it but removed enough to have perspective on where it fits in. Guthrie, Dylan, The Boss, Guy, etc. found ways to tell stories of people who wouldn’t have had the words to tell their own story nearly so eloquently.

The other side of authenticity, from my viewpoint, is about who has paid dues. There’s a lot of back and forth about Midland right now. They’re virtual unknowns, one with a modeling background, and seemingly a lot of money behind them. Further, they’ve got songwriting help on their record from some of the biggest names in music (Osborne, McAnally, Akins). In fact, those writers have been cogs in the Bro-Country wheel previously. Midland is playing real country (or their backing band at least), and are riding a wave of the “old” industry model, where the money goes in before you get big. Yet, I sense tons of resentment about their slick look/sound, because they didn’t make their name by paying dues at the Lone Star Bar in Midland. Have any of them been to Midland? I’m not sold myself, but in a world of Bro-Country, it could be a lot worse. But when you consider that their cowriters are also partly responsible for “Body like a Backroad,” suddenly a million red flags go up.

TM: We may have been too quick with calling Koe Wetzel the most polarizing artist in Texas. It can easily be said for Midland. I’ve flip-flopped on them a million times. I think it’s funny. They’re playing a different brand of country that’s not been seen in “Top 40 Country” in a good, long while–but the root of what’s bothering people is people questioning how genuine they truly are. And it’s their own fault. Whichever machine is behind them, they’re pushing the narrative that feels forced and contrived. Folks who are anti-Midland feel like they’re being manipulated into believing that this trio has played every honky-tonk in Texas for years before being discovered–paying their dues. 

The frustration with Midland is just how avoidable this could have been. People think the industry is trying to pull a fast one by them. They could have picked any other state than Texas (or those bordering) and could have been in the clear. Every honky-tonk in Arizona and Southern California? Done! In Montana? That’s good! Brooklyn and Queens? Fuck YES! But Texas? No one in Texas who has even remotely been paying attention knows there’s something fishy going on with them. But maybe being from Texas makes them authentic for the other 49 states and that’s actually all that matters.

As you mentioned, their newly announced album has a stable of professional Nashville songwriters all over it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ve been an apologist of sorts for some of the Nashville writers–this is totally different from Nashville artists–because I think they’re proficient songwriters. They know how to craft a song. I’m 100% sure McAnally, Akins, Osborne, Laird, etc all have back catalogs of amazing songs. They just don’t have the same desire and/or powerful voice to make a transition back into performing like say…Chris Stapleton?

(I know. I’m going off into the woods here with this, but I promise to wrap back around and get on course again.)

And sadly, they probably don’t have the power to change the system at large. If they don’t write the bad songs on the radio, someone else will and they’ll be out a job. It’s a long-winded way of saying, I understand why they have to do it, but it doesn’t mean any of those songs are genuine or sincere–or authentic for that matter.

In saying that, Midland at least sounds better than Sam Hunt or Florida Georgia-Line, right? I’m not listening to Midland the same way I’m listening to Guy Clark. So they do get a little bit of leeway. Albeit, in a roundabout way, it also means they don’t get as much respect, appreciation, or my time.

As a result, the songwriters you admire, you ultimately hold them to a higher, regimented code.

JD: Midland is the polarizing band for people who really care about music because I don’t think your average fan really cares much about them. On the surface, they look to be fairly talented, they have good songs, and they’ve got some style. Once you peel back the layers and watch some live performances, that doesn’t fall apart, but they just don’t play like they put their sound together playing four-hour sets in dive bars. The Hayes Carll model of playing four-hour shows at crappy sports bars on the Bolivar Peninsula, where you work out a whole lot about who you are.

So I’m conflicted. As we’re saying, they may be an Industry creation, but at least the industry is trying to create a country band at least this time. Deep dive here, but I was listening to the Cowboy Crossroads podcast, by our friend, Lubbock songster Andy Hedges, and his interview with songwriter Tom Russell. Russell is best known for writing “Gallo del Cielo,” truly a brilliant song, but he’s also a fairly established performer on the cowboy circuit, which is its own thing mostly outside of the folk or country scenes. Two things stand out in relation to our discussions of Midland. First, Russell talks about how he really cut his teeth playing eight-hour shows in strip clubs and some of the roughest joints on the continent in Vancouver. EIGHT HOURS. There’s plenty of bands who have to stretch into a couple of boring jams just to make their contractual 75 minutes, and they still stop at about 68 minutes or let the frontman do an acoustic song (i.e., the band doesn’t know it).

What was also great though was how straightforward he was about not being a real cowboy. He’s a songwriter who has written some cowboy songs, but the great account from that podcast is about how he was scared of the real cowboys the first time he went to Elko Cowboy Poetry Gathering, because he said “they could smell horse shit a mile away,” and “you’d get the shit beaten out of you” for acting like you know more than you did.

All that to say, there’s a lot more Cinch and Cactus Ropes cowboying going on in country music than there is actual cowboying, but in the end, it’s unrealistic to think country music is going to be done only by authentic country people, but rather, that it needs to be genuine. Merle Haggard was a writer who had plenty of interesting experiences, although he certainly didn’t live them all, yet he just found a way to be genuine and honest about his subjects. We get so caught up in Texas/Tennessee/California country, etc, but the greats are the ones who are trying to tell people’s stories. I completely agree that the cast of writers you mentioned could write just about anything, and sure they are contributing to part of the “problem,” but someone else would just fill their place if they didn’t. Lori McKenna is a writer who is well-respected in Nashville, writes for some of the biggest mainstream artists, yet seemingly has no ill will toward them, despite the fact that her own albums are everything that mainstream country is not. The Bird & The Rifle was one of the best albums of the past five years, but the big radio songs that pay her bills are ultimately what allows her to make that record.

I get irritated at the people overanalyzing Zac Brown’s covers of Jason Isbell. So much of “how dare he” and “Jason’s version is so much better.” Of course I think Isbell’s versions are better, but despite the fact that he is one of the biggest Americana artists today, Brown’s audience far bigger. And so Isbell gets recognition, gets royalties, and gets some exposure to new fans. Why is it bad in any form? People still think Willie wrote “Pancho & Lefty.” What can you do? It’s the life of a songwriter.

TM: The Elko Cowboy Poetry Gathering and circuit is an interesting dive. Those folks are about the story. They’re about a way of life. Fully invested into preserving the ways of the American Frontier–even if they’re a dying breed. You can’t really speak in absolutes, but for the most part, they all are very genuine about their work and craft. A lot of them are also very authentic. They’ve made a life out of living on a horse. It’s dear to their heart. As an effect, there’s a healthy amount of pretentiousness that comes with it. It’s a small group banded together.

(Also, I didn’t know where to fit this in, but I think it’s an interesting point on the Cowboy Poetry circuit. The most famous, most identifiable individual in the lot is Ramblin’ Jack Elliott—who was raised in Brooklyn and the son of a Jewish doctor. Despite this, he’s been rather outspoken about fake folk singers. He’s another TVZesque figure. Worshipped by generations of folk songwriters. When it comes to being an American Storyteller, he’s as iconic as Guthrie, Muddy Waters, Dylan, Springsteen, B.B. King, and Cash. Despite this, he was an irresponsible father and husband. Calling him a deadbeat may be slightly too harsh, but you certainly get that feeling after watching the documentary The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack, which was done by his daughter, Aiyana Elliott.)

The polar opposite of the Cowboy Poets has to be Cowboy Crooners of Country Music. They have large crowds and folks singing their generic choruses along to the radio. Plenty of Coors Light being crushed. King’s Ropes may be selling more flat-bill caps than actual ropes these days. I feel it’s primarily made up of a crowd who’d chastise Toby Keith’s “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” not seeing the irony.

OK. Let’s get to it. I don’t question, say Cody Johnson or Aaron Watson’s authenticity per se…but I do question some of their genuineness. It’s well documented that CoJo’s been a rodeo guy for a while now. AaWa has a ranch, etc. Their cowboyness is well documented and fully stocked. I’d even say they’ve written some good genuine songs–Watson’s “July in Cheyenne,” “Bluebonnets,”  for example. But, it feels as though a lot of their music is based on the idea of being a cowboy rather than being a cowboy–the image. To gain a wide audience, I suppose you have to water it down enough that it becomes universal rather than unique. It’s probably more of a commentary on their average fan than on them. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it feels more engineered than written from a genuine place. But again, maybe it is genuine, just mediocre.

It’s not just Texas artists selling the cowboy way either though. Nashville has Craig Campbell, Jon Pardi, Dustin Lynch, William Michael Morgan, and Justin Moore all trying their best to imitate Cowboy Country. It’s the cheapest form of it though. It’s cliche and trite. Shit like “Head Over Boots,” “Robbin’ Trains,” “Small Town Boy,” and “People Like Me” makes what CoJo, AaWa, Jon Wolfe, etc are doing sound like George Strait singing Corb Lund songs. It’s not authentic. It’s worse. It’s uninspiring and not a genuine take on cowboy culture, frontier life, or hard living in general. 

JD: It’s always good to create a visual that no two people will ever agree on for anything. So by all means, let’s figure out where Gillian Welch fits. Not unlike the cowboy poetry scene, there are plenty of genres than weight authenticity more than average. You’ve got skater punk, black metal, straight edge vegan punk, trap music, cowpunk (OK, kidding, that was just a failed name for alt-country). Regardless, those tend to be very niche scenes with little to no chance of breaking mainstream.

CoJo & AaWa have been successful at balancing that idea of having a cowboy lifestyle and selling their sound to people who live that lifestyle, but ALSO, to those who like to think they are cowboys at heart, despite being life insurance salesmen who drive a big truck and live in the suburbs. In the end, you can’t be the “Most Cowboy” cowboy ever AND a successful touring artist with a seven-figure tour income. But they have been very deliberate in finding where to settle between those two and are great at it.

Not sure where he fits in all of this, but this makes me think of Steve Earle. His early country records are worshipped in Texas, as though his last 15 years don’t exist. Yet the reality is that Earle has been an extremely outspoken left winger for a very long time. How did his authenticity/genuineness change from “Copperhead Road” to “John Walker’s Blues?” I think he’s always searched to tell genuine stories, and he’s pretty authentic in that I think he’s been pretty honest about who he is. Amusing that people ignore his authenticity so they can still jam to “Guitar Town.”

Alternatively, modern country stars don’t really take a hard stand on anything other than tailgates and boots and cowboy hats. Or in the much more distinctive Texas scene, on Texas and boots and cowboy hats.

Songwriters may not always be that authentic, but I think the ones I value are battling to tell a genuine and honest story. A little authenticity goes a long way toward telling the story more genuinely, especially when channeling the voice of someone in a different social position. I think trying too much for authenticity, sometimes writers get bogged down in the details and lose the spirit of the song.

Side note: Daniel Fluitt and I once tried to coin our own term for cowpunk/alt country, but “pounktry” never caught on.

TM: Back in the Spring, there was an LA Weekly piece about the 10 Lamest Americana Acts. Gillian Welch was put through the ringer, citing that she was New York City born, Los Angeles raised, etc. What the hell does SHE know about Appalachia blues? She’s singing with a fake southern accent. It felt like the list had been drafted by some scorned lover or some shit. Axes to grind. Grudges to be had. Yada yada yada.

While Welch may not have grown up next to a wood burning stove where her mother played minstrels on a washboard out in the Ozarks. But damn, she can write a damn fine song that cuts straight to the essence of the American spirit and human experience. It’s as earthy as one can get. She may not be authentic, but she certainly searched for that authenticity—or at least some sort of insight.

What makes a good songwriter? That mix of authentic insight, compassion (to actually understand where others are coming from), and being genuine. It’s like 10%, 45%, 45%. As you said, that little dose of authenticity can go a long way. It’s the difference between “Outskirts of Heaven” by Craig Campbell and “Southside of Heaven” by Ryan Bingham. I think most people can see the grit in Bingham’s. They can feel the dirt getting underneath their fingernails and the sun wearing down eyes. But one of these is on Billboard’s Hot Country chart and one wasn’t.

Another slice of this genuine vs authentic talk is the notion that Isbell, John Moreland, etc are lying to us if, A) they write sad songs, but B), aren’t in a depressive state at all times. Both have spoken about this. I think it’s kind of funny. It’s so damn ridiculous to think anyone who writes sad songs is in a depressive state. Even more so to think they’re manipulating us by not being.

Now, you can’t characterize Townes as a being solely a hopeless and sad songwriter (Even if I did earlier; even if he did too) because, well, people will remind you he also wrote “Two Hands,” “If I Needed Someone,” and “To Live Is To Fly,” and if you don’t get that, well, you’re missing a lot of what Townes did as a storyteller (OK. This was to just cover the bases because I know some Townes snobs out there). But regardless, he did have some great those about aloneness and loneliness: “Aloneness is a state of being whereas loneliness is a state of feeling. It’s like the being broke and being poor. I feel aloneness all the time and loneliness, I hardly ever feel.”

The reason Isbell, Moreland, [the writer of your favorite sad song here], etc is able to tap into a serious state of heartache, misery, and sorrow isn’t because they’re living in that state, but because 1) they’ve felt it before and 2) have the gift of communication. They’re well read and educated. They have the wherewithal to make it go from being an indescribable feeling to being a song that cuts you to the bone. The reason it works is that it reminds you of the sorrow in your own life.

JD: Ha! That LA Weekly piece was clickbait central. “Here are all the artists you hold sacred, and I’m here to tell you why they suck!”

Of course, we do get caught up in the charade of authenticity at times, and once someone passes as authentic, they can perhaps get away with a song that is a bit cheaper. Although sometimes I think writers just get bored and have to step out of that skin. Bob Dylan changes artistic directions twice before breakfast. I will not even pretend to love his many artistic stages, nor to understand many of them, but the man has pursued one of the most interesting artistic careers in history. Of the ’60s visionaries, while many died young, others settled into doing the same old thing, and a select few continued to be amazing artists. Neil Young probably fits in that category as well, although I’m no expert on him either.

Guy Clark wrote songs about what he knew for many years, but it has been reported that at some point, he tired of that and preferred having younger writers bring ideas to him that he could help flesh out. The role of the mentor, asking the hard questions about why your character doesn’t use the same voice throughout, and why your coalminer sounds like he has a BA in Russian Literature, that’s what made Guy Clark an amazing cowriter. Perhaps this is why his catalog is so impressive from start to finish. He didn’t stray too far, but he wasn’t afraid to do things differently.

As for cowriting more broadly, it has its downfalls. The Isbells, Morelands, and Barhams of the world just don’t do it much. But they are hyper-protective of their narrative. Cowrites seem to be more popular in Texas country, although cowriting culture really gets out of hand really fast. Everybody brings a bottle of whiskey and leaves with a major headache and no good songs.

Cowriting isn’t bad, and when done right and with a good mentor, you work harder to genuinely tell the story at hand. I know many won’t even agree with how we define authentic (is the person who they claim to be) and genuine (are they being true to the song/the art?), although in the end, the words we use don’t matter as much as the idea behind them.

TM: Right. I think the reason they’re the words to use though is that of that very thing–people disagreeing with their definitions. People have been using authentic and genuine interchangeably for too long. They’re not the same thing. But you’ll still find people describing artists as being genuine and authentic for the same reason when, in reality, it should be one or the other.

Agreeing on terms and concept is essential. If you can’t agree on the principles, how can you debate the actual artists?

This is one of those things that I think need a visual aide. It can be a dangerous idea, but hell, here’s The Authentic VS. Genuine Artist Guide (And don’t mind that it’s just a freehand drawing with a Sharpie).

It’s a lot to take in, but it’s essentially a normal plane you’d see in a math class. Four Quadrants. You have Genuine running left to right with Authentic running top to bottom. The further right, the more genuine. The further left, the less genuine. The higher, the more authentic. The lower, the less authentic.

You essentially have Five Regions. And since we’ve mainly been talking about Cowboy Culture, Frontier, Western, etc songwriting, I’ll just use some of those as examples.

I MAMG (Most Authentic, Most Genuine)

Think (1) Ryan Bingham’s Mescalito, (2) Corb Lund’s Losing Lately Gambler, (3) the Chris LeDoux discography,  (4) Woody Guthrie, (5) Michael Martin Murphey’s Geronimo Cadillac,  Red Dirt folk singers

II LAMG (Least Authentic, Most Genuine)

Think  (6) Colter Wall,  (7) Shane Smith & The Saints’ Geronimo, (8) Tom Russell,  (9) Gram Parsons and his many disciples,  (10) Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Modern Americana singer-songwriters

III LALG (Least Authentic, Least Genuine)

Think (11) Jon Pardi, (12) Midland, (13) Eagles’ Desperado, (14) Craig Campbell, (15) Justin Moore, (16) Kenny Chesney’s “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy,”  The vein of Bro-Country who wear cowboy hats

IV MALG (Most Authentic, Least Genuine)

Think (17) Casey Donahew’s Double Wide Dream,  (18) Aaron Watson’s The Underdog, (19) Cody Johnson, (20) Jon Wolfe, (21) Early Blake Shelton, Modern Texas Country Radio

V Neutral

Think (22) Garth Brooks’ Ropin’ The Wind, (23) George Strait, (24) Roy Rogers, (25) Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger,  Early ’90s Country

I feel like this needs to be reiterated again and again. This has nothing to do with how “great” or “bad” an artist, album, or song is. This doesn’t take that into perspective. It’s just judging an artist, album, or song on how genuine and authentic it’s being. I guess we could add a third dimension or a color code, but hell, we’ll try to keep things as simple as possible with this first run.

OK. Let the hate mail begin.