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No, this is not a quote uttered on Saving Country Music by me or some other concerned country music fan, though similar sentiments have certainly been conveyed here on many occasions. This is the sentiment of the owner of an indie R&B label speaking on behalf of a genre under siege by the historic whitewashing of American music occurring at the hands of the massive radio consolidation and national syndication, and Billboard’s new chart rules that give extra credit to songs that stray outside their original genre.
All the fears, all the warnings sounded by concerned music fans and observers of media by the passing of the Telecommunications Act in 1996 and the revisions in 2003 that heavily laxed the laws regulating radio station ownership in America, and when Billboard changed their chart rules in 2012 to boost crossover songs, have now come to fruition. This is now not only a country vs. pop, or young vs. old problem. This is a man vs. woman problem as has been widely documented in country music coverage over the last year from the severe lack of women on country radio, and apparently from the perspective of many rap and R&B outfits and artists, it’s also a black vs. white issue. More and more, whether it’s labeled as country, hip hop, or R&B, if music is popular, it is probably being made by a white male, and it probably doesn’t sound like any genre specifically, but all genres generally.
Saving Country Music has been making the case for years that all popular music is heading to a mono-genre. Now concerned participants in music genres across the spectrum are clamoring about the watered-down encroachment of other genres on their music, worried their cultural identity and musical institutions are headed towards end times. When talking about the concert pairing of hip hop artist Nelly with pop country act Florida Georgia Line last week, Saving Country Music highlighted one concerned rap journalist that said that the rap genre was “more vulnerable than ever to interlopers and synthesists eager to run their sound through the Vitamix of popular music with such speed and force it’s impossible to determine the ingredients … Actual new rap songs are ceaselessly weighing down the genre itself with the junky detritus of other styles.”
Now artists and labels in the R&B field are noticing they’re getting a raw deal from the music industry, and are specifically laying the blame on the same radio consolidation causing the gentrification of country, and pointing their fingers at Billboard’s Hot 100 chart that for the first time in the chart’s 55-year history did not have one African American artist reach #1 at any time during the entirety of 2013. One of the reasons for this statistical anomaly is because genre-bending Caucasian acts like Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, who were hip hop’s big mainstream representation in 2013, and Robin Thicke, who was R&B’s big 2013 artist, have been dominating the music landscape, while the originators and innovators in the genre go more unnoticed.
Jeff Robinson, President and CEO of R&B outfit MBK Entertainment recently told Billboard, “With radio all playing the same songs by the same artists it’s difficult to break through. Even top producers are reluctant to work with new artists, preferring to take the easier way out to work with more established ones.”
This trend has made some question whether popular American music has turned their back on black performers, while at the same time co-opting their style and homogenizing it for a wider, and whiter audience. Co-opting traditionally black music and marketing it to a white audience is certainly the case in country, with top acts like Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean, and Blake Shelton performing chart-topping country rap songs. The trend sent one hip hop writer named Sebastien Elkouby over the tipping point, stimulating him to post a rant in late January, saying in part,
Dear Black Artists,
We regret to inform you that the need for your services will soon come to an end as we enter a critical restructuring period. Fortunately, after having spent nearly a century meticulously studying your art, language, fashion, and lifestyle, we have learned enough to confidently move forward without your assistance. We thank you for your contributions but have decided to make some necessary changes as a result of your decreasing value. Focus groups show that consumers are looking for more relatable images.
The topic of race and music also stimulated one well-respected financial adviser named Chris Rizik—the Chief Executive Officer and Fund Manager of the Renaissance Venture Capital Fund—to give his own detailed take on what is wrong with music. He lays the blame right at the feet of radio consolidation—not just from the perspective of a music fan or or one interested in preserving the diversity in popular music both sonically and racially, but as someone who very intimately understands how business works, and the cyclical nature of how firms rise and fall.
There is an age old problem in business that repeats itself, generation after generation. Small businesses become large ones by being aggressive, creative risk takers. But over time, tremendous size and power can slowly turn a business from an edgy risk taker into a monolithic institution whose approach changes from “playing to win” to “playing not to lose.” So instead of pushing the entrepreneurial qualities that made it grow, its culture becomes consumed with ways to simply keep what it already has.
This is most certainly the case with Clear Channel, Cumulus, and many other companies with big radio station holdings. For example, Clear Channel’s current model is one of trying to restructure their way out of massive quarterly losses of over $300 million not by being innovative, but through cutting costs by casting off local talent in lieu of big, national personalities. Despite research showing that radio needs to focus more on local talent to offer an alternative to upstart streaming services, Clear Channel sallies forth with their cost cutting measure as their revenue deficits continue to grow.
Chris Rizik continues:
Broadcast popular radio – which through consolidation is now controlled by a few major companies … is making all the wrong decisions. In its heyday, it was both the dominant form of music delivery and the place to find new music, with local program directors creatively duking it out to break new songs. But in 2014, facing alternative music discovery sources ranging from YouTube to Spotify to internet radio … And incredibly, its response has been to combat those aggressive upstarts by growing even more conservative. Unwieldy in size, its programming is now largely done nationally, and focuses on playing smaller, safer playlists filled exclusively with established hits … This narcissistic approach, which attempts to avoid any perceived risk in programming, yields both a less interesting product and a perverse effect with regard to race on radio.
Chris Rizik then goes on to predict corporate radio’s insistence on ignoring all the studies and all the signs that national syndication is not working will result in a churning over of the format.
In the end, while the “whitewashing” of pop radio is both frustrating and maddening, a historical perspective provides some solace: From the demise of once-mighty corporations to the fall of empires, history has consistently shown that those organizations that stifle innovation and creativity and instead fight to preserve the status quo end up accelerating their own fall. So at a time when broadcast radio could better survive by becoming more creative, more inclusive and more local, it is moving the other direction, laying down a welcome mat for every innovative competitor.
What all this spells out is that ironically, though country fans and artists, and hip hop/ R&B fans and artists have traditionally been considered at the polar opposites of the sonic spectrum, they can find consensus around the idea of preserving the sonic autonomy of their respective genres. It’s not the blending of the genres that is bringing certain country and rap fans together, it is the opposition to it. When you scrape off the top layer of the most popular artists of America’s major music genre’s, you’re left with a large disenfranchised majority that would prefer to see the preservation of diversity in American music and on radio, instead of one big amalgam of influences being performed by a handful of white guys with fake Ebonic accents, no cultural compass, and a creatively-vacant, caricaturist take on the true expressions of America’s vast, beautiful, and diverse musical lineage.
…that includes Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, and Thompson Square? Ugh…
Not since the second installment of the Waylon – The Music Inside series was released with the names of Colt Ford and Justin Moore making their way on the track list have we had such a quizzical collection of artists for a tribute album. As cool as it is to see any attention paid to Merle these days from the mainstream establishment, and to see Merle’s much-deserving song Ben Haggard make the cut of contributors, hearing Luke Bryan covering “Pancho & Lefty” (and is that really a Merle song anyway?) or Dustin Lynch taking time from singing about tractor sex to offer his take on “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” is not what’s going to get your average Merle fan’s motor running.
The Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard compilation out April 1st (no fooling) is being put together by Broken Bow Records, and of course, just like many of these tributes recently, it’s mostly a showcase of label talent with a “tribute” as the backdrop. Jason Aldean, Kristy Lee Cook, Dustin Lynch, Joe Nichols, Randy Houser, Parmalee, and Thompson Square all reside on Broken Bow and bow in on the track list, most with two contributions.
And if you were hoping that maybe they would approach this thing with the Merle spirit, just listen to what Luke Bryan has to say about his very ”Mumford & Sons” take on “Pancho & Lefty”: “The original had a Spanish-Mexican flair. We took a real different approach with it …. something with some edge that moves along pretty good. It’s an interesting take.”
Something else interesting: They begged Garth Brooks to allow them to use his cover of “Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down” from his recent blockbuster Blame It All On My Roots box set. But just like the box set, you can only get the song if you buy the tribute from Wal-Mart.
Complicating the love-hate relationship a true Merle fan might have with this compilation, the ACM Awards being held April 6th are planning to bestow Merle Haggard with a Crystal Milestone Award as part of the ACM festivities, with this tribute as the centerpiece. Once again, it’s great to see the ACM’s or anyone in the mainstream acknowledge Merle (even if it’s half a decade after Taylor Swift was given the same Crystal Milestone Award), but you wonder how much of this is just a platform for Broken Bow to display their own talent.
Luckily if you’re looking for Merle Haggard tributes with not as many question marks swirling around them, there’s been a few of great ones released recently. Suzy Bogguss released Lucky last month: a 12-song tribute to The Hag. And Vince Gill with Paul Franklin paid tribute to Merle & Buck Owens last year with Bakersfield.
Track list for Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard:
- Misery and Gin, Randy Houser
- Footlights, Joe Nichols
- Going Where the Lonely Go, Jason Aldean
- Today I Started Loving You Again, Kristy Lee Cook
- Carolyn, Toby Keith
- Pancho and Lefty, Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley
- Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down, Garth Brooks (Walmart edition only)
- You Take Me for Granted, Thompson Square
- Mama Tried, Ben Haggard
- That’s the Way Love Goes, Dustin Lynch
- Make Up and Faded Blue Jeans, Jake Owen
- I’m a Lonesome Fugitive, James Wesley
- Workin’ Man Blues, Parmalee
- Are the Good Times Really Over, Jason Aldean
- Let’s Chase Each Other Around the Room, Thompson Square
- I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink, Dustin Lynch
- The Fightin’ Side of Me, James Wesley
- My Favorite Memory, Joe Nichols
- Ramblin’ Fever, Randy Houser
- Sing Me Back Home, Ben Haggard
For the first time ever, two high-powered country and rap acts will tour together, as fast-rising country duo Florida Georgia Line will be paired up with hip-hop artist Nelly in an upcoming summer tour of American Ballparks.
The cross-genre pairing first happened when a remix of Florida Georgia Line’s smash hit “Cruise” featuring Nelly was released to radio in April of 2013. The remix propelled the song to eventually become the longest-charting #1 single in this history of country music, and “Cruise” has gone on to sell 6.6 million copies and become the best-selling digital country single of all time.
“Last year we played the ballpark in Lexington, Ky., and it was an epic night,” Brian Kelley of Florida Georgia Line said in a press release. “We thought how fun would it be to hit several of these and bring the good times to the field!” Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard added, “Summer can’t get here fast enough. Having Nelly and Chris along for the ride is going to make for one big, outdoor party!” Up-and-coming country star Chris Lane will also be a part of the tour. Florida Georgia Line is currently touring as an opener for Jason Aldean.
The Florida Georgia Line/Nelly tour continues the blurring of lines between genres of American music, fueling concerns that music is becoming one big mono-genre with no contrast between popular music forms. Florida Georgia Line has been at the forefront of this trend by adding hip-hop elements into the majority of their songs, and because those songs have become so popular. Florida Georgia Line’s current single “This Is How We Roll” features Tyler Hubbard rapping in some of the verses.
Mono-genre concerns have also been exacerbated by Billboard’s newer chart rules that reward songs played in other formats outside of an artists’ home genre, and also reward songs that perform well on social media. These concerns don’t just come from the country realm, but from many of American music’s major genres, including rap. Just last month Sean Fennessey writing for Grantland, and using the event of Billy Ray Cyrus’s hip-hop version of “Achy Breaky Heart” reaching #11 on the rap charts as an example, said “…rap is more vulnerable than ever to interlopers and synthesists eager to run their sound through the Vitamix of popular music with such speed and force it’s impossible to determine the ingredients … Actual new rap songs are ceaselessly weighing down the genre itself with the junky detritus of other styles.”
Now the mono-genre concerns have reached the live context, and the Nelly/Florida Georgia Line tour may just be the first of many country/rap tours to come.
**Warning: Heavy Language**
Why are Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line standing in front of a big explosion? Because they’re fucking awesome, that’s why. And you probably don’t get that because you’re all old and shit and your pubes are probably gray and you think that country music should be Hank Williams played over and over again which is boring. Get over it. Country music has changed man, and there’s now redundant wallet chains, deep V-neck shirts with weird crap written on them, popped collars modeled with douchebag poses, and super awesome explosions for no reason. And we love it ’cause this is how we roll, yo!
- – - – - – -
Like one of those stationary rides in the front of Wal-Mart for toddlers, “This Is How We Roll” makes a lot of noise, has a bunch of flashing lights, bumps up and down a little bit, but in the end, goes absolutely fucking nowhere. The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers soundtrack has more sincerity, depth, and nutritional value than this explosion of diarrhea in country music’s bikini cut man briefs.
My first question about this song is why exactly is Luke Bryan on it aside from marketing? Exactly what value does he bring to this collaboration? The very first thing out of his sewer hole is, “We’re proud to be young,” which is ironic because the 37-year-old is wearing testosterone patches to help boost his “performance” so he can keep up with the kids two decades his junior on his most recent and increasingly age-inappropriate Spring Break album. Luke Bryan has descended into that creepy late 30′s uncle character sent with a group of 16-year-old girls to “chaperone” and spends the whole time working up the courage to ask his niece’s best friend to roleplay Miley Cyrus while the rest of the group heads down to the beach.
An environment of sexual perversion and sheer stupidity permeates “This Is How We Roll” and its respective video from stem to stern, including a scene near the start of the video with a dollop of hussies having consensual sex with a Kenworth. I sure hope these chicks have their Tetanus records in order. And then of course we have Tweedledee and Tweedledum from Florida Georgia Line riding on top of the semi like Teen Wolf, with the same display of doltishness and disconnect with self-awareness many mid 80′s movies like Teen Wolf were horrifically beset with.
And are the “words” to this “song” for serious? It sounds like the babbling of a toddler with its tongue cut out, or Buckwheat trying to order Thai food while fighting through the lingering paralysis of a massive stroke.
Yeah holla at yo boy if you need a ride
If you roll with me yeah you know we rollin’ high
Up on them 37 Nittos, windows tinted hard to see though
How fresh my baby is in the shotgun seat oh
Them kisses are for me though, automatic like a free throw
This life I live it might not be for you but it’s for me though
And is anybody else bothered by watching people hanging out in the back of a moving semi? Does it seem like fun to anyone to be locked in a cargo hold with no window to the outside world, especially with a bunch of douchebags running motorcycles inside and other dumb shit? How many smuggled immigrants have been sweated to their death or suffocated in similar scenarios? I’d hate to see them take their rolling party through the same border checkpoint in Sierra Blanca, TX that busted Willie and Snoop while singing about “you know we rollin’ high” and watch the jack boots down there sodomize the whole lot of them with government issued toilet plungers in a tireless search for contraband.
And poor Brian Kelley, the Doogie Houser looking dude from Florida Georgia Line. Once again he’s more buried in the mix than Hoffa, offering no real contribution to the band aside from helping with the head count to qualify them for the CMA and ACM’s “Duo of the Year” awards. But that doesn’t stop him from showcasing how bad he is at lip syncing while sporting a doltish grin and no-soul-having wannabee hip-hop gesticulations. Let’s face it, Florida Georgia Line is Tyler Hubbard. Brian Kelley is just in charge of holding Hubbard’s penis pump.
Then finally to make up for the lack of any true machismo or talent emanating from Florida Georgia Bryan whatsoever, they send the troika out to a motorcycle track to stand there and look awesome while explosions go off and people who actually have skill do tricks for the camera that the pairing can try and take credit for by proxy.
The worst “country” song ever? I don’t think so, partly because this is just par for the course from Florida Georgia Line, while other sellouts like Jason Aldean and Tim McGraw hypothetically know better. Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley are such tenderfoots, they think classic country is Shania Twain. Still I think this song is positively shitty enough to be a colossal super hit. I predict huge things for this song, and anyone with half a brain or a full compliment of testicles to be pursued by its permeation of American culture for months to come.
Two guns way down!
Baltimore-based writer and filmmaker Travis Kitchens (@kitchens_travis) has had and very interesting last few weeks to say the least. After posting a scathing review of a February 1st Jason Aldean concert at the Baltimore Arena in the local Baltimore City Paper alternative newsweekly, all hell broke loose and the review was eventually censored after two advertisers put heavy pressure on the paper’s parent company. To make matters worse, the paper was currently in the process of being sold, and numerous controversial layoffs and other censored stories have been the talk of Baltimore’s journalism community.
Since not much was known about Kitchens, and since his censored review has raised numerous questions itself, Saving Country Music reached out to the freelance writer to clear up some open questions, and get his perspective on the City Paper censoring. It’s also important to point out that Travis Kitchens is originally from Kentucky, since his use of the term “redneck” in the review drew some people’s ire. Kitchens also likes to point out that City Paper sent him to the concert per the request of Jason Aldean’s PR firm.
What was your working relationship with the Baltimore City Paper? Freelancer? Staff Writer? What else do you do?
I’m a freelancer for City Paper, brought on by Baynard Woods. The Aldean review was my second live show review, the first being a Shooter Jennings show. I will still be writing my bi-monthly column, Strum Und Twang, on local country music events, after the transition to the new owners. Besides writing, I’m a documentary filmmaker and video producer. I have spent the last three years researching, shooting, and editing a film about country music titled, High On A Mountain. It focuses on the development of early country music, especially the migration of southerners to northern cities like Baltimore for factory jobs during World War II, using the microcosm of one artist, Zane Campbell. His aunt is a pretty famous country songwriter, Ola Belle Reed, and his family tree is full of musicians and songwriters going back almost 100 years. The entire trajectory of country music is contained in his DNA, and he’s a really fascinating visual artist and songwriter himself. I also have gotten into some producing work as a result of the film, so I guess I’m a record producer now too.
When you went to the Jason Aldean concert, did you truly think there was a chance that either you might enjoy it, or find something redeeming about the experience?
Yes. I go to a lot of different shows spanning pretty much every genre of music. However, I don’t listen to many of the big time country stars they play on the radio these days. I thought this would be an opportunity to see and hear one of the big timers for myself. I’m not a country music purist that thinks only traditional country will do and plenty of artists have put on quality arena-size shows through the years. I like rap, and I like country, so I’m not opposed to them being mixed on any ideological grounds. It’s just that Aldean is not a quality singer, songwriter, musician, or rapper. I haven’t read one serious review or comment on a review that contradicts this. As a cultural event that attracts a large number of people, it’s sort of interesting to think about why the people are attracted to his show and music, but that’s a different topic.
Clarify the use of the term “redneck” in the review.
The term “redneck” has been used by my friends, relatives, and people around me my entire life as a term of endearment and a means of self-identification. Aldean asked the crowd, “are there any rednecks in here tonight,” and the entire crowd roared. It seemed appropriate.
When you first turned in the review, was there any concern about its content? Is it out of the norm to see a review of that type to be featured through the paper?
No. The City Paper is staffed by professional journalists. Baynard Woods, who edited my article, expected me to give the show an honest review, and I did, and told me that he “loved it.” I haven’t read that many music reviews from City Paper because I attend most of the local country music shows. But I don’t think mine was a typical review because Aldean’s show is not the typical show. From what I understand, the tradition of alternative weeklies has been to give uncredentialed writers a platform to say what they think, and in that sense I don’t see my review as unusual.
How much do you think the review played into the layoffs at Baltimore City Paper, or any of the other decisions that were made as the paper prepares to be sold?
As far as I know, the layoffs had nothing to do with my review, that was a consequence of the Baltimore Sun buying City Paper. Whether or not they caved on pulling the story because they didn’t want to compromise the deal at a sensitive moment is another question, but I don’t know the answer.
How did you feel when the review was taken down?
I was surprised. Mainly because Aldean is such a big name why the hell would anyone care if I thought his show was a joke. Honestly I was a little flattered. Being banned or censored for being truthful is the highest honor for an artist. Though me being censored in this case has a lot to do with the circumstances, and not that I said anything particularly brilliant or that hadn’t been said before.
What did you learn as a writer, reviewer, and journalist from this experience?
Not much, though it confirmed several things. I thought some people would be angry if they had a chance to read it, because I was honest and my characterization of the show was accurate. Several people commented that I “needed to go back to school and learn how to write a proper review,” or something along those lines. I understand where that attitude comes from. Journalism, to a large extent, and the “experts” you see and hear in the media are now just vested interest, working for one side or the other. If you have school debt and kids and whatnot, and most people do, you can’t afford to tell the truth. I worked in the corporate world long enough to know how it works. You kiss up to private power and people like Aldean that have a ton of money and influence, and eventually you move up. If you go around being honest and accurate all the time, you will be shitcanned before you know it. That’s the value in independent media like Saving Country Music and Baltimore Brew. And even though City Paper was coerced into pulling my article, I’m impressed by several of the people there and their courage and commitment to telling the truth in the aftermath. They didn’t have to do that, and it would have benefited them to completely disown me.
If you had to name one positive thing about the Jason Aldean concert, what would it be?
Well I think the fact that people are getting together to enjoy something is a good thing. Unfortunately in this instance that thing is abominable. As far as I can tell, the corporatization of country music mirrors the corporatization of everything else in this country: communities, schools, worklife, other forms of art. The fans of this music, whether they know it or not, are participating in the dumbing down and stereotyping of an entire region of people. There is as much diversity in the south as anywhere else, if not more, but you don’t see that reflected in this music. It deadens the mind and kills interest in discovering your own past and culture. There are strong undertones of the “us against them” attitude prevalent in contemporary politics. It’s disempowering and promotes the idea that the only values in life are getting fucked up and buying more products. It also promotes the myth of progress in music. Aldean and Florida Georgia Line both said numerous times that night, that they (meaning themselves and the crowd), were “changing country music history.” I agree with them. Wal-Mart also changed history, significantly in small communities like the one I come from, and it’s been completely destructive in some of the ways I already mentioned. The more consolidated and bureaucratic something becomes, the less humane it becomes, because no single person feels responsible for the overall outcomes. Country music is the opposite of that. It is the stories of everyday people and the full spectrum of real human emotions. It’s ironic that they use outlaw/rebel imagery and language in the music, because the effect, and it’s intentional, has been to create a bunch of moronic conformists by parading some buffoon in front of the crowd who supposedly shares their values and interests. Nothing could be further from the truth.
For the better part of February, Saving Country Music has been following the saga of a concert review published by Baltimore’s alternative newsweekly called the Baltimore City Paper that painted a pretty unfavorable picture of pop country star Jason Aldean. The review in question was written by music reporter Travis Kitchens after attending the Aldean concert at the Baltimore Arena on February 1st. According to Kitchens, he attended the concert with an open mind, wondering if he would “make my traditional folkie friends go crazy” if he actually enjoyed the show. But Travis did not enjoy it, to say the least.
The subsequent posting of the review on February 4th by the Baltimore City Paper has caused a ripple that has shaken the environment of the Baltimore journalism community to its very core, upset huge, nationwide sponsorship companies, and resulted in the censoring of the Kitchens review and potentially subsequent postings by the paper against the will of Kitchens and the paper’s editorial staff. Since then, Baltimore City Paper has been in massive upheaval, with eight employees being laid off, and the rest of the staff being locked out of the paper’s online interface.
The Jason Aldean review was taken down a week after being posted due to pressure from two big advertisers who said they would never advertise in City Paper again if the piece wasn’t pulled. After two days of resisting pressure from upper management and threats against his job, City Paper editor-in-chief Evan Serpick took the review down according to Baltimore Brew. “I’m not proud of it,” says Serpick. “[They said] the review was ‘not objective,’ which was ridiculous, since it was a review. It was opinion, obviously.”
The two sponsors that threatened City Paper were reportedly LiveNationDC who promoted the Jason Aldean concert, and Baltimore-based Under Armour, whose Duck Commander product line is endorsed and promoted by Jason Aldean.
The issue of the Jason Aldean review came up right as Baltimore City Paper was being sold by its parent company, Times-Shamrock Communications, to Baltimore’s daily newspaper, The Baltimore Sun. Apparently Times-Shamrock was told to clean house at City Paper, and eight employees, including a 30-year and 25-year veteran of the publication, were laid off late this week. Other City Paper content has also been censored, and according to numerous sources, the remaining employees of the paper have been locked out of the news blogs, and are being told to forfeit control of the paper’s social network properties.
In the spirit of free speech, and by the request and permission of Travis Kitchens, here is Travis Kitchen’s original review of Jason Aldean’s Baltimore concert of February 1st.
A review of Jason Aldean’s 1/1/14 concert at Baltimore Arena
By Travis Kitchens
Baltimore Arena smelled like the inside of a Spearmint Rhino Saturday night. Reams of rednecks streamed in from every direction across Baltimore Street and it took a half hour to get through the line and inside to will call. They all came to see Jason Aldean. You might not recognize his name, but that’s okay, because you probably wouldn’t recognize his music either, or at least not be able to distinguish it from anything else on country radio.
I grabbed an $11.50 beer, passing booths selling shirts and koozies reading “I’m About To Get My Pissed-Off On,” and lots of Fireball Whisky schwag. Drinking Fireball gives you a slight cinnamon burn in the throat, then travels to the stomach, and, judging from the men’s bathrooms, immediately evacuates the bowels and gut. The puke smell along with loud shitty music and fog machines reminded me of traveling from Kentucky to Florida for Spring Break in high school, and that makes me part of Aldean’s target market.
Tyler Farr, the opening act, looks like Joey Fatone from N’Sync, and he’s only slightly less talented. Farr shuffled around the stage Saturday night with a prop guitar hanging from his neck like a No Limit chain, announcing the chart position of every song before playing it. “Ain’t’ Even Drinkin’” is the I-hope-this-night-never-ends prom song, a teen smash spell hand-crafted in a Nashville laboratory. “Ain’t even drinking but I’m buzzing baby/ain’t even smoking but I’m so stoned/feels like I’m getting lit/ain’t even took a sip/but I’m already gone.”
The crowd was infected, and showed their enthusiasm by gently poking the sky in a circular motion with I-don’t-give-a-fuck faces on. “Whiskey in My Water,” a shitkicker twist on “Me and My Girlfriend,” starts by ripping off the melody of Shooter Jennings’ “Fourth of July.” The artificiality and repetitiveness of his songs may have contributed to the vomit smell, and I felt like I was being subjected to military torture.
Whatever trivial contribution white people may have previously made to rap music has now been permanently nullified by pop country rap duo Florida Georgia Line. The Line was created from the leftover scraps of the Showbiz Pizza band, and they have an impressive number of programs, or songs. Beach balls were dispatched to the audience for “Party People,” and generic video footage playing on four jumbotron monitors above the band illustrated each song: dirt bike races and buggy mudding, video models molesting muscle cars, and giant all-white stadium crowds waving cell phones and American flags. “Gonna get buckwild/get a little buzz on/David Lee Roth style/might as well jump, jump.”
Each song is basically an advertisement performed live for the audience, the most blatant example being “Cruise.” Footage of new Chevy trucks play on the jumbotrons while they sing: “You make me wanna roll my windows down and cruise/down a back road blowin’ stop signs through the middle/every little farm town with you/in this brand new Chevy with a lift kit/would look a hell of a lot better with you up in it.”
Advertising and country music is not a new relationship (Hank Williams shilled for Mother’s Best Flour, etc), but the way it has seeped into the songs and motivations of the artists has reached new and vulgar heights. They mentioned sponsor Fireball Whisky in the song lyrics and several times in between, and said to the roughly 14,000 people in attendance, “You guys truly are life changing.” Considering their latest album has already sold over 1.5 million copies, I would imagine that’s true.
Finally it was time for the headliner, Jason Aldean, whose show was a lot like watching a two hour beer commercial, and I don’t think his fans are unaware of that. You don’t listen to and enjoy Aldean’s music, you take it. It’s a mindless dopamine rush as precise in it’s effects as methamphetamine, and the not-so-subliminal marketing strategy deployed on the audience is as sophisticated as that of a presidential campaign. He struts around the stage with his prop guitar like a rockstar android wiggling his ass in a manner so contrived it makes Madonna look like Miles Davis in comparison. Aldean uses the “Margaritaville” market approach, tailored for the Buckwild generation. His empire is sponsored by Under Armour and Southern Comfort and there’s talk of a new redneck themed restaurant venture called Fly Over Steaks, where patrons are served and sweared at by waiters dressed as the cast of the television show Duck Dynasty (fingers crossed for an Inner Harbor location).
Aldean’s band looks like action figures from Spencers, and play like the American Idol house band. There were occasional flourishes of pedal-steel guitar, along with non-stop ear-splitting bass, a horrifyingly awful attempt at rapping, and brash guitar solos in every song. During “Dirt Road Anthem,” the adults in the crowd air scratched while half-staggering like they’d just had a stroke (imagine your grandma as an extra in the “Nothin’ But A G Thang” video). Aldean also rekindled his ongoing beef with Justin Bieber, this time taking shots at Biebs over who is more influential with hair styles. It was a chilling moment, and it was clear that this crowd did not like Justin Bieber one bit.
But the highlight of the night was Aldean singing a duet with a hologram of Kelly Clarkson. I didn’t know she was a hologram at the time, but I’m now wondering if Aldean was even there, and hoping he wasn’t.
In 2011, when Jason Aldean’s country rap song “Dirt Road Anthem” became the best selling song in all of country music, the genre’s impending dalliance with rap was ordained. Though the sub genre had been brewing under the surface for many years, and quite successfully for some acts, it had now hit it big, and it was only a matter of time before you would see country music’s top performers experiment with the genre bending style.
When “Dirt Road Anthem” hit, artists like Cowboy Troy and “Dirt Road Anthem” co-writer Colt Ford had already made successful careers out of country rap for years, despite not being able to rise to the level of mainstream radio acceptance. There were many other acts doing very well at the club level with country rap, like The Moonshine Bandits, Bubba Sparxxx, and The Lacs. Country rap even had much of its own infrastructure, and despite the suspicion it was eyed with from the mainstream, most country rap acts were able to post videos and get views in the millions, Wal-Mart was stocking hick hop on their shelves, while labels like Average Joes, started by Colt Ford, offered material support to some of the bigger country rap acts.
When Music Row decided rap was its future and a potential vehicle to drive the genre out of the malaise it suffered with the rest of music in the decade of the oughts, there were a number of ways the influence could be integrated into the genre. Major labels could sign or otherwise champion already-established country rap acts like Colt Ford and The Moonshine Bandits. Or they could try to impose the new style with already-established mainstream stars who had proven they were palatable with the American public. The latter is the path country rap eventually took. Despite the success of “Dirt Road Anthem,” the song had fought an uphill battle on radio itself. Programmers were suspicious of country rap, and artists like Tim McGraw and Blake Shelton who would later release their own country rap songs, were a known quantity and already under contract compared to unproven talent like Bubba Sparxxx or The Lacs.
But 2012 came, and it was mostly quiet on the country rap front from a mainstream standpoint. As Saving Country Music pointed out in the story Mono-Genre Watch: 2012 End-Of-Year Sales,
2012 did not see either a dominant country-rap single, album, or artist. Rap is still asserting itself as an influence in country, but may not be finding the commercial strength it needs to stick. 2012 mono-genre songs like Tim McGraw’s “Truck Yeah” underperformed to expectations, never cracking Billboard’s Top 10 on the country chart.
But Music Row is notoriously 18 months behind the relevancy cycle. “Dirt Road Anthem” had taken the industry by surprise, and it took over a year for country’s major labels to retool to the new country rap reality. Then by 2013, country rap came out in full force, with virtually all of mainstream country’s big male stars releasing rap/country songs. Reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year Blake Shelton released “Boys ‘Round Here” to a #2 chart showing and double platinum sales. ACM Entertainer of the Year Luke Bryan released country rap “That’s My Kind of Night” that spent a whopping twelve weeks at #1, and was the song to finally depose another country rap-inspired single “Cruise” by upstart Florida Georgia Line that became the longest-running #1 song in the history of country music.
But 2014 has been a different story already. Whereas 2013 seemed to be dominated by country rap singles, 2014 has so far been the story of EDM, or Electronic Dance Music. Though EDM and hip hop can sometimes be mistaken for each other, especially to the country consumer’s ear and because the two disciplines have numerous similarities (use of electronic beats, sampling, and rapping instead of singing in some instances), there are also many clear differences between the two disciplines.
When Jerrod Niemann released his single “Drink To That All Night” in the second half of 2013, country music’s EDM cherry had been popped, and it seemed to be a harbinger for things to come in the country format. Interestingly the single underperformed in most of 2013, but has been creeping up the charts in early 2014, reaching its highest chart ranking in the last week of February. Though the argument can be made that Jerrod Niemann is still rapping instead of singing, “Drink To That All Night” is full of EDM earmarks: the heavily Auto-tuned electronic-sounding vocals, the digitized beats, and most-importantly the emphasis on perfectitude in the music as opposed to the fallibility of a live, traditional band lineup playing real instruments, reinforced in the video of the song that heavily refers to the EDM/dance club culture instead of the country honky tonk.
Many of the lead singles from country music’s big 2014 album releases from male artists lean heavily towards EDM influences, most notably Tim McGraw’s “Lookin’ For That Girl” with it’s heavily-digitized vocal track and electronic beat bed. Rascal Flatt’s “Rewind” incorporates many EDM elements. And Brantley Gilbert, one of the other co-writers of “Dirt Road Anthem,” his latest single “Bottoms Up” sounds much less like a country rap, and more like a country/EDM effort with more melody to the vocals, and the signature electronic drum bed and digitization of instrumentation.
First, don’t count country rap out. There are certainly more country rap singles from big, mainstream country artists in the pipeline that we’re likely to hear in 2014, if they ever go away completely in the more global trend of the formation of a mono-genre. And in the independent realm, acts like The Lacs and Moonshine Bandits are likely to remain sustainable commodities.
But despite a few lucrative singles, country rap was very hit and miss in the mainstream. The aforementioned “Truck Yeah” by Tim McGraw seemed like an unfortunate career move. Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” followup called “1994″ was a general flop in comparison, stalling in the charts despite a heavy push behind the song. Brad Paisley’s much-ridiculed “Accidental Racist” with LL Cool J wasn’t even released as a single. In the end, mainstream country stars just didn’t make good rappers. Country music is for crooners and twang, and even though these elements are generally lacking in present-day country music anyway, this was the foundation of these singer’s discipline, and rapping never stopped feeling foreign to them, their audience, and most importantly, radio programmers.
EDM on the other hand is a “no experience required” format when it comes to singing. The purposefully heavy Auto-tuned environment allows the performer to simply hit close approximations of the melody the song is built around, and then the studio hands take over from there.
However just like with rap, country music is horrifically late when it comes to the EDM game. The argument that was made during the integration of rap into country is that country music had to evolve. What the people making that argument failed to realize is that rap was already a 30-year-old art form when it made its appearance in country’s mainstream. Similarly, many of the EDM elements we’re seeing in country—especially Auto-tuned lyrics—are already considered outmoded in most other mainstream music.
Similarly, the relevancy arch has moved on in many ways from the heavy electronic sound. An EDM act in Daft Punk dominated the Grammy Awards held in January, and they did so with a live sound. Instead of starting with electronic beats and synthesized hooks, Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories featured live, human instrumentation and vocals with minimal electronic treatment. This was the formula that won them 5 Grammy Awards, including Best Album and Best Record. In the end it is not the EDM elements in country music that make it bad, just like rapping in a country song isn’t something that can be completely ruled out as a valid form of expression if it is done in a fresh, artistic way. It is the poor implementation—the awkwardness of the integration of the two influences, and the submissive pose country takes towards EDM and rap—that makes it so polarizing.
Whether it was country rap in 2013, or EDM influences in 2014, it speaks to a systemic problem with country music that the format deems itself inadequate and feels the need integrate influences from other genres to stay relevant, following instead of leading, and making excuses of why it can still be cool instead of educating the public on country music’s inherent virtues.
Saving Country Music has been sounding the warning bell that the big story of 2014 will be the formation of two gargantuan media companies that will absolutely dominate the country music landscape and encapsulate everything from radio, television, print and online media, and social network channels. The Country Music Media Arms Race is being fought by the two biggest radio station owners in the United States: Clear Channel and Cumulus, and during this week’s Country Radio Seminar, we are starting to get some of the specific details of the plans these future massive media companies have, and to say their plans are expansive is an understatement.
Cumulus Media is #2 on the radio ownership totem pole, and to attempt to hopscotch their rival Clear Channel, they are planning massive expenditures, acquisitions, and ventures to push the recognition of their big country music brand: “NASH”. NASH and NASH-FM is the brand of Cumulus’s 70+ station syndicated Top 40 pop country network. We already knew that Cumulus had recently acquired a 50-percent interest in the 17-year-old, 500,000+ circulated Country Weekly magazine to re-brand it as NASH. Now in some recent reports, the beans are being spilled about the extent of just how far Cumulus is hoping to push the NASH brand.
Some of their plans are obvious. Since their rival Clear Channel has now partnered with CMT, Cumulus and NASH are looking for their own television partner, potentially Great American Country or GAC, or re-branding the Destination America and American Heroes cable channels owned by Discovery Communications. Also, after Clear Channel’s streaming service iHeartRadio announced a country music festival in Austin, Cumulus and the NASH brand are looking into doing a festival and/or concert series, as well as a radio-based award show with Dick Clark Productions—the same production company behind the Academy of Country Music Awards, or ACM’s.
But the Cumulus plans go even further than that. Here is a run down of some of the things Cumulus has planned for their pop country NASH brand:
In the vein of Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill chain, or Rascal Flatts’ recently-announced plans for a chain restaurant, NASH wants to open a fleet a family-friendly fern bars to help establish their brand in certain important markets and locations. You could enjoy some Taylor Swift fried cheese, or a Brantley Gilbert blooming onion.
Yes, you read that right. Apparently NASH wants to get into the home improvement game. This move isn’t unprecedented. Big corporate brands such as Martha Stewart and Ralph Lauren have dipped their stir stick into the pain business to help solidify their corporate brands in the past, but a radio network? How about a nice Tim McGraw taupe to spruce up that breakfast nook?
Again, not completely unprecedented since you have big artists like Jason Aldean enjoying a big endorsement deal from Wrangler, and Taylor Swift peddling Keds. Some artists also have their own specific clothing lines. Country music and popular culture is a very visual medium, and being able to sell consumers similar clothing to what they see their favorite artists wearing is shrewd business.
Maybe the strangest of the ideas Cumulus is looking into, the company apparently wants to leave no stone unturned, and wants to bring the NASH brand right into people’s homes so they won’t forget who to consume their country music through; a little hard to do when you’re watching NASH TV from your Carrie Underwood signature NASH microfiber couch, muching on NASH leftovers from the night before in a room painted in your favorite NASH colors.
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Cumulus and their NASH brand is out for nothing short of absolute cultural immersion, with the vehicle being the widespread and growing appeal of popular country music. Pop country is seen as very safe and marketable because of its well-liked and clean image. And if Cumulus has its way with NASH, it will become one of the most recognized brands in the United States in the coming years.
Your move, Clear Channel.
So we haven’t even had time since the 56th Grammy Awards to sort out if Madonna had the authority to preside over a mass wedding, or if Pharrell’s hat was indeed copyright infringement against the Arby’s logo, and here only a few days later we’re asked to crunch a fresh batch of data dealing with the nominees for the 2014 ACM Awards on April 6th. There really should be some sort of mandate that the bad taste in your mouth and the horror of one awards show should have long subsided before you have to interface in any way with the next one, but apparently this would have been the case if The Grammys hadn’t been moved up this year because of the Winter Olympics.
Already the ACM nominees have many rolling their eyes and crying foul for various reasons. But folks, don’t ingratiate the Academy of Country Music beyond its value by acting like these awards matter to a greater degree than they actually do. Sure, the presence of the CMT Awards, and now FOX’s ACA Awards have somewhat risen the ACM’s out of the country music award show basement, but they will always be the baby brother of the CMA’s, and will be beset by ridiculous backroom label politics resulting in the anomalies to downright ridiculous notions that some of this year’s nominees represent. Nonetheless, a nomination and win will mean more attention and revenue for a respective label and artist, so it is not fair to discount the matter completely.
Tim McGraw and Miranda Lambert landed the most nominations with 7, and this is where the sideways glances begin. Miranda, though undoubtedly enjoying great success, hasn’t even release an album in over two years. Tim, undoubtedly doing everything he can aside from posing nude or releasing a sex tape to get the public’s attention after years of being saddled by Curb Records, certainly deserves some attention, but like Miranda, is likely being padded behind-the-scenes by a powerful label.
Once again George Strait is up for Entertainer of the Year, gut-checking the ACM constituency into potentially registering a sympathy vote and certainly making this category a subject of great intrigue instead of a forgone conclusion. And the laugh out loud moment is the nomination of Sheryl Crow for Female Vocalist of the Year—the same 5th slot the ACM’s have been stretching to fill for a few years now, with Kelly Clarkson, and Kacey Musgraves before she had even released an album being the other recent anomalies.
Things can change, news can break, and artists can have big months between here and now, but here are some early picks and observations.
Entertainer of the Year
Two horse race between last year’s winner Luke Bryan that had yet another very commercially-successful year, and the sympathy vote for King George. Miranda’s inclusion here is somewhat interesting, and there may be a sentiment out there that at some point Miranda deserves an Entertainer of the Year from somewhere, but it’s hard to see that happening this year. Taylor Swift has no chance, and may not even attend the awards.
- Luke Bryan – Other Potential Winner
- Blake Shelton
- George Strait - Winner
- Taylor Swift
- Miranda Lambert
Male Vocalist of the Year
This comes down to the two hosts of the ACM Awards, Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton. Interesting to see Curb Records really pushing Lee Brice in this year’s cycle, but he doesn’t have the cred yet for this distinction. Keith Urban’s influence died off years ago, and Average Joe’s cash cow Jason Aldean’s Night Train just didn’t have the kind of wide impact My Kinda Party did.
- Jason Aldean
- Lee Brice
- Luke Bryan – Winner
- Blake Shelton – Other Potential Winner
- Keith Urban
Female Vocalist of the Year
This is a hard one. Of course Sheryl Crow has no chance, and Taylor likely doesn’t either. Carrie seems like a long shot, and always seems to be underdogged by the ACM’s. Kacey Musgraves has received love from the ACM’s early and often, and if she can make a splash between here and now on the radio, she might have an outside chance. But it’s all setting up to be Miranda’s night.
- Sheryl Crow
- Miranda Lambert – Winner
- Kacey Musgraves
- Taylor Swift
- Carrie Underwood
Single Record of the Year
- Florida Georgia Line – “Cruise” – Winner
- Lee Brice – “I Drive Your Truck”
- Miranda Lambert – “Mama’s Broken Heart”
- Darius Rucker – “Wagon Wheel”
Album of the Year
Man. This is a completely wide open field, and I have no confidence picking any one of these over the others. Obviously Kacey Musgraves would be the critical favorite. Blake Shelton also has to be considered a favorite since he won the CMA in the same category. It might be a little early for Florida Georgia Line to win an award like this, but it’s hard to argue with that album’s performance. And the ACM’s seem to love Luke, so he can’t be ruled out. Tim McGraw is about the only long shot.
- “Based On A True Story…” – Blake Shelton
- “Crash My Party” – Luke Bryan
- “Here’s To The Good Times” – Florida Georgia Line
- “Same Trailer Different Park” – Kacey Musgraves
- “Two Lanes Of Freedom” – Tim McGraw
Song of the Year
We’ve seen “Mama’s Broken Heart” listed in the category for many of the year’s awards, but does it really have the kind of depth of a typical Song of the Year? “Wagon Wheel” doesn’t really either, but can’t be ruled out. Interesting to see Gary Allan get a mention here.
- “Every Storm (Runs Out Of Rain)” – Gary Allan Songwriters: Gary Allan, Hillary Lindsey, Matthew Warren
- “I Drive Your Truck” – Lee Brice Songwriters: Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, Jimmy Yeary – Winner
- “Mama’s Broken Heart” – Miranda Lambert Songwriters: Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves
- “Mine Would Be You” – Blake Shelton Songwriters: Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, Deric Ruttan
- “Wagon Wheel” – Darius Rucker Featuring Lady Antebellum Songwriters: Bob Dylan, Ketch Secor – Other Potential Winner
Vocal Event of the Year
Were the contributions of Lady Antebellum to “Wagon Wheel” and The Pistol Annies to “Boys ‘Round Here” significant enough to consider them true vocal events? “Cruise” is the obvious commercial winner, but voters may shy away from the cross-genre collaboration.
- “Boys ‘Round Here” – Blake Shelton Featuring The Pistol Annies
- “Cruise” (Remix) – Florida Georgia Line Featuring Nelly
- “Highway Don’t Care: – Tim McGraw Featuring Taylor Swift & Keith Urban – Winner
- “Wagon Wheel” – Darius Rucker Featuring Lady Antebellum
- “We Were Us” – Keith Urban And Miranda Lambert
Vocal Duo of the Year
I write about country music for a living, and this is the very first time I have ever heard of “Dan + Shay”. Previewing their music, hopefully I never have to hear from them again. Joey + Rory would have been the better pick.
- Big & Rich
- Dan + Shay
- Florida Georgia Line – Winner
- Love and Theft
- Thompson Square
Songwriter of the Year
Shane McAnally is who deserves it. Rhett Atkins would be the commercial pick. Luke Laird also likely has an outside chance.
- Rhett Akins – Other Potential Winner
- Rodney Clawson
- Ashley Gorley
- Luke Laird
- Shane McAnally – Winner
Vocal Group of the Year
- Eli Young Band
- Lady Antebellum
- Little Big Town
- The Band Perry
- Zac Brown Band
Video of the Year
- “Better Dig Two” – The Band Perry Producer
- “Blowin’ Smoke” – Kacey Musgraves Producer
- “Highway Don’t Care” – Tim McGraw Featuring Taylor Swift & Keith Urban
- “I Drive Your Truck” – Lee Brice Producer: Karen Martin Director: Eric Welch
- “Mama’s Broken Heart” – Miranda Lambert
- “Two Black Cadillacs” – Carrie Underwood
THE 56th ANNUAL GRAMMY AWARDS
• When: 7 PM Central, 8 PM Eastern, 5 PM Pacific on CBS.
• Where: The Stapes Center, Los Angeles, CA.
• Host: LL Cool J
THINGS TO WATCH FOR
More Traditional Country Than One Might Expect
• Though the Grammy Awards are all-encompassing, there will be quite a bit of country, including classic country on the night with Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson scheduled to perform. Just like we saw with the CMA Awards in November, there is a renewed push to at least include something for classic country’s often-overlooked fans. There will also be a tribute to the recently-passed Phil Everly. See a complete list of the country performances below.
Kacey Musgraves To Push Boundaries…again.
• Similar to the CMA Awards, Kacey Musgraves will be performing her song “Follow Your Arrow.” At the CMA’s, the line “roll up a joint” was censored by ABC. We’ll see if CBS follows suit. She is also up for Best Country Album, Best Country Song for “Merry Go ‘Round,” and the all-genre Best New Artist. With her status as a critic’s favorite, and the propensity for the Grammy Awards to traditionally be more about artistic appeal than commercial success, Kacey should at least be considered a strong nominee, at least for the country awards. The 56th Grammy Awards could be where the Kacey Musgraves experiment sticks if she walks away with the top prizes.
THE COUNTRY PERFORMANCES
• Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Blake Shelton will all perform a medley of songs together (which one of these things is not like the others?). The performance will begin with Willie and Kris singing the Jimmy Webb-penned song “The Highwayman.” Then all the men will sing a version of “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” and end with Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee.”
• Miranda Lambert & Billie Joe Armstrong will perform a Everly Brothers tribute. Phil Everly recently passed away, and Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day recently released a tribute album to the brother duo with Norah Jones. No word why Miranda is the duet partner and not Norah.
• Kacey Musgraves will reportedly be performing her current single “Follow Your Arrow” that had the “roll up a joint” line censored by ABC during the CMA Awards in November.
• Hunter Hayes will be performing a brand new anti-bullying single called “Invisible.”
• Taylor Swift is rumored to be performing “All Too Well.”
• Keith Urban will be performing with John Legend in a salute to the Beatles.
• Hunter Hayes, Zac Brown, and Martina McBride will be award presenters.
• See the list of the non-country performances below.
These awards have already been given out as part of The Grammy Award’s per-televised events.
• Kris Kristofferson was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
• Kris Kristofferson‘s first, self-titled album was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
• Dolly Parton‘s song “Jolene” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
COUNTRY AWARD NOMINEES & PREDICTIONS
The most shocking story of this Grammy Awards season was the snub of Jason Isbell from even being nominated for the Americana Album of the Year. This is a perfect example that the Grammy community is very much on the outside looking in when it comes to country music, especially the sub-genres like Americana and bluegrass.
At the same time, The Grammy Awards have a better history of picking artists based on their artistic merit as opposed to their commercial success. Remember it was the Grammy Awards that recognized Johnny Cash’s comeback during his American Recordings years when the country music industry was still ignoring him. Similarly the Grammy Awards tend to vote more down political lines, like when they recognized The Dixie Chicks after their blackballing from country music. This all sets up well for an artist like Kacey Musgraves.
The Grammy Awards are notoriously hard to predict, but I’ll do my best.
Best Country Album
I see this as a two horse race. Though the women of country are such underdogs these days, Kacey Musgraves as the critical favorite, and Taylor Swift as the commercial favorite, have to be considered the likely winners. There’s an outside chance for Blake Shelton because of his high profile from The Voice, but he would be an upset. Aldean & McGraw have no chance. In the end I think Swift will take it, but don’t rule out Kacey.
- Jason Aldean, Night Train
- Tim McGraw, Two Lanes of Freedom
- Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park – Other Potential Winner
- Blake Shelton, Based on a True Story…
- Taylor Swift, Red – Winner
Best Country Solo Performance
Probably a race between ‘I Drive Your Truck” that won the CMA, or Darius Rucker’s version of ‘Wagon Wheel.’ Outside chance again for Blake Shelton because he’s so well-known, and there will be pressure to give him something. Understand this award is mainly for the performance, not the song. But if ‘Mama’s Broken Heart’ wins, it would be a noteworthy win for songwriters Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark, and if ‘Wagon Wheel’ wins, for Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show, and Bob Dylan. Remember when Darius Rucker said he better be nominated or “Country Music’s Screwed“?
- Lee Brice, ‘I Drive Your Truck’ – Winner
- Hunter Hayes, ‘I Want Crazy’
- Miranda Lambert, ‘Mama’s Broken Heart’
- Darius Rucker, ‘Wagon Wheel’ – Other potential Winner
- Blake Shelton, ‘Mine Would Be You’
Best Country Duo/Group Performance
The Civil Wars have been Grammy darlings in the past, and may still win despite the band dissolving last year. Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton would be the sentimental vote, but they should be considered a long shot. We may see Scott Borchetta assert his power here and have ‘Highway Don’t Care’ walk away with the hardware. It is cool to see a lot of good country names in this category, including Vince Gill. This is a very hard one to pick.
- The Civil Wars, ‘From This Valley’ – Other potential Winner
- Kelly Clarkson feat. Vince Gill, ‘Don’t Rush’
- Little Big Town, ‘Your Side of the Bed’
- Tim McGraw, Taylor Swift & Keith Urban, ‘Highway Don’t Care’ – Winner
- Kenny Rogers with Dolly Parton, ‘You Can’t Make Old Friends’ – Other potential Winner
Best Country Song
Another wide open field. Lee Brice once again has to be thought of as a front runner, but this very well may be Kacey Musgraves’ moment. This win would arguably mean more to her than any other nominee. And remember, Kacey and Brandy Clark also win if Mama’s Broken Heart’ is ultimately selected. I don’t really see Taylor Swift or Blake Shelton having a chance with this one.
- Taylor Swift, ‘Begin Again’
- Lee Brice, ‘I Drive Your Truck’ – Other potential Winner
- Miranda Lambert, ‘Mama’s Broken Heart’
- Kacey Musgraves, ‘Merry Go ‘Round’ – Winner
- Blake Shelton, ‘Mine Would Be You’
All Genre Awards
- Taylor Swift’s Red is the sole country album up for Album of the Year, and it is my pick for the winner. The other strong contender would be Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories.
- Kacey Musgraves is up for Best New Artist, but it is hard to see her outlasting Macklemore + Ryan Lewis, Kendrick Lamar, or Ed Sheeran.
AMERICANA & BLUEGRASS NOMINEES
Once again the Americana genre is saddled by its very narrow perspective in nominees. And except for Sarah Jarosz, they are all older artists this year. Compare this with last year when John Fullbright, The Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons, and The Lumineers were all nominees. The Americana nominees really show how much the Mumford backlash took root, and how that was very much last year’s trend. Jason Isbell got completely screwed, and so did many other deserving artists.
Not going to make any predictions for these awards because they are all wide open fields. Anybody could win here. These awards will be given away before the televised portion of the awards, so check the Saving Country Music LIVE blog for winners.
***UPDATE – In the pre-televised Grammy presentation….
- The Grammy for Best American Roots Song went to Edie Brickell and Steve Martin for “Love Has Come For You“.
- The Grammy for Best Americana Album went to Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell for “Old Yellow Moon“.
- The Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album went to Streets of Baltimore from the Del McCoury Band.
- And the Grammy for Best Folk Album went to My Favorite Picture of You by Guy Clark.
Best Americana Album
- Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell — Old Yellow Moon
- Steve Martin & Edie Brickell — Love Has Come For You
- Buddy Miller And Jim Lauderdale — Buddy And Jim
- Mavis Staples — One True Vine
- Allen Toussaint — Songbook
Best Bluegrass Album
- The Boxcars — It’s Just A Road
- Dailey & Vincent — Brothers Of The Highway
- Della Mae — This World Oft Can Be
- James King — Three Chords And The Truth
- Del McCoury Band — The Streets Of Baltimore
Best Folk Album
- Guy Clark — My Favorite Picture Of You
- The Greencards — Sweetheart Of The Sun
- Sarah Jarosz — Build Me Up From Bones
- The Milk Carton Kids — The Ash & Clay
- Various Artists; Chris Strachwitz, producer — They All Played For Us: Arhoolie Records 50th Anniversary Celebration
Best American Roots Song
- “Build Me Up From Bones”
- Sarah Jarosz, songwriter (Sarah Jarosz)
- Steve Earle, songwriter (Steve Earle & The Dukes (& Duchesses))
- “Keep Your Dirty Lights On”
- Tim O’Brien & Darrell Scott, songwriters (Tim O’Brien And Darrell Scott)
- “Love Has Come For You”
- Edie Brickell & Steve Martin, songwriters (Steve Martin & Edie Brickell)
- “Shrimp Po-Boy, Dressed”
- Allen Toussaint, songwriter (Allen Toussaint)
OTHER GRAMMY PERFORMERS
- Beyonce and Jay Z will open the show with “Drunk In Love.”
- Gary Clark, Jr.
- Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue
- Sara Bareilles featuring Carole King
- Daft Punk featuring Nile Rodgers, Stevie Wonder and Pharrell Williams
- Kendrick Lamar and Imagine Dragons
- Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
- Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr
- Metallica featuring Lang Lang
- Nine Inch Nails, Queens of the Stone Age, Dave Grohl and Lindsey Buckingham
- Katy Perry featuring Juicy J
- Pink featuring Nate Ruess
- Robin Thicke featuring Chicago
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.
Wednesday is the beginning of the someteenth season of American Idol, and it will feature a new slate of judges that will include former Idol judge Jennifer Lopez, an interesting new selection in Harry Connick Jr., and last year’s lone holdover, country star Keith Urban.
Struggling with years of declining ratings, American Idol is looking to rebrand itself in the new season by fielding a panel of judges who will have great chemistry—something that was not the case last year when judges Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey had a public and publicized spat early on in the season, resulting in Minaj walking off the production set, and moans of ratings baiting being leveled by critics.
But one of the overlooked elements of the Minaj / Mariah story is how it was centered around the age old country music debate. It started when Keith Urban took a contestant to task for saying that she “did the country thing,” implying that she had some fleeting interest in the genre, but it wasn’t where her heart was. Urban’s contention was that either you’re country, or you’re not. Mariah Carey somewhat agreed, and as the judges began asking the contestant questions about her musical background, Nicki Minaj joined in saying, “Why are we picking her apart [over] a country comment?” and eventually stormed off the set during the impending verbal melee.
Keith Urban, similar to artists like Darius Rucker and Rascal Flatts, have always been solidly pop or contemporary country, but have been insulated to some extent from the brunt of the country music culture war from rarely crossing the line into the drekish trends of things like country rap that artists like Blake Shelton or Jason Aldean have dabbled in. But recently when Keith Urban was interviewed by Michigan Live and was asked if definitions like “country,” “rock,” and “pop” are important or meaningless, Urban replied,
Totally meaningless to me. I make music and people decide what it is. That’s it. I don’t think about it any more than that. I grew up as a country artist, but had very contemporary country influences. Contemporary country music – well, what that is, is what you hear on the radio. People have this relentless ongoing conversation about what’s country and what isn’t. It’s never changed. If people really really were country fans, they’d know it’s always been there, in every single decade.
What’s great about country is its simple, organic way of absorbing pop inspirations into its sound, and pulling the genre forward. It’s been that way since the ’50s. That period, the mid-to-late ’50s, when rock ‘n’ roll exploded, it started to take over the country audience. Guys like Chet Atkins intentionally started to put string sections on country songs, which had never been done before. Everybody at the time thought that was sacrilegious – they said, “That doesn’t sound anything like Ernest Tubb. What are you doing?” But it was a way for them to keep the sound moving forward and expand the boundaries.
What’s happening today is, in the words of David Byrne, same as it ever was. (laughs)
What Urban points out about pop and how it has always been a part of the country genre is completely true, and this continues to be one of the biggest oversights of some traditional and purist country fans, eroding their arguments against the infiltration of pop in country. However what Urban’s comments do not take into account is the degree of cross-genre influences that country music is facing today, and how it might be eroding the integrity of the genre in the long term. Yes, artists like Eddie Arnold and Patsy Cline were seen as pop stars within the country format in their time, but their music was still a timeless treasure, verified by it’s continued popularity half a decade later.
And obviously, Keith Urban’s comments seem to counter what he said on American Idol at this time last year. People have a right to change their minds, but Urban’s new perspective on the lack of importance of the term “country” may be a sign of just how much that term and the importance behind it have suffered in the last year.
Today it was announced that Austin, TX would be the site for iHeartRadio’s first ever dedicated country music festival, transpiring at Austin’s Frank Erwin Center on March 29th, with a list of top tier headliner talent including Eric Church, Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line, Lady Antebellum, Carrie Underwood, Jake Owen, Hunter Hayes, and others to be announced. iHeart is the online radio streaming arm of American radio monolith Clear Channel, and rising Clear Channel “country” personality Bobby Bones, who got his Clear Channel start on Austin’s pop station, will serve as host.
There is so much that is ill-conceived about this, I’m not sure where to start. iHeart has been throwing “festivals” for a while now, but their traditional home has been Las Vegas. Clearly iHeart wanted to find an alternative to the obvious selection of Nashville, where they would have to compete with much more well-established country events clogging the civic calendar. But throwing a corporate country event in Austin, especially at that time of the year will be about as popular in Austin as running over a bicyclist in your Hummer.
About all this festival will be good for when it comes to the Austin populous will be as a curiosity for hipsters to oogle at through their Sally Jessy Raphael glasses as they ride their fixie bikes past the spectacle, sipping on raw food smoothies on their way to brainstorming sessions devising ways to defund Monsanto by setting up micro loans to African women and targeted eco-terrorism strikes.
The general Austin, TX population has so little interest in this iHeartRadio lineup, it’s laughable that iHeart can’t even be perceptive enough to add even one or two local names to help dull the pain of such an obviously imported corporate country bill. Kudos to whoever in the local Austin government conned iHeart into thinking that Austin’s east downtown corridor is a destination spot for people who are willing to travel hundreds of miles to hear Jason Aldean sing “1994.” Instead of the garish finery of the Las Vegas strip, Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line fans can look forward to legions of homeless peddlers clogging their walking path, an army of construction cranes piercing the skyline in their headlong effort to erect an empire of prefabricated McCondo monstrosities, the 3rd worst traffic snarl in the United States of America, and crumbling fair trade coffee shops oozing with unbathed, deadlocked career students preaching that 9/11 was a conspiracy.
The worst part about iHeartRadio’s country festival might be the timing. Despite whatever best efforts they implement in regards to promotion, locally the event will be dwarfed by South by Southwest the week before, boasting thousands of free concerts, showcasing both local and independent talent, and big national names. South by Southwest is arguably one of the biggest music festivals in the entire world in regards to breadth and the amount of performances that transpire all across Austin over a 5 day period.
And don’t forget that Rodeo Austin also happens the week before, and is featuring its own lineup of big names, including Loretta Lynn, Dustin Lynch, Thompson Square, Chris Young, Josh Turner, Willie Nelson, Eli Young Band, Lee Brice, Scotty McCreery, and Dwight Yoakam. There’s already legions of Austinites that provision up when March comes and never leave the homes because of the nightmare South by Southwest and Rodeo Austin bring to their fair city. The idea that they’ll peek their head out and head downtown just because Hunter Hayes is finally making his way to Austin is quite ripe.
So will the iHeartRadio Country Festival be a colossal failure? Of course not, because they have the backing of the biggest corporate country network in the world to help promote it. Pliable corporate country music fans from all across the country will be more than happy to burn vacation time to see their favorite Budweiser and designer jeans sponsors in one place, edifying them with the finest of Music Row’s formulaic pap filtered through Auto-tuners.
Stock up on cans of Axe Body Spray and rape kits Austin, you’ll need ‘em.
So here you go ladies and gentlemen, the worst of the worst that 2013 had to offer in country music. As you might suspect, a list of mainstream country’s worst misdeeds in 2013 is mostly populated by an ear-serrating cacophony of country rap songs. With only a couple of exceptions, country rap has replaced what last year at this time was a parade of laundry list-themed songs.
PLEASE NOTE: To qualify for this list, the song had to be released as a single. And with such a crowded field, only the worst of the worst were selected. Feel free to share your most vilified songs of 2013 below.
Jason Aldean – “1994″
When I originally ranted about this song in February, I called it the worst country song ever. If I only knew what the rest of 2013 would have in store.
“In Music Row’s everlasting quest to train all of its resources on scouring America to unearth only the finest, most purest form of audio diarrhea, they have struck the mother of all motherloads originating from the unholy bowels of Macon, Georgia’s Jason Aldean. Yes Nashville, pat yourself on the back, let all of the Auto-Tuned stars sing out in unison as Stratocasters bray out a cacophony of stadium rock riffs in unified celebration–you have officially discovered the shittiest country music song to ever touch the human ear drum.
Do I understand the levity and the long history of country music that must be considered to declare “1994″ the worst country song that has ever been released? Yes, yes I do. And yet I still stand firmly behind that opinion.” (read full rant)
Florida Georgia Line – “Cruise”
What can make a bad song worse is when it becomes so ubiquitous throughout society that it pursues you like a bad nightmare—playing at the grocery store, blaring out of the car next to you at a red light. “Cruise” was officially released in 2012, but since this was the year it achieved historical success as the longest-running #1 in the history of the country genre (though that record when you look deeper into the numbers is somewhat spurious), it would only be fair to include 2013′s summer anthem here.
“Originating from the Republic Nashville imprint of Big Machine Records, the duo consisting of Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley met while attending the Mike Curb College of Music at Nashville’s private and exclusive Belmont University. I know, right? Doesn’t get more country than that! Apparently they were both enrolled in the “How To Be A Upper Middle Class Douchebag But Pretend To Be A Country Boy And Filch Rednecks Out Of Their Hard Earned Money, 101″ class. They made eyes across the classroom, and afterwards discussed their mutual desire for world music domination over $175 haircuts, manscaping, and colonics. Next thing you know, Florida Georgia Line is born.
Florida Georgia Line is a horrible combination of Rascal Flatts pretty boy hyper-pop, and designer jeans Jason Aldean “backroad” laundry list bullshit. They are everything bad about quotation mark “country” in 2012 combined into one big stuffed crotch sandwich.” (read full rant)
Blake Shelton – “Boys ‘Round Here”
“The Decider’s” offering to the 2013 resurgence of the country rap trend.
“Just when we thought the American public was finally getting wise to the fact that country rap is a Cancer of Western Civilization, needing to be cut out and radiated like the grapefruit-sized, puss-filled tumor it is, here it comes roaring back like a raging case of bleeding hemorrhoids.
“Blake Shelton’s “Boys ‘Round Here” is songwriting by algorithm and analytics, fashioning together words and sounds known to have the widest impact on mainstream radio’s weak-of-mind demo. The “boys” in the title of “Boys ‘Round Here” is fitting, because this song is rank immaturity. It’s the audio equivalent of sneaking out of your mom’s house to smoke pot behind a Pizza Hut.” (read full review)
Montgomery Gentry – “Titty’s Beer”
Yes, this actually exists, was even released as a single with an accompanying video.
“This isn’t a cry for relevancy folks, this is a blood-curdling scream; a banshee yawp from the innermost depths of holy hell, destined to beset the eardrums of all rationally-minded music listeners with a cursed memory so potent and terrible, it will be well-documented as a clinically-certified precursor to the most acute and debilitating onset of post traumatic stress disorder, terrorizing the very sanity of any semi-intelligent human.
“If a truly good country song is represented by a delicate pair of supple female breasts, then Montgomery Gentry’s “Titty’s Beer” would be a rack of cellulose-addled man boobs replete with coarse and graying disheveled chest hair, pock marked with skin Cancer and bisected by a grizzly double bypass scar. Originally recorded by the Country Music Grimmace Colt Ford, “Titty’s Beer” is an ode to idiocracy and a battle hymn for the forces of misogynistic cultural reduction. The premise doesn’t even make sense, but you can see some oaf going, “Well hell. I like titties, and I like beer, so….” (read full rant)
Joe Diffie feat. D. Thrash – “Girl Ridin’ Shotgun”
What is worse than Jason Aldean’s “1994″ ? Joe Diffie’s “answer” song.
“Did you feel that Oklahoma? That was the earth tremor caused by your native son Joe Diffie selling out so violently it measured 2.1 on the Richter scale. The mulleted, cop mustached 90′s semi-star has released an “answer” song to what many consider the worst song in country music history, Jason Aldean’s country rap “1994,” and it is as embarrassing as puberty.
“The beats for “Girl Ridin’ Shotgun” sound like they were composed by a 7th grader who just snorted his ADD meds, just like all of the beats of the Jawga Boyz’s bombastic and trashy tracks. The beat doesn’t even get five seconds into the song without going off meter. There’s biscuit crumbs in Joe Diffie’s mustache that could compose a better beat. And then D Thrash’s first line doesn’t even rhyme. Are you effing serious with this song? “Girl Ridin’ Shotgun” makes me want to make out with my cousin and bet on a dog fight.” (read full rant)
Tyler Farr – “Redneck Crazy”
There’s bad, and then there’s downright wrong. Tyler Farr’s “Redneck Crazy” crosses that line.
“Tyler Farr’s “Redneck Crazy” isn’t for jilted male lovers looking for solace, it is for socially awkward, introverted, creepy-ass chronic masturbaters that hold a minor in megalomania. This song doesn’t need a rant, it needs a restraining order and ankle bracelet. It’s an insult to both the terms “redneck” and “crazy.” True rednecks ride their problems out, rub their wounds in the dirt and move on, not whine about them like a panty waist, eliciting threats and enlisting their loser friends to enact adolescent acts of vandalism as some sort of self-righteous recompense.”
“About the only thing this song is good for is turning in for state’s evidence of why Tyler Farr shouldn’t be allowed within 200 yards of his ex’s or any elementary school.” (read full rant)
Luke Bryan – “That’s My Kind Of Night”
Outmatched only by Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” for the longest-charting single in 2013.
“Let’s start this off by dispatching with the 700 lb gorilla in the room and say what everyone is thinking, but few are willing to say publicly: The only reason Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind Of Night” is a #1 song is because bored suburban moms and their daughters want to fuck him. Luke Bryan’s music has the nutritional value of notebook paper, and is the clinical result of when an entertainer spreads his arms wide in a submissive pose and relents his entire will to the country music industrial complex, saying “Do your worst.” Luke Bryan has no soul. He is more machine than man. He has the integrity of a Guatemalan mule bridge with a squadron of M1 tanks trying to cross it. “That’s My Kind of Night” is like a diabolically-specialized form of audio diarrhea that marries the ideal ratio of water to solids so when it is sent through an industrial fan it inflicts the widest collateral damage on as many people as possible.
“A little Conway a little T-Pain?” Yep, that pretty much sums up American music in 2013, sans the Conway—replaced by Luke Bryan and his vomit-inducing country rap trend-chasing ilk.” (read full rant)
Jerrod Niemann – “Drink To That All Night”
Listening to this song is as traumatic as waking up naked in a stranger’s bed, with pacifiers and spent glowsticks littering the sheets around you, other people’s bodily fluids encrusting on your bare skin of your midriff, your eyebrows shaved, and the unsettled sense like you spent the night before indulging in designer drugs and weird sex against your will. Yes ladies and gentlemen, in 2013, country music when there—to the techno-rave glitterdance sounds of Jerrod Niemann and his woman’s ball cap that he got on clearance from Ross.
When the words kick in to this awful, awful song, you think it must be some sort of Saturday Night Live parody. But no, this song is a serious single from Jerrod. Luckily it skidded off the charts pretty rapidly, but “Drink To That All Night” symbolizes another new low for country music in 2013, with an excruciatingly-boring video.
- Darius Rucker’s version of “Wagon Wheel,” spared only from the above list because in the end “Wagon Wheel,” however ubiquitous, is still a good song.
- Justin Moore’s country rap “I’d Want It To Be Yours,” spared from the above list because it was never released as a single, and because it was released at the insistence of Scott Borchetta.
- Brad Paisley’s haphazard and ill-advised “Accidental Racist.” Also never officially released as a single.
- Any song from Florida-Georgia Line, including the stupid “Shine On” and the just-released single “It’z Just What We Do.”
Celebrity news site TMZ has posted pictures taken in July of country artist Luke Bryan drinking while driving his truck. In the pictures Luke can clearly be seen enjoying a can of Busch while behind the wheel, keys in the ignition. Because the drinking and driving occurred on Luke Bryan’s private ranch in Tennessee though, the police say there is nothing wrong with what Luke Bryan did, and no laws were broken.
However, paired with another picture Bryan posted in late September of his truck submerged in a pond, and the increasing pervasiveness of lyrics in popular country songs condoning drinking and driving, the incident speaks to a deeper, smoldering problem facing country music and the ethics behind lyrics meant for widespread consumption.
2013 has seen popular country music shed its family friendly identity more than any other time in the genre’s history, fueled by country’s big male stars and their laundry list / country rap style of music. Three of the checkboxes on the requirement sheet of country’s current checklist songs are beer, trucks, and drinking beer while driving trucks. The precedent was set with Jason Aldean’s blockbuster country rap “Dirt Road Anthem” that went on to become the best selling song in 2011.
I’m chilling on a dirt road. Laid back swerving like I’m George Jones Smoke rolling out the window. Ice cold beer sitting in the console
Luke Bryan’s big 2013 country rap hit “That’s My Kind Of Night” follows a similar lyrical thread.
I got that real good feel good stuff . Up under the seat of my big black jacked up truck
Rollin’ on 35s. Pretty girl by my side You got that sun tan skirt and boots. Waiting on you to look my way and scoot
Your little hot self over here. Girl hand me another beer, yeah!
Country music has gone from the format of cautionary tales to condoning irresponsible behavior because it fits some skewed vision of party culture. Drinking themes and much worse including murder have always been part of the country music’s thematic pull, but never has reckless behavior that very well could resort in the injury or death of others been dealt with in such a glamorous light, especially when much of the target demographic and appeal of said music resides under the legal drinking age. An average of over 10,000 people die every year due to drunk driving in the United States, and it accounts for roughly 1/3′rd of all traffic fatalities.
If Luke Bryan wants to drive drunk on his own property or crash his truck into a pond, that’s his prerogative. But if we’re spending millions of dollars as Americans to attempt to curb the tide of deaths and injuries by drunk drivers, it would be nice if Music Row wasn’t spending so much time and money endorsing it.
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Remember back in the 80′s and 90′s when the big stereotype about country music was that it was all about losing your job, your spouse leaving you, your truck breaking down, and your dog dying? Well now there’s a new set of negative stereotypes being engraved in the face of country music. With so many mainstream male artists drinking from the same well of lyrical themes and using the same select few songwriters, songs about beer and trucks are becoming our generation’s vilified country caricature.
For a few years now, distinguishing country music listeners have been sounding the alarm about laundry list/checklist songs and how their repetitiveness and permeation of the format could lead to burnout. But unwavering, their numbers have increased and their chart performance has improved as the demographics of country music shift away from its traditional audience. But like most trends and fads, especially ones that swap sustainability for the sugar rush of here-and-now success, country’s tailgate, truck, and beer songs could be reaching a critical mass point.
Much of country music’s recent criticism from artists has centered around the beer and truck thread.
Kacey Musgraves when asked what trend needed to die out, she said, “Anyone singing about trucks, in any form, in any song, anywhere. Literally just stop – nobody cares! It’s not fun to listen to.”
Zac Brown said, “If I hear one more tailgate in the moonlight, daisy duke song, I’m gonna throw up.”
And Jake Owen said, “We need more songs than just songs about tailgates and fuckin’ cups and Bacardi.”
Yes, artists like Zac Brown and Jake Owen might be hypocrites for criticizing songs that are similar to ones they’ve released themselves, but at the same time their words may even hold more weight than some traditionalist who may just come across as bitter. Hatred for truck songs has permeated the highest ranks of country stars, and as the quote from ABC’s Nashville at the top of this page illustrates, it is also becoming institutionalized in culture. Multiple stories have ran in major publications about what is being labeled by some as the “bro country” phenomenon, allowing the knowledge (and disgust) for the truck song trend to reach outside the confines of countrydom to casual music listeners.
Then you take a look at the charts where a few months ago beer & trucks songs were dominating the top spots, and we’re beginning to see some churning and turnaround. Two truck songs, Florida-Georgia Line’s “Cruise” and Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind of Night” positively dominated the #1 spots on Billboard’s Country Hot 100 for the majority of 2013, but right now sitting at the top is the Keith Urban / Miranda Lambert duet “We Were Us,” making for the first time a woman has seen the top of the charts in months, with a song that bucks the trend of starting out with a hip-hop beat, and instead builds out from an acoustic rhythm. Taylor Swift also cracks the Top 5 with “Red,” and even even the Florida Georgia Line #4 entry “Stay” is a much more subdued track that focuses more on story compared to their laundry list anthems “Cruise” and “Shine On.”
Even more importantly is what country music has coming up for 2014. Where 2013 was heavy with releases from truck song titans like Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, and Blake Shelton, the two biggest releases slated for country in 2014 are Taylor Swift, and a much anticipated new album from Eric Church. When Church released his latest single “The Outsiders,” he couldn’t have struck a more discordant tune to the truck song trend. Say what you will about Eric Church or “The Outsiders” specifically, but the song was a gorilla-like chest-pounding announcement from Church to not expect him to pander to the truck song formula. Though “The Outsiders” has pulled back in popularity from its bellicose debut, Eric Church’s new album may just be the monster to chase away the country truck trend.
Time will tell if we are beginning to see the erosion or burnout of country truck songs, and if so if it will usher in a new trend of more story-based music or something even more awful. But with the weight of public opinion swelling against them, it’s hard to see this trend lasting much longer.
So Eric Church, you think that genres are dead? Well then why don’t you turn in your Country Music Association Album of the Year trophy, your Academy of Country Music Album of the Year trophy, your Academy of Country Music award for Best New Solo Vocalist from 2011, and your Academy of Country Music award for Vocal Event of the Year that you won with your country-rapping douche buddies Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan as you march your aviators-wearing ass straight out of the non-existent country genre that has made you millions upon millions of fucking dollars and see if the rock world will embrace your “Outsiders” Bon Jovi rehash and bestow awards, coast to coast radio play, and industry support to your ungrateful, arrogant ass.
You’re right Eric, genres are dead, and it’s because assholes like you have killed them by making murky, soulless, rootless pap to appeal to the wide masses while the roots of music wither, and there’s no better evidence of that than your latest rock opera being rammed down the throats of what are supposed to be country consumers, throwing the homogenization of the American culture into hyper drive so that you can hold on to your mainstream relevancy and make even more money stained with the blood of what country music once was.
If you want to play rock music because you think that country is too restrictive, then by all means Eric, do your worst. Play the music you want. But then stay the hell off of country radio, don’t perform at the country awards shows, and forfeit your trophies to the runners up if the country genre is meaningless to you or meaningless in general. Who do you think laid the groundwork for people like you to have untold success? Did you not notice the names as you were trouncing on the way to the top? You can’t use the legacy of country music to make it to the top of the hill, and then disregard it once you’re there.
Eric Church is a hypocrite ladies and gentlemen. From saying he’d never call himself an Outlaw while simultaneously selling Outlaw merch, to now saying genres are dead while shamelessly reaping the rewards of one. Remember the Eric Church song “Lotta Boot Left To Fill”? Remember the lines “I don’t think Waylon done it that way. And if he was here he’d say Hoss, neither did Hank,” and “You sing about Johnny Cash. The man in black would’ve whipped your ass”? What would Hank, Hoss, and Cash have to say to someone claiming the genre they worked their entire lives in and shed their blood for didn’t matter? I know what they’d say. “Eric who?”
And the sad part is yes, when talking about the very top of mainstream country males, Eric Church outpaces his peers as far as quality and innovation, his latest “The Outsiders” single rocketing up the charts notwithstanding. But that may say just as much about the lack of quality in his peers as it says about Eric. It’s his damn attitude, the arrogance bordering on downright hubris, and the uncaring if he completely tears down the country genre, or really anything on his way to the top as long as he gets his.
The death of genres in mainstream music means the death of contrast, and this is something that shouldn’t be regarded flippantly, something that shouldn’t be celebrated just because it secures the financial success of mono-genre artists like Eric Church for the future. It means that music will have that much less color and diversity moving forward and be much more about commercial success than making an artistic mark.
And that’s a sad commentary.
Yes, it was still 2013, and it was still a modern country music awards show, and so traditional and independent-minded country music fans still had plenty to look sideways at if they were brave enough to watch. But that doesn’t mean that the 47th Annual Country Music Association Awards wasn’t a retrenching of the roots and substance in the genre’s most important institution, and a sign of hope for country fans who’ve simply been asking for years for balance to be reinstated into the mainstream country format.
Luke Bryan, who was the big winner at the ACM Awards in April, was completely shut out. So was Jason Aldean. Florida Georgia Line wasn’t, but this was understandable because of the historic success of their song “Cruise,” but they were bested by Kacey Musgraves in the New Artist of the Year category. And in the end, George Strait, King George, bested everyone by taking home the most coveted trophy in country music, the CMA for Entertainer of the Year.
Was it a parting gift for Strait after announcing his final tour? Of course it was. But it doesn’t mean it wasn’t deserved, and it doesn’t mean it isn’t sweet, both for George, and for traditional country fans, even the ones who may not mark themselves as big George Strait supporters. Strait’s win marks the first time in a decade a true country artist has won the trophy. Alan Jackson, George Strait’s duet partner for “He Stopped Loving Her Today” during a stirring George Jones tribute, was arguably the last traditional-leaning artist to win the award in 2003.
Which leads us to the performances of the 47th Annual CMA Awards. Along with the somewhat abridged, but heartfelt George Jones tribute, there was a tribute to Kenny Rogers, who was presented with this year’s Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award—an award that was founded last year. Lo and behold, a steel guitar made an appearance early in the presentation during Kacey Musgraves’ set, despite the disappointment of the lyric “roll up a joint” in her song “Follow Your Arrow” being censored out. Taylor Swift of all people, offered a stripped down acoustic set that featured Vince Gill, bluegrass maestro Sam Bush, Alison Krauss, and not just as backing musicians. Both Gill and Krauss took turns on verses, no doubt stimulating not a few younger fans to take to Google to figure out who these artists were, facilitating that important initial spark of discovery.
Even Luke Bryan, whose performance of “Country Girl (Shake It For Me) on the 2011 CMA Awards seemed like the pinnacle of indecency for a country awards show at the time, offered a somewhat stripped down, heartfelt performance that featured songwriter Chris Stapleton. In fact, there wasn’t really any performances that seemed gratuitously over-the-top. Apparently there was a moratorium on choreographed backup dancers for the 2013 CMA’s, and about the only pyrotechnics aside from Eric Church’s over-the-top performance of “The Outsiders” were some sparks streaming from beneath the wheels of a simulated boxcar during Jason Aldean’s song “Night Train.” Even the cross-genre moment was when the well-beloved Dave Grohl joined the Zac Brown Band on drums—a stark contrast from the rappers and Kid Rock’s of the world that have somehow become regular fixtures of country award shows recently.
What does this all mean? For one, it means there is a reason to be positive. Whether it is because of the collective crying out about the disenfranchising of country music’s traditional and independent fans through events like Blake Shelton labeling them “Old Farts and Jackasses,” or whether it is the tangible demographic data that shows that country fans as a whole want more traditional country in the country format, someone, somewhere is listening, and some of the change fans have been clamoring for in recent years is finally being enacted.
All that has been asked for is balance—a place at the table for alternatives to pop country—and though the ratio may still be somewhat out-of-whack, some balance was reinstated during the 2013 CMA Awards. If there was another winner during the event beyond the award winners, it might be CMA producer Robert Deaton. Deaton told the Tennessean on Nov. 1st, ““I think the biggest thing I want to strive for is balance. I’m talking about balance of who we are as a music and a genre because we are a lot of different things, you want to be current but you also want to pay tribute to the shoulders that we stand on.” And Robert Deaton backed up those words in the presentation. As much as the censoring of Kacey Musgraves may be a black eye of the 2013 CMA’s, it was done to make sure families and traditional viewers were not offended.
Furthermore, the proof that balance works is in the ratings pudding. The ratings for the CMA Awards was up by 21 percent over last year’s telecast in viewers and 24 percent in the key demographic. The growth was particularly big among young males, with ABC touting a nine-year high among men 18-34.
In September, Saving Country Music published 12 Reasons To Be Positive About Country Music in 2013, and the 47th CMA Awards was yet another one to add to the list. However slowly, however incrementally, and however offset by the continuing lows of some of country music’s mainstream males, things are changing. It had been years since true country fans felt a reason to stand up and cheer and had a reason to feel represented at the CMA Awards. But the 47th installment offered a few of them, and one very big one.
In mid October, Toby Keith lent his voice to the litany of artists criticizing modern country music in one capacity or another, specifically taking on the recent country rap trend, telling Country Weekly, “You hear the hip-hop thing start kicking in, and you start going, ‘Is that what we gotta do now to have a hit? Is that what I need every one of my songs to sound like now?’” The comments came in the context of Keith explaining how hard it is to get a country-sounding song played on the radio.
In another recent interview with Country 92.5 in Connecticut (listen below), Keith expanded on his statements, saying that his remarks weren’t a “diss,” but then doubled down on his opinion that rap shouldn’t be a predominant part of the country format.
I started that stuff with “[I Wanna] Talk About Me”… I think it’s cool to step out and do something like that, I just don’t think it’s cool to make a living doing that….It’s cool to step out and do some R&B stuff. It’s cool to step out and do some rock stuff. It’s cool to do traditional country. But at the end of the day if you’re gonna be a country artist, I don’t think you just keep making a living off of turning country into hip-hop songs. I think the hip-hop artists would get tired of listening to you do bad country.
Artist like Colt Ford, Cowboy Troy, and even more mainstream artists like Florida Georgia Line regularly release singles that feature country rap, while some of country’s biggest male stars like Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean have released multiple country rap singles. Keith also opens up the conversation about how country rap is viewed by a hip hop community that may be just as disappointed about what is happening with rap as many country fans are with country when the two formats mix.
Toby Keith’s “I Wanna Talk About Me” released in 2001 is given credit for being one of the first modern country rap songs, though at the time Keith was quoted as saying about it, “They’re going to call it a rap, [although] there ain’t nobody doing rap who would call it a rap.” The song was written by Country Music Hall of Famer Bobby Braddock, and was originally slated to be released by Blake Shelton before being turned down as “too risky.” Later in the interview with Country 92.5, Keith left open the possibility of doing country rap in the future, but only as a one-off collaboration instead of a sonic direction for his music.
My son played on an elite football team that played Canada in San Antonio and Snoop Dogg’s son was on the team too. And we met down there and I had “Red Solo Cup” out then and he was going, “Man I need to get in the studio with you and hit on some of that ‘Red Solo Cup.’” I’d love to. Me and Snoop would be fun. It wasn’t a diss as much as a do what you do, but get in your zone if you’re
going to be country.
- – - – - – - – - -
If you’re a male performer in country music right now, you may no longer have a choice. If you want to see your singles and records reach the top of the charts, if you want your songs played on the radio, and if you want to be in contention for the big awards, you better add some hip hop elements into your music.
It seems almost inexplicable that this statement could be made about American country music, but when looking at the top performing songs, albums, and artists in the format, and how many of them have at least some form of the hip-hop culture embedded in their music, the statement isn’t controversial, it is conclusive. And Saving Country Music isn’t the only one pointing this out.
“You hear the hip-hop thing start kicking in, and you start going, ‘Is that what we gotta do now to have a hit? Is that what I need every one of my songs to sound like now?” says Toby Keith, who not only was the best-selling country artist from the 2000′s decade, but is the owner of the influential Show Dog Universal label, and the highest paid person in country music from his stake in multiple record companies.
Even as a top label executive, Toby is having trouble convincing his own people to push music that doesn’t include electronic beats or rapping. According to Keith, when he brings them country songs, they tell him, “Eh, it doesn’t sound like what’s going on the radio today.”
The two best-charting, biggest-selling songs of 2013 so far have been songs that lean heavily on hip-hop influences: Florida-Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” and Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind of Night.” Both songs broke records in 2013, with “Cruise” breaking the all-time record for any country single with 23+ weeks at the #1 position, and “That’s My Kind Of Night” breaking a record for the most consecutive weeks at #1 for a solo male performer—a record held since 1966.
Currently, the #1, #2, #6, #7 songs on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart feature hip hop influences, while Jason Aldean, Blake Shelton, and Tim McGraw at the #4, #5, #9 positions respectively have all had major country rap singles, including Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” that was the biggest-selling song in all of country in 2011. Three of the five nominees for both Entertainer of the Year and Male Vocalist of the Year for the upcoming CMA Awards have cut country rap songs.
But just because a song has hip hop influences, doesn’t make it bad. It has been the combination of country rap and the laundry list style of lyricism that has been the 1-2 punch to the integrity of the country genre, and especially the material emanating from male talent. This trend has caused a recent uproar, with many artists speaking out, including artists who have themselves participated in either the country rap or laundry list trend, including Jake Owen who recently said, “We need more songs than just songs about tailgates and fuckin’ cups and Bacardi and stuff like that,” potentially dissing Toby Keith’s hit “Red Solo Cup.” Keith was also arguably responsible for the first country rap song in the modern era when he rapped the verses in his 2001 hit “I Wanna Talk About Me.”
It may not be as much that Jake Owen and Toby Keith are being hypocritical as much as they are big stars that are expected to deliver hit singles, and they are sick and tired of chasing the current trends where there is little or no room for substance. When Keith spoke about his recent single “Hope On The Rocks” that stalled at #18 on the Country Airplay chart, he said, “…you start playing it to a twenty-something audience, and it’s like, ‘Naw, man, there ain’t no mud on that tire. That ain’t about a Budweiser can. That ain’t about a chicken dancing out by the river. That ain’t about smoking a joint by the haystack. That’s about somebody dying and shit.’”
So does that mean we can expect Toby Keith to go the country rap route? “I don’t know how to do that,” Keith explains. “I’m not going to change much. And when it quits working, I’ve got other stuff to do.” But if he doesn’t, Keith runs the risk of losing his relevancy as a mainstream country artist. That is why we’ve seen middle-aged country performers like Tim McGraw and Ronnie Dunn cut country rap songs recently, and why most of the up-and-coming country males that are making their mark are doing it through country rap.
Peer and financial pressures are making it mandatory for male country artists to start off their songs with a hip hop beat, or rap the verses to their songs, even if it is just a verse or two. Forget the stigma of trying to bring hip hop into the country format. If you’re a male country star in 2013, you can’t afford not to.
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