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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 fromÂ 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, withÂ 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 musicâ€™s decade-long decline. Similarly, unlike 2011 when Jason Aldeanâ€™s country-rap â€śDirt Road Anthemâ€ť 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 McGrawâ€™s â€śTruck Yeahâ€ť underperformed to expectations, never cracking Billboardâ€™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.
Yes, if you needed any more evidence that the Mumfordization of music has reached every single God forsaken corner of popular music world, now Dave Mustaine and his heavy metal legacy band Megadeth are browsing through Guitar Center catalogs looking for “guitjos” and releasing a supposed “bluegrass-inspired” track on their latest album Super Collider. It’s called, get this, “The Blackest Crow.” Because what’s more \m/ *METAL* \m/ then the most blackiest crowiest of black crows that has ever existed on this dark and unforgiving mortal coil.
If this song was just presented as another track on their newest album, you probably wouldn’t think much of it aside from having a cool, rootsy intro. But Mustaine’s strong penchant to have this be some ode to metalgrass fusion is where it gets a little silly. Supposedly Mustaine reached out to Willie Nelson to guest on the track, but Willie “couldn’t get his schedule to line up” (which is Texan for “I’d rather get raped by a skunk”). He also asked Miranda Lambert of all people. “Although she declined,” Mustain explained, “her manager was polite enough to reportedly say she didn’t feel she could make the song better. I was very flattered.”
Man, there’s so much accidental comedy in that quote.
Look, the song is fine for what it is, which is a metal song with a bluegrassy intro. It’s just that Megadeth metal never really evolved much from its 80′s-era introduction, and unfortunately their music hasn’t held up as well as Mustaine’s perm. Listening to this song makes me want to put on a black trench coat, poke my thumbs through holes at the ends of my long sleeves, and smoke Marlboros with my friends at a Waffle House before throwing eggs at the McCormick’s Caprice Classic because their kids are such preppie assholes.
At some point all music must evolve, or in this case, devolve to its roots, and that’s what Dave Mustaine and Megadeth are trying to do here. No, it’s not anywhere near a bluegrass or country song, but for Megadeth metal, the “bluegrass” approach adds something that they’re music has been craving for 30 years now—something new.
1 1/4 of 2 guns up as a METAL song.
So here come the Pistol Annies again, with their cleavage heaving and lined with lace, all attitude in their tank boots and tube tops. So what’s the take? Are they traditional country saviors, or a silly act?
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When you boil it down, the Pistol Annies are gender music. Sure, we all tend to be able to relate more to a singer and and a perspective that mirrors our own, but the Pistol Annies project seems to take it a step further. Either you’re a dude saying, “Yeah they’re hot and all, but I just don’t get it. My wife made me buy her the CD for her birthday.” Or you’re a chick, and you’re living vicariously through the Annies’ bawdy, tipsy adventures. Standard country songs that on the outside may seem to only appeal to women like “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad” or “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)” can still be easily transposed to the male perspective. Not so much for a song like Annie Up‘s “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty.” Certainly there is exceptions with certain fans and certain songs, but for the most part, you can expect The Pistol Annies’ appeal to break across gender lines.
The Pistol Annies also inhabit a weird head space when it comes to one’s musical perspective. To mainstream country fans who tend to lean towards wanting more traditional sounds and an attention to songwriting in their music, they are a breath of fresh air. Lo and behold there’s actually some steel guitar on this album, and lyrical offerings that don’t make you feel stupid for listening. But an independent or traditional country fan’s ear is going to pick up on a polished sound, lyrical performances that are too perfect, slick and predictable arrangements, and still a somewhat formulaic approach to songwriting despite whatever depth.
But however slick this album may be, I still don’t hear a smash radio single from Annie Up, and Annie member Ashley Monroe has said herself this is not the aim of the album. However this may say just as much about the level of substance found on Annie Up as it does the dwindling importance of commercial radio. The album’s lead single “Hush Hush” has an engaging guitar hook and a rising chorus indicative of a successful radio song, but don’t expect it to depose Florida-Georgia line or the gaggle of recent country rap singles from the upper echelons of country’s charts anytime soon.
Songs like “Dear Sobriety” and the acoustic “I Hope You’re The End of My Story” are star character witnesses for the argument that the Pistol Annies deserve to be considered an act that is really elevating the state of mainstream country music in 2013. Let’s not gloss over that these ladies wrote all of these songs themselves. And Annie Up also offers a bit of a reprieve from the feeling that The Pistol Annies are simply a “bit”– an opinion one could glean from their first album Hell on Heels with songs like “Takin’ Pills” and the title track.
But the Pistol Annies remain a self-described affectation with their character pseudonyms and seductive dress. It is a solid secondary project behind each member’s solo career, and this truth could always constitute a ceiling for the Pistol Annies’ success and long-term influence. At the same time, the side project aspect of the whole thing takes the pressure off of the artists to deliver big revenue numbers, and allows them to just have fun in a manner that is infectious with their audience, however slanted it is towards the female.
This post-breakup “get yourself together girl” narrative that seems to have popped up a lot in mainstream female country songs lately comes up again a couple of times on this album, and makes one wonder when that thread might erode to clichĂ©. And though each Pistol Annie brings an excellent voice in both skill and tone, I just don’t feel the meshing of pitch that pulls the emotion out of a song like you would expect from two and three part harmonies from remarkable singers. There’s a few distinct exceptions, like the sparse “I Hope You’re The End of My Story.” Miranda Lambert’s singing specifically seems to really emphasize her Southern accent, possibly to bolster the Pistol Annie sass they hoped to embed in this project.
It’s not as much that the Pistol Annies are an enigma themselves, it’s that they can become an enigma depending on your perspective. Better than most of what you hear on country radio? Certainly. A band of real pith and weight when compared to entire body of roots music in 2013? Maybe not. But not anywhere near the bottom, and maybe helping to challenge what’s at the bottom by bringing an elevated perspective of what real songwriting is to the passive music listener. Or at least the female one.
1 1/4 of 2 guns up as an album.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up as a mainstream album.
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Aside from all the bad music, disappointing award winners, and ridiculous stage antics, the 2013 Academy of Country Music Awards may go down as one of the most gremlin-riddled presentations in the modern award show era. An inordinate amount of technical problems plagued the night, including many lead vocal parts with washed-out audio, out-of-tune performances by artists who are usually nails, and other embarrassing mishaps and funny moments. Here are some of the major ones.
Shania Twain Calls Luke Bryan, “Luke Bryant”
The ditsy Shania Twain has been out of the music scene for a while, and it showed last night when she presented the biggest award of the night: Entertainer of the Year to Luke Bryan. But apparently, Shania didn’t know who Luke was, or at least didn’t know how to pronounce his name. I know Shania is from Canada, but I didn’t know adding a non-existent “T” to the end of someone’s last name is part of the Canadian dialect. What a hoser. (at the 1:17 mark)
Brad Paisley’s Missing Vocals / Cut Off by Bumper Music
Throughout the night, viewers of the 2013 ACM’s had their ears strained by vocals that were either muddy, too far down in the mix, or out-of-tune. Brad Paisley has the biggest legitimate beef with whoever was twisting and tweaking behind the board when he came up to perform his song “Beat This Summer” with John Mayer. At the beginning, his vocals are barely there, and then fast forward to the end when the performance is interrupted when the bumper music (a pre-recorded track that plays right before cutting to commercial) accidentally misfires.
Miranda Lambert Miffed at Eric Church
Was it me, or was Miranda Lambert choking back extreme disappointment when the powers that be at the ACM Awards decided to have her announce Eric Church as the Album of the Year winner? Though Eric Church and Miranda officially made up, bad blood started between the two and Miranda’s husband Blake Shelton when Eric Church told The Rolling Stone:
â€śItâ€™s become American Idol gone mad. Honestly, if Blake Shelton and Cee Lo Green fucking turn around in a red chair, you get a deal? Thatâ€™s crazy. I donâ€™t know what would make an artist do that. Youâ€™re not an artist. If I was concerned about my legacy, thereâ€™s no fucking way I would ever sit there [and be a reality-show judge]. Once your career becomes something other than the music, then thatâ€™s what it is. Iâ€™ll never make that mistake. I donâ€™t care if I fucking starve.”
Miranda also has a reality show past, and also took offense. Eric Church eventually clarified his statements and apologized to Miranda, but never apologized to Blake. It seems pretty evident all that history was running through Miranda’s mind when she announced the award with a curt delivery and phony smile. (at the 1:40 mark)
The Band Perry Bad Performance / Pre-Recorded Track?
By far the worst performance of the night, and one of the worst I’ve seen in award show history was perpetrated by The Band Perry. Focused on exuding a ridiculous amount of energy in their overly-gesticulated choreography instead of the integrity of the performance, lead singer Kimberly Perry forgot to breathe. She was out of breath before the song even began in earnest and turned in an awful, breathy, uninspired and out-of-tune performance that would even make Taylor Swift wince.
But even more interesting is if you watch the performance more in depth, it’s clear they’re playing to a pre-recorded musical track. At the very beginning, you see the drummer strike a cymbal before the music starts, but you don’t hear it. One Perry brother is holding a bass, but is too busy fist pumping at the beginning to play it, even though you hear bass guitar. Maybe there’s a bass hidden on the backline (but they all look like regular electric guitars), but the other Perry brother is holding a mandolin and numerous times you see him playing it, but hear nothing, while other times hear mandolin, when he’s clearly not playing. Playing to a pre-recorded track is one thing. Acting like you’re playing by carrying the instruments is clearly trying to pull one over on the viewer. The Band Perry’s performance was the biggest embarrassment on a night of many.
You want to get the majority of country music critics singing your praises? Put out a traditional country album through mainstream channels. Most critics got into the business because of a passion for true country, and after having their ears burned out by the latest singles from Florida-Georgia Line and Luke Bryan, anything with the most minute measure of twang will get the Nashville press corps reaching for their Thesauruses to shower you with plaudits. Meanwhile down here in the independent trenches where twang is a given, you’ve got to have a little more than just the right sound. The music and words must still ring true. Luckily with Ashley Monroe, they do.
First, kudos are probably warranted for Miranda Lambert. Whatever one’s feelings might be on her, for a solid top 3 lady in country music to take on a side project like The Pistol Annies speaks to her passion for the music, and specifically the music of fellow Pistol Annie Ashley Monroe. Ashley still may have made this record without the Pistol Annies bump, but there may have not been nearly as many people paying attention to it. And kudos to Ashley for staying within herself on Like A Rose. She could have taken her Pistol Annies exposure and cashed out with a career in country pop.
Like A Rose is a short and sweet, classic country album that encapsulates Ashley Monroe’s skills as a formidable traditional country songwriter with a sweet voice embellished with sincere pain. All the songs on Like A Rose were written by Monroe, but they all include collaborators as well, most notably Vince Gill who is also the executive producer of the album, and Guy Clark who co-writes the album’s namesake track, “Like A Rose.” This album speaks to a rough and troubled life, with some of the songs taken verbatim from Ashley’s past. The sincerity of her music is palpable. The very first lyric on the album, “I was only 13, when daddy died,” parallels Ashley’s real life experience, and however much fiction plays into the material for the rest of the album, you tend to believe every word.
The approach to Like A Rose is traditional, but light in the way the rhythm is laid back and some of the textures are ambient, making it in some respects a cross between country and Americana, broadening the appeal of the record. By only including 9 tracks, each offering benefits from a potency of content. This album never tires. At the same time, as a songwriter dyed in the Music Row ink, (granted, in circles with a more of a traditional leaning) there is a formulaic feel beneath some of the songs that make you say, “I’ve heard this song before, just in a different way.” You get this feel from songs like “Used” and “Two Weeks Late.” The wild-eyed “Weed Instead Of Roses” once again reinforces the theory that country has finally picked up that marijuana is good music marketing and now the subject will permeate the genre.
Nonetheless, the wit of a song like “She’s Driving Me Out Of Your Mind” and the simple enjoyment of “Monroe Suede,” or really the simple enjoyment of all of these songs can’t be denied. Even the duet with Blake Shelton “You Ain’t Dolly (And You Ain’t Porter)” is pretty good. Blake may be a turd burglar, but nobody ever accused him of not being able to sing. His tone and cadence fits the classic style very well.
Where Like A Rose may be a little bit light on the deep substance for songwriting snobs, or short on the hard country sounds some classic/traditional fans enjoy, Ashley Monroe’s place as a Pistol Annie with a major label deal make the prospects of this music wetting the whistle of passive country music fans for a more authentic country sound are very promising. Male-driven pop country continues to get worse as every moment passes in country, but a promising crop of bold female artists continue to impress at every turn as they try to steer country in a more substantive direction. Ashley Monroe is at the very top of that crop of beautiful, bold, and talented women.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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Tonight is the annual Academy Awards, arguably the biggest, most important night in all of American entertainment, if not in the entire world. And during the presentation, and in the list of nominees and winners, you will not see a parade of the movie industry’s most flashy personalities. You won’t see anybody judged on looks or popularity. You will not see the most commercially-successful endeavors given exclusive billing and opportunity for accolades. No, what you will see is the best and the brightest of the industry highlighted based mostly on the creativity and artistic integrity of their works.
It’s not that The Oscars completely ignore commercial viability or success. When a movie like Titanic or Lord of the Rings emerges, the industry recognizes the importance of these legacy films and gives them the proper nods, but not without regard to the artistic integrity of these movies or the talent displayed by the actors in them. Film understands that the most financially-successful movies have their legacy cemented by the strength of their box office numbers, and don’t need to be buffered by accolades better suited to those films that did not enjoy as much commercial attention. And this does not just go for The Oscars. From The Golden Globes, to Cannes, to a myriad of smaller film festivals all across the country and world, in the film industry there is an insistence on finding the most important works in a given year, and shining the spotlight on them.
Contrast this with the music industry, especially the country music industry that is flush with award shows now to the point of being redundant, and the differences are nothing short of embarrassing. In the film industry, low-budget and artistic films regularly find their way to the very top of the award show itinerary. In music, low-budget and independent albums, songs, and artists are completely shut out in favor of the same cloistered group of franchise-caliber names on an annual basis.
A perfect example is country music’s dilemma of finding a 5th female for the “Vocalist of the Year” category at both this CMA Awards and the ACM Awards for the 2012 cycle. The CMA’s, struggling to find a name of similar caliber to the top 3 ladies of Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, and Taylor Swift, reached completely outside of the country world to nominate Kelly Clarkson. The ACM’s also drew a blank beyond Martina McBride as a 4th candidate, and gave the nod to Kacey Musgraves, who despite being an interesting up-and-coming name, hasn’t even released a major album yet.
Meanwhile in 2012, a consensus built throughout music–from The Rolling Stone, to CMT’s editorial chief Chet Flippo, to right here on Saving Country Music–that Kellie Pickler’s album 100 Proof was an album worthy of accolades that balanced artistic integrity and commercial sensibilities. But Kellie and 100 Proof went completely ignored by the award shows, even though they were actively looking in the ranks of unknowns and outside the genre for a female name to fill out their candidate list. Along with the disparaging current outlook this paints for females in country music, it also illustrates the pull the industry has on what are supposed to be independent awards. The reason Kellie Pickler was not nominated is because she enjoyed no support from her label; a factor that is virtually superfluous in the movie world.
The point of awards is to promote the industry they cater to, and if they only consider commercial success, they become a self-fulfilling prophesy and feed a cloistered, creatively anemic environment. When the Academy Awards “Best Picture” nominees are announced, each film gets a sizable boost that helps re-focus the industry on the artistic integrity of the medium. A couple of years ago, The Oscars increased the amount of “Best Picture” nominees for this reason and others.
The Grammy Awards of the music world tend to include a bit more focus on artistry compared to the genre specific shows, but Oscar night every year is a reminder of how behind the music industry is compared to its peers in putting its best foot forward, and promoting the brightest talent.
What in the world is Blake Shelton thinking doing some tired, crusty, old-sounding country shuffle with an artist nobody has heard of? Is he trying to apologize to all of the “Old Farts and Jackasses” he insulted last month? Is it some sort of PR spin control thing? Because the only people who will ever listen to this song are Geritol-drinking old farts who yell at kids for playing on their lawn and and watch 60 Minutes before going to bed by 8 PM. And as Blake Shelton said, and I quote, those people “…donâ€™t buy records anymore, jackass. The kids do.”
So this song talks about Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner, but do people even know who Porter Wagoner is anymore? And more importantly, does anybody care? They barely even know who Dolly Parton is, and that’s mostly because of her boobs. People don’t even know who Ashley Monroe is for that matter. The only reason I know of her is because she’s in that Pistol Annies thing with Miranda Lambert, and I guess that’s how she landed such a huge country star to duet with her that oh yeah, happens to be Miranda’s husband. Coincidence? I think not. I’m sure Blake did this stupid song in exchange for not having to do a weekend’s worth of honey do’s around casa Lambert. If anybody was wondering who really wears the pants in that relationship, look no further than this song.
Seriously, this song sounds like something my grandparents would listen to. It would go great with a bowl of Werther’s Original. And in it Ashley says, “You’ll probably see me country singing on The Voice someday.” Oh honey, don’t get too full of yourself. Miranda may have twisted Blake’s arm to perform on your little album, but NBC will never allow all those fiddle and steel guitar breaks in prime time. This isn’t 1975. You said it best in the song when you said, “Iâ€™m the reigning queen of Karaoke night.” And that’s all you’ll ever be if you keep writing and singing these outmoded, irrelevant, and out-of-touch tunes that name drop country performers that nobody cares about anymore.
Now that Blake Shelton is the reigning Country Music Association Artist of the Year, he has to be more careful about what he puts his name on. Since he gets to decide the direction of country music, he can’t be putting out songs like this or people are going to start thinking this is what country music is supposed to sound like. Can you imagine this song on the radio? Ha! Country music must evolve, and “You Ain’t Dolly” goes totally in the wrong direction.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
Blake Shelton’s now notorious comments about “old farts and jackasses” were culled from a larger commentary where Blake unilaterally declared himself worthy of deciding the direction of country music, warranted by his recent wins at country music award shows. Well if his latest single “Sure Be Cool If You Did” is any indication, the direction Blake would like to take country involves poorly-constructed Ebonic-laden gobbledygook club speak, set to digitally-constructed dance club beats waffed with Axe Body Spray like the tender skin of a recently waxed scrotum.
See, the problem is that Blake Shelton won those awards off of the strength of his franchise built from other avenues unrelated to country music, specifically his judgeship on NBC’s smash reality singing contest The Voice. Like a rising star in NASCAR these days, it’s not only important how well you drive, but if you can remember to hold the label of your energy drink out when being interviewed by the pit road reporter. Without one platinum album under his belt, and without being either a songwriter or musician of any record in his own right (I’ll give you “Over You” despite Miranda Lambert pulling the heavy weight no doubt), the only way Blake Shelton could ever assert any sonic leadership in country music would involve the songs he selects to cut. And in the case of “Sure Be Cool If You Did,” Blake Shelton chooses poorly.
Sure the song will do well commercially, but the opening line “I was gonna keep it real like chill like only have a drink or two” shows that Blake is not ready to lead the country music troops into battle, he’s cowering from the fight by releasing a song that is a cry for relevancy. The chorus of the song rises fairly well, and even has a decently-orchestrated guitar solo in one phrase. But the lyrical hook is flat, and the switching back and forth between an electronic dance club beat and live drums is not a progressive element, it is problematic in how it creates a confusion of mood. Later when Blake sings about a “moonlit Chevy bench seat” and a “little back road” it doesn’t forgive the song’s non-country transgressions, it makes them worse and more obvious, while loading the song down with country checklist baggage as well.
“Sure Be Cool If You Did” wouldn’t be terrible if it just stayed in its element of a slow, dance club song. But just like many current pop country songs, it simply switches urban artifacts for rural ones to qualify it as “country,” creating dissonance between subject and sonic style.
Who is Blake Shelton? What is he? With his first hit “Austin” he would seem to want to be taken as a serious artist. With songs like “Hillbilly Bone” and “Kiss My Country Ass” you would think he’s wanting to be a hard-driving “new Outlaw.” And then with “Sure Be Cool If You Did” he seems to be trying to be a soft-core, pop country sex symbol. That’s the problem with Blake. He’s never led himself in any specific direction or made a stamp through his music in any way. So how do we expect him to accomplish this for the entire genre? He’s an amalgam of milktoast influences steered by executive decisions on how not to diminish the cash value of a celbrity franchise. Even “Sure Be Cool If You Did” feels like Blake’s answer to country rap, without having the man parts to actually cut a country rap song.
Leadership takes boldness, courage, and many times, innovation–things Blake Shelton has never displayed, and is certainly not displaying here. “Sure Be Cool If You Did” is eepish and safe. Instead of leading the charge of country music up the hill against the forces of irrelevancy, Blake’s in the rear with the gear, holding a pristine white flag close to his chest, ready to give it a wave at the first sign that things look grim.
1 3/4 of 2 guns down.
The announcement was made when fans “unlocked” Luke Bryan’s name as part of a Twitter campaign by the ACM’s to rack up 25,000 tweets. Reba McEntire has been the female host of the ACM Awards for the last 14 years, co-hosting the event with Blake Shelton for the last two. Just like the superstar hosting duo of Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood for the CMA Awards, fans enjoyed Blake and Reba’s authentic chemistry and oddball humor. Reba decided to take this year off to focus on her new sitcom “Malibu Country.”
When it was revealed Reba would no longer be co-hosting and a successor for female co-host had been picked, many surmised it would be Blake Shelton’s superstar wife Miranda Lambert. Yesterday Blake Shelton explained how they came to pick Reba’s replacement.
Those are big shoes to fill and I didn’t want to do this thing by myself. To find somebody equal to that level of stardom, we pretty much gave up. So, we set the bar down a little bit lower. We decided we could find somebody that is just good looking, and we fell short on that goal. So starting over, we set the bar a little bit lower and finally thought, ‘If we can just get somebody that can read.’ This is country music, (so) that’s narrowing the field down.
Apparently Luke Bryan was the right woman for the job.
Look, I’m a good old-fashioned red-blooded American male. I like myself a delicate, supple breast, or a perfectly-formed apple butt. And the beautiful shape of a woman intermixed with good music is something that makes me thankful for being alive. But somewhere in the last year or so, country music crossed that line from being the last bastion for respect of beautiful women in American popular culture, to hanging out in the gutter with the rest of the vermin, making videos of venereal-infused floozies dry humping flashy vehicles in the classic vein of tasteless, materialistic, shallow-minded rap imagery.
The tradition of proud, empowered, beautiful women in country music runs deep. Their strength is what made them sexy. And unlike rock and roll and hip hop, the popularity of women in country has run parallel with the men throughout time. The Carter Family, Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, all the way to today with Miranda Lambert and Taylor Swift. But the problem is not the women of country not respecting themselves, the problem is the men not respecting the women, and an apparent endless supply of hussies willing to strut it for shitty pop music.
Take the video for Dustin Lynch’s stupid new song “She Cranks My Tractor” (yeah, right, we’ve heard this one before, haven’t we?) Since this song has so much nothing, they drag some slut out of a strip club to have sex with farm equipment to keep you engaged. This isn’t music, this is material for 14-year-old boys to masturbate to.
My favorite are these flocks of bikini-flaunting chicks with their arms flailing above their heads, like in the Bucky Covington / Shooter Jennings douche fest “Drinking Side of Country”. If this is the country, then where are all the ugly people? I can see some producer telling a poor girl, “Hey sorry, I can see a very slight roll of chub spilling out over your cut-offs. Go purge for two weeks and come back.”
I think Luke Bryan is where this all started, or possibly Kid Rock when he infected country like a herpes outbreak with his cross-genre shallowness. But Luke Bryan was the one that had dancers doing straight up strip tease renditions on the 2011 CMA Awards. And isn’t it ironic how Luke Bryan surrounds himself with so many hot women when he’s so obviously, indisputably, helplessly, pink flamingo, Siegfried & Roy, Fire Island…happy? I mean watch him do his happy dance.
I don’t want to come across as some uptight fuddy duddy. The fact is you can go anywhere on the world wide internet and affix your eyeballs on frolicking trollops. What made country music special and distinct is it avoided this saccharine, sexpot low-brow shit. These people are missing the point that the best way to deploy sex is to leave more to the imagination. That is why America fell in love with Marlyn Monroe, and why America is currently in love with Taylor Swift. Nothing about the women in these videos is intriguing. There’s no reason to come back for more. Like the songs, the videos, and the careers of these artists, they are forgettable. And the devaluation of women in country music that this causes is what is most troubling.
Pending approval by federal regulators, the Disney Corporation has secured a deal to buy country music for $10.5 billion dollars. The deal apparently would include all of country music’s major labels and their rosters of artists, institutions like the Country Music Hall of Fame and The Grand Ole Opry, award shows like the CMA Awards and the ACM Awards, and the naming rights to the now defunct restaurant chain “Kenny Rogers Roasters.”
“This is just the latest step in our efforts to completely monopolize every element of American culture by buying it out from under the people who created it and then selling it back to them in the form of programming on our vast media empire and on special-edition Bul-ray DVDs,” says Disney spokesman Phil Frankenfurter. “We look forward to activating synergies between these two landmark American institutions, and doing what we can to make America one big homogenous culture, free of any regionalism and diversity from anything not presented to them by mainstream corporate media.”
Disney, who already owned ABC, ESPN, as well as studios and radio stations all across the country, and 14 different theme parks all around the world, announced just last week they were buying the complete Star Wars franchise from George Lucas for $4 billion. They’re calling the acquisition of country music the “final puzzle piece in creating an American mono-culture.”
Country music, an institution the has been around for roughly 70 years, became popular throughout America in the 50′s through the radio program “The Grand Ole Opry” broadcast on WSM-AM out of Nashville.
“For years, country music has been an attractive acquisition for Disney, but the timing was not right,” continues Disney spokesman Phil Frankenfurter. “From the 80′s, even into the 90′s, country’s listenership dwelled mostly in older Americans who did not fit comfortably into Disney’s demographic landscape. But in the last decade, especially the last couple of years, with country getting much younger, the timing seemed right to make this partnership. Nobody can deny that right now the hottest thing in country is Taylor Swift. And who listens to Taylor Swift? Adolescent and teenage girls; the exact people who are at the core of Disney consumers.”
Though Disney is being hush about most of its plans for country music, some of the first changes consumers can expect to see are the appearance of the well-recognized Mickey Mouse ears being added on the marquees of certain country music landmarks like The Ryman Auditorium. Disney is also developing a “Country Music Princess” franchise, swapping Cinderella, Snow White, and Ariel for Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, and Miranda Lambert.
“I love having Disney raise my kids,” says housewife Angela Barnum of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. “With great role models like Lindsey Lohan, Miley Cyrus, and Brittney Spears coming from Disney’s roster, I love the free time and piece-of-mind Disney gives me from having to raise my kids myself.”
Kenny Rogers, who was recovering from his latest plastic surgery procedure, could not be reached for comment.
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, it’s hard to dispute that the CMA Awards are the most important night in country music every year. The nominations announced last week had a few interesting wrinkles, so let’s take a in-depth look at what’s coming up on November 1st and make some predictions.
Kelly Clarkson for Female Vocalist of the Year
Yeah, this is a very confusing nomination. As pop artists go, she may be one of the the good guys, but a CMA nomination? Yes she’s dabbled slightly in some crossover material like herÂ “Don’t You Wanna Stay” duet with Jason Aldean, but unless I missed the memo, Kelly has never put out a country album, doesn’t bill herself as a country act on tours, and doesn’t run primarily in country circles. Sure, I think we all anticipate Kelly making a country move soon, but it hasn’t happened yet.
But don’t worry, Kelly Clarkson has no chance of winning this award, and if she did, it would be a PR nightmare more than a gift (You think Carrie Underwood fans are crazy now?). It would have been good to see a name like Kellie Pickler get the attention, even though she would have little chance of winning it. There wasn’t another name they felt met the caliber of the other nominees in country, and so they reached out to pop.
“Roll Me Up And Smoke Me” with Willie Nelson & Snoop Dog for Musical Event of the Year
I both love and hate this nomination. Yes, we should be happy that Willie’s name, along with Jamey Johnson’s and Kris Kristofferson’s who also collaborated on the song are even being mentioned in connection with the CMA’s. And no, I do not see this as some watershed moment in the mono-genre just because of Snoop Dog’s involvement. “Roll Me Up…” is still solidly a country song. It just once again reinforces Willie’s identity with pot instead of all the other great things he could and should be known for (including his marijuana advocacy), and it seems like a nomination stretch to attempt to be showy by the CMA. Nonetheless it is a very fun song done by some very cool people, and there’s much worse things that could have be given this recognition.
Down Year For Taylor Swift
Her last album Speak Now is pretty long in the tooth at this point having been released almost 2 years ago, and she hasn’t had a hit single in a while. Her new album Red will have been out for less than a month when the CMA’s hit, and her new single “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” may be a little too pop for the CMA’s tastes, leaving them reluctant to vote for her. I’m sure in 2013 Swift will again be the CMA’s darling, but 2012 may take a Taylor Swift breather.
We’re Lucky There’s No Lionel
Except for a buried mention in the “Musical Event of the Year” category, Lionel Richie and his album Tuskegee didn’t make any of the major lists; a pleasant surprise. Despite lacking a major single, the album has been one the biggest blockbusters of 2012 so far. But don’t worry Richie fans, I’m sure the ACM’s who’ve whored themselve for Lionel plenty, including throwing him an unprecedented hour-long special on CBS, will reward the commercial success of Tuskegee greatly.
***UPDATE (10-31-12) Jason Aldean’s Cheating and Taylor Swift’s Chart Success
It will be interesting to see how the CMA votership reacted to the news about Jason Aldean being photographed with a woman that wasn’t his wife in an LA Bar. The news broke on September 30th, and the final round of voting for the CMA’s commenced on October 4th. Aldean, who’s up for the most awards this year, may see his support diminish because of the scandal.
Similarly, Swift has been making headlines since the last round of voting started. With Billboard changing their chart rules, she now has a firm grip on the #1 spot on the country charts with her pop anthem “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and two other songs charting in the top 20. Does this increase her chances of taking home a trophy, or will there be a Taylor Swift backlash because of the overtly-pop aspect of her new hit songs?
Entertainer of the Year
- Taylor Swift
- Brad Paisley
- Jason Aldean – Winner
- Blake Shelton
- Kenny Chesney
Slight chance Taylor Swift could walk away with this, or maybe even Blake Shelton based on his work with NBC’s The Voice, but I think it’s Aldean’s to lose. His was the monster album this last cycle that kept churning out singles.
***UPDATE – As I said, it was Aldean’s to lose, but he may have lost it with his cheating scandal back in September. Also Taylor Swift now has to be considered a serious contender from the strength of her Red album becoming the best-selling debut in a decade, and the chart success of her song “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”. Or, these two big events could cancel each other out, and Blake Shelton could find himself the beneficiary. In the end though, I still think Aldean has the greatest chance, but it all of a sudden it is a much tighter race.
Male Vocalist of the Year
- Jason Aldean
- Luke Bryan
- Eric Church – Second Choice
- Blake Shelton- Winner
- Keith Urban
This is a three horse race, with Blake Shelton inching ahead from the strength his realty TV personality gives him. This may be where Eric Church’s smack talking comes back to bite him. In a neck and neck race, folks will remember how he called out Miranda Lambert, Blake Shelton, and others and will give the nod to the nominee with a cleaner nose. Aldean’s My Kinda Party has been such a commercial success, it’s hard to rule him out completely, but it’s rare an artist wins both Entertainer and the top gender category in the same year.
Female Vocalist of the Year
- Carrie Underwood – Winner
- Taylor Swift
- Kelly Clarkson
- Miranda Lambert
- Martina McBride
This might be the biggest toss up of the major awards, but I think the other contenders might split the difference and leave Carrie Underwood with the win. Again, it’s an off year for Taylor, but she can never be completely counted out. Miranda is the other solid contender. I’m not sure if her album Four The Record or the supporting tour were strong enough for the nod this year, but when you combine it with her Pistol Annies material, it’s a pretty impressive body of work.
Album of the Year
- Chief – Eric Church - Winner
- Four The Record – Miranda Lambert
- Home – Dierks Bentley
- Own The Night – Lady Antebellum
- Tailgates & Tanlines – Luke Bryan
I just don’t think the other albums have shown the remarkable strength Chief has. It’s been stalled out in the Billboard Top 5 for what seems to be eons. This will override any concerns about Eric’s extra-curricular gum flapping off-stage.
Â Single of the Year
- â€śDirt Road Anthem” – Jason Aldean – Winner
- â€śGod Gave Me You” -Â Blake Shelton
- â€śHome” -Â Dierks Bentley
- â€śPontoon” -Â Little Big Town
- â€śSpringsteen” -Â Eric Church
This is a pretty tenuous prediction because “Dirt Road Anthem” is so late in the calendar cycle. And though it angers me so that it may be the front runner to win, if you are going to give it to the most successful and influential song in country for this calendar cycle, it’s hard to dispute it. “Home” is also a little late in the cycle, and let’s not forget Jason Isbell claims it’s his. “Pontoon” and “Sprinsteen” as singles are a little early in the cycle, so give me Blake Shelton’s “God Gave Me You” as a runner up.
Vocal Group of the Year
- Eli Young Band
- Lady Antebellum
- Little Big Town
- The Band Perry
- Zac Brown Band – Winner
Where’s Rascal Flatts? They’re just as bad as these other bands. If they’re bitching, they have a legitimate beef. If I were Zac Brown, I’d be ashamed to be in this company.
Vocal Duo of the Year
- Big & Rich
- Love and Theft
- The Civil Wars
- Thompson Square
If The Civil Wars ever had a chance, it would be this year, but I’d still only make their odds 1 in 5. Sugarland hasn’t done much this year. Beyond that, it’s a total toss up.
Song of the Year
- â€śEven If It Breaks Your Heart,â€ť Will Hoge and Eric Paslay
- â€śGod Gave Me You,â€ť Dave Barnes
- â€śHome,â€ť Dan Wilson, Brett Beavers, and Dierks Bentley
- â€śOver You,â€ť Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton – Winner
- â€śSpringsteen,â€ť Eric Church, Ryan Tyndell, and Jeff Hyde
Seeing Will Hoge win a CMA would be a small, cool victory. “Over You” might edge the others from the star power involved and the sentimentality that tends to dominate this category.
New Artist of the Year
- Lee Brice
- Brantley Gilbert – Winner
- Hunter Hayes
- Thompson Square
Brantley and his bad Affliction T-shirt will probably take it, and the world will be a worse place for it.
Musical Event of the Year
- “Dixie Highway,” Alan Jackson and Zac Brown Band
- “Feel Like a Rock Star,” Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw
- “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” Willie Nelson, Snoop Dog, Kris Kristofferson, Jamey Johnson
- “Safe and Sound,” Taylor Swift and The Civil Wars – Winner
- “Stuck on You,” Lionel Richie and Darius Rucker
This may be both The Civil Wars’ and Taylor Swift’s best chance at a 2012 CMA, boosted by The Hunger Games’ commercial success.
Music Video of the Year
- â€śCome Over,â€ť Kenny Chesney
- â€śOver You,â€ť Miranda Lambert
- â€śPontoon,â€ť Little Big Town
- Â “Red Solo Cup,â€ť Toby Keith
- â€śSpringsteen,â€ť Eric Church
If “Red Solo Cup” wins, look for even more mainstream country fake-viral videos.
Musician of the Year
- Sam Bush â€“ mandolin
- Paul Franklin â€“ steel guitar
- Dann Huff â€“ guitar
- Brent Mason â€“ guitar
- Mac McAnally â€“ guitar
Last week it was revealed that in the June issue of the upcoming W Magaine, Miranda Lambert lets loose one mother of a backhanded compliment toward Taylor Swift, saying:
Taylor Swift is a pop singer. But she really helped country music. When she hit, I was thinking, Thank God Taylorâ€™s out there to show people weâ€™re not cheesy. Some people still think that country music is twangy and cheesy, and they pigeonhole us. But I thought if theyâ€™re looking for Taylorâ€™s videos or songs, they might see or hear other people they like. If her fans are watching for her, they might like me too.
There’s really many things to unravel from this Miranda statement, including that she calls out Taylor for not being country, but then praises her for showing people country is not “twangy.” Isn’t the presence of twang what makes country country? And the lack of it is what makes country pop? Isn’t Miranda herself offered up many times as an example of country twang? It hearkens back to statements Jason Aldean made before the ACM Awards, about how he didn’t want people thinking country was hayseeds sitting on hay bales.
But more important is this question of how effective Taylor Swift is as a country music apostle, going out there in the world, turning crossover fans into country converts with her music. This certainly must be one of the theories behind the move announced today by the Country Music Hall of Fame to open a “Taylor Swift Speak Now: Treasures of the World Tour” exhibit on June 6th, running through November. Taylor just made a massive $4 million donation to the Hall of Fame for a children’s education center. The two couldn’t be related, could they?
But the Hall of Fame has already had a small Swift display up for a while, across from some of the biggest memorabilia the Hall boasts at the west end of the top floor. The idea is to engage the kiddos with someone they can relate to, and then maybe, just maybe, they may give some attention to all this old people, backwoods hillbilly stuff.
Is this theory effective? I don’t know. And the question embodies the underlying dichotomy of Taylor Swift. In one respect, she’s the country music savior we’ve all been waiting for. She writes her own songs, plays her own music, produces her own albums, respects herself, is a positive role model, and gives back to the community. As a product, she’s brought tremendous revenue to a struggling industry and genre.Â Bless her heart, she has inspired millions. And as pop, her music holds tremendous levity. But the problem still remains: Taylor Swift is not country.
Do we really think legions of her fans are going to gateway from her music to Waylon Jennings, or even Alan Jackson, or even Justin Townes Earle? And for as many people she may convert to the pop version of country, may she scare just as many away from the traditional side? What are the ratios here? For all the good she may do enticing young fans to the genre, is she chasing away the older ones?
I don’t have any answers here. Taylor could be doing tremendous amounts of good, or she could be doing irreplaceable damage to country. Or her toll could be a complete wash. I think Taylor Swift has done tremendous good for society, culture, and music in general. But I think it’s important for all of us to question the effectiveness of Taylor Swift as a country music gateway drug, and what the lingering, long-term side effects of that drug could be.
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 youâ€™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 wasnâ€™t cool to play the kind of music we did. It wasnâ€™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 thatâ€™s where the outlaw name comes from, but I prefer to think thereâ€™s already been an outlaw movement, and I think we can leave it at that. Iâ€™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.
So once again Eric Church has accomplished the open mouth, insert foot trick in an attempt to prove to all of us just how much of an “Outlaw” he is. In the latest edition of The Rolling Stone, not the last one with Obama on the cover, or the other one with Obama on the cover, but the newest one with Obama on the cover, Eric Church twists off on Blake Shelton, dropping F-bombs, and saying Blake is “not an artist” for his role on NBC’s American Idol answer “The Voice”:
Itâ€™s become American Idol gone mad. Honestly, if Blake Shelton and Cee Lo Green fucking turn around in a red chair, you get a deal? Thatâ€™s crazy. I donâ€™t know what would make an artist do that. Youâ€™re not an artist…If I was concerned about my legacy, thereâ€™s no fucking way I would ever sit there [and be a reality-show judge]. Once your career becomes something other than the music, then thatâ€™s what it is. Iâ€™ll never make that mistake. I donâ€™t care if I fucking starve.
Then Eric Church turned his evil eye veiled behind his signature aviators on the current state of the institution of rock n’ roll.
Rock & Roll has been very emo or whatever the fuck. Itâ€™s very hipster. We played Lollapalooza and I was stunned at how pussy 90 percent of those bands were. Nobodyâ€™s loud. Itâ€™s all very fuckinâ€™ Peter, Paul and Mary shit.
On the surface, what Eric Church said about Blake Shelton and “The Voice” is spot on. The problem is that Eric Church, whose very much a product of the same machine Blake Shelton originates from, is the one throwing the punches. Eric Church is on tour right now with the official country music douche Brantley Gilbert for crying out loud. He wants to be considered an “Outlaw”, but he takes every opportunity to be part of the big corporate country music machine by performing at award shows. If Eric Church has such a problem with Blake Shelton, why did he perform his song “Springsteen” at last month’s ACM Awards, that were hosted by, guess who… Blake Shelton.
As Blake’s wife Miranda Lambert pointed out through Twitter, she took Eric out on tour with her in 2010. â€śThanks Eric Church for saying I’m not a real artist,â€ť she tweeted. “You’re welcome for the tour in 2010.â€ť
Erich Church wants it both ways. He wants to be considered the “new Outlaw” of country music, but he wants to still use the same pop country machine he criticizes to get success. And when exactly did calling out other performers make you an Outlaw? I sure don’t remember Willie or Waylon doing that in their Outlaw days. I remember Waylon skipping the award shows, not making self-aggrandizing videos to help drum up votes from fans. And if you can’t do anything but play music to be an artist, does that mean Outlaws Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson are disqualified because they acted in movies?
This is the same thing Eric Church has been doing for years. The difference now though is Eric Church is no longer playing a club circuit or even a theater circuit. He’s selling out arenas. He’s a bona fide top tier country music star. I am amazed that his last album Chief released last July is still #4 on the Billboard country charts, and was the greatest gainer last week, helped by his big hit “Springsteen.”
But bad habits die hard, and he’s still acting like he has to insult people to get noticed. So many people have their conspiracy theories of how Taylor Swift came to power in country, floating stories about her dad buying her career, and warehouses full of CD’s purchase to drive SoundScan numbers to get her album in the charts. But in truth her big break came when Eric was on tour with Rascal Flatts. Yeah, again, not very “Outlaw”. After repeatedly ignoring Flatts’ requests to not play as loud and to respect the time slot they had given him, since after all, they were giving Eric Church an opportunity, he got kicked off the tour, opening up a space for the up-and-coming Taylor Swift to benefit from the exposure.
Even if I may agree with some of the things Eric Church says, its hard to believe him. I don’t want him representing the dissent against corporate country music, because he’s part of corporate country music, and he fights dirty.
Lastly, this Rolling Stone article should be taken with a little suspicion. The financially-struggling outlet has a history of taking comments out of context, printing comments that were meant to be off-record, and at times publishing outright fictitious stories to help drive buzz and viral events, just like with what has happened with this story where everywhere you turn, people are talking about it. For example there was the story pitting Kris Kristofferson against Toby Keith that both sides say is completely fictitious, or the article that got Gen. Stanley McChrystal fired. Don’t be surprised if Eric in the coming days comes out and says that his comments were misconstrued in one way or another.
As I anticipated, Eric Church has released a statement through The Boot, saying his comments in The Rolling Stone were “misunderstood.”
“The comment I made to Rolling Stone was part of a larger commentary on these types of reality television shows and the perception they create, not the artists involved with the shows themselves,” Eric clarifies. “The shows make it appear that artists can shortcut their way to success. There are a lot of artists due to their own perseverance that have gone on to be successful after appearing on these shows, but the real obstacles come after the cameras stop rolling. Every artist has to follow up television appearances with dedication towards their craft, but these shows tend to gloss over that part and make it seem like you can be ordained into stardom. I have a problem with those perceived shortcuts, not just in the music industry. Many people have come to think they can just wake up and have things handed to them.
“This piece was never intended to tear down any individual, and I apologize to anybody I offended in trying to shed light on this issue.
The war vs. pop influences and progress in country music, and the purity yearned for by the traditional elements of the genre is almost as old as the genre itself. The introduction of electric instruments on The Grand Ole Opry stage, drummers in country outfits, it was all met with stiff resistance from purists in their time. Steel guitar might be one of the most identifiably “country” elements in music, but think what shock must have ran through traditionalists’ minds in the late 40′s when the appeal of this strange electrified sound was brought back from Polynesia by WWII GI’s.
This continuous country music cold war tends to go hot periodically, as it did over the last couple of weeks. The ACM Awards, a following brushup pitting Miranda Lambert and Justin Moore against Ashton Kutcher, followed by a prominent Fox News story on the matter, had the old standard battle lines being cast, and like most battles in the culture war these days, both sides being defined by extremes as opposed to a more true measure of feelings, creating a polarized environment where little understanding could be garnered.
So in an attempt to power through the rhetoric, here is a cool-headed attempt to explain some of the differences between the traditional and mainstream mindsets, a detailed look at the term “progress” and how it relates to country music, and how it all relates to radio, still the most important medium for relaying country music to listeners.
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“There needs to be more old stuff on country radio”
“Nobody wants to hear that old stuff on country radio”
Country radio is the real battleground in the country music war. Radio programming is reflected at country awards shows, and that is why they become battlegrounds as well. When the argument is made that more older music, or more traditional-sounding new music needs to be on country radio, the reaction from mainstream and pop country fans usually is that country music needs to “progress” (see below) and that the old stuff is outdated.
You can’t argue taste when it comes to music, but it is impossible to argue against statistics, and the statistics released by Edison Research at the Country Radio Seminar in Nashville this February conclusively state that country radio is on a dramatic downhill trend, and that one of the reasons is because country music’s big traditionalist demographics are being undeserved.
Conversely, traditionalists that think that pop country has no place on country radio and that they should only play Hank, Cash, Willie, and Waylon are doing just as much of a disservice. By saying the current radio formula needs to swing in the complete opposite direction and wholesale eliminate pop influences, they negatively typecast the more common pragmatic traditionalist argument that is simply looking for balance. Country music and radio has always had pop influences, even in the 50′s, and it must continue to. A complete flip of the radio format would in turn disenfranchise the mainstream audience and put radio on just as much of an unsustainable path.
That is why balance and quality is what must be strived for on country radio. As Edison Research pointed out, at this moment there is an imbalance towards the pop or mainstream. Something commonly misunderstood by mainstream fans is that just because something is “traditional” country doesn’t mean it needs to be classic or “old”. There are scores of traditional, neo-traditional, post-punk, and progressive country artists putting out relevant, commercially-viable music receiving little or no mainstream radio play. Touching on all of country’s current styles, along with paying homage to its roots with a classic song or two, with an overall emphasis of showcasing the the best and most appealing music the genre has to offer is the way radio, and in turn country music, can preserve its viability as a medium.
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“Country music must progress”
This is the argument commonly made by pop country fans whenever traditionalists and purists push back on pop, rap, or other influences entering the genre. However “pop” doesn’t necessarily translate into progression. It many times results in regression. You can have progress in country music while still keeping the music firmly attached to its roots. That exact formula was what “alt-country” was founded on, with artists like Uncle Tupelo, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, and Bela Fleck. A term often used in exchange for “alt-country” is “progressive country”. Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Townes Van Zandt were also labeled as progressive country in their day.
One of the reasons progressive country came into existence is because the progressive approach was met with resistance from both the pop-oriented, commercial influences of the country music business, and traditionalists. But many alt-country artists went in the alt direction in the 80′s because they were embarrassed of the way country’s roots were being treated by the mainstream country genre. And the mainstream, by not showcasing or attempting to re-intergrate the tremendous talent gravitating to the alt-country world, found itself in one of its darkest periods in regards to both commercial success and artistic appeal.
Today there are many great country artists with progressive approaches to the music, yet they must compete with pop, and now hip-hop oriented “country” acts that many times frame country music in a submissive role to these other genres and are leading to the formation of a mono-genre.
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“Tradition is important in country music”
More than in any other genre of music, tradition and a tie to the roots of the music is a vital element that makes country music work. My favorite illustration of this is to compare it to religions, and compare country music to the Jewish faith. Anybody can be Christian or Muslim as long as they are believers in that faith, but being Jewish is just as much a culture and a bloodline as it is a belief.
Country is a roots genre that other genres are derived from, with a pure bloodline running through its past, just like the blues. Rock & roll for example has always been an amalgam of blues, rockabilly, country, and other influences. Hip-hop was founded on borrowing beats and modes from other genres. Country did draw from other influences too, but it also ties its traditions into its sonic structures and lyrical themes with the nostalgia and reflection found in its songs. The traditions and roots are fundamental elements of the style, just like the rapping of hip-hop, or the back beat of rock & roll.
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Without the tradition and roots of country in the music, it begins to fall apart as an art form. Without any pop or other outside influences in country, it begins to lose its commercial viability. The war for the heart of country music will continue on, but what must not is the imbalance favoring pop that has paralleled the most daunting and undeniable decline in the country music industry in its history.
Like the most awful of childhood memories, I’ve attempted to suppress my recollections and thoughts of this year’s ACM Awards into the deepest and darkest recesses of my psyche, but like a bad acid reflux condition, the bile keeps rising. Yesterday Fox News contacted me for some quotes on a story entitled: Some country music fans say Ashton Kutcher not offensive, popular country music is. After the ACM’s, both Miranda Lambert and Justin Moore took to Twitter to call out Ashton Kutcher for “making fun of country music” after he showed up dressed more country than anyone else on the night, and then sang a portion of a George Strait song out-of-tune.
Miranda Lambert, who received her “Female Artist of the Year” award from Ashton as presenter, tweeted, “Was Ashton Kutcher making fun of country or is it just me? Watching it back now and I’m kinda wondering?â€ť and the very vertically-addled Justin Moore said, “Seen Ashton kutcher at the acms tonight. What a douche! I don’t care for people making a mockery of the way country artists’ dress.â€ť Ashton responded to Miranda, “â€śI Am One Of The biggest country Music fans you’ve ever met,â€ť he tweeted at Lambert. â€śWasn’t making fun at all.â€ť
As one who admittedly over-reacts to any affront on country music, I found Ashton Kutcher’s appearance innocuous at the worst on Sunday night. I can think of a dozen more offensive elements on the ACMs than Ashton, an actor on a sitcom, coming out and attempting to be entertaining in a funny manner because that is what all of us expect from him. He’s one of the leads on a show notorious for his penis jokes and banal humor.
I found the appearance by KISS in their full spandex and cod piece regalia significantly more offensive and out-of-place, and Carrie Underwood’s opening strip-tease number way more out of line with country’s character. So were appearances by Marc Anthony, Bono, and Lionel Ritchie. Couldn’t the ACMs given that face time to some country legends that deserve it more in that platform, or some up-and-coming country artists that could have benefited from that exposure? Sure, Ashton had no business being on the ACMs either, but he has a show on CBS who broadcast the ACM’s, and this is why he was there, and therein lies the problem with today’s Network TV environment.
Cross marketing is crippling live events on television–this idea that these big events draw enough traffic that you can justify ostensibly embedded commercials into their content with no recourse. Nothing is a bigger ass whip than watching a sports show when some leggy peroxide blonde hops into the broadcasting booth and is attempting to explain the plot of her new TV crime drama romantic comedy show set in a distopian world while the sports commentators attempt to interject info about what’s happening on the field.
The reason KISS was at the awards is because they’re attempting to resurrect their careers with Motley Crue on a new upcoming dual tour. Apparently CBS and washed up hair bands have carte blanch control over the content of a country awards show.
People who actually care about the roots and purity of country music keep waiting for that one Armageddon moment where country music will so cross over the line that the “pop sensibilities” and the “fake Outlaw” motif will all come crumbling down and they will be forced to return to the roots of the genre. With the continued backlash from the ACMs stretching well into this week, we very well may point back to Sunday night as Waterloo in the future. But I’m not holding my breathe, and even if it was the “big moment” and the reset button was pushed, be sure country music will figure out how to screw it up again even when there has been a resurgence back to the roots. It is a cyclical nature, and one can only pray to the ghost of Johnny Cash that the cycle is back on the upswing.
But truly, the 2012 ACM awards offered very few redeeming values, maybe Brad Paisley’s performances, maybe a few other things. But Carrie Underwood’s performance was the worst. Two years in a row now (last year it was a duet with Steven Tyler), Carrie Underwood has played the ACM’s puppet to open the show with the most pop, and most sensational display possible to attempt to draw in non-country genre viewers for the duration of the night.
In the 5 years of Saving Country Music, I have never had the need to call out Carrie Underwood, even last year I gave her a pass because in general, despite her American Idol past and how pop she may or may not be, she’s been a genuine, honest performer. But her persona is of the girl next door, the simple country girl, and when she gets up there in lingerie, flanked by the silhouettes of naked female bodies humping the air, it just looks out of place, for Carrie and country. Hey, I love the curvatures of the female body just as much as anybody, but you don’t want to see that from sweet Carrie.
Carrie defenders (and they are many and fervent) love to point out that she’s more “country” than Taylor Swift. That may be true, but at least Taylor Swift respects herself, and is true to herself, but then again, the 2012 ACMs were a low moment for Taylor too, who I’ve come around on recently. She seemed plastic, too rehearsed and conscious of the cameras on her, and Taylor didn’t even perform. Her reaction to Blake Shelton’s joke about her dating Tim Tebow caused its own drama, and possibly my biggest take from the whole night was how Taylor had slightly tarnished her image.
Taylor Swift’s name has also been brought up in defense of Lionel Ritchie whose performance on the ACMs lasted 4X longer than the tribute to the recently-passed Earl Scruggs, because as they say Taylor Swift is not country. Well of course Taylor is not country either, and at this point saying so is just being a master of the obvious. But she is real, though that didn’t really show through at the ACMs. The issue with Lionel is the absolute drubbing the American consumer is taking from the advertising of his Tuskegee album. Lionel has a whole autonomous ACM Special coming up on April 13th, and his “country” duets” album came in at the top of the charts this week, and sold more copies than any other Lionel album since 1985. And what exactly is country about Lionel?
In the end I feel embarrassed to even be talking about all this TMZ bullshit. The water cooler talk should be about the amazing performances and the inspiring moments about an event like The ACMs. Remember how we felt after Jennifer Hudson’s performance of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” in tribute to Whitney Houston on the Grammys? There is better performances and more inspiration on a episode of American Idol these days than there was on the 2012 ACM’s, and it was because country is embarrassed about being country and attempts to make up for that by being sensational instead of being explanatory in what country is, and exemplary in the way it is presented and in its performances. Instead we have award winners calling out presenters, and fans of pop performers and fake Outlaws duking it out for who is the worst. Dammit I want to to be honored to be a country music fan, not embarrassed.
Whether we like it or not, the ACM’s represent us as country fans. That is why we can’t just sit back and let them monopolize the dialogue, we must hold their feet to the fire, and broadcast our dissent, and let the rest of the world know that this is not us, this is not country music. Country music belongs to the people, and the people of country must rise up and take their genre back before it becomes a laughing stock, and not worth fighting for.
Don’t give up on country music! It may be dark times, and the light of country music may be scattered and dim, but as long as that light lives in the heart of its true fans and musicians, it will never die, and the hope remains that someday that light will be unified in to a new Golden era for country music.
Well shit, it looks like the Academy of Country Music Awards are this Sunday, so what better to get you prepared than to hold this charade up to the light and see what we’ve got. You should expect Reba McEntire’s skin to be taut, Blake Shelton’s jokes to be flat, Taylor Swift reactions to be be precocious, and let’s all pray to Jesus that the camera doesn’t find Keith Urban’s wife, the refined and elegant Nicole Kidman, whose been molding her physical appearance for years now to become a replica of Skeletor for the upcoming He-Man remake.
You can’t mention the ACM’s without framing them in the context of being the bastard son to the much more important and fair CMA’s. Folks love to smirk that all these award shows are rigged, well the ACM’s are the ones we know for sure are dominated by Music Row politics and the practice of block voting, where labels trade votes to get specific artists they want to push nominated and awarded. Last year this practice came to light when it was revealed Miranda Lambert was favored over Carrie Underwood.
Either way, you can argue it is country music’s 2nd most important night, whether you like shaking your fist at the country music industry or not, so SCM will be there to cover it. You’re invited to turn your TV on and your snark machine up and join us for the SCM Live Blog on the ACM’s Sunday night. In the meantime, let’s look at what we have in regards to candidates and awards.
Entertainer of the Year
- Jason Aldean
- Kenny Chesney
- Brad Paisley
- Blake Shelton
- Taylor Swift – Win
This is a two horse race between Taylor Swift and Jason Aldean. Man vs. woman, real vs. fake, pop vs. more pop. In the end I expect Taylor Swift to run away with the award because the Entertainer of the Year is fan voted. Legions of glitter faced little girls will outlast Aldean’s winshield cowboy fanbase that is boggled by any technology beyond their Bluetooth.
Male Vocalist of the Year
- Jason Aldean – Win
- Kenny Chesney
- Brad Paisley
- Blake Shelton
- Chris Young
This is Jason Aldean’s to lose, and it becomes more likely for him if the fans vote Taylor Swift for Entertainer of the Year. The other contender could be Blake Shelton, bolstered by the popularity of “The Voice” TV show. Chris Young is the sleeper with an outside chance. He’s been getting a lot of industry buzz lately, and being on the major Music Row label of RCA compared to Aldean’s independent Broken Bow gives him a very slight chance of tipping the scales. It’s also worth noting that Brad Paisley has won this award for the last 5 years.
Female Vocalist of the Year
- Sara Evans
- Miranda Lambert – Win
- Martina McBride
- Taylor Swift
- Carrie Underwood
Miranda Lambert deserves it. Slight chance Taylor Swift might steal it, but the way the timeline lines up, this is an off year for Taylor and the ACM’s since her last album came out over a year ago. Miranda has released two solid albums recently, a solo one and one with The Pistol Annies, and her label has already proved they will go to bat for her behind-the-scenes. Unless some unforeseen label politics get in the way, Miranda walks with the hardware.
Vocal Group of the Year
- The Band Perry – Win
- Eli Young Band
- Lady Antebellum
- Rascal Flatts
- Zac Brown Band
Let’s just call a spade a spade, and rename this category “Best Hair”. In the end, I expect Nashville’s new favorite toy in The Band Perry and the Perry brothers’ Frodo Baggins mop tops to mop the floor with Rascal Flatts’ bleached and over-moosed doos. Though Rascal Flatts’ hair is as overproduced and extra-perfect as their music, it is beginning to fall out-of-style. Give Lady Antebellum and outside chance in this beauty contest, stunted slightly by Hillary Scott’s newfound post-marriage heft.
Vocal Duo of the Year
- Love and Theft
- Montgomery Gentry
- Steel Magnolia
- Thompson Square – I Guess
Oh gosh, what a paltry collection of odds and sods this is, illustrating the ridiculousness of the modern-day country duo. The spirit of this award was to highlight country music’s legendary pairings of the past, like George & Tammy, and Willie & Waylon. Brooks & Dunn was the only thing keeping this category relevant for the last few years. Then when Music Row figured out they could create these duos to gain free exposure through award shows, the concept got out of hand. I guess give me Thompson Square for the win, with Sugarland having an outside chance from the strength of their 2011 touring. Where are The Civil Wars?
New Artist of the Year
- Brantley Gilbert – Win
- Hunter Hayes
- Scotty McCreery
The two fresh-faced boys will fall to the “Official Country Music Douche” Brantley Gilbert, unbeknownst to his fan base that will be too busy waxing their scrotums, or cooking up the latest batch of methamphetamine in their bathtubs.
Album of the Year
- Chief â€“ Eric Church (EMI-Nashville)
- Four The Record â€“ Miranda Lambert (RCA)
- Hemingway’s Whiskey â€“ Kenny Chesney (BNA)
- My Kinda Party â€“ Jason Aldean (Broken Bow Records) – Win
- Own The Night â€“ Lady Antebellum (Capitol Records Nashville)
My Kinda Party is the sure bet, but Four The Record, Hemingway’s Whiskey, and Own The Night could all sneak up and win if their labels are really looking to push them. Eric Church’s Chief probably does not have a chance, but it is an achievement for Church to even be nominated. It is easy to think of Eric Church as just making it out of the club circuit because his climb has been slow and not marked by the big bursts that usually usher in super stardom, but bolstered by a rabid fan base, he’s selling out arenas, and is becoming a bona-fide country music franchise.
Single of the Year
- Crazy Girl â€“ Eli Young Band (Republic Nashville)
Produced by: Mike Wrucke
- Don’t You Wanna Stay â€“ Jason Aldean With Kelly Clarkson (Broken Bow Records)
Produced by: Michael Knox
- Red Solo Cup â€“ Toby Keith (Show Dog-Universal Music)
Produced by: Toby Keith
- Tomorrow â€“ Chris Young (RCA)
Produced by: James Stroud
- You And Tequila â€“ Kenny Chesney Featuring Grace Potter (BNA)
Produced by: Buddy Cannon, Kenny Chesney
Wow, this list is a joke, and the moment where Music Row politics got in the way of putting together any real sensical list of nominees. Toby Keith’s “Red Solo Cup” makes a mockery of the whole category, the whole ACM process, and the awards themselves, but a little part of me hopes it wins anyway just to expose the ridiculousness of the whole thing. I guess “You And Tequila” is the most likely win, but in reality the winner will be whatever song the suits huddled around a table decide needs to be “pushed” the most.
Song of the Year
- Crazy Girl â€“ Eli Young Band
Composers: Lee Brice, Liz Rose
- Home â€“ Dierks Bentley
Composers: Brett Beavers, Dierks Bentley, Dan Wilson
- Just A Kiss â€“ Lady Antebellum
Composers: Dallas Davidson, Dave Haywood, Charles Kelley, Hillary Scott
- Threaten Me With Heaven â€“ Vince Gill
Composers: Amy Grant, Vince Gill, Dillon Oâ€™Brian, Will Owsley
- You And Tequila â€“ Kenny Chesney Featuring Grace Potter
Composers: Matraca Berg, Deana Carter
A little bit better list than the singles, but not by much. Again, I hope the process fails the country music consumer and exposes its ridiculousness by electing Dierks Bentley’s “Home” whose authenticity as an original song has been questioned by performer (and possible future songwriter credit) Jason Isbell. Vince Gill should win, but won’t. Songs are what all of music breaks down to, and what is charged with touching your heart. The country music consumer should be embarrassed and angered by these song lists, and expect more from the ACM’s.
In this dirty business of monitoring the doings of Music Row, every once in a while you get these glimmers of hope that an album will slip through the mandibles of the money changers that actually has some class, and appeal beyond the easily-pliable masses. The Miranda Lambert’s of the world are not bad, but many times you still have to gerrymander your taste buds to consider where the music came from and what battles it probably took to get an album out that still sounds half way decent. In the end, the hype is usually just that.
Recently it appears Nashville has taken a cue from actors and pop stars and decided to “go country” itself. But just because an album is overtly “country” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good. We’re all country fans, but we’re fans of good music first, and braying about how country you are and using steel and fiddle just to add a “country” taste to a song instead of employing them in tasteful instrumentation isn’t going to get you anywhere with the country fans who’ve long since strayed from the mainstream herd.
Enter Kellie Picker and her new album 100 Proof that for the last few months has been touted as her getting back to her roots and developing a hard country sound. Right out of the chute, with the first two songs “Where’s Tammy Wynette” and “Unlock That Honky Tonk” there’s no doubt this album is country, but one had to wonder if these were works of sincerity, or the female version of the overexposed “laundry list” song formula.
This whole “I’m a woman, hear me roar” bit is big right now in mainstream country, which is not necessarily a bad thing, unless it becomes overexposed. It makes a heavy appearance in the first two songs, and in the first single from the album, “Tough”. But after the album announces itself as unmistakably country, it begins to reveal itself as unmistakably good, and not just when considering it as Music Row fare from the modern era. No, this is good country music, period.
The song “Stop Cheatin’ On Me”, which initially seems burdened by the weak return of “..or I’ll start cheating on you” becomes a brilliant composition simply from it’s sonic construction; the way it builds out from the bass guitar, and modulates after the first verse. Listening to this song you can see yourself hearing it blaring from an old juke box in the corner of a bar. Same can be said for the very fun “Little House on the Highway.”
Songs like “Turn The Radio On and Dance” and “Rockaway” have this very sweet innocence to them. I’m not kidding. They harken back to the pre-Garth 80′s, when country had this simplicity to it that was sweet, when the one hit wonder model of music may have not lead to any major substance, but the songs nonetheless were just simply appealing, and seemed so easy to attach to memories.
Many of the songs on this album are not spectacular on the surface, it’s what’s going on behind-the-scenes that makes them special. Many pop country folks and “new Outlaws” are attempting to evoke Waylon Jennings these days by screaming his name alongside inane countryisms. Kellie instead understands that Waylon worked from the backbone of the music, a trick Waylon picked up on when crossing the tracks in Littlefield and Lubbock to hang out in the blues and jazz bars. The bass on this album, just like Jennings, creates a visceral bed for the music that allows it to shoot straight into your heart. This album should be listened to loud, on a good-booming system. The bigger the better.
And though I did not care for a few of the songs here, including the title track “100 Proof”, there’s some songs with undeniable soul. That’s right, “soul” from Music Row. The song “Mother’s Day” drops the Southern accent and is just Kellie singing straight from the heart, with her smooth and fiercely-feminine voice. The album concludes with “The Letter (To Daddy)” that could evoke tears from a rock.
What’s that you say? Kellie Pickler is an American Idol alum? You know what, I don’t even know that I care. And I’m not sure if Kellie Pickler herself is to blame for the beauty of this album, or if it’s the fault of producers and professional songwriters. All I know is that it’s damn good, and I don’t just mean good for the mainstream. It’s just good, period. Sure, there’s a few songs that are misses, every album has them, and the misses here you can easily label as pop country dribble. But I’d say 100 Proof will even smoke most of what’s coming out of the independent world these days.
If you are truly a fan of country music and have an open heart, you will like 100 Proof. In the Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn mold, 100 Proof revives the lost appreciation for the strong, yet sweet country woman, while staying away from the surface symbolism that erodes the substance from many of the other artists that attempt this difficult feat. This is one of the best albums to come off of Music Row in years, and may turn out to be one of the best in 2012, period–an opinion I fear we may see validated in lackluster sales and the absence of hit singles from it. The mainstream may not support in en masse, but I will.
Two guns up!
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A while back we showcased the 6 Pop Country Archetypes, now it’s time to showcase the song formulas that Music Row employs to appeal to them. The cheesy love song goes without saying, these are the other templates that professional songwriters in BMI’s and ASCAP’s cubicle farms slave away at fleshing out in various forms. Any “creativity” comes in the form of mixing an mingling these various formulas. One thing’s for sure, when you crack the cellophane on a Music Row CD, you can almost be guaranteed you will see most, if not all of the formulas used as a rule.
The Country Checklist / Laundry List Song
In a machine gun fashion, with little care for creativity, these songs spew out a string of easily-identifiable countryisms and artifacts in an idioitc attempt to prove how “country” the singer and song are. Cornbread, biscuits, fried chicken, dirt roads, ice-cold beer, pickup trucks, hay fields, over and over they beat you over the head with their backroad, barbed wire, Budweiser barbarism of authentic country culture.
Since all of these “checklist” items are inane and commonplace to real cowboys and country folk, they’re not meant to be heard by them, but by the corporate country “CMT” culture who attempt to escape their mundane suburban or urban lives by living vicariously through these idiotic anthems and shallow portrayals of country living. The Laundry List formula can work by itself, but can also be found as an element in many, if not the majority of mainstream country songs today. The Country Checklist defines today’s pop country landscape.
The Nostalgia Ballad
Remember back when? Those were the good old days. Your first car, your first kiss. She was young. You were dumb. Y’all got handsey in the back seat. Let’s go back and relive it all and remind us how our lives suck now.
Using Bob Seger’s song “Night Moves” as a template, many times these songs feed the unhealthy obsession with youth, and the idea that anything meaningful ends after high school. They’re also a vehicle to bitch about economics and the changing world, how gas used to be 99 cents and small towns are drying up. But you won’t see The Nostalgia Ballad’s listeners moving out of their suburban mansions and ditching their iPhones for the simple life; they’d rather memorialize the death of rural culture in a cheesy pop song played on a $700 car stereo.
Tears From Heaven
In a radio-friendly 2 1/2 to 3 minutes, they shoehorn in the hokiest of over-sentimental sob stories that the Music Row songwriting monkeys can conjure, that usually culminate in the tragic death of some dear loved one. But that’s okay, because we’re gonna be strong. Together. Because that’s the way that little Timmy who got his head lopped off by a combine, or grandpa who slipped in the shower would have wanted it. Instead of helping you process the pain of personal loss by breeding the understanding that death is a natural process, these songs prey on making you relive your grief over and over and over again. Cancer is a big player in these songs as well. And as you begin to sob and the rain begins to pour down, the pop country crooner illuminates how that’s not rain. No. It’s the tears of your loved one falling down from heaven.
The Booty Anthem
With positively no redeeming artistic value or ties to country music’s roots, this is Music Row’s overt homage to idiotically-simplistic droning dance music, and is the soundtrack to the formation of the mono-genre. Sure, maybe there’s an overdubbed banjo in there, somewhere, way in the back, but they’ll edit that out when they use it in the Axe body spray commercial. Booty Anthems turn our daughters into whores and our sons into rapists; apparently a fair tradeoff for Music Row to keep country commercially viable…at the expense of anybody with any taste or class.
Lake Party / Weekend Warrior / Summer Song
A mix of The Nostalgia Ballad and The Laundry List formulas, this is the weekend warrior’s magnum opus. It’s okay if for 50 years and five days a week we’re slaves to our jobs, as long as we get 48 hours to develop crotch rot and drive our ski boats drunk. The beach, and vacations in Mexico and South America are big players in this formula too. These songs perpetuate the unhealthy perspective that as long as we get two days a week to act stupid, it’s okay to live unfulfilled lives and be a slave to consumerism and the corporate work week.
The Flag Waving Anthem
All of America’s service men and women deserve our highest salute, respect, and gratitude, but instead of doing it with sincerity, many times these songs take the salute too far in the sappy direction to commercialize the sentiment. Since less that 1% of the US population actually serves, these songs are a play at political demographics that instead of solidifying support behind service members, while creating a polarizing environment domestically, and sometimes painting an unhealthy picture that America wants to bomb every country full of brown skins back to the Stone Age. For many pop country stars, their Flag Waving Anthem is a rite of passage, or a requirement for their track list demanded by Music Row executives. No Toby, putting a boot in your ass is not the American way, making you think the boot is cool and then selling you the boot is the American way.
The Jilted Female In Rage Song: Highlighted by a pop country starlet in knee-high boots starting shit on fire and perpetrating other felonies to get back at a bad lover or his new bride. Miranda Lambert started it, Carrie Underwood and many others have followed.
The Cornpone Joke Song: Run into the ground by Brad Paisley, done one worse by Toby Keith’s “Red Solo Cup.”
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