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Founder, president, and CEO of Big Machine Records Scott Borchetta, affectionately known around Saving Country Music as the Country Music Anti-Christ, and arguably the most powerful man in Nashville, continues to reign in on the freedom and creative control of his performers, and significantly influence their musical decisions—something that is in stark contrast to one of the benchmarks that made Big Machine one of the most sought after destinations for artists as one of the few Nashville-based major labels that generally allowed their roster to do what they wanted.
During the writing and recording phase of Taylor Swift’s last album Red is when Borchetta first notably inserted himself into the creative process, suggesting to Taylor that her songs were not good enough, and that she solicit the help of Swedish pop producers Max Martin and Shellback to help write, record, and produce songs, resulting in Swift’s most pop-oriented material to date.
Now according to Swift, she had to go against the wishes of Scott Borchetta and strong arm Big Machine Records to release her latest song “Sweeter Than Fiction” as part of the upcoming film One Chance. “I had to fight to do this,” Swift told the BBC, “I had to go around and ask people, ‘Can I please, please put something out?’ even though we’re supposed to be going quiet. My management, my label were like, ‘No new music until the next album comes out.’“
Eventually Taylor Swift did get her way and the song was released, but the song has received little push from Big Machine.
Scott Borchetta was initially bestowed the nickname “Country Music Anti-Christ” because he was the principle man behind-the-scenes slowly eroding the integrity of the term “country” by using country channels to push pop music, cross-genre music, and manufactured “Outlaws” to take advantage of marketing angles.
One such example is Justin Moore from Big Machine’s Valory Music imprint. Arguably the most audacious of the “new Outlaws” looking to capitalize commercially on growing anti-Nashville sentiment, Moore released an album in 2011 entitled Outlaws Like Me. His latest effort Off The Beaten Path just released in September includes a song called “I’d Want It To Be Yours;” an awful, immature example of both the tasteless direction of mainstream country, and the country rap trend. The song includes hip-hop elements, a small bout of rapping, and references to pop celebrities like Snoop Dog and Kim Kardashian—all from a guy that claims to be too country for Nashville.
In the eyes of Justin Moore’s critics, “I’d Want It To Be Yours” is the worst offering from Justin Moore’s new album, and one of the worst songs of 2013. But according to Justin, he didn’t want to record or release the song. It was at the insistence of Scott Borchetta that “I’d Want It To Be Yours” made the final cut.
“‘I’d Want It To Be Yours’ is ridiculous,” says Justin in the EPK for the song. “It’s just me being a perverted idiot in all honesty…I never thought it would end up on an album. We wrote it just kind of as a joke.”
The song seemed to take a very similar life to the infamous track “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” that even lends a lyric to “I’d Want It To Be Yours.” It was written sarcastically between a few songwriter buddies looking to blow off steam. But Scott Borchetta saw something different. ”When we were playing stuff for the label, Scott Borchetta said, ‘You have to put this on the album.’” Justin Moore explains. “And I’m going, ‘Really?’”
As Scott Borchetta and Big Machine Records continue to win market share and talent from its rival labels on the Music Row campus, his propensity to inject himself more and more into the creative process could become a bigger problem. Excessive control of artists is the classic sin of Nashville’s big music labels, and as Big Machine gets bigger, so could the artistic control dilemma, and the dilemma of maintaining control over the quality and purity of the term “country.”
These are lines pulled from the opening track of Justin Moore’s new album Off The Beaten Path, and with a steel guitar riding high in the mix accompanying Justin’s imperatives and a wide-brimmed cowboy hat crowning his backlit visage splayed across the album cover, the distinguishing music listener who doesn’t care too much for today’s country radio may conclude they have just found a keeper.
Then of course a few songs later, Justin seems to forget his own proclamations and manages to name drop Kim Kardashian, J-Lo, Snoo P Double G, filch a line from “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” and even try his hand at country rapping. And that’s just in one song. Hey we’ve all got to eat, right?
Justin Moore’s 2011 album Outlaws Like Me was declared the worst album ever by Saving Country Music up to that moment in time; a diagnosis I still stand behind with puffed chest. Earlier this year when Moore somehow sniveled his way onto the lineup of Willie Nelson’s 4th of July Picnic, as I stood 50 feet from the stage listening to Justin attempt to Svengali the crowd into believing that he was an industry outsider and one of the last champions of real country music, the only reason I didn’t rush the stage was because I didn’t have a good plan of what I would do when I got there, and I wanted to still be around later for Willie’s set.
Despite a few moments of respite, Off The Beaten Path is like an expeditionary campaign to discover and exploit every single worn out modern lyrical trope of American country music, and to try and make some new ones. Luke Bryan may be the latest of the discipline, but Justin Moore was the first to master disregarding any and all independent thinking or self-desired creative penchants to simply become the country music equivalent of Silly Putty for the suits to do whatever they choose with. And the fate they chose for Justin was to be Big Machine Record’s representative for attempting to re-integrate the revenue of anti-Nashville sentiment by misleading the public into believing Justin’s career was the result of a repressive industry looking to dog him at every turn because he was too country. Yes, he’s an Outlaw, bucking the system, flying in the face of artists like Taylor Swift….whom he shares the same record label with.
But though it would be easy and romantic to declare Justin Moore’s 2013 offering as bad enough to depose 2011′s Outlaws Like Me at the shameful peak of crap mountain and use this album as a vehicle to vent any and all unresolved anger held over from my personal life in the form of the most venomous of rants, the real truth of the matter is that Off The Beaten Path is not nearly as bad as one would initially assume.
It’s still more bad than good without a doubt, with a strong contingent of country checklist songs eroding any redemptive moments on the album and then some. But I was surprised how unpredictable this album was, how some songs took a really progressive approach instead of just relying on rock guitar riffs, and how many slow, meaningful songs made the final cut.
The only reason the song “Old Back In The New School” could be considered bad is because it’s coming from Justin Moore, rendering it hypocritical. But on it’s own, it’s not too shabby. Neither is the slow and sincere duet with Miranda Lambert “Old Habits.” In fact, it’s downright good, and wouldn’t be a bad contender for the “Vocal Event” categories of the big country award shows. If it weren’t for lines like “We work hard, play hard, take our paychecks straight to the Wal-Mart. Girls will out drink you, boys will out Hank you…” the song “This Kind Of Town” could really be something sensational in the way the song is crafted.
But unfortunately, that line does exist in the song, and so do a dozen other cringe-inducing moments on Off The Beaten Path. Really, it’s the words of this album that hold it back the most. There’s some authentic country instrumentation here, and some really sweet moments sonically. And then there’s songs like the title track that feel oh so cliche in both words and structure, and the aforementioned country-rapping name-dropping abomination known as “I’d Want It To Be Yours” that will probably receive its own dedicated diagramming and ridicule in due course.
As bad as it is, I have to give Justin Moore and his songwriters credit for guile in crafting the song “Country Radio” that will flatter every programming manager from coast to Clear Channel coast and probably make it into radio rotations despite its shortcomings. “For Some Ol’ Redneck Reason” that features a crotchety, borderline disturbing appearance from Charlie Daniels in a moment of token Patriotism probably won’t. Whatever happened to going to LA via Omaha?
But color me surprised. Certainly not a good album, and I’m definitely not recommending it. But on Off The Beaten Path, Justin Moore peels himself off the very bottom of the country music mat, and proves that maybe if he wasn’t such a tool, he would have a little something.
1 ½ of 2 guns down. 2 of 5 stars.
In the constant, eternal, and sometimes nauseating back and forth argument about the direction of country music, it is easy to focus in on the big celebrity franchise names who sing and perform the songs as the primary culprits for the consternation about what country music has become. But it may be short-sighted to think that these select few celebrities, or even the industry professionals behind them, are singularly to blame, or even deserve the majority of criticism.
In Zac Brown’s recent disparaging comments about Luke Bryan’s hit “That’s My Kind Of Night,” Zac went out of his way to lay as little blame as possible on Luke Bryan. Instead it was the song itself, and its songwriters that drew the brunt of Zac Brown’s ire. “You can look and see some of the same songwriters on every one of the songs,” Zac said. “There’s been like 10 number one songs in the last two or three years that were written by the same people and it’s the exact same words, just arranged different ways.”
Though Zac didn’t name any names, the likely target of Zac’s criticism was country songwriter Dallas Davidson. Davidson was one of three songwriters on “That’s My Kind Of Night,” and is one of Nashville’s hottest songwriting commodities with a string of major hits to his name.
As one of the primary originators of the current country checklist / tailgate craze in country music, as well as the trend of instilling urban jargon and themes into what is traditionally considered rural music, you can point to Dallas Davidson just as much as the artists that perform his songs as one of the primary drivers of country music’s current mainstream sound.
Dallas Davidson is the reigning ACM Songwriter of the Year, was the 2011 Songwriter of the Year for BMI, and has also received 3 CMA “Triple Play” awards, which recognize songwriters for having three #1 songs in the same year, including six #1 songs in 2011 alone. As songwriters go, Davidson is as decorated as any at the moment. Dallas isn’t just one of the most influential songwriters in Nashville, he’s one of the most influential individuals right now in the entire country music business, with his songs dominating the charts and influencing the current direction of the format.
Davidson’s first breakout song was “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” co-written by Jamey Johnson and Randy Houser. The troika wrote the song in 2004 when hanging out at a club together, and reportedly completed it in an hour. When Trace Adkins released it as a single in 2005, it became a huge commercial success. “Honky Tonk Badonka Donk” is given credit for launching the careers of all three of its songwriters, but where Jamey Johnson would veer towards becoming one of the mainstream’s few traditional-leaning singer/songwriting performers, and Randy Houser would go more in the pop country performance direction, Dallas Davidson stuck to being primarily an off-the-stage and behind-the-scenes writer of hits.
“Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” could be counted as mainstream country’s first major country rap hit, making Dallas Davidson one of the first country rap hit songwriters, predating Colt Ford and Cowboy Troy. But Davidson wouldn’t stop there. Here 8 years later, Davidson is responsible for both the #1 country rap singles of 2013—the aforementioned “That’s My Kind Of Night” performed by Luke Bryan, and Blake Shelton’s “Boys ‘Round Here.”
In between, “Honky Tonk Badonka Donk” and today, Dallas Davidson had Luke Bryan cut his country rap dance tune “Country Girl (Shake It For Me),” and wrote many other prominent singles that have made it onto the Billboard charts, including Luke Bryan’s 2010 #1 “Rain Is A Good Thing,” Lady Antebellum’s #1′s “Just A Kiss” and “We Owned The Night,” Justin Moore’s #1 “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away,” Brad Paisley’s #1 “Start A Band,” and Billy Currington’s #1 “That’s How Country Boys Roll.”
Dallas Davidson has accumulated more songwriting success in the last 3 years than anyone, but his output would probably be better characterized as potent as opposed to prolific. He’s not one of these songwriters who seems to have half a dozen singles on the charts at any given time, but the songs he contributes to tend to have demonstrative success and impact on the sonic and lyrical direction of country.
Another prominent songwriter who is contributing to the sonic direction of country music and the emergence of country rap is Luke Laird. Luke was the writer of Jason Aldean’s “1994″ and Trace Adkin’s “Hillbilly Bone.” At the same time, Luke Laird has worked intimately with many other stars from a wide swath of the country music world. Laird co-wrote the majority of songs on Kacey Musgraves’ recent album Same Trailer, Different Park. He co-wrote 3 songs on Eric Church’s 2012 CMA and ACM Album of the Year Chief, he co-wrote Little Big Town’s big hit “Pontoon,” and 10 songs for Carrie Underwood in the last 5 years. In fact it might be easier to list the artists Luke Laird has not worked with than the elongated list of artists that he’s contributed lyrics to since starting in 2005.
Same could be said for the ultra prolific professional songwriter Shane McAnally, who co-wrote Kacey Musgraves’ “Merry Go ‘Round” with Luke Laird and Kacey, as well as 8 other songs on Musgraves’ Same Trailer, Different Park. He also co-wrote “Mama’s Broken Heart” with Musgraves and performed by Miranda Lambert, giving McAnally two songs in both the Single and Song of the Year nominations for the 2013 CMA’s.
What’s quizzical about McAnally’s output is how he seems to be all over the map in regards to his tastes and influences. On the surface he seems to be a writer who works with more substance compared to Luke Laird and Dallas Davidson, but he’s also given credit for co-writing Florida Georgia Line’s “Party People,” and Lady Antebellum’s ultra-saccharine “Downtown.” But then McAnally turned around and wrote Wade Bowen’s recent single “Trucks,” which pokes fun of Music Row’s recent country checklist trends, perpetrated by songwriters like Dallas Davidson.
But more importantly, you put these three songwriters together, along with a handful of select few others, and they constitute and impressive block of what makes up mainstream radio’s playlists, while populating many of the top spots of the country music charts. The faces of the performers may change, but the names of the songwriters tend to stay the same. Where it is seen as counterproductive by the music industry to have an artist with multiple singles on the radio at the same time competing with each other, songwriters don’t have such restrictions, blending into the background and rarely being regarded by the mass public.
The mass public may also be perplexed why the songwriting process always seems to happen in 3′s. Dallas Davidson is from Georgia, and is a member of the industry famous “Peach Pickers” songwriting team with co-writers Rhett Atkins and Ben Hayslip. A long-standing tradition in country songwriting called “Third For A Word” makes it possible for songwriters and performers to simply contribute one word to a composition and be awarded an equal share of credit and royalties for the song. Recently this trend has seen some big name performers jumping on to contribute very little to a song, but snatching up lucrative royalty compensation for their small contributions. Songwriters might allow this to happen so their compositions will get cut by big celebrity performers. Similarly, if songwriters like Dallas Davidson, Luke Laird, and Shane McAnally have their names on a song, it can mean a significant spike in interest from labels and performers since they are such hot commodities.
Country music is a copy cat business, as can be seen in the continuance of using the same songwriters over and over in songs that sound very similar both sonically and lyrically. As explained in a recent article about the science behind music, popular music is losing its diversity. It is easy to single out the artists who are performing these songs, but many times they are simply following orders. Some artists are given certain latitude in picking the songs they will cut, and some like Miranda Lambert, or artists on Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Records may have more latitude than others. But as industry professionals attempt to spy trends and exploit them commercially through a label’s talent roster, more and more the songwriting process becomes very streamlined, relying on formulas and professionals who know how to optimize ideas for optimum radio play.
But beyond the process, the songs coming out of the Nashville / Music Row system are stimulating a backlash from their lack of quality like never before. Since the beginning of country music, there has always been sects that believe country is being influenced too much by other genres, but in the last few weeks, artists who have reached the very top of success in the industry are speaking out in greater numbers. As much as Music Row and certain artists may want to laugh off this criticism, it speaks to the larger issue of substance in the genre, and how it could jeopardize the long term viability of the format.
In responding to Zac Brown’s criticism of the current state of country music, songwriter Dallas Davidson said, “We write about what we know about. What I know about is sitting on a tailgate drinking a beer. Hell I live on the river. When Luke called me to tell me about what happened, I was literally smoking Boston butts on my homemade cooker at my 800 square foot river house with about four of my buddies with their trucks backed up, sitting on a tailgate.”
Davidson’s comments reaffirm what an independent Texas songwriter named Possessed by Paul James told Saving Country Music in a recent interview. “When looking at the majority of music, it’s not a cultural voice of change, it’s just a reflection. It’s not encouraging us to do anything, it’s just reflecting, like on my ‘Red Solo Cup.’”
Songs about tailgates are not inherently bad, and certainly every song does not have to be about a deep subject. It is the monopolization of the format with the same homogenizing subject matter where it becomes a problem—where one tailgate song leads into another tailgate song, and yet another, regardless of the song’s performer because the person or persons that wrote the song are the same, or are being influenced by similar trends.
Whether it is a financial portfolio, and educational environment, or an environmental eco-system, diversity is always championed as the key to a healthy balance and to long-term sustainability. As the pool of songwriters contributing to mainstream country’s sound continues to narrow, it leaves country’s future resting on the output of a few select pens.
(This story has been updated. See below)
The war of words concerning the state of country music continues, with Jason Aldean being the latest to enter the fray. Responding to comments by Zac Brown in a recent radio interview, Jason Aldean took to his Instagram account to call out Zac Brown for calling Luke Bryan’s current #1 hit “That’s My Kind Of Night” the “worst song ever.”
I hear some other artist are bashing my boy @lukebryan new song, sayin its the worst song they have ever heard…….. To those people runnin their mouths, trust me when i tell u that nobody gives a shit what u think. Its a big ol hit so apparently the fans love it which is what matters. Keep doin ur thing LB!!!
In an interview on 93.7 JR FM in Vancouver, Canada last week with Barbara Beam, Zac Brown said in part:
I love Luke Bryan and he’s had some great songs, but this new song is the worst song I’ve ever heard. I know Luke, he’s a friend. ‘My Kind Of Night’ is one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard. I see it being commercially successful, in what is called country music these days, but I also feel like that the people deserve something better than that. Country fans and country listeners deserve to have something better than that, a song that really has something to say, something that makes you feel something. Good music makes you feel something. When songs make me wanna throw up, it makes me ashamed to even be in the same genre as those songs.
Zac Brown also went on to say, “If I hear one more tailgate in the moonlight, daisy duke song, I’m gonna throw up.”
Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean both hail from Georgia, and both appear together on the recent single “The Only Way I Know” that also includes Eric Church. Aldean’s backlash continues a war of words, with many mainstream artists coming out against the current direction of country music. Alan Jackson last week said there was “No country stuff left” on country radio. Gary Allan in an interview with Larry King recently said, “We’ve lost our genre.” And Kacey Musgraves, who was just nominated for 6 CMA Awards, has spoken out numerous times recently, saying in late August that she was tired of Affliction T Shirts and truck songs.
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UPDATE (9-19-13 1:20 PM CDT): One of the songwriters for Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind Of Night” has come out in defense of Luke and his song. Professional songwriter Dallas Davidson, also responsible for such hits as “Honky Tonk Badonka Donk” and Luke’s other big hit “Country Girl (Shake It For Me),” telling Roughstock in part:
When Luke called and told me about it, the first thing I did was sit there and soak it in. A comment like that will hurt your feelings because when you write a song, it’s kind of like one of your babies. To hear a successful artist say it was the worst song he’s heard and it makes him want to throw up, that’s just not cool. I’m sure a lot of stuff like that has been said behind closed doors, and everybody has their right to their opinion, but to come out publicity and dog on other artists and dog on a song and the songwriters, to me, is just unacceptable and it’s not nice.
Zac Brown also specifically called out the songwriters in his initial comments, saying, “You can look and see some of the same songwriters on every one of the songs. There’s been like 10 number one songs in the last two or three years that were written by the same people and it’s the exact same words, just arranged different ways.”
Dallas Davidson continues:
We write songs for a living. We write about what we know about. What I know about is sitting on a tailgate drinking a beer. Hell I live on the river. When Luke called me to tell me about what happened, I was literally smoking Boston butts on my homemade cooker at my 800 square foot river house with about four of my buddies with their trucks backed up, sitting on a tailgate. And they want to know why we talk about tailgates in songs … well that’s because we’re sitting on them. We did that 25 years ago, and we’re still doing it. I can’t write about things I don’t know about. Fortunately, there’s a lot of people in this country who do what I do. To say that that kind of song doesn’t fit in our genre is mind boggling because it absolutely does…..My mom always told me if you don’t have nothing nice to say, then don’t say it at all.
Texas country star Jack Ingram has also chimed in. Last night Luke Bryan performed “That’s My Kind Of Night” on the TV show America’s Got Talent. Ingram took to his Twitter and Instagram feed to first ask if Luke Bryan was singing a Lady Gaga song, and later said, “It’s not the words, it’s that melody..Whoa ah whoa ah oh ah from the Gaga song…is the same as “cook up catfash dinna” etc!”
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UPDATE (9-20-13 12:45 PM CDT): For those wondering why Jason Aldean came to the defense of Luke Bryan and “That’s My Kind Of Night,” it might be because Jason Aldean wanted to cut the song himself. In an interview with Country Countdown USA‘s Lon Helton, Aldean says, “I thought it was great. I wanted it. I wanted to cut it. I’ve figured that out over my career. When we put out ‘Dirt Road Anthem,’ there’s gonna be people that are gonna bash you for it. ‘Rap has no place in country,’ whatever. People either like it or they don’t. Hopefully there’s a market for it. So I think ['That's My Kinda Night' is] a hit, and I was hoping Luke wouldn’t cut it so I could have it.”
Also Justin Moore has spoken out about the feud, telling Nashville Gab in part, “Everybody has their own opinions, and I don’t have a problem with people having their own opinions, but where I do have a problem with it is when you call out somebody in your fraternity.”
UPDATE (9-21-13 5:50 PM CDT): A few more country personalities have chimed in.
Will Hoge through Twitter: “Millionaires arguing about who is ‘more country’ cracks me up. Trust me, farm hands and factory workers are countrier than both y’all. Shhh!”
Blake Shelton through Twitter: “So happy there’s a shit storm going on with some artists in country music and for once I’m NOT in the middle of it.. This calls for a drink!”
UPDATE (9-26-13 7:45 CDT): Jason Aldean has spoken once again on the feud, telling The Province:
Look, as an artist you’re not going to like everything every other artist does. There’s certain artists I really like what they do and certain artists I’m not that big of a fan. But I’m not publicly going to go out and trash ‘em. “I know Zac, I don’t have anything against the guy, he’s always been cool to me, but I didn’t like that. And of course Luke’s one of my best friends and it rubbed me wrong. You don’t have to go out and say those things. I don’t agree with any artist bashing another artist.
Also songwriter Adam Hood took to his Twitter page to say, “Thank you zac brown for speaking up and giving “the rest of us” a voice!”
On August 15th, the plans for the upcoming Outlaw Country Music Hall of Fame and an accompanying Outlaw Music Association were made public. 5,000 sq. ft. of space has been allocated for the new Hall of Fame in Lynchburg, TN, and a Board of Directors has been formed that includes Jeremy Tepper of SiriusXM, Terry Jennings of Korban Music Group, author of Outlaws Still At Large Neil Hamilton, Joe Swank at Bloodshot Records, mayor of Lynchburg Sloane Stewart, Professor of Entertainment Law David Spangenburg, architect Thomas Bartoo, and CEO of Sol Records Brian DeBruler.
The announcement stimulated a lot of speculation about what direction the upcoming Hall of Fame would take, but not many serious answers. So Saving Country Music reached out to Gary “Sarge” Sargeant, the spearhead of the Outlaw Country Hall of Fame, to try and clear up many questions about what folks can expect from the upcoming institution.
Sarge is also putting on a charity event coming up October 25-27 for Troy Rector who suffered a debilitating medical accident. The event will be at Chopper Hill in Altamont, TN (More information). The inaugural class of inductees to the Outlaw Hall of Fame will be announced during the event.
You can listen to the entire interview below. For those who prefer a written form, the meat of the interview is transcribed below as well.
Gary Sargeant: I’m a lifelong fan, 55 years old, of Outlaw music, independent artists and labels, and just firmly believe in people who stay true to themselves and their music, and don’t compromise. It all started at a David Allan Coe benefit that I attended back in June. He was in an accident and wasn’t able to tour. I was kind of upset that David Allan Coe required a benefit. That at 73, he had to tour just to pay his bills because back in the day, things happened and he doesn’t own his catalog. And I was trying to think of a way we could support legends, and recognize people like David, or any number of people that have contributed so much to this music, and have never compromised. I wanted to make sure we had a place to recognize those folks who will never get recognized by anybody else, and then also be able to support today’s Outlaws—the Pete Berwick’s, the Gurf Morlix’s. Its time has come, and we’re going to do this.
When you announced the Outlaw Country Music Hall of Fame, you included a Board of Directors. Why have a Board of Directors?
Well, again it goes back to me being just a fan. I’m a fan with an idea. But I knew if we were going to do this and be taken seriously, and if it was going to be successful, I needed to put together a group of industry professionals.
The term “Outlaw” has already been taken by Music Row and used for marketing purposes. It’s safe to say that there’s music consumers out there that think Outlaw means Justin Moore, Eric Church, and others. How do you distinguish yourself from Music Row’s version of Outlaws when Music Row’s reach is so vast?
Nashville can tell somebody to dress in black jeans, grow a five day stubble, put on these boots, act all bad boy. That doesn’t make you Outlaw. Outlaw to me is not a genre of music. Outlaw is an attitude. Outlaw is a refusal to compromise your music or your beliefs in order to make a dollar. It is traveling up and down the roads, thousands of miles a year, traveling 500 miles to play a $150 show. True Outlaws are doing it for the love of the music only. I believe there’s going to be a lot of defections from Nashville music once the Outlaw Music Association and Hall of Fame are established and up and running. The definition of Outlaw should be made by those that are truly Outlaw, not some publicist sitting in an ivory tower in Nashville thinking that this will sell records.
Some may say the term Outlaw is outmoded because Nashville is taking it and using it with very prominent artists like Justin Moore—that the term doesn’t hold the same sway or meaning it once did. Are you saying that term needs to be fought for?
I’m saying it needs to be clearly defined. Of course Nashville is going to try and take anything successful and try to co-opt it. But them jumping on the bandwagon doesn’t make them independent artists. They’re playing to a formula. But the formula doesn’t work. Listen to the stuff coming out of Nashville.
How do you feel about Dale Watson’s Ameripolitan movement, and how does it fit in your plans for the Outlaw Music Association? Will there be overlap? Could there be potential conflict? Is it splitting the independent-minded or Outlaw populous of country music into two segments?
I wouldn’t think so. My hope would be that people going in that direction, because that’s very narrowly focused right now, I hope they would go, “Hold on a second, here’s something that has come along, that is exactly what we’re trying to do, but encompasses even more people, and hopefully is a very inviting and open Association.” Because I believe if we start putting restrictions on who is going to be in it, then we’re no better than the CMA or anybody else. Great music is great music, whether it be Texas Swing, or Southern rock country, or traditional country. If you’re an artist and you believe in what you’re doing, and you’re good at what you do, we’re going to give you all the support in the world, whether it be Dale Watson, or Shooter Jennings who can go off in different tangents and experiment with different music, or Hank3 who is so excellent. There’s so many artist out there that don’t have a place to call home, and that’s what the Outlaw Music Association is gonna be. It’s gonna be a place where independent labels and artists can receive support, promotion, and have a place they can call home and feel welcomed for who they are instead of something somebody else wants them to be.
We’ve seen in the past, for example with Shooter Jennings’ “XXX” movement and Dale Watson’s Ameripolitan movement, there’s been a lot of conflict and dissension with these attempts to unify the music behind a common purpose. I think that may be what is at the root of some fear and concern of what the Outlaw Music Association and Outlaw Country Music Hall of Fame will become. There’s a history of trying to find a uniting element apart from the CMA in the history of country music. Back in the 70′s there was “ACE” that was set up after Olivia Newton-John and John Denver had won CMA Awards. Traditional country artists met at the house of George Jones and Tammy Wynette and tried to form a new thing. The Academy of Country Music was set up because West Coast entertainers felt like the CMA was bias against California country artists. ACE never really took off, and the ACM just became a doppelganger of the CMA….
…and you forgot to mention the AMA, the Americana Music Association.
Sure, which I personally have said in the past is very narrow in focus, even though a lot of the artists they help promote are great artists.
I couldn’t agree with you more. To me, there is an extreme hunger and thirst out there to have an alternative to what’s being pushed down everybody’s throats by Nashville, the record labels, and the conglomerate of radio stations that are out there. Our focus is not narrow. I don’t care if it’s Dale Watson, or Hellbound Glory, or Jamey Johnson, it doesn’t matter. There’s a whole group of artists out there that deserve to be supported. We are not going to impose conditions. If you’re talented, and your music speaks for itself, and your music speaks to fans, our goal is to make sure that we support you. We’re not guaranteeing success for anybody. But we’re not going to say, “You’re not worthy.” Everybody’s worthy if they’re a musician, and they work hard, they write their own music and stay true to it, and they have some fans and are successful, we’re going to make sure they have an opportunity to be even more successful. We are a non-profit. Our proceeds go to supporting the legends, and also supporting the independent artists of today.
The narrowing of perspective seems to be a really big challenge of independent music right now, whether it is with the Americana Music Association, or just these little scenes that have popped up in independent music. How do you insulate yourself from that trend?
Technology is changing by leaps and bounds every month, let alone every year. The money to be made in today’s world is through touring…touring and merchandise. So we are going to support tours. As a non-profit—it’s kind of being dubbed the Outlaw iTunes—where independent artists can upload their music, and we will turn around and allow it to be downloaded for 99 cents a download, and we give all of it back to the artists while not taking 63 cents. We will be asking for a small donation that will go back to the legends. Technology is changing so quickly, and we have some very good people who are up to speed on today’s technology and the future of music distribution. Those are the areas we want to educate independent artists and labels on, and assist them in giving them an outlet to distribute their music, and use the Hall of Fame to support tours, and get [artists] out in front of the people. Are we going to be the savior? Hell no. But are we going to do everything that we can to help these folks who are working so hard and believe in what they’re doing? Yes, we’re going to do everything we can. Is it guaranteeing success? No. Is it guaranteeing effort? Yes.
There’s a lot of people out there touring and writing their own songs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that their music is valuable enough to be heard by the masses. What’s to keep people who may not embody the Outlaw spirit from just becoming part of this if there’s no governor to keep anybody and everybody from applying?
The fans of Outlaw music are by far the most discerning fans in the world. Otherwise, these artists wouldn’t have any success. An artist will make it if his fans want him to make it. The fans are going to decide if you make it or not, not the Association.
The assertion about Music Row is that they choose who is going to be the stars, and then they push that to the fans. What you’re saying with the Outlaw Music Association is the fans would choose the stars, and the OMA just gives them the platform and the support so that the fans can make that choice.
Eloquently put. And shouldn’t that be the way it is? Shouldn’t the fans be able to say what they like and don’t like? They shouldn’t be told what’s good and not good. With the focus being so narrow and money dictating who is going to be the next star, we’re all robbed. The fans are robbed, the artists are robbed, everybody is robbed of the next potential star. It’s not my job to decide who is good and who’s not good.
Tompall Glaser recently passed away. Right after he died, I posted a quote that came from him back in the 70′s that goes, “Damn it, the fight isn’t in Austin and it isn’t in Los Angeles. It’s right here in Nashville, right here two blocks from Music Row, and if we win–and if our winning is ever going to amount to anything in the long run–we’ve got to beat them on their own turf.” And I’ve heard some similar criticisms about Dale Watson’s Ameripolitan genre where it seems like, “Okay, were going to give up on Nashville and country music, and we’re just going to call it what we want to call it.” What would be your rebuttal to that as far as setting up something that’s apart from Nashville and Music Row?
Lynchburg, TN is not but 55 miles south of Nashville. It’s close enough to pull resources from the Nashville area, but still far enough away and separated enough to say, “Hey, this is separate. This is an alternative.” The people, the demographics that are visiting Lynchburg on a daily basis are the same people that are going to visit our Hall of Fame. It’s all about inclusion. This country is based on freedom, and I believe artists ought to have the freedom to practice their music the way they want without the almighty dollar driving their product.
In closing, I would just like to say to all the fans of Outlaw country music, thank you, and if you really want to make a difference, you have an opportunity. But you have to express your voice. You can’t just sit in your truck or in your house and say, “This sucks,” and expect it to change. If you want change, this is your opportunity. This is a grass roots movement. This is your Hall of Fame. This is your Association. If you want to support artists that made the music what it is today, and those that are continuing in that same vein, support the Hall of Fame, support the Association. Let your artists know that you support us, that you support them by supporting us. This is only going to work if the average fan stands up and says, “I’ve had enough. I want a hand in what I listen to.”
So many of pop country’s celebrities have such a vacuous amount of life skills, without being propped up as pretty faces by the country music industry, they’d be clueless in the real world. Others probably have some skills outside of singing into Auto-tuners at concerts, and that’s probably what they should be doing instead of trying to be artists.
Always wanting to be helpful here at Saving Country Music, we have compiled some ideas/suggestions of what some big pop country stars could do if they had to find other employment.
Star: Justin Moore
Yes, because he’s barely tall enough to ride the Tilt-A-Whirl, and is no more than 95 pounds soaking wet. Gotta work what God gave you.
Star: Joe Diffie
Profession: Mall Cop
“No Mr. Diffie, no need to cut the mullet or shave the mustache. You’ll fit right in here at The Shops at Westcreek.”
Star: Gary LeVox of Rascal Flatts
Profession: Gynecologist / Youth Minister / Celebrity Chef / Professional Karaoke Singer
I know, quite a breadth of professions. But with hair that great, the possibilities are endless!
Star: Brantley Gilbert
Profession: MMA-World Ball Sack Sniffer
He can pump iron and down copious amounts of steroids, but doesn’t have the instincts or smarts to actually handle it mono e mono in the octagon. So he stands in a corner with a towel thrown over his shoulder, holding a water bottle, waiting to wipe up a nosebleed and maybe pick off a sloppy second groupie stumbling away from one of the contenders.
Star: Brain Kelley of Florida Georgia Line
Profession: Mannequin / Wallflower
Doesn’t really sing, doesn’t really play guitar. This dude does less than Congress.
Star: Colt Ford
Profession: Grimmace at McDonaldland / Transvestite Truck Driver
I don’t know what mental image is more disturbing: Colt Ford cooped up in a big purple suit (just imagine the butt sweat), or his rippling thighs confined by fishnets, with a dash of eau de toilette perfuming his pasty inner thighs. (Worth noting he tried his hand at professional golf for a while.)
Star: Luke Bryan
Profession: Male Stripper
You may want to check the ID’s on some of those girls, Luke.
Star: Gretchen Wilson
Profession: Leg Breaker / Diesel Mechanic
She can beat you at arm wrestling, or strip down an engine and machine your headers all before lunch.
Star: Dave Haywood of Lady Antebellum
Profession: Non-threatening male elementary school teacher / puppeteer
Has there ever been a more emasculated star in the history of country music?
Profession: Roided-out, AA-level, baseball wash out
Aldean actually almost went to college on a baseball scholarship and had some moderate skills in that direction. Our ears could’ve only been so lucky….
Star: Kenney Chesney
Profession: Sandals / flowery shorts model
Oh great, yet another damn song about hanging out on the beach. And what the hell’s going on in this photo? Does he even have pants on?
Star: Blake Shelton
Profession: Manure Shoveler
After all, isn’t that what his initials stand for?
When Billboard announced new rules on how the songs on their “Hot 100″ country chart would be tabulated, it caused a tizzy amongst folks who pay attention to these sorts of things. But the average Joe fans out there may have a little trouble understanding why the issue is something they should care about, and how it could negatively affect the music they enjoy. Make no mistake about it, I and many other folks who keep an eye on music charts as part of our jobs believe that these new rules could cause the largest wholesale power shift to superstars that music has ever seen, while sending the already existing trend of genres coagulating into on big mono-genre into hyperspeed.
There are many losers in the new Billboard format, and what I have been struggling with since they were announced is to name the winners. On the surface, they are the superstar names like Taylor Swift and Mumford & Sons, but at the same time the new rules take away the power of these artists to control the amount of attention their music receives over time. The new rules render the the music “single” virtually irrelevant since they include digital download data for songs that haven’t been released in single form.
Below are detailed explanations of how the new Billboard chart rules could affect you as a music fan.
As Fans of Major Country Music Stars with No Crossover Appeal
Not just small, up-and-coming artists will be affected by the new rules. Huge, major country music mega-franchises are feeling the effects already. Taylor Swift songs rocketed up the charts to #1, #2, and #10 when the rules were implemented, while Miranda Lambert’s latest single “Fastest Girl In Town” for example went for #9 to #16, Jason Aldean’s “Take A Little Ride” went from #1 to #5, and Toby Keith got knocked out of the Top 25 all together.
If the new rules hold, you can almost guarantee labels and artists will begin to produce more “crossover” songs to take advantage of the revised format, meaning more pop-oriented country songs, more pop songs that call themselves country, and more non-country artists “going country” to take advantage of the new rules.
Meanwhile artists as far ranging as George Strait and Alan Jackson, to Justin Moore and Brantley Gilbert will have trouble getting their singles to attain chart success. Only artists with crossover appeal, or top tier superstar artists who can really drive digital sales will get any advantage from the new format, and will likely completely monopolize the chart with most or all of the songs off a new album once it is released, just like Mumford & Sons is doing in rock right now (see below), and Taylor Swift will do in a couple of weeks when she releases her new album Red.
It is a very real possibility that upon Red’s release, Taylor Swift will own every single top spot on Billboard’s country chart. Literally she could have #1 thru #16 sewed up because of the amount of downloads the songs and album will receive upon release.
Mainstream artists still in the developmental phase of their career can pretty much kiss goodbye any chance of having a breakout single rocket up the charts. The top of the charts will be so locked down with crossover artists, and the middle of the charts filled with names that used to be at the top, it will be nearly impossible to break through. The one exception seen on the charts so far is Florida Georgia Line’s song “Cruise”. Florida Georgia Line, like Taylor Swift, is signed to Big Machine Records, clearly one big winner under the new rules, at least on the surface.
As Fans Of Independent/ Underground Music
I bristle at the idea that none of this matters to folks who don’t listen to the radio or mainstream music, that this is a bunch of hubbub not worth caring about because their favorite bands don’t have a shot on the charts anyway. That’s like saying you don’t care that 20% of the country doesn’t have jobs because you do. If you are a fan of music, and music being better than worse, then these rules will effect you. Sure, not everybody needs to get exercised over the issue or get involved if that’s not their thing, but to get annoyed that other people are or to act like the issue is irrelevant is an exercise in musical elitism.
Everyone has a right to good music, and every artist with true artistic talent has a right to make a living off that music. Fair, equitable charts are one tool to help make that possible. Charts that pander to incumbent superstars and crossover material get in the way of talent development and discovery by both fans and industry.
And the truth is, Billboard’s charts do matter to many of independent/underground fans’ favorite artists. When Hank Williams III’s Damn Right, Rebel Proud debuted at #2 on Billboard, upstaging albums from Taylor Swift and Darius Rucker, this was a huge victory for underground country. Red Dirt albums from folks like Cody Canada and Jason Eady have recently received chart play, and the elevated name recognition from both fans and industry the accolade conveys. Maybe one of the best feel good stories in country music in 2012 is Will Hoge’s song “Even If It Breaks You Heart” that became a #1 hit for Eli Young Band. This song and many others written by honest, hard working, and relatively obscure songwriters will likely never get the recognition they did before under the new format.
The royalties a small-time songwriter can receive even off of one song can set them up for life. It can take a struggling artist from being poor and having to work part-time jobs, to being able to make moderate living off of music. It can also take a musician already making a moderate living off of music to the point where they can afford to raise a family, pay for health health insurance, own instead of rent their home, etc. And I don’t want to hear anyone say they want their favorite artists to stay poor so they continue to write good songs. Being poor should be a choice for an artist to make if they decide that is where they draw their inspiration from, not some benevolent state-of-being foisted upon them by the industry.
The fight might not be yours and that’s fine. But that doesn’t mean the fight is not worth waging to make the overall music world a better place.
As Fans of Rock, R&B/Hip-Hop, Latin, & Other Genres
That’s right, the counting of crossover radio plays isn’t just affecting country, but other genres as well. You thought Taylor Swift benefited from a chart boost under the new rules? Rihanna’s song “Diamonds” went from #66 on the R&B/Hip-Hop chart before the changes, all the way to #1. Why? Because it is being played on pop radio too.
And the same monopolizing of charts that we see in country with Taylor Swift is happening in the rock charts, only worse. Mumford & Sons have the #5, #10, #11, #12, #13, #14, #15, #19, #20, #21, #22, #23 songs on the rock chart right now. Literally every song on their new album Babel is charting. This is based on the strength of digital downloads, but only one of the songs, “I Will Wait” has actually been released as a single.
As Fans of Taylor Swift
Oh, so you think that Taylor Swift is the big winner under this new system? In some respects she is, but in others this brings the country pop princess under renewed scrutiny.
First off, Taylor Swift doesn’t need the additional attention having multiple songs at the top of the country charts brings her. She’s already in the public eye, enjoying the utmost exposure any artist will ever get from media. Her new album Red will be the best-selling debut in 2012, trust me, and probably by 200,000-400,000 copies.
So what does Taylor Swift’s chart success bring her? Additional scrutiny. What are the two big knocks on Taylor Swift? That she can’t sing and she’s not country; the latter already at the top of public debate because she released a succinctly pop song and another “dub-step-inspired” tune off her new album. Taylor Swift doesn’t have to worry about creating exposure for herself, she has to worry about managing the exposure she’s already getting, lest that exposure turns into overexposure, backlash, and burnout of her brand. The new system doesn’t allow her to do that because it takes away the power of the radio single.
Numerous times in the past, Taylor Swift’s career has been diagnosed with overexposure. This happened with Taylor shortly after the 2010 Grammy Awards; the whole off-pitch singing situation with Stevie Nicks that led to her panning by critics across the country and her writing the song “Mean”. Afterwards, even the “Country Music Anti-Christ,” Taylor’s label owner Scott Borchetta admitted she was over-exposed, and was happy she was headed to Australia for a tour, and then on a hiatus from the public eye.
The Australian dates had been planned all along, but it actually worked out great…as far as the talking head of Taylor Swift, that one’s gone into hiding for a little bit, at least on this continent.
Another overexposure moment happened in September of 2009 when Kanye West accosted Swift at the MTV Awards. Just in August, Spencer Cain of StyleCaster asked if Taylor Swift has become overexposed from her previous episodes and her recent headlines for dating an 18-year-old Kennedy son.
When Taylor Swift’s new album Red is released and every single song charts under the new Billboard protocols, it could cause massive negative exposure to Taylor Swift’s career. Meanwhile the benefits Taylor Swift receives from her chart success are only parliamentary, etching her name as the best-selling songstress of this moment in time, but not effecting her sales, or her success overall.
Fake country music “Outlaw” Justin Moore has been served papers for a copyright infringement lawsuit stemming from his 2009 laundry list song “Backwoods” released on his debut self-titled album. Also named in the suit is the Country Music Anti-Christ Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Records label who released the song.
Louisiana fiddle player Britton Curry and songwriter Bobby Carmichael claim that they wrote the song in 2003, and registered the song with the US Copyright Office. When attempting to sell the song in Nashville in 2005, Curry and Carmichael say that another songwriter Jamie Paulin “heard and/or secured the song” and took it for his own. Jamie Paulin, along with Justin Moore are listed as co-writers on “Backwoods”, along with Jeremy Stover who is a co-writer on many of Moore’s songs. Apparently the original song has nearly identical lyrics, pitch, and rhythm to “Backwoods”. “The lawsuit speaks for itself,” says Bobby Carmichael’s attorney.
Carmichael and Curry are asking for $150,000 each for each copyright infringement on the song. “Backwoods” has been downloaded 300,000 times, rose to #6 on the Billboard country chart, and the album it appears on has sold half a million copies.
Justin Moore inserted himself right in the middle of the debate about country music’s “new Outlaws” when he released an album and song called “Outlaw Like Me” in June of 2011. The album was generally panned by critics (including this one) for being rife with country music stereotypes and laundry list songs, just like “Backwoods”.
Alright, so we’ve all now had our yucks over this story of a naked Randy Travis being arrested, and I am certainly not above guilt, but I am seeing some fairly alarming rhetoric surrounding this story that I feel is unhealthy to the country music environment. The details of the story may be funny, but the incident is not. Celebrity or no, Randy Travis is a human being who is clearly going through a moment of crisis in his life. And just because he engaged in some illegal behavior shouldn’t give him some additional cred in country music, or somehow means he’s now a country music “Outlaw.”
We expect our celebrities to live larger than life, so that we can too, through them, vicariously. Forget that most artist and performer types are already predisposed to being more susceptible to things like substance abuse and self-destructive behavior, society also sells to them that as artists, they must suffer for their art to be inspired and authentic. It is true that much great art has come from suffering, but it is also true that great art comes from dedication, perseverance, and sweat. And as much as society likes to perch celebrities up on unrealistic pedestals, we also love to tear them down when they trip, in moments of empathetic vacuousness, clawing at them with our jealousy and spite to feel better about ourselves. This is the vicious pop cycle I like to allude to upon occasion, and just like Taylor Swift once said in a famous song, “The cycle ends right now.” Or at least it does here for me.
Are we so diseased in country music that we actually think more of our stars when their lives become a wreck to the point where they’re laying naked in the middle of the road and making death threats to law enforcement? Is this behavior cool? Is this a fate you would wish upon yourself or any of your friends or family? Getting drunk and doing stupid shit may sound like a country song, but facing felonies and a ruined career and loss of a sense of self-worth are very real issues. It is one of the reasons we have a 27 Club, and why suicides and overdoses are such a heavy burden on the celebrity population.
And us lay civilians love to sit back and say, “Oh yeah, you have it real tough with all that money and fame.” But money and fame are broken promises, and many times don’t help pad a celebrity’s fall, they fuel it.
And for the folks saying Randy Travis’s recent troubles make him an “Outlaw” are only fueling the misconceptions of what a country music Outlaw is. I conceded long ago that accurately defining the “Outlaw” term will be a battle of evermore, but trust me, Randy Travis is no more an Outlaw now than he was in 2011, before his drunken behavior was writing headlines.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, a country music Outlaw has nothing to do with legalities. The original Outlaws–Bobby Bare, Tompall Glaser, and Kris Kristofferson–were not lawbreakers, nor was Willie Nelson until later in life when he was hit with a few stupid and unnecessary pot arrests. Waylon Jennings positively hated the term “Outlaw” and blamed it for his legal woes when the federalies trailed a package of cocaine from New York to the studio where he was recording, later memorialized in the song “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit Done Got Outta Hand?”
A country music Outlaw is one that bucks the traditional Music Row, old-guard way of music production by writing their own songs, recording with their own bands, and calling their own shots. Lyrical content and personal behavior are not completely autonomous to the “Outlaw” country image thanks to artists like Johnny Paycheck and David Allan Coe, but the foundation of a country music “Outlaw” has to do with the business of music, not behavior.
Furthermore, the ignorant assertion that personal behavior does influence a country artist’s “Outlaw” status is what is partly fueling this ridiculous and slanderous use of the term by the crop of “new Outlaws” (Eric Church, Justin Moore, Brantley Gilbert, etc.) who think just because they drink too much, talk about fighting, and put women with big tits in their videos they’re carrying on Willie and Waylon’s legacy. Please. Willie Nelson is a pacifist, and probably respects women more than most women respect themselves these days. Being an Outlaw in country means being yourself, and bucking the trends instead of pandering to them. As Sturgill Simpson says, “The most Outlaw thing that a man today can do is give a woman a ring.”
And through this incident, were seeing the rewriting of Randy Travis’s music legacy. Some folks who come to country from the outside looking in are all of a sudden giving his music another look after laughing him off as pop before just because they recognized the name and it wasn’t Johnny Cash, while judgmental types are saying they always knew there was a screw loose with him and they wouldn’t bring themselves down to listening to him again.
This incident didn’t change Randy’s music one bit. Randy has never received enough credit for spearheading both the new push of neo-traditional country and the commercial resurgence of the genre in the late 80′s. One can make the case he set the table for Garth Brooks and country’s return to the stadium and superstar status, without selling out himself.
Randy Travis has given a ton to the country music community, and now in his time of need, it is time for the country music community to give back in the form of support, forgiveness, and understanding.
Whatever is troubling Randy Travis, I hope he works through it to continue to provide the world great country music, and to grow as a person, and as an artist.
Thank you Randy Travis for your music and your service to country music. And even if you’re called home tomorrow, rest assured your legacy is secured in country music, and that it is a positive one.
As frequent readers of Saving Country Music will attest, over the years we’ve christened fun little nicknames for some our favorite pals of pop country. If you ever wondered where these names came from and why, here’s the explanation behind some of our favorite terms of antipathy.
Tim McGraw and his plastic hat were the first to cross a big line with cross marketing in country music, beginning with his signature line of poof poof, and stretching all the way to Ken dolls (with a matching Barbie for his celeb wife Faith Hill) and now a new line of headphones of all things. Look out Dr. Dre! McGraw is unafraid to show his metrosexual side, and has blazed trails for both the marketing of a country music name, and the threshold of effiminacy the country music public is willing to put up with from their male stars. Yes, Tim McGraw: the trailblazer that gives a new meaning to toilet water, and the purveyor of country music’s version of yacht rock.
He’s the godfather of country rap who stole both Hank Jr. and Sheryl Crow’s dignity, and apparently is also responsible for convincing Arron Lewis of Staind to get into country music. We’d call him the king of trash, but he would take that as a term of endearment, so hopefully this nickname conveys the scuzzy, soiled fedora, eyelids at half-mast, twice-baked, incest-with-a-second-cousin-next-to-a-muddy-lake, greesy-haired burnout that Kid Rock is. Just like a wet cigarette, he is both tacky and disappointing.
Affliction and Tap Out T-shirts, $180 designer jeans with manufactured rips and Gothic crosses embroidered on the ass pockets, offensive amounts of Axe body spray quaffed over glistening and exquisitely-tanned and waxed bare chests contoured by only the best metabolic steroids money can buy, this is the Brantley Gilbert target demographic. Pull your baseball cap down tight over your eyes, wear your shirt two sizes too small, act too cool to complete your sentences, and buy a penis pump under an assumed name and you too can be a country music douche just like Brantley Gilbert. He is the Nickelback of country music.
Oh how beautiful the irony is that the man with the big tough domestic truck endorsement plays guitars painted with the Ford logos and American flags that are in fact made in Korea. According to my buddy at the Seoul food restaurant down the street, “Takamine” is Korean for “big fat American sellout.” Who is the country star with the highest income in all the genre? Not Taylor Swift, not Lady Antebellum or Rascal Flatts. No, it’s Toby Keith, primarily from his Ford Truck endorsement. It’s a good thing those Ford Trucks have best-in-class payload to haul all that money to Toby Keith’s house, and the tons of pride and dignity they get from Toby in return.
As the former DreamWorks executive turned founder and CEO of Big Machine Records (originally started with The Ford Truck Man Toby Keith), he’s the primary person responsible for the success of Taylor Swift and Justin Moore, the two most responsible parties for the erosion of the terms “country” and “Outlaw” respectively. Sure, country has always had pop in its ranks, but Taylor is where it became acceptable to use country terms and outlets for music that was pop and pop only, and opened the door for acts like Lady Antebellum and Lionel Richie. Same goes for Justin Moore and his Outlaws Like Me album (possibly the worst album ever) that jumped the shark for the “Outlaw” term.
Ironically, Borchetta and Big Machine are one of the few labels that actually extend a measure of creative freedom to their artists and have become one of the most successful label models on Music Row. But make no mistake, Scott Borchetta is where country music lost control of the purity of its terms.
Colt Ford – The Country Music Grimmace
Preying on the low self esteem and pandering to the least common denominator, Colt Ford has made a million dollars while admittedly having no skill, no talent, and not even taking himself or his music seriously. Appealing to like-minded souls who possess his same specific lack of skills and overweight body type, he peddles the most gratuitous version of filth to disenfranchised cultural frontrunners in America’s rural areas. No vertical stripes can save him, his morbidly-obese, pear-shaped body is proof that country rap is a cause of obesity.
Eric Church has been stirring the pot quite a bit lately, calling out Blake Shelton & Miranda Lambert amongst others in a recent Rolling Stone article for their reality show past, before issuing an apology that was curiously devoid of an apology to Blake Shelton, the main protagonist of Church’s criticisms.
Now as Church continues to make the media rounds in support of his current tour with Brantley Gilbert, he stopped to talk to American Songwriter where the topic of being an “Outlaw” came up. Church is regularly lumped with the crop of “new Outlaws” that can include people as varying as Justin More and Gretchen Wilson, to Jamey Johnson.
Justin Moore famously proclaimed himself an “Outlaw” on his album Outlaws Like Me, to the chagrin of many. But Eric has been smart heretofore of straddling the Outlaw line, allowing others to use the term when referring to him, but stopping short of using the term on himself to be insulated from any backlash. For example, at the CMA awards in November, Brad Paisley introduced Eric as “country’s latest Outlaw” before his performance.
These award shows are so choreographed and exquisitely planned, it is ridiculous to think that Church’s management was not at least briefed on how he would be introduced. Church has certainly never refuted that term when it has been used to describe him. Until now:
American Songwriter: People have been calling you an outlaw. Is that an image you’ve tried to create for yourself?
Eric Church: Oh god. No! Not at all. I think we get thrown into that category because of our career path. For a long time, it wasn’t cool to play the kind of music we did. It wasn’t cool to talk about what we talked about. We were pariahs, and when we got fired from the Rascal Flatts tour, we were troublemakers. I think that’s where the outlaw name comes from, but I prefer to think there’s already been an outlaw movement, and I think we can leave it at that. I’m not into branding what we do, because that just sensationalizes things, when it should be about the music.
Yet as one Saving Country Music reader named Chris easily sniffed out, a quick check of Eric Church’s website finds a whole page dedicated to “Outlaw” branding, with “a brand new “Outlaw T-Shirt” now available for sale in the online store, which features Eric’s signature Skull logo. Be one of the first to own it!”
Ouch. Sucks to miss that one. And these products were added in July 2011, so there no back pedal of saying there was a breakdown in communication with his merch store.
But in classic Eric Church fashion, he keeps open the idea of plausible deniability by not directly calling himself an “Outlaw”. Or as I’ve said before Eric Church Wants It Both Ways.
Meanwhile the beautiful “Outlaw” term and how it pertains to country music continues to be besmirched where even the most loyal “Outlaw” fans want to take the term behind the barn and put it out of its misery like an old dog with cataracts and arthritis in its legs and a tumor the size of a tennis ball clogging its airway.
It’s a shame, because when it comes to country radio, there is much worse than Eric Church. But his continuing missteps and insistence on image, Outlaw or otherwise, continues to make him very hard to like.
The war vs. pop influences and progress in country music, and the purity yearned for by the traditional elements of the genre is almost as old as the genre itself. The introduction of electric instruments on The Grand Ole Opry stage, drummers in country outfits, it was all met with stiff resistance from purists in their time. Steel guitar might be one of the most identifiably “country” elements in music, but think what shock must have ran through traditionalists’ minds in the late 40′s when the appeal of this strange electrified sound was brought back from Polynesia by WWII GI’s.
This continuous country music cold war tends to go hot periodically, as it did over the last couple of weeks. The ACM Awards, a following brushup pitting Miranda Lambert and Justin Moore against Ashton Kutcher, followed by a prominent Fox News story on the matter, had the old standard battle lines being cast, and like most battles in the culture war these days, both sides being defined by extremes as opposed to a more true measure of feelings, creating a polarized environment where little understanding could be garnered.
So in an attempt to power through the rhetoric, here is a cool-headed attempt to explain some of the differences between the traditional and mainstream mindsets, a detailed look at the term “progress” and how it relates to country music, and how it all relates to radio, still the most important medium for relaying country music to listeners.
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“There needs to be more old stuff on country radio”
“Nobody wants to hear that old stuff on country radio”
Country radio is the real battleground in the country music war. Radio programming is reflected at country awards shows, and that is why they become battlegrounds as well. When the argument is made that more older music, or more traditional-sounding new music needs to be on country radio, the reaction from mainstream and pop country fans usually is that country music needs to “progress” (see below) and that the old stuff is outdated.
You can’t argue taste when it comes to music, but it is impossible to argue against statistics, and the statistics released by Edison Research at the Country Radio Seminar in Nashville this February conclusively state that country radio is on a dramatic downhill trend, and that one of the reasons is because country music’s big traditionalist demographics are being undeserved.
Conversely, traditionalists that think that pop country has no place on country radio and that they should only play Hank, Cash, Willie, and Waylon are doing just as much of a disservice. By saying the current radio formula needs to swing in the complete opposite direction and wholesale eliminate pop influences, they negatively typecast the more common pragmatic traditionalist argument that is simply looking for balance. Country music and radio has always had pop influences, even in the 50′s, and it must continue to. A complete flip of the radio format would in turn disenfranchise the mainstream audience and put radio on just as much of an unsustainable path.
That is why balance and quality is what must be strived for on country radio. As Edison Research pointed out, at this moment there is an imbalance towards the pop or mainstream. Something commonly misunderstood by mainstream fans is that just because something is “traditional” country doesn’t mean it needs to be classic or “old”. There are scores of traditional, neo-traditional, post-punk, and progressive country artists putting out relevant, commercially-viable music receiving little or no mainstream radio play. Touching on all of country’s current styles, along with paying homage to its roots with a classic song or two, with an overall emphasis of showcasing the the best and most appealing music the genre has to offer is the way radio, and in turn country music, can preserve its viability as a medium.
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“Country music must progress”
This is the argument commonly made by pop country fans whenever traditionalists and purists push back on pop, rap, or other influences entering the genre. However “pop” doesn’t necessarily translate into progression. It many times results in regression. You can have progress in country music while still keeping the music firmly attached to its roots. That exact formula was what “alt-country” was founded on, with artists like Uncle Tupelo, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, and Bela Fleck. A term often used in exchange for “alt-country” is “progressive country”. Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Townes Van Zandt were also labeled as progressive country in their day.
One of the reasons progressive country came into existence is because the progressive approach was met with resistance from both the pop-oriented, commercial influences of the country music business, and traditionalists. But many alt-country artists went in the alt direction in the 80′s because they were embarrassed of the way country’s roots were being treated by the mainstream country genre. And the mainstream, by not showcasing or attempting to re-intergrate the tremendous talent gravitating to the alt-country world, found itself in one of its darkest periods in regards to both commercial success and artistic appeal.
Today there are many great country artists with progressive approaches to the music, yet they must compete with pop, and now hip-hop oriented “country” acts that many times frame country music in a submissive role to these other genres and are leading to the formation of a mono-genre.
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“Tradition is important in country music”
More than in any other genre of music, tradition and a tie to the roots of the music is a vital element that makes country music work. My favorite illustration of this is to compare it to religions, and compare country music to the Jewish faith. Anybody can be Christian or Muslim as long as they are believers in that faith, but being Jewish is just as much a culture and a bloodline as it is a belief.
Country is a roots genre that other genres are derived from, with a pure bloodline running through its past, just like the blues. Rock & roll for example has always been an amalgam of blues, rockabilly, country, and other influences. Hip-hop was founded on borrowing beats and modes from other genres. Country did draw from other influences too, but it also ties its traditions into its sonic structures and lyrical themes with the nostalgia and reflection found in its songs. The traditions and roots are fundamental elements of the style, just like the rapping of hip-hop, or the back beat of rock & roll.
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Without the tradition and roots of country in the music, it begins to fall apart as an art form. Without any pop or other outside influences in country, it begins to lose its commercial viability. The war for the heart of country music will continue on, but what must not is the imbalance favoring pop that has paralleled the most daunting and undeniable decline in the country music industry in its history.
Like the most awful of childhood memories, I’ve attempted to suppress my recollections and thoughts of this year’s ACM Awards into the deepest and darkest recesses of my psyche, but like a bad acid reflux condition, the bile keeps rising. Yesterday Fox News contacted me for some quotes on a story entitled: Some country music fans say Ashton Kutcher not offensive, popular country music is. After the ACM’s, both Miranda Lambert and Justin Moore took to Twitter to call out Ashton Kutcher for “making fun of country music” after he showed up dressed more country than anyone else on the night, and then sang a portion of a George Strait song out-of-tune.
Miranda Lambert, who received her “Female Artist of the Year” award from Ashton as presenter, tweeted, “Was Ashton Kutcher making fun of country or is it just me? Watching it back now and I’m kinda wondering?” and the very vertically-addled Justin Moore said, “Seen Ashton kutcher at the acms tonight. What a douche! I don’t care for people making a mockery of the way country artists’ dress.” Ashton responded to Miranda, ““I Am One Of The biggest country Music fans you’ve ever met,” he tweeted at Lambert. “Wasn’t making fun at all.”
As one who admittedly over-reacts to any affront on country music, I found Ashton Kutcher’s appearance innocuous at the worst on Sunday night. I can think of a dozen more offensive elements on the ACMs than Ashton, an actor on a sitcom, coming out and attempting to be entertaining in a funny manner because that is what all of us expect from him. He’s one of the leads on a show notorious for his penis jokes and banal humor.
I found the appearance by KISS in their full spandex and cod piece regalia significantly more offensive and out-of-place, and Carrie Underwood’s opening strip-tease number way more out of line with country’s character. So were appearances by Marc Anthony, Bono, and Lionel Ritchie. Couldn’t the ACMs given that face time to some country legends that deserve it more in that platform, or some up-and-coming country artists that could have benefited from that exposure? Sure, Ashton had no business being on the ACMs either, but he has a show on CBS who broadcast the ACM’s, and this is why he was there, and therein lies the problem with today’s Network TV environment.
Cross marketing is crippling live events on television–this idea that these big events draw enough traffic that you can justify ostensibly embedded commercials into their content with no recourse. Nothing is a bigger ass whip than watching a sports show when some leggy peroxide blonde hops into the broadcasting booth and is attempting to explain the plot of her new TV crime drama romantic comedy show set in a distopian world while the sports commentators attempt to interject info about what’s happening on the field.
The reason KISS was at the awards is because they’re attempting to resurrect their careers with Motley Crue on a new upcoming dual tour. Apparently CBS and washed up hair bands have carte blanch control over the content of a country awards show.
People who actually care about the roots and purity of country music keep waiting for that one Armageddon moment where country music will so cross over the line that the “pop sensibilities” and the “fake Outlaw” motif will all come crumbling down and they will be forced to return to the roots of the genre. With the continued backlash from the ACMs stretching well into this week, we very well may point back to Sunday night as Waterloo in the future. But I’m not holding my breathe, and even if it was the “big moment” and the reset button was pushed, be sure country music will figure out how to screw it up again even when there has been a resurgence back to the roots. It is a cyclical nature, and one can only pray to the ghost of Johnny Cash that the cycle is back on the upswing.
But truly, the 2012 ACM awards offered very few redeeming values, maybe Brad Paisley’s performances, maybe a few other things. But Carrie Underwood’s performance was the worst. Two years in a row now (last year it was a duet with Steven Tyler), Carrie Underwood has played the ACM’s puppet to open the show with the most pop, and most sensational display possible to attempt to draw in non-country genre viewers for the duration of the night.
In the 5 years of Saving Country Music, I have never had the need to call out Carrie Underwood, even last year I gave her a pass because in general, despite her American Idol past and how pop she may or may not be, she’s been a genuine, honest performer. But her persona is of the girl next door, the simple country girl, and when she gets up there in lingerie, flanked by the silhouettes of naked female bodies humping the air, it just looks out of place, for Carrie and country. Hey, I love the curvatures of the female body just as much as anybody, but you don’t want to see that from sweet Carrie.
Carrie defenders (and they are many and fervent) love to point out that she’s more “country” than Taylor Swift. That may be true, but at least Taylor Swift respects herself, and is true to herself, but then again, the 2012 ACMs were a low moment for Taylor too, who I’ve come around on recently. She seemed plastic, too rehearsed and conscious of the cameras on her, and Taylor didn’t even perform. Her reaction to Blake Shelton’s joke about her dating Tim Tebow caused its own drama, and possibly my biggest take from the whole night was how Taylor had slightly tarnished her image.
Taylor Swift’s name has also been brought up in defense of Lionel Ritchie whose performance on the ACMs lasted 4X longer than the tribute to the recently-passed Earl Scruggs, because as they say Taylor Swift is not country. Well of course Taylor is not country either, and at this point saying so is just being a master of the obvious. But she is real, though that didn’t really show through at the ACMs. The issue with Lionel is the absolute drubbing the American consumer is taking from the advertising of his Tuskegee album. Lionel has a whole autonomous ACM Special coming up on April 13th, and his “country” duets” album came in at the top of the charts this week, and sold more copies than any other Lionel album since 1985. And what exactly is country about Lionel?
In the end I feel embarrassed to even be talking about all this TMZ bullshit. The water cooler talk should be about the amazing performances and the inspiring moments about an event like The ACMs. Remember how we felt after Jennifer Hudson’s performance of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” in tribute to Whitney Houston on the Grammys? There is better performances and more inspiration on a episode of American Idol these days than there was on the 2012 ACM’s, and it was because country is embarrassed about being country and attempts to make up for that by being sensational instead of being explanatory in what country is, and exemplary in the way it is presented and in its performances. Instead we have award winners calling out presenters, and fans of pop performers and fake Outlaws duking it out for who is the worst. Dammit I want to to be honored to be a country music fan, not embarrassed.
Whether we like it or not, the ACM’s represent us as country fans. That is why we can’t just sit back and let them monopolize the dialogue, we must hold their feet to the fire, and broadcast our dissent, and let the rest of the world know that this is not us, this is not country music. Country music belongs to the people, and the people of country must rise up and take their genre back before it becomes a laughing stock, and not worth fighting for.
Don’t give up on country music! It may be dark times, and the light of country music may be scattered and dim, but as long as that light lives in the heart of its true fans and musicians, it will never die, and the hope remains that someday that light will be unified in to a new Golden era for country music.
Every day I give thanks to 8 lb. 6 oz. baby Jesus that I don’t have cable, but unfortunately as the proprietor of a country music website, I find myself on CMT’s website quite often to keep a finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the mainstream country world. That’s where I was so unfortunately and indecently exposed to the trailer of an upcoming series on CMT called “My Big Redneck Vacation” beginning January 21st.
The premise appears to be to ship a bunch of yahoos from the South up to The Hamptons in New York, and have them behave like a troupe of Barnum & Baily hillbilly oddities for the bemusement of New England’s sniveling upper crust, all while middle class suburbanites sit at home and live the stereotypical corporate country life vicariously through these redneck caricatures. See for yourself:
Perpetuating negative stereotypes on television about people from the South, and people from the country in general has been going on since the medium of television was created and before, and this dumb and clearly-staged reality show is in no way either a new concept or out of character for the entertainment elitists living on the two coasts. My beef is where this particular show is coming from.
There’s a contingent of white people who love to point out how you can have Black Entertainment Television (BET), but if you had “White Entertainment Television” it would be racist. They act like it’s some deep point that hasn’t been made a million times before when they make it, when it really goes without saying. But one of the reasons BET was created was because certain black entertainers and television executives were tired of seeing blacks depicted only negatively on TV. In the beginning, BET tried to make people of color proud of who they were, reinforce positive role models, and preserve black culture and history.
Then to make money, BET went to a strictly music format. And then Viacom, the same company that owns MTV and CMT, bought them and made even more changes until the vision that BET began with was all but erased. Instead of trying to break stereotypes, BET began creating and reinforcing them. MTV has also gone through a significant programming shift, from almost strictly music videos, to almost strictly reality programming.
“My Big Redneck Vacation” is the cultural equivalent of eating your own children, and the beginning steps down the slippery slope that CMT’s Viacom brothers of BET and MTV have already traversed into the pit of cultural decay. I know some will say CMT is in cultural decay already, but the format change from music to reality, and vice versa has always been the guidepost in Viacom properties moving away from values and towards maximizing revenue. We know folks outside of the country culture are going to use negative country stereotypes as a form of entertainment, so why would we then reinforce these stereotypes by engaging in these practices ourselves?
“My Big Redneck Vacation” is no different than the Jason Aldean’s and Justin Moore’s of the world singing laundry list songs filled with banal countryisms to bored suburbanites, while ignoring the things that actually make the country life beautiful and unique.
And it almost appears that these negative country stereotypes are becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. By glorifying and showcasing stupid behavior, we’re perpetuating it. Folks are acting dumb, behaving idiotically, and eating poorly because that is what they think they need to do to be accepted, or to part of a front-running culture, even though they know it’s bad for them. They are proud of being stupid, because right now, being stupid gets you attention…
…or maybe I’m just over-reacting, or being “high fallutin’”. I’m sure that’s what the “Clampitt’s” would say.
Yesterday (1-6) the track listing and contributors for the second installment of the Waylon Jennings tribute “The Music Inside” was released to the public to a few grumbles from Waylon fans who were unhappy to see names like Colt Ford on the list, who is known for mixing country music with rap, and Justin Moore, who even legendary music journalist Chet Flippo who covered Waylon and the rest of the country music “Outlaws” back in the 70′s for Rolling Stone has inferred is a “fake Outlaw”.
Now Saving Country Music has learned from a reliable source close to Waylon Jennings’ estate that the estate has “distanced” from the choosing of some of the artists on the tribute, especially on the second disc. Waylon’s estate, made up of Waylon’s widow Jessi Coulter and his son and artist Shooter Jennings are said to have limited involvement in the project at this point, consisting of the tracks they have contributed themselves, and a few other “select choices”. Both Shooter and Jessi appeared on The Music Inside Vol.1 released in February, and Jessi appears on this second volume due out January 24th.
The Waylon Estate source also says the selection of the contributors has a lot to do with the labels releasing these volumes. Big Machine Records, Justin Moore’s record label released Vol.1, and label Average Joe’s Entertainment whose releasing Vol. 2 is home to Colt Ford and Montgomery Gentry. The Music Inside project is being managed by producer Witt Stewart (read interview with him here about the project).
There’s also questions about the timing of the release of The Music Inside, Vol.2. The series was always intended to be 3 volumes, and a total of 36 songs had been recorded by the time of the release of Vol. 1 in February. June 14th was supposed to be the release date for Vol. 2 (the day before Waylon’s birthday), and Vol. 3 was scheduled for October, along with a rumored “Christmas surprise” from the project. Now we won’t see Vol. 2 until late January, and physical copies won’t be available until February 7th. There is no updated release date for Vol. 3 currently.
Saving Country Music has learned the delay in the release occurred when the original label that signed on to release the albums, Big Machine, refused to release Vol. 2 after physical sales of Vol. 1 did not meet their expectations. Vol. 2 was picked up by Average Joe’s, but only with the stipulation that Colt Ford and Montgomery Gentry from their roster would be added as contributors. Justin Moore and Jewel were included to fulfill the project’s obligations to Big Machine, resulting in a list of contributors that looks to have more to do with Music Row politics than with who is best suited to pay tribute to Waylon Jennings.
Neither Jessi Coulter nor Shooter Jennings have come out publicly against the project, and SCM’s source close to the Waylon Estate says the family still supports the release of these volumes, but if it was left to them, a different set of contributors would have been chosen. Shooter has said in some recent interviews that he, “appreciates that the records have given a podium to many artists from many different walks of life to express their love of my dad’s music”.
Both Shooter and Jessi showed apprehension to the project at first before finally giving approval, as they explained to The Tennessean back in February when the first volume was released:
(Jessi Colter) “Frankly, sometimes it hurts my heart to hear someone do his (Waylon’s) songs.” All of which is part of why Colter was reluctant to green-light a series of three Waylon Jennings tribute albums…If Colter was reluctant to participate in such a project, Shooter Jennings was downright apprehensive … “I was leery of it, and even more guarded than my mom was. I’ve seen people with pure intentions and unrealistic goals, and I’ve seen people with agendas. And I’ve seen a Nashville system that will happily milk the ‘outlaw’ image of Waylon and other people, just so they can sell garbage.”
Please stay tuned to Saving Country Music for more information on this developing story.
Lonesome, On’ry and Mean – Dierks Bentley
Waymore’s Blues – Hank Williams, Jr.
Good Ol’ Boys – Montgomery Gentry
I Ain’t Living Long Like This – Justin Moore
Bob Wills Is Still The King – Jack Ingram
Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line – Colt Ford
Rainy Day Woman – Pat Green
Love Of The Common People – Josh Thompson
Mama – Jessi Colter
Dreaming My Dreams With You – Jewel
Wow. My little country music heart was sent reeling this morning when I rolled up to the track list and list of contributors for the new Waylon – The Music Inside, Vol. 2 compilation due out January 24th. The thing read like my lampoon of the unfinished Hank Williams songs, but unfortunately it is all too real folks.
Included in the list of contributors is the country music Grimmace, the genre-bending country rapper Colt Ford, Justin Moore, a man I could make a serious case as being the worst country music “artist” ever, Josh Thompson, who I once took to task for name-dropping Waylon, the 4th Rascal Flatt, Texas’s King of Hair Highlights, the effeminate Pat Green, along with the dumb duo Montgomery Gentry, and Jewel. And I’m telling you, Jewel might be the best pick of the lot.
I had mixed feelings about the first volume of these tributes, but this is clearly a helpless cry for relevancy. I know the old philosophy is to try to bring in people who would not be traditional Waylon fans through other artists and covert them through his music, but the closest Colt Ford and Justin Moore fans will ever get to Waylon is snorting crushed Loritab off the back of one of his CD cases.
I am honestly just in shock right now. I don’t know if I should laugh or cry. Really what this track list means is that we still have a lot of work to do folks. A lot.
Lonesome, On’ry and Mean – Dierks Bentley
Waymore’s Blues – Hank Williams, Jr.
Good Ol’ Boys – Montgomery Gentry
I Ain’t Living Long Like This – Justin Moore
Bob Wills Is Still The King – Jack Ingram
Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line – Colt Ford
Rainy Day Woman – Pat Green
Love Of The Common People – Josh Thompson
Mama – Jessi Colter
Dreaming My Dreams With You – Jewel
I’m sure every year since the early 90′s it would be easy to look back and say this is the worst year for mainstream country music ever. This may be the sign of a continuing downward trend, or a common symptom of the human condition that doesn’t allow us to look big picture. But what I can say for sure is that I never recall a year with this high caliber of a crop of bad songs. This group can hold their own against the Achy Breaky Hearts and Honky Tonk Bandonka Donk’s of the last few decades.
And this year might be the first that songs do well not in spite of being stupid, but because they are stupid as the thirst for irony in modern society seems to have no end. When taking a step back and trying to find the worst songs from the year, you can see 2011 will go down as the year when the laundry list country song perpetuated by the over-bravado doucher “New Outlaw” ruled the roost.
5. Brantley Gilbert – Country Must Be Country Wide
Unlike the other songs on this list, this one from the official “Country Music Douche” doesn’t have you reaching for a brown paper bag or running to the bathroom to unload your lunch, it’s more just insulting to the intelligence of the listener when you try to decipher the lyrics. This song is nothing more than a vehicle to drop transparent countryisms that people immersed in the corporate country culture expect to hear in their songs. And that’s the problem, they hear this song, but they don’t listen to it. Because if they did, they’d discover real quick it is an incongruent pile of leavings from a large farm animal. (read song review)
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4. Beer Time – Justin Moore
Double vomit. “Beer Time” proves that this 5’6″ pip squeak has as hard of a time performing an honest, heartfelt song as he does reaching the wine glasses on the top shelf of the cupboard. I picked this song because of it’s spectacular aptitude of soaring to new heights of suckitude, but really you can pick just about any song on his ridiculously-named Outlaws Like Me album and chances are it will be just as bad. (read review for Outlaws Like Me album)
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3. Toby Keith – Red Solo Cup
That’s right ladies and gentleman, raise your red solo cups high, and let’s all toast the onset of idiocracy! A dumb song, and an even dumber video expose Toby Keith as a business man and marketing guru first, then an artist. Toby owns the Show Dog Universal record label responsible for 2 of the 5 songs on this list. You have to give him credit for his cunning use and understanding of modern media: make a stupid viral video for an even more stupid song and you have the spoon fed public eating out of his hands. And just because Toby Keith admits this song is stupid, doesn’t mean it’s still not in fact stupid. I’d rather shit red solo cup shards than have my ears exposed to this audio abortion. (read “Red Solo Cup”: Bad is the New Good)
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2. Trace Adkins – Brown Chicken Brown Cow
Sexualized puppets and sexual innuendo specifically targeted towards children, this song is the lowest of the low. Toby Keith and Show Dog Universal should have know better when Trace twisted their arm to release this as a single. The pony-tailed baritone with a million-dollar voice and a 10 cent brain had delusions this would finally be the follow up to his blockbuster and the undisputed heavyweight champion of all awful pop country songs “Honky Tonk Badonka Donk”, but he was wrong. Trace may be every pop country-loving soccer mom’s sexual fantasy, but this song sucked so bad even Trace was eventually forced to admit defeat and pull it from radio.
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1. Jason Aldean – Dirt Road Anthem
This is it folks, this is the one. It is where the mono-genre went from theory to practice. And this song didn’t just partake in the previously-taboo mixing of country and rap in the mainstream format, it blew right through the barrier and kept on going until it became the best-selling, most-important, and most-influential song in all of 2011. All the others songs on this list are just stupid or silly or just downright bad, but this one is certifiably hurtful and dangerous when it comes to the integrity of country music. Like Garth Brooks flying over the crowd at Texas Stadium or Olivia Newton-John’s CMA win, we will look back at Dirt Road Anthem’s dominance of 2011 as a big black eye, and possibly the beginning of something even worse for the genre. (read song review)
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Dishonorable Mention: Taylor Swift’s immature “Mean” and Martina McBride’s mawkish “I’m Gonna Love You Through It”.
Ahead of Shooter Jennings’ January release of his new album Family Man, he has released the song an accompanying video for the composition “Outlaw You”. Simply put, this is a shot right to the gut of Music Row, and specifically, this crop of “New Outlaws” (Justin Moore, Josh Thompson, etc.) invading country music.
This isn’t just another anti-Nashville protest song. This is Charlie Rich burning the envelope with John Denver’s name in it on the 1975 CMA awards. This is Alan Jackson launching into George Jones’ “Choices” at the 1999 CMA awards. This is Merle Haggard telling CBS Records executive Rick Blackburn ““Who do you think you are? You’re the son-of-a-bitch that sat at that desk over there and fired Johnny Cash.” It rises to the level of these historic moments in country music history because it not only contains bravado, it also contains class, and truth.
The song is structured similar to Shooter’s pre-Black Ribbons‘ era sound with the .357′s: a mix of country and Southern rock, starting off with fiddle and banjo, but then favoring the heavier guitar sound, and a rapid-fire lyrical approach. The lyrics are undeniable witty, poignant, and pointed, and Shooter uses an extended chorus to create tension to give the title lyric of the song optimum payoff. In the middle, the sound empties for emphasis, as Shooter gives an Outlaw history lesson with his best asset, his soulful voice, buoyed with heavy breathing and rising passion.
I guess it is pretty predictable that I would eat this song up, but what takes a good song and makes it great is a universal theme that in some way enhances the human experience by the end. Even if you like the current “New Outlaws”, even if you’re not in tune enough with the New Outlaw movement for the words to bite with truth, even if you hate Shooter Jennings, the universal message to be true to yourself and what’s inside of you is still effective. This isn’t an anti-”New Outlaw” song, it is an uplifting song about being true to yourself, using the “New Outlaw” movement as a backdrop, and an example.
Critics of Shooter, of which there are many, will find their holes in this song, possibly saying this is an attempt to exploit the anti-Nashville backlash that can be found growing throughout the county, and on sites like this one, to possibly create publicity for his XXX movement. Shooter has reached out to me to let me know Saving Country Music was one of the inspirations behind this song. I called for artists to call out these “New Outlaws” when it seemed like only bloggers and fans were willing to pipe up. There has been a battle going on for the heart of country music, and I’ve been frustrated that the artists on our side seem to refuse to fight. Now at least a shot has been fired.
The video for the song does the job. It is nothing special, but with a low budget approach, simply using some photos and fonts, it helps convey the message without eroding the natural emphasis of the song. Some very likely with smirk at the use of the Bleeding Cowboy font, but if there was an instance when it was called for and appropriate, this would be it.
Time will tell of what the outcome of this song’s release will be. Pop isn’t going anywhere in country music folks. It’s always been there, and always will be. What we can fight for is balance, equality, and choice. Regardless of the outcome, “Outlaw You” gives voice and some enfranchisement to the scores of country fans fed up with the status quo, and the way Music Row has taken the Outlaw history of country, and exploited for marketing purposes; something I’ve been saying around here for almost two years now.
“Outlaw You” is a remarkable composition, and an instant Song of the Year candidate.
Two guns way up!
As we move to summer’s second offering by this supposed crop of “New Outlaws”, I can’t help coveting the idea of scrubbing Justin Moore’s awful country checklist music, but keeping his down-to-earth, aw shucks attitude, and exchanging it with Eric Church’s arrogant bravado. Maybe then we would at least have a New Outlaw that would be likeable, if not good. Because every time you talk about Eric Church, you have to preface it by saying what an arrogant prick he is. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s not let Eric’s attitude effect our opinions about his music, and give Chief a fair spin.
Out of the box, it is important to note that this album is not country in a traditional sense. This is not necessarily a criticism, just an observation. I would call it more “progressive rock country”, or something. Certainly there is country elements here, but if Chief has a recurring theme, it is the introduction of electronica and new sounds into the mainstream country format. Some of it is studio magic, stuff that cannot be re-created live, at least with authenticity. Some of this progressive approach is segregated at the beginning or ending of songs. But some of it creeps into the full song structures as well and makes for quite an interesting album.
I do not hate this album. It’s not great or good, but it is decent, and if anything, Eric Church deserves tremendous credit for creating an album that is this far off Music Row’s well beaten path, and goes beyond the simple back and forth between love ballads and braggadocios laundry list songs. There is some laundry list elements here, and love songs, but there’s a mess of songs that are neither. There’s some boldness, some risk, and some innovation, and some roots. These are things that are just not supposed to happen on a project originating from Music Row. Eric Church might not be an Outlaw, but he is certainly being “new”.
The first track “Creepin’” is one of the best of the album. A dirty, swampy approach with a hoodoo backbone and tribal beat, swimming with tasteful layers and effects that make a very engaging and unique composition. There are some elements in the song I might normally call foul on putting in a country song, but the whole approach works, and works well.
“Drink in My Hands” and “Like Jesus Does” both have a little of the laundry list tinge to them, with the former also falling into the safe Black Crowes guitar approach, and the latter feeling like it is pandering to a constituency, but they’re not bad for mainstream fare. “Hold On” is a catchy, straight up rock song, with little to no sonic attempts to fit it into the country format.
I was immediately struck by the tones and style of “Hungover & Hard Up”. Definitely not a country song, but very unique, with a little of a reggae beat, mixed with a Motown feel, but overall, this music is hard to place at all, which is a good thing. Too bad the lyrics are a little dull. Just because the approach of this album might be progressive, the words do not always follow suit, like with this song. They are very commonplace in an otherwise unusual approach.
I’ve already written a review for “Homeboy”, and I will recuse myself on “Country Music Jesus” for a song review once the whole story is told. “Jack Daniels” is a little funky in the Larry Jon Wilson mold, though I’m not sure Church could recognize that name. But this song has been written dozens of times, and is easy to pass over on the album.
“Springsteen”, just like “Hungover”, immediately struck me as something wholly unique, but in this track instead of being progressive, he crosses the border into creating pop. It feels like a Cars song in places, mixed with the reminiscent, country checklist formula. This song is a good idea that tries too hard and flops. The cadence of the words feels forced, with the lilting “Springsteen” lyric shoehorned into a dreamy, docile chorus that I admit some will find very catchy. “I’m Getting Stoned” is where the idea of adding a progressive approach to mainstream country songs went too far. Though the lyricism in this song is pretty good, maybe one of the better lyrical songs of the album, Eric Church is not Radiohead, and shouldn’t try to be.
“Over When It’s Over” is where Erich Church gets the balance right of bringing his new school approach to what is traditionally thought of as a traditional format. Along with the opening track “Creepin’”, it bookends this album with two strong offerings, that aren’t just enjoyable to listen to, but just might create an influential work that sees some of these elements and approach end up on other mainstream albums.
By the end, for all the positives from the progressive elements in the songs, you feel like playing it a little more straight might have accentuated the unique tracks and elements in this album better. He tries, and does what Sugarland’s ill-conceived “Steampunk” idea tried to, which is open up some new sounds to the country format. But maybe he tries too hard at times. And though there is a lot of new here, it is still grounded from a lyrical standpoint on what makes mainstream Nashville turn. Right when I was really getting into the groove of “Over When It’s Over”, here comes a cheesy Marlboro reference.
There’s not a lot of twang here, and if you come from the independent/underground country world, you’re bar may be set too high for Chief to hurdle. Whether it was Eric’s approach or businessmen in suits, as bold as it is, it is not bold enough to break all the tethers of Music Row’s bonds, and there’s just enough elements here and there to remind you of why even at it’s best, mainstream country falls just a little short from it’s safe approach.
But from a mainstream perspective, understanding this album came from the putrid, vapid depths of Music Row, the very place where dreams go to die, Chief is curious, bold, fresh, and refreshing.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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Followers of Saving Country Music know that for a while now, I have been calling out the current crop of “new Outlaws” in country music. Nearly 1 1/2 years ago I said:
Since Hollywood has gone country, Nashville has gone Outlaw. Unfortunately the music hasn’t followed suit, it’s only the Nashville suits throwing around music terms to try to move more “units”. Instead of fighting against the REAL country music insurgency, Music Row is trying to incorporate it, assimilate it…
One of their tools to do so is “laundry list” or “calling card” songs. You know the songs I’m talking about, the ones that name off dirt roads, ice cold beers, pickup trucks by the lake, etc. etc. These songs have been a staple of the Music Row hit making machine for the last few years, usually comprising one or two of the songs on a a mainstream Nashville record, especially by male performers.
When self-titled “new Outlaw” Justin Moore released his latest album Outlaws Like Me, I proclaimed it “…the worst country music album I have ever heard, EVER.” And specifically about the laundry list songs, “Usually there will be 1 or 2 of these songs on any given Music Row-produced country album. But Justin Moore has the audacity, the boldness to make an entire record of them, and even worse, make them the most stultifying, stereotyping, unapologetically formulaic songs that have ever been published for mass consumption.
Of course I and Saving Country Music can be written off as polarizing, opinionated, arrogant hardliners, (or maybe should get credit for being over a year ahead of everyone else), but now the mainstream country media is coming out swinging against these calling card songs, and the new Outlaws that perpetuate them.
The first was Chet Flippo, legendary country music writer who covered the original country music Outlaws for Rolling Stone Magazine along with many other beats, and wrote the introduction to the albums Wanted: The Outlaws and Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger. He had some choice words for Justin Moore’s decision to brand himself an Outlaw . From his Nashville Skyline article:
Nowadays, country music seems to have recently gotten outlaws again. Gotten outlaws in the same way that some people have gotten ants or bedbugs or cockroaches. We have a new infestation. To be sure, they’re small outlaws, but they are insistent that they are here.
Justin is a fine new artist, but if he’s a true outlaw, then Miss Piggy is Dolly Parton. How is Moore an outlaw? Well, he’s from a small town — which is very chic in faux-Outlaw circles. Some of the songs on his new album are about rednecks and dirt roads and the like. All those are very essential elements in the faux-Outlaw trend.
Now Peter Cooper, maybe even more influential these days in the world of country music journalism as the Senior Music Writer and Columnist for Nashville’s major newspaper The Tennessean said in a recent column:
All day, you’ve been singing rock songs to me about how country you are. And even country songs about how country you are. It’s been “dirt road” this and “back road” that, and “party in the woods” this and “redneck, hillbilly” that. Then there’s been some stuff about fishing with cane poles, and skinny-dipping in the lake with some two-named girl…And I don’t believe you were on the dirt road to the barn party with your redneck, hillbilly friends. I don’t believe the story about the lake.
I’d rather be hit by a can of your favorite domestic beer than hear you name-check that beer one more time when you’re singing about the party in the woods that you know darn well the three people who wrote the song in a metropolitan Nashville office absolutely, for sure, did not attend.
There is little question now that Justin Moore and his album Outlaws Like Me is where the new Outlaw movement and the laundry list country song went too far. They jumped the shark.
But critics and fans do not always see eye to eye, as can be illustrated by another country music writer, CMT’s Allison Bonaguro. The perennial cheerleader for pop country picked up her pom pom’s and defended this culture of living a country lifestyle vicariously through corporate country music. As maddening as it might be, Allison has a good point, that however or fake or worn out as calling card songs might be, if that’s what the public wants, that’s what the public will get. From CMT:
I agree that maybe there are too many of the same old clichés living inside the lyrics, but I’m not sure what the alternative is. I was not raised with a cane pole near a fishing hole or with country boys and girls getting down on the farm. I drank no jugs of sweet tea or moonshine. There were no buckets of fried chicken or haylofts. I was raised in the suburbs, in a station wagon, going to tennis lessons. I went to parties in other suburban houses. I drank Tab when I was a teenager, Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers when I got to college. I worked at the Limited in a mall. Now, who the hell wants to hear a song about all that? I’d much rather hear the clichés. So go ahead, country singers, lie to me until you figure something else out.
I have no doubt that the country calling card/laundry list songs perpetuated by the new Outlaw movement will go down in infamy like the hair metal phase of rock. It will be shunned and mocked by future generations as an embarrassment. The critics and writers are wise to it now. Only question left is, when will the public be?
And how did we get here? When Taylor Swift won the CMA for Entertainer of the Year, we thought it couldn’t get any worse, and some surmised this would be pop country’s Waterloo, as some will call this the new Outlaw Waterloo. Now with the infiltration of country rap and the rise of the new Outlaws, pop country acts like Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood almost look like a safe haven in a dark era. I wonder if Taylor Swift’s CMA win wasn’t the impetus for this boomerang back to these overly-countrified songs in an attempt to counter-balance Taylor’s virtual country-less approach?
I don’t proclaim to know where country music will go from here, but what I do know is that Justin Moore and Outlaws Like Me has solidified its place in country music history as one of the big bullet points on the timeline that denotes a major event. And that the event it denotes is not a positive one.
And that’s not just my opinion.
- Will on Wayne Mills & “The Last Honky Tonk” (Review & Eulogy)
- Linda Merchant on Circumstances of Wayne Mills’ Death Leave Many Questions
- Angela on Wayne Mills of the Wayne Mills Band Shot Fatally in Nashville
- Angela on Wayne Mills of the Wayne Mills Band Shot Fatally in Nashville
- Angela on Wayne Mills of the Wayne Mills Band Shot Fatally in Nashville