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When looking at the historical timeline of country music, many times it is big events that set the wheels of change in motion, for the good and the bad. Whether it is intrusion of pop or rap into country, or the ill-treatment of country music greats, here are some of the most embarrassing moments in country music history.
Shuttering of the Country Music Mother Church
The Grand Ole Opry needed a bigger home and the move was inevitable, but the result was the complete shuttering Ryman Auditorium, also known as the Country Music Mother Church, for 20 years. Aside from being opened by special permission to shoot videos for folks like Jason & The Scorchers, John Hartford, and for parts of the Coal Miner’s Daughter movie, the venue was abandoned between 1974 and 1994, also allowing the surrounding lower Broadway area to be overrun with strip clubs and dirty bookstores. It wasn’t until Emmylou Harris recorded a live album at the Ryman that a renewed interest in the historic venue was sparked, eventually leading to its restoration and re-opening.
Garth Brooks Goes Flying Over Texas Stadium
In 1993 at the old Texas Stadium in Irving, TX, Garth Brooks does a video shoot and decides to pull a Sandy Duncan and go flying over the crowd suspended with wires. Though it was a one-off demonstration, it illustrated Garth’s influence of turning country into more of a commercial, arena-rock presentation.
Jessica Simpson plays the Grand Ole Opry
You already forgot that reality star Jessica Simpson had a stint trying to be a country performer, didn’t you? Her career lasted weeks, but that was long enough for the Opry to decide to give her an opportunity to be on the sainted Opry stage on September 6th, 2008, while many other more worthy performers still wait indefinitely in the wings for the distinguished Opry opportunity.
Unfinished Hank Williams Songs Turned Into Lost Notebooks Album
Publisher Sony ATV cashed in on a collection of lyric sheets left behind by Hank Williams—some unfinished, and all without music—by doling them out surreptitiously to Bob Dylan, and a bevy of undeserving artists including Jakob Dylan and Sheryl Crow, to finish and record. The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams raised the ire of many, including Hank’s daughter and Williams estate executor Jett Williams who said about the project, “It was like ‘here are some lyrics’ instead of trying to think, “If Hank Williams was sitting here with me and it’s got his musical footprints all over it.” You would think that when you heard the song being sung by the artist, that it would have some kind of (Hank) feel to it, which I’m not feeling it myself.”
DeFord Bailey Fired from the Grand Ole Opry
Harmonica player and Country Music Hall of Famer DeFord Bailey was one of the early stars of the Grand Ole Opry, and was an official member from 1927 to 1941 when a dispute with BMI-ASCAP wouldn’t allow him to perform his most famous songs on the radio. Instead of standing behind one of their founding performers, the Opry fired DeFord. This ended his performance career and DeFord shined shoes for the rest of his life to make a living. DeFord did not play the Opry again until 1974 when he appeared on an “Old Timers’ Show.”
Jason Aldean Performs “Dirt Road Anthem” with Ludacris on CMT Awards
“History has been made baby!” Ludacris declared from the stage in June of 2011 when country music saw its first rap performance on an awards show, and the first live mainstream collaboration with a rap artist. This event and “Dirt Road Anthem” hitting #1 would open the country rap flood gates.
Olivia Newton-John and John Denver Winning CMA Awards
Olivia Newton-John’s CMA for “Female Vocalist of the Year” in 1974, and John Denver’s CMA for “Entertainer of the Year” in 1975 symbolized the historic intrusion of pop into the country format in the mid-70′s. The trend was staved off the next year when Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings ushered in the Outlaw movement in country.
Taylor Swift Wins First CMA for Entertainer of the Year
The date 11/11 was not good luck for country music in 2009, when Taylor Swift took home her first Country Music Association “Entertainer of the Year” award along with three other trophies on the night. Teen pop had now taken center stage in country music.
Induction of Keith Urban, Rascal Flatts, & Darius Rucker Into The Grand Ole Opry
The Grand Ole Opry had already been wanting to appeal to a younger, more youthful crowd, but in recent years they have ratcheted it up another notch, completely ignoring older country stars worthy of induction for pop country’s latest trends.
“Struggle” Turns Waylon Songs Into Rap
It was bad enough when rap infiltrated country music. Now it has gone back in time to overwrite the songs of country greats that have passed on. Waylon Jennings’ grandson-in-law nicknamed “Struggle” (his real name is Will Harness, and his real grandfather is Duane Eddy) took 7 Waylon Jennings songs, and rehashed them into rap songs in an album entitled I Am Struggle released in May of 2013. It was an unprecedented intrusion of rap into country music’s past, perpetrated by one of the few people who could get the blessing of the Waylon estate to do so. (read more)
Stonewall Jackson Stonewalled by the Grand Ole Opry
After having his performances on the Grand Ole Opry cut back so much that he lost his health benefits, Stonewall Jackson sued the Opry claiming age discrimination against Opry General Manager Pete Fisher. Stonewall claimed the Opry breached a long-standing code that if stars performed a set number of dates each year, even when they could make more money playing tour dates, they would always have a place to play at the Opry even in their older age. The lawsuit was eventually settled in court, and though the specific details of it were never revealed, Stonewall was happy with the outcome, and his performance schedule increased afterward.
Garth Brooks Becomes Chris Gains
In 1999, a bored Garth Brooks created a fictional dark pop character from Australia called Chris Gaines and released an album called The Life of Chris Gains. It gained Garth one Top 5 hit, “Lost In You,” but Brooks’ Chris Gaines idea met with very heavy criticism and confusion from fans, and after only a few weeks, Chris Gains rode off into the sunset and Garth Brooks re-appeared before a planned movie The Lamb could go into production.
The Grand Ole Opry’s Refusal to Reinstate Hank Williams
Even though there is a Hank Williams impersonator to greet Opry attendees at the door, the institution has refused to reinstate one of country music’s most legendary icons, and one that made the Opry an internationally-known institution, even in a symbolic gesture. Hank was dismissed from the Opry in 1952 for missing performances and rehearsals due to alcoholism, and was told he could return once he sobered up. Hank never got that opportunity, dying on New Years Eve of that year. A movement called Reinstate Hank looks to reinstate the country star back into the institution.
George Jones “Choices” & Other CMA Performances Cut Short
At the 1999 CMA Awards, George Jones was asked to perform an abbreviated version of his song “Choices.” George refused and boycotted the show, and in response Alan Jackson, while preforming his song “Pop A Top,” cut his own song short, and launched into George’s “Choices.” (read more)
This was actually the second time an artist boycotted the CMA’s. In a much less publicized event, Waylon Jennings refused to perform an abbreviated version of “Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line.” Waylon recalls, “They told me not to get smart. Either I did it or I got out. They said, ‘We don’t need you.’ I decided that was true and left.”
It was November of 2008 at the annual Country Music Association Awards, and Kid Rock came out on stage to perform “All Summer Long,” a remixed rap rock song that borrows from Lynyrd Skynyrd and Warren Zevon. Never before had such a non-country genre-bending song been performed on the CMA stage, but considering Kid Rock’s strong ties to the country music industry, the performance seemed par for country’s course of slowly contemporizing away from its traditions….except for one curious thing.
Trailing Kid Rock out on the stage was hip-hop icon Lil’ Wayne. It was curious that Lil’ Wayne was there, but not completely surprising. Lil’ Wayne had performed “All Summer Long” with Kid Rock only 2 months before at MTV’s VMA Awards. But instead of rapping like he did at the VMA’s, Lil’ Wayne just sort of stood there, pretending to strum a guitar that clearly was not in the mix.
Why was Lil’ Wayne there? Nobody was quite sure, but at the time Saving Country Music surmised that this was an act of desensitization from Music Row in Nashville. Facing nearly a decade of declining sales and needing something to shake up the landscape, allowing rap to infiltrate country’s inner sanctum could be a way to grow country’s fan base, entice younger listeners, and maintain the commercial viability of the industry. The country music industry would have to warm the country fan base up to the idea first. So bring Kid Rock out, and Lil’ Wayne with him, but don’t allow anyone to rap just yet. There would be time for that down the road.
Just 2 weeks after the 2008 CMA’s, country rap king Colt Ford released his first major album Ride Through The Country, and soon small but well-supported independent country rap outfits like the LoCash Cowboys and Moonshine Bandits began to emerge, creating a substantial country rap underground that saw significant success in the YouTube realm, garnering 5 and 6 million hits on some videos despite having no initial label support, and no radio play. Country rap had already been around way before 2008, with Cowboy Troy releasing his debut album Loco Motive back in 2005, and many other independent artists dabbling with the genre blending concept years before. But Colt Ford began to open the door of acceptance for country rap in the mainstream by collaborating with country artists like Jamey Johnson, John Michael Montgomery, and Brantley Gilbert. Country rap songs were still not receiving radio play or award show accolades though. The country rap commodity was just too risque for mainstream labels and radio programmers to get behind, and it remained a very small sliver of the greater country music pie.
Then came Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem,” a song that initially appeared on Colt Ford’s first album and co-written with Brantley Gilbert, and everything changed. A mild-mannered song compared to most country rap, and coming from a polished Caucasian performer that the mainstream country community was already comfortable with, country rap was able to finally find it’s acceptance on the popular country radio format. In early June of 2011 at the CMT Awards hosted by Kid Rock, Jason Aldean came out to perform the quickly-rising single, and hip-hop artist Ludacris joined Aldean on stage, this time to actually rap. “History has been made baby!” Ludacris declared from the stage, and it had been. Mainstream country now had its country rap cherry officially popped, and rap was now a viable, accepted art form in country music.
And it would become a commercially successful one too when “Dirt Road Anthem” eventually hit #1 on the Billboard charts in late July of 2011. The effects of “Dirt Road Anthem” hitting #1 were significant. Radio programmers who had been reluctant to bring country rap to the airwaves for years had officially waved the white flag. At the time Saving Country Music also predicted:
Just like how you can blame a blizzard on a rash of births nine moths later, the Music Row machine undoubtedly is being retooled to meet the burgeoning country rap demand, and we will be seeing the results in the upcoming months. The only question is, in what form will it be? Will we see established artists adopting the new style? Or will it be the popularization of the Colt Fords and Moonshine Bandits of the world?
The prediction of Music Row retooling to become a assembly line for country rap was correct. What was not correct was the timeline. Apparently 9 months lead time was a little too optimistic, and after “Dirt Road Anthem” dominated the charts, country rap went somewhat dormant in mainstream country for nearly 1 1/2 years. “Dirt Road Anthem” was the best selling single in all of country in 2011. But in 2012, country rap was virtually absent from the mainstream country scene. As Saving Country Music explained looking at 2012 end-of-year sales numbers:
Rap sales were significantly down in 2012, bucking the trend of being one of the few areas of strength during music’s decade-long decline. Similarly, unlike 2011 when Jason Aldean’s country-rap “Dirt Road Anthem” was the best-selling single in all of country, 2012 did not see a dominant country-rap single, album, or artist. Rap is still asserting itself as an influence in country, but may not be finding the commercial strength it needs to stick. 2012 mono-genre songs like Tim McGraw’s “Truck Yeah” underperformed to expectations, never cracking Billboard’s Top 10 on the country chart.
Then came 2013, and “1994,” Jason Aldean’s follow-up country rap to “Dirt Road Anthem.” Though the song was a little too fey for mainstream country ears and topped out at #10 on the Billboard charts, it was the spearhead to what would become a massive and historic influx of country rap songs and influences flooding the country music format heading into the summer of 2013.
Blake Shelton, the reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year and influential personality from his work on the popular reality TV show The Voice, released his own country rap song “Boys ‘Round Here” that quickly became a #1. Country duo Florida Georgia Line who regularly incorporates Ebonic verbiage in their songs achieved a #1 single with “Cruise” that is currently poised to become the best selling song of 2013. When the duo remixed the smash hit with hip-hop star Nelly, it created yet another chart-topping country rap collaboration.
All of a sudden, hip-hop influences were, and currently are dominating the top of the country music charts, asserting just as much influence, if not more than indigenous country influences, with a bevy of new country rap tunes from numerous artists ready to be released, and mainstream artists lining up to try and be a part of the trend. Brad Paisley and LL Cool J made waves by collaborating on the country rap song “Accidental Racist.” 90′s country star Joe Diffie, the muse for Jason Aldean’s country rap “1994,” has released an “answer” song called “Girl Ridin’ Shotgun” with the Jawga Boyz to attempt to exploit the renewed attention for his career. And Luke Bryan has recorded a country rap song with Auto-Tune maestro T Pain to be released soon.
But the infiltration of country rap is not just confined to underground circles and mainstream collaborations, it has touched the very foundations of country’s traditions and history. In May of 2013, the rapping grandson-in-law of Waylon Jennings named “Struggle” released an album with 7 of the 9 songs being Waylon tunes with Struggle rapping over them. The country rapping LoCash Cowboys have a song called “Best Seat in the House” from their new self-titled album that includes a collaboration with the recently-deceased George Jones—an icon of traditional country fans who traditionally do not favor the influx of rap influences in country music. The country rap collaboration is possibly the final track George Jones ever recorded.
Other artists that are traditionally seen as respites from the commercial trends in Nashville like Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and their mutual band The Pistol Annies have participated in the country rap craze, leaving mainstream country fans that are looking to avoid the trend few options. The Pistol Annies appeared in Blake Shelton’s country rap song and video “Boys ‘Round Here,” and Miranda Lambert participated in the “celebrity remix” of the song, even though at one point she took to Twitter to proclaim that remixes “pissed her off.”
Ashley Monroe appears in a just released acoustic version of the Macklemore rap song “Thrift Shop.” June of 2013 has been jam packed with new country rap song and video releases, with new collaborations rumored seemingly every day as artists and labels scramble to figure out how to capitalize on the country rap phenomenon.
Which begs the next question, is this a craze that will show a predictable lightning-fast life span and quickly fizzle, or are we seeing the long-forecasted dramatic, wholesale, long-term change in the traditional genre formats of American music, where all genres coalesce into one big mono-genre where contrast and diversity between disparate art forms will be resolved, leaving no true regionalism and no cultural separation, just one homogeneous corporate American music culture?
That remains to be seen. But wherever country rap goes, we can say with confidence that the way country music sounds in the summer of 2013 is very similar to the way the mono-genre would sound like if it is realized in the long-term.
Potential Ramifications of Rap’s Infiltration of Country
The benefits of the emerging mono-genre can be the breakdown of musical prejudices across genre lines, but the main impetus is the broadening of markets of music consumers for record labels to take advantage of. Though traditional genres can be helpful to consumers by classifying the style of the music so they can choose if it is worth their time, genres limit the scale of potential consumers for a given music franchise.
The problem with the mono-genre, especially for country music is the potential loss of autonomy and control over the music by the genre, both sonically and through the genre’s infrastructure and institutions. During music’s lost decade of the 2000′s when the industry bobbled the move to digitization, country music weathered the storm much better than other genres because it had its own built-in institutions like the CMA and ACM Awards shows, and the Country Music Association itself which unites US radio broadcasters around the country format. And unlike hip-hop or rock and roll, country music is heavily steeped in tradition, with legacy institutions like The Grand Ole Opry acting as pillars for the music. But if the term “country” can’t define a well-recognized sound, it risks diminishing the effectiveness and viability of these country music institutions in the long term.
Since the beginning, country has taken a submissive role to hip-hop in the formation of the mono-genre. Though you may find some small exceptions, country influences have not encroached on the mainstream hip-hop format virtually at all, and certainly haven’t risen to the point of dominating the hip-hop charts, like hip-hop influences are now dominating the country charts. Helping this trend along is Billboard’s new chart rules that take into consideration sales and plays of music from other genres in rating country artists. So country artists whose songs cross over to the pop or hip-hop formats gain extra points compared to their pure country counterparts.
Hip-hop is in the cat bird’s seat in the mixing of the two genres. Artists like Ludacris, Nelly, and Lil’ Wayne can benefit from the exposure the country format gives them, but hip-hop doesn’t have to return the favor. The reason there are no country-influenced songs at the top of the hip-hop chart is because the hip-hop community would not allow it.
Hip-hop as a genre is secure and confident in its standing with young demographics, and in its future, while country seems to be constantly wanting to apologize for itself and find new ways to attract younger listeners. Hip-hop artists are just sitting back, waiting for the managers of mainstream country artist to call looking for collaborations, and all of a sudden the hip-hop artists’ name and music are exposed to an entirely new crowd.
Some mainstream country artists like Tim McGraw and Taylor Swift have participated in hip-hop collaborations not featured in the country format, but the collaborations are almost always done on hip-hop’s terms, with the purpose of exposing hip-hop artists to a wider audience primarily, instead of vice versa.
The debate about the encroachment of rap and other hip-hop influences into country is much broader than disagreements based on taste. To maintain the autonomy and integrity of country music’s institutions, the genre music keep in check influences from other mediums. The argument regularly made for allowing hip-hop influences to infiltrate the format is that country music needs something new to continue to grow and appeal to new audiences and younger people. What this argument fails to recognize is that rap in itself is an over 30-year-old art form, and that it has a dubious history when mixing with other genres at the mainstream level.
When rap mixed with mainstream rock in the mid 90′s with acts like Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park, it was seen as the beginning of the mainstream rock format losing its identity, and the diminishing of rock music’s control over its radio format and institutions. This gave rise to “indie” rock, and punk and metal undergrounds that purposely avoided mainstream rock avenues and robbed talent from the mainstream ranks. Soon rock ceased to be the catch-all term for guitar-based American music, and country and hip-hop emerged as the more dominant and influential genres. Eventually rock artists like Darius Rucker, Sheryl Crow, Aaron Lewis of Staind, Kid Rock, and many more had to solicit country for support in the aftermath of mainstream rock’s implosion.
It is unfair to completely hypothesize what will happen with the mixing of country and hip-hop by what happened in the past because of the tremendous flux the music industry is experiencing due to the ever-evolving technology quotient. Everything an educated guess at best these days in music. But what we do know is that we will discover what the effects of the mono-genre will be because it is unquestionably upon us. The next question is, will it stick around, or will the mono-genre break back down into its traditional genres in the future? How country music as an institution will endure the changes remains to be seen, but country would be wise to keep open a debate on influence, tradition, and autonomy, with a very long-term perspective always in mind. Because if not, country artists could be finding themselves searching for another genre for support, just as rock artists did in the aftermath of hip-hop infiltrating its genre.
If you’ve found you’re eyeballs affixed to these very words, you’ve likely found yourself at some point trying to explain that you like country, but not that type of country. Once certain artists get to the very top of country pop, they seem to lose all self-awareness and begin to make fools of themselves, and by proxy, the genre that holds the same name as the music we love. It never ceases that when quotation mark “country” takes center stage, true country fans get embarrassed. He are some of the worst offenses.
Ironically, KISS is still the most country band on the stage. And where is that one dude’s hand? (with Lady Antebellum at the 2012 ACM Awards).
Don’t panic folks! No endangered cheetah’s were injured in the making of Shania’s outfit, just the integrity of country music!
A hip-hop artist rapping with Jason Aldean at the 2011 CMT Awards? That’s Ludacris! (hardy har, har!!)
Nothing says country like suspending yourself over a stadium of 70,000 people. Eat your heart out Sandy Duncan! (Garth at Texas Stadium circa 1993).
Just take a moment to sit back and really contemplate what the dude on the left is wearing. (Taylor Swift)
Does it really matter if Tim McGraw was trying to be funny or serious? (for the launching of “McGraw” cologne)
I have no idea what is going on here, or what is supposed to be going on. And frankly, I’m not sure I want to know. (Sugarland)
Yeah, there were no warning signs before Blake Shelton’s recent quotes. None!
In early October, a 92-year-old retired engineer named Bobby Hogg passed away in the little town of Comarty, Scotland. The death was significant because Mr. Hogg was the last speaker of a local dialect called “Comarty fisherfolk” that now only exists in a few brief audio clips. Many of the villages of northern Scotland have distinct dialects, and as time goes on, they become lost forever as elders pass away and the younger generations slowly drop their native accents in place for the more common pronunciations.
When President Obama won re-election last Tuesday, he said in his speech that what makes America strong is not that it has the greatest wealth in the world, or because it has the strongest military, or because its culture is the “envy of the world.” Obama cited America’s diversity, and the bonds that hold that diversity together as the reason the United States remains the most powerful nation on the planet.
But where the greatest diversity of culture exists in America, especially when it comes to dialect and musical styles, is in the rural states and counties; that red area that Obama didn’t take in the election. Cities and suburbs are much more likely to be gentrified to the more common American culture spread by popular media and entertainment than rural areas are, obviously with some exceptions.
In fact when you look at the culture of America’s rural areas, it’s is usually lampooned by the rest of the country’s culture, especially the dialect. “Rednecks” and people from the country have been a mainstay of comedic fodder for over 50 years. And now, entities like CMT, who are supposed to be for people of the country, by people of the country, are themselves formulating television series around making fun of “rednecks” in shows like Redneck Vacation and Redneck Island.
Meanwhile the negative connotations in media about redneck culture are making many people in rural areas flee from their native habits to adopt customs more indigenous to urban locales, giving rise to country rap with artists like Colt Ford. Jason Aldean’s country rap “Dirt Road Anthem” was the best-selling song in country music last year for example. At the same time, the power of pop country is causing similar gentrification in suburban and urban zones as it encroaches into areas it is not indigenous to either.
I’ve always found it perplexing how Americans generally look at the varying cultures of the rest of the world with interest and appreciation for their diversity, but seem to be unwilling to do so in their own country and community. Our differences are something that need to be resolved, whether by promulgating our political or religious beliefs on other people, or trying to promote our products or culture to people who it might either be foreign to or downright unhealthy for, usually for the purpose of financial gain.
Similarly there is a demonstrative focus on preserving rare or endangered animals and plant species, or historic buildings or artifacts. We will stop the whole of human progress for concerns over an endangered strain of the titmouse. But those rednecks living out in the rural part of the county need to understand that the old-school agrarian life is gone and they better contemporize or risk being branded closed-minded. Yes, many racist, judgmental customs should be a thing of the past, but not at the sacrifice of what makes these people and their customs unique.
When the American South was populated, many times by native Scots and Irish that brought their folk instruments and musical learnings with them, a vibrant tapestry bloomed all across the Southern region with distinct musical dialects representing the geographical and genealogical makeup of the areas where they were founded. As people moved West during the gold rush and the Depression, they carried their musical cultures with them that then intermixed with the landscapes and labor they found there, giving birth to even more individual musical dialects.
Many of these varying styles and dialects would come together at institutions like the Grand Ole Opry, and this in part was how the big umbrella of country music was formed. But the differences in styles was something that was always celebrated instead of something that was attempted to be resolved to increase the economic potential of the music. They understood that the loss of the diversity may result in long-term decay of the musical format, even though it may garner short-term financial gain.
Ironically, it is not the mainstream, nationally-focused musicians that say they want to destroy the diversity in American music. Many go out of their way to tell you how country they are, citing very specific artifacts of rural life to prove it, many times to take the sting away of the actual music itself being more rooted in rock or hip-hop modes. It is the roots-based musicians who do not have the benefit of the country genre’s industrial machine that tend to speak out and say that genres don’t matter any more; artists in the loosely-defined “Americana” world.
Meanwhile radio may be the the most-obvious place where our differences are disappearing. When Clear Channel cut hundreds of local positions at stations in rural media markets last year in favor of nationally-syndicated programming, this also disproportionately effected the rural/red zones that are so rich with cultural diversity. Just like rainforests and wild areas around the world that are held back from development in conservancies cited as being vital to ecological and economic sustainability, America’s rural areas as robust cultural generators are just as important in sustaining the overall health of the greater cultural landscape.
Things are always evolving, changing, and coagulating together, and wringing your hands over it in some respects is foolish. At the same time, if the “melting pot” theory of how America became the greatest nation on the planet is true, then there’s nothing more important than protecting that diversity for the long-term preservation of the world’s greatest economic engine and mouthpiece for freedom. And this would also be true in protecting the diversity of any country or region for them to live up to their greatest potential.
In other words, the destruction of America’s distinct musical dialects is not just a musical problem.
On July 28th, Taylor Swift made a whistle stop in Grand Rapids, MI on her “Speak Now” tour, and during the acoustic portion of her set covered rapper Eminem’s song “Lose Yourself” from the movie 8 Mile. Many folks were up in arms over this, but Taylor had been making a point on tour to cover pop songs of artists from the region she was playing in. Seeing how Eminem calls the Great Lakes State home, the incident seemed playful and innocuous enough.
Now move forward to this weekend in Atlanta, where Taylor Swift performed with rapper T.I., who was only days removed from a halfway house after an 11-month prison stint. In the recent weeks of Taylor’s tour she’s been inviting hometown stars from the cities she’s playing in to join her on stage. For example Nashville saw appearances by Ronnie Dunn and Tim McGraw. In Atlanta she began singing T.I’s single “Live Your Life”, originally a duet with Rihanna, and in a scenario eerily similar to the Jason Aldean & Ludacris duet of the country rap song “Dirt Road Anthem” on the CMT Awards in June, Taylor and T.I traded off versus, Taylor singing, and T.I. rapping.
When Taylor Swift won the ACM Award for Entertainer of the Year back in April, I said she deserved it, because unlike many of the other artists in country, she was leading, not following. It doesn’t mean Taylor Swift is good, or that she can sing, or that she in any way is country, it simply means she is doing what she wants to do, writing her own songs, helping produce her own albums. Though Taylor’s album Speak Now has been a blockbuster commercial success, it hasn’t afforded her even one #1 song. Many of the songs are just too long, and some, just too good for radio play. The one big single she had success with is “Mean”, peaking at #2, which in the words of one of the song’s producers, is the most country song Taylor had ever recorded.
Using local celebrities to draw attention to her concerts is a brilliant move, just like singing local artist’s songs, and writing song lyrics on her arms like she did before that. What concerns me is that we might be slowly being desensitized to the eventual inclusion of hip-hop elements into Taylor Swift’s music. If Taylor made such a move, the formation of the mono-genre would be all but complete. But it would also be Taylor following the trends, instead of setting them.
When you look at artists like Sugarland, Lady Antebellum, and the aforementioned Jason Aldean, you see artists straining for relevance by following easily-transparent trends into other genres. Would anyone argue that he popification of Sugarland and Lady Antebellum is linked to the pop success of Taylor Swift? What has made Taylor so unique, and so successful despite the lack of a huge #1 hit is that she is herself. But the impact of the monster success of Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” is no doubt enticing Music Row artists and their handlers to pursue the integration of hip-hop elements into their music. It is a copycat business. But the best have always helped set the trends, and stayed ahead of them.
It usually takes 6-9 months for the bloated machine of Music Row to realize and catch up on trends, but no doubt that within the next few months, we will begin to see more and more hip-hop infiltration into mainstream country. The next question will be, will the one artist that sits at the very top of the totem pole decide to lead ahead of that trend, or follow it? Maybe Taylor Swift wants to go in a hip hop direction, regardless of trends. Either way, if she does, we can expect the mainstream country herd to follow en masse.
Jason Aldean’s country-rap breakthrough hit “Dirt Road Anthem” is climbing the charts, and after the recent release of the video and his performance with Ludacris at the CMT Awards, I suspect it will remain in the Top 10, if not take one of the top tier spots very soon. So I thought it might be fun to peel the skin back and see what this puppy is made of. And I’ll even tie one hand behind my back by steering clear of the merits of country rap as a whole.
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First off, as I’ve said dozens of times before, 70% of the songs on mainstream country radio can be traced back to Bob Seger’s song “Night Moves”, and “Dirt Road Anthem” is the high school nostalgia rehash yet a-fucking-gain. How many times do we have to regurgitate this song people? It was parody a dozen years ago, and so were the stereotypical cornpone laundry list lyrics: The dirt roads, the ice cold beers, the backwoods; it’s as incessant as torture. Having to listen to these songs makes water-boarding sound like a refreshing summertime activity.
And if this is the “Dirt Road Anthem”, why is Jason standing on pavement during most of this song’s video? Maybe because he didn’t want to get dirt on his $700 designer jeans with customized rips painstakingly cut by Vidal Sassoon himself? Something tells me Aldean’s idea of roughing it is not getting his balls shaved that morning.
Not a specific comment about the rapping itself, but one of the reasons this song doesn’t work is because the rapping comes in completely incongruent with the rest of the song. Colt Ford, who wrote this piece of shit can pull it off because that’s his bit. He can stand there with his gut pouring over his belt buckle and a pair of panties on his head, gnawing on a chicken leg and say whatever the hell he wants because he’s not supposed to be taken seriously. But Jason Aldean is trying to sing all soulful, looking reflectively off in the distance, pensive, in the throes of nostalgia, and then all of a sudden busts into this almost satirically-stereotypical laundry list of “countryisms”. This is especially evident in the second rapping part when he says, “And we like cornbread, and biscuits. And if it’s broke round here we fix it.”
Really? Please. And by the way, the next motherfucker that name checks cornbread in a country song, I’m killing a baby animal on their behalf.
This song is such a cry by Aldean for relevancy and attention. Taylor Swift brings twice the amount of heart to her songs. And this whole mentality of how the alpha and omega of life is marked by the titles freshman and senior seems like an unhealthy youth obsession that needs to be quashed.
If you want to have a rippety rap song with country themes, grow some balls. Don’t dip your toe in the water, dive in. And if you want to have a Seger-esque nostalgia ballad, cheese it up, don’t disturb the mood with interruptive rap interludes.
This song is neither fish nor foul, very similar to the identity crisis facing country music as a whole: it wants to hold on to the stereotypical country elements, because that’s the marketing tool to suburbanites looking for escapism through the corporate country culture, but it wants to be hip as well. There’s no creative leadership, no innovation; just pandering. That’s why when you survey the landscape of popular country music, Taylor Swift looks like the most appealing option out there, and why despite her glowing weaknesses, she’s the most successful.
If you’re going to do country rap, do it right. This was the soft pedal, to ease people into the idea so they’re not too alarmed or made wise to the fact their culture is being sold from under them to help prop up dying corporations. I admit, it will probably work. But as a song, “Dirt Road Anthem” doesn’t.
Two guns down.
Like a good red-blooded American, I spent last night ignoring the CMT Awards like the ugly girl at the dance. More than a passing reflection on the doings of a shindig that has the wet cigarette of Kid Rock hosting and lets the pliable pop-country music fan vote the outcomes (gerrymandered by legions of glitter-faced 14-year-old girls stuffing ballots harder than a sock down the front of Jason Aldean’s nut huggers) is risking giving the event way more credence than it deserves. The ACM’s, and principally the CMA’s, though of course mostly relegated to a joke these days as well, are still the only awards that count in the grand scheme.
However when the headline performance of the night went down, we had one of those moments when as we populate the timeline of how all popular American music coalesced into one big mono-genre, it will count as one of the big bullet points, as Jason Aldean performed a rap song, with a well-established rap artist in Ludacris, to close out the festivities. Yes, Jason Aldean performed the same “Dirt Road Anthem” song at the ACM’s a few months ago, but this was the point that the mainstream country establishment has been working up to for a while. They started with Lil’ Wayne making an weird, non-performing appearance with Kid Rock on the CMA’s a few years back. At this year’s ACM’s Rhianna performed with Jennifer Nettles.
Slowly Music Row has desensitized the country music public into accepting artists from the hip-hop super-genre into their format, until now Ludacris, an artist that regularly refers to black people as “niggas” and disrespects women in his songs, is performing on a country music channel, on a country music awards show.
Please spare me the arguments that this is all for the greater creative good. This isn’t about inclusion or open-mindedness, this is about money. Diversity isn’t to have all popular music be an amalgam of everything, but to have sharp lines and blinding contrast. Let rappers rap in hard-edged styles. Let country artists be twangy, with harsh-sounding banjos and steel guitars. Let pop stars dance around with glitter shooting out of their nipples (or whatever). And let the genres mix when it presents itself as a creative bridge instead of an economic opportunity that mortgages tradition and contrast. That is an environment of healthy diversity.
A few days ago rapper Big K.R.I.T., along with the aformentioned Ludacris and “Bun B” released a remix of a song called “Country Shit”. My first though was “Ah, now rap artists are trying to capitalize off the laundry list-style of country songs the spew out easily-recognized imagery and artifacts of rural life to facilitate the white suburban demographic living vicariously through music.” This same “white suburban” demographic has been a big home for hip-hop as well. But the simple fact is rappers are not ripping off country artists, it’s vice versa. Hip hop was the first to spew out laundry lists of urban language and easily-recognizable imagery.
Country isn’t combining with rap in the formation of the mono-genre, it is allowing rap to take over, along with pop. When two dogs meet, one usually stands in a dominant stance, and one rolls on its back. Right now, rap is the butch, and country is the bitch. Why don’t we see country acts on the Hip Hop Awards or BET Awards? Why don’t we see rap artists aping country styles, why is it only vice versa? (I’ll give you Cowboy Troy and a handful of others, I’m talking big picture here)
When the music sales for 2010 broken down by genre were released, all the major genres of music were down sharply, except for rap and country. Rap actually gained, and country was only down a few percentage points, but that slight difference may be why country feels it needs to be submissive to rap to stay relevant.
What continues to baffle me about country is their lack of talent development and innovation. Instead of incorporating rap and pop styles, why doesn’t country tap its vibrant and growing independent/underground post-punk movement full of fresh styles and ideas that would appeal to the coveted young white suburban demographic? Or how about The Avett Bros. and Mumford and Sons, two bands with huge followings that play upright basses and banjos, but have had to revert to indie rock circles to find a home. They likely would be embarrased to be embraced by country at this point even if they were. In many respects, it feels like Americana has never been stronger. There is a vast talent pool for country to draw from, and instead they’re trying to figure out how to suckle off some of the popularity of Justin Bieber and Ludacris.
With Kid Rock hosting the CMT Awards, with country rapper Colt Ford performing, and with Jason Aldean and Ludacris closing the show out with a rap song, you can make the case that 15%-20% of what went down at the 2011 CMT Awards was either rap or rap inspired. I expect those percentages to increase over the next cycle of award shows until the number gets to 50%. Then the mono-genre will be fully realized, and the death of contrast will be complete.
Timberly was not the musical guest, that was T. Pain & Ludacris, your generic hip-hoppers catering their music to teenage suburban yuppie offspring who wish they were brothers from the hizzood.
And this got me to thinking about SNL, another Saturday night staple for years Austin City Limits , and Rolling Stone Magazine.
All three of these once great institutions used to be all about supporting REAL music, whether it was popular or not. They used to be about promoting acts that were not necessarily getting the pub they deserved from other media outlets. SNL has never been about country music. In fact when Garth Brooks hosted the show, his emo pop alter ego Chris Gaines was booked as the musical guest. But during its early years they really tried to promote lesser-known, but really talented musicians.
The Rolling Stone started out by covering bands in the late 60′s San Francisco music scene, and helped propel that scene to a national level. When The Outlaws were taking over country music in the 70′s, Rolling Stone covered the Austin scene and Chet Flippo was dispatched to Nashville to cover Waylon Jennings and the ‘Hillbilly Central’ crowd at Tompall Glaser’s studios.
Austin City Limits was formed solely to cover the Austin country rock scene that exploded in the 70′s, and was inspired by Jan Reed’s GREAT book, The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock. As the years went by, they also covered some national acts, but they always stayed true to covering Austin music and country music as a whole.
But nowadays, all three of these outlets seem to only be interested in whatever ‘Johnny Come Lately’ is hot at the time, and usually that Johnny Come Lately is some sort of version of ‘hip-hop.’ And forget trying to promote regional acts or culture. All three of these promote the same damn thing.
In other words, back in the day, but on the same week The Rolling Stone would write a story about ‘The Grateful Dead,’ Austin City Limits would show a performance by ‘Willie Nelson,’ and SNL would show ‘Simon & Garfunkel’ or ‘Patti Smith.’ But nowadays The Rolling Stone runs a story about Gnarls Barkley, Austin City Limits shows a performance by Gnarls Barkley, and Gnarls Barkley plays on SNL. And our music culture continues to become more homogenized and less regionalized, and is controlled more and more by big record label corporations trying to make as much money as possible at the expense of good music.
Austin City Limits’ first season in 1975 was a who’s-who in the Austin music scene. This year they had performances by Gnarls Barkley, Coldplay, and REM. Even if you like these bands, why do any of them need exposure? Who needs exposure is Wayne ‘The Train’ Hancock, Dale Watson, and other legacy members of the Austin country music scene. And Dale and Wayne aren’t just bar acts, but people who have national followings and influence other people’s music.
I know that in the last issue of Rolling Stone they had an interview with Hank III and I don’t want to take anything away from that. I commend them for that and for helping get the word out for Reinstate Hank, but they also screwed up his review of Straight to Hell that you can read about by clicking here. And for every REAL musician they cover, there’s 20 Taylor Swifts or Timberly McGraw stories. At this point Rolling Stone is not much more than a teenie-bopper fashion magazine in my opinion, that only has glimpses of good content.
And Rolling Stone just changed it’s magazine print format because they said they are loosing money. Austin City Limits will tell you they have to have pop acts to keep ratings up. But what they don’t understand is that if they stayed true to their roots, they wouldn’t have any financial trouble. They should stick with what made them good instead of trying to scrape for every last dollar. Austin City Limits is on pubic (purposely misspelled-save the emails) television which not supposed to worry about making money anyway. I’d rather see Austin City Limits ride into the sunset than have a one hit wonder like Gnarls Barkley shame it’s stage.
But shit, what do I know?
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