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You see the brown ‘N’ to the right there? If Cumulus Media and its CEO Lew Dickey have their way, in the coming years it will be one of the most recognized brands in North America, especially if you’re a country music fan. The plans that Lew Dickey has for that big brown ‘N’ are ambitious to say the least, and look to permeate just about every segment of the consumer culture of the United States.
Though the flagship for the NASH brand is the Cumulus stable of 70 country radio stations, with access to another 390 Cumulus-owned stations across the country and 1,500 more through the Westwood One radio network, Cumulus and Lew Dickey have made it known that they want to have the NASH brand travel much farther than radio. Cumulus has already secured a deal with long-running periodical Country Weekly to rebrand to NASH Magazine. They have also announced their plans for NASH-branded restaurants and food to solidify the big ‘N’ outside of music. They also reportedly want to make NASH-branded consumer products such as clothing, furniture, and even designer paint. NASH trim packages for trucks could be on the way, and all this goes together with NASH branded tours and musical events, TV specials and online streaming events.
And recently announced, NASH is partnering with Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Label Group to create a new home for older country artists from the last 25 years called NASH Icons, with the intent of taking talent forgotten by country music’s current Top 40 formula and giving them a new home on the radio, while also releasing new music from older artists through the NASH Icons record label. This talk has country music in a tizzy about how the partnership could enact a format split in country music.
Yes, there’s a whole lot of NASH going on.
Though there has certainly been a rise in interest in country music over the last few years as the genre has branched out to lure in fans of rock, pop, and hip-hop, the plans Cumulus Media have for NASH still come across as quite grandiose and involved, especially for a company that is saddled with tremendous debt, and is facing across-the-board double-digit ratings declines in many of its key markets, including with some of its key NASH stations. It’s flagship country station in New York is floundering, its high debt is eating into any positive revenue news, and it all makes one stand back and wonder, is all this NASH rhetoric real, or is it all smoke and mirrors? Is NASH simply “sizzle” to keep the Cumulus investors and partners believing in Lew Dickey’s vision, or is it the next big event in country music?
Let’s take a look.
The Debt and Revenue Issues
To say that Cumulus is leveraged heavy with debt doesn’t even begin to explain the half of it. The company currently owes roughly $2.23 billion to its debtors, and simply the interest on those loans sufficiently eats into the company’s profits on a quarterly basis. Cumulus is in a situation where even when revenues increase, debt interest still cuts deeply into profits. In December of 2013, Cumulus was able to refinance their debt in a move that will save them roughly $30 to $35 million in interest costs according to Moody’s, but the sheer size of the debt promises to weigh the company down and any of their plans for the near and long term.
As for revenue, for the first quarter of 2014, Cumulus reported a net loss of $9.27 million. This is worse than the $8.99 million loss from the first quarter of 2013, meaning Cumulus continues to lose money, and lose money at a growing rate. There is a small silver lining though. Revenue is actually up for the company. It increased $10.5 million to $292.0 million in the first quarter of 2014 from $281.5 million from Q1 of 2013. The reason for the discrepancy between revenue and net profit? The company’s debt and other expenses eat into any income. Leveraging even more debt and expenses through expenditures or acquisitions may turn the current financial formula even more unfavorably against Cumulus if more spending is necessary to see their plans for the NASH brand materialize.
The Ratings Issue
Simply put, the ratings for many Cumulus Media radio stations are awful. A recent move to replace conservative talk stalwarts Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity on Cumulus with the less-combative Michael Savage has seen a massive ratings dive for the company’s stalwart talk radio franchise. Ratings are down for many of the Cumulus NASH stations as well, including the flagship in New York City where NASH’s syndicated “America’s Morning Show” originates. The show is currently pulling a 1.9 share in New York, which is only good enough for 19th place in the city. In many markets, Clear Channel’s Bobby Bones Show is handedly beating its Cumulus counterpart. In Nashville for example, NASH’s affiliate WKDF-FM 103.3′s ratings are down 45% from a year before, partly due to the fact that Bobby Bones, who bases his show out of Nashville, and has taken over the market’s #1 spot.
Here is a breakdown of some other Cumulus stations, and their precipitous slide:
- WABC/NY down 44%
- KABC/LA down 52%
- WLS/CHI down 57%
- KGO/SF down 58%
- KSFO/SF down 38%
- WBAP/DAL down 32%
- WLS-FM/CHI (Classic Hits) down 45.9%
- KLOS-FM/LA (Classic Rock) down 24.6%
- WGVX-FM/MN (Sports) down 80.8%
- WKDF-FM/Nashville (Country) down 45.2%
- WDVD-FM/Detroit (Hot Adult Contemporary) down 38.3%
- KBEE-FM/SLC (Hot Adult Contemporary) down 50%
The Signing of Artists for NASH Icons
Who Scott Borchetta of Big Machine can sign to the recently-revealed NASH Icons label is going to be key to the success or failure to the venture, or its potential in instigating a format split for country music. On May 27th, in a moment that smacked of publicity sizzle, Lew Dickey announced that Scott Borchetta was aggressively looking to sign Garth Brooks, Faith Hill, Alan Jackson, Shania Twain, and other big-name country stars to the NASH Icons label. “I would look for Scott to make an announcement in the next 30 days,” Lew said, but is Lew just name dropping, and does any label owner, even one with the power of Scott Borchetta, really have the ability to sign a whole stable of big stars in such a short period?
Just because a label wants to sign artists, doesn’t mean they can. Though the contract situations of any artist can be complicated, and buyouts and other such deals are always possible, as first pointed out by Windmills Country, Alan Jackson appears to still be signed with EMI Nashville, hypothetically making him untouchable by NASH Icons. Shania Twain is still signed with Mercury Nashville, and Faith Hill likely still owes Warner Nashville an album. So even if Scott wanted to sign three of these four artists tied to NASH Icons, it might take some serious money or maneuvering. Scott Borchetta has worked with Garth Brooks in the past, and country’s biggest ever superstar is poised for a big comeback at any moment now that his daughter has graduated high school. But it can’t be presumed Garth would work with Borchetta who may not want to sign up for Garth’s no iTunes cause, or a bevy of other major sticking points that could arise between the two big personalities.
For Lew Dickey to drop such prodigious names and expect big signings announced in the manner of a month seems presumptive at the least, and maybe misleading. We’ll see.
Â The Lew Dickey Issue
To say that Lew Dickey is unliked is an understatement when talking about certain sectors of the radio world and the media. Granted, many of Lew Dickey’s detractors can be found in the conservative media, and stem from Dickey’s handling of Rush Limbaugh and blaming Rush specifically for the precipitous backsliding of the company. Lew Dickey said Rush cost the company âmillionsâ in the aftermath of a brushup between the talk show host and feminine activist Sandra Fluke in February of 2012.
But the Lew Dickey hatred goes deeper. Many radio personalities and insiders have a disagreeable view of Dickey for cutting local jobs to implement syndicated national programming, and generally gaming the radio system without regard for the future of the format.
There is a clear sentiment out there in portions of radio land that Lew Dickey is just puffing his chest out with NASH, and many of the promises for the name won’t be fulfilled, if only because the company won’t have the capital, financial flexibility, or managerial muscle to do it.
What is NASH, Really?
Even if Cumulus and Lew Dickey’s NASH dream becomes fully realized, there won’t be factories erected by Cumulus churning out pallets of NASH paint and leather couches with NASH’s big ‘N’ on the back. These products will likely be made through licensing deals Cumulus will strike with other companies to manufacture the actual products. While this scenario means it’s more likely the dream of an army of NASH products will find their way to a store shelf near you will actually happen, it also means the sale of those products won’t be as financially lucrative for Cumulus as they are for the actual manufacturers if they are successful. Lew Dickey’s bet is that the name recognition is what will pay off in the long run. Or, there may be very limited runs of these NASH products simply to help create a buzz. Or, it all just may be noise to create interest and support around the NASH endeavor and the Lew Dickey regime.
“Dickey is into branding â just like on cows. And he is stamping the ‘Nash’ emblem on everything country,” says nationally recognized radio and media insiderÂ Jerry Del Colliano, who published a critical piece on Cumulus, Lew Dickey, and the company’s NASH plans on May 19th called “Tough Shareholder Questions for Lew Dickey“. “He may start selling products, or it may be bullshit. With Dickey, you never know.”
According to Del Colliano, NASH Icons is simply an excuse to consolidate more country radio stations under syndicated programming. Though on the surface it may somewhat solve the issue of “classic” country artists getting pushed out of the country radio format prematurely, it will exacerbate the issue raised by radio research company Edison Research at the Country Radio Seminar in February, that the lack of local focus and syndication by Cumulus and Clear Channel in country radio is killing the format.
“Where Cumulus now has a successful country station, [Lew Dickey] is forcing the morning talent out and replacing them with a weak nationally syndicated morning show that is not local,” says Jerry Del Colliano. “Dickey should have no problem keeping big investors on board because they donât understand the radio industry and probably donât listen to any kind of country music. They hear the sound of money from a shrewd CEO who is selling sizzle, because if ratings or revenue is a yardstick, he is failing.”
“[Cumulus] throws nickels around like manhole covers â they arenât going to spend ANY money on NASH,” continues Del Colliano. “It is one format for 100 plus stations some day. In other words, they pay for one station and fire everyone else. How is that investing in country?Â It is hurting country by eliminating the local person center connection that is so unique to country music and artists. NASH is pop radio country style. NASH Icons will be traditional country but in a watered down cheap version. Icons is â to be blunt â just another format that will allow Cumulus to fire lots of local people and install a money saving 2nd national format. It could be Gregorian Chants for all the Dickeys care. This has little to do with country and lots to do with saving money by syndicating cheap national formats.”
As for why Scott Borchetta would deal with Lew Dickey and Cumulus, Jerry Del Colliano concludes, “Dickey is offering the promise of promotion that Borchetta likes, which is why he has similar deals with Clear Channel. Cumulus gets what it wants and Borchetta gets airplay. And what does Dickey want? Artists for on-air promotion, exclusives and free appearances in return.”
The next shoe to fall will be if, and who Scott Borchetta signs to NASH Icons in the next 2 1/2 week period laid out by Lew Dickey of when we could expect an announcement. In the meantime, what the true extent of what NASH, and NASH Icons will be, and if it could mean a new “classic” format for country radio will have to wait to be seen. For Cumulus, the venture may have no choice but to be wildly successful, because in the face of the implosion of their conservative talk business, and the move by many consumers to streaming alternatives to radio, NASH appears to be the centerpiece of the Cumulus plan to pull the company out of its current tailspin.
Jerry Del Colliano will be speaking at the “Talkers Conference in New York on June 20th.
Kentucky’s 103.9 WRKA first created a stir over the Memorial Day weekend when they re-branded to the “All Garth, all the time” radio station GARTH-FM, playing Garth and Garth only on a 24 hour loop. Though it appeared to be what people in the radio business call “stunting”—where a radio station ahead of a format change plays the same song, or in this case, the same artist over and over to draw attention—the importance of WRKA’s move goes much deeper.
As hypothesized by many when GARTH-FM first hit the air, the radio station has arguably become the first in the country to adopt a new “classic” country format, first floated as an idea by radio trade publication writers, and first championed in public by the yet to be launched venture between the Big Machine Label Group and Cumulus Media called NASH Icons. The idea is to give a home to country artists that flourished in country music starting 25 years ago, when artists like Garth Brooks, Travis Tritt, and Clint Black first got their start; artists that have been all but abandoned by country radio. It all has country music and the radio world buzzing about a potential format split in country music, where Top-40 country and “classic” country stations could exists side by side.
On May 29th, Garth’s lawyers sent a cease and desist letter to WRKA, telling them to quit using Garth’s name to promote their station. They were still able to play Garth’s music, but this development may have forced WRKA to expedite their more long-term plans of becoming the country’s first station to reside in the “classic” 25-year window. On Monday morning, 103.9 rolled out their new format called “The Hawk – Louisville’s True Country.”
âThe country listener that became a fan in the 1990âs when country really exploded canât find those songs on the radio in Louisville right now,” says Operations Manager Shane Collins. “Itâs a whole segment of the audience thatâs being underserved. With the new 103.9 The Hawk, they can hear those big monster hits and artists all the time.â
Of course not everyone is happy with the move. The format the The Hawk replaced was one that played artists beyond the 25-year “classic” window; artists like Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash. But like it or hate it, 103.9 The Hawk will become the bellwether for country music’s potential new format, and there’s no doubt the rest of the country will be watching and listening to see how the new station is received.
Many of mainstream country’s big stars came to Nashville with the best of intentions. They had a sincere love of country music, a belly full of talent, and big hopes to make music their way and ascend the country music ladder with their integrity still in tact….
…and then the Music Row machine did it’s worst.
When you look back at some of the early songs, early albums, and even the early image of some of country’s biggest current stars, it can stimulate downright culture shock. Of course styles change naturally over time, but many of these artists came from small towns and had simple dreams. But the problem with money and fame is that you can always have more of it, and next thing you know, they become shells of their original selves.
Below are some illustrations, not necessarily listening suggestions, but examples of some of the dramatic changes we have seen in some of country music’s biggest artists since their start.
Blake Shelton – “Austin”
With long hair hanging down past his shoulders and a cowboy hat, Blake Shelton and his first single and first #1 hit “Austin” from 2001 seems light years away from the rapped verses and hip hop beat of “Boys ‘Round Here.” Not an exceptional song, but one that has a sincere story, steel guitar, and shows that Blake Shelton did have a soul once upon a time and didn’t mind singing a song for the “Old Farts & Jackasses.”
Luke Bryan – “I’ll Stay Me”
With his baseball cap facing the right way and a goofy smile, Luke Bryan from the small town of Leesburg, GAÂ made his way to Nashville, and after penning big songs for Travis Tritt and Billy Currington, signed with Capitol Records Nashville in 2007 and released an album called I’ll Stay Me. Yes, let’s not let the irony of that title escape us. Bryan wrote or co-wrote all of the songs on the album, compared to his latest album Crash My Party that has only two co-writes from Bryan in the entire 13 tracks. Though there is certainly the early leanings toward a laundry list style of lyricism on “I’ll Stay Me,” it also has a lot of sincerity and a pretty authentic country flavor.
Jason Aldean – “Amarillo Sky”
Before Jason Aldean became the mainstream champion for country rap with “Dirt Road Anthem” and became one of the Godfathers of laundry list country with its caricaturist portrayals of rural life, he put out a song called “Amarillo Sky” on his debut, self-titled album in 2005, releasing it as a single in 2006. Instead of clichĂŠs about dirt roads, beer, & trucks that mark Aldean’s current offerings, “Amarillo Sky” tells a pretty authentic story about the struggle of American farmers, while the video featuring real sons of farmers does it one better. The song was written in part by Big & Rich.
Jerrod Niemann – “Good Ride Cowboy”
Jerrod Niemann has become the poster boy for the gentrification of country music with his EDM-laced radio superhits like “Drink To That All Night”, but can you believe that he once co-penned a tribute to Chris LeDoux cut by Garth Brooks called “Good Ride Cowboy”? Neimann actually had Garth record three of his co-writes, and had Jamey Johnson and Neal McCory record his songs as well. “Good Ride Cowboy” wound up at #3 on the Billboard charts in 2005. Below Niemann can be seen sporting an actual cowboy hat instead of his signature club-hopping fedora. Where did you go wrong Jerrod?
Brantley Gilbert – “What’s Left of a Small Town”
When Brantley Gilbert started out in country music, you wouldn’t even be able to recognize him compared to today. Brantley Gilbert ver. 2014 is all attitude with his ball cap pulled down over his eyes, singing country rap songs in a complete vacuum of self-awareness, but as many long-time Gilbert fans can attest, back in the day he wrote and sang some very sincere country songs, while being known to pay homage to the roots by playing many country classics. His first album released in October of 2009 called Modern Day Prodigal Son gave many hints to the bro-country king Brantley would become, but it also had a few really sincere songs, including one called “What’s Left of a Small Town”.
Sugarland – “Tennessee”
Remember when Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles actually had a Southern accent, Kristian Bush had a cowboy hat instead of an outfit pattered off the leprechaun on the Lucky Charms box, and they had a third member that looked like a 40-something female volleyball coach? Yes, it was 2004, and light years away from “Stuck Like Glue.” Oh how I would have loved to be a fly on the wall during that uncomfortable meeting at Mercury Records when some suit demanded Jennifer lose her twang, and the band lose their third wheel.
Â Florida Georgia Line
….oops, they started bad and stayed there.
Over the Memorial Day weekend, Lousiville, KY classic country station 103.9 turned heads when it decided to switch from it’s traditional country format to “Garth, The Whole Garth, and Nothing But The Garth,” playing the 90′s country superstar on 24 hour rotation. GARTH-FM drew the curiosity of many, and the ire of some, including Garth’s legal team apparently, who has since served the radio station with orders to stop using his name and likeness in promotion.
“FirstâŚ.the response to XXXXX FM has been overwhelming,” Program Director Todd Schumacher said in a statement. “Thanks to those of you who have reached out to us via phone, email, and social media. Unfortunately a certain artist’s legal team has contacted us and told us in no uncertain terms that we can no longer use the name XXXXX FM. So from this point forward, we will no longer use the name XXXXX FM.”Â
GARTH-FM’s logo of Garth’s stylized visage have been removed from garthlouisville.com and the station’s other web properties, the call letters have been replaced by ‘X”s, and though the station is still playing Garth’s songs and Garth’s songs only, his specific name in the on-the-air radio promotional content has been bleeped out.
“Our Programming team is currently behind closed doors determining the evolution of our radio station,” continues ToddÂ Schumacher. “We donât have a solution now, but we will soon. Tune in Monday morning at 7am to hear the debut of the new 103.9. In the meantime, enjoy more music from one of country musicâs greatest artists.”
Garth Brooks and GARTH-FM by proxy been receiving great attention this week from the talk of a potential format split in country music, with the music of artists like Garth from a 25-year “classic” window being featured on their own stations, apart from Top 40 country. Garth Brooks is very much a centerpiece of this plan, with Big Machine Records pursuing the superstar to sign with their new NASH Icons venture with Cumulus Media. GARTH-FM became the first, or one of this first stations to make the symbolic shift to the new 25-year “classic” format.
Though playing only one song, or one artist during the reformatting of a radio station is a common practice in the radio business known as “stunting,” Summit Media, which owns 103.9, seemed more committed to the Garth-only format for longer than the few days that a “stunt” normally occurs.
“Whatâs happening now is that country is going more and more pop in a lot of ways,”Â Director of Marketing for Summit Media in Louisville, Brian Eichenberger told Saving Country Music on Tuesday. “You have the representation on the legends side, but you donât necessarily have it in that 90â˛s to 2000â˛s, to 2002 period where country was really strong. And the best figure head for for that is Garth. So our first move was to make a strong statement about bringing that era back and making it all about Garth. May we add in other artists at some point? Thatâs highly possible. But right now we really want to make a statement about, âWhat happened to the 90â˛s? Letâs bring them back.â And hereâs Garth to do it”
In all likelihood 103.9 will adopt this new 25-year “classic” format come Monday morning, but in the meantime, despite the naming issues, they must feel they accomplished their goal of getting everyone’s attention.
Another day, another noteworthy release of information about the potentially historic partnership between Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Label Group, and the 2nd largest radio station owner in the United States, Cumulus Media. Their “NASH Icons” joint venture that means to re-instill “classic” country artists back to commercial prominence and create a new home for them on mainstream radio has the country music world buzzing about a potential format split, and now we’ve been served some additional insight into the NASH Icons plans via Cumulus CEO Lew Dickey.
During a recent conversation with Billboard Magazine’s Rich Appel, Dickey says Scott Borchetta is aggressively looking to sign many of the artists that fall between NASH Icons’ 25-year artist window, including but not limited to Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson. “I would look for Scott to make an announcement in the next 30 days,” Lew says.
“It’s not that 35- to 54-year-olds don’t like the hits,” says Lew Dickey. “They just miss the biggest country artists of the last two decades, who are still recording and touring but not getting enough exposure today … While in pop you have the middle ground of [adult top 40] between top 40 and classic hits, there’s really no such thing in country.”
Interestingly enough, Alan Jackson has announced a special June 6th press conference to be held at the Country Music Hall of Fame. This is the same location where Tim McGraw announced his signing with Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine label in May of 2012. It is also where George Strait announced his touring retirement in September of 2012. Garth Brooks has also been curiously mum lately, after saying in late 2013 he wants to return to country music with new music, a big tour, and do it “at a level I’ve never seen before.” Big Machine is one of the few labels flush and fleet footed enough to pull off such a feat.
Cumulus owns over 70 country radio stations, and has access to another 1,500 affiliates through its Westwood One network. According to Lew Dickey, they hope to have the NASH Icons network up-and-running by 2015, but some non-Cumulus owned stations are already adopting the new 25-year format. NASH Icons is also not limited to just a label or radio. Under the new NASH brand, they’ve acquired Country Weekly magazine, and hope to have a huge presence throughout media. “We want to be thought of as an omni-channel, multiplatform brand,” Lew Dickey says.
The country music radio format that has resisted splintering for years could finally be cleaving into two distinct entities of “classic” and “Top 40″ country, initiated at least in part over the Memorial Day weekend when a radio station based out of Louisville, KY became the first to adopt a new “classic” country format centered around a 25-year measuring stick.
Though there are many “classic” country stations around the United States, the Summit Media-owned 103.9 in Louisville is the first to implement a much talked about 25-year retrospective that focuses on country music’s breakout era starting in the early 90′s with the rise of Garth Brooks and other powerhouse country stars. In fact to drive the idea home, 103.9 has reformatted the station to where right now they’re playing Garth, and only Garth, and are calling themselves GARTH-FM.
“We feel like this era of music has gotten gradually ignored,” says the Director of Marketing for Summit Media in Louisville, Brian Eichenberger. “And what’s happening now is that country is going more and more pop in a lot of ways. You have the representation on the legends side, but you don’t necessarily have it in that 90′s to 2000′s, to 2002 period where country was really strong. And the best figure head for for that is Garth. So our first move was to make a strong statement about bringing that era back and making it all about Garth. May we add in other artists at some point? That’s highly possible. But right now we really want to make a statement about, ‘What happened to the 90′s? Let’s bring them back.’ And here’s Garth to do it. These guys are a really important part of the dialogue around country music over the last quarter of a century, and they’re disappearing from pop culture. We want to make sure that’s not happening.”
Though the brain trust behind GARTH-FM says their idea predates the big announcement by the Big Machine Label Group and Cumulus Media last week that they will be launching a new NASH Icons venture focusing on the 25-year “classic” country music era, GARTH-FM may eventually sound very much like what NASH Icons has in mind. Since the Summit Media-owned 103.9 in Louisville is autonomous from the reach of Cumulus, their move speaks to the broad-based, multi-company support for a “classic” country format that would need to exist if the idea is to have enough support to truly split country music in two. Summit Media’s Brian Eichenberger thinks this split is a very real possibility.
“This splintering is happening in country music in general, where it’s forming into these two camps where before it has always been one format, and you would say Luke Bryan and Johnny Cash were country, or Luke Bryan and Garth Brooks in the same sentence. But slowly that’s starting to—at least from a radio standpoint—splinter a bit. I mean we hear it all the time. We’ll hear, ‘We’ll I really don’t like country, but I like Florida Georgia Line.’ Or you’ll hear, ‘I really don’t like Florida Georgia Line, that’s a bunch of pop crap. But give me Merle, give me Johnny,’ or even up to ‘Give me Garth and Alan.’ So yeah, I think that’s going to happen.”
In fact we may see it happening among smaller radio stations first, before big companies like Cumulus Media and its NASH Icons venture, or Clear Channel can re-deploy resources to meet the impending trend. “Sometimes when you’re a smaller company you can actually move a little faster,” says Brian Eichenberger. “There’s less parts in the machine to get mobilized. I think we do have that working to our advantage. We’re doing what we think this market in particular needs. We definitely have the support of our corporate office, but we focus as a smaller company on what we can do to really adhere to our metro area and the million people that are here. And we definitely feel like this is something that this market is ready for.”
Though the splitting of the country format in theory means bringing back artists that have been left behind by country radio’s recent obsession with youth, the biggest concern coming from traditional country fans is if the new format might cannibalize some, or many of the traditional country stations out there that already exist, but don’t adhere to the new 25-year format. And according to a recent interview with Big Machine Label Group’s Scott Borchetta, that’s exactly what he expects to happen. Borchetta says about NASH Icons, “The new brand will replace many of their classic country stations, plus extend to syndicated shows, secondary station markets, touring and print.”
This concern is further driven home by GARTH-FM, which replaced an already-existing format that focused on classic country outside the 25-year window. “We’re all aging,” Brian Eichenberger explains, “and so slowly the folks that are 40 and 50, the stuff that they remember, the stuff that is their nostalgic go-to music for when they were in high school and college is going to be this stuff that has started to disappear. Whenever there’s a new generation of people coming up, the music they were fond of, that quintessential 16 to 22-year-old range, is the stuff that beings re-appearing.”
However at the heart of the proposed classic country format, even with its 25-year limitation, is to reinstate many artists who’ve been forgotten by mainstream country radio. “We found an open lane,” says Scott Borchetta, “a way for artists like Reba McEntire, Martina McBride, Alan Jackson and others to make new music and get it on the radio and tour. Weâre going to feature their new music next to the classic songs. So if those are your favorite artistsânews flashâthey didnât die! The business just didnât take care of them. Artists I talk to about this are thrilled to get their music back on the radio and we hope the fans will engage the same way.”
What could emerge from this format split could be something very similar to rock music, where you have “oldies” stations, “classic” stations, and Top 40 stations. “If you look at radio formats in general, you will see that oldies [rock] format used to live in the 50′s and 60′s, and it has slowly been disappearing,” says Summit Media’s Brian Eichenberger. “Over time, classic rock has moved from being something that started in the 60′s, and went maybe into the early 80′s, and is slowly moving closer and closer to where there’s classic rock stations playing Candlebox and Pearl Jam. As the audience ages, those definitions are going to become a little more fluid. And I do think there’s going to be this country transition where the classic rock of country formats will kind of bridge between the oldies country and the new country.”
Do you like Garth Brooks? Do you really like Garth Brooks? To the point where you’re so smitten with Garth’s music you’d be inclined to listen to it 24/7 and nothing else? Well then your in luck neighbor, because a new radio station has just popped up called GARTH-FM in Louisville, KY at 103.9 on the dial, serving the surrounding area and the entire world via the internet with Garth, and Garth only. The station’s slogan is “Garth, The Whole Garth, and Nothing But The Garth.”
The format change for the Summit Media-owned radio station happened over the Memorial Day weekend. It was first thought to be what’s known in the radio station business as “stunting”—where a station will play the same song, or maybe the same artist over and over to draw attention ahead of a format change. But the commitment to GARTH-FM goes much deeper, or that’s what they’re saying at the moment. âThere has been attention both inside and outside the industry recently regarding the absence of Garth on country radio these days,â Summit Media Louisville Operations Manager Shane Collins says, citing a recent Inside Radio article on the subject. âWe really feel like there is a gap here that needs to be filled.â
Now that gap will be filled in a big way, and 103.9 GARTH-FM will be the first full service radio station to solely play one artist. Illustrating the station’s commitment to Garth, they’ve set up garthlouisville.com and 1039garthfm.com to stream the station online.
Summit Media, the parent company of GARTH-FM, owns about 24 radio stations throughout Kentucky, Alabama, South Carolina, Virginia, and Hawaii, including 3 other Louisville-based radio stations, including the area’s “NEW Country Q 103.1″ Top 40 country counterpart to GARTH-FM.
The launching of GARTH-FM adds an interesting wrinkle to the discussion of a potential upcoming format split for country music, with Top 40 country, and “classic” country from the last 25 years going their separate ways. Rumors that this reality might be in the offing were stimulated when Big Machine Records struck a deal with radio giant Cumulus Media to start a new NASH Icons venture.
Another interesting note is that the radio station format that GARTH-FM is replacing was already playing classic country. The previous “Country Legends 103.9″ established on July 23rd, 2008 touted “playing hits from Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Randy Travis.” This creates the question if a potential paradigm shift of country radio into two formats will potentially cannibalize under-performing classic or traditional radio stations that play music beyond this all-of-a-sudden magic 25-year “classic” country window, when big artists like Garth Brooks started their commercial ascent. There is also the possibility that as time goes on, GARTH-FM, just like many stations, could morph into this new 25-year “classic” country format and cover multiple artists.
When we look back, the changeover to GARTH-FM could be a symbolic moment where the cleaving of country music into two formats began …. or a silly idea that was short lived.
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UPDATE: Director of Marketing for Summit Media in Louisville, Brian Eichenberger says, “May we add in other artists at some point? Thatâs highly possible. But right now we really want to make a statement about, âWhat happened to the 90â˛s? Letâs bring them back.â And hereâs Garth to do it.” READ FULL UPDATE
Garth! Hey buddy, it’s been a long time. Yeah, I know, we’ve seen each other in passing here and there. Some appearances at the award shows and such, and that whole thing out in Vegas and the recent box set release, though I’m not really sure if any of that counts. But hey, don’t worry, I’m not jumping on your butt or anything. You hung the moon for me for over a decade, and no matter what you decide to do from here on out, I’m forever in your debt for taking me to levels I thought were never possible, flying over stadiums on suspension wires and inspiring the Billy Ray Cyrus’s of the world notwithstanding. Hell I don’t even know that I can get worked up about all of that stuff anymore, or about your whole Chris Gaines gimmick, or for trying out for the Padres baseball team. I get it now. You were bored. You had climbed the mountain, conquered it, and were looking for the next challenge. Well let me tell you Garth, if you’re looking for a good challenge, I’ve got one. A big one. And this is one you might be able to accomplish. In fact, you might be the only one left on Earth who can.
Don’t think for a second that I blame you for taking a dozen-plus years off to spend time with your family, please. In fact I commend you for it. If we all spent a little more time putting family first, this probably would be a much more pleasant world to live in. Hell, don’t think the idea of dialing it all back doesn’t cross my mind every damn day, yet here I am working like a three-peckered billy goat. Do you know they say that country music is the biggest American music genre now? Ha, did you ever think we’d see that day Garth?
But this is the problem old friend. They’ve thrown the barn doors wide, and now everybody and their cousin is calling themselves country, and it’s gotten completely out of control. Be careful what you wish for, right Garth? I mean we’ve got DJ’s who don’t do anything but stand behind a couple of turntables pressing buttons now calling themselves country, rappers calling themselves country, hard rockers calling themselves country. It’s to the point now where I yearn for the days where Kenny Chesney and Taylor Swift were the biggest pains in my ass. I look back now at the time when they said you were ruining the genre as the good ol’ days. By the way, do you have any idea if Waylon Jennings ever really said that line, “Garth Brooks did to country music what pantyhose did to finger $#@!ing?” Because for the life of me, I can’t verify it anywhere. And yeah, I know I just censored myself. But to some of us Garth, country music is still a family format.
I’m swallowing my pride here Garth. I need your help. Whether it was you and I pairing up in the in the 90′s to sell all those records that truly stimulated all these problems in the first place or not, the simple fact is you and I coming back together could maybe spell the end of it, or at least restoring some sort of balance to where if someone turns on their radio and tunes it to a country station, they might actually hear something that sounds like country.
I know there’s no need to pry you off you’re couch or anything; you’ve already got all the plans in the works for your big triumphant return, so this is not the direction my pleas are headed. What I want to implore you to do Garth is to keep it country. For the love of all things holy, keep it country. Please, as a favor to your old pal. Just be yourself. This is no longer about about trying to turn away the hordes who will call anything “country.” Truth is they won the battle years ago. That ship has sailed. This is about storming the gates ourselves, and taking back what is ours. You may be the best-selling solo artist in the history of popular music, but as I’m sure you know Garth, country music is bigger than any one person (not to gloat, but you know…), and it is the responsibility of everyone, however big or small, to preserve and protect the country music institution, especially an artist like yourself whose benefited in the manner of untold riches from it.
They can say what they want about you Garth. There are old codgers and punks out there that will bad mouth your name no matter how the rules of the game change, and how much time redeems your past accomplishments. Actually, you want to put those critics to bed? Simply put out a true country album that is successful, and those people’s anger will turn to nostalgia and appreciation. I know deep inside of you is still that little boy from Oklahoma that grew up listening to Merle Haggard and George Jones; that appealed to the masses not by borrowing from other genres, but from finding and writing meaningful songs and singing them from the heart. Some focus on your wireless mic and your flawless, almost too-perfect presentation. But I focus in the fire in your eye, the aching moan in your voice that mimics a steel guitar the comes bursting through the mix to remind us all of the magic that country music can evoke when done right.
And you Garth, and only you, may still have the power at this late hour to remind the masses of that magic.
You did it once for the money Garth. Now, do it once for the music. Because we need it now more than ever.
Your once strained, but now rehabilitated and appreciative friend,
As Saving Country Music has been saying all year, mergers, acquisitions, and cross-platform partnerships are going to be the big story of 2014, and will reorganize and churn country music in a manner that the genre has never seen before in its entire history. At the forefront of this historic reorganization has been America’s two biggest radio station owners: Clear Channel & Cumulus, who are betting big on country to become America’s most dominant radio format. Right beside them making big moves is arguably the most powerful label in country music at the moment: Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Records. The Big Machine Label Group has already reached landmark deals with Clear Channel for the use of its artists’ music on radio, and with other entities such as Dr. Luke. And now Big Machine has partnered with Cumulus on a venture that very well could end up creating an entirely new sub-genre or sub-format of country music.
Announced late Tuesday, NASH Icons, a takeoff on Cumulus’ already-established nationally-syndicated NASH brand, is a partnership with the Big Machine Label Group for the purpose of taking old and new music from artists “of the past 25 years” and giving its own place to live. Though no specific artists to be featured have been detailed yet, the idea seems to encompass music from performers like Big Machine’s Tim McGraw and Reba McEntire, and many others artists like Garth Brooks and Randy Travis who’ve had big careers in the past 25 years and that have massive back catalogs of country music that have been virtually abandoned by mainstream radio and many major record labels.
Though detailed specifics of exactly what NASH Icons will look like once it rolls out have not been made available, the two companies are planning a NASH Icons record label that would distribute both old and new music from NASH Icons artists. NASH Icons will also host live events such as special media programming, and potentially tours and festivals, and have streaming and syndicated radio programs specifically catering to the NASH Icons 25-year brand.
Though the term “classic” has been thrown out there to describe the country music that will be featured with the new venture, it appears to be purposely focused on music from a 25-year window, meaning that anything before 1989—when artists like Garth Brooks, Clint Black, and Brooks & Dunn really started their rise—will likely not be included.
As consumer study group Edison Research has pointed out numerous times over the past few years, mainstream country radio has been ignoring its classic country fan base, and the result has been an acceleration of country radio’s loss of listeners that has already been occurring naturally because of the emergence of new media options for consumers like Pandora, Spotify, and satellite radio. This venture signals from both Cumulus and Big Machine that they recognize there is an untapped market for older country music that has been ignored in a growing manner by mainstream country radio focusing on youth and the here-and-now.
However the move could also accelerate this trend if anything seen as “classic” is moved to an entirely different format. If 25-year-old country music is completely segregated from mainstream country, it leaves mainstream country to become a true, current-only country equivalent of Top 40, where any music over a couple of years old will be entirely stricken from the format. In other words, older country could be banished to the old folks home, out of sight and out of mind from mainstream consumers. This trend could also spread to industry award shows and other cultural institutions of country music.
At the same time, it could also finally give aging country artists and fans a format, and somewhere to go when mainstream radio will no longer pay attention to them.
Big Machine and Cumulus would not be getting into this business if they didn’t feel there was money to be made. At the same time, the two companies may see this as a way to placate much of the current criticism being levied at the country oligarchy for abandoning its roots, and abandoning the artists and fans that made country into the commercially-successful format it is today.
What the true impact of NASH Icons will be is yet to be seen, or if Clear Channel, Cumulus’ main rival, will launch their own “classic” venture with another partner, as the two media giants saddled with billions in debt and looking toward country music as their way outÂ match each other tit for tat in the current country music media arms race. The billions of debt that Cumulus carries, along with their other plans for big-minded partnerships and licensing deals that include making NASH-branded food, clothing, furniture, and even paint cast the question of how the company plans to levy the capital to pay for this all, and if country is truly on such a meteoric rise that all the entities looking to capitalize off of it will end up cannibalizing each other as they all fight for the same slices of the pie, regardless of how much that pie is incrementally growing.
Either way, this partnership is not just fodder for Page 2 of radio trade publications. This could spark a significant moment in creating a new format for the country music that has been abandoned by the mainstream, or it could stimulate mainstream country abandoning its roots even further. Or both.
Anyone who wishes to consider themselves a good storyteller has to at least be an admirer, if not a little envious in some degree of songwriter and performer Todd Snider. Over his career, it can be argued his stories have gone on to bolster his troubadour status just as much as his songs. And anyone who’s seen Todd Snider perform a few times or more knows that Garth Brooks has been a familiar punching bag for Todd over the years.
One of the most famous flash points between Garth Brooks and Todd Snider really has little to do with Garth, and mostly to do with a songwriter named Kent Blazy. Kent was one of the writers behind Garth’s first #1 hit “If Tomorrow Never Comes” and many other Garth songs, including a song that Garth performed as a duet with George Jones called “Beer Run”. As many long-time Todd Snider fans know, Todd has his own version of “Beer Run”, and which version was hatched first became a point of contention between the two camps when the song was released on Garth’s 2001 album Scarecrow.
“I’m sitting at home, watching television and my manager calls me up and says, ‘Hey man, you know that song “Beer Run” you came up with?” Todd Snider recalls. “‘Well there’s a different version of the song that’s almost exactly like it that Garth Brooks is singing with George Jones, and I think you might have got ripped off.’ And as God as my witness, this is what I said [to my manager]: ‘I don’t have to come to fucking town, do I?’”
As Todd Snider tells the story, he didn’t even care about the issue, until… “[My manager] calls me a few months later and it’s a different twist on this story. He says, ‘Now they’re saying you took it from them.’ Now I’m thinking I may even have to dress up.”
Subsequently the two “Beer Run” sides met, and decided amicably that nobody took anything from anybody, and everyone went back about their business …. until Todd Snider was asked to play the induction ceremony for Tom T. Hall at the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008. During the ceremony, someone pointed out Kent Blazy to Todd in the crowd as the man who wrote Garth’s “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” not knowing it was the same guy who wrote the contested “Beer Run.” So Todd Snider, being a fan of “If Tomorrow Never Comes”, walks over and introduces himself to Kent.
“I know who you are, I got in a lot of trouble last summer with you man.” Todd recalls Kent Blazy saying to him. “You wrote ‘Beer Run’, right? I wrote it too.”
“And I’m thinking in my head, ‘You took it from me!‘” Todd remembers. “So I said to him, ‘You took it from me!‘ And you know what he said to me? He said, ‘Not technically, man.’ And he explained to me the rules about how many words you can take and how many notes you can take, and I thought, ‘That’s some clever shit.’ And as he was walking away from me, I got an idea for a song. It’s called ‘If Tomorrow Never Comes’.”
So this is the story that Todd Snider has told about his revenge song “If Tomorrow Never Comes” for years, and with fuzzy details and different versions, it began to fuel the rumors of a deeper Todd Snider / Garth Brooks feud.
But that’s not the only story involving Todd Snider and Garth Brooks.
Fast forward to present day, and Todd Snider has just released a new book called I Never Met A Story I Didn’t Like. In the book, Snider raises the subject of another story about Garth he tells involving Todd’s famous song “Alright Guy” that Garth wanted to use as part of his notorious Chris Gains project.
“He told me he was making a movie, and he wanted to put my song, ‘Alright Guy,’ in the sound track,” Snider explains in the book. “He told me the story of this character he was playing in the movie, a pop singer called Chris Gaines, and how heâd created an entire history for this character, and he wanted ‘Alright Guy’ to be a song that Chris Gaines sang in the 1970s.”
Now how do you think the idea of a fictitious pop star named Chris Gaines created by Garth Brooks went over with Todd Snider?
If you listen to the story Todd has told at his shows over the years about Garth Brooks, Chris Gaines, and “Alright Guy”, it painted a different picture than how Todd truly felt according to the new book. “…I realized it would be beneficial for me, in my attempt to get laughs at my show, to pretend I knew in real time what a disastrous idea this Chris Gaines thing was. In the story, I played along and told Garth that it was a great, smart idea, knowing that he was going to fall on his ass …. I decided to exploit the idea that not everybody likes Garth Brooks to my own end. And I told myself that Garth wouldnât be hurt by something like that, because he was so successful.”
But in I Never Met A Story I Didn’t Like, Snider reveals, “That was not in fact anywhere near true. The truth was that I thought it was going to be successful, and thought it was cool, and had hopes that it was going to do well. In fact, I still donât think it was stupid. I think it was smart of Garth Brooks to make a creative choice that resulted in selling millions of albums. Sign me up for that kind of stupid.”
Todd Snider goes on to talk about his experience hanging out with Garth during the recording of “Alright Guy” for the Chris Gaines project, and how nice Brooks was. “Garth was a lot less music businessâoriented toward me and a lot gentler and more poetic toward me than some of my supposedly art-first songwriter friends.” And when the whole Chris Gaines project fizzled and “Alright Guy” went unused, Garth Brooks sent Todd a check for $10,000. “If youâre reading this and thinking, ‘Well, that was the decent thing to do,’ Iâm telling you that youâre wrong. Iâve been in this thing for twenty years, and this was ten thousand times more than the decent thing to do. This was unheard of. He owed me nothing but paid me $10,000, and apologized for that.”
As for Todd Snider’s true take on Garth Brooks? It might be the best take on the dichotomy Garth Brooks defines in country music that has been offered to date.
I loved Garth Brooks. I was, and am, a very big fan. I think Garth Brooks fucked up country music for a while, through no fault of his own: he made music so good and so successful that tons of people came along after him trying to imitate what he did. Garth fucked up country music like Kurt Cobain fucked up rock.
Because of Garthâs massive success, thereâs a bit of a push and pull in Nashville about him. When you sell more records than anyone has ever sold, you tend to make more people jealous than have ever been jealous of a singer.
Itâs a crock that I think prevails in this country: we bully the people who entertain us. We get on the computer and bully them. We buy magazines with pictures of them where they look fat or drunk or imperfect. And we suppose that those peopleâs success excuses our meanness.
It’s been theorized that what truly defines a “douchebag” is living in a vacuum of self-awareness. When you combine that with the rather easy-to-deduce conclusion that Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley probably weren’t winning many academic decathlons during their formative years from the way the duo’s songs so deftly avoid positively anything that could be mistaken, let alone taken, as deep, substantive, intelligent, or even remotely country instead of an overly-affectated, caricaturist drawl, it only makes sense that they would be completely unable to define the very term that was crafted to describe their specific brand of vapid, soul-less, and only very slightly country-flavored dreck.
“Bro-country” is the phrase that has been on the tip of the tongue of many country music and culture writers when they try to describe the current phenomenon gripping popular country music that calls heavily on pickup trucks, beer, backroads, etc. etc., but according to Florida Georgia Line’s Brian Kelley (the one that does all the talking off stage, and none of the singing on stage), he’s clueless to what the term stands for.
“We’ve heard the term ‘bro country’, and I don’t really know what it means,” he tells FOX411. “People like to label things I guess these days. What’s country? What’s not country?”
Deep, Mr. Kelley. Deep.
“We just call it the Florida-Georgia-Line sound,”Â he continues. “Our music’s got all of our influences in one.” What influences? When asked what his dream collaborations would be, Brian Kelley answered, “Within country music, Ronnie Dunn and Garth Brooks are the two top guys, and outside of country we like Drake and Rihanna,” proving that Florida Georgia Line are just the type of mono-genre monsters that make music marketeers see green.
Though the term “bro-country” has become standardized throughout media world, attempts to create negative connotations around the designation have been mixed. Recently, the term has been adopted by the very music, fans, and artists it was meant to criticize. Pandora has even set up an exclusive bro-country channel.
To do Ronnie Dunn and his new album Peace, Love & Country Music justice, one doesn’t need to write an album review, one needs to do something in between an in-depth psychoanalysis and a diagramming treatise. There’s so much going on here, so many tentacles to the current Ronnie Dunn story, and ones that reach far beyond the music itself, that it’s hard to know where to even start, or to end for that matter.
I guess the first place to start is to try and set the context of just where Ronnie Dunn is in his career, and where he came from. Because Brooks & Dunn was so overshadowed in their day by Garth Brooks, George Strait, Alan Jackson, and the other solo artists of the 90′s, and because his name was only given half credit as a member of a duo, it may be difficult to appreciate just what a mark Ronnie has put on country music. But his impact has been nothing short of towering. Brooks & Dunn sold 30 million records. Their signature album Brand New Man sold over 6 million alone. They had 30 #1 singles. They won the CMA for Vocal Duo of the Year a remarkable 13 out of 14 years between 1992 and 2006, and won Entertainer of the Year in 1996. Their career and impact were historic, and Hall of Fame worthy.
And now, Ronnie Dunn is a defector. He is one of the leading voices of dissent against the institutions presiding over American country music. He has created a loyal and rabid following of tens of thousands of disenfranchised music fans. On a weekly, and sometimes daily basis, Ronnie Dunn is decrying Music Rows ways, specifically criticizing the exclusivity of radio, the stamping out of creativity by record labels, and the way the business treats its talent, young and old.
Think about it: This is one of Nashville’s biggest bread winners of the last 25 years, and he’s now a turncoat. The quotes from Dunn and the topics he’s broached about Music Row’s debauchery are so numerous, I couldn’t even start to delve into them and do it all justice. But long story short, this is a guy that fought Nashville’s wars for a nearly a quarter of a century, and now he’s fighting against them. “I did it for 20 years, and I learned all it was was the mainstream way of doing things was just where ideas go to die these days,” Dunn said in a recent interview. “Mainstream is the road to mediocrity. And it took me 20 years to realize that. But it got to the point to where everything we would come up with to do as maybe an idea or something we thought was fairly innovative, we would get cut off at the pass. So it’s time. It felt like time to start to try to do different things.”
And doing things different is what he’s done. Ronnie Dunn is a completely independent artist now who owns his own record label called Little Will-E Records. During the CMT Awards in Nashville last summer, Dunn set up an encampment on lower Broadway guerrilla style, and as the throngs of people poured out of the Bridgestone Arena, Ronnie played three of his new songs off the album on the roof of a nearby building as a promotional stunt. No permission, no permits. He even got in trouble with the Opry for shining a light banner on the roof of the Ryman asking “Who’s Ronnie Dunn?” Depending on your perspective, Dunn had either lost his mind, or finally found it and come to the side of believing in music over money.
All of this was great. Here was one of mainstream country’s biggest stars spouting the same type of rhetoric that one may find on Saving Country Music on a regular basis. Then there was news he was writing songs and recording with none other than Texas music guru Ray Wylie Hubbard. Everything was setting up quite nicely for the release of Ronnie Dunn’s first independent record to be a sort of musical insurrection perpetuated by one of Nashville’s own, with reverberations reaching who knows how far into the dug in foundations of Music Row.
But then one little pesky problem materialized just as it seemed like Ronnie Dunn might be the chosen one we’d all been waiting for to lead country music out of its current wasteland. Despite all of Ronnie’s talk about how unjust it was that classic country no longer had a place on country radio, and how aging talent was getting pushed aside for young pups with no respect for the genre and playing music that was more indicative of rock than country, here comes Ronnie releasing songs that sound exactly like the music he’s criticizing.
One of the first songs we heard from Peace, Love & Country Music was called “Country This”—a complete hard rock guitar-driven bro-country mega anthem with ultra-stereotypical laundry list lyrics and absolutely no story or soul. I mean this thing was terrible. And I wasn’t the only one all of a sudden taking a second look at what Ronnie Dunn was doing. “Kiss You There” was another one of Peace, Love & Country Music‘s first offerings, and despite affording a little more story, it almost seemed to be walking the edge of country rap, with little EDM moments peppered throughout the song.
However promising Ronnie’s off-the-stage rhetoric had been, to say his music wasn’t syncing up with his words is a gross understatement. Remember those songs he wrote with Ray Wylie Hubbard? Interestingly one of them showed up in the repertoire of Sammy Hagar, called “Bad On Fords and Chevrolets“. Some in Ronnie Dunn’s camp wanted to revolt, but Ronnie calmed nerves when he seemed to allude that he was using these first singles almost as Trojan horses. He told everyone he wasn’t wasn’t abandoning the revolution, but that he needed to give radio one last shot, maybe to prove that even when he put out songs that were ripe for country’s new format, they would still be ignored if you weren’t in the good graces of Music Row’s major labels. âMainstream radio does not dictate the full flavor of a multi-song CD,” Dunn assured.
So after many months of spirited discourse from Dunn through Facebook and interviews, the confounding first few tracks, we now finally get to hear the full breadth of Ronnie’s independently-released record. And what do we get? Pretty much what we got in the run up: crossed signals and conflicting messages, though a few good songs here and there.
It’s not that Ronnie Dunn is trying to take advantage of the growing anti-Nashville sentiment, similar to someone like Eric Church and other “new Outlaws” where the rhetoric seems to be nothing more than marketing and a distraction from the music. It seems much more innocent than that, like Ronnie has spent so much time residing within the system and was raised so deeply within its inner workings, that to Ronnie this record and many of its songs are groundbreaking. But when you bring a more global, a more informed ear to the project—one that has truly been versed in independent country and country protest music—it seems almost like parody.
Meanwhile the contradictions are nothing less than striking. Peace, Love & Country Music has a straight up protest song in it called, “They Still Play Country Music in Texas”.I turn on the radio theyâre mixinâ heavy metal with twang People on TV doinâ anything for fame Iâm not one to cling to the past But some of this new stuff burns my ass Thank God and Willie some things stay the same
Yes, awesome! Let’s all pump our fists and praise Ronnie Dunn for speaking up! … except that numerous songs on this album are “mixin’ heavy metal with twang,” exclusively. I mean, that’s the whole premise some of these songs are built around.
Ronnie Dunn has all the right sentiments, all the right ideas and philosophies. But when it comes to his actual sonic output, he needs guidance, and guidance in a big way if the message is going to match up with the music. He needs to spend a weekend with Marty Stuart or Vince Gill. He needs someone to walk him through their record collection, explaining to him how we got here. He needs to see Sturgill Simpson at the Station Inn. Though I understand many from the mainstream perspective will hear this album as rebellious, forward-thinking, or even groundbreaking, the simple fact is that it isn’t. It is still a very, very mainstream album. Maybe it’s a mainstream album with good moments, but it’s still one that is cast in predictable turns of phrases and phrasing, and well-worn tones and textures; one that panders for attention, relevancy, and radio play.
As cool as it is to get a protest song like “They Still Play Country Music in Texas” from him, I wish it wasn’t on the album because the hypocrisy inherent in it drags down the rest of the project. Songs like “Country This”, “Cowgirls Rock & Roll”, and “Thou Shalt Not” are every bit dependent on their rock guitar riffs. Hell, “Cowgirls Rock & Roll” is one of the worst “country” songs I may have ever heard, no different than a single you’d hear from Brantley Gilbert or Jason Aldean, with Auto-tuned inflections on the vocal track indicative of modern Jerrod Niemann or Tim McGraw.
And look at these lyrics:Que Paso Hey Pard Yo Yo Play Back In Black Set Em Up Joe… Goth Black Ponytail Ink On Her Arm Out Here In The Way Back Doinâ Things She Shouldnât Be Doin Like That Ghost Of Hank Still Hangin On Snoop n Willie Keep Singin That Song Brown Jar Liquor Got A Shotgun Kick Got It Goin On Out Here In The Sticks
Then again, there’s some very worthy tracks on Peace, Love & Country Music. The first two songs “Grown Damn Man” and “Cadillac Bound” start off the record right. “You Should See You Now” and “Wish I Smoked Cigarettes” are excellently written, and no matter what Ronnie Dunn is singing, it’s hard to escape the fact that he still holds one of the best voices in the business, and came from a time when you couldn’t fake it, or let your fame ride off a pretty face.
Something else that seems to hinder this album is that it took so long to go to print. Ronnie Dunn seems to be in the precarious position of trying to maintain his mainstream relevancy, while at the same time come to grips with the new realities of his career. He wants to lead a revolution, but he wants to hold onto the last vestiges of the spotlight for one last moment. But you can’t have it both ways. There are songs on this album that could have been worthy of radio, whether it’s because they’re good enough and would elevate the format, or because they’re bad enough to be radio hits in country’s current climate. But neither will be given a chance because of all of Dunn’s sabre rattling off stage. Dunn’s plan came off as half baked, and in need of some guidance and perspective from people who really understand where the trends in music are headed.
I like Ronnie Dunn’s spirit, and I feel like there’s a kinship in his fight. And make no mistake, there are many, many country music fans who are listening to his every word about what is happening in country, because his words are rooted in truth. And because of this and a few pretty good songs, I can’t give it a negative review. But don’t get bogged down by the bravado surrounding this album. If you simply listen, you will find it is an album addled by stark contradictions.
One gun up for some good songs and an independent spirit.
One gun down for some very, very bad songs, and a conflicting message.
The pretty good:
The very, very bad:
UPDATE: In the sober light of Tuesday morning, it has been discovered that Electric Barnyard’s Garth Brooks interview, despite not being conducted on the traditionally-recognized April Fools Day on April 1st, was an ill-begotten morning show ruse. You can listen to the audio below to decide how funny you deem the pre-April Fools, April Fools prank.
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The greatest-selling country music artist of all time, and one of the very last artists to resist releasing his music digitally, is finally succumbing to the digital music revolution. Garth Brooks, announced today on the Electric Barnyard show of Country 92.5 in Connecticut, says his albums are coming to iTunes Tuesday, April 1st, including your ability to purchase individual songs. For excited Garth Brooks fans, hopefully this is no April Fools joke.
Garth Brooks has become famous as one of the final holdouts to the music downloading and streaming revolution. Just in January, Garth reiterated why his philosophical differences with iTunes kept him from contemporizing his music catalog. “Right now there are a lot of hurdles to climb, one of which is digital,” Garth said. “We don’t have a digital partner right now. I’ll never have a digital partner in iTunes as long as they keep the same rules they have now. I respect them; they’re friends of mine. They show me respect. They make me believe they’re friends of mine. But if they’re not going to change their ways, I’m not going to change mine. We have to figure out how we get new music to the people.”
Garth has recently been gearing up for a return, moving to Nashville, getting ready for a world tour, and wanting to make music that he says will be, “at a level I’ve never seen before.“
In February it was announced that the the era-defining album Wrecking Ball released in 1995 by country music songstress Emmylou Harris was getting the reissue treatment, with a remastering of the original album, a new disc of demos and outtakes, and a DVD delving into the making of the album, all set to be released on April 8th.
If you’re not familiar with the Emmylou Harris discography or the influence Wrecking Ball has had on the modern country ear, you may wonder why this was the album picked out of the choir for a reissue, and why now. Wrecking Ball wasn’t a particularly great seller. Released when Emmylou was 48, the former Gram Parsons understudy had settled in as a “legacy” act in country, and was already well off the radar of country radio and award show attention by the time of the release. So why not stretch your wings and try something different? And try something different she did.
The influence of Wrecking Ball is evoked on Saving Country Music, and many other country and Americana websites regularly. Its impact on alt-country and Americana may only be outdone by Uncle Tupelo’s 1990 album No Depression, or Steve Earle’s late 80′s Guitar Town, and may not be outdone by any when it comes to the alt-country subset sometimes described as “progressive” country, or specifically when it comes to influencing the women in alt-country and Americana. And in the nearly 20 years since it was originally released, Wrecking Ball‘s influence hasn’t waned a bit, as one female artist after another tries to match or best its watermark.
Many country purists hated Wrecking Ball when it was first released. Early on in Emmylou’s career, some in country’s traditional ranks had been leery of the Alabama-born singer because of her folk rock past and her carousing with Gram Parsons. But in the wake of Gram’s passing, Emmylou won over nearly the entirety of the country music listening public with the sheer power of her voice, and her propensity to mix traditional country material with her more folk-oriented songs. By 1995, Emmylou’s career had been defined as a songbird, and as an acoustic, almost bluegrass-like performer, and a counter-balance to country’s newly-defined stadium era with superstars like Garth Brooks.
And then here came Wrecking Ball, completely unexpected, crashing through the conventional thinking on Emmylou. It was produced by Daniel Lanois for crying out loud; a guy known best for working with the rock band U2. Country critics for the first time were having to employ words like “atmospheric” and “spatial” to describe what they were hearing. Instead of working with more conventional cast of country songwriters and session players on the album, Emmylou had assembled Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch, Neil Young, and even covered (however subdued) a Jimi Hendrix song.
Though at its core, the themes of Wrecking Ball were still very traditional. The song “All My Tears” written by Buddy Miller’s wife Julie, was a spirited Gospel song, despite the strange burpings that comprise the sonic bed of the composition. Bob Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand” placed in the center of the album had a very subdued, acoustic approach to ground the album from getting too weird. But the sweeping, bold, alternative thinking and approach to how Wrecking Ball presented its songs would be by far the biggest takeaway and the most lasting impact of this album in the end.
In the crux of the current culture war for the heart of country music is the argument being made by mainstream, commercially successful males that country music must progress. But the answer of how country music can progress why still holding on to the spirit of its roots has been held in the women of country for almost two decades, and it arguably started with Emmylou’s Wrecking Ball. Rhythmic elements that capture the attention of fresh ears, while not sacrificing melody or the thematic heart of what makes country music special, is the splendid balance that Emmylou Harris forged on Wrecking Ball.
Wrecking Ball also birthed some indelible compositions, specifically the title track written by Neil Young, the haunting, ominous “Deeper Well,” and the first song “Where Will I Be?” written by producer Daniel Lanois. But really you can’t go wrong with any track on Wrecking Ball.
However the legacy for this album is not all rosy. Just like the influence of Emmylou’s mentor Gram Parsons that while spreading the message of country music to a wider audience incidentally spawned some watered-down West Coast offshoots, so has Emmylou’s Wrecking Ball made some producers and artists unnecessarily strive to reach a similar bar or to make a similar sound instead of trying to find a better approach more within the true style of the artist and the era. One of the most interesting notes about Wrecking Ball and its live followup from a few years later called Spyboy is that it was preceded by one of Emmylou’s most traditional eras, when she assembled the bluegrass-inspired Nash Ramblers and helped revitalize The Ryman Auditorium and ostensibly the entire Lower Broadway portion of Nashville by recording and releasing an album from the abandoned venue.
And maybe most important to note about Wrecking Ball beyond its influence is that after eighteen albums and at the age of 48, one can argue that this was the album that Emmylou’s voice truly came into full bloom. The way her tone strains and breaks so eloquently, the intelligent way the chords are picked to compliment this phenomenon and put Emmylou uncomfortably between her regular tone and falsetto to squeeze the greatest degree of pain out of each composition is award winning in itself, and along with all of the album’s other notable achievements, is one of the reasons it won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Recording in 1996.
Wrecking Ball was the result of Emmylou Harris following her heart, searching for a voice she never knew she had, and a vein of country music nobody knew existed before. And even here nearly 20 years after its release, its influence, its beauty, and its place as one of the most important markers on the country music timeline, remains untarnished.
Two guns up.
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…that includes Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, and Thompson Square? Ugh…
Not since the second installment of the Waylon – The Music Inside series was released with the names of Colt Ford and Justin Moore making their way on the track list have we had such a quizzical collection of artists for a tribute album. As cool as it is to see any attention paid to Merle these days from the mainstream establishment, and to see Merle’s much-deserving song Ben Haggard make the cut of contributors, hearing Luke Bryan covering “Pancho & Lefty” (and is that really a Merle song anyway?) or Dustin Lynch taking time from singing about tractor sex to offer his take on “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” is not what’s going to get your average Merle fan’s motor running.
The Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard compilation out April 1st (no fooling) is being put together by Broken Bow Records, and of course, just like many of these tributes recently, it’s mostly a showcase of label talent with a “tribute” as the backdrop. Jason Aldean, Kristy Lee Cook, Dustin Lynch, Joe Nichols, Randy Houser, Parmalee, and Thompson Square all reside on Broken Bow and bow in on the track list, most with two contributions.
And if you were hoping that maybe they would approach this thing with the Merle spirit, just listen to what Luke Bryan has to say about his veryÂ “Mumford & Sons” take on “Pancho & Lefty”: “The original had a Spanish-Mexican flair. We took a real different approach with it …. something with some edge that moves along pretty good. It’s an interesting take.”
Something else interesting: They begged Garth Brooks to allow them to use his cover of “Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down” from his recent blockbuster Blame It All On My Roots box set. But just like the box set, you can only get the song if you buy the tribute from Wal-Mart.
Complicating the love-hate relationship a true Merle fan might have with this compilation, the ACM Awards being held April 6th are planning to bestow Merle Haggard with a Crystal Milestone Award as part of the ACM festivities, with this tribute as the centerpiece. Once again, it’s great to see the ACM’s or anyone in the mainstream acknowledge Merle (even if it’s half a decade after Taylor Swift was given the same Crystal Milestone Award), but you wonder how much of this is just a platform for Broken Bow to display their own talent.
Luckily if you’re looking for Merle Haggard tributes with not as many question marks swirling around them, there’s been a few of great ones released recently. Suzy Bogguss released Lucky last month: a 12-song tribute to The Hag. And Vince Gill with Paul Franklin paid tribute to Merle & Buck Owens last year with Bakersfield.
Track list for Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard:
- Misery and Gin, Randy Houser
- Footlights, Joe Nichols
- Going Where the Lonely Go, Jason Aldean
- Today I Started Loving You Again, Kristy Lee Cook
- Carolyn, Toby Keith
- Pancho and Lefty, Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley
- Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down, Garth Brooks (Walmart edition only)
- You Take Me for Granted, Thompson Square
- Mama Tried, Ben Haggard
- That’s the Way Love Goes, Dustin Lynch
- Make Up and Faded Blue Jeans, Jake Owen
- I’m a Lonesome Fugitive, James Wesley
- Workin’ Man Blues, Parmalee
- Are the Good Times Really Over, Jason Aldean
- Let’s Chase Each Other Around the Room, Thompson Square
- I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink, Dustin Lynch
- The Fightin’ Side of Me, James Wesley
- My Favorite Memory, Joe Nichols
- Ramblin’ Fever, Randy Houser
- Sing Me Back Home, Ben Haggard
You wouldn’t traditionally think of Oklahoma as a proving ground for cowpunk. As the home to some of the wealthiest names country music can boast like Toby Keith, Garth Brooks, and Mr. & Mrs. Blake Shelton, all sharing the same dirt with many of the founding members and freshest names in the Red Dirt/ Texas country scene like Jason Boland and the Turnpike Troubadours, it’s hard to see where there would be the space for a bunch of loud-playing, punk-inspired hillbillies to get a word in edgewise.
But then again, Red Eye Gravy is not your prototypical cowpunk band. Sure, their sound in places builds out from a high-energy, hard country mindset with the train beat being slapped out in the background, but many of Red Eye Gravy’s songs veer toward the traditional side of country and stay there, while others show they type of depth of songwriting and composition usually reserved for the Americana tag. In the end what you get with Red Eye Gravy is a little bit of all the good stuff and in just the right measure, similar to the homemade concoction that constitutes the band’s name, famous for combining country ham drippings and coffee to smother your favorite Southern food in comfort.
Though I wouldn’t go far as to characterize Red Eye Gravy’s new album Dust Bowl Hangover as conceptualized, there’s certainly a thread and a message throughout this project, very much inspired by the band’s Oklahoma surroundings and the history thereof, painting a very ominous and bleak picture for the plight of the poor man from the dusty plains, both of yesterday and today. Destitution and heartbreak are the theme of Dust Bowl Hangover, however the music itself is a very enjoyable experience, with great melodies, catchy hooks, smart and engaging arrangements, and a remarkable amount of spice and variety in the instrumentation to really elevate this album to something much higher than the band’s humble, undiscovered status.
There’s a surprise around nearly every corner of Dust Bowl Hangover. “Hard Livin’ (Comes Easy To Me)” is one of the best country music songs I’ve heard all year so far. The subdued artistry and songwriting efforts of songs like “Take Me Back” and “Pistol” counterbalance the balls-out attitude of cowpunk rockers like “I Wanna Go Home” and “Swingin’ From A Rope.” “Never Thought It Could Be” taps into an excellent melody while a unexpected, muted trumpet takes it to the next level of taste and artistry. Then the very next song “Oklahoma Girls” is an offbeat, foul-mouthed hillbilly elbow swinger featuring some awfully impressive Oklahoma yodeling very few could pull off with such authenticity and skill.
The greatest virtue of Dust Bowl Hangover is that if I was trying to lure an Americana listener into this album, I could pick out a couple of songs that would immediately speak to them. Same could be said for the cowpunk/hellbilly crowd, or for the folks whose hankering is for Texas country. Some of the heavy language here and there, or the stark variety might turn some people off or make Dust Bowl Hangover one to be picked through instead of enjoyed cover to cover, but there truly is something here for everyone, and in multiple servings. The 16 songs may have been a little too much (though the first and last tracks serve as an intro and outtro), and maybe a weaker song like “Give Down The Country” that somewhat failed to meet its objective could have been left on the sidelines and the album condensed down to be even more potent. But I fail to find the passion for many gripes about this effort, and Dust Bowl Hangover comes highly recommended.
Two Guns Up.
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Red Eye Gravy is featured on the latest episode of the “Old Soul Radio Show”.
George Jones. The Possum. Possibly the man whose life and story embody the themes of a country song better than anyone. From rags to riches, back to rags, and eventually onto rehabilitation and redemption, George Jones was a man that faced demons more fierce than any of us can imagine, and eventually came out on top. Was he a badass? You bet, and here’s 10 reasons why.
- 10 Badass Willie Nelson Moments
- 10 Badass Waylon Jennings Moments
- 10 Badass Johnny Cash Moments
- 10 Badass Hank3 Moments
- 10 Badass Merle Haggard Moments
- 10 Badass Marty Stuart Moments
1. Flipping the Dinner Table at Tammy Wynette’s House
Before George and Tammy were married, George went over to Tammy’s house one night to have dinner with her and her then husband, songwriter Don Chapel. George knew Tammy through their mutual booking agent. While fixing dinner, Tammy and Don Chapel got in a heated argument, resulting on Don calling Tammy a “son of a bitch” in front of George. George, secretly hiding his admiration with Tammy, lost it.
“I felt rage fly all over me,” Jones said in his autobiography. “I jumped from my chair, put my hands under the dinner table, and flipped it over. Dishes, utensils, and glasses flew in all directions. Don’s and Tammy’s eyes got about as big as the flying dinner plates.”
George professed his love for Tammy right then and there, and the country music couple were soon married.
2. Helping To Found ACE — The Association of Country Entertainers
George Jones was never considered an Outlaw, but he participated in one of the most significant precursors to country music’s Outlaw revolution in the mid 70′s. Some know the story of Charlie Rich burning the envelope announcing John Denver as Entertainer of the Year at the CMA’s in 1975, but it was the year prior when the stink had begun about performers outside of the country genre walking away with the industry’s accolades. Olivia Newton-John’s win in 1974 for Female Vocalist of the Year caused such a stir that traditional and even pop-leaning country performers at the time organized behind the acronym “ACE” that stood for “Association of Country Entertainers”.
Spearheading ACE was George Jones and then wife Tammy Wynette, and the inaugural meeting of ACE was held at their Tennessee residence. Other participants in ACE included Dolly Parton, Bill Anderson, Porter Wagoner, Faron Young, Conway Twitty, Hank Snow, Mel Tillis, Barbara Mandrell and more than a dozen others. ACE demanded more representation of traditional artists on the CMA’s Board of Directors, and more balance on country radio playlists (does any of this sound familiar?).
Just how successful ACE was can be argued, but it was the precursor to future organizations looking to restore balance and better representation from the CMA, and helped usher in country music’s Outlaw movement and the return to a more traditional sound that the mid 70′s saw in country.
3. Riding a Lawnmower to the Liquor Store
The first and most well-documented lawnmower incident was the late 60â˛s. George Jones was living 8 miles outside of Beaumont, TX with his then wife Shirley Ann Corley. Jones had experienced a few #1 hits by that time, and his success fueled his wayward ways with alcohol. He was drinking so bad, his wife Shirley resorted to hiding all the keys to the vehicles before she would leave the house so George wouldnât drive to the nearest liquor store in Beaumont.
But that didnât stop him. After tearing the house apart looking for a set of keys one time, George looked out the window to see a riding lawnmower sitting on the property under the glow of a security light. âThere, gleaming in the glow, was that ten-horsepower rotary engine under a seat. A key glistening in the ignition,â George recalled in his autobiography. âI imagine the top speed for that old mower was five miles per hour. It might have taken an hour and a half or more for me to get to the liquor store, but get there I did.â
The second, lesser-known incident of George Jones’s escapades on a riding lawnmower happened when he was married to Tammy Wynette. Taking a cue from Georgeâs previous wife Shirley, Tammy hid all the keys from George, but George had been down that road before. Wynette woke up one night at 1 AM to find George missing. âI got into the car and drove to the nearest bar 10 miles away,â Tammy recounted in 1979. âWhen I pulled into the parking lot there sat our rider-mower right by the entrance. Heâd driven that mower right down a main highway. He looked up and saw me and said, `Well, fellas, here she is now. My little wife, I told you sheâd come after me.â”
The George Jones lawnmower incidents later went on to be memorialized in many country videos, including Hank Williams Jr.âs âAll My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight,” Vince Gillâs 1993 hit âOne More Last ChanceâÂ that includes the line, âShe might have took my car keys, but she forgot about my old John Deere,” and John Richâs âCountry Done Come to Town,” and George’s own “Honky Tonk Song.”
4. Recording “He Stopped Loving Her Today”
Yes, it could be easy to highlight George’s signature song and say it was awesome for him to cut it, but the story behind “He Stopped Loving Her Today” goes much deeper. The song not only saved George’s career, it potentially saved his life, and all of this is from a song that at first he didn’t want to record because he thought it was too depressing, too long, and nobody would play it. It eventually became his first #1 in six years, salvaged his career, introduced him to a new generation of fans, and solidified his place as one of country music’s biggest ever superstars. Jones himself says about it, “A four-decade career had been salvaged by a three-minute song.”
Written by Country Music Hall of Famer Bobby Braddock (who you can argue would not be a Hall of Famer if it weren’t for the song), along with Curly Putnam, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” went on to spend 18 weeks at #1, won the Grammy for Best Male Country Performance in 1980, both the ACM for Single and Song of the Year, and was the Song of the Year from the CMA’s for 1980 and 1981. After George’s death, the song re-entered the charts at #21. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” deserves to be in that elite class of songs that can be argued are the greatest country music songs of all time.
5. Being The Best Male Duet Partner in the History of Country Music
When you have the best voice in country music, your services as a duet partner are going to be called on early and often. And despite George’s body of solo work being worthy of a Hall of Fame career, his work as a duet partner is unparallelled itself. Country music stars young and old, male and female lined up to take advantage of his voice over many decades, and duets accounted for five of the fourteen #1 hits George had over his storied career. Here’s a rundown of just some of the people George performed duets with over the years:
â˘Tammy Wynette â˘Loretta Lynn â˘Buck Owens â˘Waylon Jennings â˘Willie Nelson â˘Johnny Cash â˘Dolly Parton â˘David Allan Coe â˘Jerry Lee Lewis â˘Hank Williams Jr. â˘Patty Loveless â˘Lynn Anderson â˘Emmylou Harris â˘Ricky Skaggs â˘Garth Brooks â˘Tracy Lawrence â˘Charlie Daniels â˘Marty Stuart â˘Merle Haggard â˘Ralph Stanley â˘Randy Travis â˘Vince Gill â˘Alan Jackson â˘Sammy Kershaw â˘Shelby Lynn â˘Mark Chesnutt â˘Travis Tritt â˘Barbara Mandrell â˘Brenda Lee â˘Shooter Jennings â˘The Staple Singers â˘Keith Richards â˘B.B. King
6. Walking out of the CMA Awards
Ahead of the 1999 CMA Awards, George Jones was enjoying yet another resurgence in his career. Jones was slated to perform the song “Choices” on the CMA’s, but when producers insisted he must sing an abbreviated version, he walked out of the ceremonies and boycotted the show.
In a super act of class and solidarity, Alan Jackson halfway through his performance of “Pop A Top,” stopped down and shifted gears to perform “Choices” in protest. The event has gone on to be considered one of the biggest moments of country protest in the history of the genre.
7. Recording “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes?”
Throughout his career, George Jones held fast to the ideals of traditional country music, and wasn’t afraid to fight for them, or speak out about what was happening in the genre. And as one of the few artists who registered hits in multiple decades (according to Billboard, Jones had more “hits” than any other country artist), when George Jones spoke, people listened.
George’s song “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes” comes from the 1985 album of the same name, and was written by Troy Seals and Max D. Barnes. It’s a poignant tribute to the history of country music and its previous greats, while calling attention to the abandonment of country’s roots. The song was so potent, the phrase “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes?” has become one of the most popular go-to colloquialisms concerning the state of country. The song was also a hit, rising to #3 on the Billboard country chart in 1985.
8. Overcoming His Personal Demons
Some people assume that becoming a rich celebrity solves many of your problems, when for many artists it exposes and fuels their problems. Such was the case for George Jones, who had major issues with alcohol, and later in his career, drugs. At one point in 1979, despite being one of the best-selling artists in the history of country music, he was bankrupt and destitute, living in his car, weighing around 100 pounds and living off of junk food. George spent time in mental institutions tied to his drinking multiple times and had to be straighjacketed on numerous occasions. He became known as “No Show Jones” because he missed so many engagements over his career.
But in many ways George Jone’s bad behavior only helped his reputation. His fans didn’t turn on him, they loved him more because they could relate to him and their own personal struggles, and because he was such a great artist and performer when he would show. Alan Jackson once said about Jones, “…what I like most about George is that when you meet him, he is like some ole guy that works down at the gas station…even though he’s a legend!”
Waylon Jennings and others first helped get George Jones sober in the early 80′s, and the result was a resurgence in his career. However later in life George Jones would fall back into his old habits. George gave up drinking and drugs for good in 1999 after wrecking his car and spending two weeks in the hospital. After the crash he pleaded guilty to drunk driving charges. Jones told Billboard later, “…when I had that wreck I made up my mind, it put the fear of God in me. No more smoking, no more drinking. I didn’t have to have no help, I made up my mind to quit. I don’t crave it.”
9. Wanting to Die Performing
Some artists perform because they want to, others perform because they have to. In March of 2012, George Jones was hospitalized with an upper respiratory infection. The 80-year-old performer was having trouble breathing, and it was thought that he didn’t have much more time before his lungs would fail him. Instead of heading home to recuperate and potentially prolong his life, George set to planning a 60-date farewell tour, culminating in a star-studded event set to transpire at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena in November of 2013 with over 50 special performers.
According to George’s wife, before he even left on the tour, he knew he would not make it to the finale. Doctors said he was in no condition to perform or tour, but he did anyway. On April 18th, 2013 George Jones was hospitalized in Nashville, missing tour dates in Alabama and Salem. He eventually passed away on April 26th, 2013 at the age of 81.
10. Having The Greatest Male Voice in the History of Country Music
- “When people ask me who my favorite country singer is, I say, ‘You mean besides George Jones?’” — Johnny Cash
- âThe greatest voice to ever sing country music.â â Garth Brooks
- âThe second best singer in Americaâ â Frank Sinatra
- âIf we all could sound like we wanted to, weâd all sound like George Jones,â â Waylon Jennings
- âAnyone who knows or cares anything about real country music will agree that George Jones is the voice of it.â â Dolly Parton
It’s that time of year again when we’re on the verge of hearing who the next class of inductees to the Country Music Hall of Fame will be. Though the date seems to be getting later and later each year (last year it stretched all the way to April 10th—2012 was announced on March 6th), as soon as spring starts to break, you can be assured an announcement is coming soon.
It must be said whenever broaching the subject of the Country Music Hall of Fame that it has been The Hall’s desire over the years to have it be an exclusive institutions when it comes to inductees. Where the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and certain sports seem to throw the barn doors wide and accept all comers, the Country Music Hall of Fame would rather take gruff for who is not in the The Hall as opposed to who shouldn’t be, but is. You can always induct someone in the future, but it’s nearly impossible to throw someone out.
The Country Music Hall of Fame inductees are selected through a committee process appointed by the Country Music Association, or CMA. Since 2010, the selection process has been split up into three categories. 1) Modern Era (eligible for induction 20 years after they first achieve ânational prominenceâ). 2) Veterans Era (eligible for induction 45 years after they first achieve ânational prominenceâ). 3) Non-Performer, Songwriter, and Recording and/or Touring Musician active prior to 1980 (rotates every 3 years). With a musician, Hargus âPigâ Robbins selected in 2012, and a non-performer in “Cowboy” Jack Clement selected last year (though he was a performer and songwriter, it was more for his producer role), it would a songwriter’s turn up to bat this year.
Since 2001, anywhere from 2 to 4 names have been added to the Hall of Fame each year. Usually one name from the above mentioned categories makes it per year, but if no name gets enough of a majority vote, a category may not be represented in a given year. Or, if two names get enough votes from a category, then both may come from that category.
Potential Modern Era Inductees
Last year’s inductee – Kenny Rogers
Ricky Skaggs â Ricky Skaggs is the artist that has felt like he’s been right on the bubble of being inducted over the last couple of years. Skaggs has bookened his career as a mandolin maestro, studied under Bill Monroe, and is now firmly ensconcing himself as a country music elder. In between then, he had tremendous commercial success in the 80â˛s when country was searching for its next superstar. Few could argue with this pick and Skaggs is very well liked across country music. He was also announced recently as the Country Music Hall of Fame’s “Artist in Residence.” Though there is no official correlation between being named an Artist in Residence and being inducted the next year, that coincidence has happened numerous times, including for last year’s modern era inductee, Kenny Rogers. Skaggs has to be considered a frontrunner.
Ronnie Milsap - Milsap is a name that has probably been on final ballots for the Hall of Fame for going on two decades, and in a couple of years will cycle over to a veteran’s era candidate, if he hasn’t already depending on where you want to start the clock on him. Though his commercial success is unquestionable, the fact that he started outside the genre and found a lot of his success as a crossover star might make him a hard name for voters to pull the trigger on. Having said that, seeing another name who started outside of country and had a lot of his success in the crossover world get inducted last year in Kenny Rogers, might move Milsap one step closer.
Alan Jackson â 2013 was Jackson’s first year of eligibility, and there was a sense he just missed out on being a first year Modern Era inductee like Garth Brooks and Reba McEntire. A huge commercial success in his day who always payed homage to the roots of the genre and the artists who came before him, Jackson is a shoe-in for The Hall eventually, and should be a very strong candidate this year. He’s well-liked, with little to no baggage (there was that whole George Jones “Choices” thing back in 1999 at the CMA Awards, but hey, that was a long time ago). Alan Jackson is a strong contender.
Randy Travis – At this time last year, despite Randy’s fresh eligibility and unquestionable credentials for the Hall, he was facing a string of drunk driving charges, and spinning the unsavory story of trying to bum a cigarette at a gas station naked. In such a crowded field, it was easy to give Travis a pass. But this year the story is much different. After suffering from a heart condition and stroke while in the midst of a strong recovery from his personal issues, Randy Travis has to be considered the sympathy favorite for the distinction. Will it be enough? Maybe not, but Randy will be a frontrunner in the Modern Era until he’s inducted.
Brooks & Dunn â A commercial powerhouse whose career was somewhat overshadowed by the success of Garth and their strange place as a non-familial country duo, their first album Brand New Man sold 6 million copies, and they won the CMA for Vocal Duo of the Year every year but one between 1992 and 2006. Their success is not debatable, but did they have the type of influence it takes to be Hall of Famers this early in their eligibility window, and with this crowded of a field? And does the fact that they’re no longer a functioning act hurt them, or is Kix with his radio work and Dunn with his brewing country revolution still visible enough? A few more names may have to tick off the list before their turn, but they have to be considered contenders.
Other Possible Modern Era Inductees:
- The Oak Ridge Boys – Another Strong Contender
- The Judds
- Dwight Yoakam – You’d think with 25 million records sold, his name would be more associated with this distinction. Maybe in the coming years.
- Keith Whitley – Garth Brooks a couple of years ago said he deserved induction before him.
- Clint Black – If it wasn’t for his career’s disappearing act, his name would be right up there with Travis, Jackson, and Brooks & Dunn
- Toby Keith – Officially eligible because he had his first success in 1993, but probably on the outside-looking-in for the next few years
- Charlie Daniels
- Tayna Tucker
- Crystal Gayle
- Gene Watson
- Mickey Gilley
Potential Veterans Era Inductees
Last year’s inductee – Bobby Bare
Predicting the Veterans Era nominees is notoriously foolhardy because they pull from such a wide field of potential inductees. It’s made one measure harder by a general lack of chatter out there surrounding potential nominees compared to previous years. But here’s a few educated guesses.
Jerry Lee Lewis – He’s a definite possibility for induction, and with the lack of a clear front runner, this might be his year. He may be held back some since he came from rock & roll, and his antics on The Grand Ole Opry and other places over the years. But his contributions as one of country musicâs preeminent piano players cannot be denied. If Elvis is in the Country Hall (and he is), his old Sun Studios buddy canât be counted out.
Jerry Reed – Such a great ambassador over the years for country music from his work with Smokey & The Bandit to Scooby-Doo, but Jerry Reed should be inducted for his stellar and influential work as both a performer, songwriter, and a musician. There werenât many better guitar pickers back in the day than Jerry Reed. And his work as a session musician with so many of country music’s big names made him a well-known and likable character throughout the genre.
Hank Williams Jr. – It’s somewhat hard to know if Hank Jr. should be considered a Veteran or Modern Era candidate because of the double-era aspect of his career, but he’s a contender either way. However despite his two CMA Entertainer of the Year awards and millions of albums sold, you don’t get the sense it’s his time just yet. Only playing around 18 shows a year these days, and generally being once removed from the moving and shaking of the country genre while he pursues a quasi political career, Hank Jr. could be passed over this year others pushing harder for the distinction.
Lynn Anderson & Dottie West â Lynn and Dottie are the two ladies that likely lead the field for female veteran inductees. Both of these ladies are right on the bubble, as they have probably been for many years. Since there wasn’t a woman inductee last year and there’s no strong female contenders in the Modern Era category, the pressure to include a woman from the veteran field in 2014 might be greater.
The Maddox Brothers & Rose â The Maddox Brothers & Rose was a name that probably wasn’t on many people’s radar until the last couple of years. With their prominent place at the very beginning of the Hall of Fameâs current Bakersfield Sound exhibit, it is hard not to see how important their influence was on country, especially West Coast country, and the flashy dress of country performers that still influences the genre today. It may be a long shot, but if groups like The Jordanaires and The Sons of the Pioneers are in The Hall, certainly The Maddox Brothers & Rose should be. And it would be great to see happen while the final member, the 91-year-old Don Maddox, is still around.
Gram Parsons – Gram’s inclusion here is always a topic of great discussion. In 2013 there was a greater push than ever to induct him, with influential Country Music writer Chet Flippo personally making the case for him, and other chatter that 2013 might be his year. But it wasn’t, and it may be years before it is, but his name is always in the field for this accolade, and looking at the influence Gram had showing millions of rock and roll fans the beauty of country music, it should be.
John Hartford â This is a long shot pick, but he deserves induction. As I said in my prognostications from a couple of year ago, âThe Country Music Hall of Fame works like a timeline as you walk through the displays that weave around the massive archive in the center of the building. As you start from the beginning, each artist and their impact is displayed on a plaque that includes their Hall of Fame induction date. When I came to the John Hartford display on my last visit to The Hall this summer, he was the first to have a display, but no Hall of Fame induction date.â
Tompall Glaser & The Glaser Brothers – Probably another long shot, but one that has to be considered a more legitimate contender in 2014 with the passing of Tompall last year. It probably helps that his brothers-in-Outlaw-country-arms Bobby Bare and “Cowboy” Jack Clement were inducted last year, moving folks like Tompall and other Outlaw-esque country music personalities one step closer in the process.
Johnny Paycheck and David Allan Coe â These names come up every year from hard country fans, and are names regularly held up as evidence of the Hall of Fameâs illegitimacy. The simple truth is that with these two performerâs shady pasts, Hall of Fame induction is going to be difficult. Johnny Paycheck has a more distinct possibility than David Allan Coe, because Coe could create a public relations nightmare for the Hall of Fame from people (correct or not) who label Coe a racist, sexist, etc. etc. Patience mixed with persistence is what Coe and Paycheck fans need to see their heroes inducted, as time heals all wounds. One positive sign for them is the induction of Bobby Bare and “Cowboy” Jack Clement last year. This means the CMA committee is willing to pick Outlaw artists and personalities for the Hall, and those two inductions move Paycheck and Coe two steps closer.
Randomly, I also think there’s a strong chance that the next major rotating exhibit at The Hall could be a feature on the Outlaw era of country, which might also give people like Paycheck, Coe, Tompall, and others a chance to be featured at the Hall of Fame beyond induction.
Other Possible Veterans Era Inductees:
- Jimmy Martin
- Vern Gosdin
- Ralph Stanley
- Johnny Horton
- The Browns
- June Carter Cash
- Wynn Stewart
- Jim Ed Brown
Potential Songwriter Inductees
Last songwriter inducted – Bobby Braddock in 2011
The 3rd category rotates between a musician, a non-performer (executive, producer, journalist, etc.), or songwriter on different years. 2014 would be a songwriter year.
Though there may be some artists that would technically qualify for induction under this category like Keith Whitley, Townes Van Zandt, Billy Joe Shaver, or any number of other artists that have extensive songwriting credits, this category is meant for behind-the-scenes songwriters who would never be inducted if not for this category. Though the award might go to someone with a little more modern success as a songwriter to go along with their storied history, here’s two interesting names that deserve strong consideration.
Hank CochranÂ – Hank would be a worthy inductee, and it just might happen for him as a songwriter of both critical acclaim and commercial success. It can’t hurt that Jamey Johnson also recently release a tribute to Cochran, making him front-of-mind when voters are thinking of songwriters who deserve this distinction. Cochran should be considered a front runner.
John D. Loudermilk – A cousin to The Louvin Brothers that had great commercial success as a songwriter in the 60′s and 70′s, he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1976, and certainly deserves consideration for this distinction. Nonetheless, it’s probably a long shot.
Shel Silverstein would be another interesting name.
Picks and Predictions
Who I Think Will Be Inducted
- Ricky Skaggs or Alan Jackson – Modern Era
- Jerry Lee Lewis, Vern Gosdin, or Jerry Reed – Veterans Era
- Hank Cochran – Songwriter
Who I Think Should Be Inducted
- Ricky Skaggs – Modern Era
- Maddox Brothers & Rose / Tompall & The Glaser Brothers – Veterans Era
- Hank Cochran – Songwriter
Travis Tritt was seen as the no frills, Southern rock representative for the now legendary “Class of ’89″ contingent of breakout stars in country music; a class that also included Clint Black, Alan Jackson, and Garth Brooks. While his sound leaned heavy on electric guitar and he coined himself as a “No Hat” act early on along with long-time friend Marty Stuart, Travis Tritt also remained in the good graces of many of the greats that in some respects got shoved aside by the Class of ’89, including Waylon Jennings.
Tritt’s undeniable authenticity and straight shooting approach once had Waylon saying about him, “Travis is about my favorite new singer. What a talent, and a writer. He hones his songs, cares about them, and he knows how to work that rock-and-roll hoofbeat so it turns into a stampede. For me, he’s a cross between Hank Williams and Ray Charles…”
In some respects, time has forgotten just how big, and just how true Travis Tritt was back in the 90′s, and that is the crux of a recent Peter Cooper-penned feature on Tritt for The Tennessean. Tritt is recording a “Travis Tritt & Friends Live Acoustic” DVD during the next couple of nights at the Franklin Theater in Nashville’s famous suburb, and the stripped-down approach is a chance for Tritt to showcase his skills as a songwriter and picker, not just a full-tilt country rocker; something that Tritt is better at than some may assume (see below), and something some of Tritt’s country music contemporaries would not be able to pull off.
Tritt told Peter Cooper that artists theses days are being “stifled” by the business of country music that thinks it knows what’s right for artists. But according to Tritt, that’s not always the case.
Thereâs a mentality in the country music world of Nashville that says, “You donât know anything, and we know how to do this.” Itâs “We know whatâs best for you: You get to the microphone, sing what we tell you to sing, play what we tell you to play, and youâll be fine.” That scares people away from branching out and doing things that creatively are out of the box.
The music business establishment does not have a crystal ball. They do not know everything that they tell you they know. Iâd say to any of the new people coming out, âFind the courage to step out and try it your way.â Otherwise, what we get is a cookie-cutter mentality that isnât good for artists who are having to portray themselves as something they arenât, or that are capable of doing so much more but are being stifled.
Membership to the Grand Ole Opry is seen a one of the most prestigious accolades a country music artist can be bestowed, and the recognition is sought after by performers both big and small, mainstream and traditional because it is one of the hardest gets in music.
The Opry currently has 66 members, and as older members pass on, newer ones are recruited. In 2013, the only new addition to The Opry was old time string band Old Crow Medicine Show—one of the few traditional-leaning bands to be asked into the institution in recent memory. Before Old Crow, it was a cavalcade of mainstream pop country music stars that as Grand Ole Opry historian Byron Fay points out in his 2013 Year In Review are not fulfilling the Opry obligations they signed up for when the accepted their invitations.
The exact requirements to keep your Grand Ole Opry membership active have been updated and altered over the years. Original Opry members made dozens of appearances a year as a matter of course. Today, artists that have “retired” like Garth Brooks and Barbara Mandrell are not always expected to make appearances, but retain their membership, mostly because of the dues they paid prior to retiring. But some artists that have just signed on are not meeting the most minimum of Opry requirements either.
In April of 1963, The Opry implemented a rule stating that members must make at least 26 appearances on the show per year to keep their membership active. Over the years, the amount of required appearances per year has dropped, though the appearance rule is hypothetically still in effect. In 1964, Opry management dropped the amount of required performances to 20. Then in 2000, they dropped the requirement to 12. Today, Opry General Manager Pete Fisher has set a goal of 10 appearances a year by each Opry member. Members, especially popular country stars, can also receive extra appearance credits by appearing on a weekend. Friday or Saturday appearances country as 3 performances according to some accounts of the current Opry rules.
The issue with big, new artists reneging on their Opry responsibilities first came up after Blake Shelton made controversial comments about country music’s classic country fans, calling them “Old Farts & Jackasses.” Opry historian Byron Faye called for the removal of Blake from the Opry ranks, not just because of the comments, but because Blake Shelton hadn’t made a single appearance in an entire year prior to his comments in clear violation of the membership rules. Shelton only became an Opry member in September of 2010, and was already shirking his responsibilities. Subsequently, Blake Shelton did make two weekend appearances on the show, but that would still put him well below the required ten appearances, even with the extra weekend credits.
Darius Rucker was the big name to be invited to the Opry in 2012, but only made four appearances on the show in 2013. Rascal Flatts and Keith Urban were The Opry’s big additions for 2011. Though Rascal Flatts appeared a moderate seven times, including some weekend shows, Keith Urban made a total of two appearances throughout 2013. Two appearances were all recent Opry members Brad Paisley and Trace Adkins could muster as well.
On the other side of the spectrum, there are older Grand Ole Opry members who would love to make more appearances if only asked, but they are getting squeezed out by younger, and non-member performers. As Byron Fay accounts for on his blog, there were a total of 227 guest appearances on the show in 2013, and a total of 42 appearances by cast members of ABC’s TV Show Nashville that receives funding and other material support from the parent company of the Grand Ole Opry, Ryman Hospitality. Guest appearances on the Opry can be a big honor for up-and-coming artists and are an important part of the Grand Ole Opry culture. But they are not meant to supplant established Opry members.
Another interesting note is that long-time Opry member Dolly Parton has been absent from the Opry stage for an extended period. Though there has been no specific word of a beef between Dolly and the Opry, a theme park deal between the two parties dissolved in 2012 when the Opry was part of a sale to Marriott in the restructuring of Gaylord Enterprises to the new Ryman Hospitality Properties.
We do know that The Grand Ole Opry is willing to drop living members, or at least they did in the past. They famously threw out Hank Williams in August of 1952 for alcoholism and missing rehearsals, and Neko Case was once banned from the institution for removing her shirt. If The Grand Ole Opry membership is going to maintain the prestige that all the members approach it with when they are asked to join the institution, the rules governing membership must be maintained both by members, and the institution.
- Michael on Song Review – “The Trailer Song” By Kacey Musgraves
- Michael on Song Review – “The Trailer Song” By Kacey Musgraves
- Michael on Song Review – “The Trailer Song” By Kacey Musgraves
- TheCheapSeats on Song Review – “The Trailer Song” By Kacey Musgraves
- Melissa on Song Review – “The Trailer Song” By Kacey Musgraves