In one corner you have the wily veteran who’s sold more than 80 million records worldwide and racked up untold awards and accolades during his quarter century career. In the other corner you have the scrappy young upstart who after years of paying dues on the club circuit can now sell out three consecutive nights at The Ryman Auditorium in 30 minutes and is on the tip of everyone’s tongue as the name of one of the best songwriters around. These two heavyweights duked it out for the last week or so to see who would have the #1 album in country, and regardless of who comes out on top, country music wins.
All the talk of how country music needs to “evolve” and how nobody wants to listen to grandpa’s music or songs that make you think, and pretty regularly over 2015 we’ve seen independent and aging artists prove their selling power and their staying power, many times over mainstream rivals on Billboard’s Country Albums chart. Aaron Watson, Blackberry Smoke, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, and now Alan Jackson and Jason Isbell come out on top and prove that regardless of mainstream radio play, there is a silent majority of country music fans out there that are willing to put their hard earned dollars behind the artists they love.
It also just goes to show you how insular the country music radio environment has become. When Johnny Cash was releasing #1 records during his American Recordings era without any mainstream country radio play, it was an anomaly. Now it’s becoming commonplace to see the #1 country record in America not represented on country radio. Kacey Musgraves’ recent release is another example, and we may see it next week with Ashley Monroe. Yet also think about how intuitive it is that Alan Jackson and Jason Isbell are the two neck and neck. Jackson and Isbell have way more in common with each other than either do with Luke Bryan or Sam Hunt.
Quality music is quality music, and it cuts across cultural lines and thoughts on taste. That is why Jackson and Isbell are able to top the charts without any radio support. So why don’t we have a radio format that would cater two both older country artists, and upstarts like Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Kacey Musgraves and others that mainstream country radio ignores?
Coming down to the wire, it looks like Alan Jackson will edge Jason Isbell just slightly. According to HITS Daily Double, Jackson sold 42,341 albums, edging out Isbell by less than 500 units at 41,870. But as long as quality music continues to crest the charts, the calls of “evolution” and the collusiveness of country radio will be exposed, and the worthy artists releasing quality roots music regardless of style will still be able to ply their craft without concerning themselves with pandering to anyone.