Copyright hijack of Austin BBQ place a reminder country musicians often aren’t country

Carolina cotton field. (Photo by Indie Art South)

There’s not much The Washington Post could do to lower my opinion of their product even more, but the paper I refer to as ‘WaPoo’ has erred again. The paper dominating so many search inquiries on the Web’s most powerful engine ran a promo photo based on a hijacked copyright. That act involved a band who had already hijacked a country persona. Both are a reminder of the fact, among other things, many country musicians have no country in their heritage.

It doesn’t surprise at all. Pop tart Taylor Swift used country charts to position herself, and eventually emerged in all her glory as pop princess. Swift, like many others in today’s pop country sector, was born to privilege. I still like her early music, but her music and her promo brand are two different matters.

The band called Midland used basic photo editing to capitalize on the brand of an iconic barbecue restaurant in Austin. The only ‘authenticity’ that counts is the fictionalized version of the musicians’ backgrounds, distributed to grow a fan base. Saving Country Music explained the latest example:

“The picture at the top of the Washington Post article shows Midland’s Mark Wystrach, Jess Carson, and Cameron Duddy hanging outside of a BBQ shack around a Cadillac with steer horns on the front. Many from Austin and beyond immediately noticed the storefront as that of the legendary Sam’s BBQ on on E 12th Street in Austin. But instead of the sign out front saying “Sam’s BBQ”—a sign many make a point to get a picture in front of whenever they make their way to that part of Austin—the name of the establishment is portrayed as “Playboys,” which is the name of one of the songs on Midland’s 2019 record, Let It Roll.”

As might be expected, the owner of that restaurant wasn’t pleased to see his brand hijacked:

“I didn’t give them permission to do what they did,” Sam’s BBQ owner Brian Mays tells Saving Country Music, who’s been hearing from angry customers over the image since it appeared online. “I remember they came and took pictures. They changed the sign on the computer. They had no business doing that. They didn’t play, they never paid me to do nothing, they just wanted to take pictures. It happened about a year, or year-and-a-half ago. Everybody takes pictures out here, but I didn’t know they were going to change my sign. It would have been alright, but they changed the sign, and I know they’re making money with it.”

My daughters and I have had many conversations about how to categorize their music. Some of their songs are traditional country—“Cheers to Getting Sober” and the new song they will soon record, “Hearts on Fire”, are examples. Other songs are bluesy, like “Living Room Blues and Faith.” A number of their songs, old and new, could best be classed as, in their own words, ‘Swampytonk’.

South Carolina Border marker
South Carolina has one of the nicest border markers, but the state needs to do some road work. (IAS photo)

As they grew up, our daughters benefited from life experiences in two large families. Grandparents on both sides came from humble backgrounds in the working class. Great grandparents in general, with one family exception, were the same. They worked the land, often as sharecroppers. Their homes were simple. Faith was key to survival. Not a single one of them trusted the government, or looked to it for largess even though it would certainly have made their lives easier.

I remind them of something that sticks in my mind from long ago when I was a child. We’d gone to see my grandmother in the small house she and my grandfather rented in the country. It was close to Christmas. When we came into the front room, there was a small Christmas tree, cedar as was the custom then in much of that part of the South. The decorations were made of oranges and I think popcorn. There weren’t any electric lights on the tree. The only light in the front room hung on a strand from the ceiling—a bare bulb.

I didn’t think anything of it as a child. Years later, as I told my children the stories my grandmothers and aunts told me, I focused on a major theme. Never forget your roots and never place your worth above that of another human being. The Golden Rule was the topper in life lessons I passed on, and that, in my opinion, served all of us well.

Our personal history is of course deeper than that anecdote.

The basis for that family fabric is still there in Carolina where we grew up. We have numerous relatives we are still close to although we don’t see them as much as we’d like even when there isn’t a COVID-19 battle going.

It would never occur to either of my daughters to fake their history to benefit financially. Nor would it occur to them to pretend to be someone they aren’t, or to hijack someone’s sign unless they’d been given permission.

If you tune into most radio stations calling themselves “country,” it won’t take long, if you know very much about country music history, to realize what you’re hearing is often a pop-country hybrid. That’s great if that’s your preference.

What isn’t great is pretending to be something you aren’t and hijacking someone else’s intellectual property to do it.

The Washington Post ran the promo photo without even checking the source. That’s a reminder faking authenticity isn’t limited to musicians.

(Kay B. Day/July 23, 2020)

 

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