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Saving Country Music has been sounding the warning bell that the big story of 2014 will be the formation of two gargantuan media companies that will absolutely dominate the country music landscape and encapsulate everything from radio, television, print and online media, and social network channels. The Country Music Media Arms Race is being fought by the two biggest radio station owners in the United States: Clear Channel and Cumulus, and during this week’s Country Radio Seminar, we are starting to get some of the specific details of the plans these future massive media companies have, and to say their plans are expansive is an understatement.
Cumulus Media is #2 on the radio ownership totem pole, and to attempt to hopscotch their rival Clear Channel, they are planning massive expenditures, acquisitions, and ventures to push the recognition of their big country music brand: “NASH”. NASH and NASH-FM is the brand of Cumulus’s 70+ station syndicated Top 40 pop country network. We already knew that Cumulus had recently acquired a 50-percent interest in the 17-year-old, 500,000+ circulated Country Weekly magazine to re-brand it as NASH. Now in some recent reports, the beans are being spilled about the extent of just how far Cumulus is hoping to push the NASH brand.
Some of their plans are obvious. Since their rival Clear Channel has now partnered with CMT, Cumulus and NASH are looking for their own television partner, potentially Great American Country or GAC, or re-branding the Destination America and American Heroes cable channels owned by Discovery Communications. Also, after Clear Channel’s streaming service iHeartRadio announced a country music festival in Austin, Cumulus and the NASH brand are looking into doing a festival and/or concert series, as well as a radio-based award show with Dick Clark Productions—the same production company behind the Academy of Country Music Awards, or ACM’s.
But the Cumulus plans go even further than that. Here is a run down of some of the things Cumulus has planned for their pop country NASH brand:
In the vein of Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill chain, or Rascal Flatts’ recently-announced plans for a chain restaurant, NASH wants to open a fleet a family-friendly fern bars to help establish their brand in certain important markets and locations. You could enjoy some Taylor Swift fried cheese, or a Brantley Gilbert blooming onion.
Yes, you read that right. Apparently NASH wants to get into the home improvement game. This move isn’t unprecedented. Big corporate brands such as Martha Stewart and Ralph Lauren have dipped their stir stick into the pain business to help solidify their corporate brands in the past, but a radio network? How about a nice Tim McGraw taupe to spruce up that breakfast nook?
Again, not completely unprecedented since you have big artists like Jason Aldean enjoying a big endorsement deal from Wrangler, and Taylor Swift peddling Keds. Some artists also have their own specific clothing lines. Country music and popular culture is a very visual medium, and being able to sell consumers similar clothing to what they see their favorite artists wearing is shrewd business.
Maybe the strangest of the ideas Cumulus is looking into, the company apparently wants to leave no stone unturned, and wants to bring the NASH brand right into people’s homes so they won’t forget who to consume their country music through; a little hard to do when you’re watching NASH TV from your Carrie Underwood signature NASH microfiber couch, muching on NASH leftovers from the night before in a room painted in your favorite NASH colors.
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Cumulus and their NASH brand is out for nothing short of absolute cultural immersion, with the vehicle being the widespread and growing appeal of popular country music. Pop country is seen as very safe and marketable because of its well-liked and clean image. And if Cumulus has its way with NASH, it will become one of the most recognized brands in the United States in the coming years.
Your move, Clear Channel.
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On February 5th, Saving Country Music posted an article detailing why Valory Music Group artist Justin Moore should be disqualified from the ACM Award’s “New Artist of the Year” category for which he is nominated along with seven others. Stipulated clearly in the Academy of Country Music’s rules, artists who’ve sold over 500,000 copies of any previously-released album are not eligible for the “new artist” award. Justin Moore has two such albums: Justin Moore from 2009 with 550,000 copies sold, and Outlaws Like Me from 2011 with 577,000 copies sold.
Saving Country Music was first tipped to this oversight of the rules by Windmills Country on Twitter, who on February 5th appeared on Connecticut Country 92.5′s “Electric Barnyard” radio show to discuss the rules oversight. What happened next was an acknowledgement by Justin Moore’s label Valory Music—an imprint of Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Records—of the apparent rules violation, and apparently an effort to suppress that information. This leads to further questions of why the Academy of Country Music continues to not address this issue, and other potential improprieties clouding the ACM nomination process.
After Country 92.5 posted the audio of Windmills Country’s appearance on the station’s website, they were contacted by The Valory Music Group and asked to take the audio down as can be seen in this Twitter thread.
So the next question is, “Why?”
Accusations of block voting, vote swapping, and other behind-the-scenes gaming of the Academy of Country Music nomination and voting process have been around for years. In 2011, country radio personality Jimmy Carter spoke specifically on how labels decide which artists they want to push through the ACM’s, saying:
It’s crazy political. . . You have to just say, “OK, these awards are what they are. They’re bragging rights, they’re an infomercial for the record label.” And like I was told off the record yesterday…that Miranda Lambert got all those nominations because the record label had to decide. Are they going with Carrie Underwood this year, or Miranda Lambert? Both are on the same label. They figured it would help Miranda more than it would help the career of Carrie Underwood.
Once again Miranda Lambert leads the 2014 ACM nominations with seven, despite not having released an album in over 2 years. But the Justin Moore eligibility issue specifically might be the first time a label and/or the Academy of Country Music have been caught red-handed showing favoritism to a particular artist; the first concrete evidence of impropriety in the nomination and voting process of one of the industry’s biggest awards.
Valory Music and the ACM’s may hope that this issue just blows over, but the removal of the Windmills Country audio has arguably exacerbated it, and fed the suspicion some country fans have surrounding the awards process. If there is an explanation for the discrepancy between Justin Moore’s eligibility and his nomination, the fans of country music have yet to hear it. And if there is no explanation, the Academy of Country Music and its label partners are allowing the legitimacy of these awards to be called into question.
The eligibility rules for the awards are written by the Academy of Country Music, and there’s no reason they cannot change them if they see fit. If the ACM wanted to nominate Justin Moore for the 2014 awards cycle, they could have written out the 500,000 copy provision, or increased the amount of copies in the rule for Justin Moore to maintain his eligibility. Furthermore, the Academy of Country Music has a history of doing this very thing. In 2009, the ACM’s reduced the amount of copies an artist must sell to be eligible for the Album of the Year category to 300,000. The reason for this was so that Jamey Johnson’s critically-acclaimed album That Lonesome Song could be included in the nominees. More importantly, the ACM’s also delayed the announcement of the Album of the Year nominees that year while they finalized the rule change, making sure they did not violate their own rules by announcing their nominees too early.
Out of the respective entities in this issue, Justin Moore might be the least culpable. As he said in November of last year, his exclusion from award shows up until this nomination, including not being asked as a performer or even a presenter, has been quite curious when compared to his overall commercial impact in the genre. At the same time, his exclusion speaks to the collusive nature of country music’s top awards, and the narrow cast of names country’s awards continually draw from.
As unfair as it might be that Justin Moore has been excluded from the awards show process, as Windmills Country points out in their own article on the subject, it is even more unfair to the truly “new” artists that got excluded from this year’s nominee list because of the inclusion of established artists like Justin Moore and Lee Brice. The issue is especially exacerbated because of all the concern with country music’s inability to develop new female talent. Only one female artist, Kacey Musgraves, is included in the category, as the lack of female representation in country music has been making major periodical headlines left and right.
If the Academy of Country Music wants to keep a level of integrity around their awards and the process of determining nominees and winners, this Justin Moore eligibility issue must be addressed in a public manner. If there is an explanation, if a rule change needs to be made, then make it. Until then, it is fair, if not imperative on the country music community to question the legitimacy of the ACM’s nomination and voting process, and thus, the awards themselves.
So we haven’t even had time since the 56th Grammy Awards to sort out if Madonna had the authority to preside over a mass wedding, or if Pharrell’s hat was indeed copyright infringement against the Arby’s logo, and here only a few days later we’re asked to crunch a fresh batch of data dealing with the nominees for the 2014 ACM Awards on April 6th. There really should be some sort of mandate that the bad taste in your mouth and the horror of one awards show should have long subsided before you have to interface in any way with the next one, but apparently this would have been the case if The Grammys hadn’t been moved up this year because of the Winter Olympics.
Already the ACM nominees have many rolling their eyes and crying foul for various reasons. But folks, don’t ingratiate the Academy of Country Music beyond its value by acting like these awards matter to a greater degree than they actually do. Sure, the presence of the CMT Awards, and now FOX’s ACA Awards have somewhat risen the ACM’s out of the country music award show basement, but they will always be the baby brother of the CMA’s, and will be beset by ridiculous backroom label politics resulting in the anomalies to downright ridiculous notions that some of this year’s nominees represent. Nonetheless, a nomination and win will mean more attention and revenue for a respective label and artist, so it is not fair to discount the matter completely.
Tim McGraw and Miranda Lambert landed the most nominations with 7, and this is where the sideways glances begin. Miranda, though undoubtedly enjoying great success, hasn’t even release an album in over two years. Tim, undoubtedly doing everything he can aside from posing nude or releasing a sex tape to get the public’s attention after years of being saddled by Curb Records, certainly deserves some attention, but like Miranda, is likely being padded behind-the-scenes by a powerful label.
Once again George Strait is up for Entertainer of the Year, gut-checking the ACM constituency into potentially registering a sympathy vote and certainly making this category a subject of great intrigue instead of a forgone conclusion. And the laugh out loud moment is the nomination of Sheryl Crow for Female Vocalist of the Year—the same 5th slot the ACM’s have been stretching to fill for a few years now, with Kelly Clarkson, and Kacey Musgraves before she had even released an album being the other recent anomalies.
Things can change, news can break, and artists can have big months between here and now, but here are some early picks and observations.
Entertainer of the Year
Two horse race between last year’s winner Luke Bryan that had yet another very commercially-successful year, and the sympathy vote for King George. Miranda’s inclusion here is somewhat interesting, and there may be a sentiment out there that at some point Miranda deserves an Entertainer of the Year from somewhere, but it’s hard to see that happening this year. Taylor Swift has no chance, and may not even attend the awards.
- Luke Bryan – Other Potential Winner
- Blake Shelton
- George Strait - Winner
- Taylor Swift
- Miranda Lambert
Male Vocalist of the Year
This comes down to the two hosts of the ACM Awards, Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton. Interesting to see Curb Records really pushing Lee Brice in this year’s cycle, but he doesn’t have the cred yet for this distinction. Keith Urban’s influence died off years ago, and Average Joe’s cash cow Jason Aldean’s Night Train just didn’t have the kind of wide impact My Kinda Party did.
- Jason Aldean
- Lee Brice
- Luke Bryan – Winner
- Blake Shelton – Other Potential Winner
- Keith Urban
Female Vocalist of the Year
This is a hard one. Of course Sheryl Crow has no chance, and Taylor likely doesn’t either. Carrie seems like a long shot, and always seems to be underdogged by the ACM’s. Kacey Musgraves has received love from the ACM’s early and often, and if she can make a splash between here and now on the radio, she might have an outside chance. But it’s all setting up to be Miranda’s night.
- Sheryl Crow
- Miranda Lambert – Winner
- Kacey Musgraves
- Taylor Swift
- Carrie Underwood
Single Record of the Year
- Florida Georgia Line – “Cruise” – Winner
- Lee Brice – “I Drive Your Truck”
- Miranda Lambert – “Mama’s Broken Heart”
- Darius Rucker – “Wagon Wheel”
Album of the Year
Man. This is a completely wide open field, and I have no confidence picking any one of these over the others. Obviously Kacey Musgraves would be the critical favorite. Blake Shelton also has to be considered a favorite since he won the CMA in the same category. It might be a little early for Florida Georgia Line to win an award like this, but it’s hard to argue with that album’s performance. And the ACM’s seem to love Luke, so he can’t be ruled out. Tim McGraw is about the only long shot.
- “Based On A True Story…” – Blake Shelton
- “Crash My Party” – Luke Bryan
- “Here’s To The Good Times” – Florida Georgia Line
- “Same Trailer Different Park” – Kacey Musgraves
- “Two Lanes Of Freedom” – Tim McGraw
Song of the Year
We’ve seen “Mama’s Broken Heart” listed in the category for many of the year’s awards, but does it really have the kind of depth of a typical Song of the Year? “Wagon Wheel” doesn’t really either, but can’t be ruled out. Interesting to see Gary Allan get a mention here.
- “Every Storm (Runs Out Of Rain)” – Gary Allan Songwriters: Gary Allan, Hillary Lindsey, Matthew Warren
- “I Drive Your Truck” – Lee Brice Songwriters: Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, Jimmy Yeary – Winner
- “Mama’s Broken Heart” – Miranda Lambert Songwriters: Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves
- “Mine Would Be You” – Blake Shelton Songwriters: Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, Deric Ruttan
- “Wagon Wheel” – Darius Rucker Featuring Lady Antebellum Songwriters: Bob Dylan, Ketch Secor – Other Potential Winner
Vocal Event of the Year
Were the contributions of Lady Antebellum to “Wagon Wheel” and The Pistol Annies to “Boys ‘Round Here” significant enough to consider them true vocal events? “Cruise” is the obvious commercial winner, but voters may shy away from the cross-genre collaboration.
- “Boys ‘Round Here” – Blake Shelton Featuring The Pistol Annies
- “Cruise” (Remix) – Florida Georgia Line Featuring Nelly
- “Highway Don’t Care: – Tim McGraw Featuring Taylor Swift & Keith Urban – Winner
- “Wagon Wheel” – Darius Rucker Featuring Lady Antebellum
- “We Were Us” – Keith Urban And Miranda Lambert
Vocal Duo of the Year
I write about country music for a living, and this is the very first time I have ever heard of “Dan + Shay”. Previewing their music, hopefully I never have to hear from them again. Joey + Rory would have been the better pick.
- Big & Rich
- Dan + Shay
- Florida Georgia Line – Winner
- Love and Theft
- Thompson Square
Songwriter of the Year
Shane McAnally is who deserves it. Rhett Atkins would be the commercial pick. Luke Laird also likely has an outside chance.
- Rhett Akins – Other Potential Winner
- Rodney Clawson
- Ashley Gorley
- Luke Laird
- Shane McAnally – Winner
Vocal Group of the Year
- Eli Young Band
- Lady Antebellum
- Little Big Town
- The Band Perry
- Zac Brown Band
Video of the Year
- “Better Dig Two” – The Band Perry Producer
- “Blowin’ Smoke” – Kacey Musgraves Producer
- “Highway Don’t Care” – Tim McGraw Featuring Taylor Swift & Keith Urban
- “I Drive Your Truck” – Lee Brice Producer: Karen Martin Director: Eric Welch
- “Mama’s Broken Heart” – Miranda Lambert
- “Two Black Cadillacs” – Carrie Underwood
Today it was announced that Austin, TX would be the site for iHeartRadio’s first ever dedicated country music festival, transpiring at Austin’s Frank Erwin Center on March 29th, with a list of top tier headliner talent including Eric Church, Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line, Lady Antebellum, Carrie Underwood, Jake Owen, Hunter Hayes, and others to be announced. iHeart is the online radio streaming arm of American radio monolith Clear Channel, and rising Clear Channel “country” personality Bobby Bones, who got his Clear Channel start on Austin’s pop station, will serve as host.
There is so much that is ill-conceived about this, I’m not sure where to start. iHeart has been throwing “festivals” for a while now, but their traditional home has been Las Vegas. Clearly iHeart wanted to find an alternative to the obvious selection of Nashville, where they would have to compete with much more well-established country events clogging the civic calendar. But throwing a corporate country event in Austin, especially at that time of the year will be about as popular in Austin as running over a bicyclist in your Hummer.
About all this festival will be good for when it comes to the Austin populous will be as a curiosity for hipsters to oogle at through their Sally Jessy Raphael glasses as they ride their fixie bikes past the spectacle, sipping on raw food smoothies on their way to brainstorming sessions devising ways to defund Monsanto by setting up micro loans to African women and targeted eco-terrorism strikes.
The general Austin, TX population has so little interest in this iHeartRadio lineup, it’s laughable that iHeart can’t even be perceptive enough to add even one or two local names to help dull the pain of such an obviously imported corporate country bill. Kudos to whoever in the local Austin government conned iHeart into thinking that Austin’s east downtown corridor is a destination spot for people who are willing to travel hundreds of miles to hear Jason Aldean sing “1994.” Instead of the garish finery of the Las Vegas strip, Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line fans can look forward to legions of homeless peddlers clogging their walking path, an army of construction cranes piercing the skyline in their headlong effort to erect an empire of prefabricated McCondo monstrosities, the 3rd worst traffic snarl in the United States of America, and crumbling fair trade coffee shops oozing with unbathed, deadlocked career students preaching that 9/11 was a conspiracy.
The worst part about iHeartRadio’s country festival might be the timing. Despite whatever best efforts they implement in regards to promotion, locally the event will be dwarfed by South by Southwest the week before, boasting thousands of free concerts, showcasing both local and independent talent, and big national names. South by Southwest is arguably one of the biggest music festivals in the entire world in regards to breadth and the amount of performances that transpire all across Austin over a 5 day period.
And don’t forget that Rodeo Austin also happens the week before, and is featuring its own lineup of big names, including Loretta Lynn, Dustin Lynch, Thompson Square, Chris Young, Josh Turner, Willie Nelson, Eli Young Band, Lee Brice, Scotty McCreery, and Dwight Yoakam. There’s already legions of Austinites that provision up when March comes and never leave the homes because of the nightmare South by Southwest and Rodeo Austin bring to their fair city. The idea that they’ll peek their head out and head downtown just because Hunter Hayes is finally making his way to Austin is quite ripe.
So will the iHeartRadio Country Festival be a colossal failure? Of course not, because they have the backing of the biggest corporate country network in the world to help promote it. Pliable corporate country music fans from all across the country will be more than happy to burn vacation time to see their favorite Budweiser and designer jeans sponsors in one place, edifying them with the finest of Music Row’s formulaic pap filtered through Auto-tuners.
Stock up on cans of Axe Body Spray and rape kits Austin, you’ll need ‘em.
Kellie Pickler’s 2012 album 100 Proof was like its own little country music revolution. Emanating from the unholy bowels of Sony Music Nashville, the album demonstrated Kellie snatching back creative control from the jaws of corporate music America to make the kind of record she wanted. The result was a critically-acclaimed, traditional, yet boldly forward and assertive offering that eventually landed on the tip of many music writer’s pens as the project that stood above all others in country music in 2012.
This also set the table for Kellie Pickler’s 2013 offering The Woman I Am to be one of the most anticipated releases this year. After Sony fumbled every opportunity to make 100 Proof the blockbuster it could have been in a gross example of boardroom malfeasance fit for a theme from ABC’s drama Nashville, Kellie and Sony Nashville separated, and she saddled up with the much smaller, but certainly capable and established Black River Entertainment for this new effort, far away from the trappings of her famous American Idol past, and much closer in inspiration and approach to the Outlaw legacy of country music than anyone could have ever anticipated from an American Idol alum.
Kellie, willing to focus less on the commercial flop of 100 Proof and more on its critical success, kept much of the same personnel and approach in place for The Woman I Am, including the same producer Frank Liddell. Similar to 100 Proof, The Woman I Am at times speaks very deeply from Pickler’s personal narrative. The opening track “A Little Bit Gypsy” starts the album out very strong, and similar to many of the songs on 100 Proof, it stays out of the well-worn ruts of easily-anticipated chord changes, instilling spice in the music and engaging the listener.
But as your tingling spider sense may have been telling you as you read the previous paragraph, there is a “but.” And the “but” is that a decent amount of the songwriting on The Woman I Am just doesn’t hold up to the standards Kellie Pickler set on her last record.
To start off, despite what the title of the album might infer, Kellie Pickler’s songwriting voice is somewhat buried on this project. Compared to 100 Proof where Kellie wrote or co-wrote 6 of the songs, including some of the album’s standout tracks, Kellie only has 3 co-writes on this one. What we get instead is a heavy dose of her husband, songwriter Kyle Jacobs. Overall the songwriting on The Woman I Am takes more of a professional, Nashville approach, instead of the personal one of the previous album, leaving behind that unique, signature, unpredictable flavor that made Kellie Pickler and 100 Proof such a high watermark.
Though it is the men of mainstream country music that receive the brunt of the criticism for using the same lyrical themes over and over, the women aren’t completely innocent from following songwriting formulas and falling back on crutch phrases. These revenge and “girl gone crazy” songs perpetuated by artists like Miranda Lambert, The Pistol Annies, and even Carrie Underwood where the heroine is getting back at the bad boyfriend by kicking ass and lighting stuff of fire may not be as tired as the tailgate songs, but we’re starting to get close. The Woman I Am has a couple of these songs, including the Chris Stapleton-written second track, surely slated for a single called “Ring For Sale,” and the three snaps in a ‘Z’ formation aspect of “No Cure For Crazy.” These songs are simply meant to convey attitude, and give female listeners the same dose of escapism a hellraisin’ mud song does for their male counterparts.
The Woman I Am just seems safe, like in the predictability of the songs “Closer To Nowhere” and “Bonnie and Clyde,” and though this may translate into commercial acceptance, it leaves the distinguished country music listener a little wanting. With 100 Proof the production was an excellent balance between traditional and progressive. The Woman I Am‘s production would probably be best described with a few exceptions as simply “mainstream safe.”
But it may not be fair to keep comparing The Woman I Am to 100 Proof, and the production may be more of a symptom of what the songwriters were giving Kellie and producer Frank Liddell to work with; not affording them those cool chord changes or unique themes that allow for a deeper exploration of sonic parameters, nor the inspiration from a truly original story.
Simply put, I wanted more Kellie Pickler on this album.
At the same time, The Woman I Am certainly has its moments, and starts and finishes off strong. “Little Bit Gypsy” and its progressive chord play harkens back to what made 100 Proof so cool. “Selma Drye” about Kellie Pickler’s great grandmother shows just how engaging Kellie Pickler can be when she gets deeply personal, and the songs is bolstered by a very fun, yet traditional and acoustic-driven approach. Though some of the lines of “I Forgive You” and “Where Did Your Love Go” are a little too saccharine for the deep message the songs try to convey, the messages prevail, making for standout songs. And though “Someone, Somewhere Tonight” seemed like a very curious pick for a lead single, it embodies a lot of depth and substance, and showcases Picker’s vocal strengths perfectly. Despite some of the weakness of the song matter, Kellie’s vocal performances are sensational throughout The Woman I Am.
Though The Woman I Am sort of dashes any hopes for Kellie Pickler as an artist that could crash the Music Row party from the inside out and foster a new spring of substance and roots in mainstream country music, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some good songs, and good music here. “Kellie Country” is still much better than mainstream country, and though it may be a stretch to label her an Outlaw, she is certainly a rebel, and continues to be a refreshing choice.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
Country music in the second half of 2013 is going through some of the most historic changes the format has ever seen, with hip-hop influenced songs, albums, and artists dominating the charts, female artists being excluded like never before, and a litany of songs with laundry list lyrics or that are purposely written to be stupid garnering the lion’s share of attention. The ever-present erosion of what the term “country” defines has never been greater, and the charge of preserving the roots of country music has never been more dire.
As a symptom of all the change and upheaval, big-time artists are speaking out about the direction of country music like never before. We’re not talking about the usual suspects of country criticism like Dale Watson and friends, we’re talking about artists at the very top of the mainstream country food chain. Over the last three months, an average of 3 artists per month have spoken out about the direction of country—an overwhelming number when you consider these bouts of outspokeness would usually happen only a few times a year. And there’s no reason to believe this trend won’t continue.
So below we have aggregated a timeline of some of the music world’s top artists speaking out against the direction of country. In all likelihood, this timeline will continue to grow.
Speaking to American Songwriter, Kacey Musgraves said:
“My voice is undeniably country, and I love country. Do I love what it’s turned into? No, not all the way. It’s a little embarrassing when people outside of the genre ask what I sing and I say country. You automatically get a negative response, a cheese factor. My favorite compliment ever is when someone says, ‘I hate country music but I love your music.’”
During an in interview with Rolling Stone, Tom Petty said:
“Well, yeah I mean, I hate to generalize on a whole genre of music, but it does seem to be missing that magic element that it used to have. I’m sure there are people playing country that are doing it well, but they’re just not getting the attention that the shittier stuff gets. But that’s the way it always is, isn’t it?
But I hope that kind of swings around back to where it should be. But I don’t really see a George Jones or a Buck Owens or any anything that fresh coming up. I’m sure there must be somebody doing it, but most of that music reminds me of rock in the middle Eighties where it became incredibly generic and relied on videos. I don’t want to rail on about country because I don’t really know much about it, but that’s what it seems like to me.”
When asked by GQ what music trend needed to die out immediately, Kacey Musgraves said:
“Anyone singing about trucks, in any form, in any song, anywhere. Literally just stop – nobody cares! It’s not fun to listen to. I thought dubstep was cool for two seconds - but that can go away now too. It sounds like a malfunction of some kind.”
Kacey also said when asked what the best-dressed men in Nashville are wearing these days, “Nothing by Affliction. Just burn the warehouse down. It’s just douchey and really gaudy.”
While speaking with Reuters, Sheryl Crow, who just made a move to the country format and released a country album called Feels Like Home, said about her country move:
“The country format is more pop than pop was when I came up two decades ago,”
In an interview with The Baltimore Sun, Alan Jackson said:
“Right now, it seems like it’s gone. It’s not that I’m against all that’s out there. There’s some good music, good songwriting and good artists out there, but there’s really no country stuff left. It’s always been that constant pop-country battle. I don’t think it’s ever going to change. What makes me sad today is that I think the real country, real roots-y traditional stuff, may be gone. I don’t know if it’ll ever be back on mainstream radio. You can’t get it played anymore.”
During an interview with Larry King, Gary Allan was asked if Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood were country, and he said:
“You know, I would say no. I would say they’re pop artists making a living in the country genre. I also feel like we lost our genre. I don’t feel like I make music for a genre anymore, and I did, you know, 15 years ago. But I think since the Clear Channel’s and the Cumulus’s and the big companies bought up all the chains, now it’s about a demographic. You know, so they’ve kind of sliced everything up, feeding it to the public in demographics.
“Like if you want to get to the young kids, you put it on the alternative station. We’ve sort of ended up in this…we’re nicknamed the soccer mom, like 35 to 45 year-old woman I think is what our demographic is. So it’s very different. You used to be able to turn on the radio and you knew instantly it was the country station just by listening to it, and now you’ve got to leave it there for a second to figure it out…. To me, country music is still Monday through Friday, and pop’s about what happens on the weekends.”
Gary Allan later clarified his statements, saying his words were taken out of context, and that he appreciated country radio and everything it had done for his career.
When speaking to Barbara Beam of 93.7 JR FM in Vancouver, Canada, Zac Brown said:
“I love Luke Bryan and he’s had some great songs, but this new song is the worst song I’ve ever heard. I know Luke, he’s a friend. ‘My Kind Of Night’ is one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard. I see it being commercially successful, in what is called country music these days, but I also feel like that the people deserve something better than that. Country fans and country listeners deserve to have something better than that, a song that really has something to say, something that makes you feel something. Good music makes you feel something. When songs make me wanna throw up, it makes me ashamed to even be in the same genre as those songs.
“If I hear one more tailgate in the moonlight, daisy duke song, I’m gonna throw up. There’s songs out there on the radio right now that make me be ashamed to be even in the same format as some other artists. You can look and see some of the same songwriters on every one of the songs. There’s been like 10 number one songs in the last two or three years that were written by the same people and it’s the exact same words, just arranged different ways.”
When speaking to “The Barnyard Show” on 92.5 in Connecticut about why there is so few women on the country music charts, Sheryl Crow said:
“I do think that in the last ten, fifteen years art has gone the way of commerce. Whenever there’s money involved, then you figure out what’s going to bring in sponsors, and what’s going to resonate with people and what’s going to sell records….I’d love to see that change.”
When talking to Rolling Stone about his new album, Jake Owen said:
“We need more songs than just songs about tailgates and fuckin’ cups and Bacardi and stuff like that. We need songs that get ourselves back to the format that made me love it . . . [like] when guys like Randy Travis released songs like ‘He Walked on Water’ – songs that meant something, man!”
When speaking to Country Weekly about country rap, Toby Keith said:
“You hear the hip-hop thing start kicking in, and you start going, ‘Is that what we gotta do now to have a hit?’ I don’t know how to do that. Is that what I need every one of my songs to sound like now?…You start playing [deep songs] to a twenty-something audience, and it’s like, ‘Naw, man, there ain’t no mud on that tire. That ain’t about a Budweiser can. That ain’t about a chicken dancing out by the river. That ain’t about smoking a joint by the haystack. That’s about somebody dying and sh-t.’”
I remember back in the early 90′s, someone told me they had done a complete archival scan of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body using lasers, so that even in the future he could star in action movies. I’m not sure if that was an urban myth or not, and certainly the technology to pull off something like that would be in much better order today than when Arnold was starring in Terminator 2. But whatever the technology was then, and whatever it is now, they really should employ it and in full measure towards making sure the sound of Willie Nelson’s voice, and that earthy tone of his guitar Trigger never disappear from the face of the earth. Because few things can make that warm feeling roll over you from head to toe like Willie.
To All The Girls is Willie Nelson’s third album to come from his recent partnership with Sony’s Legacy Recordings, and the second to come out this year. The record features an ample 18 tracks, each constituting a duet with a female counterpart drawing from a wide swath of talent that includes both legacy names like Loretta Lynn and Emmylou Harris, and some new names like The Secret Sisters and Brandi Carlile. The pairings alone are enough to make the country music listener salivate, while the variety of names passively bridges tastes and segments residing under country music’s big tent.
Though Willie Nelson doesn’t make the easiest duet partner because of the unusual phrasings he uses—a trait that over the years has become his signature (and continuously more pronounced)—Willie, each of his dance partners, and producer Buddy Cannon do a good job arranging the singing parts to where Willie could still call on his avant-garde phrasings, yet the duet could come across seamless. The vocal performances are superb, and the 18 ladies on To All The Girls illustrate just how much female talent country music boasts, regardless of how rarely their names may show up on the top of the country charts these days.
But despite the names and the commendable performances, To All The Girls is a somewhat sleepy as a whole. This may seem unconscionable to say with so much star power, but out of the 18 songs, only 2 could be characterized as residing in the mid tempo, and only two as up tempo. The rest are slow to very slow, and sparse, and though no one song could be singled out as being a snoozer, taken all together they can become the sonic equivalent of Unisom. Even the most up tempo track, the re-cut of Willie’s “Bloody Mary Morning” with Wynonna Judd features some amazingly hot guitar, steel, and piano solos, but they get somewhat buried in the mix almost as to not be an interruption.
There isn’t really a lot of texture or spice between the tracks, except for maybe the Spanish feel of “No Mas Amor” with Alison Krauss, or the Motown feel of the duet with Mavis Staples, “Grandma’s Hands.” Maybe this album was built more for the digital age to be cherry picked by respective fans of the guest artists instead of trying to take it as a whole, but by the end you wish this album could have been condensed into fewer tracks so it would result in some more memorable moments.
Did we really need 18 songs? Any time you can pair Willie Nelson with Dolly Parton, magic will happen. The songs are not the problem, though there are quite a few recognizable covers. It’s that the instrumentation that varies very little. I know, the music varies very little on Red Headed Stranger as well, but this album isn’t trying to take a conceptualized approach.
Willie Nelson started off his new deal with Sony utilizing producer Buddy Cannon on the album Heroes, which really showed a lot of vitality from the Willie camp, and was arguably one of his best albums in years. But one small thing that saddled the album as I explained in my review was the excessive collaborations that made the album feel a little too busy. Another Buddy Cannon-produced album, Jamey Johnson’s Living For A Song, A Tribute to Hank Cochran, drew a similar observation, and I even linked back to Willie’s Heroes review for context.
It ["Living For A Song"] makes the same mistake Willie Nelson’s last album Heroes does of having too many guests. And may I point out that both albums were produced by Buddy Cannon. Like I said about ”Heroes”:
Where the album may come across as too busy or unfocused is the amount of contributors to each composition, and to the album as a whole…Sure, many of these names we love, but there’s too many of them, diverting focus from any one pairing or performance.
And once again here is a Buddy Cannon-produced album that leans very heavily on collaborations and cover songs. Willie Nelson can still write and select good, original songs, and we saw that with Heroes. What I’m worried is we’re seeing an approach to sell albums creep into the album making process, loading albums up on celebrity names that can later be used in promotional copy, or maybe trying to make up for what is perceived as a lack of appeal for Willie alone. Somewhere the music may have gotten lost as the most important thing.
But that’s not to take away from any single To All The Girls song. Maybe it’s because “Always On My Mind” is such a timeless tune, but this duet with Carrie Underwood kills it. “Grandma’s Hands” with Mavis Staples carries a lot of depth and meaning, maybe because Willie was himself raised by his grandmother. The Western swinging “Till The End of the World” with Shelby Lynne was a real standout, and so was Willie’s duet with his daughter Paula Nelson singing the CCR song “Have You Ever Seen The Rain.” And though Willie may have played “Bloody Mary Morning” 10,000 times by now, this might be the recorded version that is the best.
To All The Girls is a brilliant concept. I just wish a little more care would have been taken with the type of names and star power it assembled to really try to make a new generation of Willie classics and introduce him to a new generation of listeners through the names that lent their time to the project. But as well have all learned over the nearly 60-something years of his career, when it comes to Willie, the sound of his voice and that earthy tone from Trigger is enough to raise goosebumps all on their own.
1 ½ of 2 guns up. 3 of 5 stars.
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That’s right. A scandalous accusation I know, but one I stand behind with puffed chest and other such countenance to covey, “Yeah, I said it. You got a problem with that ?!?!”, and one that holds up when taking the most basic look at our little genre known as country music, and simply asking, “Where in the hell are the women?” Especially on country radio.
No, I don’t have any hidden camera footage of country music scheming with his fraternity brother that runs HR to systemically keep the women of country music at a lower pay scale. But if country music in 2013 were the equivalent of an office worker, it would be a douche-tastic, handsy, shallow, down-looking chauvinist with triple sec on his breath after lunch that specializes in subtle pelvic thrusts during elongated, unnecessary hugs, and pubic hair jokes.
Currently on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs Chart, there is not one single female artist in the Top 20. Not even one. Not even a Taylor Swift, Miranda Lambert, or Carrie Underwood. Not even a song from a country music group like The Band Perry or Lady Antebellum that has a female member. And this isn’t the first time in recent memory that this has happened. In fact aside from the occasional errant single from one of the aforementioned girls, a country music sausage fest is the default setting for country music’s Top 20 in 2013.
A deeper look into Billboard’s other charts and Neilsen’s radio ratings reveals similar discrepancies when it comes to the female gender and country music. But it doesn’t just stop there. The term “sexism” has two definitions:
That’s right. It’s not just that the women of country music are getting locked out of the process, being ignored by radio programmers who are predominantly male, and are being under-developed by the male-dominated industry. It’s also that the songs, artists, and albums that are dominating the charts and that are being pushed first and foremost by the industry are portraying women in a very objectified, stereotypical manner, both in the lyrics of the songs and in the accompanying videos.
Hey, I’m a red blooded male with fully-functioning male plumbing and a propensity to want to look at T&A just as much as the next guy. All males were instilled with the stupid gene to drool at cleavage through evolution. But there is a time and a place for everything, and when I’m walking through the grocery store with my young, impressionable niece to buy her a freeze pop, I don’t want to be accosted by a Luke Bryan song that works like the soundtrack to a date rape terrorizing our ears. Do these assholes not have women in their lives that they hope will be respected by other men? There’s a time for all adults to get raunchy, but country radio is supposed to be that one place of respite on the FM dial. Here in 2013, Top 40 country music is just as much of a den of iniquity as anything.
Artists like Luke Bryan, Tyler Farr, and Florida Georgia Line have no respect for women, and they have no respect for country music. Or if they do, there’s no evidence of it in their songs and videos. It’s just stereotypical fashion-plate models in bikini’s in objectified roles with the sole purpose of being oogled at just like their shiny new jacked up pickup trucks.
But even worse, when I watch concert footage of these country music cocks of the walk up on stage strutting it like Chippendale’s dancers, I’m not seeing a bunch of men of the front row pumping their fists. No, this female-less country phenomenon is not just about males using their physical superiority and good ole boy system to keep women down. The women of mainstream country are taking the role of willing accomplices, inviting this cultural degradation and humiliation with their hands raised in their air submissively and screaming for Luke Bryan to shake his butt. The problem isn’t just that male record executives and male program managers at radio stations aren’t giving women their proper due. It’s that the women are the ones that are demanding this drivel and driving the market.
And no, I’m not just calling for an equal playing field for women. If you have to, you gerrymander the damn system to makes sure you have at least one song on the charts that showcases female talent. Are you telling me there’s nothing out there from a female fit for the Billboard Top 20? There are many women who could immediately make country music better right now—professional, proven, beautiful, appealing, relevant, and ready to take their music big time and represent women in a positive light in a genre that has always been about showcasing strong women like Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Alison Krauss.
Come on country music, let’s do this. I’m tired of telling folks I’m a fan of country music, and then having to put a paper bag over my head in shame, or load it down with qualifying points. We have an obligation to discover, nurture, and showcase female talent. If country music was a board room of 20 members and not one female, some uptight women’s league would be suing their asses from hell to breakfast. So why should country music be held to a different standard?
The dirty little reason that women are not being showcased on country radio is because they’re not willing to sell out like the men. The women of country music respect themselves just fine. It’s the male performers of country music, their industry counterparts, and the women who fawn on them that are driving this trend.
And I’m mad as hell about it.
The last few weeks might go down in history as one of country music’s most feud-laden moments. From Gary Allan going off about country music and indirectly accusing Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood of not being country, to Zac Brown calling out Luke Bryan’s song “That’s My Kind of Night,” and Jason Aldean calling out Zac Brown in Luke’s defense.
Though country music feuding may be on a sharp rise here recently, it is not an uncommon or recent occurrence in country music by any stretch. Many artists have had a beef with the Grand Ole Opry over the years, including Johnny Cash and Stonewall Jackson. Curb Records has been in the middle of many feuds, most notably with Leann Rimes, Hank Williams III, and a big one with Tim McGraw that pitted cross-town heavyweights Mike Curb and Scott Borchetta against each other. But nothing gets folks talking like a good old artist on artist donnybrook. Here are some of the most infamous over the years.
Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner were one of country music’s most legendary pairings, but when Dolly wanted to leave the Porter Wagoner camp in 1974, things turned heated. Parton did the best she could to leave Porter’s side in an amicable way, even penning and performing her legendary song “I Will Always Love You” for her long-time singing partner. But Porter turned around and sued her for $3 million in a breach of contract suit in 1979.
However, the two made up eventually, and Porter performed with Dolly on her TV variety show in 1988. Dolly Parton was also by Porter Wagoner’s side when he passed away in 2007.
In the midst of Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Achy Breaky Heart” success, Travis Tritt was asked what he though about it, and always willing to be a lightning rod, Travis Tritt responded, “I haven’t seen his show so I can’t say anything about that. I haven’t seen the man personally, so I can’t say anything about him personally. I haven’t listened to his albums, so I can’t make a statement about that. But I have seen the video and I have heard “Achy Breaky Heart”, and I don’t care for either one of them. It just seems kind of frivolous. The video doesn’t appeal to me because it shows him stepping out of a limousine in front of thousands and thousands of fans, and nobody’s even heard of this guy.. Garth Brooks didn’t even do that. It doesn’t seem very realistic to me.”
Travis Tritt recalled in his autobiography Ten Feet Tall and Bulletproof, “I apologized to Billy Ray, told him I hoped he sold ten million copies of the record. Went home. I sent Billy Ray a peace lily and a get well card because I heard he’d been feeling bad enough to cancel his Fan Fair appearance. Headline in the local paper the next day. ‘Travis Tritt Trashes Billy Ray Cyrus.’ The more I said about it, trying to rectify the situation, the worse it got.”
Waylon Jennings really didn’t like Garth Brooks, and wasn’t very good at hiding it. Though in the portions about Garth in Waylon’s autobiography he was careful not to use Garth’s name, during interviews in the 90′s Waylon would regularly let his anti-Garth anger slip. For example in an interview with The Inquirer form September, 1994, Waylon said about Garth, “I think he’s the luckiest s.o.b in the world. He’s gotten more out of nothing than anybody I can think of. I’ve always accused him of sounding like Mr. Haney on Green Acres.”
There’s another Waylon quote about Garth that goes something along the lines of “Garth Brooks did for country music what panty hose did for finger fucking.” But there has yet to be a verifiable attribution of the quote.
Still to this day, not much is known about the exact details of the feud between these two men, but in the mid-70′s you couldn’t find two artists more tied to the hip than Waylon and Tompall. Tompall was the proprietor of Hillbilly Central in Nashville—a renegade studio where Waylon mixed and mastered his album Honky Tonk Heroes, and recorded his album This Time. Waylon and Tompall appear together on Wanted: The Outlaws—country music’s first million-selling album. The two became close friends and were kindred spirits from their hated of Music Row’s business practices. They would spin long hours battling each other on pinball machines or picking out tunes or playing pranks on each other. But when the friendship went south in the late 70′s, it went south hard, and the two men never resolved their differences before their respective deaths, despite both men still insisting on their deep love and appreciation for each other.
The crux of the beef between two of country music’s most famous sons is that Hank3 felt Shooter Jennings stole his persona. Hank3 had a song called “Dick In Dixie” that included the line, “I’m here to put the Dick in Dixie, and the cunt back in country.” Shooter, who previously had been in a rock band called Stargunn, came out with his first country record entitled Put The ‘O’ Back In Country in 2005, and Hank3 perceived the title was a little too close for comfort.
If you wanna go down that road and rip us off, mutherfucker, I’ll see you in ten years and five thousand shows down the road.” Hank3 said. We’ll see where the fuck you’re at. You know, I called him out and just flat out said, “fuck you if you’re gonna rip us off like that on your first release.”
Shooter for his part seemed unwilling to reciprocate the feud, saying “You know what, I don’t even comment on these things, really. I don’t even know him. I met him once, I think, for a second. And somehow all this stuff started about how he hates me. I don’t know. It’s, like, stupid.”
In fairness to Shooter, Carlene Carter had used the line “If that doesn’t put the cunt back in country, I don’t know what will” at a show in New York in 1979 when her mother June Carter and father-in-law Johnny Cash were in attendance. Eventually Shooter and Hank3 reportedly buried the hatchet.
Hank3 is the legitimate son of Hank Williams Jr., but Hank Jr. was not Hank3′s everyday father. Hank3 was raised by his mother, and usually only saw Hank Jr. once a year when growing up. In 2001, Hank Jr. began collaborating with Kid Rock in songs like “The ‘F’ Word” and others, and Hank Jr. often referred to Kid Rock as his “rebel son.” This stimulated a rumor that Kid Rock was in fact Hank Jr.’s biological offspring. Though both men denied it, the urban myth grew legs, and Hank Williams III began to be asked by people if Kid Rock was his brother, which didn’t sit too well.
Then the situation escalated when Kid Rock accosted Hank3 at a show in Detroit, trying to patch up the strained relationship between Hank3 and his father. “He kept trying to come on the bus, you know, him and Pam Anderson, and all that shit,” Hank3 recalls. “And I said, ‘Tell that motherfucker I got nothing to say to him,’ and then he finally get his way back in there and tells me how I need to be treating my father, and I’m like, ‘All right, you crossed the line motherfucker.’ And I don’t know how many times I have to say it: No, he’s not my fucking brother . . .”
The altercation eventually led to the line in Hank3′s song “Not Everybody Likes Us,” “Just so you know, so it’s set in stone, Kid Rock don’t come from where I come from. Yeah it’s true he’s a Yank, he ain’t no son of Hank, and if you though so god damn you’re fucking dumb.”
It is considered one of country music’s most legendary moments—when Charlie Rich took out his lighter at the 1975 CMA Awards and burned the envelope announcing John Denver as Entertainer of the Year while Denver watched via satellite. Rich had clearly been drinking, and his antics were taken as an act of defiance against the intrusion of pop influences into country music, and have since become a rallying cry for country music purists.
Recently when video surfaced of the incident, people began to question what Charlie Rich’s true intentions were because Rich didn’t appear to look as malicious as the moment had been materialized in many people’s minds without the aid of the archived footage. Though historians and the Country Music Hall of Fame clearly spell it out as being considered a conflict at the time, Charlie’s son Charlie Rich Jr. says that his father was simply trying to be funny. So maybe there was a Charlie Rich vs. John Denver, or maybe there wasn’t, but the moment still makes for great country music lore.
Probably not much more than the names of these two needs to be said to to infer that they wouldn’t get along. Maines started the scuffle in response to Toby Keith’s song “Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue” saying, “I hate it. It’s ignorant, and it makes country music sound ignorant. It targets an entire culture—and not just the bad people who did bad things. You’ve got to have some tact. Anybody can write, ‘We’ll put a boot in your ass’ … ”
Toby Keith’s response? “I’ll bury her. She has never written anything that has been a hit…” Maines kept up the heat, wearing a shirt with the letters F.U.T.K. on the 2003 ACM Awards. And of course, all of this was exacerbated when Maines criticized President George Bush at a concert in London a month before.
Keith was the one to publicly bury the hatchet, saying in August of 2003, “You know, a best friend of mine lost a two-year-old daughter to cancer. I saw a picture of me and Natalie and it said, ‘Fight to the Death’ or something. It seemed so insignificant. I said, ‘Enough is enough’ People try to make everything black and white. I didn’t start this battle. They started it with me; they came out and just tore me up. One thing I’ve never, ever done, out of jealousy or anything else, is to bash another artist and their artistic license.”
Toby Keith vs. Kris Kristofferson
It sure made for a juicy story at the time, but according to both of the named belligerents, it was a feud that never was. In April of 2009, actor Ethan Hawke published a story in Rolling Stone that without naming his name, accused Toby Keith of saying to Kris Kristofferson at Willie Nelson’s 70th birthday in 2003, ““None of that lefty shit out there tonight, Kris.” According to Hawke, a rolling argument ensued that ended with Kris Kristofferson saying, ““They’re doin’ to country music what pantyhose did to finger-fuckin’” (see Waylon Jennings vs. Garth Brooks above.)
However, according to both Toby Keith and Kris Kristofferson, the incident never happened. Even more damming to Ethan Hawke and Rolling Stone, though Toby Keith became famous from his flag-waving songs, he’s a registered Democrat, making the likelihood Kieth saying to Kristofferson “lefty shit” very unlikely. Ethan Hawke and Rolling Stone stood by their story, but the press who perpetuated it got an earful from Toby about it at the 2009 ACM Awards.
Feuds that involve accusations of songs getting ripped off can get especially nasty, and this was the case when Jason Isbell took to Twitter to accuse Dierks Bentley of ripping off his song “In A Razor Town.” “‘Dierks’ has officially ripped off my song ‘In A Razor Town.’” Isbell fired off. “Dierks is a douchebag. The song of Dierks is called ‘Home.’” Isbell continued to pummel Dierks through Twitter, even getting political because of the flag waving nature of “Home.” Dierks in his defense referred to an interview one of the song’s co-writers Dan Wilson did with ASCAP that explained how the song came together.
The result? Though Isbell went silent after he said he was told to do so by his lawyer, if there was ever litigation over the song, the results were never made public. Isbell has since in interviews blamed his heavy drinking at the time for his Twitter tone. Though the two songs do sound similar, whether it was truly a ripoff or not seems to remain inconclusive.
Robert Earl Keen put Toby Keith in his crosshairs when he believed Keith lifted the melody from his song “The Road Goes On Forever” for his 2010 song “Bullets In The Gun.” Keen recalls, “I got all these calls from my friends. They were saying, ‘This is ridiculous. What are you gonna do? I felt like this individual had been picking on me for a long time, and I was sick of it. So instead of getting really ugly about things—I don’t really believe in lawsuits or threats—I took the Alexander Pope road and answered this guy in song.”
Keen recorded “The Road Goes On And On” as a shot at Toby Keith (though he never mentions his name), with lines that included:
You’re a regular jack in the box
In your clown suit and your goldilocks
The original liar’s paradox
Your horse is drunk and your friends got tired
Your aim grew weak and uninspired . . .
Toby Keith has never formally responded to the accusations.
This battle of heavyweights ensued when Eric Church was quoted in Rolling Stone in late April of 2012 saying, “Honestly, if Blake Shelton and Cee Lo Green turn around in a red chair, you got a deal? That’s crazy. I don’t know what would make an artist do that. You’re not an artist. Once your career becomes about something other than the music, then that’s what it is. I’ll never make that mistake. I don’t care if I starve.”
Miranda Lambert, who is married to Blake Shelton and also has a reality show past, came out swinging, saying through Twitter, “I wish I misunderstood this . . .Thanks Eric Church for saying I’m not a real artist. You’re welcome for the tour in 2010,” referencing Church’s opening spot on one of her tours.
Eventually Eric Church apologized, saying, “The comment I made to Rolling Stone was part of a larger commentary on these types of reality television shows and the perception they create, not the artists involved with the shows themselves. The shows make it appear that artists can shortcut their way to success… I have a problem with those perceived shortcuts, not just in the music industry…I have a lot of respect for what artists like Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, and my friend Miranda Lambert have gone on to accomplish. This piece was never intended to tear down any individual and I apologize to anybody I offended in trying to shed light on this issue.”
As some have pointed out since, Eric Church apologized to Miranda, but never apologized to Blake.
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Eric Church also created a firestorm with Rascal Flatts in 2006. While playing in an opening slot, he purposely played too loud and for too long after numerous requests to respect the tour’s wishes, resulting in him being kicked off the tour. It also resulted in a young starlet named Taylor Swift getting a chance to open on the big tour, which many experts give credit for helping Taylor’s meteoric rise.
Blake Shelton vs. Ray Price
When Blake Shelton’s comments about how he considered country music’s traditional fans “Old Farts and Jackasses” came out, Country Music Hall of Famer Ray Price shot back, saying, “Every now and then some young artist will record a rock and roll type song , have a hit first time out with kids only. This is why you see stars come with a few hits only and then just fade away believing they are God’s answer to the world. This guy sounds like in his own mind that his head is so large no hat ever made will fit him. Stupidity Reigns Supreme!!!!!!! Ray Price (CHIEF “OLD FART” & JACKASS”) ” P.S. YOU SHOULD BE SO LUCKY AS US OLD-TIMERS. CHECK BACK IN 63 YEARS (THE YEAR 2075) AND LET US KNOW HOW YOUR NAME AND YOUR MUSIC WILL BE REMEMBERED.”
Blake Shelton later apologized, saying, “Whoa!!! I heard I offended one of my all time favorite artists Ray Price by my statement “Nobody wants to listen to their grandpas music”..And probably some other things from that same interview on GAC Backstory.. I hate that I upset him.. The truth is my statement was and STILL Is about how we as the new generation of country artists have to keep re-inventing country music to keep it popular. Just EXACTLY… The way Mr. Price did along hid journey as a main stream country artist.. Pushing the boundaries with his records. “For The Goodtimes” Perfect example with the introduction of a bigger orchestrated sound in country music.. It was new and awesome!!! I absolutely have no doubt I could have worded it better(as always ha!) and I apologize to Mr. Price and any other heroes of mine that it may offended.”
Ray also later apologized to Blake Shelton for being so harsh, and along with wife Miranda Lambert, they attended a Ray Price show in Oklahoma to patch things up in person.
In the constant, eternal, and sometimes nauseating back and forth argument about the direction of country music, it is easy to focus in on the big celebrity franchise names who sing and perform the songs as the primary culprits for the consternation about what country music has become. But it may be short-sighted to think that these select few celebrities, or even the industry professionals behind them, are singularly to blame, or even deserve the majority of criticism.
In Zac Brown’s recent disparaging comments about Luke Bryan’s hit “That’s My Kind Of Night,” Zac went out of his way to lay as little blame as possible on Luke Bryan. Instead it was the song itself, and its songwriters that drew the brunt of Zac Brown’s ire. “You can look and see some of the same songwriters on every one of the songs,” Zac said. “There’s been like 10 number one songs in the last two or three years that were written by the same people and it’s the exact same words, just arranged different ways.”
Though Zac didn’t name any names, the likely target of Zac’s criticism was country songwriter Dallas Davidson. Davidson was one of three songwriters on “That’s My Kind Of Night,” and is one of Nashville’s hottest songwriting commodities with a string of major hits to his name.
As one of the primary originators of the current country checklist / tailgate craze in country music, as well as the trend of instilling urban jargon and themes into what is traditionally considered rural music, you can point to Dallas Davidson just as much as the artists that perform his songs as one of the primary drivers of country music’s current mainstream sound.
Dallas Davidson is the reigning ACM Songwriter of the Year, was the 2011 Songwriter of the Year for BMI, and has also received 3 CMA “Triple Play” awards, which recognize songwriters for having three #1 songs in the same year, including six #1 songs in 2011 alone. As songwriters go, Davidson is as decorated as any at the moment. Dallas isn’t just one of the most influential songwriters in Nashville, he’s one of the most influential individuals right now in the entire country music business, with his songs dominating the charts and influencing the current direction of the format.
Davidson’s first breakout song was “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” co-written by Jamey Johnson and Randy Houser. The troika wrote the song in 2004 when hanging out at a club together, and reportedly completed it in an hour. When Trace Adkins released it as a single in 2005, it became a huge commercial success. “Honky Tonk Badonka Donk” is given credit for launching the careers of all three of its songwriters, but where Jamey Johnson would veer towards becoming one of the mainstream’s few traditional-leaning singer/songwriting performers, and Randy Houser would go more in the pop country performance direction, Dallas Davidson stuck to being primarily an off-the-stage and behind-the-scenes writer of hits.
“Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” could be counted as mainstream country’s first major country rap hit, making Dallas Davidson one of the first country rap hit songwriters, predating Colt Ford and Cowboy Troy. But Davidson wouldn’t stop there. Here 8 years later, Davidson is responsible for both the #1 country rap singles of 2013—the aforementioned “That’s My Kind Of Night” performed by Luke Bryan, and Blake Shelton’s “Boys ‘Round Here.”
In between, “Honky Tonk Badonka Donk” and today, Dallas Davidson had Luke Bryan cut his country rap dance tune “Country Girl (Shake It For Me),” and wrote many other prominent singles that have made it onto the Billboard charts, including Luke Bryan’s 2010 #1 “Rain Is A Good Thing,” Lady Antebellum’s #1′s “Just A Kiss” and “We Owned The Night,” Justin Moore’s #1 “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away,” Brad Paisley’s #1 “Start A Band,” and Billy Currington’s #1 “That’s How Country Boys Roll.”
Dallas Davidson has accumulated more songwriting success in the last 3 years than anyone, but his output would probably be better characterized as potent as opposed to prolific. He’s not one of these songwriters who seems to have half a dozen singles on the charts at any given time, but the songs he contributes to tend to have demonstrative success and impact on the sonic and lyrical direction of country.
Another prominent songwriter who is contributing to the sonic direction of country music and the emergence of country rap is Luke Laird. Luke was the writer of Jason Aldean’s “1994″ and Trace Adkin’s “Hillbilly Bone.” At the same time, Luke Laird has worked intimately with many other stars from a wide swath of the country music world. Laird co-wrote the majority of songs on Kacey Musgraves’ recent album Same Trailer, Different Park. He co-wrote 3 songs on Eric Church’s 2012 CMA and ACM Album of the Year Chief, he co-wrote Little Big Town’s big hit “Pontoon,” and 10 songs for Carrie Underwood in the last 5 years. In fact it might be easier to list the artists Luke Laird has not worked with than the elongated list of artists that he’s contributed lyrics to since starting in 2005.
Same could be said for the ultra prolific professional songwriter Shane McAnally, who co-wrote Kacey Musgraves’ “Merry Go ‘Round” with Luke Laird and Kacey, as well as 8 other songs on Musgraves’ Same Trailer, Different Park. He also co-wrote “Mama’s Broken Heart” with Musgraves and performed by Miranda Lambert, giving McAnally two songs in both the Single and Song of the Year nominations for the 2013 CMA’s.
What’s quizzical about McAnally’s output is how he seems to be all over the map in regards to his tastes and influences. On the surface he seems to be a writer who works with more substance compared to Luke Laird and Dallas Davidson, but he’s also given credit for co-writing Florida Georgia Line’s “Party People,” and Lady Antebellum’s ultra-saccharine “Downtown.” But then McAnally turned around and wrote Wade Bowen’s recent single “Trucks,” which pokes fun of Music Row’s recent country checklist trends, perpetrated by songwriters like Dallas Davidson.
But more importantly, you put these three songwriters together, along with a handful of select few others, and they constitute and impressive block of what makes up mainstream radio’s playlists, while populating many of the top spots of the country music charts. The faces of the performers may change, but the names of the songwriters tend to stay the same. Where it is seen as counterproductive by the music industry to have an artist with multiple singles on the radio at the same time competing with each other, songwriters don’t have such restrictions, blending into the background and rarely being regarded by the mass public.
The mass public may also be perplexed why the songwriting process always seems to happen in 3′s. Dallas Davidson is from Georgia, and is a member of the industry famous “Peach Pickers” songwriting team with co-writers Rhett Atkins and Ben Hayslip. A long-standing tradition in country songwriting called “Third For A Word” makes it possible for songwriters and performers to simply contribute one word to a composition and be awarded an equal share of credit and royalties for the song. Recently this trend has seen some big name performers jumping on to contribute very little to a song, but snatching up lucrative royalty compensation for their small contributions. Songwriters might allow this to happen so their compositions will get cut by big celebrity performers. Similarly, if songwriters like Dallas Davidson, Luke Laird, and Shane McAnally have their names on a song, it can mean a significant spike in interest from labels and performers since they are such hot commodities.
Country music is a copy cat business, as can be seen in the continuance of using the same songwriters over and over in songs that sound very similar both sonically and lyrically. As explained in a recent article about the science behind music, popular music is losing its diversity. It is easy to single out the artists who are performing these songs, but many times they are simply following orders. Some artists are given certain latitude in picking the songs they will cut, and some like Miranda Lambert, or artists on Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Records may have more latitude than others. But as industry professionals attempt to spy trends and exploit them commercially through a label’s talent roster, more and more the songwriting process becomes very streamlined, relying on formulas and professionals who know how to optimize ideas for optimum radio play.
But beyond the process, the songs coming out of the Nashville / Music Row system are stimulating a backlash from their lack of quality like never before. Since the beginning of country music, there has always been sects that believe country is being influenced too much by other genres, but in the last few weeks, artists who have reached the very top of success in the industry are speaking out in greater numbers. As much as Music Row and certain artists may want to laugh off this criticism, it speaks to the larger issue of substance in the genre, and how it could jeopardize the long term viability of the format.
In responding to Zac Brown’s criticism of the current state of country music, songwriter Dallas Davidson said, “We write about what we know about. What I know about is sitting on a tailgate drinking a beer. Hell I live on the river. When Luke called me to tell me about what happened, I was literally smoking Boston butts on my homemade cooker at my 800 square foot river house with about four of my buddies with their trucks backed up, sitting on a tailgate.”
Davidson’s comments reaffirm what an independent Texas songwriter named Possessed by Paul James told Saving Country Music in a recent interview. “When looking at the majority of music, it’s not a cultural voice of change, it’s just a reflection. It’s not encouraging us to do anything, it’s just reflecting, like on my ‘Red Solo Cup.’”
Songs about tailgates are not inherently bad, and certainly every song does not have to be about a deep subject. It is the monopolization of the format with the same homogenizing subject matter where it becomes a problem—where one tailgate song leads into another tailgate song, and yet another, regardless of the song’s performer because the person or persons that wrote the song are the same, or are being influenced by similar trends.
Whether it is a financial portfolio, and educational environment, or an environmental eco-system, diversity is always championed as the key to a healthy balance and to long-term sustainability. As the pool of songwriters contributing to mainstream country’s sound continues to narrow, it leaves country’s future resting on the output of a few select pens.
This story has been updated (see below).
The parade of country artists coming out to criticize the direction of country music continues, with Gary Allan now coming out in an interview with Larry King, decrying country music’s move towards pop, and specifically Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood.
“Is Taylor Swift country? Is Carrie Underwood country?” Larry King asks.
“You know, I would say no. I would say they’re pop artists making a living in the country genre. I also feel like we lost our genre. I don’t feel like I make music for a genre anymore, and I did, you know, 15 years ago. But I think since the Clear Channel’s and the Cumulus’s and the big companies bought up all the chains, now it’s about a demographic. You know, so they’ve kind of sliced everything up, feeding it to the public in demographics.”
“It’s an amalgam then?” King asks.
“Exactly. Like if you want to get to the young kids, you put it on the alternative station. We’ve sort of ended up in this…we’re nicknamed the soccer mom, like 35 to 45 year-old woman I think is what our demographic is. So it’s very different. You used to be able to turn on the radio and you knew instantly it was the country station just by listening to it, and now you’ve got to leave it there for a second to figure it out.”
Larry King then asks, “Do you like it or don’t like it?”
“You know I personally don’t like it because I loved the character of country music and I loved what it is and the lifestyle of it…. To me, country music is still Monday through Friday, and pop’s about what happens on the weekends.”
Gary Allan joins a chorus that includes Alan Jackson, Kacey Musgraves multiple times, and other prominent country stars from the past and present coming out against the direction of country. Though the pop vs. country fight has been happening since the very beginning of the country genre, pop and rap’s recent dominance of the country format brought on by the monopolization of radio that Gary Allan references above, and Billboard’s recent decision to change its chart structure to boost “crossover” songs has tipped the scales to where influences outside of country music dominate the sound of the genre like never before.
Gary Allan is a platinum-selling country artist singed to MCA Nashville, who’s released 9 studio albums and 26 charting singles. His most recent album Set You Free was released in January.
See the relevant clip from the Larry King interview with Gary Allan below.
UPDATE ( 9/17/13 9:00 PM CDT):
Gary Allan has “clarified” his statements to Larry King in a post to his fans on Facebook. Here it is in its entirety:
As many of you know, last week I sat down for an interview with Larry King. Larry asked me several pointed questions about the state of country music. In particular, he asked me how I would classify several of my peers. A short clip from the interview was posted online last Friday.
Several writers have since taken my what I said out of context and added a spin that takes my words in a direction they were never meant to go in.
For the record, I always have and always will love country music. While our genre has evolved, I stand behind what I said in the interview, “To me country is still about Monday through Friday, and pop is about what happens on the weekends. But it’s definitely changed.”
It’s true. Country music has changed. During the interview I made it a point to say that my own music has changed over the years. I used to make very different music 10 – 15 years ago. As I also mentioned during the interview, I’m a country artist whose music leans towards rock, although I tend to love the more traditional sounding country of Haggard, Jones and Buck Owens.
When talking about country radio, I went on to say “It’s very different. You used to be able to turn on the radio and you knew it instantly it was a country station just by listening to it. Now you’ve got to leave it there for a second to figure it out…and not that it’s a bad thing.” It’s not a bad thing. It’s just different than it used to be.
Larry nailed it in three words during the interview. When trying to put context to my words he said, “it’s an amalgam,” meaning a mixture or a blend. “Right,” I said, “exactly.” Country music is a blend these days. Our genre has enough room in it for me, a country artist whose country leans towards rock and for more pop sounding country artists, as well as more traditional sounding country artists. None of us are the same, but we all make country radio our home.
Today, my interview with Larry King will run in its entirety. I know you are busy and that time is hard to come by. I hope you will take a few minutes to watch it for yourself. That way you can hear actually what I said, rather than read someone else’s commentary or take on what I said.
Editor’s Note: Though Gary Allan doesn’t mention Saving Country Music specifically and there is no specific reason to think he is referring to us when he says his words were taken out of context, please understand that all Saving Country Music did was take the questions and answers Larry King posted in the above video and transcribe them verbatim and in total. We also couched them as being critical with the current state of country music, which they were. Then we also posted the video where the comments came from to give further context. If anything was taken out of context initially, it was the video from Larry King that included only a portion of the entire Gary Allan interview. Other websites may have taken more specific comments out of context and couched them a certain way, but Saving Country Music simply posted what was said.
UPDATE ( 9/21/13 1:15 PM CDT):
Gary Allan continues to clarify the statements he made to Larry King, now scribing a handwritten letter to country radio.
Welcome ladies and gentlemen to the LIVE blog for the 2013 broadcast of CMA’s Fan Fest, dubbed over the last few years as “Country’s Night to Rock.” Since our live blogs for mainstream country’s big awards shows have been so successful over the years, and because we had many requests to also create a platform for commiseration as what they call “country” music will dominate ABC’s airwaves for the next 3 hours, it was decided we’ll give it a shot for this event too.
This is not a live event. It is culled from footage taken during the CMA’s Fan Fest in downtown Nashville June 6th through the 9th at LP Field. As the night progresses, we will post our observations in an attempt to give voice to the other side of the country music spectrum. You are invited to join in through the comment section below. All times Central time.
Here we go!
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10:05 PM: Welp, that sucked. The show, most of the performances, the fact that my online stream crapped out twice, throwing me off my game considerably. But thanks anyway for everyone showing up, and to all those that participated in the comments (positively and negatively).
Now let’s cleanse our palettes with some true Nashville rising stars that exude soul and true country artistry.
9:59 PM: So hard to pick the most evil pop country star right now, but it certainly is a male performer, and Luke Bryan makes a real good case for himself.
And yes, you have NO idea how hard it is for me right to not make a certain off-color remark about a portion of Luke Bryan;s anatomy. But I made a promise not to revisit that line of humor….
9:57 PM: Just don’t understand The Band Perry appeal.
9:49 PM: Kip Moore would get his bung hole bleached on stage if he thought it would make him a star. No scruples.
9:48 PM: From SCM’s rant on “Wagon Wheel”:
As if legions of college town string bands full of anthropology majors mercilessly regurgitation “Wagon Wheel” over and over to try and score hummers from undergrads after the show in their Volvos with the back windows tattooed with political stickers wasn’t enough, now Hootie has lent his back to the collective toil of the Western World to do everything humanly possible to run this song into the proverbial ever-loving ground so hard that it taps the mantle of the earth and causes a catastrophic volcanic and tectonic event that wipes out the entire human fucking race.
9:45 PM: Who is Old Crow Medicine Show? Huh, never heard of them.
9:39 PM: Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood will host the CMA Awards again in November. Are we surprised? They have pretty good chemistry when the writers give them decent material.
9:36 PM: And yes, we sort of found a new online stream, though it’s kind of like trying to find a nipple through 1980′s cable filter fuzz.
9:33 PM: Kid Rock is like the accidental anchovie on my Zac Brown / Blackberry Smoke Hawaiian pizza right now. The reason his nickname is the “Wet Cigarette of Country Music” is because he can take anything and make it trashy.
9:26 PM: Yes, you absolutely positively can’t have any single music event in the English-speaking world regardless of genre or context without a washed up Sheryl Crow showing up and wheezing into a microphone at some point.
9:24 PM: A lot of people observing that Will Hoge’s Chevy Truck commercial is the most country thing on this presentation.
9:20 PM: If Little Big Town’s “Pontoon” didn’t mention “motorbotin’,” and “motorbotin’” didn’t have an adolescent sexual connotation, the song would have never made it out of ASCAP’s songwriting cubicles.
9:17 PM: Just remember folks as you’re watching Lenny Kravitz, he later flipped off this same crowd when they wouldn’t get into his 12-year-old rock anthem.
9:15 PM: Carrie Mess on Twitter:
“Hey Miranda, your boobs are on fire.”
“Are those vegan leather boots Carrie [Underwood]is wearing? Is she vegan pocahontas?
9:13 PM: Alright , so as we work to re-connect to the broadcast, well share some observances from other folks on Twitter and from around the web…
9:10 PM: Still trying to find a good online stream of the program folks! Looks like the CMA’s are shutting all the live online feeds down like the creativity in a Music Row recording studio. We’ll keep trying!
8:58 PM: Sorry folks, still trying to re-connect. All of our fail safe online TV watching outlets are not working at the moment. If anyone can procure a good link, please share in the comments section.
8:48 PM: Sorry folks, we are on the West Coast, and the only way to watch live is online, and our stream just got yanked. We’re working on getting re-connected!
8:43 PM: Aaaaaannndd, there goes our live feed. Working to re-connect!
8:42 PM: Got no problem with Zac Brown, though he’s not really my bag. Interesting footnote: Shooter Jennings, an artist that struggles to pack 350-person venues is charging $85 for meet and greet packages at his shows. Zac Brown band who regularly sells out 15,000-20,000 person shows at arenas, has an “eat and greet” where you eat a meal with Zac Brown and the band…. $55.
8:38 PM: Eric Church is not Outlaw, just ask him……but he’ll sell you an Outlaw T-shirt.
8:35 PM: Wait a second, did this asshole in Little Big Town really compare Eric Church with Willie, Waylon, and Cash ?!?! Blasphemy!
8:32 PM: There’s something especially sad a desperate about idolizing Luke Bryan and trying to craft your career around learning from his success, but falling short. That’s where Jake Owen is.
8:28 PM: “Double wide trailer back in the holler on a country road”? Jake Owen lives in an antiseptic penthouse suite and spent $800 on a fung shway expert to align his modernist couch and nouveau coffee table with his Tao.
8:25 PM: Hillary Scott is wondering why her man doesn’t take her downtown anymore? Because she’s got one 8 months in the oven. We don’t need anyone’s water breaking on the subway.
8:23 PM:Um, music?
Actually screw that, I’d rather see this chick school these dudes in ping pong than a Lady Antebellum live performance any day.
8:22 PM: How stereotypical is it that they got an Asian to be the super ping pong shill in this stupid bit?
8:15 PM: The name of this song is “Highway Don’t Care (hot pop star saves struggling has-been star’s dwindling career in label-forced collaboration)”.
8:12 PM: Who knows how much they cleaned this up for the tele, but this is the most on-pitch live performance I’ve seen from Taylor Swift in a while.
8:08 PM: Watching Taylor Swift 2013 is like watching the awkward girl next door nearly breaking her ankle trying to walk around in high heels. Just be yourself.
8:06 PM: Someone ask Taylor Swift what Max Martin, Shellback, and Scott Borchetta did with her soul after they stole it.
8:01 PM: What the hell is this? It ain’t even at the CMA Fan Fest. Jason Aldean is such a tool, and “1994″ was a total dud.
8:00 PM: They edited out the part when Jason Aldean got his various wallet chains stuck in the braces of one jubilant 14-year-old fan in the front row.
7:56 PM: I just don’t get these country music groups like Little Big Town and Lady Antebellum. It’s hard to identify with the various players. It all seems so arbitrary and random. One of the reasons we love music is through identifying with individuals. These groups are simply designed to take advantage of award show nominations.
7:51 PM: Working to confirm that Blake Shelton’s drummer was indeed injured before the performance, and was replaced by a Chippendale’s dancer, complete with sleeveless tuxedo and white tie.
7:49 PM: Yes, here’s the reigning Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year….to sing a rap song. Beam me up.
7:47 PM: Leave it to pop star Kelly Clarkson to be the first performer to feature some traditional country instrumentation.
7:46 PM: SECURITY! There’s a banjo on stage!
7:44 PM: Man, that opening riff of Kelly Clarkson was straight up ripped off from Led Zepplin’s “Heartbreaker.”
7:42 PM: This show teases work like disclaimers. “WARNING: Coming up, Jason Aldean, Darius Rucker, and Taylor Swift collaborating with Tim McGraw.”
7:39 PM: Interesting factoid, it took 7 Hobbits using shoehorns to squeeze Luke Bryan into his skinny jeans.
7:37 PM: Interesting factoid, The Perry Brothers’ hair was used by Peter Jackson to model the hair of the Hobbits in his latest movie.
7:35 PM: Kimberly Perry of The Band Perry needs to focus more on delivering an inspiring vocal performance instead of her pop-inspired stage gesticulations. They make her performances annoyingly breathy, though this is admittedly better than her AWFUL ACM performance.
7:32 PM: And “Ho-Hey” by the Lumineers is now officially the most ubiquitous song in the history of music.
7:30 PM: Going back to Carrie Underwood opening with a Guns & Roses song—this is par for the course for primetime country broadcasts. They feel the need to apologize for being country, so they always start off with a off-genre song.
7:25 PM: Of course we couldn’t get the performance of Brad Paisley with Charlie Daniels from Fan Fest. That would be against their “no gray hair” policy.
7:23 PM: The thing is Hunter Hayes is a good musician, who apparently can play anything. But he uses his talents for the forces of pop evil.
7:21 PM: Hunter Hayes on the Ellen Show, courtesy of Farce The Music:
7:20 PM: Hunter Hayes is the Justin Bieber of country music. Eternally pre-pubescent.
7:18 PM: So apparently I missed Carrie Underwood channeling Axl Rose?
7:16 PM: What??? They allowed Brian Kelley to sing??? That 7 seconds right before the commercial was the first peep I’ve heard from that dude during a performance in 2 years.
7:14 PM: Sorry folks, our online stream crapped out, but we got a good one now! Right in time for….oh, Florida Georgia Line.
7:00 PM: Here we go!
6:58 PM: In the spirit of full disclosure, I am currently located on the West Coast, so I am trying to hop 2 time zones away so that I can pick up the live feed. This may result in some broadcast interruptions as our feed has already gone down numerous times.
6:55 PM: One performance we will probably not be seeing is the one put on by Lenny Kravitz. During CMA Fan Fest, he went 15 minutes over his appointed set time, trying to get the crowd engaged into chanting a 12-year-old rock song. They would have none of it, and eventually Kravitz chided the crowd for not being able to “get with love,” and then ironically, flipped them the double bird as he walked off stage. So much for his upcoming “gone country” career.
6:52 PM: So according to Saving Country Music intel, the event is going to be hosted by Little Big Town, and will feature performances by Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley, Kelly Clarkson, Blake Shelton, Taylor Swift, Tim McGraw, Keith Urban, Eric Church, Kid Rock, Lenny Kravitz, Lady Antebellum, Jason Mraz, Kacey Musgraves, Jake Owen, Kellie Pickler and Darius Rucker.
(Editor’s note: This is a rare Saving Country Music guest contribution. It comes from Deb Bose, aka Windmills Country, originally posted it at mjsbigblog.com. You can also follow Windmills Country on Twitter.)
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Billboard and the echo chamber that is much of the entertainment media/blogosphere made much hoopla last week over Florida-Georgia Line’s “Cruise” breaking the all-time record for weeks at #1 on the Hot Country Songs chart. With 22 weeks and counting atop the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, “Cruise” surpassed the 21-week totals accumulated by Eddy Arnold’s “I’ll Hold You in My Heart (Till I Can Hold You in My Arms)” in 1947-1948, Hank Snow’s “I’m Moving On” in 1950, and Webb Pierce’s “In The Jailhouse Now” in 1955. Although Billboard acknowledges that this happened because of its new chart methodology (introduced in October 2012) incorporating airplay from all genres, paid digital download sales, and streaming into chart rankings for its genre-specific Hot Songs charts, it has failed to acknowledge how much this new chart record misrepresents the real impact of “Cruise” compared to other big country hits.
Closer scrutiny of the charts shows that, contrary to the flashy press releases and hype you may see regarding Florida-Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” its “record-setting” week is the historical achievement that isn’t. As I will show below, Cruise” isn’t even the biggest country hit in the past 3 years, never mind all time. The fact that “Cruise” is now Billboard’s record holder is the direct result of the timing of a methodology change, and if the same methodology were in place 7 years ago, “Cruise” would now rank 3rd or 4th among country crossover hits. Not first, and not close to first.
Let’s start by acknowledging the following: with 5.35 million in download sales and counting (41% and counting of that total from a remix of the song featuring rapper Nelly according to Wade Jessen of Billboard), plus major cross-format airplay that led to a #1 peak on the country airplay charts followed by top-10 peaks on the CHR/Pop and Adult Pop/HAC airplay charts, “Cruise” is an undeniably huge hit. Let’s also acknowledge Billboard’s well-intentioned desire to capture the changing environment for music consumption, which is what prompted last October’s move to carry the Hot 100 methodology over to genre-specific songs charts.
But let’s also note the problems with the change. Foremost, the incorporation of airplay from other formats basically handed control of the top of Billboard’s genre-specific Hot Songs charts over to programmers of the format that generates the largest audience impressions: Contemporary Hit Radio(or CHR)/Top 40. Because CHR/Top 40 programmers allot significantly more spins to their top songs than country programmers, more than twice as many in most cases, top 10 CHR/Top 40 hits generate larger audience impressions than top 10 country hits, and that’s before you consider the spillover from CHR/Top 40 playlists into Adult Top 40 (or Hot AC) and Adult Contemporary playlists. A look at the current Billboard airplay charts shows that the #10 song on the Billboard CHR/Top 40 chart (“Same Love” by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis featuring Mary Lambert) racked up higher audience impressions (49.558 million) than the current #1 song on the Billboard Country Airplay chart (“Runnin’ Outta Moonlight” by Randy Houser, which racked up 45.785 million AIs).
Let’s also make it clear that the objections to the new Hot Country Songs methodology have never been the incorporation of sales and streaming into a genre chart. The objection is to the inclusion of airplay from other formats on a genre-specific chart, especially the inclusion of airplay from other formats for remixes of a song, and also to the inclusion of sales of remixes on a genre-specific chart. Had the Hot Country Songs chart counted only airplay and sales for the original Florida-Georgia Line-only version of “Cruise,” the chart would have come closer to a true representation of the impact of “Cruise” as a “country” song. Let us also note that despite acknowledging that it was the release of the remix with Nelly that led to “Cruise”‘s surge back to #1 on the Hot Country Songs chart and crediting Nelly on the Hot 100 chart, Billboard declined to credit Nelly on the Hot Country Songs chart.
How Billboard Overstates “Cruise”s Impact Compared To Other Crossover Hits
Now, let’s dig deeper to show just how unrepresentative the current Billboard Hot Country Songs historical ledger is when it comes to chart impact. To do that, let’s look at the airplay peaks and sales of some of the biggest crossover hits of the past seven years (arranged in chronological order of release)
Digital download sales
Carrie Underwood, “Before He Cheats” (charted from 2006-2007): 3.82 million
Taylor Swift, “Love Story” (charted from 2008-2009): 5.6 million (according to Billboard)
Taylor Swift, “You Belong With Me” (charted from 2009-2010): 4.3 million (as of 6/12/13, according to this article)
Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now” (charted from 2009-2010): 6.2 million (according to Billboard)
Florida-Georgia Line, “Cruise” (charted from 2012-2013): 5.3 million (according to Billboard)
Sales of ‘host’ album
Carrie Underwood, Some Hearts (released November 2005): 7.334 million as of 8/10/13 Billboard chart
Taylor Swift, Fearless (released November 2008): 6.757 million as of 8/10/13 Billboard chart
Lady Antebellum, Need You Now (released January 2009): 3.996 million as of the 6/01/13 Billboard chart
Florida-Georgia Line, Here’s To The Good Times (released December 2012): 917k as of 8/10/13 Billboard chart
Country Airplay peaks:
“Before He Cheats”: #1 for 5 weeks (5 weeks at #1 on Hot Country Songs)
“Love Story”: #1 for 2 weeks (2 weeks at #1 on Hot Country Songs)
“You Belong With Me”: #1 for 2 weeks (2 weeks at #1 on Hot Country Songs)
“Need You Now”: #1 for 5 weeks (5 weeks at #1 on Hot Country Songs)
“Cruise”: #1 for 3 weeks (22 weeks and counting at #1 on Hot Country Songs)
Adult Pop Songs (Hot AC Airplay) peaks:
“Before He Cheats”: #5
“Love Story”: #3
“You Belong With Me”: #2
“Need You Now”: #1
Adult Contemporary Songs peaks:
“Before He Cheats”: #6
“Love Story”: #1
“You Belong With Me”: #1
“Need You Now”: #1
“Cruise”: TBD – “Cruise” is currently #17 on the AC chart.
So “Cruise” is the #3 digital download seller, its host album is at less than 1/4 of total sales of other albums with big crossover hits and unlikely to ever reach their sales levels, its pop airplay peaks are lower than those of “Need You Now,” “Love Story” and “You Belong With Me,” and it spent less time at #1 on the country airplay charts than “Need You Now” and “Before He Cheats.” Yet the historical record represented by Billboard Hot Country Songs claims that “Cruise” is by far the biggest Hot Country Songs hit.
Obviously, the reason for the discrepancy is the difference in methodology in tabulating the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. “Need You Now,” “Love Story” “You Belong With Me,” and “Before He Cheats” accrued their weeks atop Hot Country Songs when it was a country airplay-only survey. But just how off is the historical record that the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart represents when it comes to “Cruise” vis a vis other big crossover hits?
Well, the closest we can get to assessing this question is to comb through the Hot 100 charts, which since February 2005 have reflected the top songs by all-format airplay and paid digital downloads. As of October 2012, the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart is simply a distillation of the top country songs on or eligible to chart on the Hot 100. So, using Hot 100 rankings for country songs over the past 8 years will give us an extremely close approximation of what the top of Hot Country Songs chart would have looked like had it been constructed using the methodology used today (the only difference is that streaming data is absent from Hot 100 calculations prior to March 2012 in the case of Spotify and other audio streaming services and prior to February 2013 in the case of Youtube and other video streaming services).
I went back through the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the October 7, 2006 chart and noted the top charting country song on the Hot 100 every week, which would have been the #1 ranking song on the Billboard Hot Country Songs under the new methodology (minus streams, but those often favor crossover hits, anyway). Here’s what I found:
Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” was the Hot 100′s top ranking country song from: the 10/21/06 chart through the 2/24/07 chart, from the 3/24/07 chart through the 4/7/07 chart, on the 4/28/07 and 5/5/07 charts, and again from the 5/26/07 chart through the 9/08/07 chart.
Total weeks “Before He Cheats” spent as the top ranking country song on the Hot 100:40
Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” was the Hot 100′s top ranking country-based song from the 9/27/08 chart through the 10/25/08 chart, on the 11/8/08 chart, and again from the 12/06/08 chart until either 3/21/09 chart if you want to count Miley Cyrus’s “The Climb” as a country song or until the 4/4/09 chart (when the Carrie Underwood/Randy Travis duet version of “I Told You So” rode a sales wave to become the top ranking country song on the Hot 100). Starting with the 4/11/09 chart through the 6/13/09 chart, “Love Story” was the top ranking country song unless, again, “The Climb” counts.
Total weeks “Love Story” spent as the top ranking country based song on the Hot 100: (if we don’t count “The Climb” as a country song) 33 (if we do count “The Climb” as a country song): 21
Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” became the Hot 100′s top ranking country-based song either on the 7/04/09 chart (if we don’t count “The Climb”) or on the 7/11/09 chart (if we do count “The Climb” as a country song) and remained in that position through the 11/07/09 chart. It once again became the Hot 100′s top ranking country based song on the 11/21/09 chart and for 3 weeks starting with the 1/09/10 chart.
Total weeks “You Belong With Me” spent as the top ranking country based song on the Hot 100: (if we don’t count “The Climb” as a country song) 23 (if we do count “The Climb” as a country song): 22
Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” was the top ranking country-based song on the Hot 100 starting with the 11/28/2009 chart through the 1/2/2010 chart and again on the 1/30/2010 chart. “Need You Now” also held the top ranking for country based songs on the Hot 100 from the 2/13/2010 chart straight through to the 8/27/2010 chart.
Total weeks “Need You Now” spent as the top ranking country based song on the Hot 100: 33
Lengths of other notable reigns as the top ranking country or country based song on the Hot 100:
Miley Cyrus,”The Climb” (if we count it as eligible for Hot Country Songs): 15 weeks
Taylor Swift, “Teardrops On My Guitar”: 12 weeks
Taylor Swift, “Back To December”: 13 weeks
The Band Perry, “If I Die Young”: 10 weeks
Jason Aldean (featuring Ludacris), “Dirt Road Anthem”: 8 weeks (tied for the longest reign since October 2006 without major crossover airplay)
Luke Bryan, “Drunk On You”: 8 weeks (tied for the longest reign since October 2006 without major crossover airplay)
“Cruise” has just achieved 22 weeks as the top ranking country based song on the Hot 100, but had the same Hot Country Songs methodology been in place 7 years ago, it would still be months away from catching Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now,” Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” (arguably), and Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats.” With “Cruise” now on the decline, Luke Bryan set to release a new album on 8/13 and hits by Randy Houser and Hunter Hayes gathering airplay and sales momentum, it is unlikely “Cruise” will be able to maintain its perch as the top ranking country song for the time needed to match those other crossover hits.
What’s illustrated above is why Billboard’s crowning of Florida-Georgia Line’s “Cruise” as the longest Billboard Hot Country Songs chart-topper of all time is a milestone without meaning. As music awards season heats up, we can likely expect a lot of crowing from Florida-Georgia Line’s team about “Cruise’s” achievement and why it’s necessary for the industry to acknowledge it over more acclaimed, substantial and risky work like that of country singer/songwriter Kacey Musgraves. But as you can see, this is a historical accomplishment that isn’t, and it exposes more than anything why Billboard importing the 68 year history of the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart into the chart with this new methodology has compromised Billboard’s status as a reliable and representative historical chart authority. There is more reason than ever to not believe the hype.
Tonight is the annual Academy Awards, arguably the biggest, most important night in all of American entertainment, if not in the entire world. And during the presentation, and in the list of nominees and winners, you will not see a parade of the movie industry’s most flashy personalities. You won’t see anybody judged on looks or popularity. You will not see the most commercially-successful endeavors given exclusive billing and opportunity for accolades. No, what you will see is the best and the brightest of the industry highlighted based mostly on the creativity and artistic integrity of their works.
It’s not that The Oscars completely ignore commercial viability or success. When a movie like Titanic or Lord of the Rings emerges, the industry recognizes the importance of these legacy films and gives them the proper nods, but not without regard to the artistic integrity of these movies or the talent displayed by the actors in them. Film understands that the most financially-successful movies have their legacy cemented by the strength of their box office numbers, and don’t need to be buffered by accolades better suited to those films that did not enjoy as much commercial attention. And this does not just go for The Oscars. From The Golden Globes, to Cannes, to a myriad of smaller film festivals all across the country and world, in the film industry there is an insistence on finding the most important works in a given year, and shining the spotlight on them.
Contrast this with the music industry, especially the country music industry that is flush with award shows now to the point of being redundant, and the differences are nothing short of embarrassing. In the film industry, low-budget and artistic films regularly find their way to the very top of the award show itinerary. In music, low-budget and independent albums, songs, and artists are completely shut out in favor of the same cloistered group of franchise-caliber names on an annual basis.
A perfect example is country music’s dilemma of finding a 5th female for the “Vocalist of the Year” category at both this CMA Awards and the ACM Awards for the 2012 cycle. The CMA’s, struggling to find a name of similar caliber to the top 3 ladies of Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, and Taylor Swift, reached completely outside of the country world to nominate Kelly Clarkson. The ACM’s also drew a blank beyond Martina McBride as a 4th candidate, and gave the nod to Kacey Musgraves, who despite being an interesting up-and-coming name, hasn’t even released a major album yet.
Meanwhile in 2012, a consensus built throughout music–from The Rolling Stone, to CMT’s editorial chief Chet Flippo, to right here on Saving Country Music–that Kellie Pickler’s album 100 Proof was an album worthy of accolades that balanced artistic integrity and commercial sensibilities. But Kellie and 100 Proof went completely ignored by the award shows, even though they were actively looking in the ranks of unknowns and outside the genre for a female name to fill out their candidate list. Along with the disparaging current outlook this paints for females in country music, it also illustrates the pull the industry has on what are supposed to be independent awards. The reason Kellie Pickler was not nominated is because she enjoyed no support from her label; a factor that is virtually superfluous in the movie world.
The point of awards is to promote the industry they cater to, and if they only consider commercial success, they become a self-fulfilling prophesy and feed a cloistered, creatively anemic environment. When the Academy Awards “Best Picture” nominees are announced, each film gets a sizable boost that helps re-focus the industry on the artistic integrity of the medium. A couple of years ago, The Oscars increased the amount of “Best Picture” nominees for this reason and others.
The Grammy Awards of the music world tend to include a bit more focus on artistry compared to the genre specific shows, but Oscar night every year is a reminder of how behind the music industry is compared to its peers in putting its best foot forward, and promoting the brightest talent.
Sunday night is the most important night in music of the year as the 55th annual Grammy Awards will be transpiring in Los Angeles. Independent-minded music consumers can go back and forth about just how important Grammy night is, but regardless if you like the winners or even care to pay attention, what transpires Sunday night will have effects on the entire music world.
And in 2013, the effects on roots music could be greater than they have ever been before, with artists like Mumford & Sons, The Black Keys, and The Lumineers up for some of the night’s most prestigious awards. Sunday night could be the crowning of “roots” music as the most influential force in popular music right now, whether roots fans like it or not, or feel the artists who will be bestowed with awards truly represent the essence of the modern roots world is all about.
Another primary interest will be the Taylor Swift performance that will start the show. Rumored to be her smash bubblegum pop hit, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” Taylor will once again test the will of country-dom to continue to number her amongst their ranks despite the parade of pop songs she has released from her latest album, including her latest single, “22.”
Oh, and then there’s the ever-present possibility that Taylor Swift bombs the performance like she did New Year’s night. But on Sunday, Taylor will not benefit from half the press core vomiting into toilets while the other half holds their hair back. All eyes and ears will be on Taylor, with vivid memories of her awful 2010 performance on these very Grammy Awards very much front of mind.
Here’s some observations, and half-cocked predictions.
Best Country Album
If you need any more evidence that the Grammys do their best to reward not just commercial success, but artistic substance, look no further than this list of Best Country Album candidates. The Time Jumpers? The Jamey Johnson Hank Cochran tribute? Sure, it wouldn’t be my list. I would have Kellie Pickler’s 100 Proof on here to start, but it’s certainly interesting. Zac Brown would be the pick for an album that both performed well commercially, and has some good points artistically. But this is a peer-voted award, and the sheer number of collaborators on Living For A Song, and the friends of those collaborators might put it over the top. I believe this is how the Guy Clark tribute won Album of the Year at the Americana Music Awards. Despite Hunter playing most of the instruments on his album, he would be the commercial pick.
Uncaged — Zac Brown Band – 2nd
Hunter Hayes — Hunter Hayes – 3rd
Living For A Song: A Tribute To Hank Cochran — Jamey Johnson – 1st pick
Four The Record – Miranda Lambert
The Time Jumpers – The Time Jumpers
Best Country Solo Performance
Okay, all those nice things I said about the Grammys and rewarding substance? Strike that. This list is awful. Jason Isbell claimed in the past that Dierks Bentley stole “Home” from him. Once again we see Hunter Hays has powerful friends. Blake Shelton might win another award based solely on his reality show celebrity status from The Voice. And however powerful “Blown Away” is, it’s in no way country. Ronnie Dunn should probably win, but does he have enough buddies in Grammy land to pull it off? I’m fearing a big night for Hunter Hays.
“Home” — Dierks Bentley
“Springsteen” — Eric Church
“Cost Of Livin’” — Ronnie Dunn – Let’s hope
“Wanted” — Hunter Hayes
“Over” — Blake Shelton
“Blown Away” — Carrie Underwood
Best Country Song
We should all hope that Will Hoge finally gets recognized for the brilliant songwriter that he is. This list isn’t nearly as bad as the “Best Solo Performance, but Eric Church’s “Springsteen” summer anthem, though catchy, doesn’t belong being nominated for anything. It wasn’t even the best song on his own album.
“Blown Away” — Josh Kear & Chris Tompkins, songwriters (performed by: Carrie Underwood)
“Cost Of Livin’” — Phillip Coleman & Ronnie Dunn, songwriters (performed by: Ronnie Dunn) - One to root for
“Even If It Breaks Your Heart” — Will Hoge & Eric Paslay, songwriters (performed by: Eli Young Band) – One to root for
“So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore” — Jay Knowles & Adam Wright, songwriters (performed by: Alan Jackson)
“Springsteen” — Eric Church, Jeff Hyde & Ryan Tyndell, songwriters (performed by: Eric Church)
Best Country Duo/Group Performance
I was surprised “Safe & Sound” didn’t win at the CMA’s. It feels like a strong contender here, but with The Civil Wars on indefinite hiatus, voters may want to give their nod to a project with a brighter future. Even if it doesn’t win, Don Williams’ “I Just Came Here For The Music” already scores a victory for simply being noticed. An excellent song, and an even better performance by Don and Alison. “Pontoon” is a borderline joke song, and it is an embarrassment to country music it was even nominated. Are The Time Jumpers the 2013 Grammy sleeper? With all these nominations, they could rise up and be one of the big winners of the night.
Even If It Breaks Your Heart” — Eli Young Band
“Pontoon” — Little Big Town
“Safe & Sound” — Taylor Swift & The Civil Wars
“On The Outskirts Of Town” — The Time Jumpers
“I Just Come Here For The Music” – Don Williams Featuring Alison Krauss – Feel Good Story
Best Americana Album
This is the toughest to handicap. By sales, impact, and influence, Mumford & Sons should walk away with this easily, like them or not. But since they are the favored for the more prestigious (and televised) Album of the Year, will voters favor another candidate here? The runner up would be The Lumineers, but they are up for the “Best New Artist” as well. Meanwhile there sit The Avett Brothers who were actually making this type of music when Mumford and The Lumineers were still going through puberty, and it wasn’t cool or commercially successful. And don’t count out Bonnie Raitt. She has a lot of friends with Grammy votes. John Fullbright is a real feel good story, but I’m not sure he stands a chance in this strong of a field.
The Carpenter — The Avett Brothers – Deserve it way more than the Johnny Come Lately’s
From The Ground Up – John Fullbright – The Underdog to Root For
The Lumineers – The Lumineers
Babel – Mumford & Sons
Slipstream – Bonnie Raitt – Powerful friends and many of them
The announcement was made when fans “unlocked” Luke Bryan’s name as part of a Twitter campaign by the ACM’s to rack up 25,000 tweets. Reba McEntire has been the female host of the ACM Awards for the last 14 years, co-hosting the event with Blake Shelton for the last two. Just like the superstar hosting duo of Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood for the CMA Awards, fans enjoyed Blake and Reba’s authentic chemistry and oddball humor. Reba decided to take this year off to focus on her new sitcom “Malibu Country.”
When it was revealed Reba would no longer be co-hosting and a successor for female co-host had been picked, many surmised it would be Blake Shelton’s superstar wife Miranda Lambert. Yesterday Blake Shelton explained how they came to pick Reba’s replacement.
Those are big shoes to fill and I didn’t want to do this thing by myself. To find somebody equal to that level of stardom, we pretty much gave up. So, we set the bar down a little bit lower. We decided we could find somebody that is just good looking, and we fell short on that goal. So starting over, we set the bar a little bit lower and finally thought, ‘If we can just get somebody that can read.’ This is country music, (so) that’s narrowing the field down.
Apparently Luke Bryan was the right woman for the job.
Pending approval by federal regulators, the Disney Corporation has secured a deal to buy country music for $10.5 billion dollars. The deal apparently would include all of country music’s major labels and their rosters of artists, institutions like the Country Music Hall of Fame and The Grand Ole Opry, award shows like the CMA Awards and the ACM Awards, and the naming rights to the now defunct restaurant chain “Kenny Rogers Roasters.”
“This is just the latest step in our efforts to completely monopolize every element of American culture by buying it out from under the people who created it and then selling it back to them in the form of programming on our vast media empire and on special-edition Bul-ray DVDs,” says Disney spokesman Phil Frankenfurter. “We look forward to activating synergies between these two landmark American institutions, and doing what we can to make America one big homogenous culture, free of any regionalism and diversity from anything not presented to them by mainstream corporate media.”
Disney, who already owned ABC, ESPN, as well as studios and radio stations all across the country, and 14 different theme parks all around the world, announced just last week they were buying the complete Star Wars franchise from George Lucas for $4 billion. They’re calling the acquisition of country music the “final puzzle piece in creating an American mono-culture.”
Country music, an institution the has been around for roughly 70 years, became popular throughout America in the 50′s through the radio program “The Grand Ole Opry” broadcast on WSM-AM out of Nashville.
“For years, country music has been an attractive acquisition for Disney, but the timing was not right,” continues Disney spokesman Phil Frankenfurter. “From the 80′s, even into the 90′s, country’s listenership dwelled mostly in older Americans who did not fit comfortably into Disney’s demographic landscape. But in the last decade, especially the last couple of years, with country getting much younger, the timing seemed right to make this partnership. Nobody can deny that right now the hottest thing in country is Taylor Swift. And who listens to Taylor Swift? Adolescent and teenage girls; the exact people who are at the core of Disney consumers.”
Though Disney is being hush about most of its plans for country music, some of the first changes consumers can expect to see are the appearance of the well-recognized Mickey Mouse ears being added on the marquees of certain country music landmarks like The Ryman Auditorium. Disney is also developing a “Country Music Princess” franchise, swapping Cinderella, Snow White, and Ariel for Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, and Miranda Lambert.
“I love having Disney raise my kids,” says housewife Angela Barnum of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. “With great role models like Lindsey Lohan, Miley Cyrus, and Brittney Spears coming from Disney’s roster, I love the free time and piece-of-mind Disney gives me from having to raise my kids myself.”
Kenny Rogers, who was recovering from his latest plastic surgery procedure, could not be reached for comment.
In the natural history of the Earth, there’s a period known to biologists as The Cambrian Explosion. It was an era when the rate of evolution accelerated so rapidly that even Charles Darwin, the father of the evolutionary theory, admits it stands as one of the main objections to his findings on natural selection. In a relatively short period of time compared to the rest of evolution, the animal world was completely re-organized, leading eventually to the modern animal structure we live in today.
Over the last few months, and the last few weeks specifically, we have been going through a country music Cambrian Explosion of sorts, with massive, earth-moving events completely re-shaping the style and infrastructure of a genre that has been around for over 70 years. Arguably there’s been more significant events in a short period than any other time in country’s history.
- Billboard changing the way it computes songs on the “Hot 100″ charts.
- Gaylord Entertainment re-organizing into Ryman Hospitality and going under the control of Marriott International.
- Jason Aldean and Taylor Swift, “country’s” two biggest stars releasing albums on consecutive weeks, with Swift’s becoming the best-selling debut album in a decade in all of music.
- Scott Borchetta going from a budding label owner to arguably the most powerful man in Nashville, making a household name for himself and wholesale changing the way Music Row does business.
Even the way downtown Nashville looks is changing, with the massive Music City Center being erected, the Songwriters and Musician’s Hall of Fame being swapped as part of the project, a water park that was supposed to be built in partnership with Dolly Parton falling apart because of Gaylord’s sale, and Ryman Hospitality putting the naming rights to The Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Mother Church, The Ryman Auditorium, up for bid. Downtown Nashville, the holy land of country music, is being revamped from the inside out just like the music business that it’s home to.
And this doesn’t even begin to take into consideration the sonic changes to country music, from the hyper-driven pop songs from Taylor Swift dominating the charts, to the intrusion and mainstream acceptance of country rap, and the increased exposure of all of country music’s drama in the new popular television show Nashville.
Aside from Taylor Swift’s first CMA win for Entertainer of the Year in 2009, virtually all the major events a country music historian may use to erect a timeline of how country became what we will know it to be in the future have happened in very recent memory. It’s human habit to think you’re always living in the most important, critical time in whatever it is you’re following, but in this case, the concern seems to have merit.
But one of the things I find most curious about the recent string of current events is how it has been received in certain sectors of the country music population. The country music underground was virtually birthed out of the rapid move to pop in country that was ushered in around the late 90′s, early 2000′s. Without the fervor and dissension around the direction of Music Row and mainstream country music, there may have never been as strong of support for acts like BR549, Hank Williams III, and Dale Watson. For a decade the underground was the sector of country music organizing against the intrusion of pop in country and trying to preserve country’s roots.
But where are those voices now? As these historic issues have been presenting themselves one after another in recent months, Saving Country Music has not only had to work overtime to at least attempt to cover them from an independent viewpoint (let alone attempt to organize against them), but to fight off a strange form of active apathy that militantly wants to not give a shit.
Meanwhile where is there support for attempting to preserve the roots of the music coming from? Carrie Underwood fans of all places. Carrie Underwood fans! They have been making front page headlines for being against Billboard’s new chart rules, even when as Billboard’s Editorial Director Bill Werde points out, Carrie Underwood could very easily be one of the beneficiary’s of the new system. Carrie’s fans’ reaction wasn’t based soley on their self interests, but for better interests for the entire country genre.
The Billboard issue has had massive reverberations throughout the music industry, with fans of R&B, rap, and rock up in arms that artists with “Crossover” pop appeal are virtually entrenched in the top positions on Billboard’s charts. Spin called the new rules “clueless.” The biggest paper in the world, The New York Times interviewed me to get my point of view, even though many of my readers found the issue boresome.
One thing that did not happen that was anticipated with Billboard’s new rules is a complete Taylor Swift dominance of the country song chart, like Mumford & Sons did when they released their new album. Why? Partly because Swift and her label Big Machine purposely limited the sale of her new album Red to certain outlets. For example, the album couldn’t be bought on Amazon until a week after its release, and Scott Borchetta refuses to make the album available on Spotify, Rhapsody, and other streaming services that are now counted in Billboard’s song charts.
So what does all this mean? It means that the elements of country music that used to keep it in check with its roots increasingly don’t care any more. Like refugees, they’re retreating to their little independent scenes and micro-scenes, and forming an elitist “we have ours, screw the masses” bent. But that’s the same flawed logic of saying, “I have a job, who cares if my neighbor does?” Eventually, the creatively-bankrupt nature of mainstream music is destined to creep into your world.
Meanwhile Music Row and the big money forces in Nashville can do whatever they want without fear of retribution or reprisal from the roots of the genre. Carrie Underwood fans? They can be managed; cast them off as crazy. That Saving Country Music guy? He’s a self-absorbed wacko whose losing relevancy.
At the CMA Awards, we could have a country rap song win Song of the Year, and a girl with a song that they purposely made to be pop, and purposely did not release a country version win Entertainer of the Year, and the howls will be half as much as when Eddie Rabbit released “I Love A Rainy Night” in 1981.
It’s no longer cool to criticize what is happening to country music. In fact, it’s now cool to not criticize what’s happening, and to criticize the folks that are.
So what’s the solution? Honestly I don’t know. I wish I had a red bow to tie this article up nicely with, but I don’t. All I know is that the commercial forces aiming to restructure country music into America’s predominant pop genre have never been better poised to do so. Little is stopping them.
On Friday Jessica Northey of CM Chat and Rita Ballou of Rawhide & Velvet interviewed Billboard Magazine’s editorial director Bill Werde about various topics, including the controversial new rules (at least in some circles) on how Billboard is tabulating the rankings on country’s “Hot 100″ songs chart (see full interview below). Werde himself has been in the cross hairs of some country music fans who are worried the new system favors crossover pop artists, and hinders more traditional and up-and-coming independent artists.
Instead of hiding behind Billboard’s walls, Bill Werde has been engaging concerned fans since the rule re-organization was announced, through his Twitter account, and in Friday’s live video discussion format. Though Werde may have disappointed some folks with the answers he gave about the new chart rules, he proved himself open for feedback, opinions, and criticism from the other side, eager to engage a discussion and explain how Billboard came to its conclusions.
Bill Werde also offered some insight on his opinions of how country radio has been trending toward pop for a while, and how not everybody in the industry is happy about that.
It’s clear to me that over the last 10-15 years, there’s been a change in the style of what country radio plays. And there’s certainly plenty of people that I talk to that privately because they work in the business and they don’t want everyone to know this, but that don’t like that change, that say country music is going pop. But that’s what’s happening right now at this moment, this doesn’t mean it’s going to be this way forever. But right now country radio, country music IS going pop a little bit.
Bill was continuously cracking jokes throughout the interview relating to conspiracy theories that the new chart rules came about to purposely undermine Carrie Underwood, and were put in place to benefit Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Records, and specifically Taylor Swift. “I’m here to tell you right now that I don’t care that much about Taylor Swift,” Bill joshed wile holding up the cover of the latest Billboard edition proclaiming Taylor Swift’s “big tent.” But Bill was serious when addressing accusations that the new rules were meant to undermine certain artists.
We announced these rule changes weeks ago. And we’ve been talking to the industry for months. There was certainly no timing element. This notion that I’m somehow best friends with Scott Borchetta or whatever? I think Scott’s a great guy, I wish I had his head of hair. He’s making a lot of the right moves in the music business right now. But the last time I talked to Scott was I don’t know when, and it certainly wasn’t around these chart changes.
It doesn’t behoove my brand to do anything that lacks integrity. We are as good as our charts, and I wouldn’t in a million years do anything that would call into question if we’re being fair and honest.
Bill also pointed out how the old model of the Billboard country song chart was based almost solely on airplay, and how that put the power of the charts in the hands of a few select radio programmers.
It’s not fans choosing the genres of songs, radio programmers are choosing the genres of songs. And these days, “radio programmers” means frankly a small group of people in a centralized giant corporation for the most part, making the choice about if a song is playable on radio or not. Whereas using Spotify and other streaming services, I think that much better captures what fans are choosing to engage with.
As far as any opportunity of a revision to Billboard’s new song chart rules, Werde did not seem to leave open that possibility. “I am completely at peace with that decision, the business is at peace with that decision.” However Bill also explained that the way Billboard’s charts are formulated is always in a state of flux, and that feedback and engagement with country’s fan base is something valued by Billboard.
We’ve continuously evolved the charts. Billboard’s 118-years-old, we’ve been charting music for about 60 of those years, and there hasn’t been probably more than a 6 month period where we haven’t made some changes to the charts, ever.
There were definitely fans that asked certain questions on Twitter that made me change the way I thought about things, or made me go back to Silvio (Billboard’s chart director) and say, “Did we think about this, this way?” And Silvio would have a great answer.
Werde had a few misses. He never addressed the issue of Taylor Swift’s song “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” being labeled as pop by her own label, and why the pop mix of the song is appearing on the country chart. He also attributed 98% of the country opposition to the new Billboard chart rules to Carrie Underwood fans, or people who, “track back very quickly to being Carrie Underwood fans,” when Saving Country Music, its readership, and others would not fit in that demographic whatsoever.
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As someone favoring some elements of the new Billboard song chart rules, and opposing others like the cross genre airplay rule, I believe it is time for pragmatism to attempt to persuade Billboard in a direction to make the charts more equitable to all country artists in the future. Billboard is giving no signs of reversing ship, and as Bill Werde said on Friday, “I like the engagement and I learn things from fans all the time. But that said, respect and regard should be a two-way street.”
So instead of shaking fists, we should follow Bill’s advice and, “Give this chart change a few weeks.” If the anomalies show up with Taylor Swift’s album release that some anticipate–that she could completely dominate the chart with every single song off of her new album based on digital downloads alone–this and other events could force Billboard to tweak or re-evaluate rules in the future, like Billboard did when Lady Gaga sold an album for 99 cents, unfairly inflating her sales.
Traditional country fans, and fans of up-and-coming artists still have a right to be disappointed with the new rules, but the best way at this point to resolve the issues with Billboard’s country charts may not be to float conspiracy theories and gnash teeth, but to become more engaged with an entity that appears to be willing to engage with them, as long as the respect is a two way street. The other important thing is to make sure the issues with the “Hot 100″ country chart are not forgotten, or that country doesn’t accept Billboard’s “Country Airplay” chart as a consolation prize.
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, it’s hard to dispute that the CMA Awards are the most important night in country music every year. The nominations announced last week had a few interesting wrinkles, so let’s take a in-depth look at what’s coming up on November 1st and make some predictions.
Kelly Clarkson for Female Vocalist of the Year
Yeah, this is a very confusing nomination. As pop artists go, she may be one of the the good guys, but a CMA nomination? Yes she’s dabbled slightly in some crossover material like her ”Don’t You Wanna Stay” duet with Jason Aldean, but unless I missed the memo, Kelly has never put out a country album, doesn’t bill herself as a country act on tours, and doesn’t run primarily in country circles. Sure, I think we all anticipate Kelly making a country move soon, but it hasn’t happened yet.
But don’t worry, Kelly Clarkson has no chance of winning this award, and if she did, it would be a PR nightmare more than a gift (You think Carrie Underwood fans are crazy now?). It would have been good to see a name like Kellie Pickler get the attention, even though she would have little chance of winning it. There wasn’t another name they felt met the caliber of the other nominees in country, and so they reached out to pop.
“Roll Me Up And Smoke Me” with Willie Nelson & Snoop Dog for Musical Event of the Year
I both love and hate this nomination. Yes, we should be happy that Willie’s name, along with Jamey Johnson’s and Kris Kristofferson’s who also collaborated on the song are even being mentioned in connection with the CMA’s. And no, I do not see this as some watershed moment in the mono-genre just because of Snoop Dog’s involvement. “Roll Me Up…” is still solidly a country song. It just once again reinforces Willie’s identity with pot instead of all the other great things he could and should be known for (including his marijuana advocacy), and it seems like a nomination stretch to attempt to be showy by the CMA. Nonetheless it is a very fun song done by some very cool people, and there’s much worse things that could have be given this recognition.
Down Year For Taylor Swift
Her last album Speak Now is pretty long in the tooth at this point having been released almost 2 years ago, and she hasn’t had a hit single in a while. Her new album Red will have been out for less than a month when the CMA’s hit, and her new single “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” may be a little too pop for the CMA’s tastes, leaving them reluctant to vote for her. I’m sure in 2013 Swift will again be the CMA’s darling, but 2012 may take a Taylor Swift breather.
We’re Lucky There’s No Lionel
Except for a buried mention in the “Musical Event of the Year” category, Lionel Richie and his album Tuskegee didn’t make any of the major lists; a pleasant surprise. Despite lacking a major single, the album has been one the biggest blockbusters of 2012 so far. But don’t worry Richie fans, I’m sure the ACM’s who’ve whored themselve for Lionel plenty, including throwing him an unprecedented hour-long special on CBS, will reward the commercial success of Tuskegee greatly.
***UPDATE (10-31-12) Jason Aldean’s Cheating and Taylor Swift’s Chart Success
It will be interesting to see how the CMA votership reacted to the news about Jason Aldean being photographed with a woman that wasn’t his wife in an LA Bar. The news broke on September 30th, and the final round of voting for the CMA’s commenced on October 4th. Aldean, who’s up for the most awards this year, may see his support diminish because of the scandal.
Similarly, Swift has been making headlines since the last round of voting started. With Billboard changing their chart rules, she now has a firm grip on the #1 spot on the country charts with her pop anthem “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and two other songs charting in the top 20. Does this increase her chances of taking home a trophy, or will there be a Taylor Swift backlash because of the overtly-pop aspect of her new hit songs?
Entertainer of the Year
- Taylor Swift
- Brad Paisley
- Jason Aldean – Winner
- Blake Shelton
- Kenny Chesney
Slight chance Taylor Swift could walk away with this, or maybe even Blake Shelton based on his work with NBC’s The Voice, but I think it’s Aldean’s to lose. His was the monster album this last cycle that kept churning out singles.
***UPDATE – As I said, it was Aldean’s to lose, but he may have lost it with his cheating scandal back in September. Also Taylor Swift now has to be considered a serious contender from the strength of her Red album becoming the best-selling debut in a decade, and the chart success of her song “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”. Or, these two big events could cancel each other out, and Blake Shelton could find himself the beneficiary. In the end though, I still think Aldean has the greatest chance, but it all of a sudden it is a much tighter race.
Male Vocalist of the Year
- Jason Aldean
- Luke Bryan
- Eric Church – Second Choice
- Blake Shelton- Winner
- Keith Urban
This is a three horse race, with Blake Shelton inching ahead from the strength his realty TV personality gives him. This may be where Eric Church’s smack talking comes back to bite him. In a neck and neck race, folks will remember how he called out Miranda Lambert, Blake Shelton, and others and will give the nod to the nominee with a cleaner nose. Aldean’s My Kinda Party has been such a commercial success, it’s hard to rule him out completely, but it’s rare an artist wins both Entertainer and the top gender category in the same year.
Female Vocalist of the Year
- Carrie Underwood – Winner
- Taylor Swift
- Kelly Clarkson
- Miranda Lambert
- Martina McBride
This might be the biggest toss up of the major awards, but I think the other contenders might split the difference and leave Carrie Underwood with the win. Again, it’s an off year for Taylor, but she can never be completely counted out. Miranda is the other solid contender. I’m not sure if her album Four The Record or the supporting tour were strong enough for the nod this year, but when you combine it with her Pistol Annies material, it’s a pretty impressive body of work.
Album of the Year
- Chief – Eric Church - Winner
- Four The Record – Miranda Lambert
- Home – Dierks Bentley
- Own The Night – Lady Antebellum
- Tailgates & Tanlines – Luke Bryan
I just don’t think the other albums have shown the remarkable strength Chief has. It’s been stalled out in the Billboard Top 5 for what seems to be eons. This will override any concerns about Eric’s extra-curricular gum flapping off-stage.
Single of the Year
- “Dirt Road Anthem” – Jason Aldean – Winner
- “God Gave Me You” - Blake Shelton
- “Home” - Dierks Bentley
- “Pontoon” - Little Big Town
- “Springsteen” - Eric Church
This is a pretty tenuous prediction because “Dirt Road Anthem” is so late in the calendar cycle. And though it angers me so that it may be the front runner to win, if you are going to give it to the most successful and influential song in country for this calendar cycle, it’s hard to dispute it. “Home” is also a little late in the cycle, and let’s not forget Jason Isbell claims it’s his. “Pontoon” and “Sprinsteen” as singles are a little early in the cycle, so give me Blake Shelton’s “God Gave Me You” as a runner up.
Vocal Group of the Year
- Eli Young Band
- Lady Antebellum
- Little Big Town
- The Band Perry
- Zac Brown Band – Winner
Where’s Rascal Flatts? They’re just as bad as these other bands. If they’re bitching, they have a legitimate beef. If I were Zac Brown, I’d be ashamed to be in this company.
Vocal Duo of the Year
- Big & Rich
- Love and Theft
- The Civil Wars
- Thompson Square
If The Civil Wars ever had a chance, it would be this year, but I’d still only make their odds 1 in 5. Sugarland hasn’t done much this year. Beyond that, it’s a total toss up.
Song of the Year
- “Even If It Breaks Your Heart,” Will Hoge and Eric Paslay
- “God Gave Me You,” Dave Barnes
- “Home,” Dan Wilson, Brett Beavers, and Dierks Bentley
- “Over You,” Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton – Winner
- “Springsteen,” Eric Church, Ryan Tyndell, and Jeff Hyde
Seeing Will Hoge win a CMA would be a small, cool victory. “Over You” might edge the others from the star power involved and the sentimentality that tends to dominate this category.
New Artist of the Year
- Lee Brice
- Brantley Gilbert – Winner
- Hunter Hayes
- Thompson Square
Brantley and his bad Affliction T-shirt will probably take it, and the world will be a worse place for it.
Musical Event of the Year
- “Dixie Highway,” Alan Jackson and Zac Brown Band
- “Feel Like a Rock Star,” Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw
- “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” Willie Nelson, Snoop Dog, Kris Kristofferson, Jamey Johnson
- “Safe and Sound,” Taylor Swift and The Civil Wars – Winner
- “Stuck on You,” Lionel Richie and Darius Rucker
This may be both The Civil Wars’ and Taylor Swift’s best chance at a 2012 CMA, boosted by The Hunger Games’ commercial success.
Music Video of the Year
- “Come Over,” Kenny Chesney
- “Over You,” Miranda Lambert
- “Pontoon,” Little Big Town
- ”Red Solo Cup,” Toby Keith
- “Springsteen,” Eric Church
If “Red Solo Cup” wins, look for even more mainstream country fake-viral videos.
Musician of the Year
- Sam Bush – mandolin
- Paul Franklin – steel guitar
- Dann Huff – guitar
- Brent Mason – guitar
- Mac McAnally – guitar
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