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No Country For Young Men: Why Musicians Reject Their Genres

Daniel Romano sings hurtin’ songs -- tales of heartbreak and the loneliness at the bottom of a bottle. He does it with a pronounced twang and a drawl to his voice while wearing a cowboy hat and a sequined “Nudie” suit, the type associated with the glory days of the Grand Ole Opry.

But please don’t call him country.

The Canadian singer-songwriter has rejected the country tag, coining himself instead “The King of Mosey.”

"'Mosey' is a term I made up," explains Romano. "Basically, it just means classic country."

So why not just call it “classic country”? That’s definitely where one would file Romano’s latest album, "Come Cry with Me". The problem, says the 28-year-old, is when he tells people he plays traditional country music, most don’t even know what that is.

“The meaning of country has changed pretty drastically,” he says. “So if you tell people you play classic country, the average Joe thinks you mean Tim McGraw. It was fine when people used ‘new country’ for that stuff, but somehow that has gone away and it is now just 'country.' But it’s not. It’s some kind of rock ‘n’ roll, super pop, dumbed-down version of what country was.”

Romano is certainly not alone in this opinion. The late country icon George Jones, in an interview with the Associated Press, accused pop acts like Taylor Swift of stealing country’s identity. “What they need to do really, I think, is find their own title, because they’re definitely not traditional country music,” he said.

One can only imagine what Jones would make of DeeJaySilver, a DJ/producer signed to Sony Music Nashville who mashes country with dance music. (See his remix of Carrie Underwood’s “Two Black Cadillacs”.)

The blurred lines of music genres exacerbate artists’ frustrations with having to label their work at all. And subgenres, usually coined by journalists, DJs or other music industry types and arbitrarily applied based on looks as much as sound, are often met with resistance, if not downright ridicule.

Most recently, dubstep and EDM seem to have been embraced without much distain, but modern music history is littered with bad words -- nu metal, goth, electronica, grunge, emo -- all vehemently rejected by the bands that made them famous.

Witness Jimmy Eat World singer Jim Adkins telling the BBC, “We've never considered ourselves emo,” or Jonathan Davis from Korn insisting “'nu-metal' was made up for all the bands that followed us … we're just Korn.”

And yet, while some such made-up musical genres are mercifully short-lived (wherefore art thou, “electroclash”?), most of them do stick. Artists can plead all they want, but sometimes all that’s left to do is take the piss (see: Kurt Cobain appearing in photographs wearing a T-shirt that read “Grunge is dead”) or at least appreciate the fact that labelling helps listeners find, and buy, new music.

Vincent Marcone of the band Johnny Hollow is rare breed of goth who actually doesn’t hate being called goth. While he sympathizes with artists who reject the derogatory "g-word" for fear of “being dismissed as a 'goth band' by the music media,” he doesn’t share their derision.

“For me as a teenager, the ‘goth’ umbrella helped me discover a variety of new music -- not just Bauhaus and Joy Division but Cocteau Twins, Depeche Mode, Portishead,” he says.

“To this day, I am fond of the term, and am nothing but flattered when a fan refers to us as ‘goth.’ It does not define Johnny Hollow completely, but it is a part of the thematic palette that we use in our music.”

On the flipside of all this you have the headbangers, who literally wear their genre on their (denim and leather) sleeves. When the term “heavy metal” was first introduced around 1973, it was retroactively applied to underground rock bands such as Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Uriah Heep, who mostly rebuffed attempts to put their music in a box, but, as author Martin Popoff explains it, things changed in the early 80s with the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.

“Rockers were feeling under siege from the world of punk and new wave,” says Popoff, who has written more than 40 books on the history of hard rock and metal.

“So they end up forming a tribe. They start to say, ‘Hey, we are heavy metal, and we are perfectly fine with that term.’ At this time, the bands look metal, the fans look metal, and every song on these records, starting around 1980-81 in the UK, is very heavy metal. They even start writing songs about being heavy metal, like Saxon’s ‘Denim and Leather’. They were proud.”

Then came hair metal. The glam bands from L.A. may have sold millions of albums but they presented an image of metal that many headbangers found ridiculous and were quick to distance themselves from.

“In metal, you didn’t want to be associated with hair metal,” says Popoff. “This is why grunge bands didn’t want to be called metal, it was the perception. And even today, there is a lingering bit of that. Even though metal is cool and viable again some people say “we’re metal’ not “heavy metal.’”

In this respect, hair metal and new country have a lot in common. Both bought a genre of non-commercial music to the Top 40, in a pop fashion that irked intensely loyal and protective fans of the more traditional versions, and with a level of success that forever changed the very definition of the genre itself. Metal survived by splintering into even more extreme subgenres, while classic country has Daniel Romano and his ilk pushing to keep it alive.

“You have to call your music something,” says Romano. “I know that with ‘mosey’ I’m always going to have to explain what I mean, but I hope it will intrigue people to find out more. I know that other people are going to fall in love with that style of music again and realize it’s a tradition worth protecting.”

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