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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.
We recently learned though the announcement of glam rock band Mötley Crüe’s farewell tour that the band had signed a deal to release a Mötley Crüe country music tribute album with Scott Borchetta, the big cheese at Big Machine Records—home of Taylor Swift, Florida Georgia Line and other such ilk—and affectionately known around these parts as the Country Music Anti-Christ. In the announcement, Scott Borchetta revealed that he was a “not-so-secret” fan of Mötley Crüe, saying, “Our album will highlight just how great the Mötley Crüe song catalog is.”
For folks who know some of the history of Scott Borchetta, this profession of love for The Crüe may have come as no shock. Scott Borchetta grew up in the Los Angeles area where Mötley Crüe is from, and was around the LA area playing in his own hair metal bands about the time Mötley Crüe was getting big. Borchetta’s father was in the music business too, and in the early 80′s a young Borchetta dropped out of school and moved to Nashville to be closer to his father.
While in Nashville, Borchetta helped form a band called Burning Hearts. Complete with rototoms, screaming eagle guitar solos, and spandex and leather pants, the Burning Hearts epitomized everything 80′s bad bubblegum glam metal hairspray rock. “Sherry’s Eyes” was their big “hit” that could be found on a local radio station compilation at the time, as the band slummed around Nashville playing to half-empty venues and milking Scott’s father for studio time. Of course Borchetta’s Burning Hearts never really took off and he eventually gave up his headbanging gigs for the family business.
A young Scott Borchetta clad in canary yellow pants, Colombian cocaine white blazer ala Miami Vice’s Don Johnson, and hugged by a super bitchin’ handcuff belt, can be seen below hogging all the face time for the Burning Hearts even though he’s just the bass player, in a cable access TV program.
Watching the guy who would eventually become the most powerful man in country music shill for his 80′s glam metal project, it’s not hard to see why so much of country music today is saddled with bad rock guitar solos, worst taste, phony glitz, and rock star attitude.
Mötley Crüe, eat your heart out.
Thanks to SCM commenter “MH” for the tip on this video.
So we haven’t even had time since the 56th Grammy Awards to sort out if Madonna had the authority to preside over a mass wedding, or if Pharrell’s hat was indeed copyright infringement against the Arby’s logo, and here only a few days later we’re asked to crunch a fresh batch of data dealing with the nominees for the 2014 ACM Awards on April 6th. There really should be some sort of mandate that the bad taste in your mouth and the horror of one awards show should have long subsided before you have to interface in any way with the next one, but apparently this would have been the case if The Grammys hadn’t been moved up this year because of the Winter Olympics.
Already the ACM nominees have many rolling their eyes and crying foul for various reasons. But folks, don’t ingratiate the Academy of Country Music beyond its value by acting like these awards matter to a greater degree than they actually do. Sure, the presence of the CMT Awards, and now FOX’s ACA Awards have somewhat risen the ACM’s out of the country music award show basement, but they will always be the baby brother of the CMA’s, and will be beset by ridiculous backroom label politics resulting in the anomalies to downright ridiculous notions that some of this year’s nominees represent. Nonetheless, a nomination and win will mean more attention and revenue for a respective label and artist, so it is not fair to discount the matter completely.
Tim McGraw and Miranda Lambert landed the most nominations with 7, and this is where the sideways glances begin. Miranda, though undoubtedly enjoying great success, hasn’t even release an album in over two years. Tim, undoubtedly doing everything he can aside from posing nude or releasing a sex tape to get the public’s attention after years of being saddled by Curb Records, certainly deserves some attention, but like Miranda, is likely being padded behind-the-scenes by a powerful label.
Once again George Strait is up for Entertainer of the Year, gut-checking the ACM constituency into potentially registering a sympathy vote and certainly making this category a subject of great intrigue instead of a forgone conclusion. And the laugh out loud moment is the nomination of Sheryl Crow for Female Vocalist of the Year—the same 5th slot the ACM’s have been stretching to fill for a few years now, with Kelly Clarkson, and Kacey Musgraves before she had even released an album being the other recent anomalies.
Things can change, news can break, and artists can have big months between here and now, but here are some early picks and observations.
Entertainer of the Year
Two horse race between last year’s winner Luke Bryan that had yet another very commercially-successful year, and the sympathy vote for King George. Miranda’s inclusion here is somewhat interesting, and there may be a sentiment out there that at some point Miranda deserves an Entertainer of the Year from somewhere, but it’s hard to see that happening this year. Taylor Swift has no chance, and may not even attend the awards.
- Luke Bryan – Other Potential Winner
- Blake Shelton
- George Strait - Winner
- Taylor Swift
- Miranda Lambert
Male Vocalist of the Year
This comes down to the two hosts of the ACM Awards, Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton. Interesting to see Curb Records really pushing Lee Brice in this year’s cycle, but he doesn’t have the cred yet for this distinction. Keith Urban’s influence died off years ago, and Average Joe’s cash cow Jason Aldean’s Night Train just didn’t have the kind of wide impact My Kinda Party did.
- Jason Aldean
- Lee Brice
- Luke Bryan – Winner
- Blake Shelton – Other Potential Winner
- Keith Urban
Female Vocalist of the Year
This is a hard one. Of course Sheryl Crow has no chance, and Taylor likely doesn’t either. Carrie seems like a long shot, and always seems to be underdogged by the ACM’s. Kacey Musgraves has received love from the ACM’s early and often, and if she can make a splash between here and now on the radio, she might have an outside chance. But it’s all setting up to be Miranda’s night.
- Sheryl Crow
- Miranda Lambert – Winner
- Kacey Musgraves
- Taylor Swift
- Carrie Underwood
Single Record of the Year
- Florida Georgia Line – “Cruise” – Winner
- Lee Brice – “I Drive Your Truck”
- Miranda Lambert – “Mama’s Broken Heart”
- Darius Rucker – “Wagon Wheel”
Album of the Year
Man. This is a completely wide open field, and I have no confidence picking any one of these over the others. Obviously Kacey Musgraves would be the critical favorite. Blake Shelton also has to be considered a favorite since he won the CMA in the same category. It might be a little early for Florida Georgia Line to win an award like this, but it’s hard to argue with that album’s performance. And the ACM’s seem to love Luke, so he can’t be ruled out. Tim McGraw is about the only long shot.
- “Based On A True Story…” – Blake Shelton
- “Crash My Party” – Luke Bryan
- “Here’s To The Good Times” – Florida Georgia Line
- “Same Trailer Different Park” – Kacey Musgraves
- “Two Lanes Of Freedom” – Tim McGraw
Song of the Year
We’ve seen “Mama’s Broken Heart” listed in the category for many of the year’s awards, but does it really have the kind of depth of a typical Song of the Year? “Wagon Wheel” doesn’t really either, but can’t be ruled out. Interesting to see Gary Allan get a mention here.
- “Every Storm (Runs Out Of Rain)” – Gary Allan Songwriters: Gary Allan, Hillary Lindsey, Matthew Warren
- “I Drive Your Truck” – Lee Brice Songwriters: Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, Jimmy Yeary – Winner
- “Mama’s Broken Heart” – Miranda Lambert Songwriters: Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves
- “Mine Would Be You” – Blake Shelton Songwriters: Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, Deric Ruttan
- “Wagon Wheel” – Darius Rucker Featuring Lady Antebellum Songwriters: Bob Dylan, Ketch Secor – Other Potential Winner
Vocal Event of the Year
Were the contributions of Lady Antebellum to “Wagon Wheel” and The Pistol Annies to “Boys ‘Round Here” significant enough to consider them true vocal events? “Cruise” is the obvious commercial winner, but voters may shy away from the cross-genre collaboration.
- “Boys ‘Round Here” – Blake Shelton Featuring The Pistol Annies
- “Cruise” (Remix) – Florida Georgia Line Featuring Nelly
- “Highway Don’t Care: – Tim McGraw Featuring Taylor Swift & Keith Urban – Winner
- “Wagon Wheel” – Darius Rucker Featuring Lady Antebellum
- “We Were Us” – Keith Urban And Miranda Lambert
Vocal Duo of the Year
I write about country music for a living, and this is the very first time I have ever heard of “Dan + Shay”. Previewing their music, hopefully I never have to hear from them again. Joey + Rory would have been the better pick.
- Big & Rich
- Dan + Shay
- Florida Georgia Line – Winner
- Love and Theft
- Thompson Square
Songwriter of the Year
Shane McAnally is who deserves it. Rhett Atkins would be the commercial pick. Luke Laird also likely has an outside chance.
- Rhett Atkins – Other Potential Winner
- Rodney Clawson
- Ashley Gorley
- Luke Laird
- Shane McAnally – Winner
Vocal Group of the Year
- Eli Young Band
- Lady Antebellum
- Little Big Town
- The Band Perry
- Zac Brown Band
Video of the Year
- “Better Dig Two” – The Band Perry Producer
- “Blowin’ Smoke” – Kacey Musgraves Producer
- “Highway Don’t Care” – Tim McGraw Featuring Taylor Swift & Keith Urban
- “I Drive Your Truck” – Lee Brice Producer: Karen Martin Director: Eric Welch
- “Mama’s Broken Heart” – Miranda Lambert
- “Two Black Cadillacs” – Carrie Underwood
Glam metal band Mötley Crüe confided in the world today that they are calling it quits after three decades, and are doing so in a dramatic fashion by signing a legally-binding contract that stipulates that the band cannot tour after 2015—the time after an upcoming 75-city final tour is scheduled to wrap up.
But buried in the litany of announcements and side stories about the Mötley Crüe retirement was a little nugget of info with a country music angle. Apparently the band has signed a contract with Scott Borchetta and Big Machine Records—the home of Taylor Swift, Rascal Flatts, and Tim McGraw—to produce a country-themed Mötley Crüe tribute album to be released this summer.
Scott Borchetta was at the press conference announcing the Mötley Crüe retirement, and proclaimed himself a “not-so-secret” fan of the Crüe, saying, “Our album will highlight just how great the Mötley Crüe song catalog is.”
Mötley Crüe will not be playing any of the music on the album, and the band is not planning to “go country”. Instead the music will be handled by a list of current country stars. Confirmed artists already on board for the tribute album include Big Machine artists Florida Georgia Line, Brantley Gilbert, and Justin Moore, as well as LeAnn Rimes Eli Young Band, and reality star Cassadee Pope.
Insert your favorite anecdote about how modern country is nothing more than rehashed 80′s hair metal here.
Oh Kacey, what are we going to do with you?
Mid January is the season that most of the big mainstream country music acts unveil their touring plans for the year, and as Blake Shelton was announcing the “Hide Your Daughters” tour presented by Taco Bell, and Jason Aldean announced the “Overlords of Auto-Tune” tour with Florida Georgia Line and Tyler Farr, country music critical favorite Kacey Musgraves announced she would not be touring with one of her country music bunk mates, but of all people, the buxom purple-haired pop star Katy Perry. Kacey is reportedly writing with Katy too.
Some Kacey Musgraves’ supporters were disappointed, or even outraged, just as many of those same supporters were disappointed last year when she went out on tour with Kenny Chesney. As if Kacey, who despite her disposition of being slated beside artists like Jason Isbell instead of Jason Aldean, and Brandy Clark instead of Brantley Gilbert, isn’t still very much an artist existing in the highest reaches of the mainstream country music industry and all the trappings thereof. Maybe in some fan’s music brains she belongs on the club and theater circuit so they get to see her in a more intimate setting. But to Kacey’s label, there’s money to be made, and an artist to launch so she can eventually go on her own arena tours.
Others see this as an opportunity to spread the country music gospel—the ol’ theory of music osmosis that we sometimes see assigned to artists like Taylor Swift and Florida Georgia Line. As if some 15-year-old girl is going to hear Taylor Swift and be inspired to lip sync in front of a full-length mirror to Ralph Peer’s primitive recordings of The Carter Family, or similar circumstances might transpire amongst the glitterfaced crowd at a Katy Perry concert because Kacey Musgraves looks so good in hot pants up there on stage. Sure, Kacey will likely win more fans for Kacey Musgraves, and ultimately that’s the point. But let’s tap the brakes on thinking this will be some monumental step for country music.
More importantly, what this concert pairing seems to allude to are important trends in both country music, and the career of Kacey Musgraves.
If it wasn’t clear that Kacey’s label Mercury Nashville had no idea what to do with her before, it is pretty evident now. The one thing we do know about Musgraves is that she enjoys the utmost in label support—arguably unparallelled and unprecedented in the industry. Remember when Kacey was nominated for the ACM for Female Vocalist of the Year in 2013 before she had even released a album or had a Top 10 single? Or how about at the 2013 CMA Awards when she received 6 nominations, as many as Taylor Swift and more than anyone else? Kacey is also up for 4 Grammy Awards here in 2014.
Of course Kacey’s work as a songwriter helped pad these numbers, and not to allude that she didn’t deserve these nominations—they were much deserved, and a sign of the righting of the country music ship in 2013. But a brand new artist like Kacey Musgraves does not receive these types of industry-leading accolades, especially when they’re not backed by sales numbers, without the undying and tireless support of a label looking to launch an artist they believe in both as an artistic and commercial success.
But that has been the biggest problem with Kacey—the commercial success. Compared to many of the other critical darlings Musgraves was amongst on various outlet’s “Best of 2013″ lists, Kacey’s sales are astronomical. But compared to her country industry peers, they’re paltry. Kacey’s album Same Trailer, Different Park has just barely peaked over 300,000 copies sold. For comparison, all the other albums nominated for the CMA Album of the Year in 2013 have at least sold 1 million copies.
Kacey has also yet to have a Top 10 single, with “Merry Go ‘Round” coming the closest at #14. Her latest two singles “Blowin’ Smoke” and “Follow Your Arrow” both stalled out at #31 and #28 respectively, despite a big radio push and big budget videos. Still not bad numbers, but nowhere near the level Mercury Nashville must be wanting, or expecting from an artist that has achieved such industry accolades and undying label support.
Then there was the controversy about “the look” Kacey was caught giving while they were announcing the candidates for Female Vocalist of the Year at the CMA Awards, and more recently, the Twitter brushup she got into with influential Clear Channel DJ Bobby Bones. As some pointed out, Bobby Bones at the time had more followers on Twitter than Kacey did, speaking to both the powerful influence of Bones, and the lack of wide support behind Musgraves. In the social network era, it’s not enough for an artist to release good music. Like the modern day NASCAR driver, they’re expected to be media savvy, not just skilled at their discipline to achieve at the top level.
Hence, a change of plans for Kacey. Some new scenery. Maybe country and specifically country radio is not going to be as receptive to Kacey as first thought. Maybe they’re not ready for the paradigm shift just yet. Maybe she’s too edgy. So go out there and find some more fertile ground. And hell, both her and Katy Perry have songs about kissing girls….
And this is where Mercury Nashville and Kacey seem to be miscalculating. Though Kacey is well-recognized as a critical success and symbolizes a new type of country star, they’re falling back on their old habits of how to present her to the masses by using marketing points. They release “Blowin’ Smoke,” hoping to capitalize off the popularity of pot in popular culture, despite the song not referencing reefer directly. “Follow Your Arrow” seemed to be released to radio not for its underlying message, but because the edginess of the content might stir controversy and create interest in the song and Kacey.
Instead of handling Musgraves like the next Loretta Lynn, leading the way by addressing deep cultural issues, they’re trying to make a her a one-trick pony to be popularized through buzzwords and politicization. What happened to letting the music speak for itself, and what happened to all the momentum built up by the success of “Merry Go ‘Round”?
Mercury Nashville was also at the helm for the lost opportunity with another artist that was a critical success and achieved the highest industry accolades at awards shows, but ultimately didn’t stick in the wide public perception: Jamey Johnson. Granted, Johnson is in the midst of a contract dispute and has been sitting on his writing hands now for years. But this was another artist that country fans clamoring for more substance in the genre could get behind, but so far has yet to make a long-term impact in the mainstream industry. The career of Jamey Johnson right now is very much adrift.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t all Mercury Nashville’s fault. You can’t say they aren’t trying, and trying in an industry that is notoriously suspicious of change and slow to implement it, and that is looking to appeal to what are many times simple-minded fans who don’t want to look for the deeper meaning in songs.
Kacey Musgraves is too good for mainstream country, while at the same time maybe too edgy for the rank and file of country music’s traditional arm. Like Scott Borchetta of Mercury Nashville rival Big Machine Records said recently, the industry must dig a little deeper, and Kacey Musgraves is a positive sign of the industry committing to that. And it’s not like Musgraves hasn’t made back the investment her label has made in her, but the stretch of the Katy Perry pairing makes it appear like they want more from that investment.
What this all speaks to is a deeper, more fundamental issue: If Mercury Nashville, or any other label cannot create successful, or at least mainstream-sustainable careers out of these critically-acclaimed artists, and are forced to reach to outside of the country genre for support, then what is the motivation for these labels and the industry to continue to burn attention and capital on them?
In this respect, Kacey Musgraves must work, and the Katy Perry concert tour must be successful in Kacey’s pursuit of her true fan base. Because if not, Kacey could set the precedent for the rest of the industry of why to not invest in substance.
Meanwhile, all Kacey Musgraves wants to do is write, record, and perform songs. And if she is ultimately going to be successful, that is what she must focus on.
As we head into 2014, country music is primed to have a tumultuous year filled with historic change and big events. We’re looking at a year that has started with the continued dominance of hip hop-inspired laundry list country songs from male performers on the mainstream dial, but countered by a historic backlash from artists, radio programmers, and even Big Machine Label Group’s President Scott Borchetta who recently said, “We can’t keep talking about Fireball and Coors Light and having the tailgate down, etc. So we’ll task our writers and artists to dig a little deeper.”
Poised to be Big Machine’s 2014 big breakout act is a band called The Cadillac Three—a rough-edged, hard-rocking trio that if not touring honky tonks has been tearing it up in opening slots on big tours for artists like Dierks Bentley and Eric Church, while contributing songs to some of country music’s biggest names including the recent single from Jake Owen, “Days of Gold,” Tim McGraw’s “Southern Girl,” and Keith Urban’s “You Gonna Fly.”
Hard to pigeonhole, and certainly not what one would traditionally consider mainstream country music, The Cadillac Three’s following is fairly small at the moment, but their ability to appeal to mainstream fans, Southern rock fans, and even some independent and underground fans with a sound that despite whatever lack of depth is hard to not label as authentic and gritty, The Cadillac Three could be a band who finds themselves at the nexus of being able to take advantage of the “bro-country” phenomenon, and its backlash.
Cue a devilish cackle from Scott Borchetta.
The Many Names of The Cadillac Three
The Cadillac Three started out as The Cadillac Black, but really the heart of the band goes back to a group called American Bang, and even a group before that called Llama. Lead vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter Jaren Johnston, slide player Kelby Ray, and drummer Neil Mason all grew up together in the Nashville area and have been playing music together since high school.
Name changes have been the name of the game for the band that would eventually be called The Cadillac Three. Llama, originally known as the Dahlia Llamas, was a band consisting of Cadillac Three drummer Neil Mason, a lead guitar player named Ben Brown, and 3 others. It was a high school band, but one that was signed to MCA Records and released an album in 2001 called Close To The Silence. Llama broke up in 2003, and a band called Bang Bang Bang was formed with Neil Mason, Ben Brown, and current Cadillac Three members Jaren Johnston and Kelby Ray. Bang Bang Bang also signed with Warner Brothers Records in 2006, and changed their name to American Bang when they found out another band was using the Bang Bang Bang name already.
After guitarist Ben Brown left, American Bang reformed into The Cadillac Black. When the band signed with Big Machine Records in February of 2013, once again the name was found to be too similar to other existing bands, and too hard to disambiguate with bands like The Black Cadillacs, and The Cadillac Black became The Cadillac Three.
Underground Image, Industry Success
Though the sound, the style, the image and presentation of The Cadillac Three seems to be a very stripped-down, ugly, underground affair, the band and it’s numerous predecessors have mostly existed within the industry and been signed to major labels. It’s interesting to note that when The Cadillac Three signed with Scott Borchetta and Big Machine, they were not slated for one of the label’s side imprints—Valory Music Group or Universal Republic—which some artists are delegated to so they can develop into larger names. From the start, The Cadillac Three are running with the big boys on Big Machine proper.
The band has been the perfect opener for artists like Eric Church and Dierks Bentley because they are a rocket-fueled, full-tilt act that can rev up an arena crowd, yet they offer a fairly narrow range of textures so they won’t upstage their headliner. Boiled down, The Cadillac Three’s lyrics are very typical laundry list fare, relying heavily on Southern artifacts spoken on with great reverence in a revolving fashion and delivered with Tommy Gun rapidity. It’s not that the band doesn’t have songs that shift gears, but The Cadillac Black may be a case where a band is simply doing what they’ve always done, and it’s the relevancy arch that inadvertently coincides with their sound instead of a band attempting to chase the current, relevant trend.
Like when Blake Shelton recorded Rhett Akins’ song “Kiss My Country Ass,” it’s not necessarily Rhett Akins’ fault that a song he wrote many years before became a trendy hit. The Cadillac Three aren’t trying to ape Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan; it’s more like vice versa. But being the less-recognized name may make it appear otherwise.
It’s Their Time
What listeners will not be able to lose sight of is that The Cadillac Three are far from the polished pretty boys currently pervading the top of the pop country ranks. Jaren Johnston’s patchy beard, Kelby Ray’s unruly hair, and three greasy baseball caps with the bill’s pointed in the right direction is not what mainstream country fans are used to looking at. Even their lineup is a little weird, with Kelby Ray handling the bass parts and guitar duty simultaneously through a steel guitar rig.
At the same time, many independent and underground country fans who see this band on paper and think it may be their kind of medicine will immediately be repulsed by their formulaic checklist tunes. Case in point is their first Big Machine single “The South” that features appearances by Florida Georgia Line, Dierks Bentley, and Mike Eli of the Eli Young Band. Yes, “The South” is The Cadillac Three’s coronation into the mainstream if there ever was one.
But what makes The Cadillac Three an enigma for some fans is also what may sets them up to be the perfect storm in mainstream country in 2014—a band with a hard rock sound and catchy, easy-to-get-into lyrics that also has a grit and authenticity that an act like Florida Georgia Line is lacking. While mainstream male country continues to trend toward hip hop, and now EDM elements in their music, The Cadillac Three are holding steady to their guitar-driven, Southern rock sound. And where The Cadillac Three may have been perceived as being too one-dimensional for the mainstream in the past, now the mainstream is nothing but one-dimensional, making the band more relevant than most major label’s current rosters, while at the same time delivering a grit that can make The Cadillac Three appear as an alternative.
It all adds up to 2014 potentially being a huge year for The Cadillac Three, for better or worse.
Today it was announced that Austin, TX would be the site for iHeartRadio’s first ever dedicated country music festival, transpiring at Austin’s Frank Erwin Center on March 29th, with a list of top tier headliner talent including Eric Church, Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line, Lady Antebellum, Carrie Underwood, Jake Owen, Hunter Hayes, and others to be announced. iHeart is the online radio streaming arm of American radio monolith Clear Channel, and rising Clear Channel “country” personality Bobby Bones, who got his Clear Channel start on Austin’s pop station, will serve as host.
There is so much that is ill-conceived about this, I’m not sure where to start. iHeart has been throwing “festivals” for a while now, but their traditional home has been Las Vegas. Clearly iHeart wanted to find an alternative to the obvious selection of Nashville, where they would have to compete with much more well-established country events clogging the civic calendar. But throwing a corporate country event in Austin, especially at that time of the year will be about as popular in Austin as running over a bicyclist in your Hummer.
About all this festival will be good for when it comes to the Austin populous will be as a curiosity for hipsters to oogle at through their Sally Jessy Raphael glasses as they ride their fixie bikes past the spectacle, sipping on raw food smoothies on their way to brainstorming sessions devising ways to defund Monsanto by setting up micro loans to African women and targeted eco-terrorism strikes.
The general Austin, TX population has so little interest in this iHeartRadio lineup, it’s laughable that iHeart can’t even be perceptive enough to add even one or two local names to help dull the pain of such an obviously imported corporate country bill. Kudos to whoever in the local Austin government conned iHeart into thinking that Austin’s east downtown corridor is a destination spot for people who are willing to travel hundreds of miles to hear Jason Aldean sing “1994.” Instead of the garish finery of the Las Vegas strip, Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line fans can look forward to legions of homeless peddlers clogging their walking path, an army of construction cranes piercing the skyline in their headlong effort to erect an empire of prefabricated McCondo monstrosities, the 3rd worst traffic snarl in the United States of America, and crumbling fair trade coffee shops oozing with unbathed, deadlocked career students preaching that 9/11 was a conspiracy.
The worst part about iHeartRadio’s country festival might be the timing. Despite whatever best efforts they implement in regards to promotion, locally the event will be dwarfed by South by Southwest the week before, boasting thousands of free concerts, showcasing both local and independent talent, and big national names. South by Southwest is arguably one of the biggest music festivals in the entire world in regards to breadth and the amount of performances that transpire all across Austin over a 5 day period.
And don’t forget that Rodeo Austin also happens the week before, and is featuring its own lineup of big names, including Loretta Lynn, Dustin Lynch, Thompson Square, Chris Young, Josh Turner, Willie Nelson, Eli Young Band, Lee Brice, Scotty McCreery, and Dwight Yoakam. There’s already legions of Austinites that provision up when March comes and never leave the homes because of the nightmare South by Southwest and Rodeo Austin bring to their fair city. The idea that they’ll peek their head out and head downtown just because Hunter Hayes is finally making his way to Austin is quite ripe.
So will the iHeartRadio Country Festival be a colossal failure? Of course not, because they have the backing of the biggest corporate country network in the world to help promote it. Pliable corporate country music fans from all across the country will be more than happy to burn vacation time to see their favorite Budweiser and designer jeans sponsors in one place, edifying them with the finest of Music Row’s formulaic pap filtered through Auto-tuners.
Stock up on cans of Axe Body Spray and rape kits Austin, you’ll need ‘em.
The Season of Discontent in country music continues with yet another big name country music personality lending his voice to decrying the wayward trajectory of the genre. But this time it’s not a performing artist, it is Scott Borchetta, the label owner of Big Machine Records, affectionately known at Saving Country Music as the Country Music Anti-Christ, and arguably the most powerful man in the country music business.
Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine label is the home of Taylor Swift, Rascall Flatts, Tim McGraw, Brantley Gilbert, and most importantly in 2013, Florida Georgia Line, whose song “Cruise” shattered all manner of records in 2013, including becoming the longest-running #1 song in the history of country music. However as Saving Country Music contributor Deb Bose pointed out in August, the record is virtually meaningless because of how it was achieved, and because it was bolstered by a remix with rapper Nelly. NPR’s Neda Ulaby also pointed this out recently in a piece entitled, “How A Hip-Hop Remix Helped Make ‘Cruise’ The Year’s Biggest Country Hit” (listen below).
In the piece, Scott Borchetta is asked to comment on what some are calling the “bro-country” phenomenon, and Scott Borchetta, just like many of his artist contemporaries, states that he believes country music has gone too far with all the references to alcohol and tailgates, and needs to get back to music with more substance.
“Everybody in Nashville must be drinking 24-7. We’re a bunch of drunks down here,” Borchetta jokes to NPR, but then turns serious. “There’s too much, to be honest with you. We can’t keep talking about Fireball and Coors Light and having the tailgate down, etc.”
But what Borchetta says next is the most intriguing portion of his comments. “So we’ll task our writers and artists to dig a little deeper.”
This is something that would be easy for anyone else to say, but few like Borchetta actually have the power to task writers and artists to do anything. Sure, Borchetta may just be paying lip service to what he believes the NPR crowd wants to hear. In October Saving Country Music pointed out that Borchetta was personally responsible for Justin Moore’s sophomoric song “I’d Want It To Be Yours,” and this isn’t the first time that someone has called out country music’s wayward trajectory in 2013 while also being personally responsible for it. But here at the end of 2013, everywhere you look there is criticism being levied at country music’s beer and tailgate songs, and a smart and savvy businessman like Borchetta must see that the trend is not sustainable, begging the question if the tide has turned for country truck songs.
Borchetta is actually not the first label executive to speak out about country’s recent flight from substance. Though he’s known mostly as a performer, Toby Keith is the owner of the Show Dog Universal label and helped start Big Machine with Scott Borchetta before the two labels split. Keith had some critical comments about both hip-hop in country and beer/tailgate songs himself in October, saying,
You hear the hip-hop thing start kicking in, and you start going, ‘Is that what we gotta do now to have a hit?’ I don’t know how to do that. Is that what I need every one of my songs to sound like now?…You start playing [deep songs] to a twenty-something audience, and it’s like, ‘Naw, man, there ain’t no mud on that tire. That ain’t about a Budweiser can. That ain’t about a chicken dancing out by the river. That ain’t about smoking a joint by the haystack. That’s about somebody dying and shit.’”
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.”
Sometimes you can find the most stunning beauty in the strangest of places.
The Fox Network’s 2013 American Country Awards did not go particularly well by a number of measures. Forget that the fabricated awards show really has no weight in the grand country scheme compared to its more established and revered competition in the CMA and ACM Awards, and it seemed to struggle to garner both media attention and top tier country music talent in support of its 2013 effort. The simple transitions between performances, presentations, and commercial breaks seems to find new frontiers of live TV awkwardness, while the fumbling of words was at moments excruciating.
We all can make mistakes and feel the pressure of the live television camera, but Gary Allan wobbled so hard in one segment he had to start completely over. Co-host Trace Adkins invented a new word, “Simular,” which is a cross between ‘singular’ and ‘similar’, which ironically mean the exact opposite things. And the half-assed feel of the entire night was encapsulated when the night’s biggest award for Artist of the Year went to Luke Bryan, but instead of playing a Luke Bryan song as the star made his way to the stage, a Florida Georgia Line song played instead.
It’s not clear if the snafu was the fault of a lowly board operator, or the house DJ (yes, instead of a band, the ACA’s had a DJ), one Deejay Silver, who brought the audience back once from commercial break with a straight up hip-hop song—not a country rap or even a rap song by a country artist—just simply a rap song, which seemed somewhat appropriate on a night when rapper Big Smo said on national TV, “There was a time when you had to choose between country or hip-hop. But not any more!”
The ACA’s generally served their purpose of selling ad time to sponsors, and showcasing some second-tier names that normally don’t receive any face time on the bigger award shows, artists like Justin Moore, Kellie Pickler, and Rhett Atkins, but the whole thing felt tainted, because of the circumspect nature of the awards themselves, and because the production and writing team did no favors for the hosts, presenters, and performers.
But then here came a Patsy Cline tribute in the last quarter of the show and the whole sad sack theme of the night did a complete 180. In a year that saw the death of George Jones, honoring anyone but The Possum seems a little strange on its own, and why after a solid 1 1/2 hours of smearing the legacy of country’s roots the producers decided to go in this direction seems even more curious. But there was LeAnn Rimes, singing a medley of Patsy Cline songs, and who better to do it than her? Since the beginning of LeAnn’s career, the Patsy comparisons have come pouring in.
But LeAnn, a once top flight country artist full of promise, has fallen on hard times in the court of public perception. Unfavorable headlines about infidelity and divorce have put her at odds with the foot the country music industry wants to put forward with its female artists. LeAnn has been virtually forgotten by the industry, but ironically that’s what made her a perfect fit for the ACA’s.
So the LeAnn Rimes medley of Patsy Cline songs starts, and you’re glad to have a respite from all the pop country shenanigans, but you’re not expecting too much. Medleys are always frustrating to some extent because you never get to feel the full brunt of any individual song. But LeAnn, having been a tireless student of Patsy Cline since her formative years, continued to elevate the moments more and more as the tribute transpired until your attentive hate watching of a circumspect award show fell by the side and you were completely enthralled at the channeling of Patsy Cline’s ghost transpiring before your very eyes. And at the end of the medley, when LeAnn went a capella, and the tasteful sepia filter that the ACA’s had placed on the cameras to afford a vintage feel on the first part of the tribute turned back to color, a downright evocation emerged during Patsy’s “Sweet Dreams” that even the embattled and valiant LeAnn Rimes eventually couldn’t even fend off, bursting into tears during the final turn of the chorus.
No video will ever do the moment justice, because it was a moment you had to share in live. At some point you saw LeAnn smile, like she recognized the spirit of Patsy had entered the room, and then the emotion immediately began to well up in LeAnn, and all who were paying attention.
Trace Adkins, after the commercial break, broke script, took off his hat, and complimented LeAnn with a sincere token and acknowledgement of that singular moment LeAnn was able to create, that was anything but similar to what the ACA’s, and really any modern country music award show is able to deliver.
In a mainstream country landscape searching for female stars, to the point of going outside the genre to field awards show nominees, and in a genre that has virtually abandoned its roots, LeAnn Rimes proved that there’s female talent screaming to be showcased, and continued value in music that has withstood the test of time to deliver moments to remember. Booty-shaking anthems and buxom broads singing songs forged in a cubicle farm aren’t just unfortunate because of the lack of nutritional value of their tunes, it is because they push aside those sweet musical moments that we will reminisce on for the rest of our lives.
Two guns up!
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Remember back in the 80′s and 90′s when the big stereotype about country music was that it was all about losing your job, your spouse leaving you, your truck breaking down, and your dog dying? Well now there’s a new set of negative stereotypes being engraved in the face of country music. With so many mainstream male artists drinking from the same well of lyrical themes and using the same select few songwriters, songs about beer and trucks are becoming our generation’s vilified country caricature.
For a few years now, distinguishing country music listeners have been sounding the alarm about laundry list/checklist songs and how their repetitiveness and permeation of the format could lead to burnout. But unwavering, their numbers have increased and their chart performance has improved as the demographics of country music shift away from its traditional audience. But like most trends and fads, especially ones that swap sustainability for the sugar rush of here-and-now success, country’s tailgate, truck, and beer songs could be reaching a critical mass point.
Much of country music’s recent criticism from artists has centered around the beer and truck thread.
Kacey Musgraves when asked what trend needed to die out, she said, “Anyone singing about trucks, in any form, in any song, anywhere. Literally just stop – nobody cares! It’s not fun to listen to.”
Zac Brown said, “If I hear one more tailgate in the moonlight, daisy duke song, I’m gonna throw up.”
And Jake Owen said, “We need more songs than just songs about tailgates and fuckin’ cups and Bacardi.”
Yes, artists like Zac Brown and Jake Owen might be hypocrites for criticizing songs that are similar to ones they’ve released themselves, but at the same time their words may even hold more weight than some traditionalist who may just come across as bitter. Hatred for truck songs has permeated the highest ranks of country stars, and as the quote from ABC’s Nashville at the top of this page illustrates, it is also becoming institutionalized in culture. Multiple stories have ran in major publications about what is being labeled by some as the “bro country” phenomenon, allowing the knowledge (and disgust) for the truck song trend to reach outside the confines of countrydom to casual music listeners.
Then you take a look at the charts where a few months ago beer & trucks songs were dominating the top spots, and we’re beginning to see some churning and turnaround. Two truck songs, Florida-Georgia Line’s “Cruise” and Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind of Night” positively dominated the #1 spots on Billboard’s Country Hot 100 for the majority of 2013, but right now sitting at the top is the Keith Urban / Miranda Lambert duet “We Were Us,” making for the first time a woman has seen the top of the charts in months, with a song that bucks the trend of starting out with a hip-hop beat, and instead builds out from an acoustic rhythm. Taylor Swift also cracks the Top 5 with “Red,” and even even the Florida Georgia Line #4 entry “Stay” is a much more subdued track that focuses more on story compared to their laundry list anthems “Cruise” and “Shine On.”
Even more importantly is what country music has coming up for 2014. Where 2013 was heavy with releases from truck song titans like Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, and Blake Shelton, the two biggest releases slated for country in 2014 are Taylor Swift, and a much anticipated new album from Eric Church. When Church released his latest single “The Outsiders,” he couldn’t have struck a more discordant tune to the truck song trend. Say what you will about Eric Church or “The Outsiders” specifically, but the song was a gorilla-like chest-pounding announcement from Church to not expect him to pander to the truck song formula. Though “The Outsiders” has pulled back in popularity from its bellicose debut, Eric Church’s new album may just be the monster to chase away the country truck trend.
Time will tell if we are beginning to see the erosion or burnout of country truck songs, and if so if it will usher in a new trend of more story-based music or something even more awful. But with the weight of public opinion swelling against them, it’s hard to see this trend lasting much longer.
Yes, it was still 2013, and it was still a modern country music awards show, and so traditional and independent-minded country music fans still had plenty to look sideways at if they were brave enough to watch. But that doesn’t mean that the 47th Annual Country Music Association Awards wasn’t a retrenching of the roots and substance in the genre’s most important institution, and a sign of hope for country fans who’ve simply been asking for years for balance to be reinstated into the mainstream country format.
Luke Bryan, who was the big winner at the ACM Awards in April, was completely shut out. So was Jason Aldean. Florida Georgia Line wasn’t, but this was understandable because of the historic success of their song “Cruise,” but they were bested by Kacey Musgraves in the New Artist of the Year category. And in the end, George Strait, King George, bested everyone by taking home the most coveted trophy in country music, the CMA for Entertainer of the Year.
Was it a parting gift for Strait after announcing his final tour? Of course it was. But it doesn’t mean it wasn’t deserved, and it doesn’t mean it isn’t sweet, both for George, and for traditional country fans, even the ones who may not mark themselves as big George Strait supporters. Strait’s win marks the first time in a decade a true country artist has won the trophy. Alan Jackson, George Strait’s duet partner for “He Stopped Loving Her Today” during a stirring George Jones tribute, was arguably the last traditional-leaning artist to win the award in 2003.
Which leads us to the performances of the 47th Annual CMA Awards. Along with the somewhat abridged, but heartfelt George Jones tribute, there was a tribute to Kenny Rogers, who was presented with this year’s Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award—an award that was founded last year. Lo and behold, a steel guitar made an appearance early in the presentation during Kacey Musgraves’ set, despite the disappointment of the lyric “roll up a joint” in her song “Follow Your Arrow” being censored out. Taylor Swift of all people, offered a stripped down acoustic set that featured Vince Gill, bluegrass maestro Sam Bush, Alison Krauss, and not just as backing musicians. Both Gill and Krauss took turns on verses, no doubt stimulating not a few younger fans to take to Google to figure out who these artists were, facilitating that important initial spark of discovery.
Even Luke Bryan, whose performance of “Country Girl (Shake It For Me) on the 2011 CMA Awards seemed like the pinnacle of indecency for a country awards show at the time, offered a somewhat stripped down, heartfelt performance that featured songwriter Chris Stapleton. In fact, there wasn’t really any performances that seemed gratuitously over-the-top. Apparently there was a moratorium on choreographed backup dancers for the 2013 CMA’s, and about the only pyrotechnics aside from Eric Church’s over-the-top performance of “The Outsiders” were some sparks streaming from beneath the wheels of a simulated boxcar during Jason Aldean’s song “Night Train.” Even the cross-genre moment was when the well-beloved Dave Grohl joined the Zac Brown Band on drums—a stark contrast from the rappers and Kid Rock’s of the world that have somehow become regular fixtures of country award shows recently.
What does this all mean? For one, it means there is a reason to be positive. Whether it is because of the collective crying out about the disenfranchising of country music’s traditional and independent fans through events like Blake Shelton labeling them “Old Farts and Jackasses,” or whether it is the tangible demographic data that shows that country fans as a whole want more traditional country in the country format, someone, somewhere is listening, and some of the change fans have been clamoring for in recent years is finally being enacted.
All that has been asked for is balance—a place at the table for alternatives to pop country—and though the ratio may still be somewhat out-of-whack, some balance was reinstated during the 2013 CMA Awards. If there was another winner during the event beyond the award winners, it might be CMA producer Robert Deaton. Deaton told the Tennessean on Nov. 1st, ““I think the biggest thing I want to strive for is balance. I’m talking about balance of who we are as a music and a genre because we are a lot of different things, you want to be current but you also want to pay tribute to the shoulders that we stand on.” And Robert Deaton backed up those words in the presentation. As much as the censoring of Kacey Musgraves may be a black eye of the 2013 CMA’s, it was done to make sure families and traditional viewers were not offended.
Furthermore, the proof that balance works is in the ratings pudding. The ratings for the CMA Awards was up by 21 percent over last year’s telecast in viewers and 24 percent in the key demographic. The growth was particularly big among young males, with ABC touting a nine-year high among men 18-34.
In September, Saving Country Music published 12 Reasons To Be Positive About Country Music in 2013, and the 47th CMA Awards was yet another one to add to the list. However slowly, however incrementally, and however offset by the continuing lows of some of country music’s mainstream males, things are changing. It had been years since true country fans felt a reason to stand up and cheer and had a reason to feel represented at the CMA Awards. But the 47th installment offered a few of them, and one very big one.
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.
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If you’re a male performer in country music right now, you may no longer have a choice. If you want to see your singles and records reach the top of the charts, if you want your songs played on the radio, and if you want to be in contention for the big awards, you better add some hip hop elements into your music.
It seems almost inexplicable that this statement could be made about American country music, but when looking at the top performing songs, albums, and artists in the format, and how many of them have at least some form of the hip-hop culture embedded in their music, the statement isn’t controversial, it is conclusive. And Saving Country Music isn’t the only one pointing this out.
“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?” says Toby Keith, who not only was the best-selling country artist from the 2000′s decade, but is the owner of the influential Show Dog Universal label, and the highest paid person in country music from his stake in multiple record companies.
Even as a top label executive, Toby is having trouble convincing his own people to push music that doesn’t include electronic beats or rapping. According to Keith, when he brings them country songs, they tell him, “Eh, it doesn’t sound like what’s going on the radio today.”
The two best-charting, biggest-selling songs of 2013 so far have been songs that lean heavily on hip-hop influences: Florida-Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” and Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind of Night.” Both songs broke records in 2013, with “Cruise” breaking the all-time record for any country single with 23+ weeks at the #1 position, and “That’s My Kind Of Night” breaking a record for the most consecutive weeks at #1 for a solo male performer—a record held since 1966.
Currently, the #1, #2, #6, #7 songs on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart feature hip hop influences, while Jason Aldean, Blake Shelton, and Tim McGraw at the #4, #5, #9 positions respectively have all had major country rap singles, including Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” that was the biggest-selling song in all of country in 2011. Three of the five nominees for both Entertainer of the Year and Male Vocalist of the Year for the upcoming CMA Awards have cut country rap songs.
But just because a song has hip hop influences, doesn’t make it bad. It has been the combination of country rap and the laundry list style of lyricism that has been the 1-2 punch to the integrity of the country genre, and especially the material emanating from male talent. This trend has caused a recent uproar, with many artists speaking out, including artists who have themselves participated in either the country rap or laundry list trend, including Jake Owen who recently said, “We need more songs than just songs about tailgates and fuckin’ cups and Bacardi and stuff like that,” potentially dissing Toby Keith’s hit “Red Solo Cup.” Keith was also arguably responsible for the first country rap song in the modern era when he rapped the verses in his 2001 hit “I Wanna Talk About Me.”
It may not be as much that Jake Owen and Toby Keith are being hypocritical as much as they are big stars that are expected to deliver hit singles, and they are sick and tired of chasing the current trends where there is little or no room for substance. When Keith spoke about his recent single “Hope On The Rocks” that stalled at #18 on the Country Airplay chart, he said, “…you start playing it to a twenty-something audience, and it’s like, ‘Naw, man, there ain’t no mud on that tire. That ain’t about a Budweiser can. That ain’t about a chicken dancing out by the river. That ain’t about smoking a joint by the haystack. That’s about somebody dying and shit.’”
So does that mean we can expect Toby Keith to go the country rap route? “I don’t know how to do that,” Keith explains. “I’m not going to change much. And when it quits working, I’ve got other stuff to do.” But if he doesn’t, Keith runs the risk of losing his relevancy as a mainstream country artist. That is why we’ve seen middle-aged country performers like Tim McGraw and Ronnie Dunn cut country rap songs recently, and why most of the up-and-coming country males that are making their mark are doing it through country rap.
Peer and financial pressures are making it mandatory for male country artists to start off their songs with a hip hop beat, or rap the verses to their songs, even if it is just a verse or two. Forget the stigma of trying to bring hip hop into the country format. If you’re a male country star in 2013, you can’t afford not to.
For years the top tier of country music coverage was simply a cloistered and closed-minded exercise in recycling the same already-established names in puff pieces proselytizing the virtues of pop country and very little else. As independent music as a whole continues to gain market share from the mainstream, it’s becoming more and more pertinent for big news outlets to pay attention to the rising tide of independent music, and the renewed interest in legends of the genre. CMT created CMT Edge to cover Americana, bluegrass, legacy artists and other independent acts, and other outlets have stepped up their independent coverage in one capacity or another. But that one mainstream outlet that really gives equal footing to artists regardless if they have the big money of a major label behind them has remained elusive…at least in country music’s traditional stomping ground of the United States.
Once again the Europeans out class their cross Atlantic counterparts with the newly-launched Country Music Magazine from Team Rock—the same people who’ve brought the UK the long-running and widely-distributed Classic Rock Magazine. Despite the generic name, this magazine is anything but, with 132 extra wide (8 ½” x 12″) glossy full-color photo-showcasing pages, accompanied by a free, 15-track CD with music from the likes of Sturgill Simpson and Guy Clark.
Amongst its content is a full 60 pages of in-depth features on folks like Johnny Cash, Tony Joe White, Kacey Musgraves, Sturgill Simpson, steel guitar player Buddy Emmons, Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clark, LeAnn Rimes, Steve Martin, Wanda Jackson, and many more. There’s also a rundown of “69 Must-Have Classics of Modern Country” and smaller features on Fifth on the Floor, Austin Lucas, Jack Clement, and others. The last 30 pages of the mag are dedicated to dozens of album reviews and a buyers guide of releases and re-issues complete with ratings from a wide swath of the country music world. Even the few, unobtrusive ads in the mag are for cool country folks like Daniel Romano and Laura Cantrell. Both the current and archival photos for the respective artists are astounding in their full page context.
When I first heard about this magazine and saw the lineup of who they were planning to feature, I was interested to see how it would all play out once it went to print. It sounded almost too good to be true, but Country Music Magazine seems to be determined to do right by the country music name.
And to be fair, the mag doesn’t ignore bigger, mainstream artists. There’s album reviews for Florida-Georgia Line, Blake Shelton, and Brad Paisley because they’re part of the country music community too. But the reviews for these big names are right beside reviews for people like Bill Kirchen and Patty Griffin. And it can’t be stressed enough how much content is here. It’s a magazine you can’t put down, but seems to take forever to get through because past every page turn is something you want to read, and read again.
About the only base that maybe wasn’t thoroughly touched was the Texas/Red Dirt side of country, but from mainstream to Americana and independent country, they have it all covered. Another concern would be that they set the bar so high with this inaugural issue, it will be interesting to see if they can match it at quarterly intervals. Nonetheless, this is the country music magazine we’ve all be waiting for.
Two guns up!
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Country Music Magazine is edited by Ed Mitchell, with contributions by Grant Moon, Emma Wicks, and Max Bell. Comes shipped in an outer protective cover that includes the magazine and free CD. The magazine costs £7.99 in the UK, £9.99, which is roughly $15.00 US to have it shipped to the States.
That’s right. A scandalous accusation I know, but one I stand behind with puffed chest and other such countenance to covey, “Yeah, I said it. You got a problem with that ?!?!”, and one that holds up when taking the most basic look at our little genre known as country music, and simply asking, “Where in the hell are the women?” Especially on country radio.
No, I don’t have any hidden camera footage of country music scheming with his fraternity brother that runs HR to systemically keep the women of country music at a lower pay scale. But if country music in 2013 were the equivalent of an office worker, it would be a douche-tastic, handsy, shallow, down-looking chauvinist with triple sec on his breath after lunch that specializes in subtle pelvic thrusts during elongated, unnecessary hugs, and pubic hair jokes.
Currently on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs Chart, there is not one single female artist in the Top 20. Not even one. Not even a Taylor Swift, Miranda Lambert, or Carrie Underwood. Not even a song from a country music group like The Band Perry or Lady Antebellum that has a female member. And this isn’t the first time in recent memory that this has happened. In fact aside from the occasional errant single from one of the aforementioned girls, a country music sausage fest is the default setting for country music’s Top 20 in 2013.
A deeper look into Billboard’s other charts and Neilsen’s radio ratings reveals similar discrepancies when it comes to the female gender and country music. But it doesn’t just stop there. The term “sexism” has two definitions:
That’s right. It’s not just that the women of country music are getting locked out of the process, being ignored by radio programmers who are predominantly male, and are being under-developed by the male-dominated industry. It’s also that the songs, artists, and albums that are dominating the charts and that are being pushed first and foremost by the industry are portraying women in a very objectified, stereotypical manner, both in the lyrics of the songs and in the accompanying videos.
Hey, I’m a red blooded male with fully-functioning male plumbing and a propensity to want to look at T&A just as much as the next guy. All males were instilled with the stupid gene to drool at cleavage through evolution. But there is a time and a place for everything, and when I’m walking through the grocery store with my young, impressionable niece to buy her a freeze pop, I don’t want to be accosted by a Luke Bryan song that works like the soundtrack to a date rape terrorizing our ears. Do these assholes not have women in their lives that they hope will be respected by other men? There’s a time for all adults to get raunchy, but country radio is supposed to be that one place of respite on the FM dial. Here in 2013, Top 40 country music is just as much of a den of iniquity as anything.
Artists like Luke Bryan, Tyler Farr, and Florida Georgia Line have no respect for women, and they have no respect for country music. Or if they do, there’s no evidence of it in their songs and videos. It’s just stereotypical fashion-plate models in bikini’s in objectified roles with the sole purpose of being oogled at just like their shiny new jacked up pickup trucks.
But even worse, when I watch concert footage of these country music cocks of the walk up on stage strutting it like Chippendale’s dancers, I’m not seeing a bunch of men of the front row pumping their fists. No, this female-less country phenomenon is not just about males using their physical superiority and good ole boy system to keep women down. The women of mainstream country are taking the role of willing accomplices, inviting this cultural degradation and humiliation with their hands raised in their air submissively and screaming for Luke Bryan to shake his butt. The problem isn’t just that male record executives and male program managers at radio stations aren’t giving women their proper due. It’s that the women are the ones that are demanding this drivel and driving the market.
And no, I’m not just calling for an equal playing field for women. If you have to, you gerrymander the damn system to makes sure you have at least one song on the charts that showcases female talent. Are you telling me there’s nothing out there from a female fit for the Billboard Top 20? There are many women who could immediately make country music better right now—professional, proven, beautiful, appealing, relevant, and ready to take their music big time and represent women in a positive light in a genre that has always been about showcasing strong women like Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Alison Krauss.
Come on country music, let’s do this. I’m tired of telling folks I’m a fan of country music, and then having to put a paper bag over my head in shame, or load it down with qualifying points. We have an obligation to discover, nurture, and showcase female talent. If country music was a board room of 20 members and not one female, some uptight women’s league would be suing their asses from hell to breakfast. So why should country music be held to a different standard?
The dirty little reason that women are not being showcased on country radio is because they’re not willing to sell out like the men. The women of country music respect themselves just fine. It’s the male performers of country music, their industry counterparts, and the women who fawn on them that are driving this trend.
And I’m mad as hell about it.
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.
I’ll be honest with you, I wanted to hate this album, and for many reasons. It begins with a general dislike of tribute, compilation, and cover albums altogether. We live in such a crowded music world, do we really need to hear a song that was perfectly fine the first time done some other way, or virtually the same way from a different artist? Sure it’s cool when they sneak one in on you in the context of an original album, but 14 reconstituted tracks stacked together can get unbearable.
And this particular album seemed like such a ploy. Alabama doesn’t really hold any sway on the heart of your average independent roots artist or their listeners—generally speaking of course—so it seemed like the idea of taking Americana names like Jason Isbell and Jessica Lea Mayfield, and mixing them with Texas/Red Dirt country artists like the Turnpike Troubadours and Jason Boland was just a way to trick people into paying attention to Alabama who otherwise wouldn’t.
And yeah, I’ll say it: Though I’ve always found a good handful of Alabama songs entertaining enough, and maybe some of their album cuts hold a little more substance than they tend to get credit for, they were sort of a mild band when looking at them in the big country music picture.
Alabama was quick to call on stereotypical references to the South and Alabama and evoke artifacts of Southern living in their songs, certainly laying at least some of the groundwork leading up to the parade of laundry list songs country music is plagued with today. That’s not to discount their entire catalog in any way or to imply their songs weren’t enjoyable, but Alabama “was what they were” so to speak—an accessible, sort of one-trick, songs-about-the-South pony that probably doesn’t deserve two tribute albums coming out for them in a month span.
And that’s the other thing. While Americana/Red Dirt fans were pouring over the lineup for High Cotton: A Tribute To Alabama, salivating at names such as JD McPherson, Bob Schneider, John Paul White (The Civil Wars), and Shonna Tucker (Drive By Truckers), on the other side of the music world amidst the multiple wallet chains and Auto-tuned voices of mainstream land, they were looking at a completely other tribute album called Alabama & Friends that includes names like Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, and Florida Georgia Line. This 1 – 2 punch seemed to be part of a plan to create a widespread Alabama resurgence across the entire music panorama, tricking us into losing perspective on Alabama’s overall stature in the country music pantheon.
And wouldn’t it be so typical of one sect of fans to rally behind their particular Alabama tribute, and poo poo the other. Isn’t there enough new, original music out there right now that is more worthy of our time and ears instead of engaging in some culture war over ho hum, rehashed music?
But believe it or not, I like this album. I like it a lot. And its appeal goes beyond the sexy names of contributors, which is how they get you in the door. High Cotton: A Tribute To Alabama offers a great mixture from how the respective artists approach each song. Your country artists, like the Turnpike Troubadours with “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle In The Band),” and Jason Boland with “Mountain Music,” play it pretty close to the original, not trying to get too cute.
Then you have more progressive artists like Jessica Lea Mayfield going in a completely different direction with her rendition of “I’m In A Hurry (And I Don’t Know Why)”—wholesale changing the feel and theme of the original composition without touching a word, making a fun song into a haunting indictment of modern life. Then you have an artist like JD McPherson truly putting his own throwback, 50′s-vibe on a song with “Why Lady Why.” As the cliché for cover songs go, he “made it his own.”
High Cotton: A Tribute To Alabama gets right what so many cover and tribute albums get wrong, including its 2013 counterpart Alabama & Friends. A good tribute album doesn’t just pay tribute to the band or artist. It should be a 50/50 proposition, with the contributing artists also benefiting from the name recognition the tributee affords. You can tell the contributors had any and all latitude they desired to take these songs wherever they wanted, or to leave them pretty much the same if they so chose. And most importantly, when you’re listening to this album, you being to think, “Damn, Alabama did have some pretty good songs, didn’t they?” That’s how you know when a tribute album was a successful endeavor, when it has the power to change a mind, or remind you of something you had forgotten, or introduce something to a generation who has no sentimental tie to it.
A fun exercise with this album is to simply turn it on before looking at the track list and trying to determine which artist the song is being done by simply from the style and the singer’s voice. It is sort of an aptitude test to check your level of independent country and roots knowledge. There’s a few moments on the album that lost me, like T Hardy Morris extending the guitar solo at the end of “High Cotton” so long seemed a little self-indulgent, but even this will be cherished by the right ear. The Bind Boys of Alabama finishing off the album with “Christmas in Dixie” works even in the swelter of mid September because of the inspired performance they turn in.
Cover and tribute albums will always be held at a disadvantage because of their lack of original content, but I would put High Cotton: A Tribute To Alabama near the top of some of the stronger tribute efforts to grace the ears of the country music world.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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Yesterday the big story was that Tom Petty had said some disparaging things about the direction of country music to the Rolling Stone. In an interview that followed up on Petty saying from the stage of the Beacon Theater in New York City that modern country was “bad rock with a fiddle,” Petty elaborated on the point, saying in part,
I’m sure there are people playing country that are doing it well, but they’re just not getting the attention that the shittier stuff gets…I don’t really see a George Jones or a Buck Owens or any anything that fresh coming up. I’m sure there must be somebody doing it, but most of that music reminds me of rock in the middle Eighties where it became incredibly generic and relied on videos.
Though Petty’s comments did not mention pop country band Florida Georgia Line or anyone else specifically, it is probably safe to conclude that the duo that has been making headlines themselves for recently deposing a list of country music Hall of Famers at the top of Billboard’s longest-running #1 songs of all time list, is probably part of the problem Petty was talking about.
Well earlier today on Twitter, Florida Georgia Line responded to someone linking to a story on the Petty comments with a spirited, “U think we care?”
And just in case you’re wondering if it is actually Brian Kelley and/or Tyler Hubbard of Florida Georgia Line that are responding to tweets (and using ‘U’ in their signature, lazy, Ebonic-driven style of writing doesn’t clue you in enough), they responded only a few minutes later with this tweet.
And yesterday they also tweeted:
I don’t think anyone was under the impression that Florida Georgia Line cared about anything uttered by anyone over the age of 35 that wasn’t directly responsible for their success, but to see the duo say it themselves and disrespect a man who among other accomplishments held is own in a supergroup that included Bob Dylan and George Harrison, and has sold an estimated 60 million albums, is still quite shocking. Scott Borchetta should have warned them that in these instances, they would be better served to keep their mouth shut and count their money.
(Editor’s note: This is a rare Saving Country Music guest contribution. It comes from Deb Bose, aka Windmills Country, originally posted it at mjsbigblog.com. You can also follow Windmills Country on Twitter.)
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Billboard and the echo chamber that is much of the entertainment media/blogosphere made much hoopla last week over Florida-Georgia Line’s “Cruise” breaking the all-time record for weeks at #1 on the Hot Country Songs chart. With 22 weeks and counting atop the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, “Cruise” surpassed the 21-week totals accumulated by Eddy Arnold’s “I’ll Hold You in My Heart (Till I Can Hold You in My Arms)” in 1947-1948, Hank Snow’s “I’m Moving On” in 1950, and Webb Pierce’s “In The Jailhouse Now” in 1955. Although Billboard acknowledges that this happened because of its new chart methodology (introduced in October 2012) incorporating airplay from all genres, paid digital download sales, and streaming into chart rankings for its genre-specific Hot Songs charts, it has failed to acknowledge how much this new chart record misrepresents the real impact of “Cruise” compared to other big country hits.
Closer scrutiny of the charts shows that, contrary to the flashy press releases and hype you may see regarding Florida-Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” its “record-setting” week is the historical achievement that isn’t. As I will show below, Cruise” isn’t even the biggest country hit in the past 3 years, never mind all time. The fact that “Cruise” is now Billboard’s record holder is the direct result of the timing of a methodology change, and if the same methodology were in place 7 years ago, “Cruise” would now rank 3rd or 4th among country crossover hits. Not first, and not close to first.
Let’s start by acknowledging the following: with 5.35 million in download sales and counting (41% and counting of that total from a remix of the song featuring rapper Nelly according to Wade Jessen of Billboard), plus major cross-format airplay that led to a #1 peak on the country airplay charts followed by top-10 peaks on the CHR/Pop and Adult Pop/HAC airplay charts, “Cruise” is an undeniably huge hit. Let’s also acknowledge Billboard’s well-intentioned desire to capture the changing environment for music consumption, which is what prompted last October’s move to carry the Hot 100 methodology over to genre-specific songs charts.
But let’s also note the problems with the change. Foremost, the incorporation of airplay from other formats basically handed control of the top of Billboard’s genre-specific Hot Songs charts over to programmers of the format that generates the largest audience impressions: Contemporary Hit Radio(or CHR)/Top 40. Because CHR/Top 40 programmers allot significantly more spins to their top songs than country programmers, more than twice as many in most cases, top 10 CHR/Top 40 hits generate larger audience impressions than top 10 country hits, and that’s before you consider the spillover from CHR/Top 40 playlists into Adult Top 40 (or Hot AC) and Adult Contemporary playlists. A look at the current Billboard airplay charts shows that the #10 song on the Billboard CHR/Top 40 chart (“Same Love” by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis featuring Mary Lambert) racked up higher audience impressions (49.558 million) than the current #1 song on the Billboard Country Airplay chart (“Runnin’ Outta Moonlight” by Randy Houser, which racked up 45.785 million AIs).
Let’s also make it clear that the objections to the new Hot Country Songs methodology have never been the incorporation of sales and streaming into a genre chart. The objection is to the inclusion of airplay from other formats on a genre-specific chart, especially the inclusion of airplay from other formats for remixes of a song, and also to the inclusion of sales of remixes on a genre-specific chart. Had the Hot Country Songs chart counted only airplay and sales for the original Florida-Georgia Line-only version of “Cruise,” the chart would have come closer to a true representation of the impact of “Cruise” as a “country” song. Let us also note that despite acknowledging that it was the release of the remix with Nelly that led to “Cruise”‘s surge back to #1 on the Hot Country Songs chart and crediting Nelly on the Hot 100 chart, Billboard declined to credit Nelly on the Hot Country Songs chart.
How Billboard Overstates “Cruise”s Impact Compared To Other Crossover Hits
Now, let’s dig deeper to show just how unrepresentative the current Billboard Hot Country Songs historical ledger is when it comes to chart impact. To do that, let’s look at the airplay peaks and sales of some of the biggest crossover hits of the past seven years (arranged in chronological order of release)
Digital download sales
Carrie Underwood, “Before He Cheats” (charted from 2006-2007): 3.82 million
Taylor Swift, “Love Story” (charted from 2008-2009): 5.6 million (according to Billboard)
Taylor Swift, “You Belong With Me” (charted from 2009-2010): 4.3 million (as of 6/12/13, according to this article)
Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now” (charted from 2009-2010): 6.2 million (according to Billboard)
Florida-Georgia Line, “Cruise” (charted from 2012-2013): 5.3 million (according to Billboard)
Sales of ‘host’ album
Carrie Underwood, Some Hearts (released November 2005): 7.334 million as of 8/10/13 Billboard chart
Taylor Swift, Fearless (released November 2008): 6.757 million as of 8/10/13 Billboard chart
Lady Antebellum, Need You Now (released January 2009): 3.996 million as of the 6/01/13 Billboard chart
Florida-Georgia Line, Here’s To The Good Times (released December 2012): 917k as of 8/10/13 Billboard chart
Country Airplay peaks:
“Before He Cheats”: #1 for 5 weeks (5 weeks at #1 on Hot Country Songs)
“Love Story”: #1 for 2 weeks (2 weeks at #1 on Hot Country Songs)
“You Belong With Me”: #1 for 2 weeks (2 weeks at #1 on Hot Country Songs)
“Need You Now”: #1 for 5 weeks (5 weeks at #1 on Hot Country Songs)
“Cruise”: #1 for 3 weeks (22 weeks and counting at #1 on Hot Country Songs)
Adult Pop Songs (Hot AC Airplay) peaks:
“Before He Cheats”: #5
“Love Story”: #3
“You Belong With Me”: #2
“Need You Now”: #1
Adult Contemporary Songs peaks:
“Before He Cheats”: #6
“Love Story”: #1
“You Belong With Me”: #1
“Need You Now”: #1
“Cruise”: TBD – “Cruise” is currently #17 on the AC chart.
So “Cruise” is the #3 digital download seller, its host album is at less than 1/4 of total sales of other albums with big crossover hits and unlikely to ever reach their sales levels, its pop airplay peaks are lower than those of “Need You Now,” “Love Story” and “You Belong With Me,” and it spent less time at #1 on the country airplay charts than “Need You Now” and “Before He Cheats.” Yet the historical record represented by Billboard Hot Country Songs claims that “Cruise” is by far the biggest Hot Country Songs hit.
Obviously, the reason for the discrepancy is the difference in methodology in tabulating the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. “Need You Now,” “Love Story” “You Belong With Me,” and “Before He Cheats” accrued their weeks atop Hot Country Songs when it was a country airplay-only survey. But just how off is the historical record that the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart represents when it comes to “Cruise” vis a vis other big crossover hits?
Well, the closest we can get to assessing this question is to comb through the Hot 100 charts, which since February 2005 have reflected the top songs by all-format airplay and paid digital downloads. As of October 2012, the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart is simply a distillation of the top country songs on or eligible to chart on the Hot 100. So, using Hot 100 rankings for country songs over the past 8 years will give us an extremely close approximation of what the top of Hot Country Songs chart would have looked like had it been constructed using the methodology used today (the only difference is that streaming data is absent from Hot 100 calculations prior to March 2012 in the case of Spotify and other audio streaming services and prior to February 2013 in the case of Youtube and other video streaming services).
I went back through the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the October 7, 2006 chart and noted the top charting country song on the Hot 100 every week, which would have been the #1 ranking song on the Billboard Hot Country Songs under the new methodology (minus streams, but those often favor crossover hits, anyway). Here’s what I found:
Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” was the Hot 100′s top ranking country song from: the 10/21/06 chart through the 2/24/07 chart, from the 3/24/07 chart through the 4/7/07 chart, on the 4/28/07 and 5/5/07 charts, and again from the 5/26/07 chart through the 9/08/07 chart.
Total weeks “Before He Cheats” spent as the top ranking country song on the Hot 100:40
Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” was the Hot 100′s top ranking country-based song from the 9/27/08 chart through the 10/25/08 chart, on the 11/8/08 chart, and again from the 12/06/08 chart until either 3/21/09 chart if you want to count Miley Cyrus’s “The Climb” as a country song or until the 4/4/09 chart (when the Carrie Underwood/Randy Travis duet version of “I Told You So” rode a sales wave to become the top ranking country song on the Hot 100). Starting with the 4/11/09 chart through the 6/13/09 chart, “Love Story” was the top ranking country song unless, again, “The Climb” counts.
Total weeks “Love Story” spent as the top ranking country based song on the Hot 100: (if we don’t count “The Climb” as a country song) 33 (if we do count “The Climb” as a country song): 21
Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” became the Hot 100′s top ranking country-based song either on the 7/04/09 chart (if we don’t count “The Climb”) or on the 7/11/09 chart (if we do count “The Climb” as a country song) and remained in that position through the 11/07/09 chart. It once again became the Hot 100′s top ranking country based song on the 11/21/09 chart and for 3 weeks starting with the 1/09/10 chart.
Total weeks “You Belong With Me” spent as the top ranking country based song on the Hot 100: (if we don’t count “The Climb” as a country song) 23 (if we do count “The Climb” as a country song): 22
Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” was the top ranking country-based song on the Hot 100 starting with the 11/28/2009 chart through the 1/2/2010 chart and again on the 1/30/2010 chart. “Need You Now” also held the top ranking for country based songs on the Hot 100 from the 2/13/2010 chart straight through to the 8/27/2010 chart.
Total weeks “Need You Now” spent as the top ranking country based song on the Hot 100: 33
Lengths of other notable reigns as the top ranking country or country based song on the Hot 100:
Miley Cyrus,”The Climb” (if we count it as eligible for Hot Country Songs): 15 weeks
Taylor Swift, “Teardrops On My Guitar”: 12 weeks
Taylor Swift, “Back To December”: 13 weeks
The Band Perry, “If I Die Young”: 10 weeks
Jason Aldean (featuring Ludacris), “Dirt Road Anthem”: 8 weeks (tied for the longest reign since October 2006 without major crossover airplay)
Luke Bryan, “Drunk On You”: 8 weeks (tied for the longest reign since October 2006 without major crossover airplay)
“Cruise” has just achieved 22 weeks as the top ranking country based song on the Hot 100, but had the same Hot Country Songs methodology been in place 7 years ago, it would still be months away from catching Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now,” Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” (arguably), and Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats.” With “Cruise” now on the decline, Luke Bryan set to release a new album on 8/13 and hits by Randy Houser and Hunter Hayes gathering airplay and sales momentum, it is unlikely “Cruise” will be able to maintain its perch as the top ranking country song for the time needed to match those other crossover hits.
What’s illustrated above is why Billboard’s crowning of Florida-Georgia Line’s “Cruise” as the longest Billboard Hot Country Songs chart-topper of all time is a milestone without meaning. As music awards season heats up, we can likely expect a lot of crowing from Florida-Georgia Line’s team about “Cruise’s” achievement and why it’s necessary for the industry to acknowledge it over more acclaimed, substantial and risky work like that of country singer/songwriter Kacey Musgraves. But as you can see, this is a historical accomplishment that isn’t, and it exposes more than anything why Billboard importing the 68 year history of the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart into the chart with this new methodology has compromised Billboard’s status as a reliable and representative historical chart authority. There is more reason than ever to not believe the hype.
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