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…that includes Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, and Thompson Square? Ugh…
Not since the second installment of the Waylon – The Music Inside series was released with the names of Colt Ford and Justin Moore making their way on the track list have we had such a quizzical collection of artists for a tribute album. As cool as it is to see any attention paid to Merle these days from the mainstream establishment, and to see Merle’s much-deserving song Ben Haggard make the cut of contributors, hearing Luke Bryan covering “Pancho & Lefty” (and is that really a Merle song anyway?) or Dustin Lynch taking time from singing about tractor sex to offer his take on “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” is not what’s going to get your average Merle fan’s motor running.
The Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard compilation out April 1st (no fooling) is being put together by Broken Bow Records, and of course, just like many of these tributes recently, it’s mostly a showcase of label talent with a “tribute” as the backdrop. Jason Aldean, Kristy Lee Cook, Dustin Lynch, Joe Nichols, Randy Houser, Parmalee, and Thompson Square all reside on Broken Bow and bow in on the track list, most with two contributions.
And if you were hoping that maybe they would approach this thing with the Merle spirit, just listen to what Luke Bryan has to say about his very ”Mumford & Sons” take on “Pancho & Lefty”: “The original had a Spanish-Mexican flair. We took a real different approach with it …. something with some edge that moves along pretty good. It’s an interesting take.”
Something else interesting: They begged Garth Brooks to allow them to use his cover of “Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down” from his recent blockbuster Blame It All On My Roots box set. But just like the box set, you can only get the song if you buy the tribute from Wal-Mart.
Complicating the love-hate relationship a true Merle fan might have with this compilation, the ACM Awards being held April 6th are planning to bestow Merle Haggard with a Crystal Milestone Award as part of the ACM festivities, with this tribute as the centerpiece. Once again, it’s great to see the ACM’s or anyone in the mainstream acknowledge Merle (even if it’s half a decade after Taylor Swift was given the same Crystal Milestone Award), but you wonder how much of this is just a platform for Broken Bow to display their own talent.
Luckily if you’re looking for Merle Haggard tributes with not as many question marks swirling around them, there’s been a few of great ones released recently. Suzy Bogguss released Lucky last month: a 12-song tribute to The Hag. And Vince Gill with Paul Franklin paid tribute to Merle & Buck Owens last year with Bakersfield.
Track list for Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard:
- Misery and Gin, Randy Houser
- Footlights, Joe Nichols
- Going Where the Lonely Go, Jason Aldean
- Today I Started Loving You Again, Kristy Lee Cook
- Carolyn, Toby Keith
- Pancho and Lefty, Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley
- Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down, Garth Brooks (Walmart edition only)
- You Take Me for Granted, Thompson Square
- Mama Tried, Ben Haggard
- That’s the Way Love Goes, Dustin Lynch
- Make Up and Faded Blue Jeans, Jake Owen
- I’m a Lonesome Fugitive, James Wesley
- Workin’ Man Blues, Parmalee
- Are the Good Times Really Over, Jason Aldean
- Let’s Chase Each Other Around the Room, Thompson Square
- I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink, Dustin Lynch
- The Fightin’ Side of Me, James Wesley
- My Favorite Memory, Joe Nichols
- Ramblin’ Fever, Randy Houser
- Sing Me Back Home, Ben Haggard
Oh Kevin Fowler, what are we going to do with you?
If anyone rolled up to this article, saw Kevin Fowler’s name, and without reading another word navigated down to the comments section to elucidate just what a cheese dick he is and how much they hate his face, I couldn’t blame them. Not that the guy doesn’t deserve kudos when considering his entire body of work and what he’s done on and off the stage to help the entirety of the “Texas scene” get its feet under it, but the guy has the propensity to put out some of the most plastic banana bullshit songs you can imagine, and during pretty much the entirety of his career, this has been the material out in front, defining who Kevin Fowler is. Remember when he was running around with women’s underwear on his head, singing a country rap song with Colt Ford? I rest my case.
Let’s face it, Kevin Fowler is kind of a shallow, good-timing dude. Fun at parties, but he’s not going to go all Jason Isbell on your ass and get you crying over an emotionally-charged Cancer song. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with that either, nor do songs like “Hip Hop In A Honky Tonk” or “Pound Sign” necessarily portray his entire body of work fairly.
But here he is doing himself no favors, and lending all sorts of fuel to the bonfires of his detractors by putting out an album with a wild-ass, caricaturist cover, a caricaturist title track, complete with an intro by Earl Dibbles Jr. doing his “crack a cold one” bit, and right off the bat you feel like you’re beholding the Disney version of Texas country.
When I first surveyed this album, you have no idea how much I was licking my chops to use it as the sacrificial lamb in my want to expound on how Texas country can many times be just as bad as Music Row, and in fact seems to be trending more in that direction every year. But I’ll be damned if Kevin Fowler didn’t instill enough redeeming songs and redeeming qualities to this album to where I’d feel like a bully doing anything but saying the good probably outweighs the bad.
To begin with, this is a country record. And when I say country, I mean it is positively drenched in pedal steel, with fiddle and twangy guitar right out front throughout the album, with not really any of the rock-driven sound that at times has defined Fowler’s career. From a music standpoint, and even with some of the songwriting, How Country Are Ya? is pretty smack dab in sort of that early 90′s Alan Jackson, hard country sound with a propensity for a few silly songs and an upbeat kick. Maybe Kevin Fowler is benefiting from mainstream country moving so far away from the traditional sound that his country rock flavor now feels more like authentic honky tonk, but even then I think this is a pretty purely country record through and through.
And I’ll be damned if there isn’t some pretty damn good songs here too. The tracks are quick and catchy. It’s almost like a punk album in the way the songs just seem to fly by. “Before Someone Gets Hurt,” “If I Could Make A Livin’ Drinkin’” and “Girls I Go With,” these are pretty good songs. Like Kevin Fowler says himself in the track “Panhandle Poorboy,” he’s just sort of a simple guy from the Texas plains, and I’m not sure if his lack of a deep poetic brain muscles is something we should let get in the way of enjoying the music. How Country Are Ya? even has an instrumental; the very fun “Mousturdonus”.
At the same time, there’s some real stinkers here, especially to start you off. It’s not that How Country Are Ya? is laundry list or “bro country” per se, it’s that Kevin Fowler makes his own little universe of redundancies and clichés with the sheer amount of drinking songs he does on this album and along his entire body of work. This is unfortunate because taken alone, songs like “If I Could Make A Livin’ Drinkin’” and “Whiskey and I” are really pretty good. He also has a propensity to really rehash tired country themes like “Habit I Can’t Break” comparing quitting cigarettes to quitting a girl; this has got to have been done 100 times by now, or the blatantly obvious “Borracho Grande.” “These day José Cuervo, he’s my only amigo…” Yeah, okay Kevin, could have left this one on the cutting house floor, despite the music for the song being pretty cool.
I wanted to hate this album, and I didn’t. And for a guy that once put Fowler on a “blacklist” (whatever that means) for collaborating with Colt Ford, I guess that’s saying something positive about this album even beyond the specific praises about the country instrumentation and some of the songs. At the sake of sounding blatantly obvious, Fowler could really benefit from reeling in all the bits and and drinking songs, but guess what, that’s him. He’s a wise ass. And where his last album was made with the enemy in Average Joe’s Entertainment (Colt Ford’s label), this one is on his own label. Hidden behind all the antics might be a retrenching of sorts for Fowler on this album, and though you may not like all the results, you can’t fault the man for being himself.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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In 2011, when Jason Aldean’s country rap song “Dirt Road Anthem” became the best selling song in all of country music, the genre’s impending dalliance with rap was ordained. Though the sub genre had been brewing under the surface for many years, and quite successfully for some acts, it had now hit it big, and it was only a matter of time before you would see country music’s top performers experiment with the genre bending style.
When “Dirt Road Anthem” hit, artists like Cowboy Troy and “Dirt Road Anthem” co-writer Colt Ford had already made successful careers out of country rap for years, despite not being able to rise to the level of mainstream radio acceptance. There were many other acts doing very well at the club level with country rap, like The Moonshine Bandits, Bubba Sparxxx, and The Lacs. Country rap even had much of its own infrastructure, and despite the suspicion it was eyed with from the mainstream, most country rap acts were able to post videos and get views in the millions, Wal-Mart was stocking hick hop on their shelves, while labels like Average Joes, started by Colt Ford, offered material support to some of the bigger country rap acts.
When Music Row decided rap was its future and a potential vehicle to drive the genre out of the malaise it suffered with the rest of music in the decade of the oughts, there were a number of ways the influence could be integrated into the genre. Major labels could sign or otherwise champion already-established country rap acts like Colt Ford and The Moonshine Bandits. Or they could try to impose the new style with already-established mainstream stars who had proven they were palatable with the American public. The latter is the path country rap eventually took. Despite the success of “Dirt Road Anthem,” the song had fought an uphill battle on radio itself. Programmers were suspicious of country rap, and artists like Tim McGraw and Blake Shelton who would later release their own country rap songs, were a known quantity and already under contract compared to unproven talent like Bubba Sparxxx or The Lacs.
But 2012 came, and it was mostly quiet on the country rap front from a mainstream standpoint. As Saving Country Music pointed out in the story Mono-Genre Watch: 2012 End-Of-Year Sales,
2012 did not see either a dominant country-rap single, album, or artist. Rap is still asserting itself as an influence in country, but may not be finding the commercial strength it needs to stick. 2012 mono-genre songs like Tim McGraw’s “Truck Yeah” underperformed to expectations, never cracking Billboard’s Top 10 on the country chart.
But Music Row is notoriously 18 months behind the relevancy cycle. “Dirt Road Anthem” had taken the industry by surprise, and it took over a year for country’s major labels to retool to the new country rap reality. Then by 2013, country rap came out in full force, with virtually all of mainstream country’s big male stars releasing rap/country songs. Reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year Blake Shelton released “Boys ‘Round Here” to a #2 chart showing and double platinum sales. ACM Entertainer of the Year Luke Bryan released country rap “That’s My Kind of Night” that spent a whopping twelve weeks at #1, and was the song to finally depose another country rap-inspired single “Cruise” by upstart Florida Georgia Line that became the longest-running #1 song in the history of country music.
But 2014 has been a different story already. Whereas 2013 seemed to be dominated by country rap singles, 2014 has so far been the story of EDM, or Electronic Dance Music. Though EDM and hip hop can sometimes be mistaken for each other, especially to the country consumer’s ear and because the two disciplines have numerous similarities (use of electronic beats, sampling, and rapping instead of singing in some instances), there are also many clear differences between the two disciplines.
When Jerrod Niemann released his single “Drink To That All Night” in the second half of 2013, country music’s EDM cherry had been popped, and it seemed to be a harbinger for things to come in the country format. Interestingly the single underperformed in most of 2013, but has been creeping up the charts in early 2014, reaching its highest chart ranking in the last week of February. Though the argument can be made that Jerrod Niemann is still rapping instead of singing, “Drink To That All Night” is full of EDM earmarks: the heavily Auto-tuned electronic-sounding vocals, the digitized beats, and most-importantly the emphasis on perfectitude in the music as opposed to the fallibility of a live, traditional band lineup playing real instruments, reinforced in the video of the song that heavily refers to the EDM/dance club culture instead of the country honky tonk.
Many of the lead singles from country music’s big 2014 album releases from male artists lean heavily towards EDM influences, most notably Tim McGraw’s “Lookin’ For That Girl” with it’s heavily-digitized vocal track and electronic beat bed. Rascal Flatt’s “Rewind” incorporates many EDM elements. And Brantley Gilbert, one of the other co-writers of “Dirt Road Anthem,” his latest single “Bottoms Up” sounds much less like a country rap, and more like a country/EDM effort with more melody to the vocals, and the signature electronic drum bed and digitization of instrumentation.
First, don’t count country rap out. There are certainly more country rap singles from big, mainstream country artists in the pipeline that we’re likely to hear in 2014, if they ever go away completely in the more global trend of the formation of a mono-genre. And in the independent realm, acts like The Lacs and Moonshine Bandits are likely to remain sustainable commodities.
But despite a few lucrative singles, country rap was very hit and miss in the mainstream. The aforementioned “Truck Yeah” by Tim McGraw seemed like an unfortunate career move. Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” followup called “1994″ was a general flop in comparison, stalling in the charts despite a heavy push behind the song. Brad Paisley’s much-ridiculed “Accidental Racist” with LL Cool J wasn’t even released as a single. In the end, mainstream country stars just didn’t make good rappers. Country music is for crooners and twang, and even though these elements are generally lacking in present-day country music anyway, this was the foundation of these singer’s discipline, and rapping never stopped feeling foreign to them, their audience, and most importantly, radio programmers.
EDM on the other hand is a “no experience required” format when it comes to singing. The purposefully heavy Auto-tuned environment allows the performer to simply hit close approximations of the melody the song is built around, and then the studio hands take over from there.
However just like with rap, country music is horrifically late when it comes to the EDM game. The argument that was made during the integration of rap into country is that country music had to evolve. What the people making that argument failed to realize is that rap was already a 30-year-old art form when it made its appearance in country’s mainstream. Similarly, many of the EDM elements we’re seeing in country—especially Auto-tuned lyrics—are already considered outmoded in most other mainstream music.
Similarly, the relevancy arch has moved on in many ways from the heavy electronic sound. An EDM act in Daft Punk dominated the Grammy Awards held in January, and they did so with a live sound. Instead of starting with electronic beats and synthesized hooks, Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories featured live, human instrumentation and vocals with minimal electronic treatment. This was the formula that won them 5 Grammy Awards, including Best Album and Best Record. In the end it is not the EDM elements in country music that make it bad, just like rapping in a country song isn’t something that can be completely ruled out as a valid form of expression if it is done in a fresh, artistic way. It is the poor implementation—the awkwardness of the integration of the two influences, and the submissive pose country takes towards EDM and rap—that makes it so polarizing.
Whether it was country rap in 2013, or EDM influences in 2014, it speaks to a systemic problem with country music that the format deems itself inadequate and feels the need integrate influences from other genres to stay relevant, following instead of leading, and making excuses of why it can still be cool instead of educating the public on country music’s inherent virtues.
Just last week, Saving Country Music showcased some quotes from Staind frontman and country artist Aaron Lewis who had some disparaging things to say about some of the current trends in pop country to the Marion Star newspaper in Ohio.
“I think there’s enough beer on the beach, partying on the tailgate, driving around in a pickup truck, moonshine songs,” Lewis said in part. “I think that everything has been pretty well beaten to death … There’s a song out right now that’s a big single for a big act, and at the very end of the song you can hear a banjo come up in the mix for four measures. And you’re like, ‘Oh, there’s the country aspect of it. Now I get it.’ But that is not country music, I’m sorry.”
On Friday, Jan. 24th, Aaron Lewis was playing a show at the Thirsty Cowboy in Medina, Ohio, and during his set he decided to take the recent #1 song “Redneck Crazy” by Tyler Farr to task. The controversial tune portrays a jilted male stalking his ex-girlfriend, including driving up onto her lawn and throwing beer cans at her, and was accompanyied by a ridiculous video featuring Duck Dynasty stars and Colt Ford. The song solicited a scathing rant from Saving Country Music in October.
“I fucking hate this song,” Aaron Lewis told the Thirsty Cowboy crowd. “I just always thought the message of this song was pretty fucked up. But obviously, a lot of people related to it ’cause it went to #1, go figure.”
Lewis continues, “So last weekend I was at my buddy’s house watching the Patriots game, and my buddy Zach started playing this song and I was like, ‘Ah fuck, don’t play that fucking song.’ And then I started listening to the lyrics and he’d re-written the entire song in kind of an answer to the original song.”
The alternative version called “Redneck Crazy Revisited” was written by a songwriter named Zach Woods. “There’s a lack of character reflected in a lot of what you hear in popular country today,” says Zach. “And no matter which way you spin it, ‘…the kind of man that shows up at your house at 3 AM’ is not the kind of man anyone would want their daughters or sons hanging around with.”
So here you go ladies and gentlemen, the worst of the worst that 2013 had to offer in country music. As you might suspect, a list of mainstream country’s worst misdeeds in 2013 is mostly populated by an ear-serrating cacophony of country rap songs. With only a couple of exceptions, country rap has replaced what last year at this time was a parade of laundry list-themed songs.
PLEASE NOTE: To qualify for this list, the song had to be released as a single. And with such a crowded field, only the worst of the worst were selected. Feel free to share your most vilified songs of 2013 below.
Jason Aldean – “1994″
When I originally ranted about this song in February, I called it the worst country song ever. If I only knew what the rest of 2013 would have in store.
“In Music Row’s everlasting quest to train all of its resources on scouring America to unearth only the finest, most purest form of audio diarrhea, they have struck the mother of all motherloads originating from the unholy bowels of Macon, Georgia’s Jason Aldean. Yes Nashville, pat yourself on the back, let all of the Auto-Tuned stars sing out in unison as Stratocasters bray out a cacophony of stadium rock riffs in unified celebration–you have officially discovered the shittiest country music song to ever touch the human ear drum.
Do I understand the levity and the long history of country music that must be considered to declare “1994″ the worst country song that has ever been released? Yes, yes I do. And yet I still stand firmly behind that opinion.” (read full rant)
Florida Georgia Line – “Cruise”
What can make a bad song worse is when it becomes so ubiquitous throughout society that it pursues you like a bad nightmare—playing at the grocery store, blaring out of the car next to you at a red light. “Cruise” was officially released in 2012, but since this was the year it achieved historical success as the longest-running #1 in the history of the country genre (though that record when you look deeper into the numbers is somewhat spurious), it would only be fair to include 2013′s summer anthem here.
“Originating from the Republic Nashville imprint of Big Machine Records, the duo consisting of Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley met while attending the Mike Curb College of Music at Nashville’s private and exclusive Belmont University. I know, right? Doesn’t get more country than that! Apparently they were both enrolled in the “How To Be A Upper Middle Class Douchebag But Pretend To Be A Country Boy And Filch Rednecks Out Of Their Hard Earned Money, 101″ class. They made eyes across the classroom, and afterwards discussed their mutual desire for world music domination over $175 haircuts, manscaping, and colonics. Next thing you know, Florida Georgia Line is born.
Florida Georgia Line is a horrible combination of Rascal Flatts pretty boy hyper-pop, and designer jeans Jason Aldean “backroad” laundry list bullshit. They are everything bad about quotation mark “country” in 2012 combined into one big stuffed crotch sandwich.” (read full rant)
Blake Shelton – “Boys ‘Round Here”
“The Decider’s” offering to the 2013 resurgence of the country rap trend.
“Just when we thought the American public was finally getting wise to the fact that country rap is a Cancer of Western Civilization, needing to be cut out and radiated like the grapefruit-sized, puss-filled tumor it is, here it comes roaring back like a raging case of bleeding hemorrhoids.
“Blake Shelton’s “Boys ‘Round Here” is songwriting by algorithm and analytics, fashioning together words and sounds known to have the widest impact on mainstream radio’s weak-of-mind demo. The “boys” in the title of “Boys ‘Round Here” is fitting, because this song is rank immaturity. It’s the audio equivalent of sneaking out of your mom’s house to smoke pot behind a Pizza Hut.” (read full review)
Montgomery Gentry – “Titty’s Beer”
Yes, this actually exists, was even released as a single with an accompanying video.
“This isn’t a cry for relevancy folks, this is a blood-curdling scream; a banshee yawp from the innermost depths of holy hell, destined to beset the eardrums of all rationally-minded music listeners with a cursed memory so potent and terrible, it will be well-documented as a clinically-certified precursor to the most acute and debilitating onset of post traumatic stress disorder, terrorizing the very sanity of any semi-intelligent human.
“If a truly good country song is represented by a delicate pair of supple female breasts, then Montgomery Gentry’s “Titty’s Beer” would be a rack of cellulose-addled man boobs replete with coarse and graying disheveled chest hair, pock marked with skin Cancer and bisected by a grizzly double bypass scar. Originally recorded by the Country Music Grimmace Colt Ford, “Titty’s Beer” is an ode to idiocracy and a battle hymn for the forces of misogynistic cultural reduction. The premise doesn’t even make sense, but you can see some oaf going, “Well hell. I like titties, and I like beer, so….” (read full rant)
Joe Diffie feat. D. Thrash – “Girl Ridin’ Shotgun”
What is worse than Jason Aldean’s “1994″ ? Joe Diffie’s “answer” song.
“Did you feel that Oklahoma? That was the earth tremor caused by your native son Joe Diffie selling out so violently it measured 2.1 on the Richter scale. The mulleted, cop mustached 90′s semi-star has released an “answer” song to what many consider the worst song in country music history, Jason Aldean’s country rap “1994,” and it is as embarrassing as puberty.
“The beats for “Girl Ridin’ Shotgun” sound like they were composed by a 7th grader who just snorted his ADD meds, just like all of the beats of the Jawga Boyz’s bombastic and trashy tracks. The beat doesn’t even get five seconds into the song without going off meter. There’s biscuit crumbs in Joe Diffie’s mustache that could compose a better beat. And then D Thrash’s first line doesn’t even rhyme. Are you effing serious with this song? “Girl Ridin’ Shotgun” makes me want to make out with my cousin and bet on a dog fight.” (read full rant)
Tyler Farr – “Redneck Crazy”
There’s bad, and then there’s downright wrong. Tyler Farr’s “Redneck Crazy” crosses that line.
“Tyler Farr’s “Redneck Crazy” isn’t for jilted male lovers looking for solace, it is for socially awkward, introverted, creepy-ass chronic masturbaters that hold a minor in megalomania. This song doesn’t need a rant, it needs a restraining order and ankle bracelet. It’s an insult to both the terms “redneck” and “crazy.” True rednecks ride their problems out, rub their wounds in the dirt and move on, not whine about them like a panty waist, eliciting threats and enlisting their loser friends to enact adolescent acts of vandalism as some sort of self-righteous recompense.”
“About the only thing this song is good for is turning in for state’s evidence of why Tyler Farr shouldn’t be allowed within 200 yards of his ex’s or any elementary school.” (read full rant)
Luke Bryan – “That’s My Kind Of Night”
Outmatched only by Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” for the longest-charting single in 2013.
“Let’s start this off by dispatching with the 700 lb gorilla in the room and say what everyone is thinking, but few are willing to say publicly: The only reason Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind Of Night” is a #1 song is because bored suburban moms and their daughters want to fuck him. Luke Bryan’s music has the nutritional value of notebook paper, and is the clinical result of when an entertainer spreads his arms wide in a submissive pose and relents his entire will to the country music industrial complex, saying “Do your worst.” Luke Bryan has no soul. He is more machine than man. He has the integrity of a Guatemalan mule bridge with a squadron of M1 tanks trying to cross it. “That’s My Kind of Night” is like a diabolically-specialized form of audio diarrhea that marries the ideal ratio of water to solids so when it is sent through an industrial fan it inflicts the widest collateral damage on as many people as possible.
“A little Conway a little T-Pain?” Yep, that pretty much sums up American music in 2013, sans the Conway—replaced by Luke Bryan and his vomit-inducing country rap trend-chasing ilk.” (read full rant)
Jerrod Niemann – “Drink To That All Night”
Listening to this song is as traumatic as waking up naked in a stranger’s bed, with pacifiers and spent glowsticks littering the sheets around you, other people’s bodily fluids encrusting on your bare skin of your midriff, your eyebrows shaved, and the unsettled sense like you spent the night before indulging in designer drugs and weird sex against your will. Yes ladies and gentlemen, in 2013, country music when there—to the techno-rave glitterdance sounds of Jerrod Niemann and his woman’s ball cap that he got on clearance from Ross.
When the words kick in to this awful, awful song, you think it must be some sort of Saturday Night Live parody. But no, this song is a serious single from Jerrod. Luckily it skidded off the charts pretty rapidly, but “Drink To That All Night” symbolizes another new low for country music in 2013, with an excruciatingly-boring video.
- Darius Rucker’s version of “Wagon Wheel,” spared only from the above list because in the end “Wagon Wheel,” however ubiquitous, is still a good song.
- Justin Moore’s country rap “I’d Want It To Be Yours,” spared from the above list because it was never released as a single, and because it was released at the insistence of Scott Borchetta.
- Brad Paisley’s haphazard and ill-advised “Accidental Racist.” Also never officially released as a single.
- Any song from Florida-Georgia Line, including the stupid “Shine On” and the just-released single “It’z Just What We Do.”
In mid October, Toby Keith lent his voice to the litany of artists criticizing modern country music in one capacity or another, specifically taking on the recent country rap trend, telling Country Weekly, “You hear the hip-hop thing start kicking in, and you start going, ‘Is that what we gotta do now to have a hit? Is that what I need every one of my songs to sound like now?’” The comments came in the context of Keith explaining how hard it is to get a country-sounding song played on the radio.
In another recent interview with Country 92.5 in Connecticut (listen below), Keith expanded on his statements, saying that his remarks weren’t a “diss,” but then doubled down on his opinion that rap shouldn’t be a predominant part of the country format.
I started that stuff with “[I Wanna] Talk About Me”… I think it’s cool to step out and do something like that, I just don’t think it’s cool to make a living doing that….It’s cool to step out and do some R&B stuff. It’s cool to step out and do some rock stuff. It’s cool to do traditional country. But at the end of the day if you’re gonna be a country artist, I don’t think you just keep making a living off of turning country into hip-hop songs. I think the hip-hop artists would get tired of listening to you do bad country.
Artist like Colt Ford, Cowboy Troy, and even more mainstream artists like Florida Georgia Line regularly release singles that feature country rap, while some of country’s biggest male stars like Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean have released multiple country rap singles. Keith also opens up the conversation about how country rap is viewed by a hip hop community that may be just as disappointed about what is happening with rap as many country fans are with country when the two formats mix.
Toby Keith’s “I Wanna Talk About Me” released in 2001 is given credit for being one of the first modern country rap songs, though at the time Keith was quoted as saying about it, “They’re going to call it a rap, [although] there ain’t nobody doing rap who would call it a rap.” The song was written by Country Music Hall of Famer Bobby Braddock, and was originally slated to be released by Blake Shelton before being turned down as “too risky.” Later in the interview with Country 92.5, Keith left open the possibility of doing country rap in the future, but only as a one-off collaboration instead of a sonic direction for his music.
My son played on an elite football team that played Canada in San Antonio and Snoop Dogg’s son was on the team too. And we met down there and I had “Red Solo Cup” out then and he was going, “Man I need to get in the studio with you and hit on some of that ‘Red Solo Cup.’” I’d love to. Me and Snoop would be fun. It wasn’t a diss as much as a do what you do, but get in your zone if you’re
going to be country.
What Eric Church’s detractors are reluctant or unwilling to admit is that when it comes to the very top of country music’s male talent, Eric Church outlasts his competition in both substance and imagination. Of course that says just as much about the vacuum of creativity at the top of mainstream country as it does Eric Church’s aptitude. But while country’s men are stuck in an ever-devolving rut of laundry list raps and rehashed platitudes, Eric Church has been, and continues to try and strike new ground. He may be rude and arrogant, he may be as calculating and image-driven as any. But dammit, he’s innovative.
His last album Chief won the Album of the Year from both the CMA and ACM in the last awards cycle, as it probably should have compared to its competition. Eric Church will never win the popularity contests like “Entertainer” or “Male Vocalist” categories because he’s made more enemies than friends in the industry and beyond. But his music’s unpredictability is the magic quotient that can’t be denied, and continues to win him loyal fans.
It’s been well over 2 years since Eric released his last album, and time was beginning to wear thin on him being able to continue the positive momentum that crowned Church an arena-level draw in near record time. And so chasing a rather cryptic video released a few days ago comes a new radio single called “The Outsiders.” As to be expected, the song is driven by the hard rock guitar that has become Eric’s signature, as well as an avant-garde approach to structure and flow.
Yes, “The Outsiders” is unpredictable. Yes it is innovative. But that’s about where the accolades end for this muddy mess of a tune that offers virtually no direction, is void of narrative, and does not really even build a cohesive groove to hang its hat on. Sure, Church may steer clear of ice cold beer and pickup trucks, but he runs into a wall trying to produce some modern country version of a prog rock opera, complete with chamber choir (or a synthetic version thereof), a weird Les Claypool-style bass guitar break speed bumping the song smack dab in the middle, giving way to a synthesized interlude that sounds like it ripped off the soundtrack to an 8-bit video game before the song resolves in an unbridled wank off of hair metal stunt guitar.
“The Outsiders” is an attempt to write and produce a song by aggregating popular sonic elements and trying to squeeze them together instead of simply drawing a story and three chords from inspiration. The result is a Frankenstein-like monster; a colossus of corporate music that threatens to kill its makers. Though this type of machination might be acceptable, or even appreciated in some outer fringes of the metal world, in the country music format it’s downright laughable.
The message of “The Outsiders” draws upon Eric Church’s already-established marketing angle as an anti-star that represents the “rest of us” that have been disenfranchised by all the pretty, normal people. “We’re the other ones. It’s a different kind of cloth that were cut from,” Eric says, and then carries this theme throughout the song. Though this rhetoric may be tempting to the downtrodden, falling for its message is no less conformist that sporting a Florida Georgia line T-shirt. The overt nature of Church’s demographic baiting in “The Outsiders” is downright striking. Combined with the imagery from the initial “Outsiders” video, Eric looks to be wanting to make an army of misfits, and crown himself supreme leader.
This song has only been out for a day, and already a lot has been made of if this song should be considered country rap, or if Church is simply calling on a spoken cadence. I would say it is a little of both, which again touches on the manic, unsettled, unspecified, and confused nature of this song. Church more than likely wants to take advantage of the trend of avoiding melody in the verses, but doesn’t have the balls to go all Colt Ford on our asses. Lines like, “A players gonna play and a haters gonna hate,” and “that’s how we roll” may tip the scales of judgement towards the rap side of the world. But if you ask me, the rap vs. spoken word argument would only be worth the breath if “The Outsiders” had any redeeming value. Rap or not, it’s simply a bad, prog metal song being forced on the country format.
I don’t see this song becoming a commercial hit either. It’s way too confusing; way too fey. If Eric’s A&R folks decide to give it the hard sell to radio and maybe cut off the second half (which is a distinct possibility), it may raise a blimp on radio. But the majority of mainstream folks outside of Eric Church’s “Church Choir” will simply look at it sideways a wait for the next Luke Bryan ass shaker to wipe the memories of this weird song from their palette.
It’s simply one song, and shouldn’t be taken as the ultimate signifier of what to expect from Eric Church for his next two-year album cycle. But it sure doesn’t start it off with a good foot. Innovative or not, this one feels dramatically, dramatically overthought.
2 guns down.
I don’t know what to say folks, except that maybe country music’s 2013 collective mission to find the absolute lowest depths of stupidity in song was accomplished so unequivocally with Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind Of Night” and Jason Aldean’s “1994″ that a new mission had to be named to explore the innermost reaches of emotional depravity bordering on downright psychotic tendencies, and that’s how this song came into being.
I’ve never heard a song whose mood is so befuddled and whose message is so depraved this side of Satan rock. Is this supposed to be a deep, heartbreak song, or a ‘bro” anthem filled with sarcasm? I don’t even know if Tyler Farr could answer that question. This song and video doesn’t offer any entertainment, it just makes you want to deadbolt your doors, ammo up, and clinch your loved ones a little closer.
Tyler Farr’s “Redneck Crazy” isn’t for jilted male lovers looking for solace, it is for socially awkward, introverted, creepy-ass chronic masturbaters that hold a minor in megalomania. This song doesn’t need a rant, it needs a restraining order and ankle bracelet. It’s an insult to both the terms “redneck” and “crazy.” True rednecks ride their problems out, rub their wounds in the dirt and move on, not whine about them like a panty waist, eliciting threats and enlisting their loser friends to enact adolescent acts of vandalism as some sort of self-righteous recompense.
Look at some of the lines in this creep fest:
“Gonna drive like hell through your neighborhood
Park this Silverado on your front lawn
Crank up a little Hank, sit on the hood and drink
I’m about to get my pissed off on”
“I’m gonna aim my headlights into your bedroom windows
Throw empty beer cans at both of your shadows
I didn’t come here to start a fight, but I’m up for anything tonight
You know you broke the wrong heart baby, and drove me redneck crazy”
Listen Tyler Farr, if you’re going to go recording some weird-ass soundtrack to your stalking escapades, do me a favor and keep the holy name of the great Hiram King Williams out of your demented claptrap, okay?
And this might be the worst line of all:
“Nah, he can’t amount to much by the look of that little truck
Well he wont be getting any sleep tonight”
No wonder you can’t get laid you loser, because if you think being a man means having a big truck and a bunch of cool camouflage shit, then you’re nothing but a little boy still playing G.I. Joe stuck in a man’s body. Just because you have a camo guitar and play with your privates doesn’t make you “Army Strong” Tyler. The fact that you’re making fun of the size of a man’s truck says less about that man and more about your own inadequacies, and the powerful sway they have over your emotional sense of self-worth.
Get over it Tyler. Put a napkin on your vag and quit acting like the world owes you just because you’re an emotionally-underdeveloped and shallow douche prick with no game. The saddest part is, “Redneck Crazy” is the type of stupid shit that passes for “deep” these days. And yes folks, I know this song wasn’t written by Tyler Farr, but a troika of professional songwriters. That’s even more scary—that in a cubicle farm somewhere there’s bean counters pouring over demographic data and concluding, “There’s not enough songs about psychos threatening physical violence against their ex’s on country radio. We feel it is time to exploit this niche.”
And who the hell is Tyler Farr anyway? Where did this dude come from? A few weeks ago I’d never heard the name, and now this is the #1 song in country music? I went to his wiki page and it had less substance than this song, probably because his shallow fans ran out of time on their free AOL disks, or won’t touch a computer unless it’s wrapped in camo tape. And while we’re on that, quit with the stupid-ass camo everything. Yeah, it was cute when Brad Paisley came out playing a camo guitar in 2008, but more and more camo is just a way to camoflauge the emotional frailty and insecurities of grown-up babies like Tyler Farr whose true redneck identity only runs as deep as his $170.00 Bass Pro Shop camo waders.
And as is the norm these days, the video for the song does it one worse, with cameos from these Duck Dynasty guys and the country music Grimmace, Colt Ford. Come on, bringing Clot Ford on a covert mission would be like shoving a bowling ball down your pants before running a marathon. Hell, if you want him to be useful, leech a liposuction hose to his commodious midriff and spray his superfluous fat at this poor chick’s abode. I hear human cellulite is even more hell to remove from house siding than egg white. And if you watch the end of the video, tenderfoot Tyler Farr tumps his glorified golf cart while trying to make a basic turn. Just like Luke Bryan, these lugs love to sing about the outdoors in their songs, but when you get them off the pavement, they’re like a fish out of water.
About the only thing this song is good for is turning in for state’s evidence of why Tyler Farr shouldn’t be allowed within 200 yards of his ex’s or any elementary school.
You aren’t “Redneck Crazy” Tyler, you’re just really, really creepy.
Two guns way down!
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.
So many of pop country’s celebrities have such a vacuous amount of life skills, without being propped up as pretty faces by the country music industry, they’d be clueless in the real world. Others probably have some skills outside of singing into Auto-tuners at concerts, and that’s probably what they should be doing instead of trying to be artists.
Always wanting to be helpful here at Saving Country Music, we have compiled some ideas/suggestions of what some big pop country stars could do if they had to find other employment.
Star: Justin Moore
Yes, because he’s barely tall enough to ride the Tilt-A-Whirl, and is no more than 95 pounds soaking wet. Gotta work what God gave you.
Star: Joe Diffie
Profession: Mall Cop
“No Mr. Diffie, no need to cut the mullet or shave the mustache. You’ll fit right in here at The Shops at Westcreek.”
Star: Gary LeVox of Rascal Flatts
Profession: Gynecologist / Youth Minister / Celebrity Chef / Professional Karaoke Singer
I know, quite a breadth of professions. But with hair that great, the possibilities are endless!
Star: Brantley Gilbert
Profession: MMA-World Ball Sack Sniffer
He can pump iron and down copious amounts of steroids, but doesn’t have the instincts or smarts to actually handle it mono e mono in the octagon. So he stands in a corner with a towel thrown over his shoulder, holding a water bottle, waiting to wipe up a nosebleed and maybe pick off a sloppy second groupie stumbling away from one of the contenders.
Star: Brain Kelley of Florida Georgia Line
Profession: Mannequin / Wallflower
Doesn’t really sing, doesn’t really play guitar. This dude does less than Congress.
Star: Colt Ford
Profession: Grimmace at McDonaldland / Transvestite Truck Driver
I don’t know what mental image is more disturbing: Colt Ford cooped up in a big purple suit (just imagine the butt sweat), or his rippling thighs confined by fishnets, with a dash of eau de toilette perfuming his pasty inner thighs. (Worth noting he tried his hand at professional golf for a while.)
Star: Luke Bryan
Profession: Male Stripper
You may want to check the ID’s on some of those girls, Luke.
Star: Gretchen Wilson
Profession: Leg Breaker / Diesel Mechanic
She can beat you at arm wrestling, or strip down an engine and machine your headers all before lunch.
Star: Dave Haywood of Lady Antebellum
Profession: Non-threatening male elementary school teacher / puppeteer
Has there ever been a more emasculated star in the history of country music?
Profession: Roided-out, AA-level, baseball wash out
Aldean actually almost went to college on a baseball scholarship and had some moderate skills in that direction. Our ears could’ve only been so lucky….
Star: Kenney Chesney
Profession: Sandals / flowery shorts model
Oh great, yet another damn song about hanging out on the beach. And what the hell’s going on in this photo? Does he even have pants on?
Star: Blake Shelton
Profession: Manure Shoveler
After all, isn’t that what his initials stand for?
This isn’t a cry for relevancy folks, this is a blood-curdling scream; a banshee yawp from the innermost depths of holy hell, destined to beset the eardrums of all rationally-minded music listeners with a cursed memory so potent and terrible, it will be well-documented as a clinically-certified precursor to the most acute and debilitating onset of post traumatic stress disorder, terrorizing the very sanity of any semi-intelligent human.
If a truly good country song is represented by a delicate pair of supple female breasts, then Montgomery Gentry’s “Titty’s Beer” would be a rack of cellulose-addled man boobs replete with coarse and graying disheveled chest hair, pock marked with skin Cancer and bisected by a grizzly double bypass scar.
Originally recorded by the Country Music Grimmace Colt Ford, “Titty’s Beer” is an ode to idiocracy and a battle hymn for the forces of misogynistic cultural reduction. The premise doesn’t even make sense, but you can see some oaf going, “Well hell. I like titties, and I like beer, so….” And no folks, this isn’t some buried album cut from the once high flying country duo, this song has its own video and is being pushed hard to the teeming masses.
Oh the poor Troy Gentry, trying to stay hip by squeezing his doughy, middle-aged chub into an extra-shrunk child’s medium Affliction shirt, while the steamy day stimulates beads of Just For Men dye solution to roll down his wrinkled brow buffed over with multiple layers of man-formulated Maybelline. This silly arse is even rocking the wallet chains, just like all of those cool, hip male pop country acts. You know, the ones that actually still sell records?
And what’s up with Eddie Montgomery in this song and video? This dude is doing even less shit than Brian Kelley of Florida Georgia Line does. The video is clearly being shot in the blinding heat of summer, with chicks in bikinis running around everywhere, and yet this dumbass is duded up like he’s ready to take the stagecoach over the Continental Dive in the dead of a Wyoming winter. Eddie Montgomery must have more sweat cascading down his ass crack than the water of the roaring rapids in the wild and scenic Snake River.
And somebody take that stupid microphone stand Eddie’s poking the crowd with away before he punctures a slew of silicone boobs and they have call out the Hazmat unit for a chemical spill. Seriously, there’s more synthetic components embedded in that crowd of floozies than in a semi-truck full of iPhones.
The worst part about “Titty’s Beer” is that the song doesn’t even work on any fundamental level. There’s actually a legacy in country music that uses innuendo and wordplay to veil sexually-charged content that can be both witty and entertaining. But “Titty’s Beer” bears it all, leaving nothing to the imagination.
Two guns way down!
On July 4th, The Wall Street Journal posted a rather lengthy, in-depth look into The Unlikely Rise of Hick Hop. Focusing in tighter than the more broad country rap phenomenon that is gripping mainstream country music in 2013, the Journal draws parallels between the rural recreational sport of “muddin’” and the emergence of artists that use a rapping style set to country lyrical themes in a tight knit underground that doesn’t rely on traditional radio play for support. Saving Country Music has talked about many of these bands in the past like the Jawga Boys and Moonshine Bandits, and how they are able to garner tremendous loyalty from fans by using YouTube and other easily-accessible outlets, and whose fan bases have ballooned to astounding numbers in the last few years.
One of the principle purveyors of this underground hick hop is the record label Average Joe’s, which is home to artists like Colt Ford and Brantley Gilbert, but also has a large barn of underground country rappers like the LoCash Cowboys and Bubba Sparxxx. Average Joe’s is on the cutting edge of marketing country rap to consumers, and doing so in an unconventional way that side steps country radio and traditional album distribution. What The Wall Street Journal piece explains is how Average Joe’s has been working very intimately with Wal-Mart to market country rap to certain areas seen as favorable to the emerging sub-genre. While physical CD sales are falling overall, Average Joe’s has been able to keep the CD alive with the help of Wal-Mart, and country rap.
It started in country’s traditional stronghold of the Southeast.
Wal-Mart started getting calls from stores across the Southeast from customers complaining that mud-themed music was only available online, said Tiffany Couch, sales director of Select-O-Hits, a division of closely held Anderson Merchandisers that Wal-Mart hires to supply its 4,000 Supercenter stores with CDs. Cautiously, she said, they began stocking several hundred Wal-Mart stores in the region with the music, waiting to make sure it sold before expanding to other locations.
But once hick hop began to take off, Average Joe’s expanded their reach across the country.
To assure Wal-Mart about its prospects for selling more mud music outside the Southeast, Average Joe’s last year showed the retailer “heat maps” drawn up by Pandora. The maps showed where Pandora users were listening to the new genre most frequently, landing the records in nearly half of Wal-Mart’s Supercenters nationwide. Average Joe’s also began using Pandora’s heat maps to route artists’ tours through unlikely areas with high fan concentrations, like Ohio, Indiana and the Pacific Northwest.
The parallel the Wall Street Journal piece does not draw is how hick hop and Wal-Mart tend to have the same demographics of poor, sometimes disadvantaged, and sometimes culturally disenfranchised white people from rural areas. For many of these consumers, whether it is because Wal-Mart is the only store in town, or because they offer cheap prices, the big box retailer has become the only retail outlet they have access to, and in turn becomes their primary interface and outlet for culture, including music. And while Wal-Mart has ceased to carry the wide swath of music that consumers used to see at traditional music stores, or at stores like Circuit City and Best Buy during the height of the CD era, the retailer has zeroed in on the hick hop market as a specialty and focus of many of their stores. Wal-Mart also tends to stock the same type of clothing and other consumables seen in hick hop videos, becoming a one stop shop for the country rap culture.
The most important takeaway from the Wall Street Journal piece might be that the emergence of country rap is multi-pronged, and highly profitable. This is not just Blake Shelton releasing one song to a mainstream audience. Hick hop, or country rap is a widespread, nationwide phenomenon spanning mainstream and underground channels alike, and now being disseminated through the world’s largest retailer to American consumers en masse.
It was November of 2008 at the annual Country Music Association Awards, and Kid Rock came out on stage to perform “All Summer Long,” a remixed rap rock song that borrows from Lynyrd Skynyrd and Warren Zevon. Never before had such a non-country genre-bending song been performed on the CMA stage, but considering Kid Rock’s strong ties to the country music industry, the performance seemed par for country’s course of slowly contemporizing away from its traditions….except for one curious thing.
Trailing Kid Rock out on the stage was hip-hop icon Lil’ Wayne. It was curious that Lil’ Wayne was there, but not completely surprising. Lil’ Wayne had performed “All Summer Long” with Kid Rock only 2 months before at MTV’s VMA Awards. But instead of rapping like he did at the VMA’s, Lil’ Wayne just sort of stood there, pretending to strum a guitar that clearly was not in the mix.
Why was Lil’ Wayne there? Nobody was quite sure, but at the time Saving Country Music surmised that this was an act of desensitization from Music Row in Nashville. Facing nearly a decade of declining sales and needing something to shake up the landscape, allowing rap to infiltrate country’s inner sanctum could be a way to grow country’s fan base, entice younger listeners, and maintain the commercial viability of the industry. The country music industry would have to warm the country fan base up to the idea first. So bring Kid Rock out, and Lil’ Wayne with him, but don’t allow anyone to rap just yet. There would be time for that down the road.
Just 2 weeks after the 2008 CMA’s, country rap king Colt Ford released his first major album Ride Through The Country, and soon small but well-supported independent country rap outfits like the LoCash Cowboys and Moonshine Bandits began to emerge, creating a substantial country rap underground that saw significant success in the YouTube realm, garnering 5 and 6 million hits on some videos despite having no initial label support, and no radio play. Country rap had already been around way before 2008, with Cowboy Troy releasing his debut album Loco Motive back in 2005, and many other independent artists dabbling with the genre blending concept years before. But Colt Ford began to open the door of acceptance for country rap in the mainstream by collaborating with country artists like Jamey Johnson, John Michael Montgomery, and Brantley Gilbert. Country rap songs were still not receiving radio play or award show accolades though. The country rap commodity was just too risque for mainstream labels and radio programmers to get behind, and it remained a very small sliver of the greater country music pie.
Then came Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem,” a song that initially appeared on Colt Ford’s first album and co-written with Brantley Gilbert, and everything changed. A mild-mannered song compared to most country rap, and coming from a polished Caucasian performer that the mainstream country community was already comfortable with, country rap was able to finally find it’s acceptance on the popular country radio format. In early June of 2011 at the CMT Awards hosted by Kid Rock, Jason Aldean came out to perform the quickly-rising single, and hip-hop artist Ludacris joined Aldean on stage, this time to actually rap. “History has been made baby!” Ludacris declared from the stage, and it had been. Mainstream country now had its country rap cherry officially popped, and rap was now a viable, accepted art form in country music.
And it would become a commercially successful one too when “Dirt Road Anthem” eventually hit #1 on the Billboard charts in late July of 2011. The effects of “Dirt Road Anthem” hitting #1 were significant. Radio programmers who had been reluctant to bring country rap to the airwaves for years had officially waved the white flag. At the time Saving Country Music also predicted:
Just like how you can blame a blizzard on a rash of births nine moths later, the Music Row machine undoubtedly is being retooled to meet the burgeoning country rap demand, and we will be seeing the results in the upcoming months. The only question is, in what form will it be? Will we see established artists adopting the new style? Or will it be the popularization of the Colt Fords and Moonshine Bandits of the world?
The prediction of Music Row retooling to become a assembly line for country rap was correct. What was not correct was the timeline. Apparently 9 months lead time was a little too optimistic, and after “Dirt Road Anthem” dominated the charts, country rap went somewhat dormant in mainstream country for nearly 1 1/2 years. “Dirt Road Anthem” was the best selling single in all of country in 2011. But in 2012, country rap was virtually absent from the mainstream country scene. As Saving Country Music explained looking at 2012 end-of-year sales numbers:
Rap sales were significantly down in 2012, bucking the trend of being one of the few areas of strength during music’s decade-long decline. Similarly, unlike 2011 when Jason Aldean’s country-rap “Dirt Road Anthem” was the best-selling single in all of country, 2012 did not see a dominant country-rap single, album, or artist. Rap is still asserting itself as an influence in country, but may not be finding the commercial strength it needs to stick. 2012 mono-genre songs like Tim McGraw’s “Truck Yeah” underperformed to expectations, never cracking Billboard’s Top 10 on the country chart.
Then came 2013, and “1994,” Jason Aldean’s follow-up country rap to “Dirt Road Anthem.” Though the song was a little too fey for mainstream country ears and topped out at #10 on the Billboard charts, it was the spearhead to what would become a massive and historic influx of country rap songs and influences flooding the country music format heading into the summer of 2013.
Blake Shelton, the reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year and influential personality from his work on the popular reality TV show The Voice, released his own country rap song “Boys ‘Round Here” that quickly became a #1. Country duo Florida Georgia Line who regularly incorporates Ebonic verbiage in their songs achieved a #1 single with “Cruise” that is currently poised to become the best selling song of 2013. When the duo remixed the smash hit with hip-hop star Nelly, it created yet another chart-topping country rap collaboration.
All of a sudden, hip-hop influences were, and currently are dominating the top of the country music charts, asserting just as much influence, if not more than indigenous country influences, with a bevy of new country rap tunes from numerous artists ready to be released, and mainstream artists lining up to try and be a part of the trend. Brad Paisley and LL Cool J made waves by collaborating on the country rap song “Accidental Racist.” 90′s country star Joe Diffie, the muse for Jason Aldean’s country rap “1994,” has released an “answer” song called “Girl Ridin’ Shotgun” with the Jawga Boyz to attempt to exploit the renewed attention for his career. And Luke Bryan has recorded a country rap song with Auto-Tune maestro T Pain to be released soon.
But the infiltration of country rap is not just confined to underground circles and mainstream collaborations, it has touched the very foundations of country’s traditions and history. In May of 2013, the rapping grandson-in-law of Waylon Jennings named “Struggle” released an album with 7 of the 9 songs being Waylon tunes with Struggle rapping over them. The country rapping LoCash Cowboys have a song called “Best Seat in the House” from their new self-titled album that includes a collaboration with the recently-deceased George Jones—an icon of traditional country fans who traditionally do not favor the influx of rap influences in country music. The country rap collaboration is possibly the final track George Jones ever recorded.
Other artists that are traditionally seen as respites from the commercial trends in Nashville like Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and their mutual band The Pistol Annies have participated in the country rap craze, leaving mainstream country fans that are looking to avoid the trend few options. The Pistol Annies appeared in Blake Shelton’s country rap song and video “Boys ‘Round Here,” and Miranda Lambert participated in the “celebrity remix” of the song, even though at one point she took to Twitter to proclaim that remixes “pissed her off.”
Ashley Monroe appears in a just released acoustic version of the Macklemore rap song “Thrift Shop.” June of 2013 has been jam packed with new country rap song and video releases, with new collaborations rumored seemingly every day as artists and labels scramble to figure out how to capitalize on the country rap phenomenon.
Which begs the next question, is this a craze that will show a predictable lightning-fast life span and quickly fizzle, or are we seeing the long-forecasted dramatic, wholesale, long-term change in the traditional genre formats of American music, where all genres coalesce into one big mono-genre where contrast and diversity between disparate art forms will be resolved, leaving no true regionalism and no cultural separation, just one homogeneous corporate American music culture?
That remains to be seen. But wherever country rap goes, we can say with confidence that the way country music sounds in the summer of 2013 is very similar to the way the mono-genre would sound like if it is realized in the long-term.
Potential Ramifications of Rap’s Infiltration of Country
The benefits of the emerging mono-genre can be the breakdown of musical prejudices across genre lines, but the main impetus is the broadening of markets of music consumers for record labels to take advantage of. Though traditional genres can be helpful to consumers by classifying the style of the music so they can choose if it is worth their time, genres limit the scale of potential consumers for a given music franchise.
The problem with the mono-genre, especially for country music is the potential loss of autonomy and control over the music by the genre, both sonically and through the genre’s infrastructure and institutions. During music’s lost decade of the 2000′s when the industry bobbled the move to digitization, country music weathered the storm much better than other genres because it had its own built-in institutions like the CMA and ACM Awards shows, and the Country Music Association itself which unites US radio broadcasters around the country format. And unlike hip-hop or rock and roll, country music is heavily steeped in tradition, with legacy institutions like The Grand Ole Opry acting as pillars for the music. But if the term “country” can’t define a well-recognized sound, it risks diminishing the effectiveness and viability of these country music institutions in the long term.
Since the beginning, country has taken a submissive role to hip-hop in the formation of the mono-genre. Though you may find some small exceptions, country influences have not encroached on the mainstream hip-hop format virtually at all, and certainly haven’t risen to the point of dominating the hip-hop charts, like hip-hop influences are now dominating the country charts. Helping this trend along is Billboard’s new chart rules that take into consideration sales and plays of music from other genres in rating country artists. So country artists whose songs cross over to the pop or hip-hop formats gain extra points compared to their pure country counterparts.
Hip-hop is in the cat bird’s seat in the mixing of the two genres. Artists like Ludacris, Nelly, and Lil’ Wayne can benefit from the exposure the country format gives them, but hip-hop doesn’t have to return the favor. The reason there are no country-influenced songs at the top of the hip-hop chart is because the hip-hop community would not allow it.
Hip-hop as a genre is secure and confident in its standing with young demographics, and in its future, while country seems to be constantly wanting to apologize for itself and find new ways to attract younger listeners. Hip-hop artists are just sitting back, waiting for the managers of mainstream country artist to call looking for collaborations, and all of a sudden the hip-hop artists’ name and music are exposed to an entirely new crowd.
Some mainstream country artists like Tim McGraw and Taylor Swift have participated in hip-hop collaborations not featured in the country format, but the collaborations are almost always done on hip-hop’s terms, with the purpose of exposing hip-hop artists to a wider audience primarily, instead of vice versa.
The debate about the encroachment of rap and other hip-hop influences into country is much broader than disagreements based on taste. To maintain the autonomy and integrity of country music’s institutions, the genre music keep in check influences from other mediums. The argument regularly made for allowing hip-hop influences to infiltrate the format is that country music needs something new to continue to grow and appeal to new audiences and younger people. What this argument fails to recognize is that rap in itself is an over 30-year-old art form, and that it has a dubious history when mixing with other genres at the mainstream level.
When rap mixed with mainstream rock in the mid 90′s with acts like Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park, it was seen as the beginning of the mainstream rock format losing its identity, and the diminishing of rock music’s control over its radio format and institutions. This gave rise to “indie” rock, and punk and metal undergrounds that purposely avoided mainstream rock avenues and robbed talent from the mainstream ranks. Soon rock ceased to be the catch-all term for guitar-based American music, and country and hip-hop emerged as the more dominant and influential genres. Eventually rock artists like Darius Rucker, Sheryl Crow, Aaron Lewis of Staind, Kid Rock, and many more had to solicit country for support in the aftermath of mainstream rock’s implosion.
It is unfair to completely hypothesize what will happen with the mixing of country and hip-hop by what happened in the past because of the tremendous flux the music industry is experiencing due to the ever-evolving technology quotient. Everything an educated guess at best these days in music. But what we do know is that we will discover what the effects of the mono-genre will be because it is unquestionably upon us. The next question is, will it stick around, or will the mono-genre break back down into its traditional genres in the future? How country music as an institution will endure the changes remains to be seen, but country would be wise to keep open a debate on influence, tradition, and autonomy, with a very long-term perspective always in mind. Because if not, country artists could be finding themselves searching for another genre for support, just as rock artists did in the aftermath of hip-hop infiltrating its genre.
Yes ladies and gentlemen, Joe Diffie—the mulleted, cop mustached 90′s semi-star—has released an “answer” song to what many consider the worst song in country music history, Jason Aldean’s country rap “1994.” Diffie’s new song is called “Girl Ridin’ Shotgun,” and it is as embarrassing as puberty.
Listen, Joe Diffie. Seriously man, I hate to break it to you, but Jason Aldean has no idea who the hell you are. And neither does his body spray-drenched Tap Out T shirt-wearing corporate country fan base. Aldean is just reading lyrics off of a teleprompter, waiting for the concert to end so he can get down to his real passion: plowing through the line of 20-year-olds waiting backstage to give him hummers.
Just sit back and appreciate this folks: These two dudes are releasing tribute songs to each other, yet they’re not friends, they’ve never met, or even conversed according to reports. There was speculation that Aldean and Diffie would share the stage at the ACM Awards in April where Aldean was scheduled to perform “1994,” but nothing came to pass. They spent the effort to erect this…
…yet couldn’t pony up for a Fun Fare on Southwest Airlines to get ol’ Diffie and his mustache to be part of the presentation.
How much money has this Joe Diffie song made Jason Aldean, yet Jason is too busy getting fitted with wallet chains and having his jean pockets embroidered with glitter thread to call Joe on the damn phone? Aldean told radio station 107.7 GNA when asked if he’d ever talked to Diffie, “No. My booking agent Kevin Neal who is a mutual friend of ours, I think he’s talked to him. But I haven’t actually talked to Joe yet.”
Aldean thinks that maybe a mutual friend talked to Joe? What the hell is all this Joe Diffie, “1994″ nonsense about then? You’ll tribute the man in song, but won’t shoot him a text message? Is it because Aldean isn’t paying tribute to Joe, his mullet, his mustache, his pudgy face, or his paltry singles catalog that they pilfered for “1994″ lyrics, he’s actually making fun of it? Maybe Joe Diffie is the jester for their little modern-era, ultra-ironic, making-fun-of-country-music’s-past radio hit, not the king.
And so what does Joe Diffie do about it? Does he bow up? No, he jumps on the bandwagon and begins riding this wave of shitty music and anachronistic fallacy to its fatalistic end by releasing his own country rap song, and with all people, the absolute toilet hole of musical expression, the creatively bankrupt and bottomfeeding D. Thrash from the Jawga Boyz. What, were Colt Ford and The Moonshine Bandits too busy bankrupting a Chinese buffet? No, like Aldean, they didn’t answer Diffie’s calls because they knew this would turn out to be an embarrassment.
Using anything touched by the Jawga Boyz for anything other than removing the result of a bowel movement from your backside is the textbook definition of “slumming.” They are the music equivalent of a bright yellow XXXL Tweety Bird T shirt from Wal-Mart with dried spaghetti caked on the front.
The beats for “Girl Ridin’ Shotgun” sound like they were composed by a 7th grader who just snorted his ADD meds, just like all of the beats of the Jawga Boyz’s bombastic and trashy tracks. The beat doesn’t even get five seconds into the song without going off meter. There’s biscuit crumbs in Joe Diffie’s mustache that could compose a better beat. And then D Thrash’s first line doesn’t even rhyme. Are you effing serious with this song? “Girl Ridin’ Shotgun” makes me want to make out with my cousin and bet on a dog fight.
The video for “Girl Ridin’ Shotgun” meets the demands of the song by being completely devoid of substance, theme, intelligence, or creative expression. Instead we get trucks, chicks, mud, and hot rods, like we haven’t seen this same idiotic shit used over and over.
And the saddest thing for poor old Joe Diffie is that “1994″ has already petered off the country music charts, and never really mounted much of a charge to begin with. It was too awful, too transparent, and Joe Diffie too much of an unknown quantity to the mainstream country listener for it to hold anyone’s attention. So even though Diffie heard the song and got dollar signs in his eyes and delusions of a big career comeback, “Girl Ridin’ Shotgun” will be confined to a narrowcasted YouTube phenomenon (just like the rest of the Jawga Boyz’s songs), appealing only to poor white rural folks who’ve cast off their indigenous culture to take part in corporate cultural front running, and curiosity seekers looking for comedic relief.
Sorry Joe. I’ll still go to bat for you and say who had a few cool songs back in the 90′s, and that your bluegrass album wasn’t half bad, and neither is your chorus for this song. But country rap, and the Jawga Boyz? This is a prayer for relevancy guaranteed to go unanswered.
Two shotguns down!
In early October, a 92-year-old retired engineer named Bobby Hogg passed away in the little town of Comarty, Scotland. The death was significant because Mr. Hogg was the last speaker of a local dialect called “Comarty fisherfolk” that now only exists in a few brief audio clips. Many of the villages of northern Scotland have distinct dialects, and as time goes on, they become lost forever as elders pass away and the younger generations slowly drop their native accents in place for the more common pronunciations.
When President Obama won re-election last Tuesday, he said in his speech that what makes America strong is not that it has the greatest wealth in the world, or because it has the strongest military, or because its culture is the “envy of the world.” Obama cited America’s diversity, and the bonds that hold that diversity together as the reason the United States remains the most powerful nation on the planet.
But where the greatest diversity of culture exists in America, especially when it comes to dialect and musical styles, is in the rural states and counties; that red area that Obama didn’t take in the election. Cities and suburbs are much more likely to be gentrified to the more common American culture spread by popular media and entertainment than rural areas are, obviously with some exceptions.
In fact when you look at the culture of America’s rural areas, it’s is usually lampooned by the rest of the country’s culture, especially the dialect. “Rednecks” and people from the country have been a mainstay of comedic fodder for over 50 years. And now, entities like CMT, who are supposed to be for people of the country, by people of the country, are themselves formulating television series around making fun of “rednecks” in shows like Redneck Vacation and Redneck Island.
Meanwhile the negative connotations in media about redneck culture are making many people in rural areas flee from their native habits to adopt customs more indigenous to urban locales, giving rise to country rap with artists like Colt Ford. Jason Aldean’s country rap “Dirt Road Anthem” was the best-selling song in country music last year for example. At the same time, the power of pop country is causing similar gentrification in suburban and urban zones as it encroaches into areas it is not indigenous to either.
I’ve always found it perplexing how Americans generally look at the varying cultures of the rest of the world with interest and appreciation for their diversity, but seem to be unwilling to do so in their own country and community. Our differences are something that need to be resolved, whether by promulgating our political or religious beliefs on other people, or trying to promote our products or culture to people who it might either be foreign to or downright unhealthy for, usually for the purpose of financial gain.
Similarly there is a demonstrative focus on preserving rare or endangered animals and plant species, or historic buildings or artifacts. We will stop the whole of human progress for concerns over an endangered strain of the titmouse. But those rednecks living out in the rural part of the county need to understand that the old-school agrarian life is gone and they better contemporize or risk being branded closed-minded. Yes, many racist, judgmental customs should be a thing of the past, but not at the sacrifice of what makes these people and their customs unique.
When the American South was populated, many times by native Scots and Irish that brought their folk instruments and musical learnings with them, a vibrant tapestry bloomed all across the Southern region with distinct musical dialects representing the geographical and genealogical makeup of the areas where they were founded. As people moved West during the gold rush and the Depression, they carried their musical cultures with them that then intermixed with the landscapes and labor they found there, giving birth to even more individual musical dialects.
Many of these varying styles and dialects would come together at institutions like the Grand Ole Opry, and this in part was how the big umbrella of country music was formed. But the differences in styles was something that was always celebrated instead of something that was attempted to be resolved to increase the economic potential of the music. They understood that the loss of the diversity may result in long-term decay of the musical format, even though it may garner short-term financial gain.
Ironically, it is not the mainstream, nationally-focused musicians that say they want to destroy the diversity in American music. Many go out of their way to tell you how country they are, citing very specific artifacts of rural life to prove it, many times to take the sting away of the actual music itself being more rooted in rock or hip-hop modes. It is the roots-based musicians who do not have the benefit of the country genre’s industrial machine that tend to speak out and say that genres don’t matter any more; artists in the loosely-defined “Americana” world.
Meanwhile radio may be the the most-obvious place where our differences are disappearing. When Clear Channel cut hundreds of local positions at stations in rural media markets last year in favor of nationally-syndicated programming, this also disproportionately effected the rural/red zones that are so rich with cultural diversity. Just like rainforests and wild areas around the world that are held back from development in conservancies cited as being vital to ecological and economic sustainability, America’s rural areas as robust cultural generators are just as important in sustaining the overall health of the greater cultural landscape.
Things are always evolving, changing, and coagulating together, and wringing your hands over it in some respects is foolish. At the same time, if the “melting pot” theory of how America became the greatest nation on the planet is true, then there’s nothing more important than protecting that diversity for the long-term preservation of the world’s greatest economic engine and mouthpiece for freedom. And this would also be true in protecting the diversity of any country or region for them to live up to their greatest potential.
In other words, the destruction of America’s distinct musical dialects is not just a musical problem.
How important was Hank Cochran as a songwriter? I’ll let Willie Nelson tell you.
Well, really, when you start talking about songwriters, you’ve got to say his name first. Then you start talking about everyone else.
Jamey Johnson’s Living For a Song is a tribute to his musical hero; a man he met in 2008 when Cochran was already suffering from pancreatic cancer. Johnson would visit Cochran regularly in the hospital, and according to Hank’s widow Suzy, “Jamey was there when a lot of people weren’t coming around.” Hank Cochran died on July 15th, 2010. Cochran’s death is said to inspire this project.
I’ve always had great respect for Jamey Johnson the man, and his dedication and desire to see this project through elevates him yet another notch. It’s hard not to regard him as one of the most sincere and authentic men in country music today, and the hope is that this project will elevate the name recognition of one of country’s greatest songwriters.
And you will find no more critically-acclaimed performer in country music at the moment, or in the last half-decade than Jamey Johnson. And though I appreciate Jamey the person and his honest, traditional approach to the music, in both the recorded and live context, I’ve found his music to be fundamentally lacking energy, enthusiasm, or the ability to engage the ear in virtually any manner. And unfortunately, Living for a Song falls into that same category.
This is what I don’t get about this album: We are sold this idea that Jamey Johnson is the best songwriter of our generation. But here it is over two years after his last album release, and this superlative, prolific songwriter is putting out an album of someone elses songs. Granted, his last album The Guitar Song was a double album, but like I pointed out when the The Guitar Song was released, there was a curious amount of covers and co-writes there as well.
I understand this is a tribute album, but most tribute albums are side projects; something you do outside of your normal album cycle as an artist. Living for a Song however is Jamey Johnson’s newest major release in his country music career. Can anybody tell me what other hits or critically-acclaimed songs Jamey Johnson has written for other artists since The Guitar Song’s release? What I’m getting at here is I think our generation’s best and most-prolific songwriter is in the midst of a multi-year writers block. That’s the only explanation I can come up for releasing this album as his sole recorded contribution to music in the last two years, aside from some guest spots.
What is Jamey Johnson known as? As a performer? As a singer? No. He might be capable at these two tasks, but he’s known primarily as a songwriter. So how am I supposed to get excited about him singing songs written and popularized by someone else? Do we really think he can sing “I Fall To Pieces” better than Patsy Cline? Is what we really need in a demonstratively-glutted music world milder versions of songs we’ve already heard?
And for all the Jamey Johnson fans who sell him as the solution to how to get folks re-engaged with traditional country, how does this album do the trick? Are any of these songs radio singles that can compete with Taylor Swift? They’re songs that will make the kiddos put their hands over their mouths in the universal sign of sleepy time. Jamey Johnson is like the country music sedative. His super power is the ability to make any country music song boring. He’s the exact reason fans of Brantley Gilbert and Colt Ford say country needs to evolve. And in this instance, they are right.
What is the cliche about good cover songs? That the covering artist “made it their own.” At no time on Living for a Song does it feel like Jamey Johnson makes a song his own. Granted, these songs are country. They’re very country. They’re so country, they’re cliche. But just because something is country doesn’t mean it’s good. As I have said about other Jamey Johnson projects, I believe that people are so used to hearing country that doesn’t sound like country, when someone actually plays country music they’re charmed into thinking it’s superb.
If this was a side project cover album, such criticism may not be appropriate. But this album is being so ballyhooed by critics all over the place that it creates the need for a little perspective. Even when looking at Living for a Song as a tribute and a tribute only, the album feels way too busy. It 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.
It’s difficult to focus on Hank Cochran’s songwriting–the purpose of this album–because the people singing switch back and forth so often. Every song but one is a duet, and one song has three singers, one four singers, and one five. Some songs feel mere steps away from “We are the World”.
Willie, Merle, Emmylou, Kristofferson, Bobby Bare and others, these are all great names and I don’t doubt for a second the love for Hank Cochran all the Living for a Song contributors have. But the music is diminished by the sheer number of contributions. For Jamey, this may be a sincere tribute, but to the label, it feels similar to the Hank Williams Lost Notebooks project, like an excuse to showcase talent and shovel money towards Sony/ATV who owns the publishing on these songs.
Aside from the excessive singing parts, there’s nothing wrong with this album. But there’s nothing right either. All the musicians and singers do excellent jobs. The issue is with the approach.
God bless Jamey Johnson for putting together a heartfelt tribute to a country great that has passed on. But Living for a Song is about as lifeless as traditional country music gets. If you want to listen to a great classic country album released in 2012, listen to Don Williams’ And So It Goes. It resides in the same tempo, but brings a uniqueness and a soul that Living for a Song lacks. Or even better, go listen to Hank Cochran’s originals, or the original songs others made hits. These do a better job at selling Cochran’s legacy than this.
If Jamey Johnson wasn’t sold to us so hard, I might begin to appreciate his music on some level. But shoot me that I like my pulse raised when I put on an album.
1 gun up for a beautiful tribute to a fallen country great.
1 gun down for an album that is too busy, overproduced, and downright boring.
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When I first proposed the theory that all popular music was coalescing into one big mono-genre where even the two traditionally polarized genres of country and hip-hop would be living side by side, even I didn’t think the conversion would happen so quickly and be so indisputable. Looking at country music, the top albums, the top songs, and the top artists all have ties to the merging of all popular music. It is truly a man bites dog world out there in music these days. Here’s 7 signs the mono-genre is here.
The King of Country Rap Colt Ford’s latest album was released August 7th and debuted at #1 on the Billboard country charts, unprecedented for an artist who receives relatively no radio play and is not a huge concert draw. Sometimes albums in their debut week will cause an anomaly in the charts, starting off really high but then falling precipitously weeks after, but Declaration of Independence has remained in the Top 10 now for over a month, currently sitting at #7 on Billboard. At some point, radio will have no choice but to quit ignoring Colt.
When the reigning Entertainer of the Year for both the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music releases a song and the other version is the country one, this is a pretty good sign country music is losing its autonomy. While the country version of “We Are Never…” is falling on the charts, debuting at #13 on Billboard and sliding now to #19, the “pop” version has done something no other song had done from a country artist since 1980: stay on top of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart for 3 weeks straight. Kenny Rogers’ “Lady” was the last one to accomplish this feat, a song written by Lionel Richie (see below). And don’t forget Taylor’s “Both of Us” duet with rapper B.o.B.
Rap or country, city farm, it don’t matter who you are
It’s one thing to have an artist known for country rap to gain acceptance, or to have a pop star whose always been more pop than country go even more pop. But when a bona-fide top-tier country music franchise comes out with what is ostensibly a rap song that name drops Lil’ Wayne, talks about “subs pumpin’” and being “up in the club,” there’s no question major genre line blurring has gone mainstream. “Truck Yeah” is like the mono-genre National Anthem.
It’s old news that Aldean’s country rap “Dirt Road Anthem” co-written by Colt Ford was the best-selling song of 2011, but the song is not done making headlines just yet. “Dirt Road Anthem” was certified triple platinum in June, is up for Song of the Year at the CMA Awards in November, and Aldean is also a frontrunner for the CMA’s most coveted trophy: Entertainer of the Year. His upcoming album reportedly includes another country rap, and it’s hard to dispute that Jason Aldean is anything but a country music mega-star, with billing just as high as Taylor Swift, if not higher. It was his milktoast, softcore version of country rap that made the genre-merging music mainstream.
Lionel Richie proved that a non-country artist with non-country songs on a non-country album of all previously-released material can use country infrastructure and avenues to release an album and it can go on to be a massive blockbuster success. Tuskegee was the best selling album for the first half of 2012, not just in country, but in all of music. It had sold 912,000 copies by mid July, and has since been certified platinum. Much of this is the fault of the Academy of Country Music running an hour-long special on Lionel earlier in the year; a gesture not extended to any other country artist.
This may seem like a subtle thing, but the symbolism is significant. Country music and the CMA’s seem to be perpetually wanting to apologize for their countryness these days, and how better to do that than to move the CMA announcement to the most metropolitan part of the country? Meanwhile the Grammy’s, paying homage to the increasing importance of the country music super-genre, are announce their nominations where the CMA’s should be: in downtown Nashville.
The Grammy’s might also paying tribute in part to Nashville’s burgeoning independent scene. Depending who you talk to, Nashville is considered the epicenter of independent music, existing right under the nose of Music Row with little acknowledgement or regard. The Grammy’s recognize the indie world as one of the fastest-growing segments in music. Remember, the mono-genre is not just about all popular music becoming one, but how micro-genres and independent music will increase as mainstream listeners search for choice.
The more mainstream music consolidates, the more independent music will increase due to the listeners falling through the cracks and becoming disenfranchised with the lack of choice and diversity. Mainstream artists will also be enticed to the independent world by the lure of creative freedom and a more attentive, engaged audience. According to Nielsen SoundScan, independent sales are up 61% since 2006 to a record $26.2 million annually. Spotify is also reporting an increased payout to independent labels.
Unlike some aging country music talents, like I don’t know…maybe the one with a “Jr.” suffix in his name combing in Just For Men every other day and calling up Kid Rock’s manager to check for availability for the next video shoot to try and stay relevant, Alan Jackson’s career has been marked by stability and class. Was Alan any more country than Garth Brooks when he first came up in the early 90′s? No, not really. (Well then again, there was that stint where Garth put on eyeliner and changed his first name to Chris.) But as Nashville’s Music Row has steadily moved towards pop and the awful counter balance of “new Outlaw” laundry list songs, Alan has remained on the accessible, radio-friendly side of traditional, honky-tonk country without chasing the trends.
I’d hate to be the record label representative walking into the studio saying, “Hey Alan, we’ve got this brand new song about ice cold beer and pickup trucks we’d like for you to consider. Or how about this country rap opportunity with Colt Ford?” Because let’s face it, Alan Jackson’s mustache could kick all of our asses with one hand ,while restraining Chuck Norris’s mustache in a panty hold with the other. You may not count yourself an Alan Jackson fan, but it’s hard to call Alan Jackson anything else but country. If country music is the audio equivalent of wrestling, Alan Jackson is the good guy you can’t help rooting for.
And if 90% of the stuff they play on country radio these days is crap, then Alan represents the 10%. He’s the one respite when the Mrs. or kiddos flip over to 98.1 you don’t want to reach for a 9mm and point it at either your audio interface or your own pie hole. And unlike George Strait, Alan has the skins on the wall of writing a lot of his own material. He also has accomplished many memorable achievements for real country fans, like his song “Midnight in Montgomery,” standing up for George Jones and the song “Choices” at the CMA’s in 1999, and the duet with the aforementioned Strait on the song “Murder on Music Row.”
Yet Jackson lacks the umpf that the true hard country, deep traditionalists, or neo-traditionalists are looking for, and is still too corn pone or mainstream country for the NPR or Americana roots crowds to cross over to. I thought the timing was really good for Alan to come out with this album and really make some sort of statement, to be bold, kind of like what Marty Stuart is doing these days. But we can’t be surprised what we got was the same steady hand, the same solid songs and performances that have marked his 20+ year career that benefit from the balance between being traditional and accessible.
I don’t hear any of the mega-hits or even moderate hits that marked Alan’s early career here, but I’m not sure that is what Alan is after any more. The first three songs ” Gonna Come Back as a Country Song,” “You Go Your Way,” and the self-penned “Everything but the Wings” employ country wit in the classic way that makes us smile. The anthemic 7 1/2-minute “Dixie Highway” co-starring Zac Brown is the fun portion of the album that by the end you want to keep going.
The song that really struck me was “Her Life’s A Song.” It’s an A&R person’s dream in this age where middle-aged women driving the litter back and forth make up country’s most lucrative listener. You would think it was concocted by a team of pro songwriters in a Music Row cubicle farm, but Jackson came up with this one all by himself. As commercial as it comes across on the surface, Jackson shows his wit and wisdom through a different avenue–understanding appeal–and does the job any songwriter yearns for by creating a character we all can believe, see, and relate to.
No land speed records are broken with 30 Miles West, nor are any attempted. It is safe, steady, and solid. It will keep all the hardcore Jackson fans fat and sassy, and hopefully flirt with some radio play to offer intelligent music ears that one refreshing moment in a 40-minute radio segment where they can smile and know not all hope is lost.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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As frequent readers of Saving Country Music will attest, over the years we’ve christened fun little nicknames for some our favorite pals of pop country. If you ever wondered where these names came from and why, here’s the explanation behind some of our favorite terms of antipathy.
Tim McGraw and his plastic hat were the first to cross a big line with cross marketing in country music, beginning with his signature line of poof poof, and stretching all the way to Ken dolls (with a matching Barbie for his celeb wife Faith Hill) and now a new line of headphones of all things. Look out Dr. Dre! McGraw is unafraid to show his metrosexual side, and has blazed trails for both the marketing of a country music name, and the threshold of effiminacy the country music public is willing to put up with from their male stars. Yes, Tim McGraw: the trailblazer that gives a new meaning to toilet water, and the purveyor of country music’s version of yacht rock.
He’s the godfather of country rap who stole both Hank Jr. and Sheryl Crow’s dignity, and apparently is also responsible for convincing Arron Lewis of Staind to get into country music. We’d call him the king of trash, but he would take that as a term of endearment, so hopefully this nickname conveys the scuzzy, soiled fedora, eyelids at half-mast, twice-baked, incest-with-a-second-cousin-next-to-a-muddy-lake, greesy-haired burnout that Kid Rock is. Just like a wet cigarette, he is both tacky and disappointing.
Affliction and Tap Out T-shirts, $180 designer jeans with manufactured rips and Gothic crosses embroidered on the ass pockets, offensive amounts of Axe body spray quaffed over glistening and exquisitely-tanned and waxed bare chests contoured by only the best metabolic steroids money can buy, this is the Brantley Gilbert target demographic. Pull your baseball cap down tight over your eyes, wear your shirt two sizes too small, act too cool to complete your sentences, and buy a penis pump under an assumed name and you too can be a country music douche just like Brantley Gilbert. He is the Nickelback of country music.
Oh how beautiful the irony is that the man with the big tough domestic truck endorsement plays guitars painted with the Ford logos and American flags that are in fact made in Korea. According to my buddy at the Seoul food restaurant down the street, “Takamine” is Korean for “big fat American sellout.” Who is the country star with the highest income in all the genre? Not Taylor Swift, not Lady Antebellum or Rascal Flatts. No, it’s Toby Keith, primarily from his Ford Truck endorsement. It’s a good thing those Ford Trucks have best-in-class payload to haul all that money to Toby Keith’s house, and the tons of pride and dignity they get from Toby in return.
As the former DreamWorks executive turned founder and CEO of Big Machine Records (originally started with The Ford Truck Man Toby Keith), he’s the primary person responsible for the success of Taylor Swift and Justin Moore, the two most responsible parties for the erosion of the terms “country” and “Outlaw” respectively. Sure, country has always had pop in its ranks, but Taylor is where it became acceptable to use country terms and outlets for music that was pop and pop only, and opened the door for acts like Lady Antebellum and Lionel Richie. Same goes for Justin Moore and his Outlaws Like Me album (possibly the worst album ever) that jumped the shark for the “Outlaw” term.
Ironically, Borchetta and Big Machine are one of the few labels that actually extend a measure of creative freedom to their artists and have become one of the most successful label models on Music Row. But make no mistake, Scott Borchetta is where country music lost control of the purity of its terms.
Colt Ford – The Country Music Grimmace
Preying on the low self esteem and pandering to the least common denominator, Colt Ford has made a million dollars while admittedly having no skill, no talent, and not even taking himself or his music seriously. Appealing to like-minded souls who possess his same specific lack of skills and overweight body type, he peddles the most gratuitous version of filth to disenfranchised cultural frontrunners in America’s rural areas. No vertical stripes can save him, his morbidly-obese, pear-shaped body is proof that country rap is a cause of obesity.
I’ve been keeping one eye on The Moonshine Bandits for a while now as one of these bands that could potentially benefit from the genre barrier Jason Aldean broke with his country rap hit “Dirt Road Anthem” in 2011. I determined very early they were not one of the country rap acts I told people to look out for in my Survival Guide to Country Rap that actually bring artistry and respect two the merging of the two artforms, but as long as The Moonshine Bandits music remained confined within the demographic of gas-huffing Maury Povich watchers who glam onto whatever dominant culture is presented to them through corporate media to feel accepted, then it was of little concern.
And even though many of their moronic songs defined everything that is bad about modern music and contained some specific issues with things I hold dear, the music was so bad (aside from it’s accidental comedy value, of which there’s a lot) it wasn’t even worth criticizing. Well unfortunately now their filth has oozed out of the meth labs and other such hovels of America’s uber-scum to infect Country Music Television in the form of a new song and video called “My Kinda Country”.
This song is the worst song ever presented to the country music masses for consumption, period. Ever. An 11-year-old boy who just swallowed a Chinese toy laced with the date rape drug could write deeper lyrics. It’s a musical abortion. I’d rather eat the out the asshole of a roadkill skunk than listen to this. It’s so bad, birds refuse to shit on it. “My Kinda Country” takes the three worst country songwriting formulas of country rap, a laundry list song, and a faux “Proud American” song and combines them into the ultimate perfecta of musical stool.
I kept waiting on that homeless, Rick Rubin-looking dude to take his Epiphone and crack these two Jabba-looking knuckleheads in the jowels. And who wears their own shirt, advertising themselves? Isn’t that even not cool in the hip hop culture? And what the hell is up with their indecision?
I THINK I like what I see. I THINK I love who I meet. I THINK I’m proud to be free. I GUESS this is my kinda country.
You think? You guess? Which one is it? And just because you play with your privates, and every time you move your bowels it causes the same destruction as an improvised roadside explosive device, that doesn’t mean you have any military cred my friend. Sure, you bought a .59 cent Made in China American flag bandanna at Wal-Mart and your grandfather fought in the big one, but so did the rest of ours.
But the worst part about this song is it’s such an unveiled attempt at radio play and “mainstream sensibilities” it’s sick. The Moonshine Bandits should stick to what they’re best at, swinging their arms back and forth in urban rap gesticulations making their arm tubbage undulate while calling the people who don’t like their music “motherfuckers”.
Now I’m being serious here. All the stupid name-calling and sarcasm aside, these opinions and fun poking are based on my specific musical tastes, but I always believe artists should be measured against themselves first, and what The Moonshine Bandits do in “My Kinda Country” is sell themselves out, sell themselves short by seeking mainstream acceptance in such an overt attempt that flies in the face of their self-constructed image as country rap “Outlawz”.
Even if I was a true Moonshine Bandits fan, this song would embarrass me, and make me wonder why they want to convert mainstream fans to their tunes. That doesn’t seem very “hardcore” to me. And this selling out of their own core principles, however flawed they were to begin with, is what warrants the highest criticism, and is the reason the poison pen was deemed necessary here. Even someone like the country music Grimmace Colt Ford at least holds himself to his own low standards.
This video below is what The Moonshine Bandits should be doing, no matter how awful it is, because it’s who they are. And pay special attention to when they name drop Hank3 and Shooter Jennings. And as far as respecting country music, take special note of the line: “I’ll probably never see the Opry if I did I’d laugh.”
It’s great to see CMT supporting this filth, and I saw The Moonshine Bandits tweet in victory a few days ago when “My Kinda Country” passed Toby Keith’s “Red Solo Cup” on their top videos. This is like two slop pigs fighting over the same turd.
Artists like The Moonshine Bandits pose as big of a threat to rural country culture and traditions as big box stores, mega churches, and Monsanto. All “My Kinda Country” does is make them a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Their front-running cultural filth preys on the disenfranchised of rural culture (especially young men) by getting them to identify with vice, misogyny, and over-consumption as replacements to traditional country values.
Two guns way down!
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