The annual “WE Fest” country music festival in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota was marred by a triple stabbing in a campsite adjacent to the festival early Thursday (8-7) morning. The three-day music festival at the Soo Pass Ranch began Wednesday and featured headliners such as Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line, Brad Paisley, and The Zac Brown Band.
According to the Becker County Sheriff’s Department, at 1:45 AM Thursday morning, a heavily-intoxicated concert goer at the Hilltop Campground across the road from WE Fest began shocking people with a handheld Taser. When the man was confronted by people in the campground, he brandished a knife, stabbing three men from Canada who were trying to stop him. All three men were transported to a local hospital via ambulance.
The accused stabber is 32-year-old Aaron Williams from Minot, North Dakota who was immediately arrested. “He took out a knife and started slashing them, and three of them received cuts on the arm,” Sheriff Kelly Shannon of the Becker County Sheriff’s Department told Detroit Lakes News. The three Canadian victims all received treatment at the hospital, and were later released.
Aaron Williams was arraigned in a local court Friday afternoon, pleading not guilty to the assault charges, and was released on bail. He is due in court again for a hearing on August 25th.
As of late Friday afternoon, the festival had also seen three other assaults, six DWI charges, five disorderly conduct charges, and 12 people arrested on warrant charges. However while the theme of many of the summer’s country music festivals and concerts in 2014 has been a spike in the amount of arrests, violence, and alcohol-related hospital visits, Becker County Sheriff Kelly Shannon tells InForum that the amount of incidents at WE Fest were actually down this year compared to previous years, despite the triple stabbing. Sheriff Shannon cites in part the strong police presence local authorities dispatched to the festival. At any time, 25 sheriff’s officers or Minnesota State Police were on the site, and police had a command center set up near the east gate of the fest.
Sheriff Shannon also says that the festival does a great job assisting law enforcement and concert goers by being conscious of safety and offering emergency medical services and chaplain crews for people in need. “They’re invaluable for everything they do for us,” Shannon told InForum.
WE Fest began in 1983 in a barn and drew approximately 9,000 people. Since then it has become one of the biggest country music festivals in the United States, and one of the biggest that offers camping as a major part of the experience. On Friday, the crowd swelled to nearly 50,000 attendees.
News of country concerts getting out of hand have been in the headlines this summer. Last weekend a drunk driver ran over a police officer at a Jason Aldean concert, and 30 concertgoers were taken to local hospitals. 55 people were arrested, and 22 taken to hospitals at a Keith Urban show at the Xfinity Center in Mansfield, Mass. Later it was also revealed that an alleged rape happened in the venue’s lawn section while as many as 15 people stood and watched and took video of the incident. There was also a report of a gang rape at the Faster Horses Festival in mid July. An annual event in Pittsburgh became a national story when pictures of trash and drunken patrons went viral in late June. And a 22-year-old man was found dead in a dumpster in late July after a Jason Aldean concert in what is thought to be an alcohol-related incident.
It’s been a working theory for years here at Saving Country Music that country is constantly trying to apologize for itself, and explain away all of the stereotypes of the genre to garner wider acceptance. Country spends all of its energy trying prove that it’s not a bunch of rednecks and racists and old people’s music, instead of educating people on the beauty of country in both its traditional and contemporary forms. I remember a couple of years ago when Jason Aldean said right before the ACM Awards,
Country music still kind of fights the stereotypes a lot of times. And here we’re having a country music show, and it’s in one of the glitziest cities in the world, so it just shows you that were not still sitting on hay bales passing out awards at these shows.
And you see this attitude play into the production of country music’s annual award shows and other large events more and more as time goes on. They invariably start off with the most non country performance as possible, attempting to lure viewers in by proving how not country the genre really is. This was especially evident during Tuesday (8-5) night’s broadcast of the CMA Music Fest special on ABC. There was little to nothing country about it. It came across as nothing more than an infomercial about how non-country the music of country really is. Dierks Bentley spelled it out before the night even started when he said, ““It’s a young, current, hip thing that’s happening that deserves to be in a downtown city center that’s new and growing and feels vibrant and just feels … represents the music properly. You know, this is not like your grandfather’s country music anymore.”
In an interview with Country Weekly, classic country artist Sammy Kershaw, who’s promoting his new Do You Know Me? George Jones tribute album had some poignant things to say about country music’s poor self-esteem.
Look, I’ve always said country music is the only genre that hates itself. It wants to be everything else, but country music. I’ve been in it for a long, long time and I’ve seen the changes, but it always comes back. But now, I don’t see it coming back. It finally found a route to go.
Hopefully Kershaw is wrong about country music coming back, but what he’s most certainly right about is country music wanting to be everything else than what it’s supposed to be. Whether the circle is truly broken forever, or it will eventually come back around again like it has done before in the past, there’s no doubting country is farther out on the loop than ever before.
The Cambridge Township Police Department in south central Michigan is looking for information from anyone who may know about an alleged gang rape that occurred on the grounds of the Faster Horses Festival on Saturday, July 19th right as Tim McGraw was finishing his headlining set.
Cambridge Township Police Department Chief Larry Wibbeler says a 25-year-old woman was separated from her group in the parking lot of the Michigan International Speedway at around 12:05 AM where the 3-day Faster Horses Festival was being held, when she was confronted and allegedly raped by three men. The woman was trying to make her way to the parking area near the U.S. 12 entrance. “She was attacked in the dark near the parking area, and there didn’t happen to be anyone around in that parking area,” Chief Wibbeler told Mlive.com.
The woman suffered multiple injuries as part of the sexual assault including contusions, scrapes, and scratches. After the rape, the woman was able to get the attention of other concertgoers who offered her assistance and called police. The woman was then transported to Allegiance Health hospital in Jackson, MI by ambulance where a rape kit was conducted. The rape kit is currently at the Michigan State Police crime lab for evidence gathering and analysis.
Manager of media relations at Michigan International Speedway Brad Kuhbander says the speedway is cooperating with the investigation. “Safety is our No. 1 priority. We work with police, fire, homeland security and the FBI on a regular basis to ensure the safety of all our guests,” he tells mlive.com.
Cambridge Township Police have been unable to identify any witnesses or suspects in the case. The alleged rape happened in a dark area, and beyond the description of “three white males,” investigators have no leads. The incident went unreported by local news until authorities felt they had sufficient evidence a rape had occurred and were lost for leads in the case. Authorities are asking for anyone who may have information on the alleged rape to contact Cambridge Township Police Department at 517-467-4737.
The news comes as stories of country concerts getting out of hand have been in the headlines this summer, including over the weekend when a drunk driver ran over a police officer at a Jason Aldean concert, and 30 concertgoers were taken to local hospitals. During the previous weekend, 55 people were arrested, and 22 taken to hospitals at a Keith Urban show at the Xfinity Center in Mansfield, Mass. Later it was also revealed that an alleged rape happened in the venue’s lawn section while as many as 15 people stood and watched and took video of the incident. An annual event in Pittsburgh became a national story when pictures of trash and drunken patrons went viral in late June. And a 22-year-old man was found dead in a dumpster in late July after a Jason Aldean concert in what is thought to be an alcohol-related incident.
At the Jason Aldean “Burn It Down” tour stop at the Xfinity Theater in Hartford, CT on Saturday (8-2), 19-year veteran police officer Joseph Fargnoli Jr. was struck by a drunk driver leaving the concert while the officer was pursuing the driver on motorcycle. While the Hartford Police Traffic Division was running traffic for the 21,000 attendees exiting the venue, one concertgoer was observed driving erratically, almost hitting one of the officers directing traffic. After witnessing the incident, Officer Farnoli Jr. pursued the drunk driver on motorcycle and was then struck by the suspect with his vehicle. Farnoli Jr. was transported to Hartford Hospital by ambulance, and was treated and later released.
51-year old David Mascuto was arrested on charges of operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, evading responsibility, and failure to obey and officer’s signal. Bond for Mascuto was set at $25,000.
The statement from the Hartford Police Department:
OFFICER HIT FOLLOWING CONCERT:
Last night following the Jason Aldean concert, the Hartford Police Department Traffic Division was conducting the outbound traffic detail at the Xfinity Theater. Officers spotted a driver driving erratically, nearly striking an officer. A Hartford Police motorcycle officer attempted to stop the vehicle and was struck.
The officer was taken to Hartford Hospital via ambulance, treated and released. The operator was stopped and arrested.
Accused: David Mascuto, 51 of Fairfield CT
2. Evading Responsibility
3. Failure to Obey Officers Signal
The traffic officer was not the only one to take a ride to the hospital Saturday night. A total of 30 concertgoers were taken to local hospitals for medical treatment during the show, including eight individuals under 21. A total of 55 summons were also handed out at the concert for underage drinking. There was also an assault reported during the concert, and one man was arrested in the incident.
Florida Georgia Line and Tyler Farr opened the show for Jason Aldean.
The news out of Hartford comes as stories of country concerts getting out of hand have been in the headlines this summer, including when 55 people were arrested, and 22 taken to hospitals at a Keith Urban show at the Xfinity Center in Mansfield, Mass. Later it was also revealed that an alleged rape happened in the venue’s lawn section while as many as 15 people stood and watched and took video of the incident. An annual event in Pittsburgh became a national story when pictures of trash and drunken patrons went viral in late June. And a 22-year-old man was found dead in a dumpster in late July after a Jason Aldean concert in what is thought to be an alcohol-related incident.
So here we are. It’s the summer of 2014, and the headlines that dominate the country music world have to do with mounds of trash and numerous arrests in Pittsburgh, a man found dead in a dumpster in Cleveland, a “mass casualty” event called by the local fire chief in Mansfield, Mass. at a Keith Urban concert, and then an alleged rape. Where exactly did mainstream country music go so wrong to where it is the new home for irresponsible behavior at concerts? How did a genre seen for over half a century as the bastion for family values and down home fun become one of the worst-behaved crowds in music?
First some perspective might be needed. Though the racy headlines might allude otherwise, how widespread this trend has become is somewhat inconclusive. As some have pointed out, the biggest stories of country concert problems have happened north of the Mason-Dixon Line for whatever reason. Also, numerous arrests for underage drinking, fights, and ambulance rides for numerous ailments are not out of the ordinary for music events by any stretch. The concern is how out of the ordinary they are for country music, at least historically, and how they’re clearly on the rise.
Part of this is simply a symptom of country music becoming the biggest, most dominant genre of American music. The crowds are bigger, younger, and the lowest common denominator is represented en masse. Country music is no longer a community, it is mass marketing. And like rock music of previous eras, it is attracting the most attention, and the most problems. However the idea that all the headlines of problems at country concerts is simply the media making hay upon a problem that has already existed for years is not fair either. Country music is changing, and a deeper discussion should be broached about how to manage those changes, and what the long-term effects those changes could have on the genre as a whole.
If you wanted to point to one single event where the current downward spiral started, you might consider the country concert in Mansfield, Mass. in late July. No, I’m not talking about Keith Urban’s concert on Saturday, July 26th, I’m talking about a Tim McGraw’s show on July 24th, 2011 at the same Mansfield venue.
During the middle of the concert, a 19-year-old attendee named Michael Skehill was jumped from behind by four men who proceeded to beat Skehill to within an inch of his life. The four men were heavily intoxicated, and though the dispute was said by some to be over a woman, the assault came completely out-of-the-blue to Skehill.The 19-year-old was a big man—a football player at Catholic University in Washington D.C.—but was blindsided in the lawn section and never had a chance to defend himself. If it wasn’t for a security guard and ENT responding to the assault as quickly as they did, doctors believe the assault would have resulted in murder.
“He would have died,” Skehill’s mother told a Boston news station at the time. “He had lost two liters of blood and, basically, he would have died.”
Michael Skehill was airlifted to the Boston Medical Center where he immediately underwent surgery. To save the young man, doctors had to remove his spleen. Skehill also suffered a severe concussion and other internal injuries. The four men were arrested and arraigned the next day, and eventually all four plead guilty to assault. It also came out in the investigation that in the lawn section of the venue that is now called Xfinity Center (and was then called Comcast Center), there is a section where young people from Mansfield congregate, and if you try to come into the area, you could be assaulted. In this area, underage drinking and other illicit activities are common. Whether this culture was still in place when the alleged rape of a 17-year-old girl happened at this year’s Keith Urban show—sheltering the incident from outsiders and allowing it to occur longer than necessary—has yet to be revealed in the investigation.
The good news is Michael Skehill was able to recover, and besides a missing spleen, is getting along just fine. But the brutal incident went to symbolize the rise of violence, excessive drinking, and other embarrassing behavior for country music’s summer concerts that was trending upwards all across the country. The Mansfield Police Chief Arthur M. O’Neill after the Michael Skehill incident said at the time:
Country used to be an easy night for us. Now it’s anything but. Country’s just changed. I’m a country fan, but the music and the singers have a party motif about them now. It’s all about drinking … These kids, especially the girls, are getting drunker and sicker faster.
Just appreciate, this isn’t the Mansfield Police Chief circa 2014. This is in 2011. At the time, CMT’s Alison Bonaguro asked, “Is ‘Drunk and Disorderly’ the New Rule at Concerts?” in a story that looks eerily similar to ones running over the last few weeks amidst all of the high-profile incidents at mainstream country concerts.
One of the other significant events in country music in 2011 was the rise of the “Country Checklist” song. Though the term “Checklist” never stuck like its later replacement “Bro-Country”, the music the terms describe had been around years before “Bro-Country” was adopted at large. The music style was already monopolizing mainstream country music by 2011, and forcing women into minor roles in the format like never before. As pointed out by the late Chet Flippo in August of 2011, country music found itself for the first time in recent memory with no women in the Top 30 of the songs charts. Many of the trends that would dominate country music headlines in 2013 and 2014 were already in place in 2011, there just wasn’t a universally-recognized name for it, country media was mostly complicit about it, and the backlash was simmering, but not striking out in earnest.
And what was the biggest song of 2011? Jason Aldean’s landmark “Dirt Road Anthem”. The breakthrough country rap song glorified many of the elements that have gone into much of the lewd behavior seen on the rise at mainstream country music concerts. On August 7th of 2011, Saving Country Music asked if “Country Music Checklist Songs Were Causing an Erosion of Values,” citing the Michael Skehill case and songs like Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” specifically.
Yeah, I’m chillin’ on a dirt road, Laid back swervin’ like I’m George Jones.
Smoke rollin’ out the window, An’ ice cold beer sittin’ in the console.
Where ya learned how to kiss and cuss and fight too, Better watch out for the boys in blue.
Ya better mind your business, man, watch your mouth, Before I have to knock that loud mouth out.
But words and actions are two different things, right? They’re just songs.
Well, not really when it came to the culture that was becoming the norm at some of the country music concerts that featured artists that sang these checklist songs. In 2011, “Dirt Road Anthem” co-writer Brantley Gilbert was on the Country Throwdown tour with many other medium and up-and-coming performers. When interviewing another Thowdown Tour artist named Ausin Lucas, he explained how the checklist culture and fighting were beginning to coincide in the live country music experience.
He [Brantley Gilbert] is one of the most popular people on this tour. He’s really doing well for himself, but the thing is, his fans, they cause, they have a lot of fights. And this is nothing against Brantley Gilbert, who I think is a really nice guy. All the guys in his band are amazing people, and a lot of his fans are really cool. But there’s also this element, that country pissing contest, that checklist of things that make you more country, and one of them is fighting.
Fighting, excessive drinking, and other such behavior that were essentials on country’s checklist was beginning to show up in country crowds. Interesting that when the new country female duo Maddie & Tae sat down to write what is considered mainstream country’s preeminent Anti Bro-Country tune “Girl In A Country Song”, they said they made a checklist of all the things stereotypical country songs have. “I think it had trucks, tailgates, cutoffs, tan lines and tan legs, dirt road, and the most important one, the girls. The smokin’ hot girl.”
Maddie & Tae also spoke about how the current male-dominated country trend sets subservient roles for young women that they feel they must follow to be considered pretty or popular by men. In the police report of the alleged rape of the 17-year-old girl at the Keith Urban show in Mansfield, Mass., the alleged victim told police that she went with the man because “she was afraid of what would happen” if she didn’t, speaking to the subordinate role many women are taking in corporate country’s current culture.
But are women really emulating the girls in country songs, and are the men really fighting and drinking to excess because they hear about it in the music they listen to? This seems to be an eternal debate, a chicken and the egg argument in music, that there’s probably not an easy answer for beyond pointing out that in the past, country music sang about drinking, fighting, and killing in a cautionary context, where now it is glorified to the point of being used for marketing specifically.
In the June 2013 issue of Playboy Magazine, writer Rob Tannenbaum wrote an extended feature on Eric Church called simply “The Badass.” In the piece, Eric Church and his manager John Peets reference the “Country Checklist” style of writing by name.
For his second album, Church wrote a song he knew was dumb. It’s in the same mold as other predictable rural-pride songs that work well on radio because they celebrate the consumer goods that are iconic in Southern life—call it a Country Checklist song. In this subpar effort, Church lays it on heavy: He mentions beer, barbecue, Jack Daniel’s, college football, fishing, trucks, chewing tobacco, NASCAR and cowboy boots. The only thing missing is something about hunting or tractors.
Church wrote it “almost out of anger or spite,” says his manager, John Peets. Church had seen similar songs amass a lot of airplay, according to Peets, “and he said, ‘If this is the shit that works, let’s just write one.’?”
“That was my Hail Mary,” Church says. “And the sad truth is, it works.” Although “Love Your Love the Most” became Church’s first top 10 single, it didn’t boost his career, because it was so generic. Radio play was up, but record and ticket sales were flat.
Then the Playboy feature took an even more interesting turn. In it, Church and his camp seem to glorify the excesses of his shows—how the crowd is drunk towards the point of incapacitation, fights break out everywhere, and rampant sex occurs right out in the open. “’There are some drunk motherfuckers out there,’ says Marshall Alexander, Church’s cheerful production manager,’” the piece says. Here are some further excerpts:
During tonight’s show, which I watch from the soundboard, the manager of one of the opening acts says he’s seen an average of three or four fights per night. A large part of Church’s success has come from filling a niche in the country market for a rugged, masculine singer.
While watching Church’s set that night, Moore saw a couple screwing in the audience. “A guy pulled a girl’s skirt up, and the dirty deed was going on,” Moore reports. “That was a first for me.”
It’s not a first for Church. He recounts a show last year in Battle Creek, Michigan where “half the crowd was fighting. And I saw guys who had girls bent over the rail, screwing.” His lighting designer—a guy who’d toured with nearly every major metal band, including Van Halen, Metallica and Guns N’ Roses—was shocked. “He said to me, ‘You should call this the Fucking and Fighting Tour.’”
Compared with Battle Creek’s, tonight’s audience doesn’t impress Church much. “There wasn’t mass bedlam, which is what I usually see.” Tomorrow will be wilder, he predicts.
So here was Church, openly bragging about how his concerts had become bedlam where “half the crowd is fighting,” bragging about open sex that from the stage could be hard to determine as consensual, and how this behavior is worse than what is normally seen at Van Halen, Metallica, and Guns N’ Roses shows, speaking deeply to the descent of the country genre compared to other genres. This was part of the Eric Church marketing—the image he wanted to portray: live experiences full of madness that people wanted to see and be a part of. And all of this is coming from one of the most commercially-successful artists in country music, and one whose album at the time had won Album of the Year from both the CMA and ACM—a true leader of the genre. After a while, whether the rowdiness of his concerts started as fact or fiction, the trend began to perpetuate itself and spread to other artists and other concerts.
But I know what some of you are thinking: “Is Eric Church really Bro-Country?”
One of the most curious aspects of the issues a Keith Urban’s recent Mansfield, Mass. concert is that Keith Urban is not one of these typical Bro-Country entertainers who constantly sing about getting drunk and fighting. Urban is from a earlier era, when soccer moms were country music’s primary demographic. His latest single “Cop Car” may veer slightly in the newer direction, but his American Idol judgeship spot notwithstanding, Keith Urban is not the type of artist that appeals to underage drinking fans or Bro-Country knuckle chuckers. So why was it his show that got so out of hand?
Because of the way the country music live experience is set up, it almost doesn’t matter what Top 15 pop country act you go to see, the same culture exists nearly at every concert. Of course there is some variation between every crowd, but not as much as one might expect. This is a symptom of the homogenization of the country format from radio consolidation and the dominance of male stars at the top of country ranks. But it is also facilitated by Live Nation’s Country Megaticket multi-concert package as pointed out by Windmills Country. The Country Megaticket is like a season pass for concert goers that covers most of the major country acts and the venues they play, including Keith Urban, and Mansfield’s Xfinity Center. Buy the ticket, and you not only have access to Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean, but Keith Urban and Lady Antebellum. This Country Megaticket culture facilitates the spreading of the undesirable elements to country music shows that they would normally not appeal to. The fans show up for the party, with the music as the backdrop. Country music is the only genre that Live Nation offers the Megaticket for, because it is the only genre that can support it. Once again, country music’s size and dominance is hindering its ability to control and define itself.
One of the reasons the adoption of the term “Bro-Country” last summer was so unfortunate is because it symbolized in many people’s minds the start of a new era when in truth it was the continuation of a trend begun in earnest in 2011, and goes back even farther than that. Saving Country music declared 2011 “The Year of the Country Checklist Song.” This was before Florida Georgia Line had even signed a publishing deal, and six months before they released their first EP. The reason this is important is because to understand what is going on in country music in 2014, you have to understand these trends go back much farther than Jody Rosen coining the term in August of 2013. “Bro-Country” was also a more palatable way to couch the trend compared to “Checklist Country” which explained what the problem with the trend was right in the term. And now Bro-Country has been adopted by the very people it was meant to criticize.
So what can be done? Do venues need to beef up security? Should the artists get involved somehow?
One of the most surprising things about all of the recent headline-grabbing country music concert fiascoes is how silent the headliners have been about them. In 2013, when Kenny Chesney’s name was at the top of the marquee for the first wave of trash that filled the parking lots of Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, the singer was curiously silent as the controversy raged. Same can be said for Luke Bryan who was the headliner at the same venue, and at the same annual event when it happened again this year, despite the media swarming the event in anticipation of problems. To Jason Aldean’s credit, he did send his heartfelt condolences out to the family and friends of the man found dead in a dumpster at his Cleveland show, but Keith Urban has said nothing about the most recent incident in Mansfield, Mass.—either about the arrests and hospitalizations, or the alleged rape. In fact Keith Urban removed a video in which he praised the Mansfield crowd, saying at one point, “Gosh, up on the lawn tonight? That was nutso.” So we know Urban’s PR team is on the case, they just simply don’t want to acknowledge what happened.
There are no easy answers here, and it is made harder because of all the money being made at these concerts. It is boom time on the country music touring circuit, and many of the tours are underwritten by the country’s major alcohol suppliers, from Budweiser to Jack Daniels. Though coolers are checked at gates, and ID’s checked at concession stands, there’s clearly a wink-and-nod culture when it comes to underage drinking at concerts, similar to how many venues have a wink-and-nod acceptance of marijuana. Teenagers are going to drink, and that’s an issue beyond country music or country music concerts. But when teenagers are in public places, it makes the situation more perilous, and results in injuries, arrests, and recently, alleged rape. The 22-year-old man who fell five stories into a dumpster at Jason Aldean’s Cleveland concert was said to be “extremely intoxicated.”
The problem can only be solved if there is an acknowledgement of its existence. But as Eric Church evidenced above in the Playboy Magazine piece, what may be bad publicity for some makes for good marketing for others. The lack of even acknowledgement of the issues from the headliners or their management seems to be almost a default approval, or at least a complicit posturing to the problem. The mentality appears to be that as long as the money is flowing and nobody gets killed, let’s keep the party going.
But now, somebody has been killed, and somebody’s daughter has been allegedly raped. Country music cannot afford to turn a blind eye any more.
I first met Caitlyn Smith and saw her perform on the 4th of July, 2011. The occasion was the confluence of Willie Nelson’s annual 4th of July Picnic, and the now defunct (seemingly) Country Throwdown Tour put on by the same promoters of the long-running Warped concerts. It all collided at Billy Bob’s Texas in Ft. Worth, and I was there covering the event, and specifically had my eyes set on up-and-comer Austin Lucas, who like Caitlyn Smith, was playing on an acoustic stage where promising songwriters took turns playing their songs in a “Nashville Round” setting. The idea was a great way to feature up-and-coming talent right beside the bigger names on the tour like Lee Brice, Jamey Johnson, and Brantley Gilbert.
Caitlyn Smith was stunning. She had a song called “Hank Drank” that knocked me flat on my ass. At the time I wrote about the young songwriter, “The other highlight from the one Nashville Round session I caught was Caitlyn Smith. She would be my #2 surprise of the day. Caitlyn had the best voice of the whole event, and well-penned songs to compliment that voice, as well as dynamic and energetic guitar playing. Beautiful girl, and certainly one to watch.”
Later as I made my way onto one of the fleet of Country Throwdown buses to conduct an interview with Austin Lucas, it was then that during brief conversations with Caitlyn and other promising Nashville songwriters that I solidified my opinions about the burgeoning trend of country “checklist” songs, or “laundry list” songs as I had been dubbing them before. Checklist songwriting is very much the foundation of what is called “Bro-Country” today, but even in 2011, the ugly trend was prevailing in country music and was the talk of songwriting circles and Saving Country Music; it just took 3 years for the rest of country media to catch on.
But back to Caitlyn Smith. Or more specifically, on to Garth Brooks, who during his July 10th press conference making his comeback official, had glowing compliments for the Nashville songwriters he was discovering when selecting new songs for his upcoming project. When asked how much songwriting Garth was doing himself, his response was, “I’m getting my ass kicked by the level of songwriting right now … Most of the stuff we’ve been cutting has been outside songs.”
The sentiments from Garth are similar to ones we’ve been hearing from other industry experts like T Bone Burnett, who while acting as the music director for the ABC TV show Nashville tried to do his best to alleviate some of the glut in amazing songs going unheard because of the current focus on Bro-Country that’s dominating mainstream country music right now. The competition for songwriters in Nashville has never been more fierce, but since so few artists want to cut songs of true substance, there is an amazing stock of high-caliber song material just sitting on the shelf. At his July 10th press conference, Garth also said, “The first single that’s gonna come out … might be one of the greatest statements ever.”
Now enter Caitlyn Smith. In 2011 when I was first exposed to her, she had already landed a co-write on a Jason Aldean album cut for “It Ain’t Easy”. Speaking of ABC’s Nashville, a Caitlyn co-write “Don’t Put Dirt On My Grave Just Yet” was featured prominently on the TV Show, and has become one of the most popular songs of the series. She also co-wrote the new Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers duet, “You Can’t Make Old Friends.” Caitlyn’s name had already been rumored in connection with the new Garth project, even before the press conference early in July. Now the word on the street from multiple sources is that Garth’s debut single—arguably one of the most-anticipated singles in country music in years—is the Caitlin Smith song “Tacoma”, co-written with Bob DiPiero.
Though many of Caitlyn’s songwriting credits are held by more pop-oriented performers (she has the title track on the upcoming Lady Antebellum album, and Cassadee Pope’s platinum-selling “Wasting All These Tears”), in October of 2013, Caitlyn released a single called Dream Away and apparently has a whole album of material steeped in country tradition with banjo, fiddle, and mandolin featured heavy on the tracks. She is a professional, salaried songwriter, but like Ashley Monroe or Brandy Clark, Caityln Smith has all the skills to be a striking performer as well.
Caitlyn Smith is a native of Minnesota, and grew up in a small town aspiring to be a songwriter from a young age. She first started songwriting in the Christian music world, taking trips to Nashville to work with other writers before converting to secular country music. As she grew older, her trips to Nashville became more frequent until she finally moved there to pursue her dream full time.
Below is a demo version of Caitlyn Smith’s “Tacoma”. Garth’s version is very likely to sound much different, so don’t jump to too many conclusions about how “country” Garth’s final product might be. That is why it is called a demo.
But this is where Garth Brooks could shake up the country music industry beyond simply packing sold-out stadiums. There are reams of amazing songs out there going unheard, and Garth is one of the very few people with the star power to take these songs and make them hits. And this rising tide could raise all boats, taking an artist like Caitlyn Smith to the greater notoriety her talents deserve.
Caitlyn Smith is a one-in-a-million star just waiting for her big shot. Ravenesque, articulate, poetic, insightful, and delightfully troubled, her music can strike a toll on the soul like few others.
(NOTE: Folks, it looks like the SoundCloud demo of “Tacoma” has been taken down. If another example of the song is made available, it will be posted here.)
A Keith Urban concert in Mansfield, Mass on Saturday made national headlines when 55 people were arrested, 22 were taken to the hospital, and a total of 46 were treated by medical staff in what fire officials characterized as a “mass causality” event, having to call in ambulance crews from several other communities to help deal with the incident. The “Raise ‘Em Up” tour stop at the Xfinity Center also featured Jerrod Niemann and Brett Eldredge. Now the story of an alleged rape in the venue’s upper lawn is telling a deeper story to the moral depravity and transpired at the event.
According to the Sun Chronicle, 18-year-old concertgoer Sean Murphy allegedly raped a 17-year-old girl during the concert, while 15 or more concert attendees stood around and watched, many taking pictures and video of the incident. It ended when a woman attending the concert asked the girl if what was happening was consensual, and she said, “No,” and the woman pulled the suspect off the girl who then fled. Apparently Sean Murphy stood around for a short period, looking for positive acknowledgement from the crowd that had gathered about what happened, before disappearing into the lawn crowd. The girl’s friends took her to police, and the gates to the concert were temporarily closed until Sean Murphy could be found and detained.
Sean Murphy did not know the girl previously, and the two met at the concert according to police. They began kissing near a concession stand before moving to the lawn area. According to the young girl, she went with Sean Murphy because “she was afraid of what would happen” if she didn’t go. Both teens had been drinking at the concert.
According to Sean Murphy and his lawyer Neil Crowley, the sex was consensual. The lawyer pointed out that in the police report there was no mention of force being used in the incident. He said his client cooperated with police during the investigation. According to police, they overheard Sean telling his parents he “messed up” over the phone. Police have also obtained footage and photos of the incident from witnesses.
“This was a consensual act, not a sexual assault. There are no allegations of force or violence put against him,” Crowley said in a statement. “This was a private act that regrettably occurred in a public place. Mr. Murphy deeply regrets this incident and I’m sure the young woman does as well.”
Sean Murphy lives with his parents who posted the $10,000 bond for the teen. Murphy has no prior arrest record. He is scheduled to be back in court September 25th.
The news comes as reports of arrests and intoxication-related injuries seem to be on the increase at country music concerts. Along with the Keith Urban concert, a Jason Aldean concert on July 18th saw 35 attendees arrested, and a man was later found dead in a dumpster. Similar numbers marred a Luke Bryan show in Pittsburgh earlier this summer. Whether the reporting is better or there truly is an elevated rash of unruly patrons at country concerts, the topic has become a hot button issue in country music. This rape allegation, and the response from many in the crowd to sit back and watch, take pictures, and video the incident is likely to take the debate to a new level.
After the concert, Keith Urban posted a short video thanking the Mansfield fans. “Gosh, up on the lawn tonight? That was nutso,” Keith says. Apparently he didn’t know the extent of how “nutso” it got.
***UPDATE (7-31-14): Keith Urban has finally released a statement about the numerous incidents at the concert.
“My team and I were horrified to learn of the events reported in Boston this past weekend and our hearts and prayers go out to all those affected. This type of behavior stands in stark contrast to the spirit of our shows.” – Keith
22-year-old Cory Barron who disappeared during a Jason Aldean concert at Progressive Field in Cleveland on Friday, July 18th, and was later found dead in a dumpster in New Russia Township just outside of Cleveland, was “extremely intoxicated” at the time of his disappearance according to a preliminary police report. Though an initial autopsy has been conducted on the body, the full autopsy including the toxicology report will not be available for another three to six weeks according to officials.
The information about Cory Barron’s level of impairment came from police interviewing friends of the Bowling Green State University senior who were also attending the concert. The man disappeared around 9:30 PM after visiting some friends in a different section of the concert from his assigned seat. He never returned, and in the following days a full search for the man turned up nothing. Then on Tuesday, July 22nd, his body was found by landfill workers in a dumpster that was transported from Progressive Field. He still had his ticket stub in his pocket. Investigators turned their attention to a trash chute near Mr. Barron’s assigned seat that plummeted five stories down to where the dumpster was located.
Exactly how the man gained access to the chute and fell into the dumpster has yet to be determined, but investigators at this point are saying there is no evidence that foul play was involved. The death has not been called a homicide, but a “found body” case, though homicide detectives have been assisting in the investigation because of the nature of the case. According to Action News 19 in Cleveland, sources say that Cory may have also engaged in an argument with another man or group of men right before he disappeared. They also say the only way someone could have accessed the chute was to crawl into it.
The death of Cory Barron comes as reports of arrests and intoxication-related injuries seem to be on the increase at country music concerts. A Keith Urban show on Saturday, July 26th made headlines when 55 people were arrested and 22 were taken to the hospital in what the fire department described as a “mass casualty” event. Similar numbers marred a Luke Bryan show in Pittsburgh earlier this summer. The Jason Aldean concert at Progressive Field where Cory disappeared also saw 35 attendees arrested, mostly on alcohol-related charges. Whether the reporting is better or there truly is an elevated rash of unruly patrons at country concerts, the topic has become a hot button issue in country music.
Corry Barron’s funeral was on Monday (7-28). Hundreds of friends and family filled the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Fremont, Ohio to remember the young man.
Oh Jason, this is most unfortunate.
Since Jason Aldean has re-entered the single life after getting caught in a douche-soaked nightclub on the Sunset Strip handling up on some American Idol semifinalist castoff, now he thinks he’s Mr. Sexy, taking cues from Jerrod Niemann and entering the EDM space to keep the child support money streaming in.
As the first single from his upcoming album, “Burnin’ It Down” is a Casiotone piece of impersonal electronic awfulness in which any sign of true human inspiration or involvement has been so antiseptically scrubbed in lieu of animatronic tones and absolutist perfectitudes, the term “soul” has been completely and forever banished from being associated with this robotic piece of misanthropic pap. This isn’t a song, this is some guy with a MacBook Pro, a tub of Red Vines, and the cool tingle of cocaine tickling the edge of his nostrils creating an electronic sound bed to send over to Aldean’s studio so he can overlay his Auto-tune’d vocals and call it good. As Tom Petty would say, “You put your name on it, but you didn’t do that.” Even the guitar tones have been been so exhaustively massaged by 1′s and 0′s they sound like the warning signals emitted from a Star Wars protocol droid right before it explosively self-destructs. A kitten aimlessly careening across a Korg keyboard in a catnip stupor could make a more compelling composition than this.
Sorry Jason Aldean, but this song isn’t sexy, it’s creepy. “…with you baby layin’ right here naked in my bed.” They should exhume Barry White and make it the sole goal of the international scientific community to revive him for the exclusive purpose of kicking Jason Aldean’s ass for this song. What does Aldean know about sexy time anyhow? Aldean ain’t got the moves like Jagger, he’s got the moves like Grimmace. Mating couples won’t find “Burnin’ It Down” sexy unless they get equally horny for the annual return of the McRib. This song is a awkward as a hard on in a Speedo. “Burnin’ It Down” isn’t for intimate couples, it’s for lonely women to get all lubed up with in anticipation of an intimate encounter with Clyde the battery-powered hammerer.
How the hell is this considered “country” in any capacity? Talk about “Burnin’ It Down”, I wish the palette of votive candles featured in the stupid lyric video would set fire to the studio that birthed this monstrosity with the masters still in it. If the couple in this video gets turned on by shadow puppets, I can make my middle finger erect and have it look just like a love bird. The best part of this song ran down Aldean’s pasty inner thigh and ended up as an embarrassing stain on his $700 sheets. He should have worn a rubber instead of inseminating our ear holes with this public health audio pandemic. No, that burning you feel in your genitals isn’t from erotic allure, it’s because this song is the audio equivalent of a pussing venereal onslaught.
Oh, and Florida-Georgia Line took time from rolling naked in their own piles of money to co-write this song. So there’s that. Yeah, Aldean should have gotten the hint when country music’s boy band was handing him down their sloppy seconds that it would result in a career embarrassment.
Come on Jason Aldean, stick to singing about the common man and their struggles. That’s what you’re good at.
You should have kept this one in your pants.
Two guns way down.
Forget Taylor Swift, and her first win for the CMA’s prestigious Entertainer of the Year award in 2009. Forget Swift’s huge pop blockbusters of 2012 like “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “I Knew You Were Trouble”. Forget Jason Aldean taking the country rap song “Dirt Road Anthem” and making it into the best selling song in all of country music in 2011. And forget Florida Georgia Line breaking the all-time record in country music for weeks at #1 with the song “Cruise”. All of these indelible moments on the timeline that slowly but surely is narrating the downfall of country are simply the stepping stones, the precursors to what is symbolized by the song written and released by up-and-coming “country” star Sam Hunt called “Leave The Night On”.
Don’t worry about how the song sounds to you. Whether at first listen you like it or not is somewhat irrelevant. Don’t worry so much about measuring it against the others songs doing well at country radio right now, or even the worst songs, or the best songs of the past few years. Don’t worry about measuring it against the other songs that have gone on to define clear lines of demarcation during country music’s downward spiral. Whether “Leave The Night On” is immediately objectionable to your music palette is of no concern. If fact, its innocuousness—its innocent, disguising, and typical nature is arguably what makes it so dangerous.
This is not a review, this is a warning. Sam Hunt’s “Leave The Night On” is a potential swan song for what we define as country music today, more than any song that has come before. I know, you’re saying, “Can you tell me this song is somehow more pop than Taylor Swift, or pushes the limit more than Jerrod Neimann’s EDM monster ‘I Can Drink To That All Night’?” Yes, that is exactly what I’m telling you.
Forget your hurt feelings of, “Hell country has sounded like pop for years,” or even your misappropriated wisdom of “country has always been influenced by pop.” Of course country has always been influenced by pop. But when country becomes pop, which it ostensibly does with “Leave The Night On”, this is a completely different matter. It is the implementation of a completely new rules regime defining what country music is, or what it is no longer.
Never before have we had a song that so recognizably belongs in the pop format get released to country radio by a non-established country artist. And yes I know, he’s signed to MCA Nashville, not MCA, and he’s written some songs for other country artists in the immediate past. No matter, “Leave The Night On” is a test; a canary sent down the country music shaft to see if truly any song can be released to the lucrative country format, and fly.
Country music is now the most dominant genre of American music. Not hip-hop, not rock, and not even pop. It is country that rules the roost. It is country that dominates radio and televised award shows, and that stamps more tickets at live events every year than anything else in music. Country music isn’t turning into pop. Country music now is pop by definition, because it is the most popular genre that exists. And what used to be known as “pop” is now nothing more than a derivative of country—a less country-sounding subgenre of pop, which is country.
A world where “Leave The Night On” can be successful on country radio is one where country will be unable to define itself or its borders, or control its destiny. It is one where country is open to intrusive infections of hyper-trends and performance histrionics from artists. It is one were everything is malleable and arbitrary, and is simply defined by what is popular today, with contempt for whatever came before.
And even worse, “Leave The Night On” will be a smash hit; a blockbuster of 2014. It has already seen one of the most astounding rises up the country charts from an unproven, unknown artist we’ve virtually ever seen. If Sam Hunt can release a single like “Leave The Night On” and have it be successful on country radio, then anyone can. And even more troubling, anyone will.
Welcome to the mono-genre.
When you live by the bit, you die by the bit. And Jerrod Niemann has just been bitten in the ass by a “Donkey.”
I remember when Trace Adkins released a song called “Brown Chicken Brown Cow” in late 2010. Adkins it can be argued is the King of modern day country music bit songs. He took “Honky Tonk Badonka Donk” to the top of the country music charts in 2005, and it put him on the country music map. “Brown Chicken Brown Cow” didn’t fare as well however. At the behest of Adkins himself, the song was released as a single. “I said, ‘Let’s just throw a hand grenade in the room right off the get-go.’” And it blew up in his face. A video was made for the song featuring puppets getting it on in a barn while farm animals watched. People were not impressed, and the song flopped. Eventually Trace was forced to admit, “I guess I went to that well one too many times.”
Jerrod Niemann was very much a middling country music star looking for his niche when he decided to release country music’s first outright EDM song “Drink To That All Night” in October of 2013. For a while it looked like the song might flop too. Maybe it was a little too fey, even for the wide berth country music is cutting these days. But with strong backing from his label and a moderately-successful video, “Drink To That All Night” eventually reached #1 on the Country Airplay chart on April 26th of this year. Niemann had taken a big gamble to be one step ahead of the competition, and that gamble had paid off for him. All of a sudden he was a trend setter, and when it was announced that a remix of the song had been made with Pitbull and a remix video was upcoming, it appeared like “Drink To That All Night” could become the “Cruise” of the summer of 2014: rising slowly, presenting a false fade, and then coming back strong on the back of a remix with a popular rapper.
A few days after the solstice however, and “Drink To That All Night” can’t be found anywhere, despite the release of the Pitbull remix, and the rumored remix video still in the offing. Part of the reason is because in lieu of continuing to push “Drink To That All Night” exclusively, Niemann’s label decided to double down on Jerrod’s new direction and release the ridiculous bit song “Donkey.” Like “Drink To That All Night”, the song has a very metro vibe, pseudo rap lyrics, and a ridiculous premise. But hey, it is a brave new world in country music. If “Drink To That All Night” can reach #1, why couldn’t “Donkey”?
But just like other candidates for country music’s worst song ever like Jason Aldean’s “1994″, Tim McGraw’s “Truck Yeah”, and the aforementioned “Brown Chicken Brown Cow”, Niemann and “Donkey” went too far. Even before “Donkey” was released to radio on May 19th, some radio programming gurus were sounding off. “I think we are already at a tipping point regarding ‘Bro Country’ and this song doesn’t help either way; it doesn’t advance Country music,” said Scott Husky of the influential Rusty Walker Programming Consultants. “My fear is that we have brought some new folks into the format lately with the appeal of newer music, this song might just point out why those folks didn’t listen to Country before. It will re-ignite the stereotype.”
Adam Jeffries, the Program Director at KJUG said to All Access, “I thought ‘Drink To That All Night’ was right on the line, but ‘Donkey’ is over it as far as being too rappy.”
Not according to Jerrod Niemann though. When talking to Rolling Stone Country, Niemann said, “If rap had never existed, nobody would say anything [about today's rap-influenced country] because these songs already exist in our past and are classics. People are just looking at it in the wrong way,” Niemann said, alluding to spoken word songs such as “Devil Went Down to Georgia” and “A Boy Named Sue”. “The people who are getting real upset maybe just don’t know as much about country music as they think.”
Huh. Maybe its Jerrod Niemann who needs the history lesson. As Saving Country Music once pointed out, Spoken Word is Not Rap: “Making the case that spoken word and rapping in music are the same thing is an insult to the artistic integrity and creativity of both spoken word and rap artists, and to the intelligence of anyone who that case is being made to.”
Nonetheless, “Donkey” still had its champions, apologists, and willful perpetrators in country radio, but early on when you looked at the amount of “adds” the song was getting on radio, it did not paint a very rosy picture for the song. “Donkey” was virtually dead on arrival despite a strong label backing, and this week the song went from #44 to #48 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart.
Gimmick songs and comedy have always been part of the overall country music formula, and don’t let anyone tell you any different. But there is a point where the consumer’s intelligence is insulted, whether it’s by releasing a stupid song, or by misleading them that rap and spoken word are the same thing and telling them they’re stupid for thinking otherwise. As successful as some bit songs have been, like Toby Keith’s “Red Solo Cup” for example, they arguably have also become many artist’s swan song. The defeat of “Donkey” is definitely a win for all things right and good in country music, but it could also be a much bigger defeat for Jerrod Niemann, and a lesson to other artists that even in this seemingly “anything goes” environment in country music at the moment, apparently there still are some limits and standards.
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.
Photo: George Strait/MCA Nashville
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 aren’t thinking ahead. That’s 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.”
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 didn’t 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, GA 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 clichés 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.
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 Man’s 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 …. something with some edge that moves along pretty good. It’s an interesting take.”
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. “You know, Luke Bryan’s a great artist, but I never really listened to his stuff,” Ben told Country Weekly earlier this month. “I just listened to ‘Pancho and Lefty’ about five minutes ago and it blew me away. I’m in love with it.”
Ben went on to give his assessment of the tune if it was ever released to radio as a single. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a hit. It could be a monster—again.” 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):
•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.”
•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 music’s leading men,” Country Outfitter touts. “While we wait for the weather to decide its next move, we’ve put together a heated playlist of bro-country songs for summer.”
•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 clichés,” 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.
•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. “Mainstream 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 they’re mixin’ heavy metal with twang People on TV doin’ anything for fame I’m 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 Doin’ Things She Shouldn’t 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!
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