Merle Haggard ain’t no pretty boy.
The creases on his face, likes the lines of his songs, tell stories of a hardscrabble past. And unlike many of today’s country music acts — who could easily be confused with members of Maroon 5 or Dashboard Confessional — Haggard often resembles a long-haul semi-truck driver sporting a denim jacket.
While country singers look a lot different now than they did in the Hag’s prime, the music has also changed — something that will be obvious at this weekend’s Pozo Stampede, which features performances by Haggard and newer acts such as Kip Moore, Frankie Ballard and the Eli Young Band.
Those differences have sparked debate in the past few years about the direction of country music. Some say the genre has lost its backwoods spirit while others maintain that it’s ever-evolving.
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Here’s how country music has changed the most.
Even in their youthful prime, old-school acts Willie Nelson, George Jones and Randy Travis were never going to be mistaken for male models. And while female performers like June Carter Cash and Loretta Lynn were attractive, they weren’t cute-as-a-bug pretty, like Taylor Swift, or hubba-hubba sexy, like former model Jana Kramer.
Lynn’s buck teeth were as much of her trademark as Buck Owens’ prominent ears, while Hank Williams Jr. covered his unsightly facial scars with a beard and CHP shades. And that was OK, because audiences didn’t expect country stars to be cover models.
In the old days, male country stars seemed to deliberately dress like Howdy Doody, with their tacky shirts, absurdly large cowboy hats and goofy haircuts. Meanwhile, women donned conservative dresses that they could have worn to church that Sunday.
Contemporary country singer Miranda Lambert looked like a movie star at the recent Country Music Association awards ceremony. And male acts such Kip Moore — with his backward baseball hats and sleeveless Rolling Stones T-shirts — more often resemble rock stars.
Read the bios of this year’s Pozo Stampede performers, and one interesting fact pops out: Most of them went to college.
The guys in the Eli Young Band met at North Texas State University. Frankie Ballard played baseball at Western Michigan University. And Parmalee had its first gig at East Carolina University, where the band members were going to school.
In many cases, today’s country acts have parents from very un-country backgrounds. Moore’s father was a golf pro — and Moore, a surfer, went to Vanderbilt University on a golf scholarship.
Swift’s father, a financial adviser, sent his daughter to a Montessori school. And Bentley’s father was a bank vice president.
Older country acts seldom went to college — with the exception of Rhodes scholar Kris Kristofferson — and often had challenging backgrounds.
Johnny Cash started working in cotton fields at age 5. Dolly Parton’s family was so poor that her father reportedly paid the doctor who delivered her with a bag of oatmeal. And Lynn really was a coal miner’s daughter.
Tough life experiences shaped the lyrics of classic country acts.
Parton, who grew up “dirt poor,” sang “Coat of Many Colors” about a woman so poor she wore a coat made of rags. Cash’s “Five Feet High and Rising” was about the family farm flooding. And some of Haggard’s songs reflected his time served at San Quentin Prison, where a death row inmate turned his life around.
When they weren’t writing about themselves, those older artists often wrote about working people down on their luck. (Examples include Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and Haggard’s “Workin’ Man Blues.”)
Today’s country music tends to be less of a downer, focusing on more superficial topics that appeal mostly to men — such as pickup trucks, women and partying. Moore’s hits include “Somethin’ ’Bout a Truck” and “Dirt Road.” Ballard’s “Helluva Life” talks of country girls, dirt roads and beer.
Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind of Night” includes a laundry list of modern country themes — including his “jacked-up truck,” pretty girls and beer — as does Blake Shelton’s “Boys Round Here.” (Sample lyric: “Talkin’ ’bout girls, talkin’ ’bout trucks/Runnin’ them red dirt roads out, kicking up dust.”)
Inspiration for traditional country acts often came from their peers — people like Patsy Cline and Roy Acuff. Today’s country music, sometimes nicknamed “bro country” or “hick hop,” often incorporates pop and hip hop elements.
Moore’s influences include Jackson Browne, Bob Seger, Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen. The Eli Young Band cites Petty and the Eagles as inspirations.
Several contemporary country acts have teamed with hip hop artists. Brad Paisley and LL Cool J dueted on “Accidental Racist,” Ludacris recorded a remix of Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” and Nelly remixed Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise.” A few have even used AutoTune.
“There’s really no country stuff left” on the radio, country star Alan Jackson told The Baltimore Sun in 2013.
Shelton refuted complaints about new country on a Great American Country TV special.
“Nobody wants to listen to their grandpa’s music,” “The Voice” coach said in 2013. “And I don’t care how many of these old farts (are) around Nashville going, ‘My God, that ain’t country!’ Well, that’s because you don’t buy records any more, jackass. The kids do, and they don’t want to buy the music you were buying.”
Noon Saturday and Sunday
Pozo Saloon, 90 West Pozo Road, Pozo
$36.50 per day, $59.50 for both days; children 10 and under free
438-4225 or www.pozosaloon.com