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Wednesday night (9-12-2012) country music’s mother church The Ryman Auditorium was alive with the sounds of The 2012 Americana Music Awards that saw an always talented, eclectic (and sometimes confusing) flock of musicians, songwriters, and performers amass to give credit to the best and brightest of the year. Part of the greater Americana Music Conference happening in Nashville this week, the awards featured excellent performances from legends such as studio great Booker T. Jones and songwriter Richard Thompson, as well as Emerging Artist nominees The Alabama Shakes and Deep Dark Woods.
Some highlights of the night were Booker T sitting in with The Alabama Shakes, Cary Ann Hearst of Shovels & Rope doing the “Another Like You” duet with Hayes Carll, and my favorite part of the night, when Song of the Year winner Jason Isbell thanked his manager Traci Thomas of Thirty Tigers, and then took a shot at The Country Music Anti-Christ saying he wanted an empty chair onstage “…so I could yell at an invisible Scott Borchetta.” Generations were bridged when Patterson Hood of the Drive By Truckers, the son of a famous studio musician David Hood of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section gave an excellent speech inducting Booker T Jones as an Americana Lifetime Achievement Award recipient for instrumentation.
Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance inductee Bonnie Raitt closed out the festivities with two songs, including her signature “Thing Called Love” before the stage filled with Americana dignitaries including Bonnie and John Hiatt to do a stirring rendition of The Band‘s “The Weight” in tribute to the late Levon Helm, who was remembered along with Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs.
Jim Lauderdale hosted the event, and Buddy Miller, Don Was and others worked all night as the Americana house band.
How to define the term “Americana” was the running joke all night (and is somewhat of a tradition of the awards), but whether you were listening in through NPR’s live stream or lucky enough to subscribe to the right service get it on the TV, it was hard to argue with the talent and accolades the Americana Music Association used to define the 2012 awards.
2012 Americana Music Award Winners
Instrumentalist of The Year
Dave Rawlings, Gillian Welch’s guitar accompanist.
Album of the Year
“This Ones For Him” A Tribute to Guy Clark
Song of the Year
Jason Isbell’s “Alabama Pines” off the album Here We Rest
Emerging Artist of the Year
The Alabama Shakes
Artist of the Year
Duo/Group of the Year
The Civil Wars
Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance
Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting
Lifetime Achievement Award for Instrumentalist
Booker T. Jones
Lifetime Achievement Award for Executive
At some point, maybe when his previous album Bullets in The Gun was awarded the dubious distinction of being the lowest-selling #1 debut album of all time, he decided to screw it all and start making stupid songs. Bullets In The Gun didn’t give Toby Keith even one Top 10 hit; the first time that happened in his 14-album career. So Keith, being the business-savvy artist that he is, searched for the popular trends and decided that stupid songs about beer were the rule of the day, giving rise to songs like “Beers Ago” and the ode to the onset of idiocracy “Red Solo Cup.”
Well now he’s back with a new single “I Like Girls That Drink Beer,” a piece of trend-chasing laundry list cliche crap that plays off the same class warfare and cultural line drawing that dogs most of country radio today. It also sets a historic precedent for hypocrisy. The song and chorus start off…
Bye bye baby I’m leaving
You can keep your mansion and your money
Oh Toby, you seem to have forgotten that you live in one of the biggest mansions country music can boast, and are the highest paid person in country music, making more money than even Sailor Twift. Keith banked a whopping $50 million dollars last year according to Forbes and owns a vast business empire that includes his own major label in Show Dog Universal, his “I Love This Bar & Grill” restaurant chain, and massive endorsement deals with Ford and Mezcal beverages.
And as for the mansion? Check out the particulars of Oklahoma’s Chateau Toby from a People Magazine cover story:
“(It) includes an 8,900-sq.-ft. main house featuring a state-of-the-art theatre room and kitchen and a 2,500-sq.-ft. cabana with spaces for swimming, relaxing and grilling. The property also includes a well-stocked lake where the family can fish for bass, perch and catfish or just relax out on the dock and watch water shoot up from the lake-fed fountain…His racquetball court, where he and Tricia, who have been married 27 years, can compete against their three kids…”We can play at midnight if we want to,” says Keith. “Everybody in the family is good.”
And Toby says in “I Like Girls That Drink Beer” that he doesn’t want to go to the “ball in your chariot” but check out the specs and inventory of his carriage house:
…an eight-car, two-story, 6,000-sq.-ft. garage with space for his three Harley-Davidson motorcycles, a black Ford Expedition limousine and his prized collector cars-a ’69 Mach 1 Ford Mustang, a ’72 Oldsmobile Cutlass, a ’77 Pontiac Trans Am (“It’s a Smokey and the Bandit car,” Keith says) and a ’63 Chevy Impala.
And none of this includes his 300-acre horse ranch or million-dollar mansion in Nashville.
Beyond that, this song is a vapid pile of checklist countryisms.
- Beer – Check!
- Girls – Check!
- Trucks- Check!
- Two lane and/or dirt road – Check!
- Honky Tonks – Check!
- People from the city and people with money suck – Check and check!
- Cornbread and/or fried chicken – Oops, missed one Toby!
And watching the video, I can’t tell if Toby likes girls that drink beer, or girls that haven’t said no to a man since puberty. There’s more shots of silicone in the video than it took to remodel Toby Keith’s palatial master bathroom. And though on the surface it may seem this song is targeted at men, this is a song about girls, and for girls, because that’s the last demographic that actually buys music. Hypocrite or not, Toby Keith is a mad genius when it comes to marketing and he hits on all marketing cylinders in “I Like Girls That Drink Beer”. All of the close-up shots of people in the crowd are of girls, except for the one with the porcupine-looking dude with the paint-on tan on the left. Now how “country” does he look?
The truth is sonically “I Like Girls That Drink Beer” really isn’t that bad, and comparative to most of the songs on country radio, it’s pretty country. The chord progression is engaging, the structure is good in the way it starts on the chorus, and I’ll be damned if you can’t even hear some fiddle and steel guitar in the mix. Too bad he wasted it on such a hypocritical theme.
I don’t want to belittle Toby Keith’s wealth. Congratulations to him for living his version of the American dream. The problem is with the hypocrisy, how he uses this song as a tool of class envy and stereotype while living the very life he is besmirching. No, performers don’t always have to live the exact life that they sing about. This is an unfair requirement that most artists can’t live up to. But when you’re singing derogatory lyrics with the intent of downgrading the very thing that your life embodies simply because it appeals to certain trends and demographics, a big line is crossed.
Being country means being yourself and being honest. And by belittling the very life that he lives, Toby Keith makes an embarrassment of himself, and of country music.
Two guns down.
A few days ago, CMT launched a new format and website called CMT Edge with the intent of covering artists outside the norm of mainstream country music. Since then I’ve been asked many times what I think of it, and my stock answer has been that I don’t exactly know what I think of it yet. The venture is still in its infantile stages, and it will take time to determine just what CMT Edge will be, and the impact it will have.
Having said that, I see no reason at this point not to stay positive about it. It’s always good to have more avenues for good music to reach people. As I always say, I want good music to get popular, and popular music to get good. Any sense of ownership or desire for exclusivity anyone might feel with the independent music they love and worry that CMT Edge might erode that exclusivity is being silly and selfish. So far, they’ve featured artists like Sara Watkins, The Avett Brothers, Trampled by Turtles, and JD McPherson among others. They also appear to intend to use CMT Edge to cover older country artists like Dwight Yoakam and Patsy Cline; both who’ve been featured already.
If you look at the categories of the 11 features posted on CMT Edge so far, 8 of them are labeled “Americana”. I don’t think it’s coincidence CMT Edge was launched the same week the Americana Music Conference is going on in Nashville mere steps from the CMT headquarters. Americana is growing, and CMT would be fools to not try and tap into that market. Make no mistake that CMT, which is owned by Viacom, would have never launched this venture if they didn’t think there was a profit to be made, and that there’s demand for the content.
So what is the possible downside to CMT Edge? It could possibly take attention away from independent media outlets, especially ones in the Americana world like No Depression, Paste, or possibly in some small respects Saving Country Music. But again, more outlets for good music is generally a good thing, and if these outlets feel threatened, they should step up their game. And I doubt CMT Edge will dig as deep as many of the current independent outlets do. As much as bands like Trampled by Turtles and The Avetts are on the outside looking in when it comes to mainstream country coverage, they are also very successful bands making good livings playing music. To stay profitable, CMT Edge will stay with established acts who simply don’t fit comfortably in the mainstream country world. Don’t expect Hellbound Glory and Jayke Orvis to get features soon.
My biggest concern is in the underlying subconscious labeling of acts that could come with CMT Edge coverage. Some may see a band being featured on CMT Edge as an implication that they are a smaller tier, second rung act. By not putting these acts beside country music’s biggest names, but below them through an outlet meant to cover the “edge,” there’s the danger of typecasting these artists as cut-rate. It’s always been a belief of mine that the top tier independent talent deserves equal-billing with country’s top names. If just given a chance, an artist like Justin Townes Earle could possibly score just as high as Jason Aldean with the public. Consumers just need to be given that choice. CMT Edge in some respects kicks the “more choice” can down the road instead of confronting mainstream country’s issue of a lack of new talent entering the genre.
Mainstream country lacks a legitimate farm system. And once an artist is cast as Americana/Independent/Underground, etc. they’re usually beholden to those avenues for their music till eternity, many times facing low ceilings of success and no chance of mainstream radio play or media coverage. Meanwhile in mainstream country, there’s few artists working the traditional program, going from honky tonks, to clubs, to theaters, to eventually the arena and a major label deal. Instead, new country talent is culled from the safe, easy avenues of reality TV programming, or professional Nashville songwriting circles. This has left country creatively bankrupt, as the most-creative and brightest talent flocks to Americana because they don’t want to be labeled as “country” because of the non-creative, commercial stigma.
Americana may have a lower commercial ceiling than mainstream country, but it continues to find some very legitimate traction, and seems to be building in stature and infrastructure each year. NPR is now offering Americana a big radio outlet, festivals are forming and growing that appeal to the Americana crowd, and small to medium, sustainable music entities like Thirty Tigers, Bloodshot Records, Dolph Ramseur (the man behind the Avett’s success and the Carolina Chocolate Drops) are beginning to create real organization behind the Americana idea, and are even having success getting their artists on programs like The Late Show with David Letterman, and Jimmy Kimmel Live.
What does this all have to do with CMT Edge? Clearly the independent side of the music world is growing, and CMT doesn’t want to be left in the dust. As all popular music continues to coalesce into one big “popular” mono-genre, music that is indefinable by genre and/or appeals to micro-sects of people is expanding. Whether it is Americana, classic country artists, neo-traditionalists, or punk-country, appeal for independent music is increasing, and CMT Edge is proof of that. Is CMT Edge commercial exploitation of this music? We’ll have to see, but there’s no indication that is what is happening at the moment.
As much as I think that much of CMT’s reality programming perpetuates negative country stereotypes and that its parent company Viacom is generally a negative force in the media marketplace, there’s nothing from CMT Edge so far that irks me. So let’s stay positive about it, work as a music community to attempt to steer it in a positive direction, and be glad that better music is catching on and continues to find new outlets.
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