And now for something entirely unexpected, but in a strange and sad way somewhat plausible and curiously intuitive, John Mayer and his label Sony have made a full on play to court country radio with his song “In The Blood” from his recently-released record, The Search For Everything.
And no, this isn’t just a deal where you dip your toes in the water to see what the reception might be, like when Justin Timberlake released “Drink You Away” to radio after his big 2015 CMA moment with Chris Stapleton. Sony is taking out full page ads in country radio industry periodicals and bugging program directors across the country for all the adds and spins they can get. Don’t mistake it, John Mayer and “In The Blood” are coming to country radio. The only question is how far they will get.
Oh the think piece threads and potential ramifications are nearly endless with this thing, so let’s see if we can unpack some of it and make a little bit of sense out of this development.
First off, best of luck predicting what John Mayer is going to do. A year ago he was touring with The Grateful Dead. Now he’s courting what is arguably the most stuffy, creatively-vacant, and unhip format on the entire radio dial. The reason? Because where else is a man like John Mayer going to go in 2017? The name might be slightly new to Millennials, and synonymous with the Adult Contemporary station your mother has tinkling lightly at her cubicle at work, but Mayer is a massive superstar who just like many of the aging artists who flee to country (Darius Rucker, Sheryl Crow, et al) is finding no love from radio for his current “Hot AC” single, and believes country is actually a format he may find some friendly faces and fertile ground in.
Why? Because country radio is the ultimate subservient little lap dog. You give it enough money and attention, especially if you’re already a pre-established superstar, and country radio will clean your toilets. The country industry has such a broad interpretation of its boundaries and such a low self-esteem, when John Mayer comes calling, it’s like the cool kid finally paying attention to the dork in high school.
But don’t mistake this for John Mayer “going country.” One of the curious parts of this move is Mayer’s intentions were not broadcast whatsoever. This is completely out of left field. Usually when an artist decides the time is nigh to make the country move in the twilight of their careers, there are months of murmurs in the media rumor mill released privately by publicists, and hints dropped in interviews preceding the actual deed. Usually this stuff swirls around how the artist is from the South, so clearly that gives them the cred to release country songs, and how they’ve always been a country fan (though this is curiously absent from the public record previously), and they remember their grandparents listening to Patsy Cline yada yada yada.
John Mayer isn’t doing any of that. John Mayer isn’t saying shit, probably because he knows he has no country cred, and his hometown of Bridgeport, Connecticut isn’t really going to afford him many brownie points with the country community. The only country cred John Mayer has is sleeping with a 19-year-old Taylor Swift, which basically means he has no country cred at all. So instead Sony’s just funneling tons of backend cash to country radio periodicals and “publicity” companies to launch what they believe can be a hit country single.
Now I know what you’re going to say: How is John Mayer receiving country radio play, and Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, and Cody Jinks aren’t? How does Chris Stapleton barely get played on radio despite selling millions of records and sweeping awards, not to mention Kacey Musgraves, Margo Price, and dozens of other artists who get ignored systematically as a matter of course?
Country radio doesn’t care who you are, or what you sound like. Case in point, right now the #1 song in all of country radio is Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Backroad,” and brace yourself for this potentially being the case for months into the future. Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson will never have a hit on country radio because you have to spend a million dollars simply on radio promotion just to buy in, even if you’re winning Grammy Awards. You have to kiss the ring. And that’s exactly what John Mayer is doing by taking out full page ads in Country Aircheck and throwing around promotional cash. You pay, they play.
But what of the song itself, “In The Blood”? It has that stupid, post-Lumineers hand clapping pseduo “roots” rhythm that was played out years ago and is pretty annoying at first. But except for that, this is a 3-chord, very well-written, fetching, classic country themed, simple and well-sung song that is a breath of fresh air on the country radio format. I like “In The Blood.” I think it’s a good song. It’s a shame Mayer’s ultra-country and steel-guitar driven song “You’re No One ‘Til Someone Lets You Down” from his 2013 record Paradise Valley wasn’t the one chosen to impact country radio. That album was supposed to be John Mayer’s “country” (or at least, Americana) moment, where he covered J.J. Cale’s “Call Me The Breeze” made famous by Skynyrd and the whole bit.
But I’m not even sure if John Mayer knows any of this country radio business is going on. I feel like I’m supposed to hate John Mayer in this moment, but I don’t, and I can’t. The song is good, and if it makes it into the Top 20, it would be the best song in the Top 20 of country radio at the moment. Aside from William Michael Morgan’s “Missing,” or Midland’s “Drinking Problem” (talk about authenticity issues), “In The Blood” is one of the best things being pushed to radio right now.
I don’t blame John Mayer or his people for pushing a song to country radio, I blame country radio for being so weak, so pliable and subservient, it allows someone like John Mayer to walk right through the barn doors thrown wide and do his worst. Of course John Mayer doesn’t belong on country radio, and for reasons that are not the fault of John Mayer; it’s just the way it’s supposed to be. Like his former squeeze Taylor Swift once said, “Choose a lane.”
But you know, whatever. If a semi-cool John Mayer song can push some 3rd-tier Bro-Country selection off the back end of the charts, so be it. Yes there’s limited slots on radio, and yes they should be reserved for artists who have spent their entire lives or careers trying to make it in the genre, including some of the more pop-oriented artists. But war makes strange bedfellows, and far be it from us to bemoan this Mayer song when so much worse can be found in the format. Does it set a bad precedent that someone can just walk into country from another genre and capture spins? Of course it does. But that ship sailed years ago.
So welcome aboard John Mayer. Just don’t get comfy, and don’t start demanding Grammy Awards like Beyoncé, and we’ll play nice. For now.