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Many of mainstream country’s big stars came to Nashville with the best of intentions. They had a sincere love of country music, a belly full of talent, and big hopes to make music their way and ascend the country music ladder with their integrity still in tact….
…and then the Music Row machine did it’s worst.
When you look back at some of the early songs, early albums, and even the early image of some of country’s biggest current stars, it can stimulate downright culture shock. Of course styles change naturally over time, but many of these artists came from small towns and had simple dreams. But the problem with money and fame is that you can always have more of it, and next thing you know, they become shells of their original selves.
Below are some illustrations, not necessarily listening suggestions, but examples of some of the dramatic changes we have seen in some of country music’s biggest artists since their start.
Blake Shelton – “Austin”
With long hair hanging down past his shoulders and a cowboy hat, Blake Shelton and his first single and first #1 hit “Austin” from 2001 seems light years away from the rapped verses and hip hop beat of “Boys ‘Round Here.” Not an exceptional song, but one that has a sincere story, steel guitar, and shows that Blake Shelton did have a soul once upon a time and didn’t mind singing a song for the “Old Farts & Jackasses.”
Luke Bryan – “I’ll Stay Me”
With his baseball cap facing the right way and a goofy smile, Luke Bryan from the small town of Leesburg, GAÂ made his way to Nashville, and after penning big songs for Travis Tritt and Billy Currington, signed with Capitol Records Nashville in 2007 and released an album called I’ll Stay Me. Yes, let’s not let the irony of that title escape us. Bryan wrote or co-wrote all of the songs on the album, compared to his latest album Crash My Party that has only two co-writes from Bryan in the entire 13 tracks. Though there is certainly the early leanings toward a laundry list style of lyricism on “I’ll Stay Me,” it also has a lot of sincerity and a pretty authentic country flavor.
Jason Aldean – “Amarillo Sky”
Before Jason Aldean became the mainstream champion for country rap with “Dirt Road Anthem” and became one of the Godfathers of laundry list country with its caricaturist portrayals of rural life, he put out a song called “Amarillo Sky” on his debut, self-titled album in 2005, releasing it as a single in 2006. Instead of clichĂŠs about dirt roads, beer, & trucks that mark Aldean’s current offerings, “Amarillo Sky” tells a pretty authentic story about the struggle of American farmers, while the video featuring real sons of farmers does it one better. The song was written in part by Big & Rich.
Jerrod Niemann – “Good Ride Cowboy”
Jerrod Niemann has become the poster boy for the gentrification of country music with his EDM-laced radio superhits like “Drink To That All Night”, but can you believe that he once co-penned a tribute to Chris LeDoux cut by Garth Brooks called “Good Ride Cowboy”? Neimann actually had Garth record three of his co-writes, and had Jamey Johnson and Neal McCory record his songs as well. “Good Ride Cowboy” wound up at #3 on the Billboard charts in 2005. Below Niemann can be seen sporting an actual cowboy hat instead of his signature club-hopping fedora. Where did you go wrong Jerrod?
Brantley Gilbert – “What’s Left of a Small Town”
When Brantley Gilbert started out in country music, you wouldn’t even be able to recognize him compared to today. Brantley Gilbert ver. 2014 is all attitude with his ball cap pulled down over his eyes, singing country rap songs in a complete vacuum of self-awareness, but as many long-time Gilbert fans can attest, back in the day he wrote and sang some very sincere country songs, while being known to pay homage to the roots by playing many country classics. His first album released in October of 2009 called Modern Day Prodigal Son gave many hints to the bro-country king Brantley would become, but it also had a few really sincere songs, including one called “What’s Left of a Small Town”.
Sugarland – “Tennessee”
Remember when Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles actually had a Southern accent, Kristian Bush had a cowboy hat instead of an outfit pattered off the leprechaun on the Lucky Charms box, and they had a third member that looked like a 40-something female volleyball coach? Yes, it was 2004, and light years away from “Stuck Like Glue.” Oh how I would have loved to be a fly on the wall during that uncomfortable meeting at Mercury Records when some suit demanded Jennifer lose her twang, and the band lose their third wheel.
Â Florida Georgia Line
….oops, they started bad and stayed there.
Fans of Lee Ann Womack have been waiting not-so-patiently since 2008′s Call Me Crazy for new music from the multi-Grammy and multi-CMA Award winner, and on September 23rd they’ll finally get their wish. After years on major labels, Womack has teamed up with renown label Sugar Hill Records (Don Williams, Marty Stuart) to release The Way I’m Livin’ this fall. The record will be produced by Lee Ann’s husband, Frank Liddell.
As exciting as the news is about the new album from a new label, the list of songwriters she’s slated to draw songs from makes the prospects of The Way I’m Livin’ even more enticing. Contributors include Chris Knight, Hayes Carll, Bruce Robison, Buddy Miller, Roger Miller, as well as Neil Young, Mindy Smith, and Mando Saenz.
âI wanted songs that talked about how life really is, the raw spots, the tough places, the meltdowns and messy parts,â says Womack. âHard, sad, roughâŚ all the stuff people pretend doesnât exist! Because once you embrace that, you can figure out what to do; or not do! I live to sing great songs that tear holes in life â just show living for what it is … And knowing these songs were written to be performed, not pitched, sets a bar! Every songwriter wrote intending to singâem, to tell these stories, show these postcards, and you can feel the way they built the characters! Bringing that to music was just so incredible for everyone on the sessions.”
“Lee Ann wanted something wide open,” says husband and producer Frank Liddell. “So we immediately tracked the record with a handful of sides, just six people, and the rest of it with four people. So itâs a very sparse record and hopefully her voice is wide open and right in the middle of it. Thatâs our focus. We didnât get too worried about songs or what she needed to say. We just took a bunch of great songs weâd amassed over the years and went into the studio. Weâve always gotten along real well song-wise.
The next album from Lee Ann Womack has been a much-rumored process. She released a single called “There Is A God” in October of 2009 that was supposed to be part of an upcoming album, but the album never came. Womack was also said to be working on new music in February of 2010. No word if issues with her previous label Mercury Nashville stalled previous attempts at new albums, but upon signing with Sugar Hill, Womack said, “I was looking for the right home for this record. I knew I wanted a label where passion for music and artistic integrity drive the decision-making.”
Musical contributors to the album include steel guitar player Paul Franklin, Matt Chamberlain on drums, Glen Whorf on bass, guitar player Duke Levine, and acoustic guitarist/pianist Mac McAnally.Â
After Lee Ann found great commercial and critical success with her signature song “I Hope You Dance”, the Jacksonville, TX native has struck a decidedly more traditional note lately, and considering the label and list of songwriters for The Way I’m Livin’, fans can anticipate more of the same. Lee Ann also recently contributed to Jamey Johnson’s Hank Cochran tribute, singing a duet with Johnson on the song “This Ain’t My First Rodeo”.
From Lee Ann’s previous album:
Sturgill Simpson has arrived ladies & gentlemen, thanks to the resounding critical success of his new album Metamodern Sounds of Country Music that has permeated just about every corner of the independent roots music culture. From NPR, to The New York Times, to Billboard, to important periodicals in Europe, wherever you turn, someone is singing the praises of the Kentucky native.
This resounding success has made some, if not many, wonder where does Sturgill Simpson go from here? Just how big can he get? Could we possibly hear Sturgill Simpson songs on mainstream radio? Could we see him get a nomination from the CMA? Could Sturgill Simpson and Metamodern Sounds be the artist and album to save country music? Without a doubt he’s that one artist this is resonating, right here, right now, and unlike other artists that have done so recently such as Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson is decidedly country, potentially giving him the ability to be considered for attention by country music’s largest institutions.
I think we all need to take a douse of realism, while at the same time understanding that Sturgill Simpson becoming something bigger than just a mid-level club act is very realistic if the right things fall into place. But there is a long, long way to go, and a lot of the talk surrounding him at the moment is sort of like playing fantasy football. In the long run, for an artist like Sturgill to reach the CMA level, a lot of specific watermarks must be reached, and it’s imperative on his fans, and Sturgill himself, not to set unrealistic expectations that can end up deflating the positive momentum he’s created. So in the end, a “Let’s just do the best we can, and see where this goes” mentality is probably the most wise course of action. Though someone who might read artcles on savingcountrymusic.com on a regular basis might see Sturgill Simpson’s name everywhere they turn and think this thing is in the midst of something historic, out in the big scary world, he’s still very much an unknown. For now.
But you also can’t discount the magic of music when it is matched up with the right moment for the world to hear it. That’s how all great movements in music start, by one person doing something the world has a great hunger for. And can anyone disagree that a hunger for someone like Sturgill Simpson exists in country music right now? As silly as the notion may seem to some, the indelible part of the country music mythos that hopes for a savior to come and return balance to the genre is a very real force all to itself, and carries its own weight and momentum.
It’s also worth pointing out that Sturgill Simpson isn’t the only one who deserves credit for what is becoming a meteoric rise. Some very wise moves have been made in marketing him, and how his music has been released. Normally, releasing albums less than a year apart is frowned upon these days. For Sturgill, this move was fortuitous. Just as the High Top Mountain‘s cycle was losing steam, here he comes with an album that regardless of where he goes from here, will be looked back upon as a landmark; as an important moment in his development. Now Sturgill has all the momentum at his back, and that, along with an excellent management team, has allowed Sturgill to reach far beyond what we normally see from independent artists that may feel very intimate to us because we’ve seen them in half empty barrooms, or heard their music before anyone else.
Sturgill’s manager Marc Dottore (also Marty Stuart’s manager), has been able to get him in front of big audiences at the Opry, on The Marty Stuart Show, and opened up many doors not normally accessible to independent artists. Sturgill’s booking agent got him on some big tours opening for Dwight Yoakam. And Sturgill and his band have been pounding the pavement, playing strange tour runs that are not always intuitive when they’re drawn on a map, and that take a toll on the band’s personal lives and sanity, but in the end got him in front of the right people to have an impact. There are a lot of talented country artists, and a lot of artists like Sturgill that have worked very hard. But Sturgill, his band, and his management team and publicists didn’t just work hard, they worked smart. And that, just as much as Sturgill’s talent, the appeal of the music, and the fortuitous timing of it, lent to where he is today.
Could Sturgill Simpson Be Picked Up By A Major Label?
Could he? Sure. Since he’s signed with new school distribution company Thirty Tigers, Sturgill still retains his rights, and the freedom to do whatever he wants with his music, whether it is the music on Metamodern Sounds, or music he makes in the future. This is one of the specific reasons Sturgill decided to go with Thirty Tigers, despite being offered other deals by other labels before High Top Mountain. And there’s precedent here with other artists. Chase Rice, one of the writers of Florida Georgia Line’s blockbuster song “Cruise”, started out as a Thirty Tigers artist, releasing music through the label before making a partnership through Columbia Records in March to distribute his EP and his “Ready, Set, Roll” single.
Speaking of Florida Georgia Line, they have a somewhat similar story, where they made an EP called It’z Just What We Do that after it went crazy, landed them a deal with Big Machine Records. Much of the music from that EP ended up on their first major full-length release.
But let’s be realistic. Do we really think real deal Sturgill Simpson is going to sign with a major label that would more than likely mean handing over the rights to his songs, and potentially artistic control? Granted, this isn’t always a pitfall of the major label world. There are some artists that with the right leverage power have been able to negotiate contracts in their favor that didn’t include all the traditional trappings of a major label deal. But unless it is perfect, Sturgill Simpson isn’t going to take it. Sturgill is a peculiar, cantankerous individual; an idealist that isn’t motivated by fame and money beyond wanting to provide for his family.
So the next question would be is, would the combination of Thirty Tigers and Sturgill’s current management structure be able to handle some major meteoric rise that would result in the gross equivalent of a major label deal? It’s kind of hard to know, but simply asking the question may be getting way ahead of ourselves.
Could Sturgill Simpson Be Nominated for a CMA Award?
Not to throw cold water on anything, but shaking my magic ’8′ ball, what I’m coming up with is “not likely”. Maybe in the future, when Sturgill has taken a few more steps, and his name recognition is such that the wider industry is paying more attention. But for now, Sturgill must conquer the Americana and independent ranks. He may very well do that with Metamodern Sounds, and this may create the gateway to greener pastures. But we can’t take this happening as a given.
One benefit he has over artists like Jason Isbell or Justin Townes Earle who’ve both had big success in Americana, is that Sturgill Simpson is purely country. This means hypothetically that the sky is the limit, unlike with Americana.
But the CMA, and especially the ACM are set up to promote the country music industry, just as the Americana Music Awards are set up to promote the Americana industry. And right now, Sturgill Simpson isn’t part of that industry. He may play country music, but that doesn’t immediately make him a contender, let alone visible to the CMA voters, even though he may technically qualify. What would put him on their map is strong, prolonged commercial success along with his critical acclaim: solid showings on MediaBase and Billboard charts for sales and plays.
The other thing he would need to do to be considered by the CMA is to have mainstream radio play. And with the climate these days at mainstream radio, where it realistically takes sometimes $500,000 to $1 million dollars to promote a single, especially from an unknown artist, that possibility may be the most out-of-reach for Sturgill. Besides, I’m not sure Metamodern Sounds contains any “single” material for modern-day radio.
However there is hope that a critical darling can crack through all the commercial hurdles that hold many artists out of the CMA process. Though Kacey Musgraves resides on a major label, appreciate that without even one Top 10 single to her name, she walked away with the Album of the Year trophies at both the Grammy Awards and ACM’s this year. When faced with overwhelming consensus about a critical favorite, whether it’s Musgraves’ Same Trailer, Different Park, or Jamey Johnson’s That Lonesome Song, industry awards will step up to at least dole out nominations to these projects. An Americana Grammy for Sturgill is a very real possibility, but remember last year they completely snubbed Jason Isbell, who by all accounts was the clear favorite going in.
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More realistically, Sturgill Simpson just needs to eat what’s on his plate, and focus on growing his name recognition. Sturgill will continue to focus on touring, and creating a fan base that can support him at the club level. That will open up the possibility for bigger opening slots, and more exposure.
We have been at this crossroads before, where an artist feels like he’s on the brink of blowing up and rising to the mainstream level. In 2008 when Hank Williams III was riding off of huge momentum from a critically-acclaimed and commercially-successful release Straight to Hell, it looked for a minute that he may break through the walls of the mainstream and completely shake up the industry. Williams had been touring like crazy for a half decade. He had all the momentum at his back. When his next album came out, Damn Right, Rebel Proud in 2008, it debuted at #2 on the Billboard charts. Williams had climbed nine rungs up a ten rung ladder, and he had done it his way, fighting against his label to win creative freedom, and finding success despite a lack of radio play.
But Damn Right, Rebel Proud was a step down in quality from his previous releases, and Hank3 proceeded to take 18 months off of touring. Subsequent releases charted decently as well, but he never reached the same heights. Hank3 had been right there, right at the precipice of breaking through, and for whatever reason, lost the drive, lost the momentum, had pushed himself too hard, and had to step back.
Hellbound Glory, also finding great critical acclaim, landed the opportunity to open for Kid Rock on an arena tour, and it looked like the doors would finally start opening for them. And some doors did. But a year later, Leroy Virgil had not a single member in his band that had been around for the Kid Rock tour, and in many respects landed right back where he started. Jamey Johnson reached the very top of the industry, penning #1 songs and being nominated for big awards. But then a label dispute stopped him in his tracks, and it’s been nearly four years since he’s released an original song.
Whether the fault of the artists or others, the ninth rung of that ten rung ladder has been where these artists have stalled, one after another. And the dream, the promise of returning the balance back to country music stalls with it. Whether it’s artists losing their hunger, being hindered by the industry, or never really having a chance to begin with, the dream wasn’t fully realized. It wasn’t played out to its last, exhaustive breath. But with Sturgill Simpson, we have another opportunity.
And if something magical does happen with Sturgill Simpson, we shouldn’t see it as a shot from nowhere. George Strait just won Entertainer of the Year for both the CMA’s and ACM’s. Kacey Musgraves has been winning awards left and right. Both traditionalism and substance are resonating again in country music, despite however buried they may appear by bro-country.
The most important thing is that Sturgill Simpson keeps on growing, and that the independent community does what they can to help foster that growth. Sturgill Simpson said it best when he posted the day of the release of Metamodern Sounds:
I have said it many times and I will continue to say it, as it is the truth and I whole heartedly believe itâŚguys like me and the countless others others out there attempting to offer an alternative are not capable of change. We are not the catalyst of change. You guys are. We can only do our best to make the best records we are capable of but it is up to you the listener to have your voices heard. This is the only road to the true change that a lot of you I talk to at shows are seeking. If you connect with something that moves you it’s up to you to share it/burn it/ steal it/ give it away. As long as it finds and connects with as many people as possible that is all we wish for.
From the bottom of our hearts, thank you all for everything YOU have done and are collectively doing to make our dreams come true. It goes without saying that I am about as sick of hearing/talking about me as I have ever been in my entire life. With that said, we are anxiously looking forward to taking this show on the road for the rest of our lives.
Sturgill, Kevin, Miles, & Little Joe
Isn’t it interesting how we look upon Willie Nelson as such a saint of not just music or country music, but of the nation and world, and here he is releasing a song that instead of reveling in his accomplishments and resting on his laurels, catches the 81-year-old country legend looking back upon his past mistakes, self-deprecating and pensive, yet understanding how those mistakes made him the man he is today.
Willie Nelson’s next album Band of Brothers is set to be released June 17th, and his latest original song in a legendary, if not unparalleled songwriting career is simply called “The Wall.” Band of Brothers breaks from Willie’s recent output of albums of mostly covers by including nine Nelson-penned tracks as part of the 14-track album. The covers include Billy Joe Shaver’s “The Git Go” (a duet with Jamey Johnson), Vince Gill’s “Whenever You Come Around”, and “Songwriter” by Bill Anderson and Gordie Sampson. As with the last few Willie Nelson releases, the producer duties are being handled by Buddy Cannon.
Like the words, the chord selection of “The Wall” helps give rise to memory and reflection, and shows that Willie has lost little in his ability to convey a feeling in his advanced age. Long-time harmonica-playing compatriot Mickey Raphael adds the color to the composition, as does the familiar tone of Willie Nelson’s nylon string guitar in a rather stripped down track whose beat is kept with simple brushes that rest at the beginning of the chorus to give the song an extra little emphasis. Though Willie’s voice can sometimes be hit or miss in the live setting these days, it is as strong as ever here, holding that singular tone that looms so large in the ethos of classic country fans.
Where Willie Nelson’s two 2013 albums with Legacy Recordings—Let’s Face The Music and Dance, and To All The Girls…—felt somewhat like side projects, with little truly new material, Band of Brothers is already beginning to look more like 2012′s Heroes— Willie’s first with Legacy Recordings, and an album that very much felt like a retrenching.
The accompanying video for “The Wall” works counter-intuitively from the song, running down a list of all of Willie’s biggest accomplishments as Willie reflects, “I took on more than I could handle. I bit off more than I could chew, I hit the wall. I went off like a Roman candle. Burning everyone I knew, I hit the wall.”
With no discounts for age or sliding scales because of his legendary status, Willie Nelson’s “The Wall” still captures the heart and stirs the memory, and makes for quite an enjoyable piece of music.
Two guns up.
It has been since September of 2010 that fans of CMA Award-winning country music star Jamey Johnson have heard new music from the singer and songwriter. His critically-acclaimed double album The Guitar Song has had to tide listeners over for a protracted period, from an artist that before had been quite prolific. Johnson did release another album in October of 2012, but it was a tribute album, Living For A Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran.
Since then fans have been in a fog about when new music could be expected from the Alabama native, or even the nature of his label status. Then in an interview with Rolling Stone published February 10th, 2013, Jamey Johnson spelled out in specific detail that he felt he was getting a raw deal from his long-time label, Mercury Records Nashville.
âFinancially speaking, they treat me worse than they ever did the Dixie Chicks,â Johnson explained to Rolling Stone. âI feel pretty used by the music industry, in that my contracts are written in such a way that I donât get paid. Itâs time for us to regroup and itâs time for us to look at these contracts. The problem is, I donât trust any of the people that Iâve worked with so far. I believe theyâve all hidden the truth from me or lied to me or deceived me in one way or another. Because the end result is that no matter what they said or did or what they said they did, I didnât get paidâŚ As a musician I never studied music law. I canât even read the contracts Iâve signed. But Iâm fairly sure they donât say what I thought they said.”
Beyond The Dixie Chick’s public blackballing from country music after making disparaging comments about then President George W. Bush, they also were part of their own contract dispute, and claimed they didn’t get paid properly for their music. Jamey also explained that the ordeal had put a damper on his desire to write songs.
Well, I wish I could tell you that I am writing. Iâm not. I wish I could tell you Iâm gonna go home next week and record another album. Itâs not likely to happen. We havenât reached such a gridlock that we canât continue to do work with them in the future. But we canât do anything right now until that gets resolved.
Well apparently it has been, though initially the nature of that resolution still left us with more questions. While playing the Mahaffey Theater at the Progress Energy Center in St. Petersburg, FL on January 17th of this year, Jamey Johnson said to the crowd,
“Last time we did a show without a record deal was ’06. Tonight’s our first show without a record deal. And somehow we’re still on the same label. We just didn’t have nowhere else to go. They set it up where now we just don’t have to stay. And here’s one for all of our friends back at Mercury Records in Nashville, Tennessee.” (video below)
After the remarks, Jamey launched into the Waylon Jennings song, “Freedom To Stay.”
Jamey’s remarks would seem to allude that he’d stayed with the label, but also that he’d left it. Or that maybe they had restructured his deal so he could leave, but he decided to stay anyway. The comments seemed to create more questions than answers—more questions there had been before. But maybe that was Jamey’s intention.
So Saving Country Music, wanting to get to the bottom of Jamey’s contract status—called Mercury Records. This is a rough sketch of how the phone conversation went.Hello this is Trigger from Saving Country Music. I’m calling to see if I can ascertain the contract status of Jamey Johnson. Jamey who? I don’t know who that is. Jamey Johnson? I don’t know. Does he or she work here? Jamey Johnson. Is that a new artist or something? Won a CMA for Song of the Year? Wrote “Honky Tonk Badona Donk”? (going for the least common denominator in desperation) Huh. I’ve never heard that name. The rest of the staff is in a meeting. I will have to find out for you.
About 5 minutes later I receive a phone call back from Mercury Records Nashville.No. Jamey Johnson is no longer signed with us. So he didn’t restructure his deal or anything? He’s not signed to the label whatsoever? No. He was here, but he’s no longer signed with us. That’s all the information I can give you.
So there you go. Jamey Johnson has been stricken from the consciousness of Mercury Records Nashville and has moved on. Though this is no guarantee there’s new music coming from him, this certainly moves him one step closer.
Jamey’s remarks about his contract status can be seen at the 28:55 mark in the video below.
Jamey. Jamey Johnson. Yeah, hey man, it’s your old pal country music here. Sorry to bother you like this out of the blue and everything, but it looks like I’ve kind of gotten myself into a mighty big pickle. Generally speaking I’m one of those proud people that doesn’t like to ask for anything from anybody. But honestly man, I need your help. Now I understand that you’re in some sort of contract dispute or something, and that’s usurped a lot of your desire to write new songs and release new albums and everything. Trust me when I say, I know how rough these disputes can be. Ever since I started in this music business, intrusive and unethical label practices have been stultifying the creative process for many of the artists flying my flag, generally wreaking havoc on their freedom and artistic expression, not to mention how many people are getting hosed on the accounting side of things.
I can only imagine the kind of anger and heartache you’re dealing with, but man, I need you. And I need you something fierce. Over the last couple of years … well hell, really for the last twenty some odd years, but especially the last couple, stuff has really been going downhill. I turn on CMT, and if there aren’t frat guys urinating on themselves in some reality show, or some inbred passed out face first in a vat of gravy, then it’s Florida Georgia Line rapping in some hip hop song while motorcycles go flying through the air and explosions go off in the background, while Luke Bryan is non stop pelvic thrusting the poor, innocent air in front of him. It’s like some wild ass circus Jamey, I’m telling you.
And then you turn on the radio, and somehow it gets even worse. I thought Florida Georgia Line was bad, but now there’s a half dozen bands that are more like Florida Georgia Line than Florida Georgia Line is. Have you heard of Chase Rice, Jamey? If you haven’t, don’t waste your time, trust me. You should see this dude’s Twitter feed. It’s like an instruction manual for duchebags, but I digress. Oh! And then the other day I was listening to the radio, and Jerrod Niemann … you remember Jerrod Niemann? I mean he used to not be that bad back in the day. But he’s gone through some kind of mid life crisis or something, and the dude sounds like he’s got an EDM DJ stuck up his ass. He was on there talking about “riding his donkey to the honkey tonkey” and I just about hurled my Taco Bell waffle taco out the truck window. Yeah I know, I shouldn’t be eating that garbage, but I won’t lie, I was curious … I mean I know back in the day me and you got a big chuckle when Trace Adkins cut your “Badonka Donk” song, but hell, that was just parody. By the way, you still got that bass boat you paid for with those royalties? I saw the pictures on MySpace; it was a beauty. Ha, MySpace. Man we go way far back.
And I guess that’s why I’m writing you. Look man, back in the late 00′s, you were the best thing going. You were what I needed: substance with commercial appeal. Hell I even got you a bunch of those stupid industry awards, and for a moment there it looked like you could be the next real deal thing in country music. Hell forget looking like it, you were the next real deal thing! And that’s why we need you back man. We need to get you back in this fight. We need to get you back in the ring, even if just to keep these other losers honest. I mean, who else we got that has already proven they can get the industry behind them without selling out? Who can write a song like Jamey Johnson? Who’s got all that country credit for serving in the Marines and doing all that time in honky tonks, and hob nobbing with Hank Cochran? Hey, did you see Hank just got an induction for the next Hall of Fame class? See, it ain’t all bad out there. There’s still hope. There’s still something to come home to Jamey. And though all the country dudes are a bunch of douche nozzles, there’s a lot of women doing some great stuff out there these days. Have you caught a whiff of Kacey Musgraves yet? Dynamite Jamey, I’m telling you (and just between you and me, some dynamite legs on that young dame too, whoa!).
Still though, George Strait is retiring, or at least he’s gonna try to, and we need someone to step up. Come on man, you should be in the prime of your career. I don’t blame you for wanting to step back. I don’t blame you if you don’t want to be involved in all the mainstream hoopla anymore. And it’s not like you’ve stopped performing and are living on Mars. You still contribute greatly to keeping it real. But hell, just start writing some songs. Get back in the game. Participate at least. Give us something we can throw in the face of Dallas Davidson to tell him and his songwriting-by-formula buddies to take a long walk off a short pier.
You’re not friends with Dallas? Are you? Well anyway…
Most importantly man, and not to get all sentimental on your ass, but I’m just a little worried about you. You know, you put out those first few albums, and we got used to a new Jamey Johnson album every couple years. And not to jump on you man, but sometimes when you have a talent such as yours, it’s a shame to see it go to waste. So tell me where I need to be. If there’s some label riding your ass, some suit with his thumb on you, tell us the scoop and we’ll be your air support. Let’s rattle some cages. Let’s blow some houses down. You’d be surprised what a bunch of pissed-off rednecks can accomplish when we’re all moving in the same direction. Let’s get mobilized. Let’s get this thing figured out.
Because we’re here for you brother. We want to see you prosper. And most importantly, we need you.
Yours truly, and always grateful, even if you never write another song in your life,
I first want to congratulate you as the President of the Academy of Country Music for the continued success of your storied institution, and your ability to extend the ACM’s as a viable and vibrant forum from which country music can be promoted to the masses in an engaging and exciting presentation that stops down America on an annual basis to celebrate what your institution deems is the best talent country music has to offer.
It is in the spirit of wanting to keep the viability and the storied nature of the ACM’s in tact that I write you to address a concern that I, as well as other country music writers and fans have voiced over the eligibility of Big Machine Records artist Justin Moore for the New Artist of the Year award at the 49th Annual awards set to transpire in a month from now.
Please don’t let it come across that I am assuming or alluding that you are not aware of your own rules, because I’m sure you are more aware of the ACM rules than anyone, but it is clearly stated in your voting criteria that artists are not eligible for the New Artist of the Year distinction if they have sold 500,000 copies of a previously released album according to Nielsen Soundscan. Unfortunately Justin Moore, one of the three remaining nominees for New Artist of the Year, has no less than two such albums that have crossed the 500,000 sales threshold: Justin Moore from 2009 with 550,000 copies sold, and Outlaws Like Me from 2011 with 577,000 copies sold, at last count.
I understand you are aware of this concern and specifically addressed it as Saving Country Music and others had asked you to do. And though your statement does help us in establishing both that the Academy of Country Music is aware of this issue, and what the official stance on this issue is by you as the President of the ACM, unfortunately it doesn’t go any further in resolving it.
You told Music Row Magazine, “This decision is in line with our criteria, and the Boardâs right to be flexible in our efforts to be inclusive vs. exclusive of a young artist who has had budding success.” But unfortunately, with all due respect, the decision is not in line with your criteria, and though the decision might be inclusive of Justin Moore, it is exclusive of other artists who are indeed eligible under the Academy of Country Music’s eligibility rules that were drafted by the ACM itself.
As for “the Board’s right to be flexible,” I presume you’re referencing the provision in the voting guidelines that states, “The criteria and voting procedures are set forth by the ACM Board of Directors in accordance with the bylaws, and may be amended from time to time as the Board deems appropriate in the best interest of Country music.” However this rule only grants the Board the ability to amend the rules, not break the rules. As Saving Country Music and others have stated throughout the transpiration of this eligibility matter, the Academy of Country Music has every right to amend their own rules, and I and others have encouraged the Academy of Country Music to do so if it sees an issue with the stated criteria for the New Artist of the Year category.
But no such rules changes have been implemented. Furthermore, the Board of Directors for the Academy of Country Music set the precedent for amending rules before announcing nominees in 2009 when the amount of copies an artist must sell to be eligible for the Album of the Year category was reduced to 300,000 so that Jamey Johnsonâs critically-acclaimed album That Lonesome Song could be included in the nominations. More importantly, the ACMâs also delayed the announcement of the Album of the Year nominees in 2009 while you and the Board of Directors finalized the rule change, making sure you did not violate your own rules by announcing their nominees too early.
What’s even more concerning in regards to precedent is the one that will be set if the Academy of Country Music Board of Directors unilaterally breaks its established rules instead of amending them, which will happen if the Justin Moore nomination is etched in stone by not resolving it before the awards ceremony on April 6th. Even worse could be the precedent if Justin Moore wins.
What bestows the honor behind the Academy of Country Music trophy is the prestige the ACM has built into the awards over its 49 years of history. The rules behind the awards are the very foundation of the institution and of the awards themselves; they are the framework from which the ceremonious credence in an otherwise inert trophy is bestowed, regularly bringing recipients to tears upon receiving it.
But all of this can be called into question, and the weight with which the awards are regarded diminished if the rules are ignored. And this issue is not just about one specific nominee or recipient in one given year. If the rules are disregarded, that decision could become effusive, and impinge on the integrity of the awards in their entirety, including awards given out in the past and future. Murmurs of block voting and label impropriety have swirled around the ACM Awards for years, and not just from spurious sources and industry gadflies such as myself, but long-term, trusted journalists like radio personality Jimmy Carter, and previous recipients of ACM Awards themselves.
And beyond the rules specifically, Justin Moore, in my opinion and in the opinion of many others, does not pass the ‘eyeball test’ as a ‘New Artist’. If he did, and it was the rules that seemed to be either unfair or non useful, instead of the clear action of breaking of them, then maybe some consensus could build behind making an exception. Ironically, if there is any consensus between the ACM Board, and many of the voices of concern for the rules oversight, it is that Justin Moore, with his clear commercial success, probably does deserve some sort of distinction from the Academy of Country Music in 2014. But it shouldn’t come at the sacrifice of a clear and transparent rules regime put in place to make sure nothing unethical transpires in the process, or the spirit of the ‘New Artist’ award of giving a hand up to a new artist instead of locking one out by including an established artist, which the inclusion of Justin Moore ostensibly does.
Furthermore, with the financial windfall an artist receives for being nominated or winning an Academy of Country Music Award, and the rules oversight in this particular case being both obvious and unprecedented, I think it is fair to ask if there wouldn’t be any legitimate legal grievances by the parties that were replaced by Justin Moore’s illegitimate inclusion in the New Artist category, and/or his potential win of the award.
And so, with nothing but the ACM Awards’ best interests in mind, I plead with the Academy of Country Music to second guess your nomination of Justin Moore for New Artist of the Year. How you wish to resolve the matter specifically is not my place to say. Whether you disqualify Justin, amend the rules in a way that somehow resolves why the amendment wasn’t made before the nominations were announced, or make some other distinction for Justin Moore to be eligible for, something must be done. And if nothing is done, then I and others, as is our journalistic duty, must call into question the legitimacy of the awards themselves.
The ACM Awards have gone 49 years without allowing their rules to be violated. Let’s try to make it 50.
Kyle “Trigger” Coroneos
Former Hootie & The Blowfish frontman turned country artist Darius Rucker was on sports personality Dan Patrick’s radio show Tuesday (3-4), and had some interesting things to say about who the new torch bearers are for country music’s Outlaw legacy. Outlaw artists like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, David Allan Coe, and Johnny Paycheck shook up the country music world in the mid 70′s by re-instituting a harder country sound and taking back control of their music, and now according to Darius Rucker and Dan Patrick, the new Willie and Waylon is Luke Bryan and Eric Church.
The Darius Rucker interview starts out with Dan Patrick giving some playful ribs to Rucker about his lack of country music bad boy credentials. “I mentioned at the end of last hour that, you know, Luke Bryan’s the new bad boy, and Eric Church is the new bad boy in country,” said Patrick. “Darius Rucker can’t be a bad boy ’cause he was the lead singer of Hootie & The Blowfish. Right? No matter what …. How can you be a bad boy? You know you can’t be Tim [McGraw], you can’t be Hank Williams. You know, you were Hootie & The Blowfish.”
“That’s funny but true,” Rucker responds, laughing. “You’re absolutely right. I’m always going to be country lite, there’s nothing I can do about that … Brad [Paisley]‘s not a bad boy. Rascal Flatts, they’re not bad boys. Not everyone can be a bad boy. You know, that’s cool.”
Then Dan Patrick asks, “But there’s so much money in country now that can you be a bad boy and be crazy like Waylon and Willie used to be?”
“Yeah man, we’ve still got those guys,” Rucker says. “You know, Jamey Johnson, he’s a bad boy that’s for sure, and he’s doing well. You know, like you said Luke and Eric, Eric’s probably the closest we got to Waylon & Willie I think.”
This was not the first time Darius Rucker has made interesting statements on the Dan Patrick Show. In November of 2013, Darius said on the show that he thought he deserved a Grammy nomination for his cover of the Old Crow Medicine Show / Bob Dylan song “Wagon Wheel” or quote “country music’s screwed.” Dan Patrick and Darius Rucker are good friends, going back to the time when Darius was winning Grammy Awards with Hootie & The Blowfish.
You can see the entire interview below.
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On February 5th, Saving Country Music posted an article detailing why Valory Music Group artist Justin Moore should be disqualified from the ACM Award’s “New Artist of the Year” category for which he is nominated along with seven others. Stipulated clearly in the Academy of Country Music’s rules, artists who’ve sold over 500,000 copies of any previously-released album are not eligible for the “new artist” award. Justin Moore has two such albums: Justin Moore from 2009 with 550,000 copies sold, and Outlaws Like Me from 2011 with 577,000 copies sold.
Saving Country Music was first tipped to this oversight of the rules by Windmills Country on Twitter, who on February 5th appeared on Connecticut Country 92.5′s “Electric Barnyard” radio show to discuss the rules oversight. What happened next was an acknowledgement by Justin Moore’s label Valory Music—an imprint of Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Records—of the apparent rules violation, and apparently an effort to suppress that information. This leads to further questions of why the Academy of Country Music continues to not address this issue, and other potential improprieties clouding the ACM nomination process.
After Country 92.5 posted the audio of Windmills Country’s appearance on the station’s website, they were contacted by The Valory Music Group and asked to take the audio down as can be seen in this Twitter thread.
So the next question is, “Why?”
Accusations of block voting, vote swapping, and other behind-the-scenes gaming of the Academy of Country Music nomination and voting process have been around for years. In 2011, country radio personality Jimmy Carter spoke specifically on how labels decide which artists they want to push through the ACM’s, saying:
Itâs crazy political. . . You have to just say, âOK, these awards are what they are. Theyâre bragging rights, theyâre an infomercial for the record label.â And like I was told off the record yesterdayâŚthat Miranda Lambert got all those nominations because the record label had to decide. Are they going with Carrie Underwood this year, or Miranda Lambert? Both are on the same label. They figured it would help Miranda more than it would help the career of Carrie Underwood.
Once again Miranda Lambert leads the 2014 ACM nominations with seven, despite not having released an album in over 2 years. But the Justin Moore eligibility issue specifically might be the first time a label and/or the Academy of Country Music have been caught red-handed showing favoritism to a particular artist; the first concrete evidence of impropriety in the nomination and voting process of one of the industry’s biggest awards.
Valory Music and the ACM’s may hope that this issue just blows over, but the removal of the Windmills Country audio has arguably exacerbated it, and fed the suspicion some country fans have surrounding the awards process. If there is an explanation for the discrepancy between Justin Moore’s eligibility and his nomination, the fans of country music have yet to hear it. And if there is no explanation, the Academy of Country Music and its label partners are allowing the legitimacy of these awards to be called into question.
The eligibility rules for the awards are written by the Academy of Country Music, and there’s no reason they cannot change them if they see fit. If the ACM wanted to nominate Justin Moore for the 2014 awards cycle, they could have written out the 500,000 copy provision, or increased the amount of copies in the rule for Justin Moore to maintain his eligibility. Furthermore, the Academy of Country Music has a history of doing this very thing. In 2009, the ACM’s reduced the amount of copies an artist must sell to be eligible for the Album of the Year category to 300,000. The reason for this was so that Jamey Johnson’s critically-acclaimed album That Lonesome Song could be included in the nominees. More importantly, the ACM’s also delayed the announcement of the Album of the Year nominees that year while they finalized the rule change, making sure they did not violate their own rules by announcing their nominees too early.
Out of the respective entities in this issue, Justin Moore might be the least culpable. As he said in November of last year, his exclusion from award shows up until this nomination, including not being asked as a performer or even a presenter, has been quite curious when compared to his overall commercial impact in the genre.Â At the same time, his exclusion speaks to the collusive nature of country music’s top awards, and the narrow cast of names country’s awards continually draw from.
As unfair as it might be that Justin Moore has been excluded from the awards show process, as Windmills Country points out in their own article on the subject, it is even more unfair to the truly “new” artists that got excluded from this year’s nominee list because of the inclusion of established artists like Justin Moore and Lee Brice. The issue is especially exacerbated because of all the concern with country music’s inability to develop new female talent. Only one female artist, Kacey Musgraves, is included in the category, as the lack of female representation in country music has been making major periodical headlines left and right.
If the Academy of Country Music wants to keep a level of integrity around their awards and the process of determining nominees and winners, this Justin Moore eligibility issue must be addressed in a public manner. If there is an explanation, if a rule change needs to be made, then make it. Until then, it is fair, if not imperative on the country music community to question the legitimacy of the ACM’s nomination and voting process, and thus, the awards themselves.
Slain Outlaw country music artist Wayne Mills will be remembered in a new exhibit at The Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery, Alabama called “Alabama Outlaws” to be unveiled in special ceremony on Sunday, February 9th, 2014. The ceremony is free and open to the public, and will transpire between 1 PM and 4 PM. It will be attended by Wayne’s widow, Carol Mills, and his young son Jack.
The exhibit will feature many personal items from Wayne Mills, including Wayne’s signature hat, his cowboy boots, and his Alabama football jersey. Mills was from the small town of Arab in northern Alabama, and aside from being a noted musician and performer, played football for the University of Alabama.
The artifacts to be put on display at the Hank Williams Museum were personally collected from the stage display at Wayne’s funeral on December 8th, 2013 by another Alabama country music artist, Jamey Johnson. The Montgomery native personally delivered the items to the Hank Williams museum, and the performer has also offered space in his display at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville to showcase Wayne’s legacy. Wayne Mills and Jamey Johnson were close friends, and had played shows together the week of Wayne’s killing.
Wayne Mills was gunned down on November 23rd, 2013 at the Pit & Barrel bar in Nashville while attending an after hours gathering. Chris Ferrell—the owner of the Pit & Barrel—faces 2nd Degree Murder charges in the case. The 44-year-old singer and songwriter was once a mentor to Jamey Johnson, as well as to CMA Entertainer of the Year Blake Shelton, and American Idol winner Taylor Hicks, and had over 15-plus years of touring experience. Mills received the Guardian Award from the Outlaw Music Hall of Fame a month before his death to recognize his âhard work and unwavering commitment to their music and their fans and best exemplify the tradition of those who came before.â
On March 2nd, The Outlaw Music Association will be holding a Wayne Mills Benefit at The Limelight in Nashville.
Aaron Lewis may know a little something about what country isn’t. He spent the first 16 years of his music career as the emotionally-distraught and misanthropic frontman of the alternative rock band Staind before deciding in 2010 to record a “country” EP. The project was released in 2011, and included the single “Country Boy” that despite the participation of George Jones and Charlie Daniels, still felt like what Aaron Lewis had been doing with his acoustic shows for over a decade, except for trying to brow beat the listener into buying into how country he was.
2012 saw the release of Aaron’s second single, “Endless Summer,” which along with other misdeeds, name dropped Jason Aldean of all people. It was looking like Lewis was falling right in line with the procession of other country music outsiders fleeing to the country genre in the twilight of their careers to find commercial strength. But when his full-length album The Road was released in late 2012, it was actually a pleasant surprise to hear just how country and non-commercial it was.
While talking to The Marion Star in Ohio ahead of an upcoming show, Aaron decided to let his disdain for the direction of country music be known.
“I think thereâs enough beer on the beach, partying on the tailgate, driving around in a pickup truck, moonshine songs,” Lewis said. “I think that everything has been pretty well beaten to death. And Iâll opt for my usual … making sure the song has emotion and feeling and means something… I donât know what it is that country radio is playing these days. Iâm really not quite sure. Thereâs a song out right now thatâs a big single for a big act, and at the very end of the song you can hear a banjo come up in the mix for four measures. And youâre like, ‘Oh, thereâs the country aspect of it. Now I get it.’ But that is not country music, Iâm sorry.”
Lewis also says he doesn’t like to be lumped in with Kenny Chesney when he mentions he plays country.
“Itâs funny because people hear Aaron Lewis and country they often think Kenny Chesney when they should have thoughts of Jamey Johnson and David Allen Coe. Itâs country like Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, George Jones and Johnny Cash … I almost even like the fact that Iâm having all of this success without the machine really embracing me. And Iâm not sure that it would have been as valuable to me as an artist to have the very first song I ever delivered to country go straight to the top of the charts and never have to work for it, so I never had to start out in the honky-tonks and where it should start. And man, Iâve sold out every honky-tonk place in the last few years and itâs where it should start. I believe in building a foundation and then building your house on top of that.”
Maybe Aaron is bitter because the country industry didn’t embrace him, or maybe he’s come around to the side of dissent for other reasons. But despite where Aaron Lewis and country music began or where it eventually may be going, at the moment he seems to be making the effort to understand that making country music means embracing more than just the name.
Oh Kacey, what are we going to do with you?
Mid January is the season that most of the big mainstream country music acts unveil their touring plans for the year, and as Blake Shelton was announcing the “Hide Your Daughters” tour presented by Taco Bell, and Jason Aldean announced the “Overlords of Auto-Tune” tour with Florida Georgia Line and Tyler Farr, country music critical favorite Kacey Musgraves announced she would not be touring with one of her country music bunk mates, but of all people, the buxom purple-haired pop star Katy Perry. Kacey is reportedly writing with Katy too.
Some Kacey Musgraves’ supporters were disappointed, or even outraged, just as many of those same supporters were disappointed last year when she went out on tour with Kenny Chesney. As if Kacey, who despite her disposition of being slated beside artists like Jason Isbell instead of Jason Aldean, and Brandy Clark instead of Brantley Gilbert, isn’t still very much an artist existing in the highest reaches of the mainstream country music industry and all the trappings thereof. Maybe in some fan’s music brains she belongs on the club and theater circuit so they get to see her in a more intimate setting. But to Kacey’s label, there’s money to be made, and an artist to launch so she can eventually go on her own arena tours.
Others see this as an opportunity to spread the country music gospel—the ol’ theory of music osmosis that we sometimes see assigned to artists like Taylor Swift and Florida Georgia Line. As if some 15-year-old girl is going to hear Taylor Swift and be inspired to lip sync in front of a full-length mirror to Ralph Peer’s primitive recordings of The Carter Family, or similar circumstances might transpire amongst the glitterfaced crowd at a Katy Perry concert because Kacey Musgraves looks so good in hot pants up there on stage. Sure, Kacey will likely win more fans for Kacey Musgraves, and ultimately that’s the point. But let’s tap the brakes on thinking this will be some monumental step for country music.
More importantly, what this concert pairing seems to allude to are important trends in both country music, and the career of Kacey Musgraves.
If it wasn’t clear that Kacey’s label Mercury Nashville had no idea what to do with her before, it is pretty evident now. The one thing we do know about Musgraves is that she enjoys the utmost in label support—arguably unparallelled and unprecedented in the industry. Remember when Kacey was nominated for the ACM for Female Vocalist of the Year in 2013 before she had even released a album or had a Top 10 single? Or how about at the 2013 CMA Awards when she received 6 nominations, as many as Taylor Swift and more than anyone else? Kacey is also up for 4 Grammy Awards here in 2014.
Of course Kacey’s work as a songwriter helped pad these numbers, and not to allude that she didn’t deserve these nominations—they were much deserved, and a sign of the righting of the country music ship in 2013. But a brand new artist like Kacey Musgraves does not receive these types of industry-leading accolades, especially when they’re not backed by sales numbers, without the undying and tireless support of a label looking to launch an artist they believe in both as an artistic and commercial success.
But that has been the biggest problem with Kacey—the commercial success. Compared to many of the other critical darlings Musgraves was amongst on various outlet’s “Best of 2013″ lists, Kacey’s sales are astronomical. But compared to her country industry peers, they’re paltry. Kacey’s album Same Trailer, Different Park has just barely peaked over 300,000 copies sold. For comparison, all the other albums nominated for the CMA Album of the Year in 2013 have at least sold 1 million copies.
Kacey has also yet to have a Top 10 single, with “Merry Go ‘Round” coming the closest at #14. Her latest two singles “Blowin’ Smoke” and “Follow Your Arrow” both stalled out at #31 and #28 respectively, despite a big radio push and big budget videos. Still not bad numbers, but nowhere near the level Mercury Nashville must be wanting, or expecting from an artist that has achieved such industry accolades and undying label support.
Then there was the controversy about “the look” Kacey was caught giving while they were announcing the candidates for Female Vocalist of the Year at the CMA Awards, and more recently, the Twitter brushup she got into with influential Clear Channel DJ Bobby Bones. As some pointed out, Bobby Bones at the time had more followers on Twitter than Kacey did, speaking to both the powerful influence of Bones, and the lack of wide support behind Musgraves. In the social network era, it’s not enough for an artist to release good music. Like the modern day NASCAR driver, they’re expected to be media savvy, not just skilled at their discipline to achieve at the top level.
Hence, a change of plans for Kacey. Some new scenery. Maybe country and specifically country radio is not going to be as receptive to Kacey as first thought. Maybe they’re not ready for the paradigm shift just yet. Maybe she’s too edgy. So go out there and find some more fertile ground. And hell, both her and Katy Perry have songs about kissing girls….
And this is where Mercury Nashville and Kacey seem to be miscalculating. Though Kacey is well-recognized as a critical success and symbolizes a new type of country star, they’re falling back on their old habits of how to present her to the masses by using marketing points. They release “Blowin’ Smoke,” hoping to capitalize off the popularity of pot in popular culture, despite the song not referencing reefer directly. “Follow Your Arrow” seemed to be released to radio not for its underlying message, but because the edginess of the content might stir controversy and create interest in the song and Kacey.
Instead of handling Musgraves like the next Loretta Lynn, leading the way by addressing deep cultural issues, they’re trying to make a her a one-trick pony to be popularized through buzzwords and politicization. What happened to letting the music speak for itself, and what happened to all the momentum built up by the success of “Merry Go ‘Round”?
Mercury Nashville was also at the helm for the lost opportunity with another artist that was a critical success and achieved the highest industry accolades at awards shows, but ultimately didn’t stick in the wide public perception: Jamey Johnson. Granted, Johnson is in the midst of a contract dispute and has been sitting on his writing hands now for years. But this was another artist that country fans clamoring for more substance in the genre could get behind, but so far has yet to make a long-term impact in the mainstream industry. The career of Jamey Johnson right now is very much adrift.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t all Mercury Nashville’s fault. You can’t say they aren’t trying, and trying in an industry that is notoriously suspicious of change and slow to implement it, and that is looking to appeal to what are many times simple-minded fans who don’t want to look for the deeper meaning in songs.
Kacey Musgraves is too good for mainstream country, while at the same time maybe too edgy for the rank and file of country music’s traditional arm. Like Scott Borchetta of Mercury Nashville rival Big Machine Records said recently, the industry must dig a little deeper, and Kacey Musgraves is a positive sign of the industry committing to that. And it’s not like Musgraves hasn’t made back the investment her label has made in her, but the stretch of the Katy Perry pairing makes it appear like they want more from that investment.
What this all speaks to is a deeper, more fundamental issue: If Mercury Nashville, or any other label cannot create successful, or at least mainstream-sustainable careers out of these critically-acclaimed artists, and are forced to reach to outside of the country genre for support, then what is the motivation for these labels and the industry to continue to burn attention and capital on them?
In this respect, Kacey Musgraves must work, and the Katy Perry concert tour must be successful in Kacey’s pursuit of her true fan base. Because if not, Kacey could set the precedent for the rest of the industry of why to not invest in substance.
Meanwhile, all Kacey Musgraves wants to do is write, record, and perform songs. And if she is ultimately going to be successful, that is what she must focus on.
On November 23rd, Outlaw country music artist Wayne Mills was shot & killed at the Pit & Barrell Bar in Nashville, TN by the bar’s owner, Chris Ferrell. After a prolonged investigation, Ferrell was eventually indicted by a Grand Jury on 2nd degree murder charges and then released on bond December 16th and is currently awaiting trial.
One of the reasons the shooting death of Wayne Mills was so tragic is because of where Wayne was in his career when the killing occurred, and where he was going. Mills released a total of six albums during his career, but the only one that continues to be readily available and widely distributed is his last release from 2010, The Last Honky Tonk. But that is not the last album Wayne Mills made. When he was killed, he had just finished up a brand new album called Long Hard Road, and was actively working on getting the album released and distributed.
Long Hard Road was not just another Wayne Mills album. This was the album that Wayne was hoping would be a game changer in his career. It was a collaboration with legendary producer Denny Diante, and the 12-track album included 7 songs co-written by Wayne, with an impressive list of songwriting contributors including Wayne Mills friend Jamey Johnson, Brent Cobb, and Erica “Sunshine” Lee. Press materials had even been drafted and distributed for Long Hard Road . The press release for the album states,
Songs featured on the album include the upbeat âI Need the Countryâ with a sing-along chorus, the hard-hitting outlaw anthem âWhiskey Bent and Jail Boundâ and the title track âLong Hard Roadâ which tells the lonesome tale of a man making bad decisions and working through the consequences. âMy music is the combination of my country roots with the real world I have come to know,â explains Mills. Long Hard Road is a chapter in the songbook of Wayne Millsâ life: leaving no stone unturned when it comes to lyric and life.
Since the death of Wayne Mills, interest in his music and career have dramatically increased, but Long Hard Road remains unreleased and its future somewhat uncertain as the Wayne Mills family and Wayne’s close associates deal with more pressing matters in the aftermath of his passing. But just because Wayne Mills is no longer with us does not mean Wayne is done forging his music legacy, and that his now much larger fan base don’t have new music to look forward to.
Long Hard Road Track List:
Chris Ferrell, the owner of the Pit & Barrel Bar in Nashville, and the man accused of 2nd degree murder in the shooting death of Outlaw country musician Wayne Mills, was in court for the first time today (12-16) in a hearing to determine if his $300,000 bond was fair, and if Ferrell was a flight risk. Ferrell attorney David Raybin argued the bond should be set near $25,000, and that Ferrell could have “run for tall weeds” after the shooting, and didn’t. Assistant District Attorney Rachel Sobrero referenced Ferrellâs history of prior arrests, family ties to different states, charges of domestic assault and interfering with an emergency call that were dismissed this year, and that Ferrell has an upcoming hearing on a vandalism charge. The judge eventually reduced the bond to $150,000, and later Chris Ferrell was released with tight restrictions on his movements, and a court order to stay in close contact with his bail bondsman. Ferrell was also ordered to give up his extensive collection of guns. He was released at 6:54 PM.
Further details came out about the case in the hearing, including that Chris Ferrell not only told officers that the altercation between Wayne Mills started with an argument over smoking in a non-smoking section, but that Wayne came to the Pit & Barrel to “rob and kill” Ferrell. Two guns were found at the scene when police arrived: An empty revolver and a semi-automatic handgun. A private investigator hired by Chris Ferrell, former city homicide detectiveÂ Larry Flair, also found an additional bullet lodged in a wall of the Pit & Barrell, beyond the shots that struck Mills, including the fatal shot to the back of the head according to numerous reports. The indictment of Chris Ferrell came down before the additional bullet was found, and information on whether the bullet was from the same gun used to shoot Wayne Mills, and whether Chris Ferrell is asserting that Wayne Mills was armed has yet to be made available.
More details of the crime scene also emerged. When police arrived at the crime scene, they found a trail of blood from the parking lot to just inside the front door where Mills was laying, breathing but unconscious. There was broken glass surrounding the crime scene, and the two guns were sitting on tables. Chris Ferrell was cooperative with police. What did not come out in the hearing is why it took nearly 10 hours for police to properly identify Wayne Mills, instead believing he was songwriter Clayton Mills.
It also came out today that country artist Shooter Jennings was there on the night Wayne Mills was killed. Shooter Jennings and his manager Jon Hensley had been hanging out with both Chris Ferrell and Wayne Mills earlier in the night and in the days prior to the shooting, along with country performer Jamey Johnson. Shooter Jennings had performed at a show with Wayne Mills two nights before the shooting, and Jennings also performed at the George Jones tribute at the Bridgestone Arena that both Wayne Mills and Chris Ferrell attended together the night before the shooting. Jennings and his manager claim they left right before the shooting occurred.
When Ferrell arrived in court, he was wearing a yellow jumpsuit, meaning he has been placed in protective custody in jail. Ferrell stated that he’s received as many as a dozen death threats from text messages, social media, and voicemail, and that he resorted to wearing a bulletproof vest before turning himself into authorities after the Grand Jury indictment on December 6th.
About this time of year virtually every magazine, website, and blog is bombarding their readership with end-of-year lists of which artists they feel are worthy of the highest praise for their 2013 effort. The whole practice has become a little nauseating for the consumer as the redundancy on many lists and the sheer number of them being pushed through social media erode the underlying concept of the lists: to help listeners break through the din of an overpopulated music landscape to discover the best stuff. Then there’s the ethics questions if music should be approached as competition at all. Ultimately the reason there are so many lists is because they are effective and appealing in helping listeners determine what to listen to.
Included on many, if not virtually all of those 2013 lists, especially in the independent country and Americana realms is the latest effort by former Drive By Trucker turned solo artist Jason Isbell called Southeastern. Seen as the current watermark of his career and a captivating songwriting effort capturing a clear-eyed, post-rehab Isbell at his apex, Southeastern is one of those rare consensus builders amongst critics as one of the year’s best.
Nipping at the heels on some lists, and overtaking Southeastern on others is the debut album High Top Mountain from former Sunday Valley frontman, Kentucky’s Sturgill Simpson. A much more country effort compared to Isbell, but just as bold of a songwriting project, Simpson has many people labeling him as a country music savior, and the artist they have been waiting years for to emerge in the independent country scene.
And not to be outdone is the dark Canadian singing-songwriting vixen Lindi Ortega, and her tantalizing album Tin Star that has also found its way at or near the top of many 2013 lists; an album highlighting her rising voice and remarkable gift for story and composition.
Though the sound of these three respective albums is fairly disparate, their influences are certainly not the same, the artists are from different locales, and the genres they represent are varied shades of the country music theme, they all have one thing in common: a virtually unnoticed and rarely heralded behind-the-scenes producer named Dave Cobb.
Just as the prevalence of year-end lists has grown in recent years, so too it seems has the trend of performing artists getting into the producer game, and big, franchise name producers like T Bone Burnett being heralded more and more for their producer services. Not that someone like Jack White or even Justin Townes Earle can’t make a great producer, or that T Bone Burnett is some kind of slouch. But for some projects, it becomes more about the name on the back of the album in the fine print instead of the name on the front. A producer’s name can be used as a marketing tool, and to create interest from fans and media venues. “The new album produced by the same producer of The Civil Wars!” “The T Bone Burnett-produced debut album, produced by T Bone Burnett!”
The best producers are usually the ones who prefer to remain subordinate to the artists they work with. Similarly, the best producers don’t come in and mold an album to their sound, but help the artists they work with develop their own. Producers aren’t supposed to be noticed. Critics may sometimes mention a producer’s name and how they may have influenced a certain project, but everyday fans just know when they like an album or not. Noticing the production of an album is like noticing an offensive lineman in a football game. It’s rarely a good thing. The focus should be on the music itself.
But that doesn’t mean producers shouldn’t be heralded or receive credit, especially when they’ve had a banner year like Dave Cobb’s 2013. Cobb has enjoyed some other successful albums, and good years in the past too. Similar to how Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and Lindi Ortega have become critical darlings in 2013, Jamey Johnson’s last two original albums that graced the top of many end-of-year lists, That Lonesome Song and The Guitar Song, both featured Dave Cobb at the helm. The Secret Sisters’ self-titled breakout album was also produced by Cobb, and so were Shooter Jennings’ first four records. And his list of producer credits goes on and on from there.
But you would never know all of this unless you went poking around, looking for producer credits and connecting the dots. Dave Cobb is not out to perpetuate his cult of personality through his producership role. He’s just looking to make good music. And in 2013, he certainly did.
- Wayne Mills funeral will be held on Sunday, December 8th. A memorial service will be held in his hometown of Arab, Al at the Arab High School auditorium. Visitation will be held from 9AM until 1PM CST, with the memorial service beginning at 1:30PM, followed by a private burial.
- Investigation into the Mills death is ongoing. Investigators have met with District Attorneys.
- Autopsy conducted on Wayne’s body. Results could take weeks or months.
- Wayne Mills shot three times, once in the back of the head.
Fans and friends of fallen country music songwriter and performer Wayne Mills gathered on Saturday (11-30) at the Somewhere on the Lake Resort on the shores of Lake Guntersville in Alabama for a remembrance of the artist that was shot and killed November 23rd at the Pit & Barrel Bar in Nashville. The 44-year-old Wayne Mills was originally from nearby Arab, AL, and was once a walk-on for the University of Alabama football team. Fellow native Alabaman Jamey Johnson was one of the notable attendees of the gathering, and a silent auction was held with the proceeds going to the Mills family. Other benefits are set to transpire on December 4th at the Tin Roof in Nashville, and the Knotty Pine
in Cincinnati. The Wayne Mills funeral is set to occur on Sunday (12-8).
Weighing heavy on the minds of the Wayne Mills family, friends, and fans attending the remembrance was the still unresolved nature of his passing. Ten days after, and still no arrest has been made, and no resolution to the death that Chris Ferrell, the owner of the Pitt & Barrel Bar and the man that fatally shot Wayne Mills, says happened in self-defense after an altercation erupted when Wayne was smoking in a non-smoking area. It was 5 AM and The Pit & Barrel had been closed for hours. The two men were hanging out together after attending the George Jones Memorial Concert at the Bridgestone Arena in downtown Nashville earlier that night.
Chris Ferrell is the only direct witness to Wayne Mills’ death. There is no other story corroborating Chris Ferrell’s claims, and Wayne Mills is unable to defend himself either in the justice system or the court of public opinion. Information and details about the killing remain scarce, with more questions than answers so far for those searching for closure and resolution. Why has Chris Ferrell not been arrested or been charged with any crime, or at least been named as a suspect? Why for nearly 10 hours after the shooting and for many hours into the investigation were police working under the pretense that the victim was another Nashville songwriter Clayton Mills, and not Wayne Mills? Why did the witnesses that called the police misidentify Wayne, and why did it take so long for Nashville Police investigators to discover the mistake?
According the the Nashville Police Department, the death of Wayne Mills is considered a homicide investigation, and that investigation is still ongoing. On November 25th, investigators from Nashville’s Central Precinct Department met with the District Attorneyâs office to discuss the evidence gathered, and determined that no charges would be brought at that time. Central Precinct detectives remain in close contact with District Attorneys to determine if charges need to be filed as the investigation continues. On November 26th, the autopsy of Wayne Mills was performed, but according to the Medical Examiner’s office, it could be as long as 8 to 14 weeks after the death before any final conclusions are made, and the Medical Examiners Office does not release preliminary conclusions.
Saving Country Music has also confirmed that the fatal shot to Wayne Mills was to the back of the head. Reports that he was shot additional times are unconfirmed. This is the piece of information that many Wayne Mills fans and friends feel clears Wayne from being implicated as being killed in self-defense. How could someone with their back to a shooter be a threat to their life?
Though this may make sense intuitively, forensics and crime scene investigation is a much more complex science, and a shot to the back of the head may not equate to the smoking gun investigators and prosecutors need to make an arrest. If the two men were engaged at close range in a physical altercation, if Wayne Mills was pinning Chris Ferrell around the abdomen, a shot to the back of the head may have been Ferrell’s only option. But Saving Country Music has also learned that the fatal shot to Wayne Mills was fired across the Pit & Barrel bar itself, meaning the two men were on opposite sides of a physical barrier, making an explanation of how a fatal shot to the back of the head was done in self-defense that much more difficult to resolve.
But Nashville Police investigators still need to have probable cause to make an arrest. If Chris Ferrell had made an effort to flee, if he had tampered with the evidence, or otherwise attempted to conceal exactly what had happened, if he had not been cooperative or forthright with the investigators, then the police would have some merit of culpability against Chris Ferrell—that Chris believed he was guilty and was trying to cover his tracks with a self-defense story. But none of that occurred, and there’s no reason for officers to not believe that Chris Ferrell, who was very emotionally distraught after the killing, felt he was in fear for his life.
There is also the fact that the shooting occurred at 5 AM, after both men had been up for hours, and likely drinking. Both men also have prior arrest records. Chris Ferrell has been arrested twice for driving on a suspended license, though both charges were later dismissed. He was also arrested in July for domestic violence involving a bartender he was dating, and a vandalism charge that is pending. Wayne Mills was charged with driving under the influence and for reckless endangerment when he grazed a police officer on the highway in 2010. Then there was the unfortunate airing of the Spike TV episode of Bar Rescue that ironically featured the very Pit & Barrel Bar where the killing occurred, airing on the same week of Wayne’s death and showcasing a belligerent and high-tempered Chris Ferrell. Then FOX 17 in Nashville surfaced a picture showing both Wayne Mills and Chris Ferrell in the same frame, with Ferrell proudly flashing his handgun.
But since most, if not all of the on-the-ground investigation has been concluded, and it could take weeks or months for the full autopsy to conclude, it is hard to see where the breakthrough in the Wayne Mills case could come from. It’s beginning to feel like this may be a case that could take weeks, months, or longer to resolve. Investigators are trying to piece together an evidence puzzle while relying on a potential suspect as their only witness. The fact that the other witnesses, the ones that heard the shots and made the 9-11 call, were also where the misidentification of Wayne Mills originated is also not an idle fact. The mistaken identity of Wayne Mills may be where this homicide investigation hinges, but police must find more evidence or information to make an arrest, or to fully excuse Chris Ferrell from investigation.
Other questions from the investigation still remain. Did Chris Ferrell show any physical evidence, any physical harm done to him—bruises, cuts, etc.—to corroborate that Wayne Mills was being physically threatening? If Wayne Mills was acting aggressively, why did he need to be shot in the back of the head? Wouldn’t another, less fatal part of the body be more appropriate? Was Chris Ferrell drunk at the time of the shooting? Was he on drugs? Was Wayne Mills drunk or on drugs? Why did Chris Farrell not call 9-11 when the situation seemed to be escalating out of control? Why was it the witnesses outside that called 9-11, and not Ferrell after he shot Wayne? Why was Chris Ferrell not able to help resolve the identity discrepancy earlier in the investigation? And why did Ferrell re-open the Pit & Barrel so quickly?
Website The Class Action Lawsuit has looked into the particulars of the Wayne Mills case as they are known at the moment, and has offered some clarifications on how a self-defense claim could be handled in a bar scenario. “Self-defense gives a person the justified right to counteract violence or force, to prevent an injury or harm and to protect oneself,” says the website. “Though a bar room brawl seems like a natural context for self-defense, there are a number of circumstances that must exist before self-defense can function as a valid justification for shooting someone in a place of business.”
The website gives requisites for Chris Ferrell to claim self-defense as:
- Ferrell was not the initial aggressor;
- Ferrell had a reasonable and honest belief that he was in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury;
- Mills never retreated from the fight;
- Ferrell did not consent to Millsâ force; and
- Ferrell used a proportional amount of force.
The Class Action Lawsuit website also says, “Itâs unclear whether the amount of force used by Ferrell was proportional to the type of force it was meant to prevent. He went for the jugular, so to speak, when he shot Mills in the head. Ferrell wonât be able to claim self-defense if the gunshot to Millsâ head was excessive. Killing someone with a gun in response to someone who was verbally insulting you, for example, would never suffice as self-defense. But if Mills was also wielding a gun, the ‘fighting fire with fire’ rationale may apply.”
If the case remains at a stalemate, that doesn’t mean that investigators, or the friends and family of Wayne Mills, don’t have options. A Grand Jury could be called to consider the evidence and potentially hand down an indictment. The Grand Jury system is sometimes employed in cases where the evidence and circumstances are complex, and District Attorney’s have difficulty assigning charges. Tennessee is a Grand Jury state, and the Grand Jury / indictment system was just used on another murder investigation in Nashville where a mother was indicted in the death of her 3-year-old son. However, as another indication that the Wayne Mills case may take a while to resolve, the indictment was brought 7 months after the incident.
The Wayne Mills family could address Wayne’s death as a civil matter and pursue a wrongful death lawsuit. Sometimes wrongful death is easier to prove than criminal charges. There was no obvious premeditation in the Wayne Mills killing, at least from what we know, but maybe manslaughter charges are more appropriate in this case, seeing how lethal force was used on what we believe to be an unarmed man, when Chris Ferrell may have had other options to subdue Wayne Mills if Wayne was in fact acting aggressively.
The case could also be elevated to the state level.
Aside from the obligation of investigators to presume innocence and prove guilt, the climate surrounding claims of self-defense has never been more favorable, with stand your ground laws, concealed weapons permits (which Chris Ferrell had), and other laws governing how authorities must handle self-defense claims giving deference to the individuals claiming self-defense.
Most notably the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida resulted in an acquittal of all charges against neighborhood watch coordinator George Zimmerman, despite some evidence that deadly force was not necessary. On November 29th, a Georgia man fatally shot a 72-year-old Alzheimer’s patient 4 times after he knocked on his back door at 4 AM. He has yet to be charged with any crime.
Musician Carter Albrect who used to play in The New Bohemians and was a member of the Dallas-based band Sorta was shot and killed in 2007 after becoming disoriented after drinking and taking an anti-smoking drug, and mistakenly banging on the door of his girlfriend’s neighbor, resulting in a warning shot being fired through the door that struck Albrect. No charges were ever filed against the homeowner.
But none of these cases fall under Tennessee law or are being handled by Nashville District Attorneys, and they all fall under individuals protecting their homes and private property. In a place of business, and specifically a bar is where this case falls into a gray area that may make it hard for prosecutors to bring charges.
10 days after the death of Wayne Mills, and there’s still much anger, confusion, questions, and worry amongst friends, family, and fans of the fallen artist. They want answers and closure. But the story of the death of Wayne Mills, and the path towards its resolution, may have just begun.
***NOTE: This story has been updated. Please see further updates at bottom.
Outlaw country music singer-songwriter and performer Wayne Mills of the Wayne Mills Band has been pronounced dead at Vanderbilt University Medical Center after being shot in the head at 5 AM this morning outside of the Pit and Barrel bar at 515 2nd Ave in Nashville. “God be with us all in this tragedy……” was posted on Wayne’s Facebook page.
44 year-year-old Jerald Wayne Mills was at the Pit and Barrel early this morning when apparently an altercation erupted with the owner, Chris Michael Ferrell, after Wayne was smoking in a non-smoking area. Everyone else in the bar went outside, and later witnesses heard gunshots fired and called police. Ferrell told police he acted in self-defense.The bar owner has a valid handgun carry permit. Chris Ferrell and Wayne Mills were reportedly good friends, and they were hanging out at the bar after attending the George Jones Tribute earlier in the evening.
Earlier today when reports first surfaced, Wayne Mills was mistakenly identified by witnesses as another Nashville songwriter, Clayton Mills, who has written songs for acts like Darius Rucker and Diamond Rio. Wayne was in “extremely critical condition” all day. Wayne’s manager J.R. Smith earlier this evening posted, “It is so hard for me right now to post this. Wayne was shot early this morning by a club owner in Nashville. Things aren’t looking good right now. Please send prayers to Wayne and his family.”
Wayne Mills is originally from the very small town of Arab in Northern Alabama. He attended Wallace State Junior College as a baseball player, and eventually played football for the University of Alabama. Mills earned his degree in education and formed the Wayne Mills Band which became one of the hottest college bands on the honky tonk circuit.
Though Mills never rose to become a household name, his influence on country music cannot be overstated. He was close personal friends with Jamey Johnson, and was on tour with Jamey just last week, playing shows in New Orleans and Tuscaloosa. Jamey once opened for Wayne when he was making his way up in the ranks, so did future CMA Entertainer of the Year Blake Shelton, and American Idol winner Taylor Hicks. Mills also shared the stage with Blackberry Smoke, and toured both Europe and Australia during his 15-plus years of touring experience. Mills received the Guardian Award by the Outlaw Music Hall of Fame just last month to recognize his “hard work and unwavering commitment to their music and their fans and best exemplify the tradition of those who came before.”
Wayne Mills is survived by his wife Carol, and son Jack. A fund has been set up for those wanting to donate to Wayne and his family.
UPDATE (11-24-13 12:35 PM CST): An episode of the Spike TV bar series Bar Rescue that features both the Pit and Barrel bar and bar owner Chris Ferrell is set to air tonight, 11-24. Friends and family of Wayne Mills have asked that the show not air as scheduled. The episode reportedly depicts Chris Ferrell acting out, and he is told to remove the guns from the bar. No update from Spike TV has been given at the moment on whether they intend to air the episode, or not. A petition has been set up to try and stop the airing of the episode.
UPDATE (11-24-13 3:27 PM CST): According to Spike TV, the network has decided to not air their episode on the Pit and Barrel scheduled to air tonight.
Numerous country artists have been tweeting their sadness at the passing of Wayne Mills, and the support for his family. Blake Shelton tweeted out last night, “Extremely sad to hear about the death of my old friend Wayne Mills… Rest in peace brother. Love you Carol.” Jamey Johnson tweeted out R.I.P @WayneMillsBand such a sad day.
UPDATE 11-24-13 11:55 PM CST): On Sunday night Fox 17 in Nashville aired an in-depth report about the shooting that included footage and interviews from a gathering of Wayne Mills friends. In the report, a picture surfaced that shows Wayne Mills and Chris Ferrell in the same photograph, with Ferrell casually showing a gun. Chris Ferrell is 3rd from the left with the gun, and Wayne Mills is peering over the crowd in the near right of the photo.
Ferrell has also been arrested twice for driving on a suspended license, though both charges were later dismissed. Wayne Mills also has an arrest history. He was charged with driving under the influence and for reckless endangerment when he grazed a police officer on the highway in 2010.
UPDATE 11-25-13 6:20 PM CST): The sister of Wayne Mills, Paula Lemons spoke to an Alabama Fox affiliate about the shooting.
“IÂ want the truth andÂ I want this man to be held responsible for his actions….I want him to know that in five seconds he changed so many lives that can’t be undone.Â IÂ trust God.Â I don’t understand it butÂ I trust God andÂ I know that God loved Wayne more than anyone on this earth….He always wanted to play for Alabama. It was his dream and he made it come true. He was a walk-on and got to play. And then while he was going to Alabama, he starting picking the guitar and he started playing music….He was very funny and loved his family and his friends.”
The inaugural inductees to the Outlaw Music Hall of Fame set to open inÂ the Spring of 2014 in Lynchburg, TN have been unveiled. In an eventÂ carried live during a 3-day concert in Altamont, TN, the 17 initial inductees were announcedÂ in two different categories: Pioneers/Innovators (Pre-1970), and Highwaymen (1970-1990).
Along with the official inductees, the Outlaw Music Hall of Fame also announced Guardian Award winners. The Guardian Award is not a Hall of Fame induction, but a one-year award meant to honor an artist’sÂ hard work and unwavering commitment to their music and their fans and best exemplify the tradition of those who came before them. The Hall of Fame also announced that fans will be able to vote on Guardian Award winners in the upcoming years.
OUTLAW HALL OF FAME INDUCTEES
- Hank Williams Sr.
- Loretta Lynn
- The Carter FamilyÂ
- Bobby Bare
- Chris GantryÂ
- Willie Nelson
- Waylon Jennings
- David Allan Coe
- Kris Kristofferson
- Merle Haggard
- Johnny Cash
- Johnny Paycheck
- Sammi SmithÂ
- Steve Young
- Jessi Colter
- Hank Williams Jr.Â
- Billy Joe Shaver
- Dallas Moore
- Wayne Mills
- Hank Williams III
- Jamey Johnson
- Whitey MorganÂ
The Hall of Fame is dedicated to those artists, both musicians and songwriters, whose work best exemplifies the qualities of the Outlaw movement that first began in the 1970â˛s and has gained renewed momentum as an alternative to the current Nashville pop country scene. In doing so it will place the spotlight on music firmly attached to the roots of country. Moreover, the Hall of Fame will educate the public about Outlaw country, memorialize founders of the genreâsuch as Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Jessi Colterârecognize current Outlaw artists, and provide a platform for them and for the independent record labels who currently have little if any voice in the industry.
The facility, due to open in spring of 2014, will encompass more than 5,000 square feet and feature a state-of-the-art layout, including interactive displays. There will also be a studio to allow for live broadcasts to be streamed over the Internet. Located on the town square in Lynchburg, the Outlaw Music Hall ofÂ Fame will sponsor a concert series each April to November to showcase independent roots country artists.
It’s so easy to get swept up in stereotyping mainstream country as being completely void of anything worth your time these days, but in truth there’s still a lot of great music in the popular music world, however a small percentage it might be of the total package. Saying the mainstream has nothing good to offer is narrowing your musical experience no different than saying that music is bad because it’s not popular. Life is too short to impose unnecessary limitations on your music perspective, and a strong case could be made that mainstream country has actually become better over the past few years when it comes to mainstream country’s females.
Some quick ground rules: Not included here are legends who still might be considered part of the mainstream but are obvious even to independent fans like George Strait, Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, Reba, and even more contemporary names like Martina McBride and Lee Ann Womack. They go without saying. Many consider Eric Church and Miranda Lambert as exceptions to the mainstream rules, but they’re both sort of their own case studies. Same could be said for the Pistol Annies who it is unclear if they even still exist at the moment. And of course if you think there’s a mainstream artist worth listening to not mentioned here, please feel to leave their name below in the comments. And just to clarify the term “mainstream,” consider it an artist that is on a major Nashville label, or has been on a major Nashville label recently.
In many respects you can’t blame independent fans of being a little suspicious of a former American Idol contestant signed to Sony who just won Dancing With The Stars. But Kellie Pickler’s staunchly authentic album 100 Proof was so damn good, Sony dropped her and she became the poster girl for taking back the music in 2012. Since then Kellie Pickler has done nothing but re-affirm her career path of doing things her own way and fighting for the integrity of the music, measuring success not by album sales, but how true she is being to herself. Pickler may not top the Billboard charts, but she’s become a critic’s favorite and an inspirational story of what can happen when a mainstream artist stands up for themselves.
I’m not sure what is more miraculous, that Easton Corbin is able to get away with being as country as he is in the mainstream, or that’s he’s actually been able to find some commercial success with that sound. Though some independent fans might find him a little cheesy, it is hard to deny that Easton Corbin’s music has substance, and the songwriting and traditional approach to his music is refreshing. Even his big #1 “A Little More Country Than That,” which some may decry as a laundry list song is at least country as it lists out its countryisms, and was written by Roy Lee Feek of the traditional group Joey + Rory. Singed to Mercury Nashville, Easton Corbin deserves as much credit as anyone for trying to keep the mainstream honest.
Though her much-anticipated debut album maybe have been a little more cautious than what her long-time fans know she’s capable of, Kacey Musgraves still remains the symbol of how songs and songwriting are making a resurgence in 2013. Though she has yet to have one Top 10 single, with support from her label Mercury Records, she has reached the very top echelon of female performers in the country music industry, somehow becoming a perennial shoe-in for the “Female Vocalist of the Year” nominations from both the CMA and ACM Awards seemingly overnight, and getting nominated for more CMA Awards in 2013 than anyone except for Taylor Swift who she equals with 6. Though Musgraves still needs to prove her muster as a country superstar by delivering a big single, she has already proven to be a fan and critic favorite, and has springboarded to the very top of the business despite her underdog status.
They may be signed to the Country Music Anti-Christ Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Records (same as Taylor Swift, Rascal Flatts, etc.), but you won’t find a better, and at times, more outspoken artist and band than Raul Malo and the Mavericks. In 1995, The Mavericks won “Vocal Group of the Year” for both the CMA’s, ACM’s, and the Grammy’s, but their hard-to-define sound proved to be too much for mainstream country to handle on its journey south to pure pop. But The Mavericks remain solid members of the mainstream world, even working as the house band for the 2013 CMT Awards. Their latest album In Time is as good as any.
The vixen-esque career songwriter with eyes the size of Cajun tires has been slaying audiences for years with her solo material and her work with the Pistol Annies, and now that she’s unleashed her much-anticipated solo album Like A Rose through Columbia Nashville, Ashley symbolizes the one glimmer of what could be considered traditional country in mainstream channels. As expected, with music as authentic as hers, the industry has been timid to get behind her and deliver the radio plays and awards she deserves, but she still remains one of traditional country’s biggest mainstream champions.
Because Gary Allan has always resided just one tier shy of country music’s top names, it’s easy to be mislead just how much commercial success he’s seen over the years. Over his 17-year career with Decca and MCA Nashville, he’s been awarded two platinum records, two gold records, eleven Top Ten hits, and four #1′s. Yes, he’s had some singles that are clearly courting of mainstream radio, and he himself would tell you his sound is just as much, if not more rock than country. But Gary Allan is one of those guys that can still get attention from country radio without making you gag, while album cuts show a real sincerity to his music. He also has been outspoken about the state of country music recently (though he did back peddle somewhat afterwards).
Say what you will about one of the co-writers of “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” Jamey Johnson was able to take a very traditional sound and authentic country songs and make it to the very top of the charts and industry awards in a business that is usually unforgiving to this type of true style. His double album opus The Guitar Song sneaked its way all the way to #1 on the Billboard charts upon its debut, and his song “In Color” won Song of the Year accolades from both the CMA and ACM Awards in 2009, and was nominated for a Grammy. Though his original output has slowed as of late and he’s apparently not writing and frustrated at his contract situation, his 2012 Hank Cochran tribute still charted #3 on the Billboard Country Albums chart.
After Zac Brown recently made some inflammatory statements about Luke Bryan’s song “That’s My Kind of Night,” his own country career came under intense scrutiny. Brown has always been out front saying he believes he is more Southern rock than country, but appreciative of all the support the country industry has given him, which has been huge to the tune of being a perennial contender for Vocal Group awards at both the CMA and ACM’s. Songs like “Chicken Fried” and his numerous beach tunes leave him open to criticism, but it is still hard to not name Zac Brown as so much better than your average mainstream country music fare.
When discussions are broached about mainstream country artists that still have substance, Dierks’ name invariably comes up. Throughout his career, he’s strived to create a balance between courting radio and creating a music legacy that isn’t devoid of creative expression. With albums like Up On The Ridge, Dierks progressive and traditional fans glimmers of hope. But then he will turn right back around on you and put out the biggest cry for commercial attention, giving listeners a headache of where they’re supposed to be with him. In the end it’s best to resolve that Dierks will likely always be a mixed bag, but is worth appreciating when he does decide to do country music right.
In the constant, eternal, and sometimes nauseating back and forth argument about the direction of country music, it is easy to focus in on the big celebrity franchise names who sing and perform the songs as the primary culprits for the consternation about what country music has become. But it may be short-sighted to think that these select few celebrities, or even the industry professionals behind them, are singularly to blame, or even deserve the majority of criticism.
In Zac Brown’s recent disparaging comments about Luke Bryan’s hit “That’s My Kind Of Night,” Zac went out of his way to lay as little blame as possible on Luke Bryan. Instead it was the song itself, and its songwriters that drew the brunt of Zac Brown’s ire. “You can look and see some of the same songwriters on every one of the songs,” Zac said. “Thereâs been like 10 number one songs in the last two or three years that were written by the same people and itâs the exact same words, just arranged different ways.”
Though Zac didn’t name any names, the likely target of Zac’s criticism was country songwriter Dallas Davidson. Davidson was one of three songwriters on “That’s My Kind Of Night,” and is one of Nashville’s hottest songwriting commodities with a string of major hits to his name.
As one of the primary originators of the current country checklist / tailgate craze in country music, as well as the trend of instilling urban jargon and themes into what is traditionally considered rural music, you can point to Dallas Davidson just as much as the artists that perform his songs as one of the primary drivers of country music’s current mainstream sound.
Dallas Davidson is the reigning ACM Songwriter of the Year, was the 2011 Songwriter of the Year for BMI, and has also received 3 CMA “Triple Play” awards, which recognize songwriters for having three #1 songs in the same year, including six #1 songs in 2011 alone. As songwriters go, Davidson is as decorated as any at the moment. Dallas isn’t just one of the most influential songwriters in Nashville, he’s one of the most influential individuals right now in the entire country music business, with his songs dominating the charts and influencing the current direction of the format.
Davidson’s first breakout song was “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” co-written by Jamey Johnson and Randy Houser. The troika wrote the song in 2004 when hanging out at a club together, and reportedly completed it in an hour. When Trace Adkins released it as a single in 2005, it became a huge commercial success. “Honky Tonk Badonka Donk” is given credit for launching the careers of all three of its songwriters, but where Jamey Johnson would veer towards becoming one of the mainstream’s few traditional-leaning singer/songwriting performers, and Randy Houser would go more in the pop country performance direction, Dallas Davidson stuck to being primarily an off-the-stage and behind-the-scenes writer of hits.
“Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” could be counted as mainstream country’s first major country rap hit, making Dallas Davidson one of the first country rap hit songwriters, predating Colt Ford and Cowboy Troy. But Davidson wouldn’t stop there. Here 8 years later, Davidson is responsible for both the #1 country rap singles of 2013—the aforementioned “That’s My Kind Of Night” performed by Luke Bryan, and Blake Shelton’s “Boys ‘Round Here.”
In between, “Honky Tonk Badonka Donk” and today, Dallas Davidson had Luke Bryan cut his country rap dance tune “Country Girl (Shake It For Me),” and wrote many other prominent singles that have made it onto the Billboard charts, including Luke Bryan’s 2010 #1 “Rain Is A Good Thing,” Lady Antebellum’s #1′s “Just A Kiss” and “We Owned The Night,” Justin Moore’s #1 “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away,” Brad Paisley’s #1 “Start A Band,” and Billy Currington’s #1 “That’s How Country Boys Roll.”
Dallas Davidson has accumulated more songwriting success in the last 3 years than anyone, but his output would probably be better characterized as potent as opposed to prolific. He’s not one of these songwriters who seems to have half a dozen singles on the charts at any given time, but the songs he contributes to tend to have demonstrative success and impact on the sonic and lyrical direction of country.
Another prominent songwriter who is contributing to the sonic direction of country music and the emergence of country rap is Luke Laird. Luke was the writer of Jason Aldean’s “1994″ and Trace Adkin’s “Hillbilly Bone.” At the same time, Luke Laird has worked intimately with many other stars from a wide swath of the country music world. Laird co-wrote the majority of songs on Kacey Musgraves’ recent album Same Trailer, Different Park. He co-wrote 3 songs on Eric Church’s 2012 CMA and ACM Album of the Year Chief, he co-wrote Little Big Town’s big hit “Pontoon,” and 10 songs for Carrie Underwood in the last 5 years. In fact it might be easier to list the artists Luke Laird has not worked with than the elongated list of artists that he’s contributed lyrics to since starting in 2005.
Same could be said for the ultra prolific professional songwriter Shane McAnally, who co-wrote Kacey Musgraves’ “Merry Go ‘Round” with Luke Laird and Kacey, as well as 8 other songs on Musgraves’ Same Trailer, Different Park. He also co-wrote “Mama’s Broken Heart” with Musgraves and performed by Miranda Lambert, giving McAnally two songs in both the Single and Song of the Year nominations for the 2013 CMA’s.
What’s quizzical about McAnally’s output is how he seems to be all over the map in regards to his tastes and influences. On the surface he seems to be a writer who works with more substance compared to Luke Laird and Dallas Davidson, but he’s also given credit for co-writing Florida Georgia Line’s “Party People,” and Lady Antebellum’s ultra-saccharine “Downtown.” But then McAnally turned around and wrote Wade Bowen’s recent single “Trucks,” which pokes fun of Music Row’s recent country checklist trends, perpetrated by songwriters like Dallas Davidson.
But more importantly, you put these three songwriters together, along with a handful of select few others, and they constitute and impressive block of what makes up mainstream radio’s playlists, while populating many of the top spots of the country music charts. The faces of the performers may change, but the names of the songwriters tend to stay the same. Where it is seen as counterproductive by the music industry to have an artist with multiple singles on the radio at the same time competing with each other, songwriters don’t have such restrictions, blending into the background and rarely being regarded by the mass public.
The mass public may also be perplexed why the songwriting process always seems to happen in 3′s. Dallas Davidson is from Georgia, and is a member of the industry famous “Peach Pickers” songwriting team with co-writers Rhett Atkins and Ben Hayslip. A long-standing tradition in country songwriting called “Third For A Word” makes it possible for songwriters and performers to simply contribute one word to a composition and be awarded an equal share of credit and royalties for the song. Recently this trend has seen some big name performers jumping on to contribute very little to a song, but snatching up lucrative royalty compensation for their small contributions. Songwriters might allow this to happen so their compositions will get cut by big celebrity performers. Similarly, if songwriters like Dallas Davidson, Luke Laird, and Shane McAnally have their names on a song, it can mean a significant spike in interest from labels and performers since they are such hot commodities.
Country music is a copy cat business, as can be seen in the continuance of using the same songwriters over and over in songs that sound very similar both sonically and lyrically. As explained in a recent article about the science behind music, popular music is losing its diversity. It is easy to single out the artists who are performing these songs, but many times they are simply following orders. Some artists are given certain latitude in picking the songs they will cut, and some like Miranda Lambert, or artists on Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Records may have more latitude than others. But as industry professionals attempt to spy trends and exploit them commercially through a label’s talent roster, more and more the songwriting process becomes very streamlined, relying on formulas and professionals who know how to optimize ideas for optimum radio play.
But beyond the process, the songs coming out of the Nashville / Music Row system are stimulating a backlash from their lack of quality like never before. Since the beginning of country music, there has always been sects that believe country is being influenced too much by other genres, but in the last few weeks, artists who have reached the very top of success in the industry are speaking out in greater numbers. As much as Music Row and certain artists may want to laugh off this criticism, it speaks to the larger issue of substance in the genre, and how it could jeopardize the long term viability of the format.
In responding to Zac Brown’s criticism of the current state of country music, songwriter Dallas Davidson said, “We write about what we know about. What I know about is sitting on a tailgate drinking a beer. Hell I live on the river. When Luke called me to tell me about what happened, I was literally smoking Boston butts on my homemade cooker at my 800 square foot river house with about four of my buddies with their trucks backed up, sitting on a tailgate.”
Davidson’s comments reaffirm what an independent Texas songwriter named Possessed by Paul James told Saving Country Music in a recent interview. “When looking at the majority of music, itâs not a cultural voice of change, itâs just a reflection. Itâs not encouraging us to do anything, itâs just reflecting, like on my âRed Solo Cup.ââ
Songs about tailgates are not inherently bad, and certainly every song does not have to be about a deep subject. It is the monopolization of the format with the same homogenizing subject matter where it becomes a problem—where one tailgate song leads into another tailgate song, and yet another, regardless of the song’s performer because the person or persons that wrote the song are the same, or are being influenced by similar trends.
Whether it is a financial portfolio, and educational environment, or an environmental eco-system, diversity is always championed as the key to a healthy balance and to long-term sustainability. As the pool of songwriters contributing to mainstream country’s sound continues to narrow, it leaves country’s future resting on the output of a few select pens.
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