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For over half a decade now, hick-hop has been a smoldering, underground phenomenon threatening to break into the mainstream at any moment, but never quite finding the right outlet to ever pull it off. Understand we’re not talking about country rap in general here, though there is some obvious similarities between country rap and hick-hop. Country rap is a sub-genre that has seen some of country music’s top stars dabble in it quite successfully, including Jason Aldean taking the song “Dirt Road Anthem” to #1 in 2011, and eventually scoring the biggest song in the entire country genre in that year. That opened the mainstream floodgates for country rap, and now other established mainstream artists like Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan have scored #1 country rap hits.
But far away from all the glitz of mainstream country radio and big award shows is a whole other entire subculture of hick-hoppers that work in what would be considered underground circles in music. In fact, hick-hop, or RebelCore as some would have you call it, very well may be the biggest, most organized type of underground music in America right now when you see the size of the crowds at many of hick-hop’s live events, and how many hits hick-hop artists get on their online videos. The movement relies none on radio play, and beyond the Colt Ford-owed label Average Joe’s, really doesn’t have any solid infrastructure.
Colt Ford, arguably the Godfather of hick-hop, has been complaining for years that it is unfair he can’t get any radio play or other support from the mainstream country music industry. Ford wrote “Dirt Road Anthem” with Brantley Gilbert and released it three years before Jason Aldean cut the song, but it took an established, accepted mainstream personality to take the song to the big time. Big hick-hop acts like the LoCash Cowboys, The Moonshine Bandits, and Bubba Sparxxx have huge followings, but hick-hop has always been seen as off limits to the mainstream unless it is in the form of a single from an established country artist.
Well all of that might be about to change.
On Wednesday night, cable channel A&E debuted the first episode of Big Smo, a show about a hick-hop artist who is looking to try and break it big in the music business. Big Smo is already a well-established hick-hop artist, with one of his videos garnering him over 6 million views on YouTube, which is not uncommon for hick-hop performers who regularly use videos to distribute their music in lieu of radio support or labels. But now Big Smo will be following in the footsteps of Duck Dynasty, which is currently reality TV’s most successful show, amidst A&E’s redneck reality show lineup.
The appetite of Americans to peer into the lives of rednecks to point and laugh seems to be endless, and CMT and other networks are betting big on redneck reality bankrolling their future. But with A&E and their wild success with Duck Dynasty, this is a completely different game for Big Smo and hick-hop. A&E has also been marketing the Big Smo show heavily, throwing ridiculous amounts of money into advertising, clearly envisioning the show as their new blockbuster by saying “A New ‘Dynasty’ Is Beginning” in commercials for the show, and targeting their marketing directly at mainstream country music consumers.
Similar to Duck Dynasty, Wal-Mart has already thrown their support behind Big Smo, distributing his music and merchandise. The debut of Big Smo on A&E was synced up with the release of his new album Kuntry Livin’, and unlike Big Smo’s hick-hop compadres, he’s signed to a major label in the form of Warner Nashville. Kuntry Livin’ released on June 3rd debuted at #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, and that was before the support the new A&E show will surely give him.
All of this could put hick-hop, and Big Smo specifically, at the center stage of American culture. We’ve already seen the Duck Dynasty characters, who are not even true musicians or performers, dominate the charts when they released a holiday album, and their images permeates just about every sector of American culture. You take an artist that already has an established fan base, along with millions of underground hick hop fans in one of the strongest grassroots networks in music, and we could be seeing the launching of the next American music superstar. And that is exactly what A&E is expecting to happen, making it an underlying premise of the reality show.
And since the music business, especially country, is such a copycat world, there’s no reason to think a rising tide couldn’t raise all hick-hop boats, and the hick-hop roster of Average Joe’s, as well as other outlier hick-hop organizations and acts, couldn’t see a significant bump by the show, while new recruits come out of the woodwork to emulate the new hot reality TV star.
Of course, the extent of the Big Smo impact is yet to be seen since the show just debuted and Big Smo’s album was just released, but this is not something to be taken lightly. Big Smo, the show and the artist, could finally be the backdoor to the mainstream hick-hop has been waiting for.
Welp, that’s that. Gauging from the comments made in Rolling Stone‘s current country music special edition by the CEO of Big Machine Records aka the Country Music Antichrist Scott Borchetta, we can now put a period at the end of Taylor Swift’s pop country career. Finito. Done. End of story. Taylor Swift’s country run is in the books, and she’s now a pop star exclusively.
And for the love of God people, please don’t tell me she was never country to begin with. That goes without saying.
In the Rolling Stone article currently on newsstands, Scott Borchetta is quoted as saying that Swedish pop producer Max Martin, the man behind Taylor Swift’s last album Red‘s most pop-oriented material like “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “I Knew You Were Trouble”, worked on “most of her” next album. Martin was the producer behind successful pop music franchises such as The Backstreet Boys, N’Sync, and Britney Spears before being brought onto the Swift team at Scott Borchetta’s behest. But Martin, along with his fellow Swedish collaborator Shellback, only worked on three of the sixteen total songs on Swift’s Red album, despite their footprint feeling much bigger because the partnership comprised the album’s two biggest singles.
Scott Borchetta says in the article about Swift’s new album, “Taylor fans are going to love it. Will country stations play a complete pop song just because it’s her? No.” This quote is then reinforced in a caption under a picture of Scott Borchetta and Taylor Swift together.
So much can be read into this quick statement from Borchetta. A man who is known for brevity and measuring his words, Borchetta alludes to us that there will be little, or potentially nothing about Taylor Swift’s new album, or at least the singles that will be targeted for radio, that country radio will find enticing; so much so that he predicts that a format that has moved so dramatically in a pop direction in the two years since Taylor’s last release, and especially in just the last six to nine months since a major Taylor Swift single, will still be completely unwelcoming to Taylor Swift’s new material. That is how pop it is. More pop than Jerrod Nieman’s “Drink To That All Night” or Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind Of Night”. More pop than “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”. If this estimate of Taylor Swift’s new material is accurate, and if country programmers will be able to resist the urge to play Taylor to audiences as her Big Machine-backed singles blow up on Top 40 stations, then yes, it truly is time for country to say bon voyage to Taylor.
Then Scott Borchetta tells Rolling Stone, “But when she comes to town, her friends at country radio will come and see her.” This seems to allude that Borchetta and Taylor Swift don’t think they even really need country radio anymore, they’re planning without it, and can trump radio politics with the strength of Taylor’s touring might. They care so little about the acceptance of Taylor’s music by country, they’re downright flippant, unconcerned about it. And clearly these quotes are buttering up the public so when Taylor releases her first purely pop single, it doesn’t come as a complete shock. Though would it anyway, given her track record with Red?
There’s a couple of other interesting nuggets from the same small portion of the Rolling Stone piece talking about Taylor’s new album. Though the premise of the conversation is about how Scott Borchetta, unlike many of his Music Row bunk mates, actually extends quite a bit of creative latitude and freedom to his artists, it is also reinforced in the article that it was Borchetta’s idea to bring big pop producer Max Martin into Taylor Swift’s creative process in the first place.
“He’s allowed me to evolve on my own one year at a time,” Swift says about Borchetta to Rolling Stone, but the very next line in the article says, “But he did urge her [Taylor] to collaborate with Max Martin on her last album.”
This Max Martin decision is the arguably the most important, most defining moment in Taylor Swift’s entire career up to this point, and interestingly enough, it wasn’t instigated by her. It was Scott Borchetta that made the decision to bring Max Martin in, and the result has been a big shift from substantive songwriting with country pop flavor, to the pop-only, vapid stylings of Max Martin, bringing in dub-step and other influences completely foreign to country music, and resulting in shallow compositions like “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” Of course Taylor Swift is not completely innocent in this dramatic, and defining career shift, but its origination point is undoubtedly Borchetta.
The story of Scott Borchetta barging in on Taylor Swift’s creative process during the making of Red in late 2012 was chronicled by Billboard:
âI said, âYou know, this song isnât working yet.â They both looked at me (Swift and Nathan Chapman) with a blank stare. ‘The chorus isnât elevating like it needs to. Where youâre wanting to take the song, itâs not going there. It needs a Max Martin type of lift.â
âŚ At that point Borchetta called Martin. Both Borchetta and Swift agree that it was a turning point for âRedâ.
And it was a turning point in Taylor Swift’s entire career, putting her on a completely different path from what got her to where she was.
Who is Nathan Chapman that is referenced in the above quote? He is the producer who worked with Taylor Swift from day one, recording her first demos, and presiding over virtually all of her music up to Red, when a bevy of eight producers, including Chapman on certain songs, were brought in to work on, and in the Max Martin instances, co-write Taylor’s songs. Compare this to Swift’s previous album Speak Now where Swift wrote the entire album by herself, and produced it with help from Chapman alone.
We can’t assume that just because Max Martin has a majority stake in Taylor’s new album that there still won’t be moments of substance. The rules of the game are a little different in this instance. When Max Martin was brought in on Red, his sole purpose was to produce radio hits. Now, hypothetically, he will be employed to deal with a more diverse range of material. Still, it is concerning that Max Martin almost always insists on weaseling his way into a co-writing role of the songs he produces. This is what we saw with Red, and what we’ve seen with other Max Martin-involved projects.
What endeared Taylor Swift to America and had critics coming to her defense was the fact that however pop she was, her songs were sincere expressions from her directly. She was the superstar that was also the girl next door. The Max Martin material from Red shattered this perception, and also resulted in significantly less industry awards and accolades from both country music, and all-genre based awards. It also resulted in some of the biggest sales numbers of Taylor Swift’s career. Choosing to go with Max Martin is about trading commercial acceptance over artistic substance.
At the same time, a complete cutoff from the country music realm makes a lot of sense for Taylor Swift. What are the two biggest criticisms Taylor has faced over her career? That she can’t sing, and she’s not country. Since her debacle on the Grammy Awards with Stevie Nicks in 2010, Taylor has at least reined in her singing problems to some extent. And if she leaves country, this will put this long-suffering debate about if she’s country or not to bed for good.
So that’s good, right? Let Taylor Swift go. Let the pop world have her …. Except that she was one of the genre’s last female stars that could do battle with the men who have dominated the charts and radio, and despite the Max Martin-produced material from her last album and her early material that lacked maturity, Taylor Swift was one of the last vestiges of artistic substance mainstream country music could boast, even if she was in the genre artificially.
Country music lacks female talent. It can’t fill out the nominees for Female Vocalist of the Year at the CMA and ACM Awards even when Taylor Swift is included. All signs point to Taylor Swift wanting to shake free from her country music bonds, with the singles she released from Red, and now these quotes from Borchetta that in many respects don’t seem to be taking into account the realities of country radio. But there’s no guarantee country music is willing to play ball with Taylor Swift’s departure. Country music needs Taylor Swift, and it will be unwilling to forfeit the opportunity to have her sales and touring force fall under its umbrella without a fight.
If Taylor Swift is truly leaving country, it’s hard to declare a victory for country music here, or for Taylor Swift. Without the support of country, and with the presence of Max Martin, there’s likely going to be a lot less trophies adorning Taylor’s mantle. At the same time Taylor Swift is now free to do what she wants …. or what Max Martin wants to do with her.
- Taylor Swift will make an announcement about her new album in late July, or early August.
- The new album will be released in October, or early November.
- There will be at least one collaboration with Justin Timberlake on the new album.
- It will include about 15 to 18 songs.
- Despite Scott Borchetta’s rhetoric, country radio will still play Taylor Swift, and with a lack of other leading females to fill the spots, Swift will still get nominated for country music’s top female awards.
Time was in country music when the Southern drawl was going the way of the dinosaur. I know, strange to think because of how pronounced Southern accents are today and since they’re usually considered part and parcel with country music. But in the mid to late 00′s when soccer moms were country’s most coveted demographic and artists like Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, and Rascal Flatts were ruling the roost, the Southern accent began to lose its prominence and be seen as unsavory by an industry trying to soften its image and appeal more to a pop-oriented crowd. Strong Southern accents were discouraged in country’s sippy cup era.
Nowadays it is a much different story. Southern twang is back in a big way baby, as bro-country dominates the format, and female performers try and turn up the sass to compete. As opposed to trying to apologize for their Southern roots, today’s country artists can’t shut the hell up about them, regularly reinforcing all things country in laundry list form with elongated drawls. This has seen the rise of the Southern accent once again, but along with it, questions about the authenticity of some of the performer’s twang.
Miranda Lambert, one of country’s leading ladies, seems to have the ability to accentuate or turn off her Southern drawl depending on the mood of the song she is singing. There is little doubt listening to the Lindale, TX native talk that her Southern accent is real. The question is if she enhances or diminishes it in an unnatural way when she sings, and if so, does that diminish the authenticity of her music or the performance?
Tyler Hubbard of the band Florida Georgia Line has one of the most pronounced Southern accents when singing of any popular country music artist today. From Monroe, GA, once again you just have to hear Tyler speak to know his Southern accent probably isn’t a put on. But is it unnaturally bolstered in Florida Georgia Line’s music? Interestingly enough, much has been made about the other member of the duo, Brian Kelley, not singing lead much at all. Whether it’s the way the songs were written or the way their producer (Joey Moi of Nickelback fame) arranged them, it was quickly identified that Tyler’s twang was the money maker, not Brian Kelley’s more normalized tone.
Big Machine artist Justin Moore from Arkansas may have the most accentuated Southern accent of them all, almost caricaturist compared to even some of his most twangy peers. Once again it makes one wonder if it’s faked until you hear him talk and his accent is just as pronounced, if not more than it is in his music. He would be an interesting person to ask about another concern facing the Southern twang, which is non Southerners all of a sudden sporting an accent once they get behind a microphone and start singing country music. This is exactly what radio station DJ Broadway from Country 92.5 in Connecticut did in a recent Justin Moore interview, and the conversation quickly veered toward how people think Justin Moore is sporting a fake twang.
“It seems like everyone, once they get to Nashville they have an accent, whether they’re from Michigan or Arkanasas, it doesn’t matter where they’re from,” Broadway observed to Justin Moore. “Does that drive you mad? Do you ever turn you head and go, ‘You were just talking to me, you’re from Michigan and that’s where you were born and all of a sudden you’ve got a Southern accent? Where did that come from?’”
Justin Moore replies, “People have said in my career that mine’s fake. But I mean, you and I have known each other for what, seven years or something? I mean I feel like going, ‘If you think I talk redneck, go hear my mom talk.’ I don’t have the time or the energy, or whatever has the thought process out there for people who have said that mine’s fake. Why in the world would I want to talk fake for the rest of my life?”
But a few will probably still believe that Justin Moore is faking it, probably because other performers without native accents will probably continue to employ it in their country music. Why? Because the Southern accent is a hot commodity in country music right now, and we can probably expect things to get even more twangy and drawn out from here.
When it comes to mixing music forms with no regard for the autonomy or integrity of the respective genres, Latin rapper Pitbull is popular music’s prime culprit. As evidenced in the massive hit “Timber” performed with pop star Ke$ha, his willingness to take the boiled-down shuck of just about every genre and mash them together for maximum Top 40 appeal has no bounds. Recently Pitbull’s handiwork surfaced on a remix of country star Jerrod Niemann’s heavily EDM-influenced hit “Drink To That All Night”, and the rumor mill has a video for the remix being released soon.
With Pitbull’s massive world success and popularity, it is no wonder he was tapped to perform the theme song for the upcoming World Cup being held in Brazil called “We Are One (Ole Ola)”, but the decision and the song itself is not sitting well with many Brazilians and others around the world concerned about the presentation of Brazilian culture through the soccer tournament, which will undoubtedly put the South American country at center stage for the rest of the world.
The United States is notorious for exporting it’s monoculture to other countries, but in such a moment of nationalistic pride as hosting the World Cup, it has made the situation especially concerning for the host nation. Despite being a South American country, Brazil’s primary language is Portuguese, not Spanish, which neither Pitbull, born and raised in Miami, nor his duet partner on the song, Jennifer Lopez, sing in fluently. Furthermore the song seems to disregard Brazil’s bossa-nova style of music for a more Americanized take on Spanish-style samba, subverted by Pitbull’s rapping, EDM influences, and a general lack of Brazilian flavor, aside from a final stanza sung in Portuguese by one of Brazil’s popular stars, Claudia Leitte. “We Are One (Ole Ola)” was written by Pitbull with help from eight other credited songwriters.
No different than American country music fans concerned about the influences of other genres creeping into their music, or American hip-hop fans concerned about the same thing, Brazilian culture feels challenged by “We Are One (Ole Ola)”, and other songs on the official World Cup album being released by Sony called One Love, One Rhythm. Most of the songs’ lyrics are in English or Spanish, and non Brazilian artists like Avicii, Santana, and Wyclef Jean make appearances while native Brazilians are only given token moments to sing in their native tongue.
“The music of the World Cup is not very Brazilian,” the former chairman of South and Central America for EMI Music Marcelo Castello Branco tells Billboard. “The ball is on the ground, and anything may happen, but I do not think we have, so far, any Brazilian repertoire that has a true chance to be a hit – not locally, not internationally. The feeling is that we all lost a huge opportunity to show the world a new Brazil, musically speaking ….”
Part of the problem is the prevalence of misconceptions about Brazil. Many around the world assume they’re a Spanish-speaking country, and despite not being seen as a global superpower, Brazil has a population of nearly 200 million, and is the world’s 8th largest music market. However unlike many counties, Brazil’s musical culture remains mostly autonomous from the rest of the world. 90% of popular music in Brazil is from Brazil, and many of Brazil’s big stars do not pursue careers outside the country.
Meanwhile Jennifer Lopez has canceled her appearance at the World Cup opening game to sing the controversial “We Are One (Ole Ola)” with Pitbull on Thursday in Sao Paulo, and many are predicting a rain of boos for the performance.
The United States and European perspective regularly lumps music from around the world together as “World Music,” offering no distinction between Brazilian bossa-nova, and African-inspired calypso for example. And as Pitbull and “We Are One (Ole Ola)” are proving, the mono-genre is not just a problem for North America, but is at risk of being exported to the rest of the world.
Yeah, yeah, bro-country sucks. As satisfying as it is to finally see the rest of the American media waking up to a problem that had actually been gripping country music for half a decade before Vulture’s Jody Rosen unilaterally coined the ill-begotten “bro-country” term, it’s only because it has been festering now for so long and rising like spasmic bile up the charts that the stench has finally reached the noses of the country music and culture-wide literati that it can no longer be ignored.
Saving Country Music has been showing concern about laundry list /country checklist songs (the precursors to the “bro-country” term) for years. People say, “Complaints about country music, and what country music is have been happening ever since the beginning of the genre.” You’re damn right they have been, and they always will. Why? Because these complaints are predictable and inane? No, because country music is too damn important to the fabric of the American culture to just let it get trounced and run into the ground by anyone who decides to slap “country” on whatever musical concoction they’ve cooked up and want to peddle to the masses. The complaining about country music isn’t shrill commonplace whining that should be cast off as superfluous, it is vital, healthy dialogue about an American institution that an effort must be extended to care about and preserve to ensure its value and enjoyment for future generations.
And don’t tell me “Well there’s still great stuff out there. Let’s just focus on that.” That sentiment is elitist and selfish. Sure, we should focus on good stuff too, but everyone has a right to good music, and good music sounds better when it’s shared, so the fans of bro-country shouldn’t be ignored but converted, especially when so much good music doesn’t enjoy the support it needs to be sustainable, and needs more patrons if it is going to continue.
As for bro-country, it’s just the bad flavor of the month when you look at country music from a more broad perspective. It is just the boil indicative of more serious underlying issues that have set country music on a precarious course that yes, warrant all of the additional concern and hand-wringing about the direction of the genre and its potential demise.
Bro-country won’t be defeated by bitching about it or by trying to fight bro-country itself. There were fundamental issues with how country music and the rest of American culture was being governed that led to the phenomenon. So even if you clear up the boil of bro-country, it will only return or be replaced by something even more unwanted if you don’t fix the fundamental problems. That is why off-the-stage issues facing country music are so important to pay attention to and tackle.
Here are some of the causes of bro-country:
Billboard Chart Rules Changes
When Billboard changed its chart rules in October of 2012, especially concerning the rule that allowed “crossover” songs to be given extra credit by being played on pop radio, it put country music, and every non pop genre on poor footing for dealing with songs with pop radio potential. As Saving Country Music said at the time:
If Billboardâs rules stay in place,the effects could be somewhere between dramatic and historic. The first and most obvious effect will be the new Billboard charts drastically favoring âcrossoverâ country stars and other country stars with pop appeal …. A&R personnel at record labels big and small decide what singles get released to radio, what songs to promote, what artists to sign based on very close attention to charts such as Billboard. If âcrossoverâ artists and songs are given a new advantage on the Billboard charts, its only a matter of time before labels and artists begin to produce more songs that will attain the crossover appeal to gain more chart traction.
This is exactly what we have seen by big bro-country acts like Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan. Bro-country singles rocket straight to the top of the charts and stay there, boosted by plays on pop radio, and downloads by pop consumers. This was evidenced most especially when Florida Georgia Line’s song “Cruise” became the longest-charting #1 song in the history of country music.
Label managers and artists see this success, and they start looking for similar songs, and starting signing comparable artists, and next thing you know you have artists like Cole Swindell and Chase Rice bolstering the bro-country ranks until bro-country positively dominates the entire format.
Lack of Education Funding
What are the earmarks of bro-country? A lack of depth in lyricism and melody. Since many Americans are no longer being educated not only in the fundamentals of the musical language, but for what to listen for in music, the growing appeal of mundane and culturally-deprived music should come as no surprise. But the benefits of music and fine art education go much farther than art itself. Study after study proves that music and art education helps students in other subjects, encourages the study and openness to new ideas and other cultures, and generally boosts intelligence. The lack of music education speaks to the root of why consumers find appeal in less complex, and less diverse music, but why they also don’t recognize the lack of diversity and choice the bro-country trend is creating.
Since 80% of all radio playlists in the United States match thanks to rabid radio consolidation into the hands of a few select companies, it has made country music and all American music susceptible to hyper-trends like bro-country. One or two big companies like Clear Channel and Cumulus flipping a switch can cause an entire cultural phenomenon. This was illustrated perfectly by the HereIt Blog .
Lack Of Female Representation in Positions of Power
Sheryl Crow was one of the first to broach this subject when she said to The Hollywood Reporter, “Iâd just like to see more than three women get played at radio. And thatâs not just because Iâm a woman. I just feel like, gosh, a huge population of record buyers are women. Why arenât there women getting played at radio? Why arenât there more female program directors? Thereâs, like, two! I donât understand it.â
As Billboard later pointed out, “While in reality there are slightly more than two female programmers at country reporting stations, her point is valid. Women PDs represent just a tiny fraction of the whole. And the leadership issue extends well beyond radio: Women comprise just 15% of the CMA board of directors and 19% of the Academy of Country Music board. Only slightly better is the Country Radio Seminar board of directors, whose seven female members represent 21% of the overall board.”
The lack of female representation in the seats of power in country music have facilitated the sexist and condescending notions that bro-country symbolizes both in song and in cultural significance will little to no resistance.
Other Causes of Bro Country
â˘ The Lack of a Country Music Talent Farm System
â˘ The Myopic Focus of Country Music on Youth
â˘ An Abandoning of Country Music Traditional Artists
â˘ Tight Cut Male Jeans & The Mythical “Cuteness” of Luke Bryan’s Ass
In an era when nothing in music is universal, and music has become one of the primary battlefronts in the culture war, the likeability of Jack White was one of the few things that passed for a consensus builder. Like former Nirvana drummer and current Foo Fighter Dave Grohl, Jack White was hard to hate, even if you weren’t particularly fond of his music, past or present. His accidental superstardom, his respect and proficiency with music from many different genres, his forward-thinking, quirky style at promotion, and his independent spirit made him a champion of almost every conscious music lover. He was the rock star that wasn’t one: the prototype of the new-school, likeable guy that just happened to become famous, and that we could relate to and appreciate as one of us, no matter how “us” was defined.
And then something changed. I’m not exactly sure where or when specifically, but it changed. At some point it seemed like Jack White has started to buy into his own image and marketing, while his image began to reveal itself as marketing. He kept getting older, yet refused to lose the whiteface or black hair. And then the gimmicks started rolling in, and now the feuds.
August of last year is when the first major cracks in the Jack White facade began to appear. Amidst the divorce proceedings from his wife Karen Elson, it came out that she was alleging Jack was both verbally and physically abusive toward her, that she had asked for a restraining order and a psychiatric evaluation, and then she released emails to the public where White was portrayed as spiteful toward The Black Keys guitarist (and another one of music’s few universally-likeable guys, Dan Auerbach), speaking on the circumstance of the two’s kids being in the same school, “You arenât thinking ahead. Thatâs a possible twelve fucking years I’m going to have to be sitting in kids chairs next to that asshole with other people trying to lump us in together. He gets yet another free reign to follow me around and copy me and push himself into my world.â
If you were anything like me, at the time this information came out, you put yourself in both Jack White and his ex-wife’s shoes, and felt it was a shame that the information had been made public. And of course there were counter-suits by Jack, claiming it was all lies and smear. Who is right or wrong in affairs of the heart is usually anyone’s best guess, and it’s usually better for the whole business to be kept under wraps and out of the public consumption feed before speculation and misnomers are allowed to thrive. But still, there it was; a chink in the armor. If this info was coming out about Axl Rose or Jason Aldean, whether you were a fan of their music or not, you’d be likely to shrug your shoulders and say, “Yeah, sounds about right.” But this was our likeable, champion of independent music Jack White; the guy that wasn’t a bastard, on stage or off.
It was the the Tiger Woods effect. Nobody was surprised, and nobody cared when it was found out that Michael Jordan, or Shaquille O’Neil cheated on their wives. Of course they did. But Tiger Woods had been sold to us for years as this upstanding, product-endorsing family man. Jack White was supposed to be the champion of all independent music; the sage leader who wouldn’t lose his temper, and was blessed with the ability to see everything both ways.
But really the erosion of Jack White looming large over the musical landscape started years before. I remember when it was first announced that he would be partnering with Wanda Jackson to make a revival album in the same vein of his award-winning and critically-acclaimed work with Loretta Lynn on 2004′s Van Lear Rose. My country music head just about exploded from excitement at this news (and here too is where you see why Jack White has an important and worthy country music connection). 2011′s The Party Ain’t Over from Wanda Jackson was one of the most anticipated records of 2011 in rock, rockabilly, and country. And what happened when it was released? No much. Nowhere near the zeal and accolades piled up as they did for Van Lear Rose.
The Jack White-produced The Party Ain’t Over felt flat. It seems to be about Jack first, and Wanda second. Her signature growl wasn’t present, her voice was buried in the mix. Jack White’s guitar wankery ruined songs in places, and seemed to be the predominant feature of the project. And Jack’s insistence on cutting directly to tape gave the entire recording a filmy, ever-present hiss, despite whatever “warmth” it captured. The album wasn’t terrible, don’t get me wrong. But it was one of those records you listen to once or twice, return to its sleeve, and then never think about again—Wanda’s cover of Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good” notwithstanding.
So maybe Jack White wasn’t flawless, says the 2011 me to myself. Then I began to think what the last Jack White project was that really spoke to me. Of course, I’m a country guy, so maybe I’m not the best test specimen, but the one I came up with was The Raconteurs first album Broken Boy Soldiers, and that was from way back in 2006. But I’d tasted pretty much everything he’d done subsequently, and hey, Jack had won himself a good bit of latitude to stretch his wings if he wanted, or even turn in some missed targets and snoozers because he was Jack White. Music aside, I liked the guy, and he never put out anything that seemed downright ill-advised or bad.
And then the bits started: the all-girl band, the record booth, the tying of records on balloons and releasing them in downtown Nashville, and this with records, and that with records. Yes, we all love vinyl. It sounds so much better! But at some point it all was starting to feel like one big gimmick. This year during Record Store Day when Jack White pulled another bit by making the “World’s Fastest Record,” it seemed to symbolize the whole silliness and extreme of the new vinyl revolution, where we’re putting out records without any quality control or thought, stuff like Ron Jeremy playing classical piano just to get people to pay to collect something nobody would ever want if it wasn’t being pushed by hype and being sold as an exercise in independent values. Everybody was trying to look cool for each other, and somewhere the focus on the music itself got lost in the shuffle.
And then here comes Jack White late last week talking shit on Adele, his ex White Stripes partner, The Black Keys, and pretty much everyone else in modern music to Rolling Stone. But wait a second, I thought White’s hatred for The Keys was all hyped in the mudslinging of his divorce? And almost making it worse, he comes out 48 hours later to apologize. White seemed like he wanted to have his cake and eat it too: get the idea out there that The Black Keys and pretty much all popular guitar-based music is a ripoff of him and The White Stripes, and then turn around and apologize as everyone is lobbing grenades back at you so you look like the bigger person. Justin Townes Earle, the artist that produced Wanda Jackson’s subsequent album Unfinished Business, let rip on Twitter yesterday, “Jack White is such a pussy,” illustrating that one of independent music’s untouchables had now become a whipping boy.
The simple fact is though, Jack White is right, at least to some extent. Last weekend I was attending redneck comedian Jeff Foxworthy’s inaugural Red Fest on the outskirts of Austin, TX. While hanging out with one of the performing artists, they elucidated to me unsolicited and out-of-context, “You know, everything these days just sounds like bad White Stripes to me.” And they’re pretty much right. This two-piece, new rock, blues and roots-referencing scream fest has pretty much permeated American popular music, and with it, the misguided notion that everything must be cut directly to tape and pressed on vinyl to where we’re now making a bunch of great music that purposely sounds bad. This is Jack White’s contribution to planet Earth at the moment, and maybe he has a reason to be pissed off, and wanting to piss off others because of it.
But of course, Jack White has his influences as well. Ever heard of the Flat Duo Jets, or Dex Romweber? In fact Romweber just put out a new album through Bloodshot Records called Images 13. He plays in a duo with a girl drummer. Even Jack will admit, Dex was a big origination point for The White Stripes and his later incarnations. Dex recorded a live album at White’s 3rd Man Records in 2010. “It was obvious when you watched Dexter perform, he didnât care what people though about him, he just wanted to express these songs that were coming out of him,” says White on Dex. Is Dex Romweber pissed off that everyone’s running around, copying him by playing cheap Harmony guitars in two-piece bands, including Jack White? We may never know until he gets divorced.
So lo and behold, the whole time we were holding Jack White up on a pedestal for being just like the rest of us, in private he was juggling family bullshit, and hiding resentment … just like the rest of us. And now you know the importance behind the saying, “It’s all about the music.”
Rolling Stone is readying the launch of their brand new, dedicated country music website on June 1st, with a corresponding one-time print edition of Rolling Stone Country on newsstands June 5th featuring country music coverage from page 1 to 70. This bold move by one of music journalism’s most recognized brands could be a big game changer for the way country music is covered, and Rolling Stone opening an office on Nashville’s famous Music Row is a pronouncement by the company that they mean business.
“Rolling Stone has made a huge commitment to country,” says Rolling Stone Country Senior Editor Beville Dunkerley. “I mean not only did we hold out for a building on Music Row for several months until one finally came open, but my bosses in New York have said, ‘We’re not going to wait and see if this does well to see if it continues. This is going to continue.’ And my boss has said that in print and made the promise. What I find the most exciting when I was hired for this is that Rolling Stone Country is the first format breakout for this iconic magazine. There’s no Rolling Stone Hip-Hop, there’s no Rolling Stone Pop. Rolling Stone Country is the very first genre breakout for the website. So I hope that will show people our dedication to the genre.”
The launching of Rolling Stone Country has many people wondering how exactly the new venture will take shape. Will it be just another outlet covering the same lifestyle stories that permeate the online country realm already? Like Rolling Stone proper, will it cover politics?
“As far as government politics, hell no! Weâll leave that to the magazine and RollingStone.com,â Dunkerley says. “But as far as the politics of country music, absolutely. We will dive right into that. We are planning think pieces about the bro-country movement, and why it’s so hard for a record label to break a female act over a male act. There’s so many hot button topics we hear up and down The Row that we’ll absolutely tackle. And with an opinionated voice too, presenting both sides, but giving our opinion on it as well.”
“We just hope to be different,” Beville continues. “Right now I believe there’s a big void in the country music journalism for a critical voice for the genre. There’s so many websites that are dedicated to more of the lifestyle news. They want to know about Trisha Yearwood’s apple pie recipe, and they want to know who’s the latest couple getting divorced, and that’s just not something that Rolling Stone pays attention to. We pay more attention to the music. It is the #1 place people go when they want to read an album review or a song review. So we’re going to continue to be the critical voice in that respect. But we’re also going to show the artists in different musical lights. For instance when we sit down and talk to someone like Lee Brice, instead of asking him about his new baby or his new marriage and all of that, we’re going to ask him about the production on his new album. And that’s something that maybe not the typical fan would be interested in hearing.”
Beville Dunkerley, who was already a writer for Rolling Stone, and founded the country music blog The Boot, will be joined on the Rolling Stone Country staff by Senior Editor Joseph Hudak who was previously the managing editor at Country Weekly, which is currently being re-branded as NASH Magazine. They will work with a team of thirteen freelance writers, as well as full-time staffers in Rolling Stone’s New York offices to create the website’s original content.
“I feel like the Rolling Stone readers are more of the music geeks, and they care about the production, about what kind of guitar [an artist] uses on stage. So we want to continue in the tradition of Rolling Stone, of making it all about the music.”
Garth! Hey buddy, it’s been a long time. Yeah, I know, we’ve seen each other in passing here and there. Some appearances at the award shows and such, and that whole thing out in Vegas and the recent box set release, though I’m not really sure if any of that counts. But hey, don’t worry, I’m not jumping on your butt or anything. You hung the moon for me for over a decade, and no matter what you decide to do from here on out, I’m forever in your debt for taking me to levels I thought were never possible, flying over stadiums on suspension wires and inspiring the Billy Ray Cyrus’s of the world notwithstanding. Hell I don’t even know that I can get worked up about all of that stuff anymore, or about your whole Chris Gaines gimmick, or for trying out for the Padres baseball team. I get it now. You were bored. You had climbed the mountain, conquered it, and were looking for the next challenge. Well let me tell you Garth, if you’re looking for a good challenge, I’ve got one. A big one. And this is one you might be able to accomplish. In fact, you might be the only one left on Earth who can.
Don’t think for a second that I blame you for taking a dozen-plus years off to spend time with your family, please. In fact I commend you for it. If we all spent a little more time putting family first, this probably would be a much more pleasant world to live in. Hell, don’t think the idea of dialing it all back doesn’t cross my mind every damn day, yet here I am working like a three-peckered billy goat. Do you know they say that country music is the biggest American music genre now? Ha, did you ever think we’d see that day Garth?
But this is the problem old friend. They’ve thrown the barn doors wide, and now everybody and their cousin is calling themselves country, and it’s gotten completely out of control. Be careful what you wish for, right Garth? I mean we’ve got DJ’s who don’t do anything but stand behind a couple of turntables pressing buttons now calling themselves country, rappers calling themselves country, hard rockers calling themselves country. It’s to the point now where I yearn for the days where Kenny Chesney and Taylor Swift were the biggest pains in my ass. I look back now at the time when they said you were ruining the genre as the good ol’ days. By the way, do you have any idea if Waylon Jennings ever really said that line, “Garth Brooks did to country music what pantyhose did to finger $#@!ing?” Because for the life of me, I can’t verify it anywhere. And yeah, I know I just censored myself. But to some of us Garth, country music is still a family format.
I’m swallowing my pride here Garth. I need your help. Whether it was you and I pairing up in the in the 90′s to sell all those records that truly stimulated all these problems in the first place or not, the simple fact is you and I coming back together could maybe spell the end of it, or at least restoring some sort of balance to where if someone turns on their radio and tunes it to a country station, they might actually hear something that sounds like country.
I know there’s no need to pry you off you’re couch or anything; you’ve already got all the plans in the works for your big triumphant return, so this is not the direction my pleas are headed. What I want to implore you to do Garth is to keep it country. For the love of all things holy, keep it country. Please, as a favor to your old pal. Just be yourself. This is no longer about about trying to turn away the hordes who will call anything “country.” Truth is they won the battle years ago. That ship has sailed. This is about storming the gates ourselves, and taking back what is ours. You may be the best-selling solo artist in the history of popular music, but as I’m sure you know Garth, country music is bigger than any one person (not to gloat, but you know…), and it is the responsibility of everyone, however big or small, to preserve and protect the country music institution, especially an artist like yourself whose benefited in the manner of untold riches from it.
They can say what they want about you Garth. There are old codgers and punks out there that will bad mouth your name no matter how the rules of the game change, and how much time redeems your past accomplishments. Actually, you want to put those critics to bed? Simply put out a true country album that is successful, and those people’s anger will turn to nostalgia and appreciation. I know deep inside of you is still that little boy from Oklahoma that grew up listening to Merle Haggard and George Jones; that appealed to the masses not by borrowing from other genres, but from finding and writing meaningful songs and singing them from the heart. Some focus on your wireless mic and your flawless, almost too-perfect presentation. But I focus in the fire in your eye, the aching moan in your voice that mimics a steel guitar the comes bursting through the mix to remind us all of the magic that country music can evoke when done right.
And you Garth, and only you, may still have the power at this late hour to remind the masses of that magic.
You did it once for the money Garth. Now, do it once for the music. Because we need it now more than ever.
Your once strained, but now rehabilitated and appreciative friend,
Yes, yes, it’s the age-old complaint that music doesn’t sound as good as it used to, and that the singers of today aren’t nearly as good as the ones we grew up with. Though there is certainly a bit of “old man syndrome” that creeps into this endless debate about the direction of popular music, there is also very specific and irrefutable data that backs up these claims that music isn’t as good as it once was.
As Saving Country Music first illustrated in the article The Science Behind Why Pop Music Sucks, information from a study called “The Million Song Dataset” proves that on a scientific level, music is becoming less complex, and less diverse. Each red dot in the diagram below is a song, and as they trend down and bunch closer together, the songs get less complex, and sound more similar to each other.
Now Concert Hotels has posted a list that took the “100 Greatest Singers of All Time” as complied by Rolling Stone in 2008, and added to it the nominees for top male and female artists from the 2014 Billboard Music Awards and other popular artists of today; artists like Justin Timberlake, Lorde, Justin Bieber, and Lady Gaga. They then matched these names up with vocal range data from The Data Place that takes the highest and lowest vocal ranges that an artist has displayed throughout the entirety of their released music, and determined who has the best and worst ranges as singers. Since some artists do not have vocal range data on file for them, they were not included in the study. 77 total singers were included in the graph, and guess who came in dead last? Arguably the two most popular artists in country music right now: Taylor Swift and Luke Bryan, with Luke landing in the caboose spot.
Axl Rose and Mariah Carey led the list, and when you consider that coming in before Luke Bryan and Taylor Swift are artists not particularly know for their singing prowess, but more for their styling such as Iggy Pop, Kurt Cobain, Lou Reed, Eminem, Neil Young, and Tom Waits, it makes this distinction especially dubious. Along with Swift and Bryan in the basement is Justin Bieber at #73.
Of course range isn’t everything. The amount of feeling, uniqueness, and other properties of a singer’s voice must factor heavily into deciding who is the “best” singer. But range is certainly a factor, and like with so many other measurements these days, country music finds itself on the bottom rung, bested by its peers in the pop, rock, R&B, and even rap worlds.
The Vocal Ranges of the Greatest Singers. From Mariah Carey’s ear-piercing whistle to Barry White’s deep bassy growl, compare the vocal ranges of today’s top artists with the greatest of all time. (via ConcertHotels.com).
Have you ever heard of Justin Guarini? How about Diana DeGarmo? Blake Lewis, anybody? Or how about Lee DeWyze? Does Dia Frampton ring a bell with anyone? Anyone?
Dia Frampton was a contestant on the inaugural season of NBC’s reality singing contest The Voice. Frampton, like all of the other names listed above, was either a runner up, or a winner of either The Voice or American Idol. And there’s an infinite list of other indistinguishable names from where these names came from: singers that reached the very heights of reality show competition, only to fade back into the unknown masses once the next season kicked off. Reality singing show nerds might be laughing at me right now, knowing all of these names, and the styles and stats of each artist. And so maybe to them, I’m the one who needs to fade back into the unknown masses. But even those people should hang with me for just a second more.
Not to pick on poor Dia Frampton, but let’s just take a look back at what happened to her after she made it onto The Voice finale, and almost won. In December of 2011, Dia released an album called Red through Universal Republic Records. How did the album do? It reached a peak of #106 on the Billboard charts. The album’s lone single “The Broken Ones” didn’t chart at all. But in reality, that’s not bad compared to the actual Season 1 winner of The Voice, Javier Colon. His album peaked at #134 on the Billboard charts. In fact Javier, who had his own successful music career before The Voice, released an album way back in 2003 that made it to #91 on Billboard—43 spots better than the album contracted to him after his big reality show win.
Of course for all these types of anecdotal stories about reality show winners, there are success stories such as Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson, and to a lesser extent, artists like Kellie Pickler and Scotty McCreery. But many of these big stars came from the first few seasons of American Idol, while many other finalists and winners have completely dropped off the map or have taken to starring in other reality show competitions, or reprising B-level acting roles to attempt to keep the momentum of their big reality show win rolling.
And this brings us to the matter of the young, fresh-faced finalist on The Voice, Jake Worthington. Jake finished 2nd and has captured the hearts and imaginations of many traditional country fans by wearing a big cowboy hat, and singing Keith Whitley songs on the show every chance he got, along with songs from Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams Jr., and others throughout the competition. Hey, that’s great. Great for this kid, and great that good, real country music is being exposed to the masses through him. But how many times have we been through this exercise with one of these reality show contestants, wondering if they are the ones that will rise out of the unclean masses to save country music with big reality show exposure?
I’m not saying it couldn’t happen. Jake Worthington seems like a really good kid, and good on Blake Shelton for shepherding him to the top level of the competition, and doing so while letting him keep his voice and style instead of swaying him in a more pop direction. But the reason that The ‘X’ Factor was canceled, the reason that American Idol has seen dramatically-declining ratings, and The Voice has remained stagnant, is because these competitions cannot consistently deliver winners that truly are American Idols, or that truly define “The Voice” of a generation.
Producers try to shake up the production, they shove more star power into these shows than the viewer can compute. ABC, despite the writing on the wall that with so many of these singing shows, they’re cannibalizing each other, is still starting their own competition come next season. But these shows are not delivering on their promise to the American public of delivering stars that they will then see selling out arenas, and performing on the Grammy Awards. That is why the singing reality show model is losing steam.
Opportunity is only what you make of it, and regardless of what the marketeers of these shows try to sell you on, the simple fact is nobody has the power to anoint a star. The winners themselves must still rise to find themselves, must still figure out a way to connect with the public at large. Some stars have done this like Carrie Underwood. Many haven’t like Javier Colon.
Let’s not overlook that it says a lot about the appeal of traditional country music that an artist like Jake Worthington even made it as far as the finals of The Voice. Everywhere you turn there’s people preaching to you that nobody wants to hear traditional country anymore, and it can be argued that Jake Worthington’s coach, Blake Shelton, has been one of the loudest champions of this sentiment. But whether it is Shelton changing course by seeing the blossoming of Jake Worthington right before his eyes, or the American public letting their voice be known by voting for Worthington, George Strait winning Entertainer of the Year at both the CMA and ACM Awards this last year, or even the recent announcement that Big Machine Records is partnering with Cumulus to reintegrate classic country artists into the fold, everywhere where traditional country is given a chance, it proves that it’s appeal and resonance with the American people is not on the wane as many would have you believe.
And don’t discount Mr. Worthington just because his path led through a reality show. At this point, with artists like Dan+Shay being nominated for awards before they’ve even released an album, and previous reality show contestants like Kellie Pickler putting out albums like 100 Proof that end up becoming the best country music has to offer in a given year, the most important question to ask is not where the artist came from, but what they accomplish with the opportunity they’ve been given.
Jake Worthington’s success, and the renewed interest in traditional country that might bestow, has much less to do with The Voice and where he placed, and much more to do with Jake Worthington, and if he has the stuff to speak to people’s hearts, and the guts to stick to who he is as an artist.
Our job is to help him.
No, Dolly Parton did not have to mortgage the farm to pay for the production of her new album Blue Smoke released last week, but she is letting loose of a little hacienda in West Hollywood, California she’s owned since 2007 for anyone who can scratch together a cool $1.39 million and really likes the color pink. Dollywood West is located at 9060 Harlan Ave. in the coveted Norma Triangle neighborhood. It has 2 bedrooms and 2 baths with a total of 1,091 square feet of space, and one of the most ornate paint jobs you’ll see this side of Walt Disney World.
The listing says this “gated mini compound” features “warm hardwood floors throughout, plantation shutters, motorized skylights, hand painted details, built-in A/V equipment, security system complete w/cameras and newer central HVAC.” And believe it or not, Dolly Parton isn’t the only famous person to call 9060 Harlan home. It was also the digs where West Side Story actress Natalie Wood grew up. According to real estate records, Dolly paid $1.2 million when she purchased the place 7 years ago.
Leave it to Dolly to live in style, but you must take a look at the last picture of the 2nd bedroom, which features the feng shui-less situation of putting an open toilet and a refrigerator within arms reach of each other, and the bed. Convenient, yes. Maybe a little too much so. Though in truth, the room probably dubs as an efficiency, so the handy appliances make sense.
Who would have envisioned this ever happening a few years ago? Not that Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood have been at each other’s throats over the years or anything, but for the last half decade or so, Miranda and Carrie have defined the polar opposites of mainstream female country in many respects. Miranda is the rough-edged, hard-scratch Texas girl ready to squeeze triggers and light shit on fire if provoked, while Carrie Underwood is the more refined and elegant American Idol winner with world-class pipes. High-caliber voice vs. high-caliber pistol. And though nothing but cordiality has reigned between the two publicly, their opposing polarities have created an unspoken friction, if only between elements of their fan bases.
Yet here they are, joining forces to release a duet called “Something Bad” as part of Miranda Lambert’s new album Platinum due out June 3rd, and debuting the song on the Billboard Music Awards. “Singing with Carrie Underwood is very, very intimidating,” says Miranda Lambert to the AP (see below). “She’s an amazing vocalist, I’m a big fan of hers, and asking her to do this was nerve-racking. I sent her an email, this long, blobbing email about if she wanted to sing on the record, it could be cool, but maybe she didn’t want to, if she liked the song, but she didn’t have to like the song. When I sent it I thought, ‘This sounds ridiculous.’”
Ridiculous or not, Carrie Underwood accepted, and “Something Bad” came into being. But the next question is, why this pairing, and why now?
Despite what the duo may or may not say or allude to publicly, “Something Bad” has one primary purpose: to break through bro-country’s stranglehold on country music. That is what this is about. The bro-country phenomenon has lasted for too long, and the pairing of country music’s two top females (Taylor Swift notwithstanding) may be the only way to break the bro-country monopoly. “Something Bad” is the symbolic, “We are the women of country, hear us roar!” statement. Yes ladies and gentlemen, war makes strange bedfellows.
Both the Lambert and Underwood camps are no doubt hoping this will be a big hit, and it’s no accident the Billboard Music Awards are also involved. The last time Miranda made it to the top of the Billboard charts was with another duet, when she paired up with Keith Urban in the song “We Were Us.” But that success was fairly short-lived. “Something Bad” is meant to be a statement against the male oligarchy. Even the day before the Billboard Music Awards, Miranda Lambert posted a photo to her Instagram account saying, “Welcome country’s new duo … Oklahoma Texas Line” with her and Carrie pictured in matching Thelma & Louise T-shirts, making a not-so-slight allusion to the bro-country extraordinaires Florida Georgia Line, and the “take no prisoners” attitude of this song.
“Two girls from Texas and Oklahoma that are living their dream right now,” Miranda continued to the AP. “We’re really rocking in country music, and we’re coming together as a force … If you’re sitting on the front row, you might want to scoot back. It’s a force, you know what I mean? It just feels exciting to me … It’s been too long since two girls in our genre have come together like that, especially in a song that’s kind of in-your-face. I’m excited, and I’m hoping that she’ll come to the dark side, and blow something up, or set something on fire in the video or whatever.”
The pairing does raise concerns that Miranda may be persuading Carrie Underwood to the dark side of female country music, and not just figuratively. As a song on Miranda’s upcoming record and not Carrie’s, “Something Bad” features Miranda in the driver’s seat, calling the shots. And for a while now, Carrie seems to have been somewhat following Miranda’s dominating style of these “woman scorned” revenge songs that in some respects are the female version of bro-country—using song formulas that swap beer, trucks, and tailgates, for smashed taillights, cat fights, and bonfires fueled by old boyfriend’s mementos, however less frequent and better-written as they happen to be.
Make no mistake, “Something Bad” is not just another song. This is Miranda and Carrie taking a baseball bat to bro-country’s pretty little souped up 4-wheel drive, and it will be fun to see just how this attempt to crash the good ol’ boy party at the top country’s charts will be received.
Sturgill Simpson has arrived ladies & gentlemen, thanks to the resounding critical success of his new album Metamodern Sounds of Country Music that has permeated just about every corner of the independent roots music culture. From NPR, to The New York Times, to Billboard, to important periodicals in Europe, wherever you turn, someone is singing the praises of the Kentucky native.
This resounding success has made some, if not many, wonder where does Sturgill Simpson go from here? Just how big can he get? Could we possibly hear Sturgill Simpson songs on mainstream radio? Could we see him get a nomination from the CMA? Could Sturgill Simpson and Metamodern Sounds be the artist and album to save country music? Without a doubt he’s that one artist this is resonating, right here, right now, and unlike other artists that have done so recently such as Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson is decidedly country, potentially giving him the ability to be considered for attention by country music’s largest institutions.
I think we all need to take a douse of realism, while at the same time understanding that Sturgill Simpson becoming something bigger than just a mid-level club act is very realistic if the right things fall into place. But there is a long, long way to go, and a lot of the talk surrounding him at the moment is sort of like playing fantasy football. In the long run, for an artist like Sturgill to reach the CMA level, a lot of specific watermarks must be reached, and it’s imperative on his fans, and Sturgill himself, not to set unrealistic expectations that can end up deflating the positive momentum he’s created. So in the end, a “Let’s just do the best we can, and see where this goes” mentality is probably the most wise course of action. Though someone who might read artcles on savingcountrymusic.com on a regular basis might see Sturgill Simpson’s name everywhere they turn and think this thing is in the midst of something historic, out in the big scary world, he’s still very much an unknown. For now.
But you also can’t discount the magic of music when it is matched up with the right moment for the world to hear it. That’s how all great movements in music start, by one person doing something the world has a great hunger for. And can anyone disagree that a hunger for someone like Sturgill Simpson exists in country music right now? As silly as the notion may seem to some, the indelible part of the country music mythos that hopes for a savior to come and return balance to the genre is a very real force all to itself, and carries its own weight and momentum.
It’s also worth pointing out that Sturgill Simpson isn’t the only one who deserves credit for what is becoming a meteoric rise. Some very wise moves have been made in marketing him, and how his music has been released. Normally, releasing albums less than a year apart is frowned upon these days. For Sturgill, this move was fortuitous. Just as the High Top Mountain‘s cycle was losing steam, here he comes with an album that regardless of where he goes from here, will be looked back upon as a landmark; as an important moment in his development. Now Sturgill has all the momentum at his back, and that, along with an excellent management team, has allowed Sturgill to reach far beyond what we normally see from independent artists that may feel very intimate to us because we’ve seen them in half empty barrooms, or heard their music before anyone else.
Sturgill’s manager Marc Dottore (also Marty Stuart’s manager), has been able to get him in front of big audiences at the Opry, on The Marty Stuart Show, and opened up many doors not normally accessible to independent artists. Sturgill’s booking agent got him on some big tours opening for Dwight Yoakam. And Sturgill and his band have been pounding the pavement, playing strange tour runs that are not always intuitive when they’re drawn on a map, and that take a toll on the band’s personal lives and sanity, but in the end got him in front of the right people to have an impact. There are a lot of talented country artists, and a lot of artists like Sturgill that have worked very hard. But Sturgill, his band, and his management team and publicists didn’t just work hard, they worked smart. And that, just as much as Sturgill’s talent, the appeal of the music, and the fortuitous timing of it, lent to where he is today.
Could Sturgill Simpson Be Picked Up By A Major Label?
Could he? Sure. Since he’s signed with new school distribution company Thirty Tigers, Sturgill still retains his rights, and the freedom to do whatever he wants with his music, whether it is the music on Metamodern Sounds, or music he makes in the future. This is one of the specific reasons Sturgill decided to go with Thirty Tigers, despite being offered other deals by other labels before High Top Mountain. And there’s precedent here with other artists. Chase Rice, one of the writers of Florida Georgia Line’s blockbuster song “Cruise”, started out as a Thirty Tigers artist, releasing music through the label before making a partnership through Columbia Records in March to distribute his EP and his “Ready, Set, Roll” single.
Speaking of Florida Georgia Line, they have a somewhat similar story, where they made an EP called It’z Just What We Do that after it went crazy, landed them a deal with Big Machine Records. Much of the music from that EP ended up on their first major full-length release.
But let’s be realistic. Do we really think real deal Sturgill Simpson is going to sign with a major label that would more than likely mean handing over the rights to his songs, and potentially artistic control? Granted, this isn’t always a pitfall of the major label world. There are some artists that with the right leverage power have been able to negotiate contracts in their favor that didn’t include all the traditional trappings of a major label deal. But unless it is perfect, Sturgill Simpson isn’t going to take it. Sturgill is a peculiar, cantankerous individual; an idealist that isn’t motivated by fame and money beyond wanting to provide for his family.
So the next question would be is, would the combination of Thirty Tigers and Sturgill’s current management structure be able to handle some major meteoric rise that would result in the gross equivalent of a major label deal? It’s kind of hard to know, but simply asking the question may be getting way ahead of ourselves.
Could Sturgill Simpson Be Nominated for a CMA Award?
Not to throw cold water on anything, but shaking my magic ’8′ ball, what I’m coming up with is “not likely”. Maybe in the future, when Sturgill has taken a few more steps, and his name recognition is such that the wider industry is paying more attention. But for now, Sturgill must conquer the Americana and independent ranks. He may very well do that with Metamodern Sounds, and this may create the gateway to greener pastures. But we can’t take this happening as a given.
One benefit he has over artists like Jason Isbell or Justin Townes Earle who’ve both had big success in Americana, is that Sturgill Simpson is purely country. This means hypothetically that the sky is the limit, unlike with Americana.
But the CMA, and especially the ACM are set up to promote the country music industry, just as the Americana Music Awards are set up to promote the Americana industry. And right now, Sturgill Simpson isn’t part of that industry. He may play country music, but that doesn’t immediately make him a contender, let alone visible to the CMA voters, even though he may technically qualify. What would put him on their map is strong, prolonged commercial success along with his critical acclaim: solid showings on MediaBase and Billboard charts for sales and plays.
The other thing he would need to do to be considered by the CMA is to have mainstream radio play. And with the climate these days at mainstream radio, where it realistically takes sometimes $500,000 to $1 million dollars to promote a single, especially from an unknown artist, that possibility may be the most out-of-reach for Sturgill. Besides, I’m not sure Metamodern Sounds contains any “single” material for modern-day radio.
However there is hope that a critical darling can crack through all the commercial hurdles that hold many artists out of the CMA process. Though Kacey Musgraves resides on a major label, appreciate that without even one Top 10 single to her name, she walked away with the Album of the Year trophies at both the Grammy Awards and ACM’s this year. When faced with overwhelming consensus about a critical favorite, whether it’s Musgraves’ Same Trailer, Different Park, or Jamey Johnson’s That Lonesome Song, industry awards will step up to at least dole out nominations to these projects. An Americana Grammy for Sturgill is a very real possibility, but remember last year they completely snubbed Jason Isbell, who by all accounts was the clear favorite going in.
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More realistically, Sturgill Simpson just needs to eat what’s on his plate, and focus on growing his name recognition. Sturgill will continue to focus on touring, and creating a fan base that can support him at the club level. That will open up the possibility for bigger opening slots, and more exposure.
We have been at this crossroads before, where an artist feels like he’s on the brink of blowing up and rising to the mainstream level. In 2008 when Hank Williams III was riding off of huge momentum from a critically-acclaimed and commercially-successful release Straight to Hell, it looked for a minute that he may break through the walls of the mainstream and completely shake up the industry. Williams had been touring like crazy for a half decade. He had all the momentum at his back. When his next album came out, Damn Right, Rebel Proud in 2008, it debuted at #2 on the Billboard charts. Williams had climbed nine rungs up a ten rung ladder, and he had done it his way, fighting against his label to win creative freedom, and finding success despite a lack of radio play.
But Damn Right, Rebel Proud was a step down in quality from his previous releases, and Hank3 proceeded to take 18 months off of touring. Subsequent releases charted decently as well, but he never reached the same heights. Hank3 had been right there, right at the precipice of breaking through, and for whatever reason, lost the drive, lost the momentum, had pushed himself too hard, and had to step back.
Hellbound Glory, also finding great critical acclaim, landed the opportunity to open for Kid Rock on an arena tour, and it looked like the doors would finally start opening for them. And some doors did. But a year later, Leroy Virgil had not a single member in his band that had been around for the Kid Rock tour, and in many respects landed right back where he started. Jamey Johnson reached the very top of the industry, penning #1 songs and being nominated for big awards. But then a label dispute stopped him in his tracks, and it’s been nearly four years since he’s released an original song.
Whether the fault of the artists or others, the ninth rung of that ten rung ladder has been where these artists have stalled, one after another. And the dream, the promise of returning the balance back to country music stalls with it. Whether it’s artists losing their hunger, being hindered by the industry, or never really having a chance to begin with, the dream wasn’t fully realized. It wasn’t played out to its last, exhaustive breath. But with Sturgill Simpson, we have another opportunity.
And if something magical does happen with Sturgill Simpson, we shouldn’t see it as a shot from nowhere. George Strait just won Entertainer of the Year for both the CMA’s and ACM’s. Kacey Musgraves has been winning awards left and right. Both traditionalism and substance are resonating again in country music, despite however buried they may appear by bro-country.
The most important thing is that Sturgill Simpson keeps on growing, and that the independent community does what they can to help foster that growth. Sturgill Simpson said it best when he posted the day of the release of Metamodern Sounds:
I have said it many times and I will continue to say it, as it is the truth and I whole heartedly believe itâŚguys like me and the countless others others out there attempting to offer an alternative are not capable of change. We are not the catalyst of change. You guys are. We can only do our best to make the best records we are capable of but it is up to you the listener to have your voices heard. This is the only road to the true change that a lot of you I talk to at shows are seeking. If you connect with something that moves you it’s up to you to share it/burn it/ steal it/ give it away. As long as it finds and connects with as many people as possible that is all we wish for.
From the bottom of our hearts, thank you all for everything YOU have done and are collectively doing to make our dreams come true. It goes without saying that I am about as sick of hearing/talking about me as I have ever been in my entire life. With that said, we are anxiously looking forward to taking this show on the road for the rest of our lives.
Sturgill, Kevin, Miles, & Little Joe
Just think about this for a second: Blake Shelton, Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean, Eric Church, Brady Paisley, Miranda Lambert, and Rascal Flatts are all now managed by the same exact talent agency. That is pretty much every single top tier country artist at the moment aside from Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood. And that’s just the start. The Band Perry and Jerrod Niemann are also managed by them. So are Dierks Bentley and Justin Moore.
In fact there a total of 128 mainstream country acts that fall under this same talent agency. It’s virtually everyone. It would be easier to name of the artists who are not on their roster. They even manage many of the big names in Texas country like Granger Smith, the Randy Rogers Band, and Josh Abbott. The have legacy acts like Hank Williams Jr., Vince Gill, and Kenny Rogers. They have Southern rock artists like Whiskey Myers and Lynyrd Skynyrd. They even manage independent-minded performers like Jamey Johnson and Robert Earl Keen.
Who is this mega talent company that barely anybody’s heard about?
The company is called William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, or WME for short. It is a talent agency that represents artists for concerts, tours, and appearances among other management tasks, and they have been acquiring managers of numerous artists and consolidating them under their umbrella for the past few years until they now have a virtual monopoly on mainstream country touring talent. For example in 2010, WME brought on board the 360 Artist Agency run by Joey Lee, and with him, the artists Miranda Lambert, Lee Brice, and Lee Ann Womack. Earlier this week, the agency brought on Kevin Neal, who brought along with him Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean, and Colt Ford among others.
WME, which has offices in Beverley Hills, Nashville, New York City, London, Miami, and Dallas, also has a big stake in managing TV and movie actors, sports personalities, and even writers. But their ability to consolidate virtually all of the talent in country music in one place, especially when it comes to the very top of the genre, is virtually unmatched in the recording industry.
WME also manages artists from other genres. They are the talent agency for the red hot Pharrell, as well as Snoop Dogg and Rihanna. But there is not genre they have such a tight grip on, or any talent agency has a grip on, like WME has on country.
So why does any of this matter?
Because when you have the same entity in charge of virtually everyone, you run the risk every monopoly runs on an industry. In the last few years, we’ve seen the gross consolidation of power in the recording industry, and in country specifically, into the hands of a few huge entities, especially in the touring realm. Virtually every concert now is promoted by AEG or Live Nation. If you want to purchase a ticket, you have one option: Ticketmaster …. which is owned by Live Nation. And since nearly every single artist that exists in the higher ranks of touring in country music has the same talent agency, the vacuum of competition can, and does foster a stagnant, incestuous environment. It also gives them dramatic advantage over other agencies, to the point where smaller, independent agency are forced to concede to them or go out-of-business. Why do we see the same concert pairings over and over? Why do the same artists seem to always be at the top of the genre? Why do the same artists get nominated for the same awards and get all the radio play? Because they all fall under the auspices of the same few companies.
Here’s the country roster for WME:
The Band Perry
Big & Rich
Blue Sky Riders
The Cadillac Three
Casey Donahew Band
Duck Dynasty (The Robertson Family)
Florida Georgia Line
Hank Williams, Jr.
Hudson MooreJackie Lee
Josh Abbott Band
Kristy Lee Cook
Larry Gatlin & The Gatlin Brothers
Laura Bell Bundy
Lee Ann Womack
The Little Willies feat. Norah Jones
The Lost Trailers
Natalie Stovall & The Drive
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
The Oak Ridge Boys
Pat GreenPistol Annies
Randy Rogers Band
Robert Earl Keen
Steven Lee Olsen
The Swon Brothers
The Time Jumpers
William Michael Morgan
The Willis Clan
Welcome ladies and gentlemen to the new remix era of country music, where the worst “country” songs get regurgitated with an overlayed rapper or EDM twist, repackaged to terrorize the eardrums of the masses for another eight weeks after the song should normally fade from the charts and fall off of radio. Please find a group of your favorite male country stars crying for relevancy and attention to your right, and a selection of waning rap personalities looking for a career revitalization through white suburban consumers to your left. Mix and match as you choose to create the perfect mono-genre monstrosity that will then go on to shatter decades-old records because of Billboard’s new chart rules, and make a mockery of the “summer anthem” phenomenon by taking 10-month-old songs with newly added drum machine beats, and shoving them down the throat of the American consumer once again. Enjoy!
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Here we go again. Another day, another paradigm shift for quotation mark “country” trying desperately to apologize for itself and attract new demographics by careening out of the defined borders of the genre. This time it is the emerging habit of the country remix song. We first saw this when Jason Aldean remixed his influential country rap “Dirt Road Anthem” with Ludacris in 2011, but the first widely successful implementation of the country remix was when Florida Georgia Line did a remix of their mega hit “Cruise” with the rapper Nelly in April of 2013. The collaboration went on to be responsible for creating the longest-running #1 song in the history of country music. And since we all know what a copycat world it is down on Music Row, it was only a matter of time before the country music industrial complex retooled to make the remix of any song they see fit a reality.
Now the remix train has started rolling full steam, and since so many mainstream hits already are built on top of electronic dance beats, virtually any mainstream song is optimized to accept a remix. Take Jerrod Niemann for example, who has all of a sudden emerged as country’s EDM Master of Ceremonies. His hit “Drink To That All Night” has just received the remix treatment with none other than Latin rapper Pitbull (listen below, if you dare). Just like with Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise”, Jerrod’s song was very slow in developing as a blockbuster single. It was released all the way back in October of 2013, but is just now reaching its peak, hitting #1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart. By releasing the remix, the single gets new life, and now could become a massive crossover success.
But this is just the tip of the country remix iceberg compared to what we’re about to see in the coming months. Rumors of additional Florida Georgia Line remixes are swirling, and the duo can’t stop talking about how much they’d love to work with Canadian rapper Drake. There’s talk that a remix of Brantley Gilbert’s “Bottoms Up” featuring Lil Wayne is in the pipeline. And The Band Perry has been hinting at some sort of collaboration with EDM megastar Avicii. Though the remix in country might feel like a rare occurrence at the moment, by the end of 2014, it might be a given from the format’s biggest songs and stars.
Remixes and collaborations have been the way the hip-hop world and parts of EDM have developed talent over the years. A bigger star will give a boost to an up-and-comer by having them come in and sing a line on a slightly different version of an already popular song. Seeing how country music has for all intents and purposes dismantled its farm system, and money and time for artist development has virtually dried up, these type of remixes and collaborations could be a good alternative to an industry struggling to find new stars, especially female stars. But instead of helping their own, country music is turning to promoting already-established artists from other genres under the veil of “collaboration” to attempt to reach new heights of commercial success.
Anyone who wishes to consider themselves a good storyteller has to at least be an admirer, if not a little envious in some degree of songwriter and performer Todd Snider. Over his career, it can be argued his stories have gone on to bolster his troubadour status just as much as his songs. And anyone who’s seen Todd Snider perform a few times or more knows that Garth Brooks has been a familiar punching bag for Todd over the years.
One of the most famous flash points between Garth Brooks and Todd Snider really has little to do with Garth, and mostly to do with a songwriter named Kent Blazy. Kent was one of the writers behind Garth’s first #1 hit “If Tomorrow Never Comes” and many other Garth songs, including a song that Garth performed as a duet with George Jones called “Beer Run”. As many long-time Todd Snider fans know, Todd has his own version of “Beer Run”, and which version was hatched first became a point of contention between the two camps when the song was released on Garth’s 2001 album Scarecrow.
“I’m sitting at home, watching television and my manager calls me up and says, ‘Hey man, you know that song “Beer Run” you came up with?” Todd Snider recalls. “‘Well there’s a different version of the song that’s almost exactly like it that Garth Brooks is singing with George Jones, and I think you might have got ripped off.’ And as God as my witness, this is what I said [to my manager]: ‘I don’t have to come to fucking town, do I?’”
As Todd Snider tells the story, he didn’t even care about the issue, until… “[My manager] calls me a few months later and it’s a different twist on this story. He says, ‘Now they’re saying you took it from them.’ Now I’m thinking I may even have to dress up.”
Subsequently the two “Beer Run” sides met, and decided amicably that nobody took anything from anybody, and everyone went back about their business …. until Todd Snider was asked to play the induction ceremony for Tom T. Hall at the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008. During the ceremony, someone pointed out Kent Blazy to Todd in the crowd as the man who wrote Garth’s “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” not knowing it was the same guy who wrote the contested “Beer Run.” So Todd Snider, being a fan of “If Tomorrow Never Comes”, walks over and introduces himself to Kent.
“I know who you are, I got in a lot of trouble last summer with you man.” Todd recalls Kent Blazy saying to him. “You wrote ‘Beer Run’, right? I wrote it too.”
“And I’m thinking in my head, ‘You took it from me!‘” Todd remembers. “So I said to him, ‘You took it from me!‘ And you know what he said to me? He said, ‘Not technically, man.’ And he explained to me the rules about how many words you can take and how many notes you can take, and I thought, ‘That’s some clever shit.’ And as he was walking away from me, I got an idea for a song. It’s called ‘If Tomorrow Never Comes’.”
So this is the story that Todd Snider has told about his revenge song “If Tomorrow Never Comes” for years, and with fuzzy details and different versions, it began to fuel the rumors of a deeper Todd Snider / Garth Brooks feud.
But that’s not the only story involving Todd Snider and Garth Brooks.
Fast forward to present day, and Todd Snider has just released a new book called I Never Met A Story I Didn’t Like. In the book, Snider raises the subject of another story about Garth he tells involving Todd’s famous song “Alright Guy” that Garth wanted to use as part of his notorious Chris Gains project.
“He told me he was making a movie, and he wanted to put my song, ‘Alright Guy,’ in the sound track,” Snider explains in the book. “He told me the story of this character he was playing in the movie, a pop singer called Chris Gaines, and how heâd created an entire history for this character, and he wanted ‘Alright Guy’ to be a song that Chris Gaines sang in the 1970s.”
Now how do you think the idea of a fictitious pop star named Chris Gaines created by Garth Brooks went over with Todd Snider?
If you listen to the story Todd has told at his shows over the years about Garth Brooks, Chris Gaines, and “Alright Guy”, it painted a different picture than how Todd truly felt according to the new book. “…I realized it would be beneficial for me, in my attempt to get laughs at my show, to pretend I knew in real time what a disastrous idea this Chris Gaines thing was. In the story, I played along and told Garth that it was a great, smart idea, knowing that he was going to fall on his ass …. I decided to exploit the idea that not everybody likes Garth Brooks to my own end. And I told myself that Garth wouldnât be hurt by something like that, because he was so successful.”
But in I Never Met A Story I Didn’t Like, Snider reveals, “That was not in fact anywhere near true. The truth was that I thought it was going to be successful, and thought it was cool, and had hopes that it was going to do well. In fact, I still donât think it was stupid. I think it was smart of Garth Brooks to make a creative choice that resulted in selling millions of albums. Sign me up for that kind of stupid.”
Todd Snider goes on to talk about his experience hanging out with Garth during the recording of “Alright Guy” for the Chris Gaines project, and how nice Brooks was. “Garth was a lot less music businessâoriented toward me and a lot gentler and more poetic toward me than some of my supposedly art-first songwriter friends.” And when the whole Chris Gaines project fizzled and “Alright Guy” went unused, Garth Brooks sent Todd a check for $10,000. “If youâre reading this and thinking, ‘Well, that was the decent thing to do,’ Iâm telling you that youâre wrong. Iâve been in this thing for twenty years, and this was ten thousand times more than the decent thing to do. This was unheard of. He owed me nothing but paid me $10,000, and apologized for that.”
As for Todd Snider’s true take on Garth Brooks? It might be the best take on the dichotomy Garth Brooks defines in country music that has been offered to date.
I loved Garth Brooks. I was, and am, a very big fan. I think Garth Brooks fucked up country music for a while, through no fault of his own: he made music so good and so successful that tons of people came along after him trying to imitate what he did. Garth fucked up country music like Kurt Cobain fucked up rock.
Because of Garthâs massive success, thereâs a bit of a push and pull in Nashville about him. When you sell more records than anyone has ever sold, you tend to make more people jealous than have ever been jealous of a singer.
Itâs a crock that I think prevails in this country: we bully the people who entertain us. We get on the computer and bully them. We buy magazines with pictures of them where they look fat or drunk or imperfect. And we suppose that those peopleâs success excuses our meanness.
In January of 2013, Taylor Swift signed on to be the “Brand Ambassador” of the Coca-Cola Bottling Company’s Diet Coke brand—the type of endorsement you see from many big-level country and pop stars. Shortly thereafter the starlet started appearing in ads for the cola, most notably a recent television commercial tied to the marketing slogan “You’re On”. The commercial culminated in a shot of Taylor Swift in her dressing room right before going on stage drinking a Diet Coke. But unfortunately for both Taylor Swift and Diet Coke, when they tried to translate their “You’re On” slogan to the print world, many people began to draw parallels between Coke, and the cola’s cocaine-laced past.
As can be seen in the billboard below, when the slogan is spelled out, and proceeded by “Coke” there can be some underlying connotations that don’t conform to either Taylor Swift, or Diet Coke’s squeaky clean reputation. Add on top of that Diet Coke to using energy drink-like verbiage around the ad campaign, saying things such as âhow go-getters get going,” and “âWhen itâs time to be on,” and “âWhether youâre the best man about to give a speech at your friendâs wedding or Taylor Swift about to go onstage in front of millions, the refreshment of Diet Coke keeps you on,” and the campaign became ripe for parody, and that’s exactly what happened.
Stealing on the opportunity to exploit the “You’re on Coke” wordplay, parody artists started making mock print ads of the Diet Coke campaign, and even a parody commercial of Taylor Swift’s “Diet Coke” dressing room scene (see below).
Now, according to the New York Times, the “You’re On” ad campaign has received so much flack, it is being pulled and replaced by a âJust for the taste of it” alternative—the same ad slogan that helped launch the Diet Coke brand in 1983.
Diet Coke’s “You’re On” Taylor Swift campaign was meant to stem the tide of consumers, especially young consumers, abandoning soft drinks for healthier alternatives, energy drinks, coffee, and other beverages. It certainly seemed to get folks’ attention … their very rapt, dedication, and focused attention.
Â Original Taylor Swift Diet Coke Ad:
Parody Diet Coke Ad:
Whenever the name of country star Jake Owen comes up, it’s quickly proceeded by stories from fans talking about how down-to-earth Jake is for an artist of his stature. From many accounts, Jake Owen goes the extra mile: hanging out with tailgaters before and after shows, taking groups of fans out to unexpectedly on lake trips, and performing other similar gestures that show he doesn’t see himself as better than anyone else.
Last year when country artists began to speak out about the direction of country like never before, Jake Owen became one of the most vocal, taking a couple of occasions to say that country music needed to get back to more substance. In October of 2013, Jake Owen said in part, “We need more songs than just songs about tailgates and fuckinâ cups and Bacardi and stuff like that. We need songs that get ourselves back to the format that made me love it . . .” Then in December of 2013, Jake Owen doubled down on his critical comments, saying,
I donât mean to sound negative. I love country music right now, itâs awesome. But Iâm guilty of it, too. We all have songs that weâre tending to put out because theyâre working and itâs helping our careers. But songs like âThe Thunder Rollsâ or John Michael Montgomeryâs âLifeâs a Dance,â they were songs that meant something to people. You donât hear a lot of those songs anymoreâŚ.People were like, thatâs real. There are so many songs now, and I have them, too, that are [about] sunshine, blue eyes, a tan. Thatâs not always real to everyone all the time. Or passing moonshine jars around. People do that when theyâre kids, but people also grow up. . . . Itâs important to have all kinds of songs.
Well apparently Jake Owen isn’t just a man of talk, he’s a man of action, and one virtually unknown country artist from Arizona is set to be the beneficiary of Owen’s good nature, and desire to see more substance in the format.
Tony Martinez is a well-seasoned traditional country artist and touring sideman for multiple projects, and by a strange twist of fate, will be filling the time between acts on Jake Owen’s Days of Gold arena tour starting May 15th in Huntington, West Virginia, going until at least late August.
It all started in Arizona at The Phoenix Open golf tournament in Scottsdale the last week of January. Tony was playing a party leading up to the event when Jake Owen saw him.
“Tuesday night there was the draw party for the Pro Am I got to play in,” Jake Owen explains. “So there I was, waiting to find out who we were going to play with, and this guy’s playing a guitar and singing over in the corner of the room you know, and I’m just mesmerized by how badass this guy is. I don’t know him from Adam. I’ve never met him in my life. But I had to go up to him after—I think we ended up getting hammered as hell that night by the way—and I said, ‘Dude, it’s going to be packed at The Bird’s Nest when I play there.’ And I said, ‘I want you to come out on stage with me and sing some badass old school country songs with me for a little bit if that’s okay.’”
So Jake invited Tony Martinez out on stage in front of the 15,000-person capacity crowd at The Bird’s Nest, and the two men proceeded to play the classic country songs “Amos Moses” by Jerry Reed, and Waylon Jennings’ “Luckenbach, TX” while the crowd roared (see below).
After Tony Martinez went over so well, Jake decided to recruit Tony to play between sets while the respective bands on the Days of Gold tour change over. Eli Young Band, and The Cadillac Three also are playing on the current lineup of the Days of Gold tour.
Tony Martinez started out playing as part of the vibrant independent country scene that exists in Phoenix, AZ. The weekly Valley Fever events at the Yucca Tap Room every Sunday night hosted by Dana Armstrong have become a staple of the Phoenix country music scene, and along with Tony Martinez, have also been a proving ground for Ray Lawrence Jr. who landed on a Hank Williams III record a while back, Robert Perez and Junction 10, and many other excellent country artists.
“I met him about 7 years ago when he came to the Yucca with Chip Hanna to play at Valley Fever,” says Valley Fever’s Dana Armstrong “We were all blown away by his raw talent. Since then, he just got better and better and quickly rose to the top of the Arizona country music scene. Not only is he a phenomenal musician and singer, he is also a natural performer. He’s born to be on stage. No matter what he’s playing, he makes it seem effortless, but heartfelt. Never a dull moment when Tony’s on stage.”
Martinez just finished multiple dates playing pedal steel guitar for J.P. Harris & the Tough Choices on the road, and after a recent move to Nashville, has been playing regularly at Layla’s Bluegrass Inn and the Full Moon Saloon on Lower Broadway.
“I was really excited when Jake came to me with the idea of going on his first headlining arena tour,” says Tony Martinez. “It gives me an opportunity to not only play my own songs in front of thousands of people that wouldn’t normally hear them, but also to expose a whole new crowd of people to the kind of music that has fallen by the wayside to the mainstream market. I think that making headway within that demographic is an important step in shifting the mainstream culture. Jake opened the door for me to try and do that. Hopefully I can make some kind of difference.”
Tony Martinez with Jake Owen:
It’s been theorized that what truly defines a “douchebag” is living in a vacuum of self-awareness. When you combine that with the rather easy-to-deduce conclusion that Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley probably weren’t winning many academic decathlons during their formative years from the way the duo’s songs so deftly avoid positively anything that could be mistaken, let alone taken, as deep, substantive, intelligent, or even remotely country instead of an overly-affectated, caricaturist drawl, it only makes sense that they would be completely unable to define the very term that was crafted to describe their specific brand of vapid, soul-less, and only very slightly country-flavored dreck.
“Bro-country” is the phrase that has been on the tip of the tongue of many country music and culture writers when they try to describe the current phenomenon gripping popular country music that calls heavily on pickup trucks, beer, backroads, etc. etc., but according to Florida Georgia Line’s Brian Kelley (the one that does all the talking off stage, and none of the singing on stage), he’s clueless to what the term stands for.
“We’ve heard the term ‘bro country’, and I don’t really know what it means,” he tells FOX411. “People like to label things I guess these days. What’s country? What’s not country?”
Deep, Mr. Kelley. Deep.
“We just call it the Florida-Georgia-Line sound,”Â he continues. “Our music’s got all of our influences in one.” What influences? When asked what his dream collaborations would be, Brian Kelley answered, “Within country music, Ronnie Dunn and Garth Brooks are the two top guys, and outside of country we like Drake and Rihanna,” proving that Florida Georgia Line are just the type of mono-genre monsters that make music marketeers see green.
Though the term “bro-country” has become standardized throughout media world, attempts to create negative connotations around the designation have been mixed. Recently, the term has been adopted by the very music, fans, and artists it was meant to criticize. Pandora has even set up an exclusive bro-country channel.
On April Fool’s day, Broken Bow Records released a 20-track Merle Haggard Tribute called Working Manâs Poet, primarily as a showcase for the roster’s talent. Big Broken Bow acts like Jason Aldean, Thompson Square, and Dustin Lynch make multiple appearances on the collection, but one of the most heavily-touted songs from the album has been Luke Bryan’s version of “Pancho & Lefty” with Dierks Bentley. The approach of the track is said to to have been inspired by Mumford & Sons. “The original had a Spanish-Mexican flair,” Bryan explains. “We took a real different approach with it âŚ. something with some edge that moves along pretty good. Itâs an interesting take.â
The first question this song begged was, should this really be considered a Merle Haggard song? “Pancho & Lefty” was originally written and recorded by acclaimed Texas singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt. A later version appeared on an album of the same name that was a collaboration between Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson in 1983, but Willie sang most of the song, with Merle only contributing one verse.
Nonetheless, Luke Bryan’s version with Dierks made the cut, and subsequently drew the favorable ear of Mere’s son and Strangers guitar player Ben Haggard who appears on the tribute multiple times himself. âYou know, Luke Bryanâs a great artist, but I never really listened to his stuff,” Ben told Country Weekly earlier this month. “I just listened to âPancho and Leftyâ about five minutes ago and it blew me away. Iâm in love with it.â
Ben went on to give his assessment of the tune if it was ever released to radio as a single. “I wouldnât be surprised if it was a hit. It could be a monsterâagain.âÂ The Willie & Merle version was a #1 in 1983. This begs the question, could Luke Bryan’s version of “Pancho & Lefty” really be released to radio as a single, and somehow become a hit all over again?
The one thing we know is right now, there’s no country star hotter than Luke Bryan. Luke is on a roll, scoring one huge hit single after another, with his latest “Play It Again” at #1, and his collaboration with Florida-Georgia Line called “This Is How We Roll” at #2 on Billboard’s country chart. If Luke and his management did decide to release the song to radio there’s a very good likelihood it would do well simply off of Luke’s name, and Dierks Bentley is a pretty hot commodity at the moment as well.
Combine that with the overwhelming cover success Darius Rucker recently had with Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel,” and it’s not ridiculous to think that Luke’s “Pancho & Lefty” could become a hit, creating the same strange dichotomy “Wagon Wheel” did for independent country fans where you’re happy there’s a cool song getting played on the radio, but hesitant about the circumstances of how it got there. A Merle tribute song written by Townes Van Zandt topping the charts? Awesome. Performed by Luke Bryan? Not so much. And it turns out that there already has been a few spins of the song on MediaBase-monitored radio stations (a meager total of four, but still interesting for a cover song on a tribute album).
But don’t steal yourself for disappointment, or get your hopes up that “Pancho & Lefty” 3.0 will become the next “Wagon Wheel” and put the deceased Townes Van Zandt at the top of today’s country chart. As Saving Country Music’s go to guru for all things country radio Windmills Country points out, since the Merle Haggard tribute was released by Broken Bow, but Luke Bryan is a Capitol Records Nashville artist, it is unlikely that Luke’s song is the one they would release as a single, if they release any singles from the tribute. Releasing a single to mainstream country radio costs lots of money for labels to promote, and so it is unlikely that Broken Bow would do this for an artist on another roster, similar how it is less likely that Capitol Nashville would figure out how to release it as a single since it originated from Broken Bow.
The other issue is that Luke Bryan already has a slew of singles out there to radio doing very very well, and so does Dierks Bentley. Labels do not like having singles compete with each other, so if “Pancho & Lefty” was released, it would likely be well after Luke’s current albums are out of single material.
Nonetheless, it is certainly curious that the most lauded song on the album is Luke Bryan’s, especially since he’s not signed to Broken Bow. In the press releases and other promotional material, it is by far the most talked about track, and it could have been targeted by Broken Bow’s A&R as the best song to help sell the album to the public. Depending on the licensing behind the song, the track could also be selected to be released on a deluxe edition of Luke’s current album Crash My Party—a practice that a lot of labels are doing with artists to extend the release cycle, and making it more likely it could appear as a single. So who knows. It somewhat feels like fantasy football to talk about the track becoming a hit, but there is certainly a lot of chatter surrounding it. We very well might be seeing Luke Bryan shaking it to “Pancho & Lefty” in the future, for better or worse.
There’s no embeddable version of Luke Bryan’s version, so here’s the Willie & Merle’s original.
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