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This week in Nashville is the annual CRS or Country Radio Seminar where executives and personalities in country radio gather with executives and artists in the country music industry to hobnob, network, and attend workshops and presentations about the direction and future of radio and country music. This year the backdrop of CRS most certainly will be the Country Music Media Arms Race breaking out in 2014 (see more about this below).
Bits of interesting news about the country music radio industry tend to trickle out of CRS week, like a couple of years ago when an Edison Research study concluded that country listeners wanted more classic country on the radio. Edison Research President Larry Rosin said at the time, “I believe that we as an industry have really made a mistake in our conception of our own stations. While many people don’t want to listen to classic country music, some still do, and we’ve let them float away…We run the risk that we just are more and more pleasing to fewer and fewer people until all we are is ecstatically pleasing a tiny, unsustainable number of people.”
Scott Borchetta Quizzically Compares Big Machine Music to a Ferrari, not McDonald’s.
Even before the CRS events got started in earnest Monday evening, many interesting pieces of information about radio and country music emerged in the run up to CRS. Big Machine Records’ Scott Borchetta had the most puzzling quote, choosing a strange, if not unfortunate analogy to compare his label’s music to when explaining why he chooses to delay releasing music from artists like Taylor Swift and Justin Moore on Spotify and other streaming services until months after the release date has passed. Borchetta told The Tennessean:
“I’m not McDonald’s. I’m not 1 billion served. I’m much more in favor of building a Harley-Davidson or a Ferrari and take that 1 or 2 percent of the population who love what we do and super-serve them.”
It seems like that analogy needs to be flip flopped, but big power players like Borchetta, and their ability to control the market with landmark deals with Clear Channel and others entities will certainly be one of the big topics at CRS 2014.
Why Radio Still Matters
Every time Saving Country Music broaches the subject of country radio, the alternatives such as satellite and streaming services are brought up as evidence of why radio doesn’t matter anymore. Though radio may not matter to a specific consumer, when it comes to the research, the experts, and to the culture and listeners in country music specifically, radio is still by far the most dominant format, especially for consumers to discover new music.
“Time and time again when studies are done, broadcast radio remains the No. 1 source for discovering new music,” Broken Bow Records executive Jon Loba told The Tennessean ahead of CRS. “Radio is still 80-plus percent of your music exposure. One thing I remind staff at least once a month in an artist development meeting when we are focusing on other mediums of exposure that are important — streaming, or press for TV, or whatever else — I try not to let everyone get in the weeds with that. Radio is still the primary form of exposing new music.”
Despite dramatic growth in music streaming across the board, just like with the transition from CD’s to downloads, country music is lagging behind other genres in the changeover, allowing country radio to continue to hold onto its power over consumers. As Nate Rau writing for The Tennessean explains:
“An analysis of music streaming data for 2013 shows that, despite growing noticeably, country still lags behind the other genres. Of the top 10,000 streamed songs last year, 28 percent were rock songs, 28 percent were hip-hop/R&B songs, 19 percent were pop songs and 8 percent were country songs, according to Nielsen data. But on traditional radio, country music outranks all other genres as the most popular format.”
Radio Losing Its Autonomy From Record Labels
Whereas in the past many radio stations were independently or regionally owned and their charge was to serve their communities with music, now that radio consolidation has put the majority of radio stations in the hands of a few select companies, principally Clear Channel and Cumulus, the point of radio in many instances is not to serve communities, but to serve record labels. As Broken Bow’s Jon Loba explains:
“When I got into the business, at my first CRS in 1997, I remember radio stations saying, ‘It is not our job to sell records. Our job is to keep listeners tuned in to our station. That is it. If we happen to sell records as a byproduct, that’s fantastic, but it’s not our job.’ [Now] there’s a much more symbiotic relationship, not just in words, but actually in action. CBS and Clear Channel both are taking the time to say very proactively, ‘We want to help you highlight your priorities, we want to help you sell records. We know healthy record labels are a large part of our business.’
The Country Music Media Arms Race is Heating Up
Similar to how all popular music is coalescing into one or two huge mega-genres or mono-genre, the media that covers and serves country music fans in radio, print, online, television, and social formats is consolidating around two big media players: Clear Channel & Cumulus—the two largest radio station owners in the United States, supported by partnering or gobbling up other important players in the country music media realm.
In December of 2013, word came down that Clear Channel had cut a deal with CMT to create nationally-focused country music programming to be distributed across the 125 country radio stations owned by the company, as well as some digital and television platforms. This move was in response to Cumulus, the 2nd-largest radio station owner in the United States behind Clear Channel, which had created its own national syndicated format earlier in 2013 under the NASH-FM brand, serving 70 separate radio markets.
Then Cumulus matched Clear Channel’s cross-media move by partnering with the long-running magazine Country Weekly to migrate the NASH-FM brand into print and online media. Announced in late January, Country Weekly in the next couple of quarters will become NASH Weekly. Cumulus has also registered nashweekly.com, and is expected to make an online presence for the NASH brand a focus. Then yesterday, even more ventures and partnerships were announced from Cumulus, including a television station, live concerts and events, even potentially restaurants and consumer products will be part of the massive NASH brand expansion.
Personalities and cross-platform promotion are what is driving the media arms race. CMT’s Cody Alan who now also appears in Clear Channel’s syndicated radio network can do an interview with a big country star, and use that interview both on television and in radio, transcribe it for print and/or online media, and promote it through both company’s social networks. However there are obvious trappings to having one or two companies control all of country music’s media.
“From the record company standpoint, it is absolutely more efficient and cost-effective with respect to reaching a larger audience in one shot,” says Broken Bow’s Jon Loba. “But it can also be somewhat scary in that there are fewer voices and opinions being heard out there.”
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What’s for certain is that in 2014, country music media will go through the biggest paradigm shift in the genre’s history, touching every facet of how consumers engage with country music, and creating two massive companies who will dominate the media landscape, partnering with the country music recording industry and blurring lines between covering music and creating music like never before.
On Tuesday the Academy of Country Music announced the finalists for their “New Artist of the Year” award to be given out an the ACM Awards on April 6th. By the results of fan voting, the eight-name list of nominees was narrowed down to three performers: Brett Eldredge, Kip Moore, and Justin Moore.
The announcement comes as questions continue to loom around the eligibility of Justin Moore for the “New Artist” nomination. As Saving Country Music first pointed out on February 5th with help from Windmills Country, Justin Moore was not eligible for the award according to the Academy of Country Music’s stated rules. According to the ACM, artists who’ve sold over 500,000 copies of any previously-released album are not eligible for the “new artist” award. Justin Moore has two such albums: Justin Moore from 2009 with 550,000 copies sold, and Outlaws Like Me from 2011 with 577,000 copies sold.
Subsequently, when this information was reported on by Windmills Country on Country 92.5′s “Electric Barnyard” show, representatives from Justin Moore’s label Valory Music—a imprint of Big Machine Records—contacted the radio station and asked them to take the audio down.
Also today, the Academy of Country Music’s President Bob Romero responded to the calls for a clarification on Justin Moore’s eligibility in a story published on MusicRow.com. Bob Romero states:
The Academy of Country Music Board of Directors – which I have been a part of for 25+ years – has a long history of supporting new country music acts. The Board finds that being in step with trends and acknowledging the country music landscape has improved our process and guaranteed the best candidates over the years. This decision is in line with our criteria, and the Board’s right to be flexible in our efforts to be inclusive vs. exclusive of a young artist who has had budding success. We have to remember that Justin is a new face to mainstream music fans, media, and the like. He has earned this nomination and we congratulate him and all ACM Award nominees, and look forward to celebrating their work at the Awards in April.
According to the Music Row story, though Justin Moore is in clear violation of the stated rules for the “New Artist of the Year” category, and the Academy of Country Music is not disputing that, they are citing another global stipulation in the rules to justify his nomination. The rule states:
The criteria and voting procedures are set forth by the ACM Board of Directors in accordance with the bylaws, and may be amended from time to time as the Board deems appropriate in the best interest of Country music. Any disputes shall be resolved by the Chairman of the Board in accordance with Robert’s Rules of Order.
In other words, the Academy of Country Music reserves the right to amend their rules at any time, and that’s fine, and this is something Saving Country Music has stated in both its previous articles on this issue. However, the 500,000 copy rule has still yet to be amended. A check of the PDF of the ACM’s rules located on their website shows that the 500,000 copy provision is still listed, and no specific amendment that would make Justin Moore eligible for the “New Artist of the Year” award has been published.
Though the global provision allows the ACM’s rules to be “amended from time to time,” it doesn’t give anyone the right to break any rule. And though the global provision says that “Any disputes shall be resolved by the Chairman of the Board,” there is no disputing Justin Moore’s ineligibility. A “dispute” would only arise if there was an ambiguity or loophole in the rules that needed to be resolved or clarified—something that is not the case with this specific issue.
Furthermore, the Academy of Country Music set the precedent in 2009 of making rules amendments before nominees were announced, and even delaying the announcement of the nominees to allow the rule amendment to be drafted, finalized, and be entered into the public record.
This is an exact excerpt from Saving Country Music’s article posted yesterday (2-10) on this subject:
The eligibility rules for the awards are written by the Academy of Country Music, and there’s no reason they cannot change them if they see fit. If the ACM wanted to nominate Justin Moore for the 2014 awards cycle, they could have written out the 500,000 copy provision, or increased the amount of copies in the rule for Justin Moore to maintain his eligibility. Furthermore, the Academy of Country Music has a history of doing this very thing. In 2009, the ACM’s reduced the amount of copies an artist must sell to be eligible for the Album of the Year category to 300,000. The reason for this was so that Jamey Johnson’s critically-acclaimed album That Lonesome Song could be included in the nominees. More importantly, the ACM’s also delayed the announcement of the Album of the Year nominees that year while they finalized the rule change, making sure they did not violate their own rules by announcing their nominees too early.
Not only have the ACM’s yet to amended the “New Artist” rules, they did not delay the announcement to amend them. The reason this is important is because with the lack of a clear rules regime in place to create protocols around the eligibility of artists, there is the potential for improprieties and corruption to creep into the process.
Though the attempt at clarification by Bob Romero of the Academy of Country Music is appreciated, the issue of Justin Moore’s eligibility remains far from resolved, if Romero’s statements don’t raise further questions and concerns for country music fans. If the Academy of Country Music wants to make a rules amendment so that Justin Moore can become eligible for for the “New Artist of the Year” award, then that amendment must be made and entered into the public record.
But this would still not resolve the issue. Since the ACM’s made an exception to their stated rules by nominating Justin Moore in the first place, a deeper explanation of how that happened should be given, along with an accounting of how the rules regime transpired in the process, and why specifically Justin Moore was given the exception to make sure no improprieties or corruption occurred.
To the artists that have ACM Awards displayed prominently on their mantels or in their trophy cases, and to the fans of those artists that celebrate the wins every April, the reason these awards mean so much to them is because of the integrity the ACM’s have built around their awards during the organization’s 49 year history. The integrity of the process of how the ACM’s vet and select their nominees and winners is the very foundation for the prestigious weight these accolades hold. And if questions arise about the integrity of these rules, then so will questions about the importance or legitimacy of these awards. Nobody deserves to have an asterisk beside their ACM Award because of an oversight of the rules, including Justin Moore.
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On February 5th, Saving Country Music posted an article detailing why Valory Music Group artist Justin Moore should be disqualified from the ACM Award’s “New Artist of the Year” category for which he is nominated along with seven others. Stipulated clearly in the Academy of Country Music’s rules, artists who’ve sold over 500,000 copies of any previously-released album are not eligible for the “new artist” award. Justin Moore has two such albums: Justin Moore from 2009 with 550,000 copies sold, and Outlaws Like Me from 2011 with 577,000 copies sold.
Saving Country Music was first tipped to this oversight of the rules by Windmills Country on Twitter, who on February 5th appeared on Connecticut Country 92.5′s “Electric Barnyard” radio show to discuss the rules oversight. What happened next was an acknowledgement by Justin Moore’s label Valory Music—an imprint of Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Records—of the apparent rules violation, and apparently an effort to suppress that information. This leads to further questions of why the Academy of Country Music continues to not address this issue, and other potential improprieties clouding the ACM nomination process.
After Country 92.5 posted the audio of Windmills Country’s appearance on the station’s website, they were contacted by The Valory Music Group and asked to take the audio down as can be seen in this Twitter thread.
So the next question is, “Why?”
Accusations of block voting, vote swapping, and other behind-the-scenes gaming of the Academy of Country Music nomination and voting process have been around for years. In 2011, country radio personality Jimmy Carter spoke specifically on how labels decide which artists they want to push through the ACM’s, saying:
It’s crazy political. . . You have to just say, “OK, these awards are what they are. They’re bragging rights, they’re an infomercial for the record label.” And like I was told off the record yesterday…that Miranda Lambert got all those nominations because the record label had to decide. Are they going with Carrie Underwood this year, or Miranda Lambert? Both are on the same label. They figured it would help Miranda more than it would help the career of Carrie Underwood.
Once again Miranda Lambert leads the 2014 ACM nominations with seven, despite not having released an album in over 2 years. But the Justin Moore eligibility issue specifically might be the first time a label and/or the Academy of Country Music have been caught red-handed showing favoritism to a particular artist; the first concrete evidence of impropriety in the nomination and voting process of one of the industry’s biggest awards.
Valory Music and the ACM’s may hope that this issue just blows over, but the removal of the Windmills Country audio has arguably exacerbated it, and fed the suspicion some country fans have surrounding the awards process. If there is an explanation for the discrepancy between Justin Moore’s eligibility and his nomination, the fans of country music have yet to hear it. And if there is no explanation, the Academy of Country Music and its label partners are allowing the legitimacy of these awards to be called into question.
The eligibility rules for the awards are written by the Academy of Country Music, and there’s no reason they cannot change them if they see fit. If the ACM wanted to nominate Justin Moore for the 2014 awards cycle, they could have written out the 500,000 copy provision, or increased the amount of copies in the rule for Justin Moore to maintain his eligibility. Furthermore, the Academy of Country Music has a history of doing this very thing. In 2009, the ACM’s reduced the amount of copies an artist must sell to be eligible for the Album of the Year category to 300,000. The reason for this was so that Jamey Johnson’s critically-acclaimed album That Lonesome Song could be included in the nominees. More importantly, the ACM’s also delayed the announcement of the Album of the Year nominees that year while they finalized the rule change, making sure they did not violate their own rules by announcing their nominees too early.
Out of the respective entities in this issue, Justin Moore might be the least culpable. As he said in November of last year, his exclusion from award shows up until this nomination, including not being asked as a performer or even a presenter, has been quite curious when compared to his overall commercial impact in the genre. At the same time, his exclusion speaks to the collusive nature of country music’s top awards, and the narrow cast of names country’s awards continually draw from.
As unfair as it might be that Justin Moore has been excluded from the awards show process, as Windmills Country points out in their own article on the subject, it is even more unfair to the truly “new” artists that got excluded from this year’s nominee list because of the inclusion of established artists like Justin Moore and Lee Brice. The issue is especially exacerbated because of all the concern with country music’s inability to develop new female talent. Only one female artist, Kacey Musgraves, is included in the category, as the lack of female representation in country music has been making major periodical headlines left and right.
If the Academy of Country Music wants to keep a level of integrity around their awards and the process of determining nominees and winners, this Justin Moore eligibility issue must be addressed in a public manner. If there is an explanation, if a rule change needs to be made, then make it. Until then, it is fair, if not imperative on the country music community to question the legitimacy of the ACM’s nomination and voting process, and thus, the awards themselves.
For years, country music and other award shows throughout the industry have been making an aberration of the term “new” when nominating and naming their “New Artist of the Year” awards. Many times the nominees and winners have spent half a decade or more in the music business, and not just as an independent artist slogging through the honky tonks waiting on a deal, but signed to major labels, releasing charting singles and albums, and appearing on industry tours.
The spirit of “New Artist” awards is to help cultivate new talent in the industry, giving the nominees and the winner a hand up in their career. But as we have seen more and more well-established artists crashing the “New Artist” nominee lists over the last few years, it is beginning to become a default category for second-tier industry talent that can’t cut it with the other major awards, but that labels still want to showcase in the awards format.
Such can said to be the case when the Academy of Country Music, or ACM Awards announced their candidates for New Artist of the Year for 2014. The ACM fielded a list of eight candidates, with fans voting on who the final 3 candidates will be. Included in that list are artists like Lee Brice, who signed with Curb Records seven years ago, and Kip Moore, whose been signed to MCA for five. But the most quizzical inclusion to the ACM’s list of “new” artists is Big Machine Records’ Justin Moore.
Forget that Justin Moore signed to Big Machine’s Valory Music imprint in 2008, that he had a #1 single in 2009, and a #1 album in 2011; as first pointed out by Windmills Country, according to the Academy of Country Music’s specifically-stated rules of eligibility for the “New Artist” category, Justin Moore should be disqualified because he’s had not one, but two albums certified gold in previous years—gold albums denoting over 500,00 copies sold.
Here are the eight initial nominees for the ACM New Artist of the Year:
- Lee Brice
- Brett Eldredge
- Tyler Farr
- Justin Moore
- Kip Moore
- Kacey Musgraves
- Thomas Rhett
Though the ACM’s annual naming of performers as “New Artist” nominees may or may not pass the eyeball test, there are actually established rules that govern these matters just to make sure no impropriety takes place.
This award is presented to an outstanding male vocalist, female vocalist, vocal duo or vocal group in the country music industry who gains either initial fame or significantly greater recognition through their efforts during the prior calendar year of November 29, 2012 to November 27, 2013. The artist(s) must have success in digital media; in addition to having charted a single in the Top 40 on Billboard’s Country Airplay (BDS) or Country Aircheck (Mediabase) country charts; and/or selling 100,000 album units reflected in Nielsen SoundScan during the qualifying period. The top eight (8) vote getters determined by a nomination ballot, subject to the approval of the Board, will be considered semi-finalists, with the final three (3) nominees being determined by a combination of votes from the ACM professional membership and fan voting (online). The winner is determined by a combination of votes from the ACM professional membership and fan voting (online).
Okay cool, so nothing in those rules specifically disqualifies Justin Moore, or any other artist from this year’s nominee list. But it is the second provision to the New Artist category that unequivocally disqualifies Justin Moore two times over.
Any solo artist that has sold 500,000 copies of a previously released album (with general exclusions of specialty albums, such as seasonal or live recordings) according to Nielsen SoundScan, are not eligible for this category.
Unfortunately for Justin, his name is on two separate albums that can’t jump this hurdle: His self-titled Justin Moore album released on August 11th, 2009 that has been certified gold with 550,000 copies sold, and Outlaws Like Me released on June 21st, 2011 that has been certified gold with 577,000 copies sold.
In other words, by the Academy of Country Music’s own stated rules, Justin Moore should be disqualified from the 2014 New Artist of the Year Nominee pool.
So the next question would be, how was Justin Moore nominated in the first place? How was this rule overlooked? Did some impropriety transpire between Justin Moore’s label and the Academy of Country Music? Who would have been nominated in Justin Moore’s stead? And is the damage already done, even if Justin Moore is disqualified because of the increased exposure another candidate would have received upon the announcement of the nominees?
And the most important question is, what will the Academy of Country Music to resolve this gross oversight?
Glam metal band Mötley Crüe confided in the world today that they are calling it quits after three decades, and are doing so in a dramatic fashion by signing a legally-binding contract that stipulates that the band cannot tour after 2015—the time after an upcoming 75-city final tour is scheduled to wrap up.
But buried in the litany of announcements and side stories about the Mötley Crüe retirement was a little nugget of info with a country music angle. Apparently the band has signed a contract with Scott Borchetta and Big Machine Records—the home of Taylor Swift, Rascal Flatts, and Tim McGraw—to produce a country-themed Mötley Crüe tribute album to be released this summer.
Scott Borchetta was at the press conference announcing the Mötley Crüe retirement, and proclaimed himself a “not-so-secret” fan of the Crüe, saying, “Our album will highlight just how great the Mötley Crüe song catalog is.”
Mötley Crüe will not be playing any of the music on the album, and the band is not planning to “go country”. Instead the music will be handled by a list of current country stars. Confirmed artists already on board for the tribute album include Big Machine artists Florida Georgia Line, Brantley Gilbert, and Justin Moore, as well as LeAnn Rimes Eli Young Band, and reality star Cassadee Pope.
Insert your favorite anecdote about how modern country is nothing more than rehashed 80′s hair metal here.
The Season of Discontent in country music continues with yet another big name country music personality lending his voice to decrying the wayward trajectory of the genre. But this time it’s not a performing artist, it is Scott Borchetta, the label owner of Big Machine Records, affectionately known at Saving Country Music as the Country Music Anti-Christ, and arguably the most powerful man in the country music business.
Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine label is the home of Taylor Swift, Rascall Flatts, Tim McGraw, Brantley Gilbert, and most importantly in 2013, Florida Georgia Line, whose song “Cruise” shattered all manner of records in 2013, including becoming the longest-running #1 song in the history of country music. However as Saving Country Music contributor Deb Bose pointed out in August, the record is virtually meaningless because of how it was achieved, and because it was bolstered by a remix with rapper Nelly. NPR’s Neda Ulaby also pointed this out recently in a piece entitled, “How A Hip-Hop Remix Helped Make ‘Cruise’ The Year’s Biggest Country Hit” (listen below).
In the piece, Scott Borchetta is asked to comment on what some are calling the “bro-country” phenomenon, and Scott Borchetta, just like many of his artist contemporaries, states that he believes country music has gone too far with all the references to alcohol and tailgates, and needs to get back to music with more substance.
“Everybody in Nashville must be drinking 24-7. We’re a bunch of drunks down here,” Borchetta jokes to NPR, but then turns serious. “There’s too much, to be honest with you. We can’t keep talking about Fireball and Coors Light and having the tailgate down, etc.”
But what Borchetta says next is the most intriguing portion of his comments. “So we’ll task our writers and artists to dig a little deeper.”
This is something that would be easy for anyone else to say, but few like Borchetta actually have the power to task writers and artists to do anything. Sure, Borchetta may just be paying lip service to what he believes the NPR crowd wants to hear. In October Saving Country Music pointed out that Borchetta was personally responsible for Justin Moore’s sophomoric song “I’d Want It To Be Yours,” and this isn’t the first time that someone has called out country music’s wayward trajectory in 2013 while also being personally responsible for it. But here at the end of 2013, everywhere you look there is criticism being levied at country music’s beer and tailgate songs, and a smart and savvy businessman like Borchetta must see that the trend is not sustainable, begging the question if the tide has turned for country truck songs.
Borchetta is actually not the first label executive to speak out about country’s recent flight from substance. Though he’s known mostly as a performer, Toby Keith is the owner of the Show Dog Universal label and helped start Big Machine with Scott Borchetta before the two labels split. Keith had some critical comments about both hip-hop in country and beer/tailgate songs himself in October, saying,
You hear the hip-hop thing start kicking in, and you start going, ‘Is that what we gotta do now to have a hit?’ I don’t know how to do that. Is that what I need every one of my songs to sound like now?…You start playing [deep songs] to a twenty-something audience, and it’s like, ‘Naw, man, there ain’t no mud on that tire. That ain’t about a Budweiser can. That ain’t about a chicken dancing out by the river. That ain’t about smoking a joint by the haystack. That’s about somebody dying and shit.’”
So here you go ladies and gentlemen, the worst of the worst that 2013 had to offer in country music. As you might suspect, a list of mainstream country’s worst misdeeds in 2013 is mostly populated by an ear-serrating cacophony of country rap songs. With only a couple of exceptions, country rap has replaced what last year at this time was a parade of laundry list-themed songs.
PLEASE NOTE: To qualify for this list, the song had to be released as a single. And with such a crowded field, only the worst of the worst were selected. Feel free to share your most vilified songs of 2013 below.
Jason Aldean – “1994″
When I originally ranted about this song in February, I called it the worst country song ever. If I only knew what the rest of 2013 would have in store.
“In Music Row’s everlasting quest to train all of its resources on scouring America to unearth only the finest, most purest form of audio diarrhea, they have struck the mother of all motherloads originating from the unholy bowels of Macon, Georgia’s Jason Aldean. Yes Nashville, pat yourself on the back, let all of the Auto-Tuned stars sing out in unison as Stratocasters bray out a cacophony of stadium rock riffs in unified celebration–you have officially discovered the shittiest country music song to ever touch the human ear drum.
Do I understand the levity and the long history of country music that must be considered to declare “1994″ the worst country song that has ever been released? Yes, yes I do. And yet I still stand firmly behind that opinion.” (read full rant)
Florida Georgia Line – “Cruise”
What can make a bad song worse is when it becomes so ubiquitous throughout society that it pursues you like a bad nightmare—playing at the grocery store, blaring out of the car next to you at a red light. “Cruise” was officially released in 2012, but since this was the year it achieved historical success as the longest-running #1 in the history of the country genre (though that record when you look deeper into the numbers is somewhat spurious), it would only be fair to include 2013′s summer anthem here.
“Originating from the Republic Nashville imprint of Big Machine Records, the duo consisting of Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley met while attending the Mike Curb College of Music at Nashville’s private and exclusive Belmont University. I know, right? Doesn’t get more country than that! Apparently they were both enrolled in the “How To Be A Upper Middle Class Douchebag But Pretend To Be A Country Boy And Filch Rednecks Out Of Their Hard Earned Money, 101″ class. They made eyes across the classroom, and afterwards discussed their mutual desire for world music domination over $175 haircuts, manscaping, and colonics. Next thing you know, Florida Georgia Line is born.
Florida Georgia Line is a horrible combination of Rascal Flatts pretty boy hyper-pop, and designer jeans Jason Aldean “backroad” laundry list bullshit. They are everything bad about quotation mark “country” in 2012 combined into one big stuffed crotch sandwich.” (read full rant)
Blake Shelton – “Boys ‘Round Here”
“The Decider’s” offering to the 2013 resurgence of the country rap trend.
“Just when we thought the American public was finally getting wise to the fact that country rap is a Cancer of Western Civilization, needing to be cut out and radiated like the grapefruit-sized, puss-filled tumor it is, here it comes roaring back like a raging case of bleeding hemorrhoids.
“Blake Shelton’s “Boys ‘Round Here” is songwriting by algorithm and analytics, fashioning together words and sounds known to have the widest impact on mainstream radio’s weak-of-mind demo. The “boys” in the title of “Boys ‘Round Here” is fitting, because this song is rank immaturity. It’s the audio equivalent of sneaking out of your mom’s house to smoke pot behind a Pizza Hut.” (read full review)
Montgomery Gentry – “Titty’s Beer”
Yes, this actually exists, was even released as a single with an accompanying video.
“This isn’t a cry for relevancy folks, this is a blood-curdling scream; a banshee yawp from the innermost depths of holy hell, destined to beset the eardrums of all rationally-minded music listeners with a cursed memory so potent and terrible, it will be well-documented as a clinically-certified precursor to the most acute and debilitating onset of post traumatic stress disorder, terrorizing the very sanity of any semi-intelligent human.
“If a truly good country song is represented by a delicate pair of supple female breasts, then Montgomery Gentry’s “Titty’s Beer” would be a rack of cellulose-addled man boobs replete with coarse and graying disheveled chest hair, pock marked with skin Cancer and bisected by a grizzly double bypass scar. Originally recorded by the Country Music Grimmace Colt Ford, “Titty’s Beer” is an ode to idiocracy and a battle hymn for the forces of misogynistic cultural reduction. The premise doesn’t even make sense, but you can see some oaf going, “Well hell. I like titties, and I like beer, so….” (read full rant)
Joe Diffie feat. D. Thrash – “Girl Ridin’ Shotgun”
What is worse than Jason Aldean’s “1994″ ? Joe Diffie’s “answer” song.
“Did you feel that Oklahoma? That was the earth tremor caused by your native son Joe Diffie selling out so violently it measured 2.1 on the Richter scale. The mulleted, cop mustached 90′s semi-star has released an “answer” song to what many consider the worst song in country music history, Jason Aldean’s country rap “1994,” and it is as embarrassing as puberty.
“The beats for “Girl Ridin’ Shotgun” sound like they were composed by a 7th grader who just snorted his ADD meds, just like all of the beats of the Jawga Boyz’s bombastic and trashy tracks. The beat doesn’t even get five seconds into the song without going off meter. There’s biscuit crumbs in Joe Diffie’s mustache that could compose a better beat. And then D Thrash’s first line doesn’t even rhyme. Are you effing serious with this song? “Girl Ridin’ Shotgun” makes me want to make out with my cousin and bet on a dog fight.” (read full rant)
Tyler Farr – “Redneck Crazy”
There’s bad, and then there’s downright wrong. Tyler Farr’s “Redneck Crazy” crosses that line.
“Tyler Farr’s “Redneck Crazy” isn’t for jilted male lovers looking for solace, it is for socially awkward, introverted, creepy-ass chronic masturbaters that hold a minor in megalomania. This song doesn’t need a rant, it needs a restraining order and ankle bracelet. It’s an insult to both the terms “redneck” and “crazy.” True rednecks ride their problems out, rub their wounds in the dirt and move on, not whine about them like a panty waist, eliciting threats and enlisting their loser friends to enact adolescent acts of vandalism as some sort of self-righteous recompense.”
“About the only thing this song is good for is turning in for state’s evidence of why Tyler Farr shouldn’t be allowed within 200 yards of his ex’s or any elementary school.” (read full rant)
Luke Bryan – “That’s My Kind Of Night”
Outmatched only by Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” for the longest-charting single in 2013.
“Let’s start this off by dispatching with the 700 lb gorilla in the room and say what everyone is thinking, but few are willing to say publicly: The only reason Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind Of Night” is a #1 song is because bored suburban moms and their daughters want to fuck him. Luke Bryan’s music has the nutritional value of notebook paper, and is the clinical result of when an entertainer spreads his arms wide in a submissive pose and relents his entire will to the country music industrial complex, saying “Do your worst.” Luke Bryan has no soul. He is more machine than man. He has the integrity of a Guatemalan mule bridge with a squadron of M1 tanks trying to cross it. “That’s My Kind of Night” is like a diabolically-specialized form of audio diarrhea that marries the ideal ratio of water to solids so when it is sent through an industrial fan it inflicts the widest collateral damage on as many people as possible.
“A little Conway a little T-Pain?” Yep, that pretty much sums up American music in 2013, sans the Conway—replaced by Luke Bryan and his vomit-inducing country rap trend-chasing ilk.” (read full rant)
Jerrod Niemann – “Drink To That All Night”
Listening to this song is as traumatic as waking up naked in a stranger’s bed, with pacifiers and spent glowsticks littering the sheets around you, other people’s bodily fluids encrusting on your bare skin of your midriff, your eyebrows shaved, and the unsettled sense like you spent the night before indulging in designer drugs and weird sex against your will. Yes ladies and gentlemen, in 2013, country music when there—to the techno-rave glitterdance sounds of Jerrod Niemann and his woman’s ball cap that he got on clearance from Ross.
When the words kick in to this awful, awful song, you think it must be some sort of Saturday Night Live parody. But no, this song is a serious single from Jerrod. Luckily it skidded off the charts pretty rapidly, but “Drink To That All Night” symbolizes another new low for country music in 2013, with an excruciatingly-boring video.
- Darius Rucker’s version of “Wagon Wheel,” spared only from the above list because in the end “Wagon Wheel,” however ubiquitous, is still a good song.
- Justin Moore’s country rap “I’d Want It To Be Yours,” spared from the above list because it was never released as a single, and because it was released at the insistence of Scott Borchetta.
- Brad Paisley’s haphazard and ill-advised “Accidental Racist.” Also never officially released as a single.
- Any song from Florida-Georgia Line, including the stupid “Shine On” and the just-released single “It’z Just What We Do.”
Sometimes you can find the most stunning beauty in the strangest of places.
The Fox Network’s 2013 American Country Awards did not go particularly well by a number of measures. Forget that the fabricated awards show really has no weight in the grand country scheme compared to its more established and revered competition in the CMA and ACM Awards, and it seemed to struggle to garner both media attention and top tier country music talent in support of its 2013 effort. The simple transitions between performances, presentations, and commercial breaks seems to find new frontiers of live TV awkwardness, while the fumbling of words was at moments excruciating.
We all can make mistakes and feel the pressure of the live television camera, but Gary Allan wobbled so hard in one segment he had to start completely over. Co-host Trace Adkins invented a new word, “Simular,” which is a cross between ‘singular’ and ‘similar’, which ironically mean the exact opposite things. And the half-assed feel of the entire night was encapsulated when the night’s biggest award for Artist of the Year went to Luke Bryan, but instead of playing a Luke Bryan song as the star made his way to the stage, a Florida Georgia Line song played instead.
It’s not clear if the snafu was the fault of a lowly board operator, or the house DJ (yes, instead of a band, the ACA’s had a DJ), one Deejay Silver, who brought the audience back once from commercial break with a straight up hip-hop song—not a country rap or even a rap song by a country artist—just simply a rap song, which seemed somewhat appropriate on a night when rapper Big Smo said on national TV, “There was a time when you had to choose between country or hip-hop. But not any more!”
The ACA’s generally served their purpose of selling ad time to sponsors, and showcasing some second-tier names that normally don’t receive any face time on the bigger award shows, artists like Justin Moore, Kellie Pickler, and Rhett Atkins, but the whole thing felt tainted, because of the circumspect nature of the awards themselves, and because the production and writing team did no favors for the hosts, presenters, and performers.
But then here came a Patsy Cline tribute in the last quarter of the show and the whole sad sack theme of the night did a complete 180. In a year that saw the death of George Jones, honoring anyone but The Possum seems a little strange on its own, and why after a solid 1 1/2 hours of smearing the legacy of country’s roots the producers decided to go in this direction seems even more curious. But there was LeAnn Rimes, singing a medley of Patsy Cline songs, and who better to do it than her? Since the beginning of LeAnn’s career, the Patsy comparisons have come pouring in.
But LeAnn, a once top flight country artist full of promise, has fallen on hard times in the court of public perception. Unfavorable headlines about infidelity and divorce have put her at odds with the foot the country music industry wants to put forward with its female artists. LeAnn has been virtually forgotten by the industry, but ironically that’s what made her a perfect fit for the ACA’s.
So the LeAnn Rimes medley of Patsy Cline songs starts, and you’re glad to have a respite from all the pop country shenanigans, but you’re not expecting too much. Medleys are always frustrating to some extent because you never get to feel the full brunt of any individual song. But LeAnn, having been a tireless student of Patsy Cline since her formative years, continued to elevate the moments more and more as the tribute transpired until your attentive hate watching of a circumspect award show fell by the side and you were completely enthralled at the channeling of Patsy Cline’s ghost transpiring before your very eyes. And at the end of the medley, when LeAnn went a capella, and the tasteful sepia filter that the ACA’s had placed on the cameras to afford a vintage feel on the first part of the tribute turned back to color, a downright evocation emerged during Patsy’s “Sweet Dreams” that even the embattled and valiant LeAnn Rimes eventually couldn’t even fend off, bursting into tears during the final turn of the chorus.
No video will ever do the moment justice, because it was a moment you had to share in live. At some point you saw LeAnn smile, like she recognized the spirit of Patsy had entered the room, and then the emotion immediately began to well up in LeAnn, and all who were paying attention.
Trace Adkins, after the commercial break, broke script, took off his hat, and complimented LeAnn with a sincere token and acknowledgement of that singular moment LeAnn was able to create, that was anything but similar to what the ACA’s, and really any modern country music award show is able to deliver.
In a mainstream country landscape searching for female stars, to the point of going outside the genre to field awards show nominees, and in a genre that has virtually abandoned its roots, LeAnn Rimes proved that there’s female talent screaming to be showcased, and continued value in music that has withstood the test of time to deliver moments to remember. Booty-shaking anthems and buxom broads singing songs forged in a cubicle farm aren’t just unfortunate because of the lack of nutritional value of their tunes, it is because they push aside those sweet musical moments that we will reminisce on for the rest of our lives.
Two guns up!
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.
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