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“Three Chords and the truth” … and playing the game in country music

Tech. Sgt. Jeff Valentine, U.S. Air Force Central Expeditionary Band steel guitarist and vocalist, allows Afghan children to play his intrusment at the Egyptian Hospital, Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, April 20, 2011. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Sheila deVera)

Tech. Sgt. Jeff Valentine, U.S. Air Force Central Expeditionary Band steel guitarist and vocalist, allows Afghan children to play his intrusment at the Egyptian Hospital, Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, April 20, 2011. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Sheila deVera)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- While having lunch with the bassist from the U.S. Air Force Academy Band's country band "Wild Blue Country" and the pianist from rock group "Blue Steel" it came to my attention that both groups are covering the same song. "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" is a country/pop crossover by Taylor Swift that is currently topping charts. Just how does a popular country song top international pop charts and get played by a rock band? I conducted an interview with one of the senior members of Wild Blue Country, steel guitar player Tech. Sgt. Jeff Valentine to find out.

Tech. Sgt. Jeff Valentine hales from Denton, Texas, and to the chagrin of stereotypes, never listened to country music growing up.

"I was into the rock of the day: Metallica, Pearl Jam, I even liked good rap," he said of his high school days. This all changed when the talented trombone player attended North Texas State and joined the prestigious One O'clock Jazz Band. From here, jazz took over his taste. He describes a cycle of musical tastes that musicians go through: "As young people, we typically have a fascination with technique and difficult music. In time, this gives way to the simple joy from a well written song." This is how he thinks of country today.

Upon joining the Academy Band in 2003, Valentine played trombone in the Falconaires jazz band. Shortly after, he stepped up to play slide guitar for Wild Blue Country. It was in this group that he came to know and love the greats of modern country music: Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley and many others. He compares modern country music to Cuban traditional music. "In, let's say Cha-Cha, where is it today? The standard parts played by traditional Cuban musicians are no longer present. However, there are representations of these roots in other instruments like the drum set."

He uses the expression, "Things that don't fit, but sound good" to describe how the evolution of modern country music has occurred. In its early days, country was described as "Three chords and the truth" by legendary songwriter Harlan Howard. How did we get from someone like Hank Williams singing with a guitar to Taylor Swift singing over "house beats" and dancing on stage with choreography and special effects?

"It's adaptations like these that have helped country become the most popular music in the world today," said Valentine. Groups like Rascal Flatts and Taylor Swift have brought country-tinged music to a much larger audience than ever before. "The main difference," he says, "is that in country, the songs are still strong. I like music to deliver a message, a story, to take the audience somewhere."

This is certainly still true of country today. Whereas pop music relies heavily on high production values and media collaboration, at the end of the day, a good country song can still be sung around a campfire with a guitar.

Of his steel guitar playing, Valentine said, "I play what the music needs, not what I want. Sometimes the best option is to not play at all."

This attitude has earned him respect and success in every musical venture he is a part of today. It is open-mindedness like this that allows the musicians from Wild Blue Country and Blue Steel to cover music from other styles and make it work.

"You either play the game or you don't" he says. "When you go to concerts, no one's closing their eyes. You have to play to the younger audience and what they want is a visual, aural and social experience."

Drawing on a mindset like this, he and the other members of Wild Blue Country can guarantee a consistently inspiring performance with the skill and flexibility to reach any audience in their constant support of the U.S. Air Force Academy.

For information about Wild Blue Country, the USAFA Band, and The Air Force Academy, visit: http://www.usafacademyband.af.mil/ensembles/BandEnsembleBio.asp?EnsembleID=122.

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