Support for Music Row’s True Country Albums

May 16, 2012 - By Trigger  //  Random Notes  //  36 Comments

A couple of weeks ago, the great 2012 American Idol country music hope Skylar Laine got booted off the show for singers that conform more to America’s ideal hyper image. But there’s still hope for young Skylar. Carrie Underwood aside, it is usually American Idol runners up that tend to go on and make it big in music, and according to an interview with The Boot, that’s Skylar Laine’s intentions. However if she’s going to make it big, it won’t be with pop country music.

Like her musical heroes, Skylar also knows exactly what she wants her music to sound like — “really country,” she insists. “I don’t want to be pop at all. I want steel guitar, honky-tonk songs, real country music. What it really is. Talking about guns and all that kind of stuff.”

Guns, huh? Hopefully her anti-pop stance doesn’t hinder her chances of finding a record deal, but in all likelihood it probably will.

Another American Idol alum Kellie Pickler released an album 100 Proof in January that was also pretty anti-pop to the delight of many traditional country fans and critics (including this one). 100 Proof was in the vein of about 1 in maybe every 20-25 albums or so that Music Row lets slip through that actually has a lot of substance, and for whatever reason the label lets the artist have say so in the direction. Another example of this rare, but every-so-often phenomenon was Dierks Bentley’s bluegrass-heavy Up On The Ridge from the summer of 2010.

These albums are heavily ballyhooed by fans and critics alike, but when it comes to sales, chart performance, and award show accolades, they tend to receive a big pass by the industry. A&R folks struggle to find singles. The one or two singles that do get released get held up by radio program directors who scrunch their noses at them for being too country or too artsy. Meanwhile hardcore traditional country fans, and independent and Americana fans see the names “Dierks” or “Pickler” and refuse to give it even a whiff, for understandable reasons, relegating the project to country music no man’s land.

Yet you go on to iTunes and Amazon and the few fans that do connect with these projects leave glowing reviews. Kellie Pickler fans, Keillie Pickler fans are bellyaching now that country radio isn’t about country any more, that it has all gone pop, and it’s unfair they won’t play Pickler’s 100 Proof album. And meanwhile on Music Row, the suits are shaking their heads saying, “I told you so.”

In the war to restore balance back to the mainstream country format, where both pop and traditional country music and demographics are represented, there is nothing more important than creating support around these few traditional or progressive country albums that Music Row does let slip through. A lack of support for these albums only validates the major label’s prejudices about them, making future albums like these even less likely, and making it less likely labels will be searching for more traditional or progressive up-and-coming talent.

Unlike artists like Phish, or Tom Waits, or Hank3 who can build success with grass roots instead of traditional radio support, artists like Kellie Pickler and her fan base are completely unfamiliar and ill-equipped to offer support if it is not being given by mainstream outlets. The grassroots-savvy independent fans tend to steer clear. The mainstream fans tend to be too passive to offer substantive support. And the album struggles.

Music Row is a copycat business in many ways. Whatever works will be tried again, and whatever doesn’t, won’t. And if these traditional country albums from Music Row do not produce results, the reign of pop in country music will only strengthen.

36 Comments to “Support for Music Row’s True Country Albums”

  • It’s sad that you could only find 2 examples out of the 100′s of Music Row artists. What a mess country is in right now. It shames me to think I used to enjoy that swill.

    • There’s probably a few more examples. Jamey Johnson’s “The Guitar Song” could be another, I just didn’t want to start a Jamey Johnson brew-ha. Those two albums happened fit perfectly into the point I was trying to make. Both Kellie and Dierks have said these were albums the wanted to make. So does that mean the others were ones they didn’t? In a recent interview, Tim McGraw said he had little to no say so on the songs chosen for his albums.

      • Agree. I tend to forget about Jamey. He seems to have fallen off the map recently. The Dirt Drifters are another band that is teetering on the brink of making it in Nashville but just haven’t gotten the big push yet. I think you would enjoy them.

        It also makes you wander if Toby Keith really wants to be making songs about plastic cups…but I think in his heart he truly does.

        • He keeps popping up in this new Willie Nelson album I’m listening to at the moment.

          • Speaking of that album, what do you think of it, Trig? It’s definitely my favorite Willie album in a long time, the songs featuring Lukas and Micah are fantastic.

          • I like it. Been listening to it today. Should have a review up soon.

        • The Dirt Drifters kick ass! I’d definitely recommend checking out their album This Is My Blood!

  • I try to stress this to my friends all the time! I always try to sneak in a few songs from my kinds of artists at parties or on road trips and it never fails to raise eyebrows and prompt people to ask me “who sings that?! I love it!!” If nobody spreads the word, these ‘do as we’re told’ kind of people will never find the good music on their own!

    • It’s not realistic to think you can take a Jason Aldean fan and transition them immediately to The Boomswagglers and The Goddamn Gallows. You first have to get them to understand there’s a whole other world of music out there, and that it’s OK to question what they’re being fed. Albums like the two I mentioned above, bands like the Turnpike Troubadours and Hellbound Glory, this is music that can open people up to a more fulfilling music experience.

      • It’s definitely a slow transition. To be able to get into artists like Carrie Nation, or even J.B Beverley you need stepping stones.

      • Without a doubt it is a slow and even tedious transition. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to turn people and nudge them into trying to find music on their own. By far the hardest to convince are in fact females and I will even quote my girlfriend from just last night. “If it’s not on the radio, I dont know it.” I subsequently spent 3 hours trying to explain to her how what’s on the radio, for the most part, is not country music and showed her countless examples of authentic country from Jason Eady to The Goddamn Gallows, and even tried to introduce her to this site show she could find some of these great artists on her own. It’s a very long and uphill battle to convert these people. And even if each of us were to only turn a few people to our side of this, that we could make a fairly significant dent in the music row machine.

        • My wife is the same way. I’m slowly converting her though. I took her and a bunch of friends (who are primarily into heavy metal) to a Hellbound Glory concert and had a blast! It helped she thought Leroy was hot and it made her panties moist. But anyways… last weekend we saw Reckless Kelly and she told me she thought they were better than Zach Brown. That’s when I knew I had her! *maniacal laugh*

          • muaaaahhhahahaha

  • “Keillie Pickler fans are bellyaching now that country radio isn’t about country any more, that it has all gone pop….” – and, point made. I do believe that a few more artists like this, who can create demand, will have an impact. Really, they have the potential of doing more good for country music than the likes of Shooter.

    • Preaching to the choir and trying to earn scene points does nothing to help the music progress. I’ve had to learn that myself the hard way. We’re going to have to be pragmatic. When we see Kellie Pickler fans bitching about the state of country, we can’t look down our noses at them just because they listen to corporate music, we have to recognize that we’re brothers in arms, that they’re hungry and disenfranchised just like us. Of course there’s differences in taste, but the principle that artists should be able to make the music they want, and that when it is good, that music deserves an audience stays the same.

  • That’s an interesting and, in my mind at least, potentially valid perspective. Challenge would be in convincing grass-roots/indie type fans that it’s worth it first to slog through the muck of the majority of Music Row releases in order to find the the decent ones, and then further worthwhile to spend money supporting the very establishment which consistently murders art. The Nashville machine is about entertainers, nothing more. The fact that they’ll occasionally let an entertainer with a valid artistic side do their thing doesn’t necessarily correlate to a willingness on the suits’ part to put artists front and center if the money’s there. It could indeed work that way, which I think is your point…. but I personally am not certain that it would. One other question also pops to mind: does the fact that Kellie or Dierks do a one-off “roots” type record mean that’s where their hearts are, or is it just a different angle on Nashville’s whole look-alike strategy? Granted said strategy works on most of the country; the lemmings all think Toby Keith’s actually a bad-ass rebel dude. Having Kellie channel Miranda sorta feels like the same thing to me, and I think it’d be incumbent on Kellie or Dierks or anybody else to make tough choices and sustained efforts to showcase their souls if they really want anybody to believe them.

    That said, I’m definitely one who would bypass a Kellie Pickler album simply because it’s a Kellie Pickler album. So the one you’ve referenced here hasn’t been on my radar at all. You’ve certainly given me something to think about.

    Just not sure yet if said thinking will go much past Sun Tzu’s time-honored directive to know your enemy….that’s been about the only reason I’ve listened to any Music Row shills in quite some time.

    • That’s a great point, and that’s why I offered up the problem here but no real solution. I can’t argue with someone that says they refuse to listen to anything from American Idol or Music Row because that’s the camp I come from. But in my effort to know my enemy, I’ve found a few (very few) gems whose success or failure could effect things on a very large scale.

      I guess it’s up to people like me to go slogging through the muck of Music Row releases to let people know when there is something worth hearing. And even then, as has been evidenced by Kellie Pickler’s album, I still meet very stiff resistence, resistance I find hard to argue with.

      This is a difficult problem. I also think it is very important.

  • this comment isn’t meant to change anyone’s mind, just thought it was worth noting that in each of dierks bentley’s other albums there is at least one song with people like allison krauss, del mccoury, ronnie mccoury and the grascals. his singles don’t necessarily represent his full body of work. always enjoy reading these entries and the comments. always thought provoking.

    • And there’s usually one or two songs on most Music Row albums that if you took them out of the context of the rest of the album or the stigma some might have for the artist, they would be pretty good as well. Without question, Dierks does not belong lumped in with the standard fare of Nashville country.

  • Problem is that as much as we rip mainstreamers for not branching out to the “real” artists, there are plenty of undergrounders that simply won’t open up to anything out of Nashville just cause it is out of Nashville or with a big record label behind it. Seriously, how many heated debates are there on hear about Jamey Johnson??? Your deaf if you don’t think he is the real mccoy, doing it the real old school way. Enough about Johnson.

    Kellie and Dierks made good albums with their recent “one off” projects, and they say it is more closely who they really are, but we are skeptical, forgetting that they still have a record deal they have to fufill. So maybe they aren’t free to be all they can be just yet.
    Hank3 had a record deal to fufill and he is our savior because he what??? bucked the system? No, he fufilled his record deal, bitching about it the whole way.

    It is such a double standard and it is the reason that a lot of “undergrounders” are usually fighting the wrong fight.

    You don’t have turn into a Pickler fan, but when she puts out something that is true and real, support it, don’t nit pick it apart because it is from music row.

    If it is a conjured up label scheme, who cares…. it is better music then the bubble gum country or the rap/dirt road laundry list put out by the Aldean’s of the world. If the labels are trying this new formula out, and it is a better formula to maybe open doors for the Hellbound Glory’s and the Whitey Morgan’s of the world, support it. Don’t bash it.

  • I never paid any attention to Kellie Pickler before this, but I felt obligated to give her album a listen because I think artists who take these kinds of risks should be rewarded. It didn’t wow me, but it was still a solid album. Good on her for doing what she wanted.

    Since this is an album post, I feel (not at all) justified in going completely off-topic and saying Chelle Rose’s new album is AMAAAAAZING and everyone should listen to it.

  • makes me sad that pickler will probably have to go back to singing about red heels and big bar hair on her next album.

    trig- is there any chance youll ever try to redo that caitlin rose interview you lost? sounded like it was gonna be interesting.

    • Oh gosh, don’t remind me of that. In the immortal words of Butthead, losing that interview “sucked worse than anything else has ever sucked before.” I will probably try to interview her next time we cross paths, but it still won’t be THAT interview.

      I really liked her new video for Piledriver Waltz.

    • That interview was originally posted in the local Pittsburg paper earlier this month and I linked to it in the news stream and on Twitter and such, then I noticed it had resurfaced today in a number of places. I was trying to figure out how to segway this story into talking about it, but it felt forced.

      I say good on Vince Gill for speaking up. The quote about the fart ringtone is priceless.

  • great article…. definitely agree we need to support these artists, even though their past music and projects are exactly what we despise. In order for these albums to be “really country” and get radio play, along with sales, they have to be GREAT. Bentley’s and Pickler’s albums were both good, but hit or miss really. Even Johnson’s “The Guitar Song” was good but not great….”That Lonesome Song” was a different story though, that was the best country music album in the last 10 years and did creat a buzz in Nashville.

  • Skylar Laine is completely full of shit, my girlfriend makes me sit down and watch Idol with her and Skylar mentioned that Carrie Underwood is her hero or some shit. Not to mention she sounds identical to every other female in mainstream country. Not sure what her idea of pop country is but apparently Carrie Underwood doesn’t qualify.

    • There’s a very real possibility that Skylar’s definition of “real country” and our definition are two completely different things.

  • There’s a few laws in the universe that are worth paying attention to, like the second law of thermodynamics. The best law of cultural criticism I’ve ever run into is Sturgeon’s Law, named after the late science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon. Sturgeons Law states that ninety percent of everything is shit. Were Sturgeon alive today, I suspect he would adjust the pecentage to ninety-nine, but the basic law holds true.

    Probably ninety nine percent of what comes out of Nashville is pure crap. You get to decide if you want to put on the hip waders (full coverage body suit?) and wade through that ninety nine for the one percent of pure gold, or at least tarnished brass. I don’t know, my waders wore out a long time ago and now I just toss in a line and dredge now and then. My favorite country example of this is George Jones’ countypolitan stuff (the Billy Sherrill sides). Ordinally, I couldn’t stand this sort of stuff, but George pulls it off like no one else ever could, and the result is some really great music that tosses your critical sense off kilter. Another great example is Johnny Guitar Watson’s disco stuff (“You Can Stay But the Noise Got to Go” indeed).

    I’d agree on the Johnson album, BTW. It was the last really good Nashville thing I heard, though I’ll admit I no longer dredge all that hard.

    I’m not certain we can affect radio that much, it’s become a hidebound and decaying format, trapped by formula after formula. I can’t recall the last time I listened to the radio to find new music (the eighties?). I do it mostly by reading these days. So thanks again for the blog.

  • How would Kelly Pickler do on the MuddyRootsFestival-stage?

    • That’s a very good and interesting question.

      Let’s be honest, it would never happen. If it did, I would like to think the crowd would be open-minded enough, and Kellie’s music rootsy and engaging enough that it would work. But in truth, there would probably be a smallish, but decent and curious crowd in front of her stage, while the slight majority of folks were on the other side of the grounds watching Reverend Deadeye.

  • Ugh,I just clicked on Skylars twitter page and her profile says: “God bless Outlaws like me! #gunsandammo My fans are called SKOUTLAWS”

    She will be pegged as the female Jason Aldean/Justin Moore and millions will be made.

    • did anybody else notice she looks surprisingly like Kelly Clarkson? Kind of a hint don’t yall think?

    • I don’t know which one is worse, the fact that she’s trying to become an Outlaw, or that she self-appointed her fans a nickname in total disregard of the law that real nicknames should happen organically.

      When she said “guns and stuff” to The Boot, I knew that couldn’t be good.

      She’ll probably sell a million records.

      • I already pre-ordered her album! Can’t wait!

      • I thought Skylar Laine would sell a million too, and that it would be down right country. But no, she has been forgotten. I still believe she can be what we all need in the country industry. A fresh face and sound that says “Fuck you pop country!” When it’s a bunch of guys saying it i.e. Hank III, the voice isn’t heard. But Skylar is new and young but needs direction. I would hate to see her go down Music Row way and end up like another Taylor Swift. Because her voice is such an imposing country voice that deserves and needs to be heard. I hope you can do a follow up on Skylar Triggerman because I cannot sit back and watch a possible future for true country for the next generation be forgotten.

Leave a comment

Del Maguey
Old Soul Radio Show
Hillgrass Bluebilly
Best Of Lists