While Mongolia’s version is lacking the twang, blond bombshells, and sold out stadium concerts, country music in the Land of the Blue Sky does have a few things in common with its American namesake.
For one, there’s a strong sense of national pride associated with both. Stateside, songs like Lee Greenwood’s ‘Proud to be an American’ and Toby Keith’s ‘Courtesy of The Red, White and Blue’ are full of pro-American rhetoric. Granted, the American patriotism in these songs tends to be a bit more aggressive than its mountain-praising Mongolian counterpart. Still, Mongolian country music is full of patriotic anthems. Javkhlan is one notable singer known for praising his homeland. He’s respected by many for being extremely pro-Mongolian. Although, as far as I can tell, his love for his country is more of the praising Mongolia and less of the threatening foreigners brand. Javkhlan is so committed to Mongolia, in fact, that he is purportedly running for office in next month’s parliamentary elections.
Another similarity is the fan base. In both Mongolia and the United States country music is aptly named to represent the people who consume it as much as the people who create it. Here in Mongolia, country music is most popular among those who live outside of Ulaanbaatar (about half of the population) and those who recently moved to Ulaanbaatar. In the United States, country music fans tend to be from rural areas or states that have a larger proportion of rural citizens.
Appearance is important in both genres as well. Musicians try to look like an aggrandized version of a folk hero. In America that means denim, cowboy hats, boots, and big muscles (for men, that is). In Mongolia, that means deels (the traditional dress), Mongolian hats, boots, and big muscles. Music videos often rely on visuals of horses, hard work, connection to the land, overt national symbolism, and images that reinforce an idea of traditional life (a white-picket fence in America vs a white-felted ger in Mongolia).
Finally, both styles are musically accessible. American country music is full of those good old predictable G-C-D chords that anyone first learning to play the guitar knows. Songs are easy to sing along to and are familiar even to those Americans who don’t actively listen to country music. Similarly, Mongolian country songs are all written in the pentatonic scale – the five note scale used in traditional Mongolian music. It’s easy for Mongolians to hear country music without having much musical knowledge themselves. Mongolian country songs tend to be well known, even by those who openly admit to disliking the genre.
One of the places the two country music traditions part, however, is overall popularity. Even in Ulaanbaatar, roughly 70% of the radio play is dedicated to country music. There are generally more live* country music events than any other genre (save, perhaps, classical). Seven times out of ten my taxi driver will be listening to country songs on the radio or on a CD – sometimes singing along. While this might be the case for country music in certain regions of the United States – in massive population centers like New York City, Los Angeles, or Chicago, it is certainly not getting the majority of airtime.
I’ll admit, I’ve been hesitant to look into country music too much. I think my aversion stems from the fact that all of the backing instruments are created via computer creating a hollow sound that I find difficult to listen to for long. But, it is a significant percentage of the music currently being produced in Mongolia, and a huge portion of the market.
I’m hoping to look a little deeper into the scene in the coming weeks, and will hopefully have a more nuanced update.
*The backing tracks for Mongolian country music are almost exclusively done on computerized midi files, which means a live music event is a singer accompanied by one of these recordings.