Is It Country? Is It Rock? 20 Ways to Tell

Watch the Grammy awards—it doesn’t matter what year—and you’re watching an exercise in nomenclature.  Americans love music, but they also love finding new words to categorize it.  Is this song country, folk or Southern rock? Folk-rock, alt country or Americana? Is it neo-folk, country-punk or folkabilly?

Why does anybody care?  Well, it’s about money, of course.  The genre determinations applied to a song decide which radio stations will play it, where record stores will stock it, which websites will review it, even where the artist’s live performances will or won’t be booked.  In an ideal world this might not matter, but in the real world nomenclature is important stuff.

Genres are arbitrary, though, and most songs could fit into two or three different ones, depending on how you look at them.  In an era when white girls in evening gowns rap and black guys in low-slung jeans sing Cole Porter, labels aren’t as easy as they used to be.

This is especially hard with genres which resemble one another to some degree, such as country and rock. Rock is the result of a marriage between country and rhythm and blues, and—in music as well as in life—sometime the child resembles the parent.  That’s why there are eleven people, 10 men and one woman, who have been inducted into both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

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Spot the Rocker …

As a public service, then, here is an all-but-infallible guide to distinguishing between country and rock.

1. If the guitar solo lasts for eight measures, it’s country. If it lasts for eight minutes, it’s rock.  If you no longer remember a time before the guitar solo, it’s jam rock.

2. If the singer wants to party all night, it’s rock. If the singer has partied all night, and now it’s morning and he’s feeling lousy, it’s country.

3. If the singer starts the show fully clothed and stays that way, it’s country. If the singer starts the show partially clothed and gets less clothed, it’s rock.  If the singer starts the show partially clothed and gets all the way unclothed, it’s burlesque.

4. If the singer scorns conservatives who are destroying everything this country stands for, it’s rock. If the singer scorns liberals who are destroying everything this country stands for, it’s country.  If the singer is himself destroying everything this country stands for, it’s black metal.

5. If the singer appears in the video of his song, it’s country.  If the singer doesn’t appear in the video of his song, it’s rock.  If there is no video of his song, it’s polka.

6. If the singer curses, it’s rock.  If the singer prays, it’s country.

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… Spot the Country Star

7.If the band’s name is printed on the drum, it’s rock.  If the band doesn’t have a name to print on the drum, it’s country.  If the band’s name is unprintable, it’s grunge.

8. If the words are about partying, girls and/or music, it’s rock. If the words are about agriculture, marriage and/or hard work, it’s country.  If you can’t make out what the words are, it’s heavy metal.

9. If the song is heard in a commercial for a car, it’s country.  If it’s heard in a commercial for athletic shoes, it’s rock.  If it’s heard in a commercial for a soft drink, it’s pop.  If it’s heard in a commercial for wine, it’s opera.

10.  If the band stays together for 50 years, it’s country.  If it stays together for 50 months, it’s rock.  If it stays together for 50 weeks, it’s punk.

11.  If the guitarist wields his instrument like a weapon, it’s rock.  If he wields it like a musical instrument, it’s country.  If he wields an actual weapon, it’s gangsta rap.

12. If the music makes you want to dance, it’s rock. If it makes you want to cry, it’s country.  If it makes you want to dance and cry, it’s rhythm and blues.

13. If the singer’s hair is wild, unkempt and/or sprayed to within an inch of its life, it’s rock. If you can’t see the singer’s hair because he’s wearing a hat, it’s country.  If the singer has no hair, it’s hip-hop.

14.  If the singer looks calm and even slightly bored, it’s country.  If the singer hurls himself to the ground and thrashes about as if he’s been shot, it’s rock.  If he actually has been shot, it’s gangsta rap.

15. If the singer is obsessed with trains, it’s country. If he’s obsessed with girls, it’s rock.  If he’s obsessed with money, it’s hip-hop.

16. If the singer wants sex but not love, it’s rock.  If the singer wants love but not sex, it’s gospel.  If the singer wants both love and sex, it’s country.  If the singer wants neither love nor sex, it’s Gregorian chant.

17. If the singer longs to be free because his parents don’t get him, it’s rock. If the singer longs to be free because he’s in jail, it’s country.

18.  If the singer’s favorite Beatle is John Lennon, it’s rock.  If his favorite Beatle is Ringo Starr, it’s country.  If his favorite Beatle is Paul McCartney, it’s pop.  If his favorite Beatle is George Harrison, it’s unusual.

19. If the singer is on drugs, it’s rock.  If the singer is on a horse, it’s country.  If the singer is on parole, it’s hip-hop (or outlaw country).

20. If only seven of the top 50 acts getting radio play are women, and it’s a scandal, it’s country. If only two of the top 50 acts getting radio play are women, and nobody finds it worth mentioning, it’s rock.  If 43 of the top 50 acts getting radio play are women, it’s pop.

Incidentally, in case you were wondering, the 11 people inducted into both halls of fame are Chet Atkins, Johnny Cash, Floyd Cramer, the Everly Brothers, Brenda Lee, Bill Monroe, Sam Phillips, Elvis Presley, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Bob Wills. Cash, the Everlys, Lee and Presley were inducted into the Rock Hall as performers, Philips as a non-performer and Atkins and Cramer as sidemen.  The other four were inducted as “early influences.”

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