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For over half a decade now, hick-hop has been a smoldering, underground phenomenon threatening to break into the mainstream at any moment, but never quite finding the right outlet to ever pull it off. Understand we’re not talking about country rap in general here, though there is some obvious similarities between country rap and hick-hop. Country rap is a sub-genre that has seen some of country music’s top stars dabble in it quite successfully, including Jason Aldean taking the song “Dirt Road Anthem” to #1 in 2011, and eventually scoring the biggest song in the entire country genre in that year. That opened the mainstream floodgates for country rap, and now other established mainstream artists like Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan have scored #1 country rap hits.
But far away from all the glitz of mainstream country radio and big award shows is a whole other entire subculture of hick-hoppers that work in what would be considered underground circles in music. In fact, hick-hop, or RebelCore as some would have you call it, very well may be the biggest, most organized type of underground music in America right now when you see the size of the crowds at many of hick-hop’s live events, and how many hits hick-hop artists get on their online videos. The movement relies none on radio play, and beyond the Colt Ford-owed label Average Joe’s, really doesn’t have any solid infrastructure.
Colt Ford, arguably the Godfather of hick-hop, has been complaining for years that it is unfair he can’t get any radio play or other support from the mainstream country music industry. Ford wrote “Dirt Road Anthem” with Brantley Gilbert and released it three years before Jason Aldean cut the song, but it took an established, accepted mainstream personality to take the song to the big time. Big hick-hop acts like the LoCash Cowboys, The Moonshine Bandits, and Bubba Sparxxx have huge followings, but hick-hop has always been seen as off limits to the mainstream unless it is in the form of a single from an established country artist.
Well all of that might be about to change.
On Wednesday night, cable channel A&E debuted the first episode of Big Smo, a show about a hick-hop artist who is looking to try and break it big in the music business. Big Smo is already a well-established hick-hop artist, with one of his videos garnering him over 6 million views on YouTube, which is not uncommon for hick-hop performers who regularly use videos to distribute their music in lieu of radio support or labels. But now Big Smo will be following in the footsteps of Duck Dynasty, which is currently reality TV’s most successful show, amidst A&E’s redneck reality show lineup.
The appetite of Americans to peer into the lives of rednecks to point and laugh seems to be endless, and CMT and other networks are betting big on redneck reality bankrolling their future. But with A&E and their wild success with Duck Dynasty, this is a completely different game for Big Smo and hick-hop. A&E has also been marketing the Big Smo show heavily, throwing ridiculous amounts of money into advertising, clearly envisioning the show as their new blockbuster by saying “A New ‘Dynasty’ Is Beginning” in commercials for the show, and targeting their marketing directly at mainstream country music consumers.
Similar to Duck Dynasty, Wal-Mart has already thrown their support behind Big Smo, distributing his music and merchandise. The debut of Big Smo on A&E was synced up with the release of his new album Kuntry Livin’, and unlike Big Smo’s hick-hop compadres, he’s signed to a major label in the form of Warner Nashville. Kuntry Livin’ released on June 3rd debuted at #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, and that was before the support the new A&E show will surely give him.
All of this could put hick-hop, and Big Smo specifically, at the center stage of American culture. We’ve already seen the Duck Dynasty characters, who are not even true musicians or performers, dominate the charts when they released a holiday album, and their images permeates just about every sector of American culture. You take an artist that already has an established fan base, along with millions of underground hick hop fans in one of the strongest grassroots networks in music, and we could be seeing the launching of the next American music superstar. And that is exactly what A&E is expecting to happen, making it an underlying premise of the reality show.
And since the music business, especially country, is such a copycat world, there’s no reason to think a rising tide couldn’t raise all hick-hop boats, and the hick-hop roster of Average Joe’s, as well as other outlier hick-hop organizations and acts, couldn’t see a significant bump by the show, while new recruits come out of the woodwork to emulate the new hot reality TV star.
Of course, the extent of the Big Smo impact is yet to be seen since the show just debuted and Big Smo’s album was just released, but this is not something to be taken lightly. Big Smo, the show and the artist, could finally be the backdoor to the mainstream hick-hop has been waiting for.
King George Strait played what is expected to be his final show as a big ticket touring musician to a packed audience at Dallas Cowboys’ stadium in Arlington, TX on Saturday night, and the event that saw people travel from all over the world to witness, and drew some of country music’s biggest names in support, shattered previous attendance records for an indoor concert. A head count of 104, 793 attendees was taken, roughly 5,000 over the stadium’s listed capacity of 100,000, and breaking the previous record for an indoor concert of 87,500 held by a Rolling Stones show at the Superdome in New Orleans in 1981—the same year Strait released his first hit “Unwound”.
The George Strait concert was the final show in his 60-date farewell “Cowboy Rides Away” tour that embarked on the road January 13th, 2013 for a show in Lubbock, TX. Showing up to support George was an impressive list of performers, especially since the date competed with the big night of Nashville’s CMA Fest at LP Field. The show included Jason Aldean, Kenny Chesney, Eric Church, Vince Gill, Alan Jackson, Miranda Lambert, Martina McBride, Lee Ann Womack, Sheryl Crow, and Asleep At The Wheel. Alan Jackson and George Strait reprized their CMA Award-winning duet “Murder On Music Row” from 2000 on the custom-built stage that sat in the center of the field. “It’s still appropriate,” the duo said about the protest song.
Other performances included George Strait and Vince Gill covering George Jones’ song “Love Bug” as well as “Does Ft. Worth Ever Cross Your Mind”, Martina McBride and George sang duets on “Golden Ring” and “Jackson”, Miranda Lambert joined in for “How ‘Bout Them Cowgirls”, and Alan Jackson also sang “Amarillo By Morning” with night’s man of honor. At the end of the concert, everyone took the stage, including Ray Benson from Asleep At The Wheel to sing “All My Ex’s Live in Texas” and finish up with “The Cowboy Rides Away”.
George Strait performed 584 shows since 1990 that grossed more than $405 million, had 44 Number One hits on Billboard’s country chart, and sold nearly 70 million records. But as Strait promised when first announcing the tour, this doesn’t mean he will stop recording or playing shows upon occasion. It will just be the end of the long haul stadium/arena tours. “Like Arnold Schwarzenegger says, I’ll be back,” Strait said before the final song. There was also a film crew shooting the whole event that saw tickets spike to an average of $688 in the secondary market.
“I can’t tell you how excited I am to be here tonight,” said Strait from the stage. “It’s just been on my mind since we started this tour two years ago, and finally it’s here tonight. We broke a record for the most people, ever. Really? Why wouldn’t we, huh?”
In an era when nothing in music is universal, and music has become one of the primary battlefronts in the culture war, the likeability of Jack White was one of the few things that passed for a consensus builder. Like former Nirvana drummer and current Foo Fighter Dave Grohl, Jack White was hard to hate, even if you weren’t particularly fond of his music, past or present. His accidental superstardom, his respect and proficiency with music from many different genres, his forward-thinking, quirky style at promotion, and his independent spirit made him a champion of almost every conscious music lover. He was the rock star that wasn’t one: the prototype of the new-school, likeable guy that just happened to become famous, and that we could relate to and appreciate as one of us, no matter how “us” was defined.
And then something changed. I’m not exactly sure where or when specifically, but it changed. At some point it seemed like Jack White has started to buy into his own image and marketing, while his image began to reveal itself as marketing. He kept getting older, yet refused to lose the whiteface or black hair. And then the gimmicks started rolling in, and now the feuds.
August of last year is when the first major cracks in the Jack White facade began to appear. Amidst the divorce proceedings from his wife Karen Elson, it came out that she was alleging Jack was both verbally and physically abusive toward her, that she had asked for a restraining order and a psychiatric evaluation, and then she released emails to the public where White was portrayed as spiteful toward The Black Keys guitarist (and another one of music’s few universally-likeable guys, Dan Auerbach), speaking on the circumstance of the two’s kids being in the same school, “You arenât thinking ahead. Thatâs a possible twelve fucking years I’m going to have to be sitting in kids chairs next to that asshole with other people trying to lump us in together. He gets yet another free reign to follow me around and copy me and push himself into my world.â
If you were anything like me, at the time this information came out, you put yourself in both Jack White and his ex-wife’s shoes, and felt it was a shame that the information had been made public. And of course there were counter-suits by Jack, claiming it was all lies and smear. Who is right or wrong in affairs of the heart is usually anyone’s best guess, and it’s usually better for the whole business to be kept under wraps and out of the public consumption feed before speculation and misnomers are allowed to thrive. But still, there it was; a chink in the armor. If this info was coming out about Axl Rose or Jason Aldean, whether you were a fan of their music or not, you’d be likely to shrug your shoulders and say, “Yeah, sounds about right.” But this was our likeable, champion of independent music Jack White; the guy that wasn’t a bastard, on stage or off.
It was the the Tiger Woods effect. Nobody was surprised, and nobody cared when it was found out that Michael Jordan, or Shaquille O’Neil cheated on their wives. Of course they did. But Tiger Woods had been sold to us for years as this upstanding, product-endorsing family man. Jack White was supposed to be the champion of all independent music; the sage leader who wouldn’t lose his temper, and was blessed with the ability to see everything both ways.
But really the erosion of Jack White looming large over the musical landscape started years before. I remember when it was first announced that he would be partnering with Wanda Jackson to make a revival album in the same vein of his award-winning and critically-acclaimed work with Loretta Lynn on 2004′s Van Lear Rose. My country music head just about exploded from excitement at this news (and here too is where you see why Jack White has an important and worthy country music connection). 2011′s The Party Ain’t Over from Wanda Jackson was one of the most anticipated records of 2011 in rock, rockabilly, and country. And what happened when it was released? No much. Nowhere near the zeal and accolades piled up as they did for Van Lear Rose.
The Jack White-produced The Party Ain’t Over felt flat. It seems to be about Jack first, and Wanda second. Her signature growl wasn’t present, her voice was buried in the mix. Jack White’s guitar wankery ruined songs in places, and seemed to be the predominant feature of the project. And Jack’s insistence on cutting directly to tape gave the entire recording a filmy, ever-present hiss, despite whatever “warmth” it captured. The album wasn’t terrible, don’t get me wrong. But it was one of those records you listen to once or twice, return to its sleeve, and then never think about again—Wanda’s cover of Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good” notwithstanding.
So maybe Jack White wasn’t flawless, says the 2011 me to myself. Then I began to think what the last Jack White project was that really spoke to me. Of course, I’m a country guy, so maybe I’m not the best test specimen, but the one I came up with was The Raconteurs first album Broken Boy Soldiers, and that was from way back in 2006. But I’d tasted pretty much everything he’d done subsequently, and hey, Jack had won himself a good bit of latitude to stretch his wings if he wanted, or even turn in some missed targets and snoozers because he was Jack White. Music aside, I liked the guy, and he never put out anything that seemed downright ill-advised or bad.
And then the bits started: the all-girl band, the record booth, the tying of records on balloons and releasing them in downtown Nashville, and this with records, and that with records. Yes, we all love vinyl. It sounds so much better! But at some point it all was starting to feel like one big gimmick. This year during Record Store Day when Jack White pulled another bit by making the “World’s Fastest Record,” it seemed to symbolize the whole silliness and extreme of the new vinyl revolution, where we’re putting out records without any quality control or thought, stuff like Ron Jeremy playing classical piano just to get people to pay to collect something nobody would ever want if it wasn’t being pushed by hype and being sold as an exercise in independent values. Everybody was trying to look cool for each other, and somewhere the focus on the music itself got lost in the shuffle.
And then here comes Jack White late last week talking shit on Adele, his ex White Stripes partner, The Black Keys, and pretty much everyone else in modern music to Rolling Stone. But wait a second, I thought White’s hatred for The Keys was all hyped in the mudslinging of his divorce? And almost making it worse, he comes out 48 hours later to apologize. White seemed like he wanted to have his cake and eat it too: get the idea out there that The Black Keys and pretty much all popular guitar-based music is a ripoff of him and The White Stripes, and then turn around and apologize as everyone is lobbing grenades back at you so you look like the bigger person. Justin Townes Earle, the artist that produced Wanda Jackson’s subsequent album Unfinished Business, let rip on Twitter yesterday, “Jack White is such a pussy,” illustrating that one of independent music’s untouchables had now become a whipping boy.
The simple fact is though, Jack White is right, at least to some extent. Last weekend I was attending redneck comedian Jeff Foxworthy’s inaugural Red Fest on the outskirts of Austin, TX. While hanging out with one of the performing artists, they elucidated to me unsolicited and out-of-context, “You know, everything these days just sounds like bad White Stripes to me.” And they’re pretty much right. This two-piece, new rock, blues and roots-referencing scream fest has pretty much permeated American popular music, and with it, the misguided notion that everything must be cut directly to tape and pressed on vinyl to where we’re now making a bunch of great music that purposely sounds bad. This is Jack White’s contribution to planet Earth at the moment, and maybe he has a reason to be pissed off, and wanting to piss off others because of it.
But of course, Jack White has his influences as well. Ever heard of the Flat Duo Jets, or Dex Romweber? In fact Romweber just put out a new album through Bloodshot Records called Images 13. He plays in a duo with a girl drummer. Even Jack will admit, Dex was a big origination point for The White Stripes and his later incarnations. Dex recorded a live album at White’s 3rd Man Records in 2010. “It was obvious when you watched Dexter perform, he didnât care what people though about him, he just wanted to express these songs that were coming out of him,” says White on Dex. Is Dex Romweber pissed off that everyone’s running around, copying him by playing cheap Harmony guitars in two-piece bands, including Jack White? We may never know until he gets divorced.
So lo and behold, the whole time we were holding Jack White up on a pedestal for being just like the rest of us, in private he was juggling family bullshit, and hiding resentment … just like the rest of us. And now you know the importance behind the saying, “It’s all about the music.”
Many of mainstream country’s big stars came to Nashville with the best of intentions. They had a sincere love of country music, a belly full of talent, and big hopes to make music their way and ascend the country music ladder with their integrity still in tact….
…and then the Music Row machine did it’s worst.
When you look back at some of the early songs, early albums, and even the early image of some of country’s biggest current stars, it can stimulate downright culture shock. Of course styles change naturally over time, but many of these artists came from small towns and had simple dreams. But the problem with money and fame is that you can always have more of it, and next thing you know, they become shells of their original selves.
Below are some illustrations, not necessarily listening suggestions, but examples of some of the dramatic changes we have seen in some of country music’s biggest artists since their start.
Blake Shelton – “Austin”
With long hair hanging down past his shoulders and a cowboy hat, Blake Shelton and his first single and first #1 hit “Austin” from 2001 seems light years away from the rapped verses and hip hop beat of “Boys ‘Round Here.” Not an exceptional song, but one that has a sincere story, steel guitar, and shows that Blake Shelton did have a soul once upon a time and didn’t mind singing a song for the “Old Farts & Jackasses.”
Luke Bryan – “I’ll Stay Me”
With his baseball cap facing the right way and a goofy smile, Luke Bryan from the small town of Leesburg, GAÂ made his way to Nashville, and after penning big songs for Travis Tritt and Billy Currington, signed with Capitol Records Nashville in 2007 and released an album called I’ll Stay Me. Yes, let’s not let the irony of that title escape us. Bryan wrote or co-wrote all of the songs on the album, compared to his latest album Crash My Party that has only two co-writes from Bryan in the entire 13 tracks. Though there is certainly the early leanings toward a laundry list style of lyricism on “I’ll Stay Me,” it also has a lot of sincerity and a pretty authentic country flavor.
Jason Aldean – “Amarillo Sky”
Before Jason Aldean became the mainstream champion for country rap with “Dirt Road Anthem” and became one of the Godfathers of laundry list country with its caricaturist portrayals of rural life, he put out a song called “Amarillo Sky” on his debut, self-titled album in 2005, releasing it as a single in 2006. Instead of clichĂŠs about dirt roads, beer, & trucks that mark Aldean’s current offerings, “Amarillo Sky” tells a pretty authentic story about the struggle of American farmers, while the video featuring real sons of farmers does it one better. The song was written in part by Big & Rich.
Jerrod Niemann – “Good Ride Cowboy”
Jerrod Niemann has become the poster boy for the gentrification of country music with his EDM-laced radio superhits like “Drink To That All Night”, but can you believe that he once co-penned a tribute to Chris LeDoux cut by Garth Brooks called “Good Ride Cowboy”? Neimann actually had Garth record three of his co-writes, and had Jamey Johnson and Neal McCory record his songs as well. “Good Ride Cowboy” wound up at #3 on the Billboard charts in 2005. Below Niemann can be seen sporting an actual cowboy hat instead of his signature club-hopping fedora. Where did you go wrong Jerrod?
Brantley Gilbert – “What’s Left of a Small Town”
When Brantley Gilbert started out in country music, you wouldn’t even be able to recognize him compared to today. Brantley Gilbert ver. 2014 is all attitude with his ball cap pulled down over his eyes, singing country rap songs in a complete vacuum of self-awareness, but as many long-time Gilbert fans can attest, back in the day he wrote and sang some very sincere country songs, while being known to pay homage to the roots by playing many country classics. His first album released in October of 2009 called Modern Day Prodigal Son gave many hints to the bro-country king Brantley would become, but it also had a few really sincere songs, including one called “What’s Left of a Small Town”.
Sugarland – “Tennessee”
Remember when Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles actually had a Southern accent, Kristian Bush had a cowboy hat instead of an outfit pattered off the leprechaun on the Lucky Charms box, and they had a third member that looked like a 40-something female volleyball coach? Yes, it was 2004, and light years away from “Stuck Like Glue.” Oh how I would have loved to be a fly on the wall during that uncomfortable meeting at Mercury Records when some suit demanded Jennifer lose her twang, and the band lose their third wheel.
Â Florida Georgia Line
….oops, they started bad and stayed there.
Just think about this for a second: Blake Shelton, Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean, Eric Church, Brady Paisley, Miranda Lambert, and Rascal Flatts are all now managed by the same exact talent agency. That is pretty much every single top tier country artist at the moment aside from Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood. And that’s just the start. The Band Perry and Jerrod Niemann are also managed by them. So are Dierks Bentley and Justin Moore.
In fact there a total of 128 mainstream country acts that fall under this same talent agency. It’s virtually everyone. It would be easier to name of the artists who are not on their roster. They even manage many of the big names in Texas country like Granger Smith, the Randy Rogers Band, and Josh Abbott. The have legacy acts like Hank Williams Jr., Vince Gill, and Kenny Rogers. They have Southern rock artists like Whiskey Myers and Lynyrd Skynyrd. They even manage independent-minded performers like Jamey Johnson and Robert Earl Keen.
Who is this mega talent company that barely anybody’s heard about?
The company is called William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, or WME for short. It is a talent agency that represents artists for concerts, tours, and appearances among other management tasks, and they have been acquiring managers of numerous artists and consolidating them under their umbrella for the past few years until they now have a virtual monopoly on mainstream country touring talent. For example in 2010, WME brought on board the 360 Artist Agency run by Joey Lee, and with him, the artists Miranda Lambert, Lee Brice, and Lee Ann Womack. Earlier this week, the agency brought on Kevin Neal, who brought along with him Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean, and Colt Ford among others.
WME, which has offices in Beverley Hills, Nashville, New York City, London, Miami, and Dallas, also has a big stake in managing TV and movie actors, sports personalities, and even writers. But their ability to consolidate virtually all of the talent in country music in one place, especially when it comes to the very top of the genre, is virtually unmatched in the recording industry.
WME also manages artists from other genres. They are the talent agency for the red hot Pharrell, as well as Snoop Dogg and Rihanna. But there is not genre they have such a tight grip on, or any talent agency has a grip on, like WME has on country.
So why does any of this matter?
Because when you have the same entity in charge of virtually everyone, you run the risk every monopoly runs on an industry. In the last few years, we’ve seen the gross consolidation of power in the recording industry, and in country specifically, into the hands of a few huge entities, especially in the touring realm. Virtually every concert now is promoted by AEG or Live Nation. If you want to purchase a ticket, you have one option: Ticketmaster …. which is owned by Live Nation. And since nearly every single artist that exists in the higher ranks of touring in country music has the same talent agency, the vacuum of competition can, and does foster a stagnant, incestuous environment. It also gives them dramatic advantage over other agencies, to the point where smaller, independent agency are forced to concede to them or go out-of-business. Why do we see the same concert pairings over and over? Why do the same artists seem to always be at the top of the genre? Why do the same artists get nominated for the same awards and get all the radio play? Because they all fall under the auspices of the same few companies.
Here’s the country roster for WME:
The Band Perry
Big & Rich
Blue Sky Riders
The Cadillac Three
Casey Donahew Band
Duck Dynasty (The Robertson Family)
Florida Georgia Line
Hank Williams, Jr.
Hudson MooreJackie Lee
Josh Abbott Band
Kristy Lee Cook
Larry Gatlin & The Gatlin Brothers
Laura Bell Bundy
Lee Ann Womack
The Little Willies feat. Norah Jones
The Lost Trailers
Natalie Stovall & The Drive
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
The Oak Ridge Boys
Pat GreenPistol Annies
Randy Rogers Band
Robert Earl Keen
Steven Lee Olsen
The Swon Brothers
The Time Jumpers
William Michael Morgan
The Willis Clan
On April Fool’s day, Broken Bow Records released a 20-track Merle Haggard Tribute called Working Manâs Poet, primarily as a showcase for the roster’s talent. Big Broken Bow acts like Jason Aldean, Thompson Square, and Dustin Lynch make multiple appearances on the collection, but one of the most heavily-touted songs from the album has been Luke Bryan’s version of “Pancho & Lefty” with Dierks Bentley. The approach of the track is said to to have been inspired by Mumford & Sons. “The original had a Spanish-Mexican flair,” Bryan explains. “We took a real different approach with it âŚ. something with some edge that moves along pretty good. Itâs an interesting take.â
The first question this song begged was, should this really be considered a Merle Haggard song? “Pancho & Lefty” was originally written and recorded by acclaimed Texas singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt. A later version appeared on an album of the same name that was a collaboration between Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson in 1983, but Willie sang most of the song, with Merle only contributing one verse.
Nonetheless, Luke Bryan’s version with Dierks made the cut, and subsequently drew the favorable ear of Mere’s son and Strangers guitar player Ben Haggard who appears on the tribute multiple times himself. âYou know, Luke Bryanâs a great artist, but I never really listened to his stuff,” Ben told Country Weekly earlier this month. “I just listened to âPancho and Leftyâ about five minutes ago and it blew me away. Iâm in love with it.â
Ben went on to give his assessment of the tune if it was ever released to radio as a single. “I wouldnât be surprised if it was a hit. It could be a monsterâagain.âÂ The Willie & Merle version was a #1 in 1983. This begs the question, could Luke Bryan’s version of “Pancho & Lefty” really be released to radio as a single, and somehow become a hit all over again?
The one thing we know is right now, there’s no country star hotter than Luke Bryan. Luke is on a roll, scoring one huge hit single after another, with his latest “Play It Again” at #1, and his collaboration with Florida-Georgia Line called “This Is How We Roll” at #2 on Billboard’s country chart. If Luke and his management did decide to release the song to radio there’s a very good likelihood it would do well simply off of Luke’s name, and Dierks Bentley is a pretty hot commodity at the moment as well.
Combine that with the overwhelming cover success Darius Rucker recently had with Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel,” and it’s not ridiculous to think that Luke’s “Pancho & Lefty” could become a hit, creating the same strange dichotomy “Wagon Wheel” did for independent country fans where you’re happy there’s a cool song getting played on the radio, but hesitant about the circumstances of how it got there. A Merle tribute song written by Townes Van Zandt topping the charts? Awesome. Performed by Luke Bryan? Not so much. And it turns out that there already has been a few spins of the song on MediaBase-monitored radio stations (a meager total of four, but still interesting for a cover song on a tribute album).
But don’t steal yourself for disappointment, or get your hopes up that “Pancho & Lefty” 3.0 will become the next “Wagon Wheel” and put the deceased Townes Van Zandt at the top of today’s country chart. As Saving Country Music’s go to guru for all things country radio Windmills Country points out, since the Merle Haggard tribute was released by Broken Bow, but Luke Bryan is a Capitol Records Nashville artist, it is unlikely that Luke’s song is the one they would release as a single, if they release any singles from the tribute. Releasing a single to mainstream country radio costs lots of money for labels to promote, and so it is unlikely that Broken Bow would do this for an artist on another roster, similar how it is less likely that Capitol Nashville would figure out how to release it as a single since it originated from Broken Bow.
The other issue is that Luke Bryan already has a slew of singles out there to radio doing very very well, and so does Dierks Bentley. Labels do not like having singles compete with each other, so if “Pancho & Lefty” was released, it would likely be well after Luke’s current albums are out of single material.
Nonetheless, it is certainly curious that the most lauded song on the album is Luke Bryan’s, especially since he’s not signed to Broken Bow. In the press releases and other promotional material, it is by far the most talked about track, and it could have been targeted by Broken Bow’s A&R as the best song to help sell the album to the public. Depending on the licensing behind the song, the track could also be selected to be released on a deluxe edition of Luke’s current album Crash My Party—a practice that a lot of labels are doing with artists to extend the release cycle, and making it more likely it could appear as a single. So who knows. It somewhat feels like fantasy football to talk about the track becoming a hit, but there is certainly a lot of chatter surrounding it. We very well might be seeing Luke Bryan shaking it to “Pancho & Lefty” in the future, for better or worse.
There’s no embeddable version of Luke Bryan’s version, so here’s the Willie & Merle’s original.
Not to go all Bobby Bones on your asses by pointing out the obvious about something upcoming and then taking a self-ingratiating victory lap when it comes to fruition, but just as I’ve been saying ever since the term “bro-country” was widely adopted by naysayers of the current male-dominated laundry list phenomenon in country music, eventually it would be co-opted by the very “bros” it was meant to call out, and be used as a term of endearment.
Well now ladies and gentlemen, we have reached that point, and in a big way.
The problem with the term “bro-country”, and why it has never been adopted by Saving Country Music was because it’s not really descriptive enough of what is wrong with the songs it’s being appointed to. The reason bros are bros is because they lack self-awareness, and call each other “bro” all the time. So when “bro-country” became the prevailing term for checklist country, it was only a matter of time before it went from an unsavory describer of a subset of country that pointy-nosed intellectuals look to bemoan, to the being adopted by the very douchebags it’s meant to demean.
Cases In Point (just a few, but there’s many more):
â˘Thomas Rhett, one of the leading songwriters and performers in the bro-country trend recently posted a “Bro-Country” Playlist on his official YouTube VEVO channel touting “The Best of Bro-Country” where you can sit back, press play, and listen to 41 straight minutes of songs like Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise”, Brantley Gilbert’s “Bottom’s Up”, Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind of Night”, or Thomas Rhett’s own “Get Me Some Of That”. Looks like Rhett has no problem with him or his contemporaries being called “bro-country.”
â˘On April 21st, Country Outfitter posted a playlist called “10 Bro-Country Songs For Summer” ; no, not to laugh at the trend, but to promote it. It showcases such sizzling summer anthems as “Ready Set Roll” by Chase Rice, “Drink To That All Night” by Jerrod Niemann, and “This Is How We Roll” by Florida Georgia Line. “Tropical getaways, ice cold beer and late nights sitting on the tailgate are just a few of the topics covered by many of country musicâs leading men,” Country Outfitter touts. “While we wait for the weather to decide its next move, weâve put together a heated playlist of bro-country songs for summer.”
â˘In a Florida Georgia Line review in The Edmonton Journal from April 15th titled “Florida Georgia Line Push Right Buttons with Bro Country“, writer Tom Murray gushes, “There were couples dancing in the upper terraces, rows of drunk bros in ball caps with fists extended, shouting themselves hoarse at nameless workday ghosts, and lots of selfies being taken. What more can be said?” He went on to give the band credit for their “reassembly of clichĂŠs,” and even had the guts to infer, “If Hank had been born in 1990, then you can be sure he would have done it this way as well, except maybe with Chuck D or Eric B on the remix, not Nelly.” Ugh.
â˘Not to be outdone, there is an entire radio station touting the virtues of bro-country, and even using it as the very definition of their format. KSTN in Stockton, CA decided to reformat in March, and named bro-country as their specific format. “The Bull”, as the station is being called, greeted the airwaves with their new format by playing 48 straight hours of Luke Bryan’s “Country Girl (Shake It For Me)” on continuous loop. Lawyers are looking into if this violated the Geneva Convention protocols on torture.
What Is a Better Alternative to Bro-Country?
Of course the problem with nicknames is you can’t pick them, they pick themselves, and bro-country has by far become the accepted nomenclature for songs by male country artists that spout the virtues of beer, trucks, back roads, tailgates, cutoffs, etc. etc. without any regard to narrative. But this trend isn’t anything new in pop country; only its dominance of the genre is, but even then you can go back many years to find its origination. Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” was definitely a bro-country song, and it was the biggest-selling country song in 2011.
Bro-country is simply a construct of pop country, just like country rap is. “Pop country” is a term that has always had negative connotations, especially amongst the artists that wear their tough exteriors proudly like the ones in the “bro-country” realm. Saving Country Music had been using the term “laundry list” for years to describe the type of listing off of country artifacts and signifiers that accompany a “bro-country” song. I remember being on a tour bus as part of the 2011 Country Throwdown/Willie Nelson 4th of July Picnic with a bunch of young songwriters, and being in the midst of a conversation about “checklist songs” that basically mirror the definition of “laundry list”.
But of course neither of these two terms will be adopted. Bro-country is here to stay, and destined to be adopted widespread by the very sots it was meant to criticize.
To do Ronnie Dunn and his new album Peace, Love & Country Music justice, one doesn’t need to write an album review, one needs to do something in between an in-depth psychoanalysis and a diagramming treatise. There’s so much going on here, so many tentacles to the current Ronnie Dunn story, and ones that reach far beyond the music itself, that it’s hard to know where to even start, or to end for that matter.
I guess the first place to start is to try and set the context of just where Ronnie Dunn is in his career, and where he came from. Because Brooks & Dunn was so overshadowed in their day by Garth Brooks, George Strait, Alan Jackson, and the other solo artists of the 90′s, and because his name was only given half credit as a member of a duo, it may be difficult to appreciate just what a mark Ronnie has put on country music. But his impact has been nothing short of towering. Brooks & Dunn sold 30 million records. Their signature album Brand New Man sold over 6 million alone. They had 30 #1 singles. They won the CMA for Vocal Duo of the Year a remarkable 13 out of 14 years between 1992 and 2006, and won Entertainer of the Year in 1996. Their career and impact were historic, and Hall of Fame worthy.
And now, Ronnie Dunn is a defector. He is one of the leading voices of dissent against the institutions presiding over American country music. He has created a loyal and rabid following of tens of thousands of disenfranchised music fans. On a weekly, and sometimes daily basis, Ronnie Dunn is decrying Music Rows ways, specifically criticizing the exclusivity of radio, the stamping out of creativity by record labels, and the way the business treats its talent, young and old.
Think about it: This is one of Nashville’s biggest bread winners of the last 25 years, and he’s now a turncoat. The quotes from Dunn and the topics he’s broached about Music Row’s debauchery are so numerous, I couldn’t even start to delve into them and do it all justice. But long story short, this is a guy that fought Nashville’s wars for a nearly a quarter of a century, and now he’s fighting against them. “I did it for 20 years, and I learned all it was was the mainstream way of doing things was just where ideas go to die these days,” Dunn said in a recent interview. “Mainstream is the road to mediocrity. And it took me 20 years to realize that. But it got to the point to where everything we would come up with to do as maybe an idea or something we thought was fairly innovative, we would get cut off at the pass. So it’s time. It felt like time to start to try to do different things.”
And doing things different is what he’s done. Ronnie Dunn is a completely independent artist now who owns his own record label called Little Will-E Records. During the CMT Awards in Nashville last summer, Dunn set up an encampment on lower Broadway guerrilla style, and as the throngs of people poured out of the Bridgestone Arena, Ronnie played three of his new songs off the album on the roof of a nearby building as a promotional stunt. No permission, no permits. He even got in trouble with the Opry for shining a light banner on the roof of the Ryman asking “Who’s Ronnie Dunn?” Depending on your perspective, Dunn had either lost his mind, or finally found it and come to the side of believing in music over money.
All of this was great. Here was one of mainstream country’s biggest stars spouting the same type of rhetoric that one may find on Saving Country Music on a regular basis. Then there was news he was writing songs and recording with none other than Texas music guru Ray Wylie Hubbard. Everything was setting up quite nicely for the release of Ronnie Dunn’s first independent record to be a sort of musical insurrection perpetuated by one of Nashville’s own, with reverberations reaching who knows how far into the dug in foundations of Music Row.
But then one little pesky problem materialized just as it seemed like Ronnie Dunn might be the chosen one we’d all been waiting for to lead country music out of its current wasteland. Despite all of Ronnie’s talk about how unjust it was that classic country no longer had a place on country radio, and how aging talent was getting pushed aside for young pups with no respect for the genre and playing music that was more indicative of rock than country, here comes Ronnie releasing songs that sound exactly like the music he’s criticizing.
One of the first songs we heard from Peace, Love & Country Music was called “Country This”—a complete hard rock guitar-driven bro-country mega anthem with ultra-stereotypical laundry list lyrics and absolutely no story or soul. I mean this thing was terrible. And I wasn’t the only one all of a sudden taking a second look at what Ronnie Dunn was doing. “Kiss You There” was another one of Peace, Love & Country Music‘s first offerings, and despite affording a little more story, it almost seemed to be walking the edge of country rap, with little EDM moments peppered throughout the song.
However promising Ronnie’s off-the-stage rhetoric had been, to say his music wasn’t syncing up with his words is a gross understatement. Remember those songs he wrote with Ray Wylie Hubbard? Interestingly one of them showed up in the repertoire of Sammy Hagar, called “Bad On Fords and Chevrolets“. Some in Ronnie Dunn’s camp wanted to revolt, but Ronnie calmed nerves when he seemed to allude that he was using these first singles almost as Trojan horses. He told everyone he wasn’t wasn’t abandoning the revolution, but that he needed to give radio one last shot, maybe to prove that even when he put out songs that were ripe for country’s new format, they would still be ignored if you weren’t in the good graces of Music Row’s major labels. âMainstream radio does not dictate the full flavor of a multi-song CD,” Dunn assured.
So after many months of spirited discourse from Dunn through Facebook and interviews, the confounding first few tracks, we now finally get to hear the full breadth of Ronnie’s independently-released record. And what do we get? Pretty much what we got in the run up: crossed signals and conflicting messages, though a few good songs here and there.
It’s not that Ronnie Dunn is trying to take advantage of the growing anti-Nashville sentiment, similar to someone like Eric Church and other “new Outlaws” where the rhetoric seems to be nothing more than marketing and a distraction from the music. It seems much more innocent than that, like Ronnie has spent so much time residing within the system and was raised so deeply within its inner workings, that to Ronnie this record and many of its songs are groundbreaking. But when you bring a more global, a more informed ear to the project—one that has truly been versed in independent country and country protest music—it seems almost like parody.
Meanwhile the contradictions are nothing less than striking. Peace, Love & Country Music has a straight up protest song in it called, “They Still Play Country Music in Texas”.I turn on the radio theyâre mixinâ heavy metal with twang People on TV doinâ anything for fame Iâm not one to cling to the past But some of this new stuff burns my ass Thank God and Willie some things stay the same
Yes, awesome! Let’s all pump our fists and praise Ronnie Dunn for speaking up! … except that numerous songs on this album are “mixin’ heavy metal with twang,” exclusively. I mean, that’s the whole premise some of these songs are built around.
Ronnie Dunn has all the right sentiments, all the right ideas and philosophies. But when it comes to his actual sonic output, he needs guidance, and guidance in a big way if the message is going to match up with the music. He needs to spend a weekend with Marty Stuart or Vince Gill. He needs someone to walk him through their record collection, explaining to him how we got here. He needs to see Sturgill Simpson at the Station Inn. Though I understand many from the mainstream perspective will hear this album as rebellious, forward-thinking, or even groundbreaking, the simple fact is that it isn’t. It is still a very, very mainstream album. Maybe it’s a mainstream album with good moments, but it’s still one that is cast in predictable turns of phrases and phrasing, and well-worn tones and textures; one that panders for attention, relevancy, and radio play.
As cool as it is to get a protest song like “They Still Play Country Music in Texas” from him, I wish it wasn’t on the album because the hypocrisy inherent in it drags down the rest of the project. Songs like “Country This”, “Cowgirls Rock & Roll”, and “Thou Shalt Not” are every bit dependent on their rock guitar riffs. Hell, “Cowgirls Rock & Roll” is one of the worst “country” songs I may have ever heard, no different than a single you’d hear from Brantley Gilbert or Jason Aldean, with Auto-tuned inflections on the vocal track indicative of modern Jerrod Niemann or Tim McGraw.
And look at these lyrics:Que Paso Hey Pard Yo Yo Play Back In Black Set Em Up Joe… Goth Black Ponytail Ink On Her Arm Out Here In The Way Back Doinâ Things She Shouldnât Be Doin Like That Ghost Of Hank Still Hangin On Snoop n Willie Keep Singin That Song Brown Jar Liquor Got A Shotgun Kick Got It Goin On Out Here In The Sticks
Then again, there’s some very worthy tracks on Peace, Love & Country Music. The first two songs “Grown Damn Man” and “Cadillac Bound” start off the record right. “You Should See You Now” and “Wish I Smoked Cigarettes” are excellently written, and no matter what Ronnie Dunn is singing, it’s hard to escape the fact that he still holds one of the best voices in the business, and came from a time when you couldn’t fake it, or let your fame ride off a pretty face.
Something else that seems to hinder this album is that it took so long to go to print. Ronnie Dunn seems to be in the precarious position of trying to maintain his mainstream relevancy, while at the same time come to grips with the new realities of his career. He wants to lead a revolution, but he wants to hold onto the last vestiges of the spotlight for one last moment. But you can’t have it both ways. There are songs on this album that could have been worthy of radio, whether it’s because they’re good enough and would elevate the format, or because they’re bad enough to be radio hits in country’s current climate. But neither will be given a chance because of all of Dunn’s sabre rattling off stage. Dunn’s plan came off as half baked, and in need of some guidance and perspective from people who really understand where the trends in music are headed.
I like Ronnie Dunn’s spirit, and I feel like there’s a kinship in his fight. And make no mistake, there are many, many country music fans who are listening to his every word about what is happening in country, because his words are rooted in truth. And because of this and a few pretty good songs, I can’t give it a negative review. But don’t get bogged down by the bravado surrounding this album. If you simply listen, you will find it is an album addled by stark contradictions.
One gun up for some good songs and an independent spirit.
One gun down for some very, very bad songs, and a conflicting message.
The pretty good:
The very, very bad:
2014 is turning out to be the year of the celebrity crotch sniffer in country music. The word is out that country is fertile ground for advertisers and is a fast-rising subject in popular culture, so interlopers and carpetbaggers are rolling out the red carpet for country all over the place, and it’s getting quite stupid.
If you have anything to do with “media” the chances are you’re betting big on country music in 2014. Clear Channel’s trying to build a country music empire that would give Napoleon a stiffy, Cumulus has the brilliant idea of making country music food, paint, clothes, and furniture, Rolling Stone has even promised to get into the country music game, but the stoners at Rolling Stone got beat to the punch by none other than People Magazine, who has just launched their own dedicated country music website. Yes, how did we ever get along without this before?
I know, you’ve been wondering who’s going to broach such hot button, riveting, in-depth country music stories like “Luke Bryan Is the Kevin Bacon of Country’s Gang of Georgia Boys” (No, I didn’t make this title up), or “Third Child on the Way for Joe Don Rooney” (That’s the non weird-looking dude from Rascal Flatts), or “Dan + Shay: 5 Things to Know About Country’s Hot New Duo” (The only thing you need to know is their label have anointed them superstars because of their looks, despite not having the talent to even deserve a developmental deal). Well now we’re all in luck, because People CoUnTrY is HERE!
You can’t say that People Magazine hasn’t been on the country beat before though. Remember when they ran that story all about how Jason Aldean was the perfect husband and father …. the same week he was caught feeling up some American Idol castoff in L.A.? Now there’s a scoop.
Actually, I give People Country credit on this point: there’s so many country music outlets these days where the music is just an excuse to talk about people in the public eye instead of anything substantive, at least someone has the rocks to do it without pretense. Plus, I scored some killer makeup tips from their tour of Taylor Swift’s makeup drawer!
The fact the People Magazine now has a dedicated country wing proves the theory that people aren’t into popular country music for the music, but for the celebrity culture and image that surrounds it. They’re too busy fighting off the glare from Jason Aldean’s sparkling white teeth to pay attention to the fact that the music sucks. The only way I know how to solve this country music conundrum is to call in the Kinkster.
Preach it Kinky!
On March 29th, Clear Channel Radio threw their inaugural iHeartRadio Country Festival in Austin with many of the genre’s biggest mainstream acts performing, including Carrie Underwood, Jason Aldean, and Luke Bryan. Apparently behind-the-scenes, the festival caused a big stir with artists, managers, and the Academy of Country Music, whose own big event, the 49th Annual ACM Awards, is set to transpire on Sunday, April 6th on CBS.
According to the New York Post, the iHeartRadio Country Festival was originally set to be taped live in Austin, and then air on television April 5th—the day before the ACM Awards. This plan did not sit well with many in Nashville.
“A lot of people in Nashville are upset,” a source told The Post. “The iHeartRadio Country Music Festival was going up against the Academy of Country Music Awards, so they pulled it.” Another source states, âManagers and artists in Nashville were very supportive of the [ACM] and were horrified [about the conflict]. They were aggressive in letting Clear Channel know that.”
The iHeartRadio Country Festival was eventually streamed on CMT.com the day of the festival, though in the initial press release for the festival, NBC was listed as a primary sponsor of the event. NBC is also the only one of the four major American television networks that does not host a major country music event, and it is where iHeartRadio is airing their upcoming music awards show on May 1st. ABC has the CMA Awards that happen every November, and recently Fox began broadcasting the ACA Awards. CBS not only broadcasts the Academy of Country Music Awards, but has very intimate ties to the ACM.
A spokeswoman for Clear Channel said to The Post, “When we realized how crowded the country music calendar was this spring, we decided to give some space between the dates because, at the end of the day, we wanted to do whatâs best for the artists.”
The issue shines a spotlight on just how crowded the country music landscape is becoming as nearly every major media outlet in America looks to cash in on the rising popularity of popular country music. This invariably will create even more conflict in the midst of a country media arms race.
Saturday night was Clear Channel Radio’s inaugural iHeartRadio Country Festival in Austin, TX at the Frank Erwin Center—a mid-sized arena that the University of Texas uses for baskeball games, and that serves as the city’s largest indoor concert venue. The festival was the first major event in the new country music partnership between Clear Channel and CMT in their bid to make a multi-platform country music media empire. As Clear Channel was broadcasting the event through many radio stations and their iHeartRadio app, CMT.com was streaming the event online, and taping segments for future television programming. This type of collaboration is what we can expect as country media coagulates into huge companies duking it out for your attention. Clear Channel had their top personality, DJ Bobby Bones, as the emcee of the event, and CMT’s big star Cody was working the backstage area.
In typical Austin fashion, the event and live feed started 12 minutes late. Though iHeartRadio was touting the experience as a “festival”, the outdoor, multi-day and multi-stage discovery of new music that usually accompanies the music festival experience was swapped for a very structured environment centered around the most familiar names in the format, and instructional diatribes on the virtues of Clear Channel’s iHeartRadio app: the company’s seemingly sole plan for pulling out of their $300 million-plus quarterly loss tailspin. Of course making this plan a perilous one full of risk is the fact that every day the music streaming marketplace gets even more crowded as competition grows and the march of streaming startups and other companies looking to get into the streaming business seems endless.
The show opened with a shrill, cacophonous screech of legions of teenage girls driven mad by visions of Luke Bryan’s ass shaking in their heads, but first they would have to fight through Eric Church and his prog rock extravaganza. It was fortuitous of the festival’s organizers to put Church on first, because the festival’s corporate-driven demo definitely wasn’t home field for Eric’s “Outsider” message. His set would be the first and last time the festival crowd would be regaled by anything that couldn’t be labeled as “formula,” though it did set the tone that the night would be a rock show and nothing but, and a country show in name only.
Following was Jake Owen who started off with his stalled, Cadillac Three-penned single “Days of Gold,” and later had the 10,000-head Frank Erwin Center crowd singing in unison to a “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” rap he broke into in the middle of his song “Barefoot Blue Jean Night.”
The quizzical Dan + Shay taking the stage was the best opportunity for the sold-out crowd to drain their bladders in anticipation of the headliners, as they witnessed one of the most forced anointment’s of a country music super duo the format has ever seen. Despite their slick presentation, the iHeartRadio festival crowd was in no mood to sit through songs they’d never heard before. Dan + Shay made the rookie mistake of taking their whip to the crowd too many times with their “Let’s hear you make some noise!” pleas that grew less and less effective through their abbreviated and generally boring set. It was just too early in their career arc for them to attempt to fill a slot like this amongst the other big names. Lady Antebellum fared much better with songs readily familiar to a crowd whose alpha and omega of music are defined by Top 40 country playlists.
As arguably the hottest band in “country” music, Florida Georgia Line was well-received by the capacity crowd. Like master assassins who can choose their poison, the duo could call on any number of current blockbuster radio hits to ingratiate the crowd to their pop rock cologne-spritzed and wallet chain-draped show. “Thank you for helping us change country music history,” is what Tyler Hubbard said leading into their rendition of the longest-running #1 in the history of country music, “Cruise”. It seemed appropriate that they hadn’t “made” history, but completely “changed” the perception of what country music is by moving it so far in the pop direction and integrating so many hip hop elements into the format that they now feel like regular country fare.
Florida Georgia Line was the moment the astounding sameness of country music’s top mainstream acts became palpable. Where the traditional “festival” setting is driven by diversity and discovery, the lack of surprise is what this crowd was looking for. Florida Georgia Line’s radio tracks are slick a well-produced, but their live show was a little jarring, with pitch issues and too much energy spent on emitting enthusiasm instead of delivering good vocal performances.
Hunter Hayes, though certainly not rising to be considered in any way a highlight, did offer something a little different than the other performers preceding him on stage. Though his songs that cast him in submissive roles to his female counterparts, and a song decrying bullying were gut-wrenchingly, and sometimes downright objectionably sentimental in nature, at least he was singing from the heart, and had a message to deliver beyond naming off a laundry list of countryisms. Nonetheless, his set came across as calculating, safe, and left the distinguishing music fan wanting. But it was different, and at this point in the presentation, that was enough to label it refreshing.
With Taylor Swift burning her iHeartRadio chit during the 2012 pop version of this festival in Las Vegas, Carrie Underwood was tapped to be the female country powerhouse of the event. In a lineup of entertainers, Carrie distinguished herself as a singer, but of course she ran through a condensed set of her top singles that left little room for anything truly country or truly refreshing. Great voice, ravishing legs, and good sense of dynamics made her one of the more engaging acts of the night though.
You could tell when Jason Aldean took the stage why even though radio might be smiling greater on an act like Florida Georgia Line, there’s definitely a difference between a seasoned headlining performer, and the young pups still finding their way in how to perform for a crowd. The music? Of course it was terrible, but Aldean had a command that was only matched on the night by Carrie Underwood. While the younger stars had to sweat out their stage presence through sheer energy, Aldean was an efficiency of movements, hitting all the notes and bringing home solid renditions of his most popular songs. Where some top mainstream performers you may simply look at quizzically of why someone could like what they were doing, despite the music, you understood why Aldean is considered one of the very top male performers in the country format right now.
Luke Bryan represented the other end of the spectrum. Though his set was diverse and had a few attempts at heartfelt, deep moments, his booty shakers were all about his moves on stage, and by the time the next verse came around you got poor pitch, and too much breath in the microphone from a tired performer. Ironically, during Bryan’s “Rain Is A Good Thing” was the very first time the entire night that a traditional instrument (besides a couple of mandolins buried in the mix and mostly for show) made an appearance, when a fiddle found its way out of the case. There was also a steel guitar on the backline, though it was more seen than heard.
Having seen the presentation of iHeartRadio’s Las Vegas festivals, the Austin installment looked dark, and difficult to get a sense of depth or perception for those watching at home. The Frank Erwin Center is a somewhat cavernous, dim space, despite the modest seating capacity. Unlike some newer arenas, it is more round instead of oval, not really making it conducive to stage shows where fans on the wings feel far away. The crowd seemed somewhat less engaged and enthusiastic than you would expect from a mainstream show, and even the people in the front rows seemed a little too far from the stage to facilitate the type of interaction that many mainstream performers are now used to on tour—slapping hands as they strut across stage and yell “Come on, put your hands up!” The risers didn’t reach out into the crowd, and the stage presentation seemed a little cramped and unimaginative. But other mainstream concert tropes like allowing the crowd to finish lines to songs, and the calling out of “What’s up Austin!” dozens of times—despite likely half the crowd not even being from Texas—certainly made a nauseating amount of appearances on the night.
Was the event a success? Since the goal wasn’t necessarily to make money or even show off country talent, but to raise awareness of the iHeartRadio streaming option among country fans, that question is probably best answered by Clear Channel. But the presentation was relatively smooth once it got started, they didn’t really fall behind time (remember the Green Day blowup at the last iHeart fest?), and the performers did their thing as expected. Both Clear Channel & CMT can sit back and evaluate how successful their attempt at cross company synergy was, and iHeartRadio got their product in front of a new segment of fans.
But the brave new world of music consumption has yet to find a true pecking order, and nobody knows whose streaming options will find their way to the top, or even survive. Clear Channel is betting big on iHeartRadio and country music, and we may look back at this festival as the moment iHeartRadio solidified its hold on the country consciousness, or as a needless gargantuan expenditure that eventually led to Clear Channel’s demise under a mountain of debt.
Time will tell.
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 itâs impossible to determine the ingredients âŚ Actual new rap songs are ceaselessly weighing down the genre itself with the junky detritus of other styles.â
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 ofÂ 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 âplaying to winâ to âplaying not to lose.â 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 âwhitewashingâ 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 veryÂ ”Mumford & Sons” take on “Pancho & Lefty”: “The original had a Spanish-Mexican flair. We took a real different approach with it …. something with some edge that moves along pretty good. It’s an interesting take.”
Something else interesting: They begged Garth Brooks to allow them to use his cover of “Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down” from his recent blockbuster Blame It All On My Roots box set. But just like the box set, you can only get the song if you buy the tribute from Wal-Mart.
Complicating the love-hate relationship a true Merle fan might have with this compilation, the ACM Awards being held April 6th are planning to bestow Merle Haggard with a Crystal Milestone Award as part of the ACM festivities, with this tribute as the centerpiece. Once again, it’s great to see the ACM’s or anyone in the mainstream acknowledge Merle (even if it’s half a decade after Taylor Swift was given the same Crystal Milestone Award), but you wonder how much of this is just a platform for Broken Bow to display their own talent.
Luckily if you’re looking for Merle Haggard tributes with not as many question marks swirling around them, there’s been a few of great ones released recently. Suzy Bogguss released Lucky last month: a 12-song tribute to The Hag. And Vince Gill with Paul Franklin paid tribute to Merle & Buck Owens last year with Bakersfield.
Track list for Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard:
- Misery and Gin, Randy Houser
- Footlights, Joe Nichols
- Going Where the Lonely Go, Jason Aldean
- Today I Started Loving You Again, Kristy Lee Cook
- Carolyn, Toby Keith
- Pancho and Lefty, Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley
- Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down, Garth Brooks (Walmart edition only)
- You Take Me for Granted, Thompson Square
- Mama Tried, Ben Haggard
- That’s the Way Love Goes, Dustin Lynch
- Make Up and Faded Blue Jeans, Jake Owen
- I’m a Lonesome Fugitive, James Wesley
- Workin’ Man Blues, Parmalee
- Are the Good Times Really Over, Jason Aldean
- Let’s Chase Each Other Around the Room, Thompson Square
- I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink, Dustin Lynch
- The Fightin’ Side of Me, James Wesley
- My Favorite Memory, Joe Nichols
- Ramblin’ Fever, Randy Houser
- Sing Me Back Home, Ben Haggard
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 itâs 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 fromÂ 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 KitchensÂ (@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?
Iâm 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, Iâm 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 heâs 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 Iâm 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 donât 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. Iâm 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 Iâm not opposed to them being mixed on any ideological grounds. Itâs just that Aldean is not a quality singer, songwriter, musician, or rapper. I havenât read one serious review or comment on a review that contradicts this. As a cultural event that attracts a large number of people, itâs sort of interesting to think about why the people are attracted to his show and music, but thatâs a different topic.
Clarify the use of the term “redneck” in the review.
The term âredneckâ 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, âare there any rednecks in here tonight,â 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 havenât read that many music reviews from City Paper because I attend most of the local country music shows. But I donât think mine was a typical review because Aldeanâs 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 donât 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 didnât want to compromise the deal at a sensitive moment is another question, but I donât 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 hadnât 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 âneeded to go back to school and learn how to write a proper review,â or something along those lines. I understand where that attitude comes from. Journalism, to a large extent, and the âexpertsâ 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 canât 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. Thatâs the value in independent media like Saving Country Music and Baltimore Brew. And even though City Paper was coerced into pulling my article, Iâm impressed by several of the people there and their courage and commitment to telling the truth in the aftermath. They didnât 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 donât 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 âus against themâ attitude prevalent in contemporary politics. Itâs 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 âchanging country music history.â I agree with them. Wal-Mart also changed history, significantly in small communities like the one I come from, and itâs 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. Itâs ironic that they use outlaw/rebel imagery and language in the music, because the effect, and itâs 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. “Iâm not proud of it,â says Serpick. “[They said] the review was ânot objective,â which was ridiculous, since it was a review. It was opinion, obviously.â
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.Â 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 Aldeanâs 1/1/14 concert at BaltimoreÂ 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.Â You might not recognize his name, butÂ thatâs okay, because you probably wouldnât 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 âIâm About To Get My Pissed-Off On,â 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 menâs 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 Aldeanâs target market.
Tyler Farr, the opening act, looks like Joey Fatone from NâSync, and heâs 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. âAin’tâ Even Drinkinââ is the I-hope-this-night-never-ends prom song, a teen smash spell hand-crafted in a Nashville laboratory. âAinât even drinking but Iâm buzzing baby/ainât even smoking but Iâm so stoned/feels like Iâm getting lit/ain’t even took a sip/but I’m already gone.â
The crowd was infected, and showed their enthusiasm by gently poking the sky in a circular motion with I-donât-give-a-fuck faces on. âWhiskey in My Water,â a shitkicker twist on âMe and My Girlfriend,â starts by ripping off the melody of Shooter Jenningsâ âFourth of July.â 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 âParty People,â 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. âGonna get buckwild/get a little buzz on/David Lee Roth style/might as well jump, jump.â
Each song is basically an advertisement performed live for the audience, the most blatant example being âCruise.â Footage of new Chevy trucks play on the jumbotrons while they sing: âYou make me wanna roll my windows down and cruise/down a back road blowinâ 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.â
Advertising and country music is not a new relationship (Hank Williams shilled for Motherâs 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, âYou guys truly are life changing.â Considering their latest album has already sold over 1.5 million copies, I would imagine thatâs true.
Finally it was time for the headliner, Jason Aldean, whose show was a lot like watching a two hour beer commercial, and I donât think his fans are unaware of that. You donât listen to and enjoy Aldeanâs music, you take it. Itâs a mindless dopamine rush as precise in itâs 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 âMargaritavilleâ market approach, tailored for the Buckwild generation. His empire is sponsored by Under Armour and Southern Comfort and thereâs 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).
Aldeanâs 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 âDirt Road Anthem,â the adults in the crowd air scratched while half-staggering like theyâd just had a stroke (imagine your grandma as an extra in the âNothinâ But A G Thangâ 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 didnât know she was a hologram at the time, but Iâm now wondering if Aldean was even there, and hoping he wasnât.
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 McGrawâs âTruck Yeahâ underperformed to expectations, never cracking Billboardâs 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 StoryâŚ” â Blake Shelton
- “Crash My Party” â Luke Bryan
- “Here’s To The Good Times” â Florida Georgia Line
- “Same Trailer Different Park” â Kacey Musgraves
- “Two Lanes Of Freedom” â 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)” â Gary Allan Songwriters: Gary Allan, Hillary Lindsey, Matthew Warren
- “I Drive Your Truck” â Lee Brice Â Â Songwriters: Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, Jimmy Yeary – Winner
- “Mamaâs Broken Heart” â Miranda Lambert Songwriters: Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves
- “Mine Would Be You” â Blake Shelton Songwriters: Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, Deric Ruttan
- “Wagon Wheel” â 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” â Blake Shelton Featuring The Pistol Annies
- “Cruise” (Remix) â Florida Georgia Line Featuring Nelly
- “Highway Don’t Care: â Tim McGraw Featuring Taylor Swift & Keith Urban – Winner
- “Wagon Wheel” â Darius Rucker Featuring Lady Antebellum
- “We Were Us” â 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” â The Band Perry Producer
- “Blowin’ Smoke” â Kacey Musgraves Producer
- “Highway Don’t Care” â Tim McGraw Featuring Taylor Swift & Keith Urban
- “I Drive Your Truck” â Lee Brice Producer: Karen Martin Director: Eric Welch
- “Mama’s Broken Heart” â Miranda Lambert
- “Two Black Cadillacs” â Carrie Underwood
- the pistolero on Big Smo Show Could Be Hick Hop’s Backdoor to the Mainstream
- Albert on Song Review – “The Trailer Song” By Kacey Musgraves
- JonnyBoy23 on New Hank Williams “I Saw The Light” Biopic Coming
- PB on Song Review – “The Trailer Song” By Kacey Musgraves
- Lindsey on Song Review – “The Trailer Song” By Kacey Musgraves