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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 very ”Mumford & Sons” take on “Pancho & Lefty”: “The original had a Spanish-Mexican flair. We took a real different approach with it …. something with some edge that moves along pretty good. It’s an interesting take.”
Something else interesting: They begged Garth Brooks to allow them to use his cover of “Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down” from his recent blockbuster Blame It All On My Roots box set. But just like the box set, you can only get the song if you buy the tribute from Wal-Mart.
Complicating the love-hate relationship a true Merle fan might have with this compilation, the ACM Awards being held April 6th are planning to bestow Merle Haggard with a Crystal Milestone Award as part of the ACM festivities, with this tribute as the centerpiece. Once again, it’s great to see the ACM’s or anyone in the mainstream acknowledge Merle (even if it’s half a decade after Taylor Swift was given the same Crystal Milestone Award), but you wonder how much of this is just a platform for Broken Bow to display their own talent.
Luckily if you’re looking for Merle Haggard tributes with not as many question marks swirling around them, there’s been a few of great ones released recently. Suzy Bogguss released Lucky last month: a 12-song tribute to The Hag. And Vince Gill with Paul Franklin paid tribute to Merle & Buck Owens last year with Bakersfield.
Track list for Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard:
- Misery and Gin, Randy Houser
- Footlights, Joe Nichols
- Going Where the Lonely Go, Jason Aldean
- Today I Started Loving You Again, Kristy Lee Cook
- Carolyn, Toby Keith
- Pancho and Lefty, Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley
- Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down, Garth Brooks (Walmart edition only)
- You Take Me for Granted, Thompson Square
- Mama Tried, Ben Haggard
- That’s the Way Love Goes, Dustin Lynch
- Make Up and Faded Blue Jeans, Jake Owen
- I’m a Lonesome Fugitive, James Wesley
- Workin’ Man Blues, Parmalee
- Are the Good Times Really Over, Jason Aldean
- Let’s Chase Each Other Around the Room, Thompson Square
- I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink, Dustin Lynch
- The Fightin’ Side of Me, James Wesley
- My Favorite Memory, Joe Nichols
- Ramblin’ Fever, Randy Houser
- Sing Me Back Home, Ben Haggard
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.
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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 60′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 wouldn’t drive to the nearest liquor store in Beaumont.
But that didn’t 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. “There, gleaming in the glow, was that ten-horsepower rotary engine under a seat. A key glistening in the ignition,” George recalled in his autobiography. “I 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.”
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 George’s 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. “I got into the car and drove to the nearest bar 10 miles away,” Tammy recounted in 1979. “When I pulled into the parking lot there sat our rider-mower right by the entrance. He’d 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 she’d come after me.’”
The George Jones lawnmower incidents later went on to be memorialized in many country videos, including Hank Williams Jr.’s “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight,” Vince Gill’s 1993 hit “One More Last Chance” that includes the line, “She might have took my car keys, but she forgot about my old John Deere,” and John Rich’s “Country 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:
•Tammy Wynette •Loretta Lynn •Buck Owens •Waylon Jennings •Willie Nelson •Johnny Cash •Dolly Parton •David Allan Coe •Jerry Lee Lewis •Hank Williams Jr. •Patty Loveless •Lynn Anderson •Emmylou Harris •Ricky Skaggs •Garth Brooks •Tracy Lawrence •Charlie Daniels •Marty Stuart •Merle Haggard •Ralph Stanley •Randy Travis •Vince Gill •Alan Jackson •Sammy Kershaw •Shelby Lynn •Mark Chesnutt •Travis Tritt •Barbara Mandrell •Brenda Lee •Shooter Jennings •The Staple Singers •Keith Richards •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
- “The greatest voice to ever sing country music.” — Garth Brooks
- “The second best singer in America” — Frank Sinatra
- “If we all could sound like we wanted to, we’d all sound like George Jones,” — Waylon Jennings
- “Anyone who knows or cares anything about real country music will agree that George Jones is the voice of it.” — 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 “national prominence”). 2) Veterans Era (eligible for induction 45 years after they first achieve “national prominence”). 3) Non-Performer, Songwriter, and Recording and/or Touring Musician active prior to 1980 (rotates every 3 years). With a musician, Hargus “Pig” 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 – 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 80′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 – 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 – 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 music’s preeminent piano players cannot be denied. If Elvis is in the Country Hall (and he is), his old Sun Studios buddy can’t 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 weren’t 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 – 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 – 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 Fame’s 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 – This is a long shot pick, but he deserves induction. As I said in my prognostications from a couple of year ago, “The 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.”
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 – These names come up every year from hard country fans, and are names regularly held up as evidence of the Hall of Fame’s illegitimacy. The simple truth is that with these two performer’s 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 Cochran – 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.
There’s a mentality in the country music world of Nashville that says, “You don’t know anything, and we know how to do this.” It’s “We know what’s best for you: You get to the microphone, sing what we tell you to sing, play what we tell you to play, and you’ll 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. I’d say to any of the new people coming out, ‘Find the courage to step out and try it your way.’ Otherwise, what we get is a cookie-cutter mentality that isn’t good for artists who are having to portray themselves as something they aren’t, 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.
Not since Blake Shelton called traditional country fans Old Farts and Jackasses has a sitting country music star painted such a grim and disparaging picture for traditional country music as Clay Walker did in a recent interview with Taste of Country. The 44-year-old Curb-Asylum artist says that “Traditional country music died,” and that George Strait’s win for Entertainer of the Year was a “closing of the door” for traditional music in the country format.
Traditional country music died. I think that George Strait winning Entertainer of the Year at the CMAs was, to me, a symbolic and a real closing of the door. It was, to me, as if the industry was saying, “Thank you George for everything that you’ve meant to traditional country music.” I’m not saying George Strait won’t be played, but I’m saying I don’t think any new acts, including myself — I’m not new, but … I think people are fooling themselves if they think for a second that the recording industry is going to accept any more traditional country music on the radio. I think that is the end of a world, the end of an era.
It’s kind of like Rome. Rome has fallen [laughs]. There’s a new world and a new era. I feel like I totally accepted that. Now I’m not saying that fans are not going to continue loving traditional country music and playing it and listening to it and maybe even downloading some of it. But I don’t think you’ll see this town record what we call ‘traditional’ country music ever again. I believe that era is completely over.
But is Clay Walker happy about this fall of Rome, or is he remorseful about it?
No. No remorse whatsoever. I think it’s the perfect evolution and it’s the way it should be. It’s time. It’s time for that change. And, albeit rough at the moment, it’s a beautiful rough. I don’t think that we’ll be heavy metal, as some of the bands are doing and calling it country. I don’t think that we’ll be rap. I just think that we’re trying to find where the absolute limitations are and then work within those limitations. I believe that right now we’re stretching the limitations out as far as they’ll go and the fans will bring them back in.
Clay also seems to feel like with this perception that traditional country music is dead, he can use this to his advantage in plotting his career path.
I feel like recognizing where music is, and it’s really cool to have this particular view that I have right now. I would call it more like a catbird seat because I can see what’s happening and I accept it.
Clay Walker made his country music debut in 1993 and considers himself in the class right after country’s big explosion of popularity that saw the rise of artists like Garth Brooks, George Strait, and others. However a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis in 1996, and the strange career track Curb Records has taken with many of its artists including Clay have kept his name out of the headlines as much as in them. Clay has only released two albums in the last decade, which is par-for-the-course with Curb, including his last one She Won’t Be Lonely Long in 2010 that Curb first issued as an EP with 3 singles from his previous album Fall before eventually releasing it as a full record.
Interestingly, Walker also hinted in the interview that Curb Records is no longer receiving star treatment from Nashville songwriters, and instead has to get what falls to them as far as potential songs, further speaking to the diminished power of Mike Curb in the wake of multiple controversies in how his label handles artists. “Record labels are smart business people and they know it’s all about the songs,” says Walker. “So they pretty much join up with the powerhouse publishing companies who have the powerhouse songwriters and those songs stay in those labels. At least, they have first shot at them. Every now and then, drippings for the poor will come off the table, but not very often.”
The declaration of death for traditional country and Clay’s excitement for ushering in a new era tells us what we can very likely expect coming up from him in the way of new music. Whether traditional country is completely dead on radio or the mainstream in general, it sounds like Clay Walker is willing to take a “If you can’t beat them, join them” attitude about it.
In late October when the 52-year-old Garth Brooks was getting set to announce he was officially coming out of retirement, Saving Country Music spoke in-depth about how the return of Garth could have a “colossal” impact on the genre. Well apparently, this prediction was a bit too measured.
Subsequently as Garth Brooks continues to square away his affairs and flesh out the specifics of his comeback, it is apparent that the country superstar is set for nothing short of world domination. “If I may say so, the whole goal in life is to make whatever you’ve done before look small,” is what Garth told “The Talk” earlier this month. Take into consideration, this is coming from the man who is the third highest-selling music artist in history behind Elvis and The Beatles in the United States. So how is Garth planning to trump his own apogee?
Forget about any new, original music or tours for a second, let’s first sit back and appreciate what Garth has done with his Blame It All On My Roots box set released on November 28th. When Garth announced the end of his retirement, many believed he didn’t have a chance in the new music paradigm. The industry had changed so much in the dozen years since he left, and some 20 years after he was arguably at his peak of relevancy. How could Garth be successful, especially if he wasn’t willing to kowtow to iTunes and the digital world? But for a release that is not on iTunes, not anywhere digitally, and can only be purchased at Wal-Mart, Blame It All On My Roots has been positively dominating the charts, outselling huge releases from major, top-tier pop acts like One Direction, Brittney Spears, Eminem, etc., sitting well-ensconced at the top of the country music albums chart, and #2 in all of music, selling nearly 700,000 copies so far and still going strong.
And this is all with virtually no radio play, and not a spec of original music. Blame it all on the box set being the perfect Christmas gift and an impulse buy for many, but Blame It All On My Roots proves that the appeal for Garth’s music remains massive, and doesn’t need radio play or iTunes to have a commercial impact.
But this is all still posturing. The box set is simply a bellweather at best, and its success will probably be dwarfed by Garth’s future actions in the coming months and years. New, original music from Garth is what the American public is really salivating for, and what will have the greatest impact.
As will a tour, and from what Garth is saying, his upcoming tour could be legendary, spanning the globe, and transpiring over a total of three years. And once again, Garth says he wants it to be “…bigger than anything we’ve done. That’s the goal.” Flying out over Texas Stadium suspended on wires?…eat your heart out.
Garth told Electric Barnyard, “Our job is to make sure that these people that came in the 90′s come back and go, ‘Gah dang it, I didn’t know it could get any better.’ …We’re on the blueprints right now. We’re going to build a stage and a lighting rig that will hopefully blow people away. And we’ve actually got a sound system that has never been used before that’s coming, a new technology. So everyone in the room can feel the thump. We’re going to bring it in, we’re going to be proud of it, and it’s going to be loud.”
But the tour will likely not transpire until the fall of 2014, so what will tide fans over? Brooks once again hints to grandiose plans, telling Nashville’s NewsChannel 5, “There is something that could be happening between now and the tour that might be the biggest thing I’ve ever tried to take on. I’m excited. If it comes to fruition, and it looks like it’s going to, it will be the biggest thing I’ve ever tried to attempt. I’m really excited about it. It’ll be done right, it’ll be done quality. I’m in love with the idea and we just have to see if it’s going to happen. We’ll know within the next four weeks or so.”
But what about new music? Garth has been locked in a rather public battle with iTunes and other digital music sellers, unwilling to release his catalog to them because of many grievances, principally that he doesn’t want to piecemeal out his albums by selling individual songs. iTunes is unwilling to give Garth special treatment, likely because this could set off a cavalcade of stars wanting iTunes to give their albums special pricing or to make their songs available only through albums. But what Garth proved with the Blame It All On My Roots box set is that he doesn’t need wide distribution for his music to be commercially successful. He can completely circumvent the entire distribution system of the music industry and still have a #1 release. At the same time, the lack of digital distribution may not allow Garth to achieve that “make whatever you’ve done before look small” goal.
What to do about new music might be the missing piece in Garth’s plans for country music domination. We know he wants to release new tunes, but how to have it live up to the same world-beating status he’s trying to achieve with his tour and the upcoming January surprise is the question.
Nonetheless, Garth has a release at the very top of the charts, a massive, worldwide tour in the works, and something special planned for in between. The accumulative effect of all of this is that Garth Brooks is very much back, and a dominant, undisputed feature in the country music landscape once again.
When it comes to the business of saving country music, many villains get presented by fans as the face of the erosion of country’s roots, values, and quality; usually huge country music stars like Garth Brooks or Taylor Swift. But behind-the-scenes there are other events, and other individuals that have just as much, if not more of a fundamental impact on country music than any single artist or band.
One of these such events was the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that was signed into law by then President Clinton, which for the first time allowed cross media ownership, meaning multiple media businesses like newspapers, and television and radio stations could be owned by a single person or corporation in the same market. The law was meant to deregulate the media business and spurn more competition, despite the concerns raised that the move would see the rise of big media giants and the lessening of local programming.
Within radio, these easing of the rules had a massive impact on radio station ownership. In 1996 when the Telecommunications Act first passed, Clear Channel, the largest radio station owner in the country, had a roster of 173 radio stations. In 2003 the FCC eased the ownership regulations for local radio stations even further, and by 2004, Clear Channel owned over 1,200 stations. In fact Clear Channel grew so quickly, the company incurred massive debt, and ended up going through a restructuring between 2006 to 2008 that included selling some of its stations, to where now Clear Channel owns around 850 stations total.
Since its restructuring as a private company, Clear Channel’s goal has been centralizing and nationalizing programming. The idea is instead of paying one DJ at each country station in the US for example, you can pay one DJ who can then be syndicated to all the country stations owned by the same company. Though Clear Channel’s station ownership has stayed steady, and even slowly increased in the last few years, they’ve been able to slash employees as they slowly implement a nationalized DJ roster. In January of 2009, Clear Channel laid off roughly 1,500 employees, and by May of 2009, that number had grown to 2,440 positions eliminated. Then in October of 2011, even more local positions were slashed, but the exact numbers have never been disclosed.
Then earlier this month, Clear Channel announced a partnership with CMT to create national country music programming to be distributed across 125 country radio stations, as well as some digital and television platforms. The move is meant to match a similar national syndicated format created by the second-biggest radio provider in the United States, Cumulus Media, who launched the NASH-FM national country network on 70 separate radio stations earlier this year. The deal means more programming will be created on a national level, and distributed to local stations. Though Clear Channel says the new deal will be good for local radio stations because it will give them access to national-caliber talent and programming through their syndicated network that local stations would otherwise not have access to, the move continues the trend for radio to lose its local and regional flavor in favor of programming catering to a national audience.
At the forefront of Clear Channel’s country radio ideas is a DJ named Bobby Bones. Originally from Arkansas, Bobby started with Clear Channel as a local DJ in Austin, TX for the Top 40 pop station 96.7 KISS FM, with his Bobby Bones Show eventually being syndicated to a few other regional markets. Though Bobby had big offers to move to the West Coast, he stayed in Austin and became a local favorite, winning “Best Radio Personality” by the Austin Music Awards from 2004-2008.
Earlier this year, Clear Channel finally convinced Bobby to move to Nashville, and to make the switch from Top 40 radio to country. Bobby replaced the legendary country DJ Gerry House at WSIX in Nashville who retired in 2010, though some hypothesize that Gerry, like many other DJ’s on Clear Channel stations, was forced out. Gerry was also a songwriter, and country journalist Chet Flippo once said about Gerry that he was the “only reason I still listen to any mainstream country radio.”
Moving from pop to country, and replacing Gerry House, Bobby Bones symbolizes the changing of the guard on country radio to say the least. Bobby Bones doesn’t look country, doesn’t sound country, says he doesn’t own a cowboy hat or a belt buckle, but he reaches more country listeners than any other country music DJ.
The Bobby Bones Show started on the WSIX flagship station being syndicated to 15 other stations across the country, and in less than a year is already up to a total of 50 stations. With Clear Channel’s new syndicated country radio network coming, these numbers could dramatically increase, and Bobby Bones could cross over into television—something he has already started to do, doing spots at big awards shows, and once guest hosting on Live with Regis & Kelly in 2011. Along with his weekday show, Bobby Bones also does at weekend syndicated show, Country Top 30 with Bobby Bones. He also does a syndicated Fox Sports Radio weekend show with tennis player and friend Andy Roddick.
Bobby Bones is not your normal DJ. He doesn’t have your stereotypical DJ voice, and his quirky, yet honest personality is what endears him both to listeners, and to country artists who seem more than willing to lend their name to his show and stop by for interviews. Taylor Swift, Tim McGraw, Kellie Pickler, Luke Bryan, Lady Antebellum, and many more have appeared live on The Bobby Bones Show, and it is now the highest rated radio show in Nashville.
As a recent CBS feature points out, Bobby comes from very humble beginnings in Arkansas, from a very stereotypical “country” upbringing where his dad left him and his mom was a drug addict, being raised by his grandmother for part of the time. Bobby doesn’t drink or use drugs, and has a very hip, Austin-esque personality while still coming across as genuine to his listeners. Many old-school country fans and older radio listeners hate him. But with his current position at WSIX and Clear Channel’s big nationally-focused plan for country radio, Bobby Bones isn’t just poised to become the Gerry House of the next generation, he’s poised to become the biggest DJ in the history of country music.
Garth Brooks, the best selling artist in the history of country music, is set to make a triumphant return in 2014, announcing earlier today on ABC’s Good Morning America that he will embark on a landmark worldwide tour. The announcement comes a week after his massive, 10-disc Blame It All On My Roots box set exclusively sold at Wal-Mart dominated the country music charts landing him at #1 on Billboard’s Country Albums Chart, and #3 in all of music.
Apparently despite Garth’s world-beating success, he still is hungry, and has some unresolved business to take up with country music. And looking to get a strategic advantage over his competition, he’s employed the services of the somewhat unproven, but very popular health accessory known as the Phiten necklace, worn by many professional athletes, especially throughout Major League Baseball.
Phiten claims to be able to liquify titanium and infuse it into their nylon necklaces, giving athletes and everyday individuals physiological benefits such as improved strength, dexterity, faster recovery time, and mental clarity. Though the claims of the necklace maker have never been proven through scientific study, many users swear by the health accessory’s benefits.
Garth Brooks has been seen wearing Phiten necklaces in virtually every press photo in the last few months since he’s been plotting his return. Some are claiming it was a Phiten necklace that gave Garth his irrational exuberance during a recent televised CBS TV special live from Las Vegas. Photos from the event show that Garth was wearing a Phiten necklace under his black hoodie.
“As we all know, Garth Brooks was out to destroy country music back in the 90′s,” says Brooks spokesperson Malcolm Frankenfurter. “But unfortunately he was unable to finish the job before retiring in 2001 to spend more time with his family. Brooks is hoping his Phiten necklace gives him the extra little boost to destroy country music once and for all on his upcoming tour. With the quicker reaction times the Phiten necklace ensures, he should be able to handle the switchover from Garth to his dark pop persona Chris Gaines more effectively, and be more nimble when he flies out across sold-out stadium crowds suspended on wires.”
Even more damning is this exclusive photo Saving Country Music has obtained from Wal-Mart surveillance video. Shockingly, the video shows Garth himself purchasing a whole cart full of his new 10-disc Blame It All On My Roots box set, potentially to drive up SoundScan numbers to artificially inflate his chart rankings. The signature two-tone color spiral of a Phiten necklace can be seen peeking out from beneath his Carhartt.
Reports that Garth Brooks also believes that his now famous black hoodie from the Las Vegas special can make him invisible when he puts on the hood and cinches the drawstrings all the way up to his nose, or that his average suburban guy goatee gives him the ability to see women’s privates through their clothes, could not be independently verified.
Black Friday of 2013 finds Garth Brooks commanding the country music consciousness with the release of a massive 8-disc Blame It All On My Roots box set that includes four new studio albums of cover songs, a re-release of his 2007 two-disc Ultimate Hits collection, a DVD of his two-hour acoustic show, and another DVD with a collection of his music videos. All of this is exclusively being sold at Wal-Mart, and being promoted with a two-hour acoustic special airing on CBS celebrating the end of his performance residency at the Wynn Casino in Las Vegas.
But all of this is simply a holiday cash grab for Garth. It’s not the album or albums of new, original music that many Garth fans have been waiting the better part of 13 years for. Garth continues to hint that new music may be on the horizon, but has yet to give any certainty to anything aside from his hope that if he does make a comeback, it will be very big, and could involve his wife Trisha Yearwood.
When talking to the Associated Press on November 27th, Garth said, “Me and Miss Yearwood are free to do whatever it is we want to do. And I’ve got to tell you: Anything I do with that woman, I’m fine with. Any place that I am with that woman is home to me. But if I have my wishes, it’s going to be filled with music, and it’s going to be filled with music at a level I’ve never seen before.“
How Garth could achieve a level higher than the already world-beating status of being one of the top 3 highest earning music entertainers in history is an interesting proposal, especially since Garth has renewed his commitment to not release his music digitally either through iTunes, Spotify, or anywhere else “…until they change or I change, or some other company comes and gives them some competition, then I don’t think you’re ever going to see us on iTunes,” says Garth. Or maybe the definition of what Garth means by “level” has changed.
Garth Brooks who “retired” in 2001 to spend more time with his family is about to celebrate the graduation of his youngest daughter from High School in the spring of 2014, potentially stimulating a rebirth of his career. The move could come at a critical time in country music where the vestiges of country music’s traditional past are fading away with the retirement of George Strait and the loss of radio play for others. Garth has released four songs from his box set to radio, including a remake of the Loretta Lynn / Conway Twitty duet “After The Fire Is Gone.” You can LISTEN HERE.
***NOTE: This story has been updated.
Garth Brooks, who’s been making overtures recently about a country music comeback and new releases, will reportedly be releasing a box set called Blame It All On My Roots: Five Decades of Influences through Wal-Mart on November 28th. The initial announcement about the release was made briefly during Garth’s television special also entitled Blame It All On My Roots that aired Saturday night (11-9) on GAC. The box set will include 6 CD’s and two DVD’s, with 10 songs on each disc covering the various influences that went into Garth’s country career.
The project appears to be mirroring the theme of Garth’s recent shows in Las Vegas of exploring his roots through cover songs. Four discs will be entitled Country Classics, Classic Rock, Blue-Eyed Soul, and Melting Pot for their respective influences. Some of the songs that will be covered in the release include the classic Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn duet “After The Fire Is Gone” with wife Trisha Yearwood, Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls Of Fire,” Cat Stevens’ “Wild World,” and Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson.”
Garth’s final show at Wynn Casino’s Encore Theater in Las Vegas is set to air as a CBS Special on November 28th.
Oh the irony that the man whose name is on the tip of many people’s tongues as the one who brought country music to its knees and made it more about money than music, could also be the man in the best position to ultimately help save it.
Yes ladies and gentlemen, I’m talking about Garth Brooks.
Over the past few weeks and months, Garth has been dropping hints to fans that the future will hold some big announcements, and big events. Last week he released the cryptic message, “The sevens have aligned. It has begun… Thank you for believing… love, g.” He also announced recently that he will be ending his Las Vegas residence, and that his last show on November 29th will be televised on CBS. Rumors and conjecture are swirling, but so far there has been little information that is either concrete or confirmed about Garth’s future.
In truth there’s a lot less mystery here than some would like you to believe. What’s going to happen is that here very soon, either on his November 29th TV special or shortly before or after, Garth will announce a new album, and plans for a subsequent arena/stadium tour in support, and it will all transpire in 2014. As much as Garth may want to get everybody buzzing with speculation and anticipation, this is exactly what he said he was going to do when he quote “retired” from country music in 2000. He said then that he wanted to take more time to be with his family, and that once his kiddos were done with school, he’d ponder a return. And lo and behold, his youngest daughter Allie is now 17, and scheduled to graduate High School this year. So yes, 7′s are aligning, or whatever.
This is 2013, and everything surrounding the name “Garth Brooks” has changed. If you’re taking to some social network channel to beam, “Hey you know what? With the crap that’s out there today in country music, Garth Brooks doesn’t even sound half that bad,” then you are already a couple of years behind the relevant opinion curve. Whatever Waylon Jennings said or didn’t say about Garth, pantyhose, and a certain element of foreplay that Garth was the equivalent to, it’s all virtually irrelevant at this point. The simple fact is Garth Brooks, despite a nearly 15-year absence from the full-time music hustle, is as poised as any to make major waves in the country music world, and to do so his way.
In many ways the 7′s have aligned for Garth, and not just because of the particulars of his personal life. Last year George Strait announced he would end full-time touring, and he’s making his final rounds on the arena/stadium circuit as we speak. Both Alan Jackson and Vince Gill have recently accepted their fate that they’re no longer top tier concert draws, and have gone in a more rootsy direction and taken their places as country music legacy acts. Even Kenny Chesney said recently he’s going to take a break from touring. All of this leaves a massive void in the country music touring realm for a big-drawing, well-established artist.
But just what shape will Garth’s triumphant return take? That is really the only question left to answer. We really don’t have much intel or insight into this subject this early in his phase of returning, but what I do feel confident in going on the record as saying is that I don’t see Garth getting involved in either the country rap or laundry list lyric craze, or any other current pop country trend. As much as Garth’s detractors hate to admit it, one of the reasons he retired, and one of the reasons his regrettable Chris Gains era reared its ugly head is because Garth was bored, and didn’t want to chase trends. Garth wanted to make his own trends, and his own music. Whatever Garth does, it will be true to Garth.
And Garth also won’t do anything unless he knows it’s going to be successful, both with its reception and its financial reward. He’s already voiced concerns about how the digital age will effect his ability to release music. If/when he does release music and go on tour, he will have all bets hedged, and it will be huge.
And even if Garth gets out on stage and acts like a jukebox of his Greatest Hits with some new material mixed in, this will offer such a stark contrast to country music’s current flavors, it will immediately constitute a positive counter-balance, swinging the scales in whatever degree back to the true sound of country music. Look at what Garth has been doing at his Vegas shows. He’s been stripping them back, just him and his acoustic guitar, playing songs from Merle Haggard and George Jones. I don’t expect to see this specifically from his reboot, but I do expect it to be traditional and substantive in nature compared to the current country mainstream. Garth isn’t going to be able to fool anyone. He can’t fit in Luke Bryan’s skinny jeans. He’s going to get out there and be Garth, and by the sheer draw of a man who’s bested only by Elvis in album sales in music history will create a dramatic amount of interest, and assert a tremendous amount of influence.
The last few weeks might go down in history as one of country music’s most feud-laden moments. From Gary Allan going off about country music and indirectly accusing Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood of not being country, to Zac Brown calling out Luke Bryan’s song “That’s My Kind of Night,” and Jason Aldean calling out Zac Brown in Luke’s defense.
Though country music feuding may be on a sharp rise here recently, it is not an uncommon or recent occurrence in country music by any stretch. Many artists have had a beef with the Grand Ole Opry over the years, including Johnny Cash and Stonewall Jackson. Curb Records has been in the middle of many feuds, most notably with Leann Rimes, Hank Williams III, and a big one with Tim McGraw that pitted cross-town heavyweights Mike Curb and Scott Borchetta against each other. But nothing gets folks talking like a good old artist on artist donnybrook. Here are some of the most infamous over the years.
Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner were one of country music’s most legendary pairings, but when Dolly wanted to leave the Porter Wagoner camp in 1974, things turned heated. Parton did the best she could to leave Porter’s side in an amicable way, even penning and performing her legendary song “I Will Always Love You” for her long-time singing partner. But Porter turned around and sued her for $3 million in a breach of contract suit in 1979.
However, the two made up eventually, and Porter performed with Dolly on her TV variety show in 1988. Dolly Parton was also by Porter Wagoner’s side when he passed away in 2007.
In the midst of Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Achy Breaky Heart” success, Travis Tritt was asked what he though about it, and always willing to be a lightning rod, Travis Tritt responded, “I haven’t seen his show so I can’t say anything about that. I haven’t seen the man personally, so I can’t say anything about him personally. I haven’t listened to his albums, so I can’t make a statement about that. But I have seen the video and I have heard “Achy Breaky Heart”, and I don’t care for either one of them. It just seems kind of frivolous. The video doesn’t appeal to me because it shows him stepping out of a limousine in front of thousands and thousands of fans, and nobody’s even heard of this guy.. Garth Brooks didn’t even do that. It doesn’t seem very realistic to me.”
Travis Tritt recalled in his autobiography Ten Feet Tall and Bulletproof, “I apologized to Billy Ray, told him I hoped he sold ten million copies of the record. Went home. I sent Billy Ray a peace lily and a get well card because I heard he’d been feeling bad enough to cancel his Fan Fair appearance. Headline in the local paper the next day. ‘Travis Tritt Trashes Billy Ray Cyrus.’ The more I said about it, trying to rectify the situation, the worse it got.”
Waylon Jennings really didn’t like Garth Brooks, and wasn’t very good at hiding it. Though in the portions about Garth in Waylon’s autobiography he was careful not to use Garth’s name, during interviews in the 90′s Waylon would regularly let his anti-Garth anger slip. For example in an interview with The Inquirer form September, 1994, Waylon said about Garth, “I think he’s the luckiest s.o.b in the world. He’s gotten more out of nothing than anybody I can think of. I’ve always accused him of sounding like Mr. Haney on Green Acres.”
There’s another Waylon quote about Garth that goes something along the lines of “Garth Brooks did for country music what panty hose did for finger fucking.” But there has yet to be a verifiable attribution of the quote.
Still to this day, not much is known about the exact details of the feud between these two men, but in the mid-70′s you couldn’t find two artists more tied to the hip than Waylon and Tompall. Tompall was the proprietor of Hillbilly Central in Nashville—a renegade studio where Waylon mixed and mastered his album Honky Tonk Heroes, and recorded his album This Time. Waylon and Tompall appear together on Wanted: The Outlaws—country music’s first million-selling album. The two became close friends and were kindred spirits from their hated of Music Row’s business practices. They would spin long hours battling each other on pinball machines or picking out tunes or playing pranks on each other. But when the friendship went south in the late 70′s, it went south hard, and the two men never resolved their differences before their respective deaths, despite both men still insisting on their deep love and appreciation for each other.
The crux of the beef between two of country music’s most famous sons is that Hank3 felt Shooter Jennings stole his persona. Hank3 had a song called “Dick In Dixie” that included the line, “I’m here to put the Dick in Dixie, and the cunt back in country.” Shooter, who previously had been in a rock band called Stargunn, came out with his first country record entitled Put The ‘O’ Back In Country in 2005, and Hank3 perceived the title was a little too close for comfort.
If you wanna go down that road and rip us off, mutherfucker, I’ll see you in ten years and five thousand shows down the road.” Hank3 said. We’ll see where the fuck you’re at. You know, I called him out and just flat out said, “fuck you if you’re gonna rip us off like that on your first release.”
Shooter for his part seemed unwilling to reciprocate the feud, saying “You know what, I don’t even comment on these things, really. I don’t even know him. I met him once, I think, for a second. And somehow all this stuff started about how he hates me. I don’t know. It’s, like, stupid.”
In fairness to Shooter, Carlene Carter had used the line “If that doesn’t put the cunt back in country, I don’t know what will” at a show in New York in 1979 when her mother June Carter and father-in-law Johnny Cash were in attendance. Eventually Shooter and Hank3 reportedly buried the hatchet.
Hank3 is the legitimate son of Hank Williams Jr., but Hank Jr. was not Hank3′s everyday father. Hank3 was raised by his mother, and usually only saw Hank Jr. once a year when growing up. In 2001, Hank Jr. began collaborating with Kid Rock in songs like “The ‘F’ Word” and others, and Hank Jr. often referred to Kid Rock as his “rebel son.” This stimulated a rumor that Kid Rock was in fact Hank Jr.’s biological offspring. Though both men denied it, the urban myth grew legs, and Hank Williams III began to be asked by people if Kid Rock was his brother, which didn’t sit too well.
Then the situation escalated when Kid Rock accosted Hank3 at a show in Detroit, trying to patch up the strained relationship between Hank3 and his father. “He kept trying to come on the bus, you know, him and Pam Anderson, and all that shit,” Hank3 recalls. “And I said, ‘Tell that motherfucker I got nothing to say to him,’ and then he finally get his way back in there and tells me how I need to be treating my father, and I’m like, ‘All right, you crossed the line motherfucker.’ And I don’t know how many times I have to say it: No, he’s not my fucking brother . . .”
The altercation eventually led to the line in Hank3′s song “Not Everybody Likes Us,” “Just so you know, so it’s set in stone, Kid Rock don’t come from where I come from. Yeah it’s true he’s a Yank, he ain’t no son of Hank, and if you though so god damn you’re fucking dumb.”
It is considered one of country music’s most legendary moments—when Charlie Rich took out his lighter at the 1975 CMA Awards and burned the envelope announcing John Denver as Entertainer of the Year while Denver watched via satellite. Rich had clearly been drinking, and his antics were taken as an act of defiance against the intrusion of pop influences into country music, and have since become a rallying cry for country music purists.
Recently when video surfaced of the incident, people began to question what Charlie Rich’s true intentions were because Rich didn’t appear to look as malicious as the moment had been materialized in many people’s minds without the aid of the archived footage. Though historians and the Country Music Hall of Fame clearly spell it out as being considered a conflict at the time, Charlie’s son Charlie Rich Jr. says that his father was simply trying to be funny. So maybe there was a Charlie Rich vs. John Denver, or maybe there wasn’t, but the moment still makes for great country music lore.
Probably not much more than the names of these two needs to be said to to infer that they wouldn’t get along. Maines started the scuffle in response to Toby Keith’s song “Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue” saying, “I hate it. It’s ignorant, and it makes country music sound ignorant. It targets an entire culture—and not just the bad people who did bad things. You’ve got to have some tact. Anybody can write, ‘We’ll put a boot in your ass’ … ”
Toby Keith’s response? “I’ll bury her. She has never written anything that has been a hit…” Maines kept up the heat, wearing a shirt with the letters F.U.T.K. on the 2003 ACM Awards. And of course, all of this was exacerbated when Maines criticized President George Bush at a concert in London a month before.
Keith was the one to publicly bury the hatchet, saying in August of 2003, “You know, a best friend of mine lost a two-year-old daughter to cancer. I saw a picture of me and Natalie and it said, ‘Fight to the Death’ or something. It seemed so insignificant. I said, ‘Enough is enough’ People try to make everything black and white. I didn’t start this battle. They started it with me; they came out and just tore me up. One thing I’ve never, ever done, out of jealousy or anything else, is to bash another artist and their artistic license.”
Toby Keith vs. Kris Kristofferson
It sure made for a juicy story at the time, but according to both of the named belligerents, it was a feud that never was. In April of 2009, actor Ethan Hawke published a story in Rolling Stone that without naming his name, accused Toby Keith of saying to Kris Kristofferson at Willie Nelson’s 70th birthday in 2003, ““None of that lefty shit out there tonight, Kris.” According to Hawke, a rolling argument ensued that ended with Kris Kristofferson saying, ““They’re doin’ to country music what pantyhose did to finger-fuckin’” (see Waylon Jennings vs. Garth Brooks above.)
However, according to both Toby Keith and Kris Kristofferson, the incident never happened. Even more damming to Ethan Hawke and Rolling Stone, though Toby Keith became famous from his flag-waving songs, he’s a registered Democrat, making the likelihood Kieth saying to Kristofferson “lefty shit” very unlikely. Ethan Hawke and Rolling Stone stood by their story, but the press who perpetuated it got an earful from Toby about it at the 2009 ACM Awards.
Feuds that involve accusations of songs getting ripped off can get especially nasty, and this was the case when Jason Isbell took to Twitter to accuse Dierks Bentley of ripping off his song “In A Razor Town.” “‘Dierks’ has officially ripped off my song ‘In A Razor Town.’” Isbell fired off. “Dierks is a douchebag. The song of Dierks is called ‘Home.’” Isbell continued to pummel Dierks through Twitter, even getting political because of the flag waving nature of “Home.” Dierks in his defense referred to an interview one of the song’s co-writers Dan Wilson did with ASCAP that explained how the song came together.
The result? Though Isbell went silent after he said he was told to do so by his lawyer, if there was ever litigation over the song, the results were never made public. Isbell has since in interviews blamed his heavy drinking at the time for his Twitter tone. Though the two songs do sound similar, whether it was truly a ripoff or not seems to remain inconclusive.
Robert Earl Keen put Toby Keith in his crosshairs when he believed Keith lifted the melody from his song “The Road Goes On Forever” for his 2010 song “Bullets In The Gun.” Keen recalls, “I got all these calls from my friends. They were saying, ‘This is ridiculous. What are you gonna do? I felt like this individual had been picking on me for a long time, and I was sick of it. So instead of getting really ugly about things—I don’t really believe in lawsuits or threats—I took the Alexander Pope road and answered this guy in song.”
Keen recorded “The Road Goes On And On” as a shot at Toby Keith (though he never mentions his name), with lines that included:
You’re a regular jack in the box
In your clown suit and your goldilocks
The original liar’s paradox
Your horse is drunk and your friends got tired
Your aim grew weak and uninspired . . .
Toby Keith has never formally responded to the accusations.
This battle of heavyweights ensued when Eric Church was quoted in Rolling Stone in late April of 2012 saying, “Honestly, if Blake Shelton and Cee Lo Green turn around in a red chair, you got a deal? That’s crazy. I don’t know what would make an artist do that. You’re not an artist. Once your career becomes about something other than the music, then that’s what it is. I’ll never make that mistake. I don’t care if I starve.”
Miranda Lambert, who is married to Blake Shelton and also has a reality show past, came out swinging, saying through Twitter, “I wish I misunderstood this . . .Thanks Eric Church for saying I’m not a real artist. You’re welcome for the tour in 2010,” referencing Church’s opening spot on one of her tours.
Eventually Eric Church apologized, saying, “The comment I made to Rolling Stone was part of a larger commentary on these types of reality television shows and the perception they create, not the artists involved with the shows themselves. The shows make it appear that artists can shortcut their way to success… I have a problem with those perceived shortcuts, not just in the music industry…I have a lot of respect for what artists like Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, and my friend Miranda Lambert have gone on to accomplish. This piece was never intended to tear down any individual and I apologize to anybody I offended in trying to shed light on this issue.”
As some have pointed out since, Eric Church apologized to Miranda, but never apologized to Blake.
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Eric Church also created a firestorm with Rascal Flatts in 2006. While playing in an opening slot, he purposely played too loud and for too long after numerous requests to respect the tour’s wishes, resulting in him being kicked off the tour. It also resulted in a young starlet named Taylor Swift getting a chance to open on the big tour, which many experts give credit for helping Taylor’s meteoric rise.
Blake Shelton vs. Ray Price
When Blake Shelton’s comments about how he considered country music’s traditional fans “Old Farts and Jackasses” came out, Country Music Hall of Famer Ray Price shot back, saying, “Every now and then some young artist will record a rock and roll type song , have a hit first time out with kids only. This is why you see stars come with a few hits only and then just fade away believing they are God’s answer to the world. This guy sounds like in his own mind that his head is so large no hat ever made will fit him. Stupidity Reigns Supreme!!!!!!! Ray Price (CHIEF “OLD FART” & JACKASS”) ” P.S. YOU SHOULD BE SO LUCKY AS US OLD-TIMERS. CHECK BACK IN 63 YEARS (THE YEAR 2075) AND LET US KNOW HOW YOUR NAME AND YOUR MUSIC WILL BE REMEMBERED.”
Blake Shelton later apologized, saying, “Whoa!!! I heard I offended one of my all time favorite artists Ray Price by my statement “Nobody wants to listen to their grandpas music”..And probably some other things from that same interview on GAC Backstory.. I hate that I upset him.. The truth is my statement was and STILL Is about how we as the new generation of country artists have to keep re-inventing country music to keep it popular. Just EXACTLY… The way Mr. Price did along hid journey as a main stream country artist.. Pushing the boundaries with his records. “For The Goodtimes” Perfect example with the introduction of a bigger orchestrated sound in country music.. It was new and awesome!!! I absolutely have no doubt I could have worded it better(as always ha!) and I apologize to Mr. Price and any other heroes of mine that it may offended.”
Ray also later apologized to Blake Shelton for being so harsh, and along with wife Miranda Lambert, they attended a Ray Price show in Oklahoma to patch things up in person.
There’s nothing I value more than a mainstream country music record that bucks all trends and is truly worth your ear. It goes without saying that the ranks of unknown and under-appreciated artists in the independent and underground realm is where our generation’s true creativity resides, but finding improvement in what the masses are being exposed to is the truest barometer of cultural improvement. Enter Charlie Worsham and his debut album Rubberband that is being lauded by many critics and fans alike as a breath of fresh air for the mainstream radio dial.
The album features traditionalist country favorites Vince Gill and Marty Stuart on a track called “Tools of the Trade,” and the first single “Could It Be” has already seen some moderate chart success. But Charlie Worsham may be benefiting from the same phenomenon that has aided the legacy of Garth Brooks in recent years. As mainstream country music males continue to descend into a malestrom of checklist countryisms and crossover hip-hop forays, everything that isn’t a dirt road rap song all of a sudden begins to sound a whole lot better to our audio palettes.
Rubberband is a very fun album that sucks you right in, with sensible instrumentation, slick production with juicy hooks and choruses, and songs that are easy to relate to. But boiled down it is still a derivative, and just a step above the Rascal Flatts and Keith Urbans of the world on both the country and creativity meters. There’s nothing to be offended by here per se, and hardcore country fans will hate to admit how much they like some of these songs, but Charlie Worsham is no Kellie Pickler. Rubberband is pop country, despite some moments of depth.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean it is more bad than good. I certainly don’t blame folks for being excited about this album, and it has a really warm, innocent feel to it like a country pop record from the 80′s. The fact that an artist on Warner Bros Nashville could sneak an album in the door that doesn’t include a litany of Chevy truck and ice cold beer references, or the appearance of some washed-up rapper, is a victory in itself these days. Wosham co-wrote all the songs on this record, and I’d be lying if I said songs like “Tools of the Trade,” “Rubberband,” or the especially-catchy and potential breakout single “Want Me To” didn’t have me tapping my toes along.
Charlie Worsham resides in the rarely trodden space between mainstream and independent country, and this allows him to be different things to different people. He’s toured with Taylor Swift….and Wade Bowen. He can be catchy without feeling contrived. And this could open up a wide audience for him. And who knows, it also may deliver a slight bit more substance to mainstream radio, or at least, a choice for mainstream fans of a male performer who is not willing to slavishly follow trends.
1 1/4 of 2 guns up.
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When looking at the historical timeline of country music, many times it is big events that set the wheels of change in motion, for the good and the bad. Whether it is intrusion of pop or rap into country, or the ill-treatment of country music greats, here are some of the most embarrassing moments in country music history.
Shuttering of the Country Music Mother Church
The Grand Ole Opry needed a bigger home and the move was inevitable, but the result was the complete shuttering Ryman Auditorium, also known as the Country Music Mother Church, for 20 years. Aside from being opened by special permission to shoot videos for folks like Jason & The Scorchers, John Hartford, and for parts of the Coal Miner’s Daughter movie, the venue was abandoned between 1974 and 1994, also allowing the surrounding lower Broadway area to be overrun with strip clubs and dirty bookstores. It wasn’t until Emmylou Harris recorded a live album at the Ryman that a renewed interest in the historic venue was sparked, eventually leading to its restoration and re-opening.
Garth Brooks Goes Flying Over Texas Stadium
In 1993 at the old Texas Stadium in Irving, TX, Garth Brooks does a video shoot and decides to pull a Sandy Duncan and go flying over the crowd suspended with wires. Though it was a one-off demonstration, it illustrated Garth’s influence of turning country into more of a commercial, arena-rock presentation.
Jessica Simpson plays the Grand Ole Opry
You already forgot that reality star Jessica Simpson had a stint trying to be a country performer, didn’t you? Her career lasted weeks, but that was long enough for the Opry to decide to give her an opportunity to be on the sainted Opry stage on September 6th, 2008, while many other more worthy performers still wait indefinitely in the wings for the distinguished Opry opportunity.
Unfinished Hank Williams Songs Turned Into Lost Notebooks Album
Publisher Sony ATV cashed in on a collection of lyric sheets left behind by Hank Williams—some unfinished, and all without music—by doling them out surreptitiously to Bob Dylan, and a bevy of undeserving artists including Jakob Dylan and Sheryl Crow, to finish and record. The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams raised the ire of many, including Hank’s daughter and Williams estate executor Jett Williams who said about the project, “It was like ‘here are some lyrics’ instead of trying to think, “If Hank Williams was sitting here with me and it’s got his musical footprints all over it.” You would think that when you heard the song being sung by the artist, that it would have some kind of (Hank) feel to it, which I’m not feeling it myself.”
DeFord Bailey Fired from the Grand Ole Opry
Harmonica player and Country Music Hall of Famer DeFord Bailey was one of the early stars of the Grand Ole Opry, and was an official member from 1927 to 1941 when a dispute with BMI-ASCAP wouldn’t allow him to perform his most famous songs on the radio. Instead of standing behind one of their founding performers, the Opry fired DeFord. This ended his performance career and DeFord shined shoes for the rest of his life to make a living. DeFord did not play the Opry again until 1974 when he appeared on an “Old Timers’ Show.”
Jason Aldean Performs “Dirt Road Anthem” with Ludacris on CMT Awards
“History has been made baby!” Ludacris declared from the stage in June of 2011 when country music saw its first rap performance on an awards show, and the first live mainstream collaboration with a rap artist. This event and “Dirt Road Anthem” hitting #1 would open the country rap flood gates.
Olivia Newton-John and John Denver Winning CMA Awards
Olivia Newton-John’s CMA for “Female Vocalist of the Year” in 1974, and John Denver’s CMA for “Entertainer of the Year” in 1975 symbolized the historic intrusion of pop into the country format in the mid-70′s. The trend was staved off the next year when Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings ushered in the Outlaw movement in country.
Taylor Swift Wins First CMA for Entertainer of the Year
The date 11/11 was not good luck for country music in 2009, when Taylor Swift took home her first Country Music Association “Entertainer of the Year” award along with three other trophies on the night. Teen pop had now taken center stage in country music.
Induction of Keith Urban, Rascal Flatts, & Darius Rucker Into The Grand Ole Opry
The Grand Ole Opry had already been wanting to appeal to a younger, more youthful crowd, but in recent years they have ratcheted it up another notch, completely ignoring older country stars worthy of induction for pop country’s latest trends.
“Struggle” Turns Waylon Songs Into Rap
It was bad enough when rap infiltrated country music. Now it has gone back in time to overwrite the songs of country greats that have passed on. Waylon Jennings’ grandson-in-law nicknamed “Struggle” (his real name is Will Harness, and his real grandfather is Duane Eddy) took 7 Waylon Jennings songs, and rehashed them into rap songs in an album entitled I Am Struggle released in May of 2013. It was an unprecedented intrusion of rap into country music’s past, perpetrated by one of the few people who could get the blessing of the Waylon estate to do so. (read more)
Stonewall Jackson Stonewalled by the Grand Ole Opry
After having his performances on the Grand Ole Opry cut back so much that he lost his health benefits, Stonewall Jackson sued the Opry claiming age discrimination against Opry General Manager Pete Fisher. Stonewall claimed the Opry breached a long-standing code that if stars performed a set number of dates each year, even when they could make more money playing tour dates, they would always have a place to play at the Opry even in their older age. The lawsuit was eventually settled in court, and though the specific details of it were never revealed, Stonewall was happy with the outcome, and his performance schedule increased afterward.
Garth Brooks Becomes Chris Gains
In 1999, a bored Garth Brooks created a fictional dark pop character from Australia called Chris Gaines and released an album called The Life of Chris Gains. It gained Garth one Top 5 hit, “Lost In You,” but Brooks’ Chris Gaines idea met with very heavy criticism and confusion from fans, and after only a few weeks, Chris Gains rode off into the sunset and Garth Brooks re-appeared before a planned movie The Lamb could go into production.
The Grand Ole Opry’s Refusal to Reinstate Hank Williams
Even though there is a Hank Williams impersonator to greet Opry attendees at the door, the institution has refused to reinstate one of country music’s most legendary icons, and one that made the Opry an internationally-known institution, even in a symbolic gesture. Hank was dismissed from the Opry in 1952 for missing performances and rehearsals due to alcoholism, and was told he could return once he sobered up. Hank never got that opportunity, dying on New Years Eve of that year. A movement called Reinstate Hank looks to reinstate the country star back into the institution.
George Jones “Choices” & Other CMA Performances Cut Short
At the 1999 CMA Awards, George Jones was asked to perform an abbreviated version of his song “Choices.” George refused and boycotted the show, and in response Alan Jackson, while preforming his song “Pop A Top,” cut his own song short, and launched into George’s “Choices.” (read more)
This was actually the second time an artist boycotted the CMA’s. In a much less publicized event, Waylon Jennings refused to perform an abbreviated version of “Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line.” Waylon recalls, “They told me not to get smart. Either I did it or I got out. They said, ‘We don’t need you.’ I decided that was true and left.”
To the passive country music fan, the name Garth Brooks may be nothing more than a famous name from the past that they recognize or remember from his heyday. But to many dedicated traditionalist country fans, Garth Brooks symbolized the mass commercialization of country music with his flashy shows in sold-out stadiums, and his multi-platinum albums. Somewhere in the shuffle though, Garth’s sonic legacy got lost. And as the integrity of mainstream country continues to erode day by day, Garth continues to look more and more like a traditionalist country artist himself.
Garth Brooks was voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 2012. As is to be expected, Brooks was humble in his acceptance. But what went unreported at the time is that Garth actually attempted to turn his induction down, feeling that there were others that were more worthy than him.
Garth Brooks was interviewed by Leslie Armstrong of Nashville Country Club in the Hall of Fame rotunda right after the inductee announcements on March 6th, 2012. When asked what Garth did when he first got the news of his induction, he said:
I know this is going to sound bad, but you asked, okay? So my first thing was is I called the guys up and I say, “Look, I don’t think I deserve this at this time, you know. Is it possible to turn this thing down and wait?” And they said, “No, it’s not possible to turn it down.” I said, “Well I tried, okay, we’re in!” I’m trying to enjoy the day. And at the same time, all you can think about are the people that need to be in here that aren’t in here yet. So now it’s every Hall of Fame member’s job to make sure that we push and push to make sure all those people get in here, and eventually they will. And they should have been here before Garth Brooks.
Who else should have been inducted before Garth? In both Garth’s initial speech at the announcement and in subsequent interviews that day, Garth said that Keith Whitley, Ricky Skaggs, and Randy Travis deserved to be inducted before him. As he told Inside Music Row:
I felt guilty and embarrassed and honored. Randy Travis cleared the whole way for the 80′s for guys like me and the class of ’89 to come through. He opened all those doors. My generation’s shot at Haggard and Jones was Keith Whitley. Keith needs to be in here. My God, Rickey Skaggs. None of us would be here if it wasn’t for Ricky Skaggs. He filled all the honky tonks and everything there. There’s a lot of catching up to do, and like everybody that goes in it, says it. And they’ll eventually get here. I just don’t think that I should have been here before them. But I feel very honored, and I’ll take it and feel very grateful for it.
Garth also explained that superstardom was not his original intention for coming to Nashville.
I wanted to be a songwriter when I came here. I came here with “Much Too Young to Feel This Damn Old” for George Strait. That was it. I didn’t have any dreams or aspirations after that. Never touring, never cutting records. I wanted to be a songwriter. It’s weird because I didn’t know then that the greatest honor in this town is being called a songwriter.
Of course it is the job for inductees to act humble and thank others when they are bestowed the Hall of Fame honor. But with Garth Brooks, he seemed to take it to another level, knowing his legacy was likely cemented and his place in the Hall of Fame assured, but worried about taking that honor away from someone who came before him and helped usher in his success.
Garth officially retired from music in 2001, though he’s made random appearances over the years and signed up for a Las Vegas residency in 2009. His primary reason for retiring was to spend more time with his kids until they completed high school, which will happen next year. Nobody knows, maybe not even Garth, what he might do in country music in the coming years. But whatever he does, Garth’s time off may have taught him an important lesson that kept his music from country’s more traditionally-oriented fans during his heyday: how to be humble.
There’s been much talk so far this year about how the women of country are outpacing the men when it comes to the quality of music, and we’ve talked about possible reasons why that is. But we haven’t talked about some of the men that if simply given a chance, could shoot an immediate injection of substance into the country music format. They just need similar chances to their female counterparts.
It’s not that the men of country have any less talent. One of the problems is that many talented country men are making their way to Americana, tired of beating their heads against Music Row’s walls, and not wanting to be lumped in with the laundry list arena rock or country rap currently plaguing the mainstream male country ranks. If country music can’t facilitate the rise of their careers, country will lose their talent to other avenues.
A lack of talent has never been country music’s problem, it’s been recognizing that talent and allowing it to thrive by expressing its originality and creativity. Here are seven men that right now could enter into prominent positions in the country format and immediately make it better.
If you wanted one name, one man to watch in country music in 2013, that name would be Sturgill Simpson. Poised to take the country music world by storm (or at least the independent side of things), Sturgill’s debut solo album High Top Mountain is going to blow the doors off of country music when it’s released on June 11th. Sturg is already making waves out there on the road opening for Dwight Yoakam, and has one of the best management and booking teams behind him. Everything is in place. The next question is, will country music pay attention?
The truth is you’re already hearing Will Hoge on mainstream country radio, you’re just hearing his songs being sung by others. Hoge is one of those songwriters that has been right on the brink of breaking through for 15 years, but has always just been one important puzzle piece away. Eli Young Band had a #1 hit last year with Will’s song “Even If It Breaks Your Heart,” and at the time the songwriter didn’t even have a publishing deal. Recently Lady Antebellum recorded his song “Better Off Now.”
Will is now signed to BMG Nashville as a songwriter, and has been signed as a performer to Atlantic Records and Rykodisc in the past. Though Will has struggled to find the exact right opportunity to take his music to the next level, he is a battle-tested performer, a proven songwriter with commercially-viable material, and an artist the industry is familiar with that could immediately step in amongst country music’s mainstream men and bring more substance to the format, open up new themes, and hopefully challenge other male performers and writers to release more formidable material.
Whitey Morgan and his band The 78′s are the authentic, modern-day extension of country music’s true Outlaw country movement. It doesn’t get more hard country and honky tonk than this. Music Row’s batch of fake Outlaws will only be able to go so far before the American public wakes up to the fact they’ve been sold a bill of goods. Whitey Morgan is country music’s “new Outlaw” for the long haul.
With Evan Felker and the Turnpike Troubadours, the question is not if, but when. You may not be able to find a better example of a songwriter that can bring true country substance yet still find appeal with the masses. Like Hootie taking Old Crow’s “Wagon Wheel” to #1, Felker songs like “Every Girl” “7 & 7″ and “Good Lord, Lorrie” are just screaming to be cut by a bigger name, letting the rest of the world know what a treasure the Texoma region has in this young and exciting band. The hardest thing for a Red Dirt / Texas country band to do is make that transition from regional stars to national recognition, and to do it without streaking their hair with highlights or releasing songs with obviously aims at radio success. The next couple of years are very critical for this band, but if Nashville had any sense, they’d hop on the Turnpike Troubadours bandwagon now.
A former Turnpike Troubadour himself, and a former member of the Mike McClure band, John Fullbright became a serious force in the music world when he released his critically-acclaimed From The Ground Up album last year that rose all the way to winning the young man from Bearden, Oklahoma a Grammy nomination for Best Americana Album. Isn’t it just like Americana to snatch up all of country’s promising male talent? But with the strength of his songs, John Fullbright could find a home in both country and Americana if he wished. At only 25-years-old (it’s his birthday today), the sky’s the limit for this emerging talent.
If you’re wondering where our generation’s Keith Whitley or Chris Ledoux is, look no further. Though Leroy will probably never play Nashville’s game, he’s got country music’s most formidable song catalog just waiting to be cherry picked and matched up with top-tier talent. In the meantime, Leroy and his band Hellbound Glory could be playing sold-out big club/theater shows and headlining grassroots festivals.
Virgil and Hellbound Glory are fresh off opening for Kid Rock on a nationwide arena tour and signing with the prestigious Agency Group for booking. It may be only a matter of months before we stop complaining of why Hellbound Glory isn’t bigger, and start proclaiming that they’ve made it. Time may be running out to get on board with Leroy Virgil at the ground level and enjoy the rise.
If country music was looking for its rough equivalent of Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers, and other acoustic string bands that are all the rage right now, look no further than El Paso, TX’s Dirty River Boys. Way more than just Americana’s version of a boy band, The Dirty River Boys have a grit and authenticity to them many of these other bands so woefully lack. Yet the Dirty River Boys can still can engage large crowds in sincere singalongs that tap into that sense of camaraderie that many music fans are looking for these days.
Other names that could infuse more quality into country: Austin Lucas, Jason Boland & The Stragglers, Corb Lund, Hayes Carll, Jason Eady, Jackson Taylor, Garth Brooks.
Portions of this story were originally posted in Feb. of 2010, and this story has been updated for 2014.
At the 1993 Super Bowl in Pasadena, CA, Garth Brooks was the artist selected to sing the National Anthem. Garth was asked to make a pre-recorded version as a backup even though he intend to sing live, but Garth Brooks refused. Was this because Garth wanted to be authentic? This may have been his alibi initially, but later it would be revealed his decision was part of a much bigger plan.
Garth’s 1992 album The Chase included a song called “We Shall Be Free”, a gospel-esque tune that Garth wrote after spending time in Los Angeles in the aftermath of the 1992 race riots following the Rodney King verdict. Garth was hoping to debut a video for the song during the Super Bowl that included numerous celebrity cameos. However NBC, the broadcaster of the game that year, rejected the video because of “content some felt was disturbing imagery.” The “We Shall Be Free” video included clips of flag burnings, cross burnings, the Ku Klux Klan, intravenous drug use, riots, bombings, war scenes, natural disasters, and other questionable content; images that NBC did not want to broadcast to the family-friendly Super Bowl audience.
So Garth, 45 minutes before he was supposed to perform the Anthem, pulled one of the most bold stunts in Super Bowl history to force NBC’s hand: he walked out of the Rose Bowl stadium entirely, refusing to sing unless they aired his video. As can be imagined, everything leading up to and during the Super Bowl is planned down to the second, and this sent NBC and the NFL reeling.
Producers tried to rationalize with Garth, explaining that there was no time budgeted for the video, but Garth held his ground, and a standoff ensued. With 91 million people tuning in from all around the world, they had no National Anthem performer, and Garth had the foresight to not give them a pre-recorded version that they could use as an alternative.
This was the worst case scenario for Super Bowl organizers. An NBC producer spotted John Bon Jovi in the Super Bowl crowd, and began to prep him as a plan ‘B’. Garth Brooks had NBC right where he wanted them, and the NFL could see that. So the NFL did something completely unprecedented in Super Bowl history: They delayed the kickoff to accommodate the airing of the Garth video.
Garth Brooks had won, but authenticity in nationally-televised live performances lost. According to former NFL executive director Don Weiss in his book The Making of the Super Bowl: The Inside Story of the World’s Greatest Sporting Event, since the Garth incident in 1993, the NFL has made it a requirement that all National Anthem singers make a pre-recorded version of their performances. Ricky Minor, the Super Bowl’s music director for many years and the current bandleader on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show says about pre-recording tracks and lip syncing performances, “That’s the right way to do it. There’s too many variables to go live. I would never recommend any artist go live, because the slightest glitch would devastate the performance.”
In 1991, Whitney Houston sang the Super Bowl National Anthem, and it was considered by some at the time to be one of the best Anthem performances ever. Then it was revealed the performance was pre-recorded. In 2009 Jennifer Hudson sang the National Anthem months after members of her family had been killed. She was called “inspiring,” until it was revealed later that she had lip synced as well.
Lip syncing and backing track controversies have also tainted other events of National importance. Cello player Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Itzhak Perlman faked playing to a pre-recorded track at President Obama’s first Inauguration, and a lip-syncing controversy surrounding Beyoncé also tainted Obama’s second inauguration. And there’s no reason to think many other inspiring moments of national unity will be passed over for the predictability of pre-recorded performances, until the American public begins to demand authenticity over the facade of perfection.
On a bright note, recent Super Bowl National Anthem performances have thought to have been performed live, and in 2014, the NFL has slotted Opra singer Renée Fleming to perform—one who is likely not to need backing track support.
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