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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.
When looking at the historical timeline of country music, many times it is big events that set the wheels of change in motion, for the good and the bad. Whether it is intrusion of pop or rap into country, or the ill-treatment of country music greats, here are some of the most embarrassing moments in country music history.
Shuttering of the Country Music Mother Church
The Grand Ole Opry needed a bigger home and the move was inevitable, but the result was the complete shuttering Ryman Auditorium, also known as the Country Music Mother Church, for 20 years. Aside from being opened by special permission to shoot videos for folks like Jason & The Scorchers, John Hartford, and for parts of the Coal Miner’s Daughter movie, the venue was abandoned between 1974 and 1994, also allowing the surrounding lower Broadway area to be overrun with strip clubs and dirty bookstores. It wasn’t until Emmylou Harris recorded a live album at the Ryman that a renewed interest in the historic venue was sparked, eventually leading to its restoration and re-opening.
Garth Brooks Goes Flying Over Texas Stadium
In 1993 at the old Texas Stadium in Irving, TX, Garth Brooks does a video shoot and decides to pull a Sandy Duncan and go flying over the crowd suspended with wires. Though it was a one-off demonstration, it illustrated Garth’s influence of turning country into more of a commercial, arena-rock presentation.
Jessica Simpson plays the Grand Ole Opry
You already forgot that reality star Jessica Simpson had a stint trying to be a country performer, didn’t you? Her career lasted weeks, but that was long enough for the Opry to decide to give her an opportunity to be on the sainted Opry stage on September 6th, 2008, while many other more worthy performers still wait indefinitely in the wings for the distinguished Opry opportunity.
Unfinished Hank Williams Songs Turned Into Lost Notebooks Album
Publisher Sony ATV cashed in on a collection of lyric sheets left behind by Hank Williams—some unfinished, and all without music—by doling them out surreptitiously to Bob Dylan, and a bevy of undeserving artists including Jakob Dylan and Sheryl Crow, to finish and record. The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams raised the ire of many, including Hank’s daughter and Williams estate executor Jett Williams who said about the project, “It was like ‘here are some lyrics’ instead of trying to think, “If Hank Williams was sitting here with me and it’s got his musical footprints all over it.” You would think that when you heard the song being sung by the artist, that it would have some kind of (Hank) feel to it, which I’m not feeling it myself.”
DeFord Bailey Fired from the Grand Ole Opry
Harmonica player and Country Music Hall of Famer DeFord Bailey was one of the early stars of the Grand Ole Opry, and was an official member from 1927 to 1941 when a dispute with BMI-ASCAP wouldn’t allow him to perform his most famous songs on the radio. Instead of standing behind one of their founding performers, the Opry fired DeFord. This ended his performance career and DeFord shined shoes for the rest of his life to make a living. DeFord did not play the Opry again until 1974 when he appeared on an “Old Timers’ Show.”
Jason Aldean Performs “Dirt Road Anthem” with Ludacris on CMT Awards
“History has been made baby!” Ludacris declared from the stage in June of 2011 when country music saw its first rap performance on an awards show, and the first live mainstream collaboration with a rap artist. This event and “Dirt Road Anthem” hitting #1 would open the country rap flood gates.
Olivia Newton-John and John Denver Winning CMA Awards
Olivia Newton-John’s CMA for “Female Vocalist of the Year” in 1974, and John Denver’s CMA for “Entertainer of the Year” in 1975 symbolized the historic intrusion of pop into the country format in the mid-70′s. The trend was staved off the next year when Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings ushered in the Outlaw movement in country.
Taylor Swift Wins First CMA for Entertainer of the Year
The date 11/11 was not good luck for country music in 2009, when Taylor Swift took home her first Country Music Association “Entertainer of the Year” award along with three other trophies on the night. Teen pop had now taken center stage in country music.
Induction of Keith Urban, Rascal Flatts, & Darius Rucker Into The Grand Ole Opry
The Grand Ole Opry had already been wanting to appeal to a younger, more youthful crowd, but in recent years they have ratcheted it up another notch, completely ignoring older country stars worthy of induction for pop country’s latest trends.
“Struggle” Turns Waylon Songs Into Rap
It was bad enough when rap infiltrated country music. Now it has gone back in time to overwrite the songs of country greats that have passed on. Waylon Jennings’ grandson-in-law nicknamed “Struggle” (his real name is Will Harness, and his real grandfather is Duane Eddy) took 7 Waylon Jennings songs, and rehashed them into rap songs in an album entitled I Am Struggle released in May of 2013. It was an unprecedented intrusion of rap into country music’s past, perpetrated by one of the few people who could get the blessing of the Waylon estate to do so. (read more)
Stonewall Jackson Stonewalled by the Grand Ole Opry
After having his performances on the Grand Ole Opry cut back so much that he lost his health benefits, Stonewall Jackson sued the Opry claiming age discrimination against Opry General Manager Pete Fisher. Stonewall claimed the Opry breached a long-standing code that if stars performed a set number of dates each year, even when they could make more money playing tour dates, they would always have a place to play at the Opry even in their older age. The lawsuit was eventually settled in court, and though the specific details of it were never revealed, Stonewall was happy with the outcome, and his performance schedule increased afterward.
Garth Brooks Becomes Chris Gains
In 1999, a bored Garth Brooks created a fictional dark pop character from Australia called Chris Gaines and released an album called The Life of Chris Gains. It gained Garth one Top 5 hit, “Lost In You,” but Brooks’ Chris Gaines idea met with very heavy criticism and confusion from fans, and after only a few weeks, Chris Gains rode off into the sunset and Garth Brooks re-appeared before a planned movie The Lamb could go into production.
The Grand Ole Opry’s Refusal to Reinstate Hank Williams
Even though there is a Hank Williams impersonator to greet Opry attendees at the door, the institution has refused to reinstate one of country music’s most legendary icons, and one that made the Opry an internationally-known institution, even in a symbolic gesture. Hank was dismissed from the Opry in 1952 for missing performances and rehearsals due to alcoholism, and was told he could return once he sobered up. Hank never got that opportunity, dying on New Years Eve of that year. A movement called Reinstate Hank looks to reinstate the country star back into the institution.
George Jones “Choices” & Other CMA Performances Cut Short
At the 1999 CMA Awards, George Jones was asked to perform an abbreviated version of his song “Choices.” George refused and boycotted the show, and in response Alan Jackson, while preforming his song “Pop A Top,” cut his own song short, and launched into George’s “Choices.” (read more)
This was actually the second time an artist boycotted the CMA’s. In a much less publicized event, Waylon Jennings refused to perform an abbreviated version of “Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line.” Waylon recalls, “They told me not to get smart. Either I did it or I got out. They said, ‘We don’t need you.’ I decided that was true and left.”
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.
We all know them and we all hate them, those ubiquitous and ridiculous pop country songs that make us hang our heads in shame, embarrassed to call ourselves country fans, constantly making us having to explain that no, we don’t listen to that type of country. They pursue us doggedly, on the radio, over the speakers at the grocery store, blaring from a car full of high school kids at a red light.
Please note that this list has a few ground rules, namely that a song must have been released as a single to qualify (i.e. no Brad Paisley’s “Accidental Racist”). Also, songs that may have been classified by radio as “country” but were classified by artists or their labels as pop (principally Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”) will not be dignified by being included on this “country” list either.
Positively nothing more than a pop dance song with a banjo, Luke Bryan commands country girls to “shake it” for the birds, the bees, for the crickets and the critters and the catfish swimming down deep in the creek, for the gerbils crawling way up his rectum to massage his prostate… oh wait, he left that line out, but you get the point. This song is like a frozen sledge hammer to the balls of anybody who has any sort of musical taste or dignity.
Yes my friends, this song actually exists, and was even released as a single. How do you out cornpone your corny competition? Make a pun about corn and insert into a sexually-charged urbanism, aka the Honky Tonk Badonkadonk songwriting formula. The writers of this song Jeffrey Steele and Shane Minor are not laughing with you, they’re laughing at you for buying into this worthless piece of drivel. If you think “Corn Star” is funny, then the joke’s on you.
13. Stuck Like Glue – Sugarland
This song sounds like it was made with a bubble machine. I don’t know what I hate worse in this song, the reggae breakdown, or the way Jennifer Nettles sings way on top of every note making this song especially unbearable to listen to. At least Sugarland’s cries for relevancy were answered by the song reaching #2 on the country charts, and eventually being certified double platinum. However since then, they have yet to have another hit single, and both Sugarland members are pursuing solo careers.
Florida Georgia Line is a horrible combination of Rascal Flatts pretty boy hyper-pop, and designer jeans Jason Aldean “backroad” laundry list pap. They are everything bad about quotation mark “country” combined into one big stuffed crotch sandwich. Punctuating how pathetic “Cruise” is, is the fact that these two dudes apparently don’t know how to use punctuation. The first line of the song goes, “Baby you a song,” instead of, “Baby you’re a song.” But what else can you expect when the title of their first EP was It’z Just What We Do. Yes, it’s one of those albums, blurring the lines between Ebonics and idiocracy. (read song review)
11. Save A Horse (Ride A Cowboy) – Big & Rich
Big & Rich may think they’re saving horses with their fringe-lined parasols, dandy top hats and prancing midgets, but it is at the expense of our hearing. “Save A Horse (Ride A Cowboy)” acts like a good healthy turn of a corkscrew right after it’s been inserted in one’s earhole. “Save A Hose” has the the shelf life of a knock knock joke. Hear it once and maybe it makes you smile. Hear it twice and you can’t reach for the radio dial quick enough. This song is the reason fans of other genres think all country music sucks.
Boy, little did we know back in 1999 that this machination of mixing sex and farm machinery would become such a prevailing trend in country music. Chesney should’ve just stuck to figuring out what to rhyme “coconut” and “flip flops” with in his idiotic and incessant beach songs. What Kenny and his sexy tractor cohorts lost sight of is that the beauty of country living is in its simplicity.
9. Brown Chicken Brown Cow – Trace Adkins
Some songs we call “a joke” figuratively. This one is a joke, literally. No really, they took a punch line and figured out how to build a song out of it. “Brown Chicken Brown Cow” mentions corn fields and slopping pigs, but since these days less than 2% of Americans actually live this type of traditional farm lifestyle, he is not using these things to relate to people, but to disguise the fact that this really is a hip-hopish rock song, and that he isn’t singing to country folks, he’s singing to suburbanites that like to listen to this kind of smut as a form of escapism. Trace Adkins has become one of the kings of gimmick songs, with his super hit “Honky Tonk Bandonkadonk” being his most well-recognized hit. But even Trace had to admit later that”Brown Chicken Brown Cow” went too far, saying, “I guess I went to that well one too many times.”
8. Red Solo Cup – Toby Keith
That’s right ladies and gentleman, raise your red solo cups high, and let’s all toast the onset of idiocracy! This is not only one of country’s worst songs ever, it was possibly the first song written to be a video first and foremost. Make a stupid viral video for an even more stupid song and you have the spoon fed public eating out of his hands. And just because Toby Keith admits this song is stupid, doesn’t mean it’s still not in fact stupid.
A creatively-repressed Tim McGraw finally breaks free from the 20-year-old bounds of Curb Records, and like an out-of-control Catholic schoolgirl unsupervised, releases this scandalously ill-advised attempt at country rap, forever soiling his reputation. Realistically speaking, this may be one of the worst, if not the worst song on this list. But since it’s creative depravity is so heinous and obvious, it petered in the charts, and its impact was marginal compared to the Frankenstein-like super hit McGraw and new label partner Scott Borchetta were hoping to score.
“Achy Breaky Heart” is country music’s version of waterborading. The song itself was not as awful as the machine gun frequency and pandemic-like omnipresence it terrorized society with throughout 1992, until it and Billy Ray Cyrus’s atomic mullet rose to the level of becoming a national embarrassment that America will likely never absolve.
5. I Wanna Talk About Me – Toby Keith
Yes, you forgot about this little bit of mullet-era Toby Keith awfulness, didn’t you? Before there was “1994″ and before there was “Dirt Road Anthem,” there was this wretched piece of pseudo country rapping released in 2001, written by Bobby Braddock of all people. The song was supposed to be a hit for a young, emerging Blake Shelton, but his label turned it down as too risky. “I Wanna Talk About Me” wasn’t even Toby Keith’s first country rap. He had another single “Getcha Some” in 1998. But it isn’t just the rapping that makes this song awful, it is the self-centered arrogance of the lyrics.
4. Honky Tonk Badonkadonk – Trace Adkins
The title says it all. No really, it does.
3. Boys ‘Round Here – Blake Shelton
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. It is the worst combination of both mainstream country rap and laundry list songwriting. 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. Though Jason Aldean’s “1994″ may be a worse song, “Boys ‘Round Here” might be more dangerous as because it is a chart-topper.
This song seems rather innocuous now compared to the newest wave of country rap that has given rise to songs like “1994,” “Boys ‘Round Here,” and “Truck Yeah.” But at the time, “Dirt Road Anthem” was the edifice of awful, the one that broke the doors open for country rap. As the best-selling song in country music in 2011, the impact of “Dirt Road Anthem” cannot be understated.
1. 1994 – Jason Aldean
Jason Aldean and his crack team of producers and songwriters were exhaustive in their efforts to compile only the absolute worst elements from every corner and crevice of popular music and then assemble them together to compose this ode to the decay of Western Civilization. At their dispose are hip-pop, wiener rock, laundry list country, Auto-Tune, and the general douchebaggery awfulness caused by a complete lack of self-awareness that Jason Aldean is a exemplary specimen of. These ingredients are then extruded into a feces-like industrial slurry that is injected into the hollow, mulleted, cop-mustached corpse of 90′s country semi-star Joe Diffie’s dwindling career.
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 Jason Aldean’s unholy bowels. 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. (read full review)
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.
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, it’s hard to dispute that the CMA Awards are the most important night in country music every year. The nominations announced last week had a few interesting wrinkles, so let’s take a in-depth look at what’s coming up on November 1st and make some predictions.
Kelly Clarkson for Female Vocalist of the Year
Yeah, this is a very confusing nomination. As pop artists go, she may be one of the the good guys, but a CMA nomination? Yes she’s dabbled slightly in some crossover material like her ”Don’t You Wanna Stay” duet with Jason Aldean, but unless I missed the memo, Kelly has never put out a country album, doesn’t bill herself as a country act on tours, and doesn’t run primarily in country circles. Sure, I think we all anticipate Kelly making a country move soon, but it hasn’t happened yet.
But don’t worry, Kelly Clarkson has no chance of winning this award, and if she did, it would be a PR nightmare more than a gift (You think Carrie Underwood fans are crazy now?). It would have been good to see a name like Kellie Pickler get the attention, even though she would have little chance of winning it. There wasn’t another name they felt met the caliber of the other nominees in country, and so they reached out to pop.
“Roll Me Up And Smoke Me” with Willie Nelson & Snoop Dog for Musical Event of the Year
I both love and hate this nomination. Yes, we should be happy that Willie’s name, along with Jamey Johnson’s and Kris Kristofferson’s who also collaborated on the song are even being mentioned in connection with the CMA’s. And no, I do not see this as some watershed moment in the mono-genre just because of Snoop Dog’s involvement. “Roll Me Up…” is still solidly a country song. It just once again reinforces Willie’s identity with pot instead of all the other great things he could and should be known for (including his marijuana advocacy), and it seems like a nomination stretch to attempt to be showy by the CMA. Nonetheless it is a very fun song done by some very cool people, and there’s much worse things that could have be given this recognition.
Down Year For Taylor Swift
Her last album Speak Now is pretty long in the tooth at this point having been released almost 2 years ago, and she hasn’t had a hit single in a while. Her new album Red will have been out for less than a month when the CMA’s hit, and her new single “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” may be a little too pop for the CMA’s tastes, leaving them reluctant to vote for her. I’m sure in 2013 Swift will again be the CMA’s darling, but 2012 may take a Taylor Swift breather.
We’re Lucky There’s No Lionel
Except for a buried mention in the “Musical Event of the Year” category, Lionel Richie and his album Tuskegee didn’t make any of the major lists; a pleasant surprise. Despite lacking a major single, the album has been one the biggest blockbusters of 2012 so far. But don’t worry Richie fans, I’m sure the ACM’s who’ve whored themselve for Lionel plenty, including throwing him an unprecedented hour-long special on CBS, will reward the commercial success of Tuskegee greatly.
***UPDATE (10-31-12) Jason Aldean’s Cheating and Taylor Swift’s Chart Success
It will be interesting to see how the CMA votership reacted to the news about Jason Aldean being photographed with a woman that wasn’t his wife in an LA Bar. The news broke on September 30th, and the final round of voting for the CMA’s commenced on October 4th. Aldean, who’s up for the most awards this year, may see his support diminish because of the scandal.
Similarly, Swift has been making headlines since the last round of voting started. With Billboard changing their chart rules, she now has a firm grip on the #1 spot on the country charts with her pop anthem “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and two other songs charting in the top 20. Does this increase her chances of taking home a trophy, or will there be a Taylor Swift backlash because of the overtly-pop aspect of her new hit songs?
Entertainer of the Year
- Taylor Swift
- Brad Paisley
- Jason Aldean – Winner
- Blake Shelton
- Kenny Chesney
Slight chance Taylor Swift could walk away with this, or maybe even Blake Shelton based on his work with NBC’s The Voice, but I think it’s Aldean’s to lose. His was the monster album this last cycle that kept churning out singles.
***UPDATE – As I said, it was Aldean’s to lose, but he may have lost it with his cheating scandal back in September. Also Taylor Swift now has to be considered a serious contender from the strength of her Red album becoming the best-selling debut in a decade, and the chart success of her song “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”. Or, these two big events could cancel each other out, and Blake Shelton could find himself the beneficiary. In the end though, I still think Aldean has the greatest chance, but it all of a sudden it is a much tighter race.
Male Vocalist of the Year
- Jason Aldean
- Luke Bryan
- Eric Church – Second Choice
- Blake Shelton- Winner
- Keith Urban
This is a three horse race, with Blake Shelton inching ahead from the strength his realty TV personality gives him. This may be where Eric Church’s smack talking comes back to bite him. In a neck and neck race, folks will remember how he called out Miranda Lambert, Blake Shelton, and others and will give the nod to the nominee with a cleaner nose. Aldean’s My Kinda Party has been such a commercial success, it’s hard to rule him out completely, but it’s rare an artist wins both Entertainer and the top gender category in the same year.
Female Vocalist of the Year
- Carrie Underwood – Winner
- Taylor Swift
- Kelly Clarkson
- Miranda Lambert
- Martina McBride
This might be the biggest toss up of the major awards, but I think the other contenders might split the difference and leave Carrie Underwood with the win. Again, it’s an off year for Taylor, but she can never be completely counted out. Miranda is the other solid contender. I’m not sure if her album Four The Record or the supporting tour were strong enough for the nod this year, but when you combine it with her Pistol Annies material, it’s a pretty impressive body of work.
Album of the Year
- Chief – Eric Church - Winner
- Four The Record – Miranda Lambert
- Home – Dierks Bentley
- Own The Night – Lady Antebellum
- Tailgates & Tanlines – Luke Bryan
I just don’t think the other albums have shown the remarkable strength Chief has. It’s been stalled out in the Billboard Top 5 for what seems to be eons. This will override any concerns about Eric’s extra-curricular gum flapping off-stage.
Single of the Year
- “Dirt Road Anthem” – Jason Aldean – Winner
- “God Gave Me You” - Blake Shelton
- “Home” - Dierks Bentley
- “Pontoon” - Little Big Town
- “Springsteen” - Eric Church
This is a pretty tenuous prediction because “Dirt Road Anthem” is so late in the calendar cycle. And though it angers me so that it may be the front runner to win, if you are going to give it to the most successful and influential song in country for this calendar cycle, it’s hard to dispute it. “Home” is also a little late in the cycle, and let’s not forget Jason Isbell claims it’s his. “Pontoon” and “Sprinsteen” as singles are a little early in the cycle, so give me Blake Shelton’s “God Gave Me You” as a runner up.
Vocal Group of the Year
- Eli Young Band
- Lady Antebellum
- Little Big Town
- The Band Perry
- Zac Brown Band – Winner
Where’s Rascal Flatts? They’re just as bad as these other bands. If they’re bitching, they have a legitimate beef. If I were Zac Brown, I’d be ashamed to be in this company.
Vocal Duo of the Year
- Big & Rich
- Love and Theft
- The Civil Wars
- Thompson Square
If The Civil Wars ever had a chance, it would be this year, but I’d still only make their odds 1 in 5. Sugarland hasn’t done much this year. Beyond that, it’s a total toss up.
Song of the Year
- “Even If It Breaks Your Heart,” Will Hoge and Eric Paslay
- “God Gave Me You,” Dave Barnes
- “Home,” Dan Wilson, Brett Beavers, and Dierks Bentley
- “Over You,” Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton – Winner
- “Springsteen,” Eric Church, Ryan Tyndell, and Jeff Hyde
Seeing Will Hoge win a CMA would be a small, cool victory. “Over You” might edge the others from the star power involved and the sentimentality that tends to dominate this category.
New Artist of the Year
- Lee Brice
- Brantley Gilbert – Winner
- Hunter Hayes
- Thompson Square
Brantley and his bad Affliction T-shirt will probably take it, and the world will be a worse place for it.
Musical Event of the Year
- “Dixie Highway,” Alan Jackson and Zac Brown Band
- “Feel Like a Rock Star,” Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw
- “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” Willie Nelson, Snoop Dog, Kris Kristofferson, Jamey Johnson
- “Safe and Sound,” Taylor Swift and The Civil Wars – Winner
- “Stuck on You,” Lionel Richie and Darius Rucker
This may be both The Civil Wars’ and Taylor Swift’s best chance at a 2012 CMA, boosted by The Hunger Games’ commercial success.
Music Video of the Year
- “Come Over,” Kenny Chesney
- “Over You,” Miranda Lambert
- “Pontoon,” Little Big Town
- ”Red Solo Cup,” Toby Keith
- “Springsteen,” Eric Church
If “Red Solo Cup” wins, look for even more mainstream country fake-viral videos.
Musician of the Year
- Sam Bush – mandolin
- Paul Franklin – steel guitar
- Dann Huff – guitar
- Brent Mason – guitar
- Mac McAnally – guitar
I’m sure every year since the early 90′s it would be easy to look back and say this is the worst year for mainstream country music ever. This may be the sign of a continuing downward trend, or a common symptom of the human condition that doesn’t allow us to look big picture. But what I can say for sure is that I never recall a year with this high caliber of a crop of bad songs. This group can hold their own against the Achy Breaky Hearts and Honky Tonk Bandonka Donk’s of the last few decades.
And this year might be the first that songs do well not in spite of being stupid, but because they are stupid as the thirst for irony in modern society seems to have no end. When taking a step back and trying to find the worst songs from the year, you can see 2011 will go down as the year when the laundry list country song perpetuated by the over-bravado doucher “New Outlaw” ruled the roost.
5. Brantley Gilbert – Country Must Be Country Wide
Unlike the other songs on this list, this one from the official “Country Music Douche” doesn’t have you reaching for a brown paper bag or running to the bathroom to unload your lunch, it’s more just insulting to the intelligence of the listener when you try to decipher the lyrics. This song is nothing more than a vehicle to drop transparent countryisms that people immersed in the corporate country culture expect to hear in their songs. And that’s the problem, they hear this song, but they don’t listen to it. Because if they did, they’d discover real quick it is an incongruent pile of leavings from a large farm animal. (read song review)
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4. Beer Time – Justin Moore
Double vomit. “Beer Time” proves that this 5’6″ pip squeak has as hard of a time performing an honest, heartfelt song as he does reaching the wine glasses on the top shelf of the cupboard. I picked this song because of it’s spectacular aptitude of soaring to new heights of suckitude, but really you can pick just about any song on his ridiculously-named Outlaws Like Me album and chances are it will be just as bad. (read review for Outlaws Like Me album)
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3. Toby Keith – Red Solo Cup
That’s right ladies and gentleman, raise your red solo cups high, and let’s all toast the onset of idiocracy! A dumb song, and an even dumber video expose Toby Keith as a business man and marketing guru first, then an artist. Toby owns the Show Dog Universal record label responsible for 2 of the 5 songs on this list. You have to give him credit for his cunning use and understanding of modern media: make a stupid viral video for an even more stupid song and you have the spoon fed public eating out of his hands. And just because Toby Keith admits this song is stupid, doesn’t mean it’s still not in fact stupid. I’d rather shit red solo cup shards than have my ears exposed to this audio abortion. (read “Red Solo Cup”: Bad is the New Good)
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2. Trace Adkins – Brown Chicken Brown Cow
Sexualized puppets and sexual innuendo specifically targeted towards children, this song is the lowest of the low. Toby Keith and Show Dog Universal should have know better when Trace twisted their arm to release this as a single. The pony-tailed baritone with a million-dollar voice and a 10 cent brain had delusions this would finally be the follow up to his blockbuster and the undisputed heavyweight champion of all awful pop country songs “Honky Tonk Badonka Donk”, but he was wrong. Trace may be every pop country-loving soccer mom’s sexual fantasy, but this song sucked so bad even Trace was eventually forced to admit defeat and pull it from radio.
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1. Jason Aldean – Dirt Road Anthem
This is it folks, this is the one. It is where the mono-genre went from theory to practice. And this song didn’t just partake in the previously-taboo mixing of country and rap in the mainstream format, it blew right through the barrier and kept on going until it became the best-selling, most-important, and most-influential song in all of 2011. All the others songs on this list are just stupid or silly or just downright bad, but this one is certifiably hurtful and dangerous when it comes to the integrity of country music. Like Garth Brooks flying over the crowd at Texas Stadium or Olivia Newton-John’s CMA win, we will look back at Dirt Road Anthem’s dominance of 2011 as a big black eye, and possibly the beginning of something even worse for the genre. (read song review)
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Dishonorable Mention: Taylor Swift’s immature “Mean” and Martina McBride’s mawkish “I’m Gonna Love You Through It”.
Back in late July, when Jason Aldean’s country rap mega-hit “Dirt Road Anthem” rose to #1 on the country Billboard charts, I predicted that this would make Aldean a legitimate candidate for Song, Album, and Entertainer of the Year at the 2011 CMA Awards, saying:
Not only is “Dirt Road Anthem” now a #1 single, it has been in the top 5 for two months. This is not a flash in the pan, and Aldean’s album “My Kinda Party” is already the best-selling country album of 2011 so far. Jason Aldean is undeniably a country music superstar, and he, his album, and this song, are serious candidates for top honors at this year’s CMA Awards.
Well lo and behold, when the nominations came out, Jason was up for all the major awards, though officially Song of the Year would go to “Dirt Road Anthem” writers Colt Ford and Brantley Gilbert. Sitting here a few days before the 2011 CMA Awards show, I look a little less clairvoyant, and a little more like a master of the obvious, with My Kinda Party and “Dirt Road Anthem” being such commercial blockbusters as the best-selling album and song so far for 2011.
The only question left is, will Jason Aldean and “Dirt Road Anthem” win? Certainly having the best-selling album and song makes these clear front runners in those two categories, and combined they give Aldean a good case for being the the most important male vocalist and entertainer this year. But sheer numbers don’t always make you a shoe-in for the awards.
Taylor Swift’s song “Mean”, with it’s anti-bullying message seems to be garnering a lot of sympathy for Song of the Year, and with her own commercial blockbuster album Speak Now, she has a legitimate shot at the Album & Entertainer awards herself. Remember, this time last year, the big talk about Taylor Swift was how she was “overexposed,” and she was noticeably absent from any of the CMA fanfare after sweeping the awards in 2009. Hypothetically, the payoff for her patience in 2010 is a big night in 2011. Taylor and Jason Aldean are the two artists poised to sweep the awards, setting up a very interesting Aldean vs. Swift storyline throughout the night.
At this point I’m not sure if it matters if Jason Aldean wins or not; the effects of his presence in the CMA nominations have already been felt. His nominations already likely pushed Jamey Johnson out of the CMA picture. And as I pointed out when the nominations came out, Jason Aldean used to be on the outside looking in to the music industry and the awards shows, saying in 2010, “The average fan doesn’t understand how all that stuff works and the industry probably doesn’t want them to.” Now Aldean is the industry, as a bona fide top-tier country music franchise, and so are Colt Ford and Brantley Gilbert, and so is country rap.
Just like how Taylor Swift’s big 2009 sweep of the awards caused a dramatic pop-oriented shift in the genre, with established bands like Sugarland going in a more pop direction, and bands like Lady Antebellum breaking through, an Aldean sweep could cause a shift to Aldean’s calling cards of checklist songs and country rap. And a win for the song “Dirt Road Anthem” would all but make the formation of the mono-genre complete.
Saving Country Music’s Official 2011 CMA Predictions:
Entertainer of the Year: Jason Aldean (1a Taylor Swift)
Album of the Year: Jason Aldean’s My Kinda Party
Male Vocalist of the Year: Blake Shelton (1a Jason Aldean)
Female Vocalist of the Year: Miranda Lambert
Song of the Year: Taylor Swift’s “Mean”
Music Video of the Year: Taylor Swift’s “Mean”
New Artist of the Year: The Band Perry
Vocal Group of the Year: Lady Antebellum
Vocal Duo of the Year: Sugarland (should be The Civil Wars)
Single & Musical Event of the Year: None of the Above
Musician of the Year: Sam Bush deserves it.
This weekend downtown Nashville is buzzing from Soundland, a four day musical event in its sixth year that features over 100 bands, including Americana stalwarts Justin Townes Earle, Jessica Lea Mayfield, Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, Those Darlins, and Lydia Loveless. Soundland has always been more about featuring the music that does not fit into the typical Nashville “country” mold, but this year, as pointed out in this American Songwriter article, it is the first year that hip-hop artists are being featured prominently in Soundland’s selection for headliners and undercard acts.
Though American Songwriter does a great job highlighting the hip-hop acts slated to play, what they don’t highlight is the country/Americana and indie rock acts that are not in the lineup because of the directed addition of hip-hop artists. In an all-too-present and predictable manner, as soon as a festival built from the blood and sweat of roots and indie acts gets its feet under itself, the flavor of the whole event changes to satisfy the monetary demands of corporate sponsors. As said in the American Songwriter piece more eloquently that I could: “It’s the first year in NBN/SoundLand’s six year history, that hip hop is holding it’s own with the indie rock and Americana that have built the festival.”
One of the big hip hop acts playing Soundland is Big K.R.I.T., who in many ways is the hip-hop counterpart to the Jason Aldean/Colt Ford/Brantley Gilbert team. Just as “Dirt Road Anthem” has made inroads for hip-hop in the country genre, Big K.R.I.T.’s “Country Shit” has taken the country checklist formula, and introduced it to the rap world. Featuring hip-hop acts in the heart of country music’s home, Soundland makes a good bid for being the crossroads for the mono-genre.
And some of the rhetoric coming from the press coverage of the festival and how it attempts to draw parallels between Music City’s country roots and hip hop are laughable. That same American Songwriter article states:
There’s a work ethic, strident independence and spirit of pop-experimentalism that hasn’t been seen in this city since the days of Chet Atkins and the rise of the original Nashville Sound, a sound that – not incidentally – also had to fight an uphill battle for legitimacy and respect.
Excuse me? Chet Atkins, The Nashville Sound, and RCA’s Studio B, which Chet was in charge of, was the epicenter of the Nashville establishment for a generation, and the death of experimentalism in Nashville, if not the death of country music as a whole. It was the result of heavy-handed requirements being dictated by executives in New York to control every aspect of music from it’s songwriting inception to the vinyl pressing.
As rural art forms that have been around for generations, country and folk music have a long history of joining forces to create infrastructure to help support music, principally in festival gatherings, some that have been going on for many years, and some that have reached into urban zones. As an urban art form, and one that is only a few decades old, hip-hop is devoid of the long-standing festival infrastructure roots music enjoys. And as the corporate music world continues to crumble and is able to support fewer artists, while capital and infrastructure to develop upcoming acts continues to contract, hip-hop and indie rock bands have been flocking to traditional roots festivals for support.
And the festivals, many corporate owned or sponsored, diversify their lineups to appeal to the masses, as promoter demands necessitate them needing to increase attendance and profits each year, regardless of sustainability, or the roots or focus the festival had at its inception, and many times, at the detriment of the sound or the acts or the patrons or the grassroots organizations and efforts that made the festival worth taking over in the first place. Bonaroo started out catering to jam bands, a fact that would be lost while looking at this year’s lineup. Austin City Limits started out to chronicalize and promote local Austin bands. The ACL Fest headliners this year were Coldplay and Kanye West.
I am glad hip hop is gaining a foothold in Music City, and Nashville will benefit from that diversity, and hip hop deserves infrastructure to support and develop upcoming talent. But it shouldn’t be garnered at the expense of the folks that built that infrastructure.
Jason Aldean’s country-rap breakthrough hit “Dirt Road Anthem” is climbing the charts, and after the recent release of the video and his performance with Ludacris at the CMT Awards, I suspect it will remain in the Top 10, if not take one of the top tier spots very soon. So I thought it might be fun to peel the skin back and see what this puppy is made of. And I’ll even tie one hand behind my back by steering clear of the merits of country rap as a whole.
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First off, as I’ve said dozens of times before, 70% of the songs on mainstream country radio can be traced back to Bob Seger’s song “Night Moves”, and “Dirt Road Anthem” is the high school nostalgia rehash yet a-fucking-gain. How many times do we have to regurgitate this song people? It was parody a dozen years ago, and so were the stereotypical cornpone laundry list lyrics: The dirt roads, the ice cold beers, the backwoods; it’s as incessant as torture. Having to listen to these songs makes water-boarding sound like a refreshing summertime activity.
And if this is the “Dirt Road Anthem”, why is Jason standing on pavement during most of this song’s video? Maybe because he didn’t want to get dirt on his $700 designer jeans with customized rips painstakingly cut by Vidal Sassoon himself? Something tells me Aldean’s idea of roughing it is not getting his balls shaved that morning.
Not a specific comment about the rapping itself, but one of the reasons this song doesn’t work is because the rapping comes in completely incongruent with the rest of the song. Colt Ford, who wrote this piece of shit can pull it off because that’s his bit. He can stand there with his gut pouring over his belt buckle and a pair of panties on his head, gnawing on a chicken leg and say whatever the hell he wants because he’s not supposed to be taken seriously. But Jason Aldean is trying to sing all soulful, looking reflectively off in the distance, pensive, in the throes of nostalgia, and then all of a sudden busts into this almost satirically-stereotypical laundry list of “countryisms”. This is especially evident in the second rapping part when he says, “And we like cornbread, and biscuits. And if it’s broke round here we fix it.”
Really? Please. And by the way, the next motherfucker that name checks cornbread in a country song, I’m killing a baby animal on their behalf.
This song is such a cry by Aldean for relevancy and attention. Taylor Swift brings twice the amount of heart to her songs. And this whole mentality of how the alpha and omega of life is marked by the titles freshman and senior seems like an unhealthy youth obsession that needs to be quashed.
If you want to have a rippety rap song with country themes, grow some balls. Don’t dip your toe in the water, dive in. And if you want to have a Seger-esque nostalgia ballad, cheese it up, don’t disturb the mood with interruptive rap interludes.
This song is neither fish nor foul, very similar to the identity crisis facing country music as a whole: it wants to hold on to the stereotypical country elements, because that’s the marketing tool to suburbanites looking for escapism through the corporate country culture, but it wants to be hip as well. There’s no creative leadership, no innovation; just pandering. That’s why when you survey the landscape of popular country music, Taylor Swift looks like the most appealing option out there, and why despite her glowing weaknesses, she’s the most successful.
If you’re going to do country rap, do it right. This was the soft pedal, to ease people into the idea so they’re not too alarmed or made wise to the fact their culture is being sold from under them to help prop up dying corporations. I admit, it will probably work. But as a song, “Dirt Road Anthem” doesn’t.
Two guns down.
Like a good red-blooded American, I spent last night ignoring the CMT Awards like the ugly girl at the dance. More than a passing reflection on the doings of a shindig that has the wet cigarette of Kid Rock hosting and lets the pliable pop-country music fan vote the outcomes (gerrymandered by legions of glitter-faced 14-year-old girls stuffing ballots harder than a sock down the front of Jason Aldean’s nut huggers) is risking giving the event way more credence than it deserves. The ACM’s, and principally the CMA’s, though of course mostly relegated to a joke these days as well, are still the only awards that count in the grand scheme.
However when the headline performance of the night went down, we had one of those moments when as we populate the timeline of how all popular American music coalesced into one big mono-genre, it will count as one of the big bullet points, as Jason Aldean performed a rap song, with a well-established rap artist in Ludacris, to close out the festivities. Yes, Jason Aldean performed the same “Dirt Road Anthem” song at the ACM’s a few months ago, but this was the point that the mainstream country establishment has been working up to for a while. They started with Lil’ Wayne making an weird, non-performing appearance with Kid Rock on the CMA’s a few years back. At this year’s ACM’s Rhianna performed with Jennifer Nettles.
Slowly Music Row has desensitized the country music public into accepting artists from the hip-hop super-genre into their format, until now Ludacris, an artist that regularly refers to black people as “niggas” and disrespects women in his songs, is performing on a country music channel, on a country music awards show.
Please spare me the arguments that this is all for the greater creative good. This isn’t about inclusion or open-mindedness, this is about money. Diversity isn’t to have all popular music be an amalgam of everything, but to have sharp lines and blinding contrast. Let rappers rap in hard-edged styles. Let country artists be twangy, with harsh-sounding banjos and steel guitars. Let pop stars dance around with glitter shooting out of their nipples (or whatever). And let the genres mix when it presents itself as a creative bridge instead of an economic opportunity that mortgages tradition and contrast. That is an environment of healthy diversity.
A few days ago rapper Big K.R.I.T., along with the aformentioned Ludacris and “Bun B” released a remix of a song called “Country Shit”. My first though was “Ah, now rap artists are trying to capitalize off the laundry list-style of country songs the spew out easily-recognized imagery and artifacts of rural life to facilitate the white suburban demographic living vicariously through music.” This same “white suburban” demographic has been a big home for hip-hop as well. But the simple fact is rappers are not ripping off country artists, it’s vice versa. Hip hop was the first to spew out laundry lists of urban language and easily-recognizable imagery.
Country isn’t combining with rap in the formation of the mono-genre, it is allowing rap to take over, along with pop. When two dogs meet, one usually stands in a dominant stance, and one rolls on its back. Right now, rap is the butch, and country is the bitch. Why don’t we see country acts on the Hip Hop Awards or BET Awards? Why don’t we see rap artists aping country styles, why is it only vice versa? (I’ll give you Cowboy Troy and a handful of others, I’m talking big picture here)
When the music sales for 2010 broken down by genre were released, all the major genres of music were down sharply, except for rap and country. Rap actually gained, and country was only down a few percentage points, but that slight difference may be why country feels it needs to be submissive to rap to stay relevant.
What continues to baffle me about country is their lack of talent development and innovation. Instead of incorporating rap and pop styles, why doesn’t country tap its vibrant and growing independent/underground post-punk movement full of fresh styles and ideas that would appeal to the coveted young white suburban demographic? Or how about The Avett Bros. and Mumford and Sons, two bands with huge followings that play upright basses and banjos, but have had to revert to indie rock circles to find a home. They likely would be embarrased to be embraced by country at this point even if they were. In many respects, it feels like Americana has never been stronger. There is a vast talent pool for country to draw from, and instead they’re trying to figure out how to suckle off some of the popularity of Justin Bieber and Ludacris.
With Kid Rock hosting the CMT Awards, with country rapper Colt Ford performing, and with Jason Aldean and Ludacris closing the show out with a rap song, you can make the case that 15%-20% of what went down at the 2011 CMT Awards was either rap or rap inspired. I expect those percentages to increase over the next cycle of award shows until the number gets to 50%. Then the mono-genre will be fully realized, and the death of contrast will be complete.
The parade of new lows coming from Music Row in Nashville just keeps coming folks. The pre-Holiday period of 2010 might go down as the worst ever. The latest low blow comes from Jason Aldean, whose single off his album released today called My Kind of Party is a straight up rap song.
I’ve had a working theory for a while that as the music industry consolidates, popular music is heading toward two “super-genres:” hip-hop and country. And isn’t it interesting that those two art forms are divided straight down the middle by race and geography. Of course something doesn’t actually have to be country for you to call it that. It can be rock or pop, or apparently, rap. Really country is nothing more than a term for music made by white people, while hip-hop is music made by black people. Sure, there are a few exceptions, Darius Rucker and Eminem for examper, but this is like saying “Hey, I have a black friend.”
But before my two super-genre theory has even had time to codify, music has devolved even further to make it irrelevant. It goes to reason, if you have has-been pop and rock stars “going country” to salvage their careers, while country stars play rock and pop and rap to salvage their own, why not just bridge everything into one big ass “mono-genre?” Hell, what makes us different stands in the way of mass appeal marketing schemes. Wouldn’t it be much more cost effective if all music sounded the same, so we wouldn’t have to cater ad campaigns to different demographics?
The offending song from Jason Aldean is called “Dirt Road Anthem,” and let me tell you folks, I’d rather listen to the sounds of my own prison raping than this monstrosity. Nobody is a better poster boy for why we should keep our kids away from country rap than the horrific Colt Ford, whose album Chicken & Biscuits is great background music for when frat boys are vomit into the floorboards of their Mitsubishi Eclipses. It was my plan to offer ol’ Colt up as evidence to my little “mono-genre” theory. Then I found out Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” is actually a Colt Ford cover! Classy.
Colt has drawn the ire of critics across the board, and the idea that someone would actually cover this garbage is top tier evidence that the music Apocalypse is upon us. Colt, whose admitted he’s so bad that he has to rap because he can’t sing, has made a good living off of charming the slow-minded with his low-rent rapping, and apparently Aldean is admittedly one of the duped:
‘Who wouldn’t want to rhyme “biscuits” with “fix it,” right? “If you see Colt, he’s a big boy. He likes biscuits.’
He also admits his new album is monotonous, and says this song is the cure:
‘It breaks up the monotony of the record, and just when people think they know exactly what they’re gettin’, you throw something different at them.’
The problem is when the thing that is ‘different’ is exactly the same as 50% of everything in popular music, there really is no difference at all.
Nothing is groundbreaking with either this Jason Aldean single or Colt Ford, or the new Sugarland album for that matter. These acts want to use their wildly transparent reaches into the pop market as shields by calling them “innovative” or “fresh approaches” to country. Colt and Aldean are not the firsts to bridge country and hip-hop, and certainly they won’t be the last. I am not a rap fan, but I am sure that if you dug deep into that genre, you would find the same disgruntled sentiment that exists in country, with true core fans of hop-hop wondering what is happening to the music they love. As offended as I am by Colt Ford and this Jason Aldean song, I would be even more offended if I was a rapper or a rap/hip-hop fan.
There are some artists doing interesting stuff meshing dance/techno/hip-hop beats with traditional roots music, but Jason Aldean is not one of them. He is not melding two art forms in the name of innovation, he is taking the worst of both worlds to try to create mass appeal. “Dirt Road Anthem” is an anthem for the death of contrast.
Two guns down.
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