There is a natural wariness that takes over whenever anybody asks: "Do you like country music?" As if by admitting to yourself that you like any songs from a genre that spans the majority of Western music means you immediately have to put on a stetson hat and chew on some straw.
Playing anything that can loosely be labelled as country music is greeted with the kind of reaction usually reserved for hardcore rap or metal - headphones go on faster than you can say "rhinestone cowboy". Yet nobody can really put their finger on what country actually sounds like. Are The Rolling Stones country? Have a listen to Let It Bleed. Are The White Stripes country? Give Effect and Cause a spin. The genre seeps into most popular music, and plenty of quality stuff too.
It's also incredibly popular. An AARP Bulletin in 2009 found that country music was the most listened to rush hour radio genre during the evening commute in the US. Even in the morning, when the sound of banjo would have many reaching for the snooze button, country was still the second most popular.
The music industry knows all too well that learning lessons from country music can result in stadium-sized, massive selling superstars. Queen of bland Taylor Swift has seamlessly moved from country starlet to processed cheese pop phenomenon, managing to keep hold of her serial-record buying country fanbase while adding the lucrative teen market and pretty much every other demographic in between. She mines country music's softer edges, adds some shiny hooks and sells more records than the rest of the music business put together.
The only band even close to keeping pace is the much-maligned but many-platinum Mumford & Sons, whose latest Old Crow-influenced country-lite record sold 600,000 copies in its first week. Why does such seemingly humdrum material make such an impact? It taps into the same spirit - and sells to the same audience - as those Nashville megastars, while hoovering up mainstream radio play and adulation to boot. None of this makes country music any more appealing.
But, brimming beneath the surface of country claptrap is another world of genuinely interesting and exciting music. Aside from Ryan Adams haphazardly spearheading alt-country for the past 18 years, there has been tonnes of talents to come and go without quite breaking through, from John Peel favourite Laura Cantrell to Gillian Welch, stalwarts Calexico to Lampchop.
The latest to really deserve wider attention is the supremely gifted Caitlin Rose. As well as possessing an excellent surname, she combines the more thrilling side of country music with stunning vocals and mischievous songwriting. Her new single No-One To Call bodes extremely well for highly-anticipated sophomore record The Stand-In. It sounds resolutely Nashville, but refreshingly new too.
Equally deserving of attention is her taste in covers. The Rolling Stones' Dead Flowers was gorgeously reworked on her debut EP, Fleetwood Mac casually drops into her first album, and Alex Turner cover Piledriver Waltz was pure magic. Give them a listen, and decide if you still hate country music. Are you ready for the country? Because it's time to go.
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