Ah yes, Craig Wayne Boyd, reigning champion of NBC’s singing competition The Voice, padawan of Blake Shelton, and touted by many to be the next great hope for traditional country returning to the mainstream. But to accomplish any of this, he was going to have to successfully hurdle the recent history of winners of The Voice of melting right back into abject obscurity after their big win. The Voice was a bit more savvy this time however, or someone was, learning from the show’s previous track record, and helped Boyd out by releasing his first single called “My Baby’s Got A Smile On Her Face” while the memory of the big win was still in the mind of viewers.
Signed to Scott Borchetta’s and Big Machine’s Dot Records imprint, Boyd has seemingly transitioned from amateur reality show contestant to full-fledged professional performer fairly seamlessly. This development also sees Scott Borchetta entering the reality show performer space with both feet, since he’s already signed up to be the mentor on American Idol and committed to sign the eventual winner of the upcoming season. Borchetta might be making the power move to monopolize this television reality show talent. And if his initial results with Craig Wayne Boyd are any indication, the strategy could be quite successful for him.
Boyd’s “My Baby’s Got A Smile On Her Face” became only the second single to debut at #1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart ever. The other #1 debut was Garth Brooks’ “More Than A Memory” from 2007. This development had the media going crazy, ready to annoint Craig as the genre’s next superstar. And this is just the beginning of Craig’s chart success. He was able to get Johnny Cash’s “I Walk The Line” all the way to #1 on Billboard’s Digital Songs chart, and #15 on the Hot Country Songs chart earlier in December. Boyd also took the old Gospel standard “Old Rugged Cross” to #7 on the charts, and Merle Haggard’s “Workin’ Man Blues” to #37 previously, bolstered by the social media bonanza that ensues through The Voice voting system that also rewards contestants for iTunes sales performance.
All of this bodes very well for Boyd bucking the trend of being a blowout in the professional ranks after the big win on The Voice. But looking at the charts the week after the release of these songs, and it exposes the boom and bust, super-famous-and-immediately-obscure-again nature of these reality show contestants. Where “My Baby’s Got A Smile On Her Face” was making history on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart last week, this week it has completely dropped out of the Top 25. Poof, it’s gone. Sales of the song dropped a whopping 94% in its second week, from 99,000 to 6,000. And this same fate was met by all of the other Boyd chart successes. The hyper attention of The Voice just doesn’t hold up over a multi-week time scale; it is exposed by it.
What “My Baby’s Got A Smile On Her Face” also doesn’t deliver on is the promise of Craig Wayne Boyd bringing a more traditional sound to the table he says is inspired by the likes of Merle Haggard and Hank Jr. “My Baby’s Got A Smile On Her Face” is very, very pedestrian, with a pallid, and predicable rock guitar sonic base, and a simplistic lyrical offering indicative of adult contemporary Keith Urban-style safeness. The only country instrumentation comes in at the 1:20 mark when a fiddle briefly shows up, while the lyrics never trend toward anything country-themed. The song is not bad as much as it’s just superfluous and forgettable, paralleling the chart trend that saw such a precipitous fall off.
With all the hoopla around the Craig Wayne Boyd win, the question kept being if new music after the show would hold up to the hype. It’s just one song, but so far it hasn’t. Boyd also had no hand in writing the song, despite this being one of his selling points. It was penned by Mark Marchetti and Stephanie Jones, and produced by Blake Shelton.
This is going to sound like complete poppycock to many, but studying musical performance for many years, you begin to notice that when artists are singing with forced emotion, they raise their eyebrows. And when artists are performing with true earnestness and emotion, their eyebrows lower and bear down. In the video for “My Baby’s Got A Smile On Her Face,” Craig Wayne Boy’s eyebrows are reaching for the sky, and the scenes reinforce the song’s sort of clean, safe, adult contemporary style.
Yes it’s just one song, and 1st singles tend to reach for the widest audience while Boyd’s eventual album cuts may deliver on the promise of a more traditional sound from the (potentially) burgeoning star. But “My Baby’s Got A Smile On Her Face” is as forgettable as The Voice the week after the finale.
1 1/4 of 2 Guns Down.
Remember when members of Luke Bryan’s camp started crying when George Strait won the Academy of Country Music Entertainer of the Year in 2014? They said it was just a parting gift at the farewell of his career, and that he wasn’t an “Entertainer.” But once again we get validation that George Strait’s Entertainer win at both the CMA’s in 2013, and the ACM’s in 2014, were well deserved.
Ticket broker StubHub has released their numbers for the top-selling music tickets in 2014, and coming in at #2 is “The King” George Strait, edging out Luke Bryan at #3—the current mainstream country cash cow. Even more validating is that Strait’s final concert at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX was not only the biggest live music event in all of 2014, it actually beat the #2 and #3 biggest events—concerts by Luke Bryan and Justin Timberlake—combined. Strait’s final concert shattered attendance records for an indoor event with 104,793 attendees, roughly 5,000 over the stadium’s listed capacity of 100,000, and breaking the previous record for an indoor concert of 87,500 held by a Rolling Stones show at the Superdome in New Orleans in 1981.
British boy band One Direction came in with the #1 spot for 2014 touring by StubHub’s tabulations.
Of course these numbers were bolstered for Strait because it was during his farewell tour, but it still speaks to the continued buying power of classic country fans. It also speaks to how big country music is becoming in the concert realm that the #2 and #3 spots would be filled by country performers.
“I don’t think we realize how huge country music is,” StubHub’s Glen Lehrman told AdWeek. “Traditionally, we think of pop music as the one that is going to drive the most interest in ticket sales—your Beyonce, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga.”
Overall touring revenues in 2014 were relatively stagnant according to StubHub, but big tours planned or continuing into next year, including Garth Brooks’ comeback tour could mean an uptick in 2015, and country music once again taking some of the top spots.
2014 was a year of great flux in country music. Where 2013 was dominated by public feuds and outcries by many country performers about the direction of the music, 2014 became the year things began to be done about many of the problems plaguing the genre. With Bro-Country as the battleground, the fight to return some balance to the country format began to make headway, and many of the initiatives launched in 2014, and many of the partnerships made and trends started may affect country music in profound ways in the coming years. Meanwhile 2014 was also a particularly violent year when it came to concerts and beyond, and saw the emergence and re-emergence of artists who will be very important to country music moving forward.
Following are the eleven biggest news stories of 2014. PLEASE NOTE: These are chosen and the order picked by two major factors 1) The importance of the story 2) The amount of traffic and interest in the story evidenced through analytical data on Saving Country Music, sometimes aggregated over multiple stories on the same subject if they exist.
Click on the orange, underlined fields to be taken to the specific stories.
#11 Legendary Artists Setting Records on Billboard’s Albums Charts
As artists whose fandoms represent one of the last bastions of the public that actually buy albums, legendary performers like Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, and even Billy Joe Shaver set records in 2014 on Billboard’s album charts. Unfortunately new chart rules will likely put a damper on the fun for 2015, but the year that past saw older artists receiving renewed recognition.
Willie Nelson’s Band of Brothers album became his first #1 in 28 years, and his highest showing ever on Billboard’s all genre Billboard 200 chart, coming in at #6. Dolly Parton’s May release Blue Smoke gave Dolly her first Top 10 on the Billboard 200 of her entire career when she came in at #6. She also charted at #2 on the Country Albums chart. Johnny Cash’s posthumous release of his lost album Out Among The Stars also saw surprising chart success, debuting at #1 in country, and #3 on the Billboard 200. And Billy Joe Shaver charted for the first time ever, with Long In The Tooth coming in at #19 on the Country Albums chart.
#10 The Wayne Mills Autopsy Report Released
The autopsy of slain country music artist Wayne Mills was released, revealing that the star was shot in the back of the head from a far range by bar owner Chris Ferrell, who is currently awaiting trial on 2nd degree murder charges. The autopsy revealed Wayne Mills had also sustained multiple injuries as part of the incident. Wayne’s 4th and 5th ribs were broken, and he had abrasions on his forehead, temple, scalp (unassociated with the gunshot), and contusions on his chest, arms, forearms, left thigh, and right knee.
The summary of the autopsy states,
Autopsy findings are significant for an entrance gunshot wound on the posterior parietal scalp with fragment exit and injury to scalp, skull, and brain. A bullet is recovered in association with this gunshot wound. Associated injuries include scalp, subdural, and subarachnoid hemorrhage, fractures to the right frontal and parietal bones, cortical and white matter contusions of the brain, and hemorrhage throughout the wound path. Other injuries include abrasions of the left side of the forehead, left temple, posterior occipital scalp, and abdomen, left-sided rib fractures, and contusions of the lateral chest, arms, forearms, left thigh, and right knee. Evidence of therapy and tissue procurement is noted.
The cause of death is a gunshot wound of the head, and the manner of death is homicide.
#9 A Drunk Toby Keith Blows Show in Indiana
On September 13th, Toby Keith made a tour stop at the Klipsch Music Center in Noblesville, Indiana just outside of Indianapolis on his “Shut Up & Hold On” tour, and according to many of the concert goers, Toby was too drunk to perform, put on a terrible show, and some fans demanded their money back. A cavalcade of attendees took to Twitter and Facebook to complain about Toby Keith forgetting words, and generally stumbling through his performance.
Later video emerged of Toby Keith stumbling through a rendition of “Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue.” Keith can be clearly heard heavily slurring his words and at times trailing off, until at the end of the line, “So we can sleep in peace at night when we lay down our heads,” he descends into an inaudible garble, inspiring the videographer to exclaim, “Oh God!”. Toby Keith and his publicist refused to acknowledge the incident despite it becoming a big story on local Indianapolis news channels.
#8 Male Country Stars Come Out As Gay
Country star Ty Herndon—known for his handful of mid 90′s hits such as “What Mattered Most,” “I Want My Goodbye Back,” and “Living In A Moment”—came out as gay on November 20th, making him the first openly gay male country music star in the mainstream in the history of the genre. Herndon says one of the things that motivated him coming out was seeing Kacey Musgraves win the CMA Song of the Year for “Follow Your Arrow,” saying that he welled up in tears at the win. “I felt so proud of my city. I hope that trend continues; I pray it does.” Ty’s decision also motivated former child country star Billy Gilman to come out as gay in a five minute video.
However one of the most interesting narratives to come out of the coming out announcements was just how much of a non-story it was. Aside from being the lead story on Entertainment Tonight and touching off mild interest on the internet, the announcements seemed to come as a shock to very few, and didn’t stimulate the type of vitriol some expected from the traditionally conservative music format. It still take a more active and mainstream male country artists coming out while he was still commercially relevant to see if country has finally moved on from its perceived gay stigma.
It was also revealed in 2014 that Brandy Clark was gay, but she took a more subtle and respectful approach to the sensitive subject.
#7 New Hank Williams “I Saw The Light” Biopic Announced
It was big enough news that the long-awaited biopic covering the life of Hank Williams was coming, and that the producers were setting out to make it the definitive movie work on the Hillbilly Shakespeare based off of Colin Escott’s acclaimed biography, with fully-licensed rights to use the original music for the film from Sony ATV. But then as the cast began to be revealed, and specifically that British-born actor Tom Hiddleston would be the one portraying Hank, controversy brewed about the selection of a non-Southerner, especially with Hank’s grandson, Hank Williams III, who publicly criticized the casting.
Then when a video was released of Hiddleston singing some of the Hank Williams songs he’s expected to perform live in the film at a festival with mentor Rodney Crowell, the controversy started anew. Nonetheless, the movie rolled on, shooting in Shreveport, Louisiana beginning in late October and lasting for about six weeks. With a release date roughly scheduled for late 2015, and big expectations for the film as a potential Oscar contender, I Saw The Light might be one of the biggest news stories of 2015 as well.
#6 The Rise of Sturgill Simpson
The rise of Sturgill Simpson could be classified as meteoric, and his dramatic ascent in 2014—from being picked up by Zac Brown Band as an opener, to playing Letterman and The Tonight Show, to being put at the top on many end-of-year lists and receiving a Grammy nomination—is virtually unparalleled in the modern country music world for an independent artist. His 2014 album Metamodern Sound in Country Music has captured the imaginations of many, and given them hope about the future of the country genre. And maybe most importantly, Sturgill Simpson has made fans wonder where he might be headed in 2015 and beyond.
#5 The Return of Garth Brooks
When the best selling artist in country music ever, and the 3rd highest-selling artist of all time comes out of retirement after 15 years away, it is going to cause some reverberations, and that’s exactly what Garth Brooks did when he officially announced a new album and a world tour at a July 10th press conference in Nashville. But Garth’s return hasn’t been all triumphant and pretty. It started off with a debacle in Dublin, when five planned shows were cut down to three by local authorities, resulting in Garth Brooks canceling all of the scheduled performances for which an entire custom-made video presentation and stage setup had been procured and shipped to Ireland on 18 semi-trailers.
Subsequently the sales of Garth’s comeback album Man Against Machine started off fairly lackluster, though being the savvy marketeer Garth Brooks is, sales have stayed strong through the Christmas buying season and are beginning to accumulate into decent numbers. Meanwhile despite Garth’s first single “People Loving People” flopping on radio, he’s selling out live shows left and right, and regularly for multiple dates in the same location as people flock to take in the live Garth experience.
Garth’s return has not been without its setbacks and shortcomings, but his presence has still been felt strongly throughout the country music world, and he promises to remain an important figure in the genre moving forward.
#4 SCM Declares Florida Georgia Line’s Anything Goes the Worst Album Ever
Though maybe not a big “story” in the greater country music world, it was the most-read story on Saving Country Music in history, and by a wide margin, being liked and shared on Facebook over 75,000 times, tweeted nearly 700 times, receiving almost 500 comments, and being viewed nearly 500,000 times.
“Anything Goes can slay all comers when it comes to its heretofore unattainable degree of peerless suckitude. In a word, this album is bullshit. Never before has such a refined collection of strident clichés been concentrated in one insidious mass. Never before have the lyrics to an album evidenced such narrowcasted pseudo-mindless incoherent drivel. Never before have such disparate and diseased influences been married so haphazardly in a profound vacuum of taste, and never have all of these atrocities been platooned together to be proffered to the public without someone, anyone with any bit of conscience and in a position of power putting a stop to this poisoning of the listening public.
“Not to get all old man on your ass, but most of the time I don’t even understand what the hell these dudes are saying. Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard have their own language, partial to the most grammatically-challenged and stupefying vocabulary lurking in the dankest sewers of the English dialect, but not residing firmly in any specific one of them so no truly proper translation can be obtained. It’s like Pig Latin for douchewads—understood by them and them only. And only with the perfect deficiency of brain cells will their concoction of Ebonics, metrosexual douche speak, and stagnant gene pool rural jargon become anything resembling coherent to the human ear.”
#3 Violence, Arrests, Medical Issues, and Death at Country Music Concerts
The summer of 2014 at country music’s mainstream concerts became one big rolling narrative about fights, arrests, hospitalizations, rape, stabbings, and even two deaths, all which occurred in a few short months during the height of country’s outdoor concert season. It almost felt like the media was embellishing all the violence with the way each week was punctuated with a new headline. “55 People Were Arrested, and 22 Hospitalized” in what local authorities characterized as a “mass casualty” event at a Keith Urban concert in Massachusetts on July 26th. Once again an annual event in Pittsburgh at Heinz Field resulted in huge amounts of trash, as well as many arrests and hospitalizations, even though the event the previous year had drawn large amounts of negative media coverage for similar problems.
Three people were stabbed at We Fest in Minnesota, a woman was gang raped at Michigan’s Faster Horses Festival, a drunk driver ran over a police officer at a Jason Aldean concert in Hartford, and amongst a myriad of other disturbing reports at country concerts, a man was found dead in a dumpster after Jason Aldean’s Cleveland concert, thought to be the cause of over intoxication, and another man died at a Hank Jr. concert after he was shoved and his head hit the concrete, though it was later determined it was likely by accident and not foul play.
Meanwhile the artists were not immune from injury themselves. Luke Bryan had three stage falls in 2014, Garth Brooks had two, Tim McGraw violently slapped a woman who ripped off a portion of his jeans, and Dustin Lynch got hit in the face with a full can of beer. 2014 was eventful at country concerts to say the least, making many wonder if it is the depravity in the music leading to such behavior. Without question 2015 will be one to watch to see if the country concert issues improve, or worsen.
#2 NASH Icon & The Impending Country Radio Format Split
Who would have ever dreamed, even at the beginning of 2014, that we could be faced with a scenario where the radio format for country music would be splitting in two, and this action would see the return of many of the older names and songs so unceremoniously shuffled to the side in the mainstream format in recent years? Heretofore the trend has been for country music to become more young, and more current every year, shoving older artists and music aside, even when they continue to prove their commercial viability. Research from radio analysts had been telling country radio for years they were shooting themselves in the foot by abandoning more classic-sounding music, and finally in 2014, they began to listen.
Two huge entities, not traditionally considered friends of traditional country music in Cumulus Media and Big Machine Records, joined forces to launch NASH Icon—a new radio format that includes older country music alongside newer music, and a record label that is looking to add new life to the careers of forgotten artists. Meanwhile simply the idea of NASH Icon stimulated other radio stations to adopt a more “classic” country format. Garth-FM (later The Hawk) was launched, and so was Hank FM, and many other country stations oriented towards older country music, fueling speculation that the movement will eventually stimulate a split of the country format. Furthermore, the NASH Icon affiliate in Nashville is consistently beating its mainstream competitors, including Bobby Bones’ home of WSIX.
Now Cumulus is even planning to add a NASH Classics format. Though none of these stations might be the cup of tea for the most hardened of traditional country listeners, it is a step in the right direction, and breeding a renewed love in more classic-sounding country music we haven’t seen in years. The impending radio format split might very well be the biggest development in the effort to save country music in many years.
#1 The Rise and Fall of Bro-Country
2014 started off with so-called “Bro-Country” as all the rage in popular country music, and ended with Bro-Country still somewhat relevant, but heavily on the wane and declining to a whimper while an anti Bro-Country tune in the form of Maddie & Tae’s “Girl In A Country Song” shattered all manner of records by becoming a #1 hit on country radio.
In late September, Saving Country Music wrote an obituary for Bro-Country, saying in part,
“On Monday, September 22nd, the subset of American country music known to many by its nickname ‘Bro-Country,’ died at its home in Nashville, TN. It was three-years-old. Bro-Country is survived by its family and close friends, including Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean, Brantley Gilbert, Cole Swindell, Chase Rice, Thomas Rhett, Dallas Davidson, and dozens of other lesser-known country music artists and songwriters. Though the specific cause of death has yet to be ruled on by the local medical examiner, preliminary findings appear to show that Bro-Country had been exhaustively over-utilized over the last few months and years until it finally passed away from overexposure. Bro-Country’s death is definitely being considered the result of ‘foul play.’”
It’s not every day you get trolled by a CMA Entertainer of the Year winner, but that’s what Saving Country Music found itself experiencing Sunday night (12-28) when Ronnie Dunn (formerly of Brooks & Dunn) took to his always colorful Facebook page to post links and commentary to recent stories on SCM about his involvement (or non involvement) with the new Cumulus Media/Big Machine Records’ joint venture called NASH Icon, and Saving Country Music’s review of his 2014 release Peace, Love & Country Music.
Beginning on December 16th, and then more in-depth on December 24th when Martina McBride was announced as NASH Icon’s second signee, Saving Country Music broached the subject of why Big Machine Records, Cumulus Media, and NASH Icon had been completely silent on any announcements of Ronnie Dunn becoming a part of the label’s roster, when Ronnie himself had first hinted, and then confirmed that he’d signed to the label (or signed some sort of deal with them) on November 27th, over a month ago now. But subsequently, even though there’s been ample opportunities for the record label to announce, or at least confirm Ronnie Dunn’s affiliation, including an announcement about Reba McEntire joining a reunited Brooks & Dunn for a series of shows in Las Vegas, there’s been nothing.
At the same time, SCM has gone out of the way to say this doesn’t mean some deal hasn’t been struck between Dunn and the label that won’t be announced in the future. As was said on December 24th, “It doesn’t mean Ronnie Dunn isn’t signed to the label confidentially, or that he won’t be signed to it in the future. But at this point, NASH Icon now officially has two artists signed to their roster, and neither one of them is named Ronnie Dunn.”
And just to point out, Saving Country Music isn’t the only outlet that has noticed nothing official about Ronnie Dunn’s signing has come down from NASH Icon. Music Row in a December 1st piece about Dunn’s Facebook announcement about the signing said, “The label has not officially announced a deal with Dunn.”
Perhaps thinking that Saving Country Music was chiding the country star, or perhaps wanting to add to the speculation, someone posted the first SCM NASH Icon story dealing with Dunn’s unconfirmed status from December 16th on Ronnie Dunn’s Facebook page, with the commentary, “Mystery / intrigue. Did Dunn really sign?” Worth noting, when Dunn posts on his Facebook page personally, he leaves his initials “RD.” No initials were left on this particular post.
Then a short time later, Ronnie himself posted a link to the “Ronnie Dunn” tag on Saving Country Music. Without getting too technical, a “tag” is a hyperlink to all the articles mentioning an artist or thing, but since the last article to tag “Ronnie Dunn” was the second, December 24th article that mentioned the curious case of Ronnie’s NASH Icon status, it did the same trick as linking to the article directly (which Dunn probably meant to do), with the commentary from Ronnie Dunn being, “Hmmmm RD.”
Ronnie Dunn replied to many of the comments left on the Facebook posts personally, but the reassurance either way if Ronnie Dunn was or was not signed to NASH Icon never came. Ronnie did leave an interesting comment where he said, “….IF it can be done, this Cumulus / Icon / Big Machine team can do it. The initiative is backed by some of the strongest players in the game. The right songs, right team (s) and ultimate fan support will determine whether it flies or not. RD.” But again, this was not a confirmation of anything.
So the next question is, is Ronnie Dunn actually signed to NASH Icon? And if he isn’t, what is Ronnie Dunn’s agenda? Is he simply trying to create media buzz? Does he desire to be signed to NASH Icon, and like we see many times in professional sports contract negotiations, he’s trying to negotiate through the media? Did the deal fall through? Are they just waiting for a later date to announce it? These questions remain unanswered, as do queries by Saving Country Music directly to Big Machine for clarification on Ronnie Dunn’s contractual status.
And then a couple of hours later, Ronnie posted a link to Saving Country Music’s review of his album Peace, Love & Country Music from April, with a fairly lengthy commentary/rebuttal to the review in which Saving Country Music awarded Ronnie “One Gun Up, One Gun Down” (meaning a 50/50, or mixed review). Dunn also has “pinned” the post to the top of his Facebook feed. Dunn’s commentary:
SAVING COUNTRY….One of my all time FAVORITE articles !!!
I agree with him about the contradiction grinding endlessly within ME and the MUSIC that I seek, so desperately to be a part of. This stuff is about more than just music.
I am beginning to believe that there may be no balance between mass accepted, mainstream music and sincere, heartfelt stuff with essence… but again, I’m conflicted because songs like Believe, Red Dirt Road, Brand New Man, Neon Moon, She’s Not The Cheatin’ Kind and My Maria, just to name a few, seemed to do it on a mainstream level.
……there’s my problem.
NEVER…have I taken the position, or assumed the posture that I am in any way the guy to lead anyone or anything, anywhere.
That’s a first class ticket with free drinks and a cigar. Freud would turn that down.
***One more quick thing….
I came up with the title, Cowgirls Rock and Roll Tattoos and Pickup Trucks as a spoof on the repetitive cliche’s found in so many songs these days.
I couldn’t get anymore words into the title.
I have to tread lightly though, in the past I’ve used those cliche’s.
You didn’t mention…… Heart Lettin’ Go ?
Thanks for giving Wish I Still Smoked Cigarettes an atta boy.
In the end….you singled out the TWO songs (Country This and Kiss You There) that were hand chosen by two of the most truly talented, top radio programmers (no names mentioned gents) in the country.
A good friend and publicist told me once, “choose EVERY song wisely, the critics especially, will gravitate to the lowest common denominator if you’re not careful. The weakest link in the chain defines it’s strength.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his best seller David and Goliath, that grit trumps almost everything in the long run.
In the end I don’t have anything left to prove, I just like doing this.
I’m determined as ever to get this chapter right.
Saving Country Music has been following Ronnie Dunn and his conquests with great interest for a while now, from his work with Texas legend Ray Wylie Hubbard, to his frequent commentary on Facebook which tends to put him on the right side of issues, and even reviewing (however belated) his chill-inducing single “Bleed Red.” Even if Ronnie Dunn isn’t always right, he’s proven himself to be weird, and that in itself deserves an elevated level of respect and interest. He’s gone so completely off the script at this point for a CMA Entertainer of the Year and a mainstream artist, that if nothing else, it’s refreshing.
But in the end the music still has to prove itself, and with Ronnie’s Peace, Love & Country Music he did prove in moments his commitment to making worthy music. He also proved that old habit’s die hard, and as he had the courage to admit above, extricating himself from the system he’s been a part of for so many years isn’t easy, or something which can be achieved overnight. Also Dunn shows wisdom in how to take criticism: as a means to see where there’s room for improvement, as opposed to taking it as either a personal insult or the result of petty grievances based on jealousy or other motivations. “I’m determined as ever to get this chapter right,” Dunn says, meaning he’s constantly trying to improve, which is all you can ask of artists, and all you can ask of yourself.
Dunn is right. Songs like “Believe,” “Red Dirt Road,” “Brand New Man,” “Neon Moon,” “She’s Not The Cheatin’ Kind” and “My Maria” are excellent examples of balancing quality with mainstream appeal. In the early 90′s when these songs were released, many country music traditionalists may have not agreed with such a statement, but this has been the recurring lesson of 2014—that when looking at the legacy of Garth Brooks and the other artists of the “Class of ’89,” when looking at old school Brooks & Dunn music, when looking at artists who fit the NASH Icon model, you can now see this music was better than critics and traditionalists were giving it credit for at the time, and is such a healthier alternative to what is being produced today. That is why NASH Icon not only exists, but is thriving, whether Ronnie Dunn is directly involved with it or not, or will be in the future.
Of course Brooks & Dunn circa 1992, or Ronnie Dunn circa 2014 is not going to get a lot of the hardline traditional elements of the country genre excited, and don’t think for a second that Saving Country Music has allowed its compass to be coaxed in the wrong direction from Ronnie Dunn’s Facebook flattery. But pragmatism has been the new name of the game in the fight to save country music in 2014 because it’s been so effective.
If Ronnie Dunn, Martina McBride, Garth Brooks, and Reba McEntire return to country radio in a measurable way, which they are with NASH Icon and the more general country music format split, then this is as solid of a victory for true country music as Sturgill Simpson selling 65,000 albums and being nominated for a Grammy. Yes, it would be nice if Sturgill stepped up as more of a leader, but as Ronnie Dunn illuminates in his above statement, it is so unnatural for these performers to assume leadership positions. In the end, the leadership must come from the music itself. Words on Facebook and sites like Saving Country Music can only go so far.
2014 was the year the tide turned, and the sullying seas of country music mediocrity left their high water stain on the face of history to hopefully be measured against diminishing levels in the coming years. Ronnie Dunn, NASH Icon, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Garth Brooks, and Sturgill Simpson all contribute in their own weird ways to this emerging trend; to a rolling back of the losses to hopefully work toward a new day in country music. But it won’t happen overnight, and there won’t always be agreement within the ranks of how it’s Dunn. But in the end the music will prevail over time. That’s why NASH Icon’s most underlying requisite for potential signees is 25 years of proven service and staying power in the genre. Time invariably crowns the eventual victors, and reveals the few with true integrity.
Independent music fans love to say “90% of what the mainstream does is crap!” Well then it would stand to reason that 10% actually has some value. And in the interest of pragmatism and inclusiveness that is vital to the charge of Saving Country Music, it is important to not ignore when Music Row and mainstream artists get it right, but to celebrate these moments and achievements in hopes it breeds more of the same in the future.
Mainstream albums are given an equal chance in Saving Country Music’s end-of-year tabulations, so much so that in 2012, a mainstream artist and former American Idol alumni in the form of Kellie Pickler and her album 100 Proof won Album of the Year. Though maybe a stretch to call it mainstream, the Big Machine-signed Mavericks also beat out everyone else with their album In Time in 2013. But 2014 did not see one mainstream album make the end-of-year lists, so in the spirit of equal time, here are some of the best albums in the mainstream in 2014.
And please, to the diehard indies and purists, please don’t complain why we’re highlighting these albums here. If you want to see what comes most recommended by Saving Country Music, please check out the Album of the Year Nominees, and the 50 Essential Albums List.
And please feel free to share what you believe was the best in mainstream country below.
Zac Brown Band – The Grohl Sessions Vol. 1
“The Zac Brown Band finds themselves in a position that most any other band or artist would be lying if they said they weren’t envious of: owning their own label, calling their own shots, and nestled in a niche carved out in the music world where they’re beholden to no industry or radio play or sound to ensure butts fill the seats at shows. At the same time they’ve enjoyed the gracious support of the country music industry, while still openly admitting they veer much closer to the Southern rock side of things, giving the band the latitude to experiment and collaborate outside the genre while receiving much more interest than flack.
“The songs of The Grohl Sessions are marvelously complex, yet still with a heart, still with a pentameter that never stops beating, keeping the music in a pocket, and the ear enraptured. It is a fair argument to say that country hardliners regularly bemoan hip-hop treatments to songs, but when it comes to blending rock & roll into country, it is more often given a pass. The Grohl Sessions are certainly guilty of being way more rock than country, with elements of blues and Motown soul. But nobody ever accused Zac of being country, and just because it isn’t country, doesn’t mean it’s not good.” (read full review)
Caitlyn Smith – Everything To You
(Note: Depending on your perspective, Caitlyn could either be considered mainstream or independent. But since she’s written songs for major heavyweights and works mostly within the Music Row system, we’ll consider her mainstream for this exercise.)
“When you talk about an artist known as a songwriter first, you tend to look for the strength in the lyric. But Caitliyn Smith is very much a multi-tool performer, and her vocals can rival any in country music’s top tier, and she’s a great musician as well. Her style is very sensible—country pop in the traditional sense, with rising choruses, juicy melodies, and familiar themes of love, loss, and hope. But similar to how Caitlyn Smith songs are the ones artists and managers gravitate toward when they’re looking for something with more body beyond a smash radio hit, instilled in all of Caitlyn’s work is a sincerity, authenticity, and the ends of country roots sticking out from the surface.
“2013 was considered by many to be the ‘Year of The Woman’ in country music from the concentration of forward-thinking and nourishing projects proffered to the public by females who could nip at the edges of the mainstream, but still find friendly ears in the independent world. Caitlyn Smith may be a year too late to be considered in that class, but she belongs with the other ladies of country music leadership trying to keep at least a modicum of respect in the genre, even if those women struggle compared with their male counterparts in chart performance and cash flow.”
Dierks Bentley – Riser
Dierks Bentley’s Riser is an inspired, rising effort from stem to stern, with sweeping compositions that generally convey this uplifting, airy and expansive condition, despite a sorrowful and reflective tone beneath the surface. At the risk of sounding cliché, Riser was cut during an emotional time, bookened by the death of Dierks’ father, and the birth of his son, and this type of environment created a work that was somehow both secondary, yet keenly focused. He brought his personal life with him to the studio, and it is reflected even in some of the more commercial material, in a drive to make a project bigger than himself.
Is Riser good ol’ country music done the right way? Of course not. This is a country-inspired rock album. But it is a good one nonetheless that is well-made, inspired, heartfelt, and worth a Hamilton or heavy rotation from your streaming service of choice if you know what you’re getting in to.
Garth Brooks – Man Against Machine
“The truth is, Garth was never going to live up to the lofty expectations many were foisting upon his re-entry into the country fold. Forget the naysayers who still can’t get over his high wire act at Texas Stadium or the Chris Gaines gimmick, there was some thought that Garth may be the only one left with the star power to reignite the spark of true country music in the mainstream once again, however ironic this may be given Garth’s history. But in hindsight, this was sort of like thinking Mike Tyson could still be heavyweight champion in the early 00′s, or that Brett Favre could still win a Super Bowl.
“The purists will pan it because it’s Garth, and the mainstream may mostly ignore it because Garth is such an unknown quantity to their youthful demo. And everyone will question the wisdom of releasing ‘People Loving People’ as a single or the somewhat silly cover art. But Man Against Machine is a solid Garth record, with some sappy moments, some rock and R&B moments, but mostly just good contemporary Garth country worthy of at least an open-minded listen.” (read full review)
Maddie & Tae - Maddie & Tae EP
“Make no mistake, the emergence of Maddie & Tae is the result of tactical gaming of country music’s notoriously malleable masses by label types, but that doesn’t mean that the music can’t be any good. ‘Girl In A Country Song’ really didn’t help answer the question of, “Who are Maddie & Tae?” It exacerbated it. Were the hip-hop elements simply there for irony? Were these girls really influenced heavily by classic country as they said?
“So now the young duo has released a four-song EP, and all of a sudden a brand new set of parameters emerge. You do hear those classic country leanings in the songwriting. You hear fiddle solos and steel guitar by god. You hear two girls singing in close harmony with heavy twang about similar themes once championed by Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn. And you begin to realize that whether Maddie & Tae are a machination of Big Machine Records or not, their music truly is living up to the more traditional and tasteful approach they were touted as embodying when they first emerged.” (read full review)
Mary Sarah – Bridges
Close your eyes for a second, and envision a world where a young beautiful bubbly female star—like Taylor Swift maybe—releases a completely traditional country album, not of her own music, but of some of the standards from country music’s sainted past, and not just by herself, but as duets with the very stars that made the songs popular in the first place; the same stars who are very much being forgotten in modern country’s obsession with youth. Think of the possibility of how this could open up an entire new world of music to listeners who are too young to remember where country music came from, ostensibly bridging the future and the past.
Now, open your eyes back up, and you’re ready to enter the world of Mary Sarah and Bridges.
Other Decent Albums
Eric Paslay -Eric Paslay
It’s real easy to lump Eric Paslay and his debut self-titled album in with the Bro-Country crowd because of singles like “Song About A Girl” and “Friday Night,” but a deeper listen to the project reveals a lot of depth of songwriting and some tasteful arrangement and instrumentation. A song like “Country Side of Heaven” isn’t too bad.
Jon Pardi -Write You A Song
Probably a little more fairly lumped in with Bro-Country than Eric Paslay, but still with much more to offer than most of the mainstream.
Tim McGraw – Sundown Heaven Town
Not a good album, but was surprisingly more good than bad from the Big Machine artist. (read full review)
Brett Eldredge’s Bring You Back isn’t completely terrible either.
Best Song – Carrie Underwood’s “Something In The Water”
“A wide, sweeping undertaking, ‘Something In The Water’ sees Carrie Underwood carve out the sweet spot for her voice and make an inspiring and faith-based composition the vessel to illustrate the mighty ferocity of her God-given vocal prowess, along with instilling the moments with an elegance and grace that in unison swell to achieve one awe-inspiring performance height.
“’Something In The Water’ is purely pop country from a stylistic standpoint, but draws heavily from country’s Gospel roots and the ritual of river baptisms to create the compelling narrative at the song’s heart. Though the “something in the water” colloquialism is not wholly unique in this context, the content is nonetheless refreshing in the way it disregards all concern for trends or tropes and instead shows confidence in Carrie’s voice to carry a tune to the top levels of widespread appeal. Resolving with the verses of “Amazing Grace” intermixed with the song’s melody, ‘Something In The Water’ traces a lineage directly back to the very primitive beginnings of country music, intertwining old roots among the song’s otherwise pristine and nouveau passages.”
Very, very powerful. (read full review)
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And yes, if we’re talking about the top songs Florida Georgia Line’s “Dirt” deserves a mention.
Photo via Air Works
Spinal Tap, eat your heart out.
On Eric Church’s current arena tour, there’s been a special guest making a surprise appearance at each show—a giant multi-story inflatable devil that blows up and towers over the crowd with shimmering eyes and skin on fire. It is conjured during the rendition of Eric Church’s song “Devil, Devil (Prelude: Prince of Darkness)” off his recent album The Outsiders.
Nicknamed Lou C. Fer, the big blowup Satan was designed by a company called Air Works based in Amsterdam who specializes in “inflatables that don’t look like inflatables” and prefer you call their creations “air sculptures.” “LED lights make his burning eyes glow, and UV paint effects give him a fiery feel,” says the company about the particular air sculpture making an appearance on the Eric Church tour, but some are calling the air sculpture inappropriate for a country show, unethical as a symbol of Satan, while some feel it’s just downright tacky.
When Eric Church’s tour made a stop Saturday night (12-13) at Birmingham, Alabama’s BJCC Arena, one concert goer was not impressed by El Diablo making an appearance. “From one of the biggest music lovers: Eric Church, you have some great songs and I have been around since your ‘Workplay’ days, however your concert in Bham tonight was disheartening,” said Allyson Protho. “A ginormous Satan…. No thank you…Children were at that concert… That should be enough said right there.”
The Alabama resident echoes the concerns others have voiced about the appearance of Lou C. Fer over a string of recent concerts based on religious concerns, and about an artist who’s name dropped Jesus numerous times in his songs, including the hit “Like Jesus Does.” But others have a problem seeing a big Satan prop that smacks of the heavy metal world make an appearance at what is supposed to be a country music show.
Underscoring this point, an early 90′s episode of The Simpsons guest starring the fake metal band Spinal Tap featured the band worshiping a big inflatable Satan doll hovering over the stage. The scene was meant to illustrate how out-of-touch the band was by launching the menacing inflatable. Church’s deloyment of a massive Satan sculpture could also be compared to the now notorious moment Garth Brooks put on a harness and flew around Texas Stadium like Peter Pan. Though such theatrics might be welcomed in the rock world, they’ve been thought for decades as crossing a line in country, and even many of today’s country music mega concerts stop short of featuring such histrionics.
In fairness to Eric Church and Lou C. Fer, the devil in this instance isn’t being worshiped, he’s being offered up as a symbolic representation. Though hard to see in many of the pictures of the inflatable from concerts, the picture of the balloon outside in the daylight from Air Works clearly shows it’s wearing a “Nashville” belt buckle made of an upside down pentagram, symbolizing the greed and malfeasance of the country music business and Music Row. So unlike Spinal Tap, Eric Church isn’t attempting to prove how cool he is by allying himself with the Prince of Darkness, but putting himself in opposition to the evil country music scoundrels. This truth may not stave of a child’s nightmares who might attend one of these concerts and see the massive sculpture, but it definitely is a difference in representation.
However as has been pointed out about Eric Church before, it’s ironic that a man that works completely within the Music Row system, is signed to a major label, regularly performers and is honored at major country music award shows, has made millions of dollars within the mainstream system, and once called Taylor Swift a “dear friend” and collaborated with Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan recently, would attempt to pass himself off as an “Outsider,” or as the antithesis of the evilness of Nashville. One could make the case that Eric Church maintaining this stance is even more of a devilish maneuver than most of Music Row’s activities, and is simply an element of marketing. Other Nashville residents also may quarrel that the evils of mainstream country don’t blanket the entire city, and Eric Church’s should be more selective with his symbolism.
Most Eric Church fans in attendance seem to be impressed when the inflatable sculpture makes its appearance. After all, since they paid to get in, they’re more likely to sympathize with Church’s perspective on things. But just like Garth’s flight over Texas stadium, or Taylor Swift’s first CMA for Entertainer of the Year, or the time Ludacris rapped with Jason Aldean at the CMT Awards, Eric Chruch’s devil may symbolize not just Nashville’s evils, but yet another watershed move towards the erosion of what makes country music different from other genres.
Or maybe Eric Church is just carrying on the tradition of The Louvin Brothers.
Photo via Air Works.
2014 has been a year of great flux in country music, with some legendary successes by independent artists and new mainstream artists, and the shuffling out of other artists and the fumbling of what once were legendary, high flying careers. Here’s a run down of the five biggest winners and losers in the greater country music world in 2014.
PLEASE NOTE: Calling someone either a “winner” or a “loser” in no way should be taken as a ringing endorsement or an absolute admonishment of any artist, organization, or the music they are a part of. It’s simply meant to illustrate the trends they’ve been a party to, and the decisions they have made in the last calendar year.
WINNER – Scott Borchetta
The only question now is what slows Scott Borchetta down? It’s his Music Row-based independent label that is responsible for the biggest blockbuster album not just released in 2014, but in the last decade plus in Taylor Swift’s 1989, and that doesn’t even delve into the rousing success of Brantley Gilbert, Florida Georgia Line, and lot of his other artists in his expanding empire which now accounts for five total imprints and a ridiculous roster of commercially-successful talent. Add on top his recent partnership with American Idol which will bring Borchetta out of the shadows to become a prominent figure in pop culture, and we may be looking at the most powerful man in the recording industry, if not now than in the coming years.
WINNER – Sturgill Simpson
What can be said about Sturgill Simpson that hasn’t already been said before? The man has been on an absolute tirade in 2014, defying all the odds for an independent artist. After releasing what has become one of the most universally critically-acclaimed albums in recently memory in Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, Sturgill played Letterman and Conan, was picked up on the Zac Brown Band tour, won Emerging Artist of the Year from the Americana Music Association, and now has been nominated for a Grammy. On his current headlining club tour, he’s selling out every single night and causing incredible local buzz. His next tour will have to graduate to the theater level, and we may even she Sturgill on a major label moving ahead, whether he wants to or not, simply to accommodate the demand. He’s still many steps from being a household name or receiving mainstream radio play, but he’s captured the imaginations of many fans as an artist who can take the independent spirit to a mainstream-caliber level.
WINNER – Brandy Clark
The reason Brandy Clark’s ascent is even more spectacular and promising than Sturgill Simpson’s is because she’s doing it within the Music Row mainstream system. She’s now signed to a major label, and is being named as a nominee for major industry awards like Song of the Year and Female Vocalist of the Year at the CMA Awards, and Best Album at the Grammy Awards. What she doesn’t have as of yet that fellow songwriter and critical darling Kacey Musgraves has is a presence on mainstream country radio. But with a major label now behind any future projects, this becomes even more of a possibility. And wherever you stand on the contentious “gays in country” issue, you can’t help but give Clark credit for integrating the format in the most passive and respectful way. And even more promising is that you get the feel Brandy Clark has years of upside potential ahead of her in the industry.
WINNER – Brantley Gilbert
What has Brantley Gilbert done right in 2014? Why would this Bro-Country knucklehead be characterized as a “winner”? Because while you weren’t looking he quietly has amassed the most loyal fan base in mainstream country music this side of Carrie Underwood, and has the towering sales numbers to prove it in an environment where such sales numbers were thought to be in the past for a second-tier country star. Brantley’s Just As I Am has sold over 640,000 copies. That’s more than the recent albums from Florida Georgia Line and Blake Shelton combined, or more than the albums of Keith Urban and Brad Paisley combined. Gilbert has sold nearly twice as many albums as Florida Georgia Line’s Anything Goes, 3x the amount of Blake Shelton and Dierks Bentley’s recent releases, and 4x the amount of Brad Paisley’s. Many gave sideways glances at their televisions when Brantley Gilbert was given the American Music Award for “Favorite Country Album,” but by definition, it was deserved. Brantley is the mainstream star with grassroots support, and with that kind of structure, he’s become country music’s great underrated commercial powerhouse.
WINNER – Sam Hunt
In an industry where launching a female artist seems nearly impossible these days, country music’s rising male talent faces the opposite problem of an overcrowded field at the top. But songwriter Sam Hunt, who decided to saddle up with Shane McAnally and attempt to become country music’s EDM superstar has done just that with the mega single “Leave The Night On” and surprising sales for his debut album Montevallo. Where another, more-established country artist in Jerrod Niemann attempted to go EDM with and have a very successful #1 single in “Drink To That All Night” to back it up, Niemann still only garnered album sales of 14,000 for his latest release. Meanwhile Sam Hunt saw a debut week of 70,000 sales, and subsequently has seen strong reception for his country/EDM concept, including surprisingly from many critics. A charmer who can actually speak well for himself who hit on an idea that however vomit-inducing for country music’s traditional listeners has resonated with the wider public, Sam Hunt has revealed himself right out of the gate as a long-haul country star we’ll be hearing about for years, like it or not.
LOSER – Garth Brooks
Without question Garth Brooks has proved his touring muscle did not atrophy one bit during his nearly 15-year retirement. But what was supposed to be the biggest comeback in country music history has fallen completely flat in regards to album sales, radio play, and overall cultural impact. The selection of singles and the rollout of Garth’s new album was critical, and the momentum and intrigue surrounding his comeback couldn’t have been fumbled any more, resulting in sort of a “ho hum” reception from consumers. He can still sell out five consecutive concert dates in 30 minutes, but without any radio support for his new music, and his insistence on attempting to create his own trends instead of catering to the new era of media, he’s put himself at a distinct disadvantage. Take out the touring success, and right now it is “Machine” one – “Man” zero.
LOSER – Jerrod Niemann
If you want a cautionary tale of what not to do with your country music career, look no further than this once critically-lauded artist who decided to go all techno and appears to be paying the price for his country music transgressions. When the EDM-landen single “Drink To That All Night” was cresting #1 on country radio’s Airplay Chart on its way to certified platinum status, it was all high fives in the Niemann camp. But since the release of the second single from his latest album High Noon called “Donkey,” Niemann has been hard to find. Where “Drink To That All Night” apparently walked right up to the line and titillated the country music public enough to become successful, “Donkey” crossed over it, and now the question is if Jerrod Niemann will ever be able to recover. His latest dreckish single “Buzz Back Girl” doesn’t appear to be making any buzz at all, stalling at #35 on Country Airplay. All the attention for “Drink To That All Night,” and the album High Noon only sold 14,000 copies upon its release. Those are Sturgill Simpson-like numbers with no major label, no name recognition, and no radio play. Subsequently High Noon has only sold around 60,000 copies at last count. Meanwhile the high-production video for “Donkey” apparently showing Niemann awe-struck by the size of his own genitals remains on the shelf.
LOSER – Blake Shelton
Forget that NBC’s The Voice most prominent judge has won the CMA Award for Male Vocalist of the Year for now five years straight, there has never been an artist who has been so quizzically ensconced as the face of the genre who has delivered so little in regards to commercial or critical success, or cultural impact. Shelton’s 2014 album Bringing Back The Sunshine might go down as the biggest dud of the year. As of this moment, it has only sold just shy of 208,000 copies. Compare this with Brantley Gilbert, who has never even been nominated for Male Vocalist of the Year, and has sold upwards of 640,000 copies of his latest release. And because of his commitments to The Voice, Blake Shelton’s touring revenue is also paltry compared to his peers. At this point, Blake Shelton is more famous for being famous, not for country music.
LOSER – The International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA)
Bluegrass. Sweet, wholesome bluegrass. One of the most inspiring, inclusive, sustainable scenes in not just country, but in the greater music world, with festivals, children’s workshops, prestigious awards, and worldwide appreciation for the artform. But somehow in 2014, this environment of togetherness and organization has been shattered by unbelievable turmoil in the IBMA’s Board of Directors. The not-for-profit first showed signs of problems when the board gave their Executive Director Nancy Cardwell a vote of “NO Confidence” and moved to replace her the very week after what appeared on the outside to be a very successful 2014 IBMA Awards and World of Bluegrass gathering in Raleigh, North Carolina in October. Now there has been multiple resignations from the Board, many open letters back and forth to and from IBMA members as the drama that can fester in a music “scene” emerges for all the public to see in all of its confusing ugliness.
Bluegrass, and even the IBMA will be fine in the long-term, and maybe there were some systemic issues that needed to be addressed in the recent and ongoing turmoil. But from of all places, the bluegrass world gave us an example of what can happen when behind-the-scenes drama overrides the passion for the music.
LOSER – Brad Paisley
Every artist faces that moment where their commercial relevancy begins to slip through their fingers, and 2014 was that year for Brad Paisley, and in a big way. Earlier in the year saw Paisley touring around with no name for his tour, no designs on the sides of his buses and semi’s, in a symbolic marker of his lack of direction in his undeniably-successful, but twilighting career. He came out of the gate with his new album Moonshine in the Trunk already complaining that of all things, the flack he received for the song “Accidental Racist” had somehow torpedoed his career, and the sense of bitterness from what is supposed to be mainstream country’s happy go luck superstar tarnished the sentiment of a man that won the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year just four short years ago. Sales for Moonshine In The Truck have been abominable for an established, mainstream star, coming in at 107,000 at last count. Every artist faces the eventual fall from prominence, but Brad Paisley’s has been especially precipitous.
When it comes to Garth’s new album Man Against Machine, I’m not sure if it is possible for his singles strategy to be more ripe for second guessing. The first single “People Loving People” might as well have not even been released. In fact the case could be made that Garth would have been dramatically better off not releasing a single at all at this point. Now that his first song back has flopped, it’s going to make program directors even more reluctant than they were before to feature a 50-something, somewhat pudgy and out-of-touch star that’s an unknown quantity to most of their target demographic. American radio is already on rickety footing when it comes to the public’s attention span as their appetite for technological alternatives to radio continue to grow. To be taking chances on artists whose peak of relevancy was 20 years ago is a gamble, even if their name is Garth.
It’s unquestionable Garth Brooks has a capable team around him to promote his singles, but from the outside looking in it appears he’s surrounded by yes men who will ignore the data they have on his new songs and shoot whatever Garth is most enamored with at any given moment to country radio and hope it flies. Garth just needs to let people know he’s out there making music again with a sensible single that will get decent play; something beyond local headlines declaring he sold out half a dozen shows in six minutes. If Garth hasn’t played your town or you didn’t tune in for the awful American Music Awards, there’s little reason to know he’s back. Instead of letting radio do its job, Garth’s swinging for the home run ball on the first and second pitch, and like when he tried out for the Padres, he’s going down swinging.
No offense to “Mom,” or even “People Loving People.” These are not terrible songs in themselves. There’s just no sensibility to releasing them as singles. “Mom” is one of the few songs on Man Against Machine that actually resides in the sweet spot of Garth’s vocal range, where his bellowing low end can compliment the beginning of each phrase in a way that evokes memories of his early blockbusters. For my liking, I still think the song could be a half step lower, but unlike much of Man Against Machine that captures Garth in this pallid middle range, his voice is an asset in this song.
You would have to characterize the instrumentation and approach to “Mom” as traditional. Fiddle, steel guitar, piano, and a slow, reflective rhythm looking to capture memorable, shiver-inducing moments all makes for something refreshing to hear on mainstream country radio, but only if they’ll play it. All the soccer moms that once were one of country’s mainstays have moved on to the AAA and adult contemporary format. 16-year-old boys with their fists pumping to Florida Georgia Line are going to find “Mom” about as fun as a 9 PM curfew. And no matter the appetite of Robin Roberts on Good Morning America and a studio full of shills crying alligator tears, this song simply doesn’t resonate unless you’re suffering from morning sickness.
The problem with “Mom” is it has that mawkish, signature-Garth over-sentimentality that just makes you want to vomit. Are the words themselves terrible? No. But the lyrical payoff’s potency is good for about one pass of the song, if you can’t see the “Mom” hook coming from a mile away, which most listeners will. Where it’s supposed to deliver people to this warm place, instead it instills this rainbow of conflicting emotions, and even weird thoughts of personhood and conception—somewhere a country song shouldn’t go. Some, if not many moms and children’s experiences with them are much less idyllic than is what is portrayed here. Yes, we all love our moms, but the sad reality is some of them are bat shit crazy, and others are completely unprepared for parenthood. What about the babies who get delivered into their arms?
In the mid 90′s this song would have wooed America, and it still will be effective on some of the daytime TV crowd. But today we’re too gripped with irony and sarcasm to let something so sappy and direct resonate widely, which in truth is probably a sad commentary in itself, but a true assessment nonetheless. Garth has compared this to his iconic song “The Dance,” but “Mom” comes nowhere near capturing the universal sentiment or depth “The Dance” does, not matter what decade your perspective is stuck in.
No, this song is not terrible, and it’s not its fault that society these days is so bitter and full of angst that they can’t enjoy a song like this at least a little bit. It may do better than “People Loving People,” but I’m not sure if that’s saying much. Garth has a whole albums worth of songs—arguably all of the ones except the two he’s picked—that will work fine for radio, and one in “Tacoma” that could be huge. But the question is, by the time he gets to them, will everyone have grown tired of Garth 2.0?
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One Gun Up for a fairly well-written, traditional, and heartfelt song.
One Gun Down for sappiness, short-sightedness, and over-sentimentality.
The feud between country music Outlaw legend Waylon Jennings and country superstar Garth Brooks has been well-documented and talked about over the years. Though a lot of rumor and conjecture tend to cloud the conversation, we do know that Waylon’s dislike for Garth, who was coming up just as Waylon’s career was hitting a sharp decline, was very real. Whether the quote is real or not that is often attributed to Waylon about a certain type of foreplay and how Garth was the equivalent to pantyhose getting in the way of it, there was undoubtedly some animosity between the two country stars.
During an appearance late last week on Broadway’s Electric Barnyard show on Country 92.5 out of Connecticut, the DJ asked Garth point blank about the feud. One of the reason’s Broadway does such good interviews is because he asks the questions many other DJ’s are too scared to ask. But as opposed to getting angry, the artists usually find the questions refreshing after being asked about the same subjects over and over that only scratch the surface. “You know your stuff, I’m enjoying this,” Garth said to Broadway.
When Broadway asked Garth if he’d ever met Waylon or talked to him about the feud, Garth responded,
No, never met Mr. Jennings. And for some reason man, I guess I was the guy that he targeted. You know, it’s kind of weird because all the people [that are the reason] why I’m in the business, those people say the reason THEY were in the business was Waylon. So everyone loves him, he’s a legend, and I just kind of let it go. I never knew what to say.
Yeah, I was definitely the guy that he targeted (laughing). And it’s funny kinda being the non traditionalist then, and now everyone looks at [me] like, ‘Your stuff is as country as it gets.’ So that’s kind of a weird view. It was tough for me because he was a country legend and for some reason I was the guy that got the brunt of it. I never took it that personal. I just think he was addressing the different sound in country music and the changing of the guard. That’s tough for anybody to handle. The guy’s a legend and deserves nothing but respect.
The artists Garth appears to be referring to as the people who were inspired by Waylon that went on to inspire him would likely be big Garth influences Keith Whitley and Chris LeDoux.
Garth also talked about how his new single is going to be “Mom,” which he calls more traditional than some of the other singles he could pick from his new album. He also talked about up-and-coming performer/songwriter Caitlyn Smith who wrote one of the most critically-acclaimed songs on Garth’s new record, “Tacoma.”
“She’s the bomb. The thing that hurts her in town is that nobody can sing as good as she can. So it’s like, you hear her demos and you want your record to sound like that. But good luck. That girl’s talented.”
The Garth vs. Waylon debate is an ongoing one, and one of those country music discussions people love to take sides on. It will probably continue on as long as both men’s music does, but according to Garth, the feud was one sided. And then there’s the quotes from Waylon’s autobiography:
Of course, the next generation better not believe everything they hear. At this point, I’ve been accused of all manner of carousing. Mostly, it’s something that I might have done, or would have done, or couldn’t even imagine doing. Pretty soon it’s etched into stone. If I led the life that people think I did, I’d be a hundred and fifty years old and weigh about forty pounds …
The thing is, we’re in this together, the old, the new, the one-hit wonders and the lifetime achievers, the writers and the session pickers and the guy who sells the T-shirts. The folks that come to the shows, and the ones that stay at home and watch it on TNN. Those who remember Hank Williams, and those who came on board about the time of Mark Chestnut, who named his baby boy after me …
My friends. This town is big enough for the all of us.
Listen to the Garth Brooks interview:
On Monday, November 17th when Garth Brooks appeared on Access Hollywood promoting his upcoming tour dates and the release of his new album Man Against Machine, he was pretty loose lipped about his hatred for certain elements of music technology, and how it has taken a lot of the power out of the hands of artists. This philosophy is what is behind the country singer refusing to release his music to iTunes and streaming services, and is the theme behind his “Man Against Machine” album title and opening track. Brooks has set up his own iTunes rival called GhostTunes which allows artists to sell their music however they want, including as whole albums or in bundle packages.
When Garth was asked what he thought about Taylor Swift’s public feud with Spotify, he responded,
I think a lot of people are going to start following. (If) music starts standing up for itself, it’s going to get a lot better. And you know guys, there’s some big friends of ours in music that we need to stand up to to. I mean, if iTunes is going to tell you how to sell your stuff, and it’s only going to go this way, don’t forget who’s creating the music and who should be doing the stuff. And I’m telling you, the devil? Nice people…YouTube. Oh my gosh. They claim they’re paying people a lot, but they’re not paying anything either. And people get millions and millions and millions of views and they don’t get squat. Trust me, songwriters are hurting, so I applaud Ms. Taylor, I applaud everyone for standing up for the songwriters because without them music is nothing.
Garth then talked about a meeting he had with YouTube where he tried to persuade them to completely remove anything having to do with him from the format. None of Garth’s music or videos can be found on the video giant, but live videos from concerts, etc. have made it on the service from his recent concert appearances.
You can’t get out of it. I had a sweet meeting with them. They were all fired up. They were the sweetest, and they’re all like twelve. They’re the sweetest kids. So young. And so I got the first question, “How do you get out?” And silence. You don’t. You don’t get out. Thanks for our wonderful someone judging on this one on the government. But yeah, it’s totally backward right now. But music, if the artists will just keep hammering away, unify, stick together, then music will become the king again, which is where it should be. Music should always be first.
YouTube has just launched its own subscription service to rival Spotify and other streamers, after a prolonged period of trying to negotiate for music rights from organizations representing independent artists and other publishers.
Whether it’s ultimately successful for Garth Brooks or not, he appears to be bound and determined to do music his way and fight against the current in the way technology is serving music to the public. But with Taylor Swift, and now Jason Aldean and Justin Moore pulling music from Spotify, Garth Brooks is no longer alone, and country is the genre emerging as the one leading the charge.
There was a time when we believed that the Garth Brooks comeback album would be the biggest event in country music all year, if not in the last half decade or longer. Now sales projections have the album struggling to reach 150K units sold in its debut week (though who knows how GhostTunes will account), while Garth’s comeback single “People Loving People” is a dud that has already been declared “done” at radio. Meanwhile he’s setting record attendance numbers all across the country as part of his comeback tour, but maybe the music became an afterthought, at least to consumers.
The truth is, Garth was never going to live up to the lofty expectations many were foisting upon his re-entry into the country fold. Forget the naysayers who still can’t get over his high wire act at Texas Stadium or the Chris Gaines gimmick, there was some thought that Garth may be the only one left with the star power to reignite the spark of true country music in the mainstream once again, however ironic this may be given Garth’s history. But in hindsight, this was sort of like thinking Mike Tyson could still be heavyweight champion in the early 00′s, or that Brett Favre could still win a Super Bowl. At some point our greatest talents leave us all, if they don’t become out-of-style even if they’re still present in full force.
Choosing to go with “People Loving People” as a lead single may have been the greatest single mistake of Garth’s career. Chris Gaines, eat your heart out. As Saving Country Music asserted amidst the song’s release, it would probably turn out to be the least country song of the entire project, and hearing the full Man Against Machine album now, this is most certainly true. The song left the country fans hoping for a triumphant Garth return crestfallen, and the rest of listeners just a little perplexed, despite not being a particularly bad song on its own autonomous merit. This was Garth being Garth—wanting to change the world with a song instead of simply putting something out there radio would play and help ease him back into the mainstream picture. Truth be known, Garth’s entire rollout has been wonky, with decisions easy to second guess.
But Man Against Machine is not all doom and gloom here. To begin with, forget whatever first impressions “People Loving People” may have given you; Man Against Machine is country. It’s Garth country no doubt, with a little bit of the arena rock attitude that he first brought to country, and a little soulful blue-eyed R&B with a country flavor mixed in. Getting even more specific, there’s a straight up Western Swing song on the album, and quite a few more songs that solidly fit in the true country style. There’s some overly sappy moments, like the sentimental song “Mom” which once again is very Garth. There’s also many well-written songs. Will Man Against Machine help save country music? You certainly don’t get that sense. But there’s still some good music here, and not much bad.
The opening title track of Man Against Machine is a maze of messages that can be read a number of ways, while the music itself is very much a hard-rocking and punctuated expression. Many are surmising that this song is a shot at Music Row and the country music machine. Others feel it challenges the drum machines and Auto-Tune that pervade popular country music, or that it is specific to his well-publicized battle with iTunes. Still others think it’s target and message is more global, that it’s showing concern for how technology is impinging on our lives.
But the genius of the song “Man Against Machine” is that it’s message can mean all of these things, or something entirely different depending on the perspective of the listener. Though the music might seem a little off-putting, or even arrogant to some listeners, the simple fact is “Man Against Machine” might be the best-written song on the album—on an album of well-written songs. The duplicitous meanings, the allusions to the classic John Henry story in country, lines like “Careful calculations details drawn down to design. Is it really for the better or a better bottom line,” and even the self-awareness of “‘Cause I’m a machine myself, but I’m one with a working heart,” make for a delicious riddle to unwind, and an inspiring message if one chooses to take it as such.
You can go back and forth about the objective or production of some of these songs, but the songwriting is somewhat hard to deny. Garth had his pick of the litter of material, and despite the lack of large singles on this album, the patience Garth exhibited vetting offerings, and the breath of the song selections, is impressive. The duet with wife Trisha Yearwood on a song Garth co-wrote called “She’s Tired of Boys” is quite striking, despite the schlock rock harmonized guitar lines and general adult contempo production. Again the production leaves something to be desired, but “Cold Like That” carries an advanced, almost esoteric message that challenges the listener—something refreshing and unusual from a mainstream country star.
“All American Kid,” “Wrong About You” and “Cowboys Forever” are just straight ahead solid contemporary country numbers that are hard to complain about, though they may not offer anything particularly new or exciting. The Western Swing “Rodeo and Juliet” is certainly the most surprising track on the album, and when I say “Western Swing,” I’m talking about Bob Wills at Cain’s Ballroom, and a smart, fun, and once again well-written song, and the 3rd of the album with a Garth co-write credit. Though there are multiple variances from the country theme on this album, there is also ample steel guitar, some fiddle, mandolin, dobro, and piano, and a list of respected musicians who appear in the liners such as Jerry Douglas and Bryan Sutton.
“Send ‘Em On Down The Road” is where Garth gets the recipe of sentimentality correct; something he measures out too syrupy on “Mom.” The song “Fish” once again features a fine songwriting performance, and a message that seems to ring deep for Garth and is lovingly delivered. Man Against Machine ends with a distinct R&B flavor, with “You Wreck Me” feeling like a stretch out of Garth’s style pocket, and potentially one of the album’s bids for radio play, but one that feels a little dated. Meanwhile the final track “Tacoma” is arguably the best vocal performance for Garth on the entire album. A challenging structure imagined by songwriters Caitlyn Smith and Bob DiPiero, Garth does a superb job re-imaging the song in his own image while capturing the compelling original sentiment.
The change in Garth’s voice may be the greatest takeaway of Man Against Machine. Where classic Garth was able to dip down into the lower registers and then drawl back up with such a meaty tone on all those early 90′s standards, today’s Garth is an animal of the middle register with a much more rigid range, making his voice more ordinary, despite his control and ability to emote passion certainly still being present.
Man Against Machine is a strong performance from a mainstream artist coming off a 12 year hiatus, but you don’t hear the song that could be the commercial blockbuster or game changer that this album would need to put itself in front of the wider consciousness. They will find some singles on this album that country radio in 2014-2015 is more receptive to, while country’s impending format split might also aid Garth’s return. But radio may be salivating more for a new single if the first one had been better received. Now they may be more suspicious.
The purists will pan it because it’s Garth, and the mainstream may mostly ignore it because Garth is such an unknown quantity to their youthful demo. And everyone will question the wisdom of releasing “People Loving People” as a single or the somewhat silly cover art. But Man Against Machine is a solid Garth record, with some sappy moments, some rock and R&B moments, but mostly just good contemporary Garth country worthy of at least an open-minded listen.
1 1/2 of 2 Guns Up.
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“This site’s called savingcountrymusic.com. Why are you talking about Taylor Swift? She’s not country. She never was. Now she’s even saying she isn’t.”
Well guess what, tough titty. This is my damn website, and if I want to talk about Taylor Swift, I will. And guess what, you’ll probably read about it.
It’s true that Taylor Swift has officially left country, and the majority of the country music media needs to ween themselves off the Taylor Swift click bait and recuse themselves from running features on every Instagram picture she posts. But I can make the case that when it comes to this specific album, 1989, it is the most relevant, most important album released in country music in the entirety of 2014, let alone in music overall, and for a host of reasons, even though it’s not country. Thinking otherwise is vanity, and ill-informed, to the point where it would be almost irresponsible not to broach the subject of this album, and the potential repercussions it could have on the country genre at large.
For starters, if you trace back to the origination point 1989, it will lead you to the corporate headquarters of Big Machine Records—an independent label located at 1219 16th Ave South in a portion of the City of Nashville known by locals as Music Row, aka the mother brain of the country music industrial complex. Not to mention that said Big Machine Records also happens to be up for sale according to reports that first surfaced the third week of October, and have subsequently been stoked anew, and specifically name this album, 1989, it’s success, and the success and contract status of Taylor Swift as linchpins to the entire deal.
But let’s not bog down in business jargon and behind-the-scenes details. The reason 1989 is important to country music is not in lieu of Taylor Swift declaring herself and this album pop, it is because of it. Country music isn’t mad at Taylor Swift for leaving the genre, they’re mad because she blew their cover. Of course she’s not country, and never has been. Nor is the majority of what is clad in country clothing. It just happens to be that Taylor Swift is the only artist with the balls to say it, and the balls to admit she wants to make pop music. Oh my heavens, what a shock! Meanwhile the rest of country is syncing up banjos with drum machine beats, and singing about getting high in the bathrooms of downtown clubs. Say they’re not country though, and they’ll admonish you as a closed-minded purist, and claim what they’re doing is “evolution.” If nothing else, give Taylor Swift some damn credit for being honest with herself and her fans. That’s one big monkey off her back … at least for now.
But genres aside, 1989 has already revealed itself as transcendent from a commercial perspective. I don’t know if it’s even possible for us to quantify what kind of feat this album has achieved by selling more albums in a week than any other project in a dozen years. When you factor in the unchecked flight from physical product and now even downloads that is absolutely ramrodding the music marketplace into a downward spiral, this feat is nothing short of miraculous. Would this be the equivalent of selling 2.5 million records on debut in 1989—the year the album is named for? Three million? More?
The decision to not make 1989 available on Spotify proved to be a smart one, as 14-year-old girls all across the country crashed their local Target stores to obtain their copy. Remember the Taylor Swift op-ed from the Wall Street Journal and her fearful plea? “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free,” she said. “In mentioning album sales, I’d like to point out that people are still buying albums, but now they’re buying just a few of them. They are buying only the ones that hit them like an arrow… It isn’t as easy today as it was 20 years ago to have a multiplatinum-selling album…”
Unless you’re Taylor Swift.
Why is Taylor Swift’s 1989 relevant to a country music website? Because it is relevant to any music website, because we very well may be looking at the very last American album sold in a physical form that permeates the entire population. Vinyl collectors will tell you, if you crash any given pile of records, whether at a garage sale, a thrift store, etc., you always see the same revolving titles: John Denver’s Greatest Hits, Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass for example. It’s uncanny, and doesn’t matter where you are in the country. It’s because everybody bought those records. Or at least the people that bought records did. 1989 may be the last record of that lineage, and the only person or album that might have a chance at besting or repeating this deed would be Taylor Swift in two years when she releases her next one. It was Taylor Swift’s last album Red that 1989 broke the record for a debut week initially, until the tally of 1989 sales started to reach past 1.25 million, and we had to go all the way back to 2002′s The Eminem Show to find a peer. That is an illustration of how Taylor Swift truly is the artist of a generation, even before factoring music’s dramatic sales slide. And the fact she accomplished all of this after declaring herself no longer country is a footnote worth not glossing over.
How did she do it? The Spotify embargo helped, but she also did it by showing love to the physical format. The cover of Swift’s 1989 is fairly nondescript, but purposely so, and you can almost squint and tell how over time it could become iconic with its retro attitude. But it really was the little treats Taylor Swift put inside each package that made her many fans and even passers by decide to go physical. In each package is a card that enters listeners into a sweepstakes for a chance to meet Taylor Swift. A Willy Wonka golden ticket so to speak. It also comes with a little package that says “Photos” that includes 13 cards, or mock Polaroids of Taylor Swift, each numbered as part of a bigger sequence, with the lyrics to songs scribbled in Sharpie on the bottom.
This all gives a physical representation to the incredible amount of social traffic Taylor Swift generates. It’s something tangible that separates her from the virtual stars of today. Like the spinning cover of Led Zepplin’s III‘s original album cover where you could change what’s peeking through the windows, it shows imagination, and effort.
The problem with 1989 though is that it is just not a very good album. Country, or not. The analogy employed for Taylor Swift albums by this country music critic for her previous releases was that of an Italian food critic sent to a Chinese restaurant, and asked to judge the Chinese food … as Italian food. Clearly the result would be a failing grade, and that is what Taylor Swift received, regardless of how good the music was as pop. But judging it as pop music specifically, it was hard to not admit that the music had its moments, and its depth and value.
1989 has some depth too, and some value here and there, but overall you feel like you’re getting the worst of all those older Taylor Swift albums—the unabashed pandering to the public at large in smash singles, and some of the self-ingratiating sentimentality—all condensed into one. There are respites, and as Taylor Swift says herself, this is the most cohesive album she’s ever made sonically, and that may be true. But I’m not sure that is something to be boasting about when this is the result.
Taylor Swift’s 1989 could have been great, and you get a sense that it almost was. The idea of this retro, 25-year throwback perspective personified in new music is probably a worthy one. That 25-year marker is thrown around regularly as the measurement of when music of the previous generation reaches its apex of emotional virility and maximum memory response in its listeners. Before the 25-year window, the music feels unfashionable. Beyond it, and it feels outmoded. 25 years is the sweet spot, and that is why country music is seeing a revival of its “Class of ’89″ artists like the recently-unretired Garth Brooks, and Alan Jackson who is going on a 25-year Anniversary tour.
25 years ago was a big time in country music, or at least the time of a big freshman class. But what about pop? 1989 was the year of Milli Vanilli. The 80′s were already an era of music that would be called lost by some, and laughable by others. Why does a lot of commercial country today sound like bad 80′s hair metal? Why did Taylor Swift’s Big Machine record label release a Mötley Crüe tribute album this year? Because it hits on that 25-year sweet spot. But hair metal and Milli Vanilli were godawful, just like much of 80′s music.
If you wanted to look for what has withstood the test of time from the 80′s era of pop, you look to New Wave, and one hit wonders. Yes, this was the era when synthesized music took hold in earnest, but it was also the time of tantalizing melodies and arrangement—guilty pleasures for Audiophiles and ear worms galore for the masses. And we’ve already seen Taylor Swift tap into this retro music magic, and rather successfully ahead of the 1989 release.
A song like “Enchanted” from Taylor Swift’s 2010 album Speak Now has that 80′s synth pop thing going strong. On 2012′s Red, a perfect example of this is the song “Starlight.” And the single that preceded this album called “Sweeter Than Fiction” that appeared on the soundtrack of the film One Chance also found Taylor Swift revitalizing the New Wave vibes that marked some of the best moments of 80′s pop, and doing it with Jack Antonoff as producer—the guitar player for the band Fun, and the man who also co-wrote and produced two songs for 1989, including one of the lead singles, “Out of the Woods.”
Listening to “Sweeter Than Fiction” and some of Swift’s other synth-pop songs from the past, you though that if this was the direction 1989 took, the results could be quite tantalizing. Taylor has proven to be adept at re-imagining the 80′s. But I hate to say, this album did not take that direction, really whatsoever. If “Sweeter Than Fiction,” or even “Starlight” or “Enchanted” were included on this album, they would immediately become the best tracks by far. One of the surprising things about 1989 is how much it resides solidly in the here and now, startlingly so. There’s not really any retro vibe. Instead we get Max Martin/Shellback smash single formulas, a fairly lackluster, unimaginative, and disappointing performance by Jack Antonoff, and only a few songs that really simulate any intrigue to the discerning ear.
1989, just like the year itself, is sort of a bore. The cohesiveness of the album eliminates any spice or suspense. The modes of production are transparent, and the melodies are rendered powerless by rhythmic seizures, excessive repetitiveness, and poor decision making in the composition. This album is just kind of a mess in places, guessing at what might make a song a smash hit instead of doing the inspiration justice.
It’s been the assertion by Saving Country Music that all popular music is slowly transitioning to simply being noise scientifically formulated to stimulate the highest possible dopamine response in the brain. Swedish hitmakers Max Martin and Shellback—who joined Taylor’s team at the behest of Scott Borchetta during Red—are the precursors to this impending era. They were responsible for Red‘s three huge pop hits, but like Taylor accurately picked up on, their compositions came out of nowhere on that album, like interjections to the listener, and hurt her overall effort, regardless of the success of the songs themselves. She avoids that same mistake here, but unfortunately she does it by enacting this Max Martin/Shellback composition-by-formula across the board on these 13 tracks.
Whatever the original melodies to these songs were, we’ll never know. Taylor herself has probably forgotten them already. I have little doubt most of the words are her own. But then she brought them into the studio, was asked to sing them a certain way, and then they were summarily dumped into a sound file, cut and pasted like text from a Wikipedia page into a student’s history report, and then used as the producers wished to craft what they believed would be infectious patterns for mega hits. The result is that any and all inspiration behind the songs has been scrubbed from the performances. Taylor Swift’s words and voice are just another sonic elements to fit into a pre-arranged composition optimized for mass consumption. The curly-haired awkward girl sitting in her bedroom writing down her feelings while playing her acoustic guitar was not only lost in this process, she was murdered.
What’s the most shocking about this is that we can expect this kind of behavior from the music cretins like Max Martin and Shellback, who along with Joey Moi and other producers are really at the heart of destroying American popular music. But Jack Antonoff of Fun, and Ryan Tedder—the OneRepublic frontman who also co-writes and produces a couple of songs on this album—seem so eager to play ball with this formulaic approach. This was possibly the fatal flaw of bringing in Max Martin on not just as a songwriter and producer, but as the executive producer of the project. Everything was exposed to his corrupting mandibles, aside from maybe the song “This Love” that Swift did with her long-time original producer Nathan Chapman.
In fact the guest producers do such a poor job and this album is such a lowering of the bar overall, the songs that shine the brightest are arguably the ones Max Martin and Shellback had the heaviest hand in—a complete role reversal from Red. Even Imogen Heap’s contribution on the final track “Clean” feels tired, forced, and unimaginative. However, this is nothing close to praise of the Swedish pair. It’s just happens to be that a few of the songs they didn’t completely suffocate the melodies or ruin the songs with rhythmic pap, though many of them they still did.
The song “Style” works well as a modern pop song, and the theme about being classic and above style trends is really smart, while the song also conveys the story of a passionate romance. The other standout of the album is “How You Get the Girl.” Despite being hamstrung by the annoyingly-rhythmic confusion at the beginning of the song, it rallies to evidence one of the most catchy moments on an album that is curiously lacking in them for a pop project. “This Love”—the only solo write by Swift on the entire album and produced by Nathan Chapman—is alright, but is a little too flat and Enya-like to hold the attention for very long, even though for once on this album you get the sense you’re listening to something very personal.
Other songs like “All You Had To Do Was Stay” would have been good, buy why, why choose to put some ridiculous banshee yawp enhancement on the final “stay” of every phrase to take a perfectly fine pop song and make it polarizing? “Wildest Dreams,” “I Wish You Would,” are just okay, and don’t even get me started with the album’s lead singles: “Shake It Off,” “Out of the Woods,” and “Welcome To New York.” These songs are just bullshit. “Out of the Woods” can’t be saved by the inclusion of a personal narrative because it is simply caustic to the ears with its rhythmically disjointed repetitiveness. “Bad Blood” is downright annoying. The entire project is so racked with poor rhythm decisions, repeated words and sounds, Shellback loading up Taylor Swift’s voice in a memory bank and playing it back on a MIDI controller like a Moog, it’s just objectionable to the ear in many places. 1989 is the worst album Taylor Swift has every made.
But how about the words, is there any redemption here? Sure, maybe. But once again we’re asked to praise Taylor Swift the songwriter when her words have been buried beneath layers of synthesizer beds and over-production that screams out for the predominant attention, while the lead single of the album is built around the vacuous “Players gonna play, and haters gonna hate” über cliché of our era. If Taylor Swift wants respect as a lyricist, she needs to put the material out front that flatters these attributes, not that refutes them. Yes, there are some good lines, and good sentiments on 1989‘s lyrical set. But we’re not seeing Taylor Swift evolve. When she was fifteen, we were amazed at the maturity and self-awareness she embedded in her cute little pop songs. Now you’re starting to wonder if and how her fame has stunted her emotional development.
That doesn’t mean songs like “Wildest Dreams,” “This Love,” and “I Know Places” don’t have a little something. But songs like “Blank Space” and “Bad Blood” come across as immature and self-indulgent. Let’s not forget that Taylor Swift is still only 24. But where before she was a 15-year-old writing as a 24-year-old, now it feels like she’s a 24-year-old writing as an 18-year-old in segments of this album.
Where does 1989 rate when it comes to the great pop albums of this generation? It’s fate is probably secured in being considered top grade simply because of its commercial performance. Hell, the City of New York has already named Swift their “ambassador” for the next two years based off of 1989‘s lead song and Swift buying and apartment in Manhattan. But I’m sorry to say, “Welcome to New York” as a song offers nothing. At all. 1989 held up against Lorde’s Pure Heroine, or Adele’s 21, or even taking a further step back and looking at Nelly Furtado’s Loose for example, and you feel like it would be patently unfair to compare those projects to what Taylor Swift has offered up here. It’s more on par with Ke$ha’s Animal—simply a collection of digital production performances and studio magic with some flashes of fair writing.
Swift seems to think that to loosen the bonds of country, she had to completely go away from instrumentation. Virtually the entirety of 1989 was sequenced on Mac computers, and you can feel that in the results. Yet you listen to where the rest of pop music is headed, and you see it beginning to favor instrumentation more and more, like the standup bass in Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” that has consistently bested Swift’s “Shake It Off” in the charts.
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There are some decent moments on this album, and I don’t want to downplay this opinion. And I would be interested in hearing the songs that did not make the cut, as I’m sure there were many fleshed out in the studio that we’re not getting a chance to hear.
But it’s over. That young girl with big dreams and an acoustic guitar sitting on the edge of her bed writing silly little heartfelt songs that became America’s sweetheart has become just a franchise name for dubious-intentioned producers to do with what they will. Max Martin finished the job in 1989 he started on Red. The fact that Taylor Swift still writes most of her lyrics is simply a facade that she has complete control over what is transpiring, misleading not just her fans and the public, but more disappointingly, herself. The problem with money and success is that you can always have more of it, and this is usually where the compromising of principles occurs, trying to best records you’ve already broken. When you attain goals by reaching outside yourself, the losses are greater than the gains.
1989 does not represent the year Taylor Swift was born, it represents the moment her music died as a form of her original expression.
1 1/2 of 2 Guns Down.
If 2013 was the “Year of the Woman” in country music, 2014 may go down as the “Year of the Fall.” Along with a troika of notable tumbles by Luke Bryan in 2014, Garth Brooks has now bit it on a couple of occasions during his comeback tour. It first happened on Friday, September 5th as his “Garth Experience” was just getting under way in Chicago. The 52-year-old entertainer took a spill and stopped himself only inches from going off the edge of the stage like his hat did. Then this Friday during his Halloween show in Lexington, KY at the Rupp Arena, Brooks took another tumble, but this one involved some extenuating circumstances.
Garth’s stage setup on the tour has more gadgets than a Swiss Army knife. It breathes fire, shoots lasers, belches smoke, has retractable video screens, endless lights, and a glowing “orb” as a centerpiece. Apparently another feature of the stage is some sort of conveyor belt-type device, or a couple of them running opposite ways that work like a suped-up people mover at an airport, rushing Garth from one side of the stage to the other.
While in the midst of singing his cover of Aerosmith’s “Fever” from his 1995 album Fresh Horses, it appears Garths loses his footing on the one conveyor belt, making him accidentally put his foot on the other conveyor belt running the opposite way, and ends up sending him careening out of control. Luckily he recovered quick enough to strike a pre-planned Run-D.M.C. crossed-arm pose with his fiddle player to finish the song.
Earlier that morning, Garth was in Nashville giving music press and industry insiders a sneak peak at his new album Man Against Machine scheduled to be released on November 11th. “Anybody who knows us knows we’ve never named an album after a song, but for some reason this is how it’s been for us since the start of thinking about coming back into music. A lot of things have changed and it’s all up hill,” Garth said. In this instance, it appears the machine won out against man.
Mostly known by industry types as a songwriter whose pen to paper has resulted in some very memorable cuts, including the recent Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers duet “You Can’t Make Old Friends,” one of the most recognizable songs from ABC’s drama Nashville called “Don’t Put Dirt On My Graves Just Yet,” and even some songs from bigger names such as Jason Aldean and Lady Antebellum, Caitlyn Smith steps out from the songwriting shadows to release a seven song EP full of wide ranging emotions, slickly-penned sentiments, and spectacular vocal performances worthy of wider attention.
When you talk about an artist known as a songwriter first, you tend to look for the strength in the lyric. But Caitliyn Smith is very much a multi-tool performer, and her vocals can rival any in country music’s top tier, and she’s a great musician as well. Her style is very sensible—country pop in the traditional sense, with rising choruses, juicy melodies, and familiar themes of love, loss, and hope. But similar to how Caitlyn Smith songs are the ones artists and managers gravitate toward when they’re looking for something with more body beyond a smash radio hit, instilled in all of Caitlyn’s work is a sincerity, authenticity, and the ends of country roots sticking out from the surface.
Though it may be a stretch to call this Everything To You EP traditional, the amount of banjo on this album is surprising, and really comprises the sonic base for a few of these songs. And I’m not talking about the six-string version of the banjo with a Stratocaster head stock and flames painted down the side, these are songs bred from inspiration, not formula, even if a few songwriting hands were employed before calling them finished. Fiddle and mandolin float in and out as well, as does some heavier guitar riffs when the composition calls for it. But really the focus of Everything To You is squarely on Caitlyn, her songs, and her voice, which is where it should be, and this is where this album will build its greatest consensus amongst listeners with country sensibilities.
Everything To You starts out with the driving “Fever” with its two-part chorus and towering requests for Caitlyn to immediately hit top-register notes and nail them, which she does with ease. This leads into the more subdued and acoustic “Dream Away”—an empowering testament about sticking to your dreams; something Caitlyn can speak about from the experience of being a small town girl from Minnesota desiring to be a songwriter and now singing along to some of her co-writes on the radio.
“Wasting All These Tears” takes a more somber pitch, almost like a jilted Taylor Swift song from earlier in her career, then the autobiographical “Everything To You” immediately shifts gears to a more happier tone. “Grown Woman” finds Caitlyn evoking the common “I’m a woman, hear me roar” attitude we’ve been hearing often from mainstream women, while the yearning and wrenching of “Novocaine” cuts at the listener’s emotional stability. The album ends with the thankful and sweet “All My Lovers” about Caitlyn finding her way to her husband.
Though Everything To You never turns you off, it never really takes any chances either, or sails into the uncharted waters beyond the familiar harbors of co-write country. The songs all seem to authentically emanate from Caitlyn’s life story and this feels like a very personal album, but you can’t escape the feeling that you’ve heard a version of some of these songs before. Slick arrangements, production, and instrumentation make Everything To You accessible, though not necessarily challenging. However Caitlyn Smith and Everything To You very much embody the idea that there are artists out there with mainstream-caliber chops who if just given a chance could shift country in a more substantive, and even sustainable direction.
2013 was considered by many to be the “Year of The Woman” in country music from the concentration of forward-thinking and nourishing projects proffered to the public by females who could nip at the edges of the mainstream, but still find friendly ears in the independent world. Caitlyn Smith may be a year too late to be considered in that class, but she belongs with the other ladies of country music leadership trying to keep at least a modicum of respect in the genre, even if those women struggle compared with their male counterparts in chart performance and cash flow.
Before Garth Brooks decided to go with “People Loving People” as his first single after coming out of retirement, another song on his new album called “Tacoma”—written by Caitlyn Smith and Bob DiPiero—was scheduled to be the return single. Only stands to reason “Tacoma” will be released as a single eventually, and with the timely release of this EP, it very well may deliver an extra bit of interest to a well-deserving and hard working songwriter with a voice worthy of much more than the audience listening song pitches on demo tapes.
1 1/2 of 2 Guns Up.
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The signs continue to point towards the country music radio format officially splitting in two, with Top 40 country, and “Icon” country covering music from as far back as the 80′s vying for equal share of the country music listenership. The primary impetus for the split has been Cumulus Media’s NASH Icon radio network. As the second-largest radio station owner in the United States, the Cumulus influence is already causing landmark rifts on radio, with their new NASH Icon station in Nashville beating Clear Channel’s powerhouse WSIX.
But if country radio is truly going to split in two, it is going to take the participation of local and regionally-owned radio stations all across the country adopting the new format. Remember, it wasn’t NASH Icon and Cumulus who launched the first radio station under the new proposed format. It was 103.9 The Hawk out of Louisville, KY, that began by calling itself GARTH-FM. Now another local radio station has switched to the new country format, and the verbiage accompanying the format change shows just how much sway NASH Icon is having on country radio land.
101.5 Hank FM out of Dayton, OH, owned by Alpha Media, announced on October 16th it would be switching formats to “iconic hit country music from the 90’s, 80’s and 2000’s” that promises to “differentiate itself by playing the iconic artists absent from Dayton radio—musicians that made country music popular—such as Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, George Strait, Reba McEntire, Shania Twain and Brooks & Dunn.”
“101.5 Hank FM is being launched because we miss the ‘golden era’ of country music and we know that a lot of people in Dayton do too,” says the station’s Program Director, Brad Waldo.
“The wise decision to add Hank FM in Dayton becomes part of the foundation to help increase our value as a cluster in the market,” says Alpha Media Executive VP of Programming, Scott Mahalick. “The Icons of Country format connects us to a passionate and underserved audience that continues to grow.”
The Portland, Oregon-based Alpha Media owns a total of 70 radio stations across the country, and is just the type of mid-sized radio company that could play a critical role in eventually splitting country radio in two. And yes, one can’t help but notice the use of “Icon” in their communication about the changeover, signaling that this may eventually be the terminology that gets adopted for the new format, since “classic” (one of the original terms used) never felt like a good fit for a format the doesn’t venture past 1980.
One big difference between Hank FM and NASH Icon is that Hank doesn’t play any new music, making it more enticing for classic country fans. NASH Icon affiliates still play many new singles from country’s current Top 40 artists.
It will take some time for the new “Icon” format to shake out and reveal exactly what it will sound like after all the dust settles, and seeing different stations take variations on the same theme is probably a healthy thing, as program directors across the country monitor ratings and see which approach is working best and what their local market wants to hear. As we have already seen with NASH Icon, not only is the format faring well, it is also attracting new listeners to country radio, or re-engaging old ones, meaning it’s not just simply cannibalizing the stations that already exist, growing the country music pie that much more.
It’s also worth pointing out that the moniker “Hank FM” is not foreign to country music. Numerous more traditionally-oriented radio stations use that name, including 92.1 Hank FM in North Texas, and 98.3 Hank FM in Savannah, GA.
Hank FM is just one station, but once again we see the new idea of older country music taking hold on the airwaves.
With the rise in popularity of country music recently comes a rise in both the demand and prices for concert tickets. And with so many sold out shows and high-priced tickets comes the opportunity for counterfeiters to take advantage of fans looking for entry to see their favorite artists. Counterfeit concert tickets are on the rise in country music, and fans are being taken advantage of more than ever before as they resort to the secondary market and rely on sites like Craigslist to get tickets.
27-year-old Geoffrey Dean Minton from Tampa, Florida is currently sitting in the Hillsborough County jail on $20,000 bail after being arrested on Tuesday (10-14) on six counts of grand theft, eight counts of possessing forged documents, and two counts of communications fraud. The charges stem from a sting local police set up after Minton sold at least two separate parties counterfeit tickets to Luke Bryan’s concert at the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre on Sept. 28, according to tampabay.com.
Both parties who purchased tickets from Minton on Craigslist took pictures of his drivers license and noted his license plate during the purchases that were originally set up through a Craigslist ad. “If these are fake, I’m going to find you and you’re going to pay for this,” Chris Vazquez, one of the frauded patrons told Minton at the time of the purchase. Sure enough, when Vazquez arrived at the Luke Bryan concert, just like another concertgoer Marvin Mendez who purchased four tickets from Geoffrey Minton for $400, they were told they were counterfeit.
This prompted Tampa police to set up a sting for the Jason Aldean concert on Oct. 10th at the same Tampa venue. Officers arrested Geoffrey Minton in a CVS parking lot where he set up a meeting with a local ticket broker as part of the sting. He was found with eight counterfeit Jason Aldean concert tickets in his car. Police know of an additional five victims of Geoffrey Minton’s counterfeiting, but think there could be as many as a dozen.
Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean have been country concert counterfeiter’s favorite artists, due partly to the fact that their sold out shows send floods of fans looking for tickets on the secondary market that are willing to pay top dollar.
On Saturday, September 6th, West Springfield, CT police arrested two men for allegedly selling counterfeit tickets to the Luke Bryan concert at Hartford’s Xfinity Theatre. At the time, the concert was sold out. A man sold a family four tickets for nearly $700. Since the tickets were made of card stock, were perforated, and had bar codes, the family wasn’t worried. But with the sophistication of today’s counterfeiter’s, seeing is not always believing.
This summer’s tour with Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line also faced counterfeiting issues. On August 29th, a New York City man by the name of Cy Ismeal Rivera was arrested at a mall in Albany, NY for selling fake tickets to the Jason Aldean / Florida Georgia Line concert at Saratoga Performing Arts Center. Police contacted the man on Craigslist and offered to purchase six tickets. When they met the man at the local mall and confirmed the tickets were counterfeit, they arrested him on charges of first-degree “scheme to defraud.”
The Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple Sr. later posted on Facebook, “Attention!!! This is a warning to those of you who feel the need to jump on those $10 buses and travel from downstate to the Capital District to try and prey upon us ole’ country folk here in upstate…..our investigators will find you just like we did today when your friend travelled up here to sell my investigators fake tickets for Jason Aldean. Dozens of people have been scammed to date, and we now have the subject responsible!”
On May 28th, three people were arrested in Farmville, North Carolina for selling counterfeit tickets to a Luke Bryan concert in Raleigh on June 7th at the Walnut Creek Ampitheatre. Greenville, NC residents Michael Corrigan, Martin Luna Jr. and Russell Brooks were charged with obtaining property by false pretense and felony conspiracy.
In September of 2013, four people were arrested at a hotel in Green Tree, NY for selling fake Luke Bryan tickets to a concert at the First Niagara Pavilion. According to Green Tree Police Chief Bob Downey, the counterfeiters were selling tickets at a price of $300 for two, and $600 for four. After one group of individuals bought counterfeit tickets from the sellers on Craigslist and realized they’d been duped, they arranged to purchase more ticket and brought police with them. Four men from the Bronx were arrested. “Some of the equipment that we found in their possession was indicative of a counterfeit-making operation,” Police Chief Downey said. A total of 20 people were believed to be scammed in the operation.
Scalping and scamming are symptoms of the high demand for country concert tickets at shows that sometimes sell out within a matter of minutes. Eric Church has been actively taking on scalpers during his current concert tour, warning them “Don’t even mess with us.” Meanwhile the desire to keep ticket prices down and make sure everyone gets a seat is the strategy behind Garth Brooks’ current world tour where he’s played as many as eight concerts in the same location, including multiple concerts on the same day. The idea is simply to to flood the market with tickets so scalpers and scammers have limited demand. Because of this, the price for Garth tickets on the secondary market has been staying closer to face value for many of the concert stops.
In March, Ticketmaster posted a notice to fans of how to spot counterfeit tickets. “With many high-demand shows throughout the summer, it’s important for us to remind you about counterfeit tickets,” the ticket selling giant said. “We have heard heartbreaking and devastating stories from fans that didn’t make it into a big show and were turned away at the door with counterfeit tickets. We don’t want this to happen to you!”
Forget that now the last six Toby Keith singles in a row very heavily involve drinking— that’s “Beers Ago,” “Red Solo Cup,” “Hope on the Rocks,” “I Like Girls That Drink Beer,” and “Drinks After Work” for those of you counting at home—this is a song with a message dammit!
I can just hear this thing playing in the background as superimposed stomping Budweiser Clydesdales go trailing off into the ether, while the foreground fills with a Dallas Cowboys fan and a Washington Redskins fan hugging it out in slo mo while their brats burn on the tailgate-sized barbecue during an instant replay television timeout. Because no matter what our differences, no matter our disparate backgrounds, our differing beliefs, our skin color, sexual persuasion, or even our choice of headgear, we can all come together and enjoy the splendid beauty of American over-consumption and the chronic addictions it breeds.
“Drunk Americans” from a musical standpoint is a swaying sea chanty of a pub singalong whose catchiness and anthemic nature is questionable enough to make you wonder if its desired effect of getting an entire bar room singing in unison will ever be realized, let alone if radio programmers will give it any more than a strong sniff simply because of whose name is attached to it. Hats off for the inclusion of banjo and even accordion in this song, but “Drunk Americans” is still songwriting by committee and formula, relying on the often-trodden out trope of juxtaposed opposites shoved together to create contrast that however witty in places, still feels a bit tired, to where not even a key change 2/3rds of the way through really gives you hope that this song will stick in any significant way in the craw of the American zeitgeist. Then again this is America, and as has been proven time and time again, success can be bought.
This song is not bad. There’s certainly worse. But what makes it a little difficult to stomach is this idyllic, hopeful picture it paints of the American reality that is so far off the mark, it is the equivalent of taking your bar dart, aiming for the bullseye, but landing it in the eye of some unlucky patron stumbling out of the men’s room. Sorry, but America is as polarized, untrusting, and closed-minded of its fellow citizens as it has ever been in its history save for The Civil War, especially when disturbed minds become even more lubricated by the aid of alcoholic libations. America in the fall of 2014 is the virtual equivalent to a bar brawl—from the suburbs of St. Louis, to state houses, to football stadiums, to country music concerts. We’re all pissed off at people who are different from us.
I understand that the hope is a song like this will open people’s eyes and inspire them to set aside differences, but the deep problem here is that this song is acting like this is the current reality, as opposed what should be yearned for. Yes, reactionary polarization is tearing the American ideal apart at the seams, and anyone who attempts to take up a contrary position to this trend should be commended. But attempting to veil this message in alcohol, like the spoon full of sugar to help the medicine go down, is both transparent and ineffective. We hate each other, and instead of truly working to resolving this issue, “Drunk Americans” simply reminds us of the fact that we’re a 50/50 nation scribbling Hitler mustaches on any one who may disagree with us, and seeking out media that simply reinforces our one-sided reality-tunneled perspectives. And let’s not forget our raging alcohol problem.
“Drunk Americans” was written by hot independent/traditional songwriting commodity Brandy Clark, and her regular sidekick and songwriting genius Shane McAnally, along with Bob DiPiero. Brandy says about the song, “You see that title and you think, ‘Oh, it’s a drinking song,’ which it is, but I hope that people can listen to it and see that it’s really an American song.” That is, unless you’re an American that doesn’t drink, which is roughly 1/3 of the population, many of which had previous problems with the sauce, or are banned from doing so by edict from the bench. That is what’s so great about the classic version of the country drinking song. By looking at both sides of the drinking coin, not just the party time aspect, country music truly built a universal consensus in the listener through shared experiences. Now country music has become a vehicle for the same polarization this song attempts to decry.
The approach of this song feels somewhat like “Follow Your Arrow” 2.0, or a different version of Garth’s misguided “People Loving People.” It is trying to save the world through song, so it’s hard to fault it too harshly. But how about simply feeling a human emotion, and then expressing that through song without the taint of rewrites and tweaks over Skype sessions to craft a song into something commercially accessible? Whatever soul this song has feels drained, the chorus and melody feel a little flat, and unfortunately I’m just not hearing the catchiness it would take to even be a big commercial hit.
“Drunk Americans” tries to be sobering, but it’s kind of just a drunken mess.
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1 1/4 of 2 Guns Down.
It has been a long-standing theory here at Saving Country Music that when country music became hyper commercialized in the 90′s with artists like Garth Brooks and the rest of the “Class of ’89,” it was young punk rockers that picked up the authentic spirit of country music and kept it alive. Whether it was the gang of artists that revitalized Lower Broadway in Nashville like BR549, Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, and Joe Buck, or the Bloodshot Records gang with The Old 97′s, Neko Case, and Whiskeytown with front man Ryan Adams, this was where it felt like the soul of country music resided when it was abandoned by Music Row.
Ryan Adams was one of the unquestionable leaders of this punk-infused country music “insurgent country” conquest, and that is why it was so disconcerting to read recently that apparently he not only does not like country music, but he apparently never has, never really cared about it even when he was playing it, and certainly doesn’t want anything to do with it now. And no, this is not some indictment of what mainstream country music has become and wanting to distance from it. This is a straight up, unequivocal repudiation of any association with what country music is or has ever been.
The quotes come from a lengthy feature on Buzzfeed that was published in early September ahead of the release of Ryan Adams’ self-titled 14th studio release, but was brought to the attention of Saving Country Music by Country California in their weekly quotation roundup.
Here’s the Ryan Adams quote:
There’s this wrong idea about me being identified with things that are Southern or country. I do not fucking like country music and I don’t own any of it. I watched ‘Hee-Haw’ as a kid with my grandmother, I only like country music as an irony. I liked it when I would get drunk … I suppose playing country music felt like learning how to build a beautiful bookshelf or something. There was a certain amount of honesty that had to be there and it had to hurt. I loved the discipline of that. It reminded me of the challenge of playing punk rock. But me playing country music … it was a false face. It was style appropriation.
Granted, Ryan Adams made an entire career of being a petulant, drug-infused, self-destructive wing nut, making purposefully-stupid career moves, and mouthing off to crowds and firing band members in an attempt to grow his legacy by leaving a wake of destruction. But most, if not all of that appears to be behind him now, and we have no other recourse than to believe this is the sober-eyed truth of Ryan’s sentiments towards country music.
So the next question is, what is a country music fan, or a Ryan Adams fan that likes country music, including the country music he once made, supposed to feel about this new insight? I would tend to agree that later in his career, including with his latest album, that people have attempted to equate Ryan’s music with country, or at least alt-country, when there’s really no solid sonic basis for it. But his quotes offer up such revisionist history that I can’t help but think I will never be able to enjoy those Whiskeytown releases and his early solo stuff with the same zeal now that he’s let it be known that it was all done as “irony,” and that apparently when it comes to country music he doesn’t own “any of it.”
What about those landmark Ryan Adams collaborations with Willie Nelson? Ryan produced and performed on Willie’s 2006 album Songbird. How about the Lost Highwaymen performance? Was that all for irony? Don’t you think that when you produce a Willie Nelson album and play country and alt-country for a dozen years it is a little unfair to get angry at people if they associate you with it? To say you like country music only as an “irony” alludes that you believe that it’s not only not right for you, but that it is an inferior art form.
And it’s not just the country music fan inside of people that is disappointed by these revelations. How are we supposed to take any of Ryan Adams’ music seriously? Certainly there can be some irony in music without it completely losing its authenticity, especially in country music. But these Ryan Adams quotes, these are fighting words. This isn’t just clicking delete on the Ryan Adams block in iTunes, these are quotes that merit serious consideration of crossing swords with this dude as a country music fan. I don’t think I’ve ever seen as an inflammatory indictment of country coming from a former proprietor of it, ever. There are rappers out there that have more respect for country music than what Ryan Adams evidences in these quotes.
And apparently this isn’t the first time Ryan Adams has articulated his hatred for country music. “I hate country music, always have,” Ryan said on his blog in April of 2008. “…I cannot stand country music one bit.”
Read More: Ryan Adams Slams Country Music Mecca | http://theboot.com/ryan-adams-slams-country-music-mecca/?trackback=tsmclip
I understand if Ryan Adams wants to disassociate himself with country music or wants to clarify that his music shouldn’t be considered it. But don’t throw out the baby with the bath water. Ryan’s close approximations of country music is what put him on the map, and it seems like he should have a little more respect for the music that made him, and the fans that enjoy it.
I feel like I’ve been stabbed in the back.
On Friday (10-3) Garth Brooks unveiled the cover art and title to his first album in 14 years called Man Against Machine set to be released on November 11th through RCA/Pearl, and almost immediately the cover and accompanying quote had the country music populous buzzing. Garth strikes a much different pose on the Man Against Machine cover than we’re used to from him, almost like the image you would see of a wrestler right after he switches from the good side to the bad—all in black with a tough and defiant countenance. Even more interesting is the quote offered up with the album announcement.
“Music has always been a reflection of where mankind is at the time. For 14 years, I have watched heart and soul, dreams and individualism, fighting for their very existence in a world of increasing technology. This album is a reminder to all those who dream, work, and fight for what they believe; do not give up your vision.”
So wait a second here, what exactly is Garth Brooks saying?
Ever since Garth Brooks began hinting at his comeback, country music pundits have been hypothesizing about what type of impact Garth’s return could have on the music. Would he be the one to save country music by returning a more traditional sound to the top of the mainstream? And wouldn’t this be ironic since many finger Garth as the one who started country music on its downward spiral? Garth has already iterated that he won’t be chasing trends like Bro-Country or hick hop. But maybe he does have lofty plans for his triumphant return beyond simply re-starting his career. The Garth quote certainly seems to allude to this. But it also seems to allude to a much deeper, and more difficult charge.
Embedded in this Garth quote and in the very title and cover art to his new album seems to be a belligerent war cry against the technology which has sent the entire music industry, not just country, into an economic tailspin, sapping the revenue that recorded music can generate, and tying up courts in endless rights cases that ultimately will decide the future of how music is monetized, if it is allowed to be. In other words, Garth Brooks with this proclamation isn’t just looking to save country music, he’s looking to save music in general.
Technology and the advent of music downloading and now music streaming has created a dilemma of historic, and potentially momentous proportions as the industry teeters on solvency and struggles to figure out how to sustainably monetize streaming. Even with the meager revenues music is generating, massive companies like Apple are looking to re-negotiate rates even lower for music. What is Garth’s plan for solving all of this? His GhostTunes alternative to iTunes has been laughed at by many technologists, but it remains uncertain if Garth is truly wanting to change the music buying paradigm with the new technology, or simply to offer a digital alternative for his own music specifically without all the trappings of iTunes (the inability to sell albums cohesively, and the ability to bundle products).
It may be November 11th before we learn the full breath of Garth Brooks’ plans, or at least how successful they are. But in the meantime the cover for his new album presents its own curiosities and discussion points, principally, what the hell is going on here? Garth seems so out-of-place within himself—even for Garth. He’s always been flattered with his face on a cover, but the image presents this weird, almost anachronistic vision that is in opposition to the ball cap and hoodie Garth we’ve gotten used to over the last dozen years, and makes even more of an oddity out of the song he chose for the album’s lead single “People Loving People” which sets its eyes on world peace (but can’t even crack the Top 20 in country radio play yet).
1. Sunglasses — What seemingly every aging celebrity who refuses to face their own dwindling time on earth dons as if it’s ageless armor.
2. Goatee — The dead giveaway of the average white male trying to be edgy.
3. Crossed Arms — We’ve all seen Garth Brooks lately, and his 14-year retirement has made him somewhat doughy. Yet he crosses his arms here, and his forearms look like Popeye’s, and his pectoral muscles look toned. We know better, Garth.
4. UnderArmour-Style Stretch Shirt — Please. Garth Brooks doesn’t need to be sporting anything with over 40% Spandex material content.
5. Phiten Necklace — Regularly seen being worn by professional baseball players, 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. Phiten necklaces have become a favorite of Garth recently (even stimulating this fake story from SCM about Garth’s hope of their powers).
6. Menacing Cogs & Sprockets in the Background — Almost like they’re coming to get Garth, and Garth is standing tough.
7. Mud-Spattered Font — To again project this tough guy image.
8. Big Black Cowboy Hat — The only thing that feels appropriate to both Garth, and a country album cover.
Is Garth Brooks, Garth Brooks, really trying to present himself as some anti-industry tough-skinned rebel rouser, or dare I say, a country music Outlaw? Especially after years of being one of the most commercially-centric music artists the world has ever seen? Or is something else entirely going on here, where instead of fighting the industry (i.e. “The Machine”), Garth is actually fighting for the industry by trying to return its ability to monetize its products, and the “Machine” is technology that has eroded those revenue channels and rewarded the public with free music? Or is it something in-between, where Garth sees both the plight of the industry, and the artists who’ve fallen under one of the most authoritarian regimes country music has ever seen because of the constrains the technology paradigm has put the industry under? Is Garth Brooks calling out the “Machines” such as Auto-Tuners and electronic drum sequencers that have blighted the country music landscape with digital intrusions?
Whatever the case may be, and we’re sure to find out soon enough, once again Garth appears to be a little off when it comes to the presentation. The album cover just presents Garth as slightly out of touch to the styling and sensibilities of today. It’s very late 90′s feeling, done in a wrestling motif. And it bolsters the concern that Garth may be surrounded by yes men who don’t have the guts to give him the constructive criticism he needs like saying, “Garth, how about you go with a little bit more understated cover, and let the music speak for itself?”
If nothing else, Garth Brooks and Man Against Machine promise to be nothing but interesting.
“And the thunder rolls…”
We’ve all been wondering how rusty Garth Brooks would be after 13 years of retirement, and if he would try to emulate the young pups once he was back on the stage. Well Garth Brooks looked a little shaky when he took a spill over the weekend during one of his many comeback shows in Chicago, doing his best Luke Bryan rendition of losing his footing while bounding off a riser, going into a Garth Brooks chub roll that he tried to make look like a football drill or commando maneuver before stopping himself mere inches from falling off the ledge. Garth may have not gone over, but his black cowboy hat did. It was later recovered by a fan, who must have really had to contemplate the eBay value of the concert score before willingly submitting it back to the country superstar.
The fall happened on Friday, September 5th as the 52-year old plays a series of shows in Chicago stretching out all the way to September 14th as part of his “Garth Experience” World Tour. Of course Garth was too cool to acknowledge the fall, and instead brushed himself off and kept right on with the concert. Garth may have to get used to the new reality of playing concerts with 50,000 video cameras holstered to the belt of his fans. He’ll be fine, but we’ll have to see how well the aging Garth holds up as time goes on. Many of his Chicago dates include two shows a night—a tall order for a freshly unretired performer who’s AARP eligible.
Luke Bryan has seen his own series of stage falls in 2014.
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