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Everywhere you turn, people are trying to take advantage of the rising interest in country music and Nashville. Country is seen as marketable, palatable to the masses, and financially lucrative from the free and easy way country music consumers spend their money. Radio and concert promoters are betting big on country, and so are television’s singing competitions that have launched many of the genre’s biggest current stars. It seemed like only a matter of time before reality TV got on the “gone country” kick, and it has recently with a slew of new shows. But unfortunately for country music’s small screen offshoots, all’s not right in TV land.
Announced earlier this week, the A&E reality series Crazy Hearts has officially been canceled. Initially announced as a “Nashville Music Docuseries”, the show followed aspiring singer-songwriters Lee Holyfield, Anthony Billups, Leroy Powell, Jimmy Stanley and Amy Wilcox, artist manager April Nemeth and media personality Heather Byrd as they tried to make it in the country music business. But ratings for the show started off poor and stayed that way, and eventually A&E moved the show from a prime weekday spot to a lackluster Saturday afternoon time. Eight episodes of the show were made, and that all there will be.
Another Nashville and country music-based reality show called Nashville Wives is also waging an uphill battle. Panned by critics and beset by poor ratings, the TNT reality show faces a rocky future. Modeled around other “wives” reality shows, Nashville Wives follows Sarah Davidson, wife of Dallas Davidson, Erika White, wife of country performer Bryan White, and four other Music City debutantes, capturing their daily lives. The problem according to TV critics is that the show is boring. But instead of canceling it, the shows producers have put out a casting call, possibly to attempt to find wives who might be more entertaining to viewers. Still, the future of the show seems very uncertain.
And though not a reality show, the flagship of Nashville and country music’s small screen invasion, ABC’s hour long drama Nashville also seems to be finding some ratings pressure, and there seems to be some question if there will be a third season as the show tries to secure government incentives to continue to shoot in Tennessee. One thing working in Nashville‘s favor is that the real Nashville believes the show is a big tourism boost. According to a recent survey, 1 in 5 Nashville tourists were motivated to visit the city because of the show. ABC also lacks another ratings blockbuster to fill Nashville‘s current spot.
But overall, the environment looks bleak for country music to breakout into reality shows, or even sustain the few it’s already started. Just like many of the popular music trends that Music Row seems to be 9 to 18 months behind on, country music may have taken too long to jump on the reality show bandwagon and it’s rolled on by. At least for now.
Membership to the Grand Ole Opry is seen a one of the most prestigious accolades a country music artist can be bestowed, and the recognition is sought after by performers both big and small, mainstream and traditional because it is one of the hardest gets in music.
The Opry currently has 66 members, and as older members pass on, newer ones are recruited. In 2013, the only new addition to The Opry was old time string band Old Crow Medicine Show—one of the few traditional-leaning bands to be asked into the institution in recent memory. Before Old Crow, it was a cavalcade of mainstream pop country music stars that as Grand Ole Opry historian Byron Fay points out in his 2013 Year In Review are not fulfilling the Opry obligations they signed up for when the accepted their invitations.
The exact requirements to keep your Grand Ole Opry membership active have been updated and altered over the years. Original Opry members made dozens of appearances a year as a matter of course. Today, artists that have “retired” like Garth Brooks and Barbara Mandrell are not always expected to make appearances, but retain their membership, mostly because of the dues they paid prior to retiring. But some artists that have just signed on are not meeting the most minimum of Opry requirements either.
In April of 1963, The Opry implemented a rule stating that members must make at least 26 appearances on the show per year to keep their membership active. Over the years, the amount of required appearances per year has dropped, though the appearance rule is hypothetically still in effect. In 1964, Opry management dropped the amount of required performances to 20. Then in 2000, they dropped the requirement to 12. Today, Opry General Manager Pete Fisher has set a goal of 10 appearances a year by each Opry member. Members, especially popular country stars, can also receive extra appearance credits by appearing on a weekend. Friday or Saturday appearances country as 3 performances according to some accounts of the current Opry rules.
The issue with big, new artists reneging on their Opry responsibilities first came up after Blake Shelton made controversial comments about country music’s classic country fans, calling them “Old Farts & Jackasses.” Opry historian Byron Faye called for the removal of Blake from the Opry ranks, not just because of the comments, but because Blake Shelton hadn’t made a single appearance in an entire year prior to his comments in clear violation of the membership rules. Shelton only became an Opry member in September of 2010, and was already shirking his responsibilities. Subsequently, Blake Shelton did make two weekend appearances on the show, but that would still put him well below the required ten appearances, even with the extra weekend credits.
Darius Rucker was the big name to be invited to the Opry in 2012, but only made four appearances on the show in 2013. Rascal Flatts and Keith Urban were The Opry’s big additions for 2011. Though Rascal Flatts appeared a moderate seven times, including some weekend shows, Keith Urban made a total of two appearances throughout 2013. Two appearances were all recent Opry members Brad Paisley and Trace Adkins could muster as well.
On the other side of the spectrum, there are older Grand Ole Opry members who would love to make more appearances if only asked, but they are getting squeezed out by younger, and non-member performers. As Byron Fay accounts for on his blog, there were a total of 227 guest appearances on the show in 2013, and a total of 42 appearances by cast members of ABC’s TV Show Nashville that receives funding and other material support from the parent company of the Grand Ole Opry, Ryman Hospitality. Guest appearances on the Opry can be a big honor for up-and-coming artists and are an important part of the Grand Ole Opry culture. But they are not meant to supplant established Opry members.
Another interesting note is that long-time Opry member Dolly Parton has been absent from the Opry stage for an extended period. Though there has been no specific word of a beef between Dolly and the Opry, a theme park deal between the two parties dissolved in 2012 when the Opry was part of a sale to Marriott in the restructuring of Gaylord Enterprises to the new Ryman Hospitality Properties.
We do know that The Grand Ole Opry is willing to drop living members, or at least they did in the past. They famously threw out Hank Williams in August of 1952 for alcoholism and missing rehearsals, and Neko Case was once banned from the institution for removing her shirt. If The Grand Ole Opry membership is going to maintain the prestige that all the members approach it with when they are asked to join the institution, the rules governing membership must be maintained both by members, and the institution.
When it comes to the business of saving country music, many villains get presented by fans as the face of the erosion of country’s roots, values, and quality; usually huge country music stars like Garth Brooks or Taylor Swift. But behind-the-scenes there are other events, and other individuals that have just as much, if not more of a fundamental impact on country music than any single artist or band.
One of these such events was the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that was signed into law by then President Clinton, which for the first time allowed cross media ownership, meaning multiple media businesses like newspapers, and television and radio stations could be owned by a single person or corporation in the same market. The law was meant to deregulate the media business and spurn more competition, despite the concerns raised that the move would see the rise of big media giants and the lessening of local programming.
Within radio, these easing of the rules had a massive impact on radio station ownership. In 1996 when the Telecommunications Act first passed, Clear Channel, the largest radio station owner in the country, had a roster of 173 radio stations. In 2003 the FCC eased the ownership regulations for local radio stations even further, and by 2004, Clear Channel owned over 1,200 stations. In fact Clear Channel grew so quickly, the company incurred massive debt, and ended up going through a restructuring between 2006 to 2008 that included selling some of its stations, to where now Clear Channel owns around 850 stations total.
Since its restructuring as a private company, Clear Channel’s goal has been centralizing and nationalizing programming. The idea is instead of paying one DJ at each country station in the US for example, you can pay one DJ who can then be syndicated to all the country stations owned by the same company. Though Clear Channel’s station ownership has stayed steady, and even slowly increased in the last few years, they’ve been able to slash employees as they slowly implement a nationalized DJ roster. In January of 2009, Clear Channel laid off roughly 1,500 employees, and by May of 2009, that number had grown to 2,440 positions eliminated. Then in October of 2011, even more local positions were slashed, but the exact numbers have never been disclosed.
Then earlier this month, Clear Channel announced a partnership with CMT to create national country music programming to be distributed across 125 country radio stations, as well as some digital and television platforms. The move is meant to match a similar national syndicated format created by the second-biggest radio provider in the United States, Cumulus Media, who launched the NASH-FM national country network on 70 separate radio stations earlier this year. The deal means more programming will be created on a national level, and distributed to local stations. Though Clear Channel says the new deal will be good for local radio stations because it will give them access to national-caliber talent and programming through their syndicated network that local stations would otherwise not have access to, the move continues the trend for radio to lose its local and regional flavor in favor of programming catering to a national audience.
At the forefront of Clear Channel’s country radio ideas is a DJ named Bobby Bones. Originally from Arkansas, Bobby started with Clear Channel as a local DJ in Austin, TX for the Top 40 pop station 96.7 KISS FM, with his Bobby Bones Show eventually being syndicated to a few other regional markets. Though Bobby had big offers to move to the West Coast, he stayed in Austin and became a local favorite, winning “Best Radio Personality” by the Austin Music Awards from 2004-2008.
Earlier this year, Clear Channel finally convinced Bobby to move to Nashville, and to make the switch from Top 40 radio to country. Bobby replaced the legendary country DJ Gerry House at WSIX in Nashville who retired in 2010, though some hypothesize that Gerry, like many other DJ’s on Clear Channel stations, was forced out. Gerry was also a songwriter, and country journalist Chet Flippo once said about Gerry that he was the “only reason I still listen to any mainstream country radio.”
Moving from pop to country, and replacing Gerry House, Bobby Bones symbolizes the changing of the guard on country radio to say the least. Bobby Bones doesn’t look country, doesn’t sound country, says he doesn’t own a cowboy hat or a belt buckle, but he reaches more country listeners than any other country music DJ.
The Bobby Bones Show started on the WSIX flagship station being syndicated to 15 other stations across the country, and in less than a year is already up to a total of 50 stations. With Clear Channel’s new syndicated country radio network coming, these numbers could dramatically increase, and Bobby Bones could cross over into television—something he has already started to do, doing spots at big awards shows, and once guest hosting on Live with Regis & Kelly in 2011. Along with his weekday show, Bobby Bones also does at weekend syndicated show, Country Top 30 with Bobby Bones. He also does a syndicated Fox Sports Radio weekend show with tennis player and friend Andy Roddick.
Bobby Bones is not your normal DJ. He doesn’t have your stereotypical DJ voice, and his quirky, yet honest personality is what endears him both to listeners, and to country artists who seem more than willing to lend their name to his show and stop by for interviews. Taylor Swift, Tim McGraw, Kellie Pickler, Luke Bryan, Lady Antebellum, and many more have appeared live on The Bobby Bones Show, and it is now the highest rated radio show in Nashville.
As a recent CBS feature points out, Bobby comes from very humble beginnings in Arkansas, from a very stereotypical “country” upbringing where his dad left him and his mom was a drug addict, being raised by his grandmother for part of the time. Bobby doesn’t drink or use drugs, and has a very hip, Austin-esque personality while still coming across as genuine to his listeners. Many old-school country fans and older radio listeners hate him. But with his current position at WSIX and Clear Channel’s big nationally-focused plan for country radio, Bobby Bones isn’t just poised to become the Gerry House of the next generation, he’s poised to become the biggest DJ in the history of country music.
Last month Justin Timberlake got the country music universe titillated when he said he may take a stab at country music in the future. “[I] grew up outside of Memphis, Tennessee. Listened to country music, R&B music, classic rock, you know, everything,” said Timberlake “I still got my eyes set on a Best Country Album. There is time for that.”
Well now Timberlake is doubling down, and delving even deeper into the country music conversation, and what he’s saying is hinting that his move would be a more “adult” approach to country, even more akin to the classic modes of country he grew up with, wanting to use his position in music to help guide country in a direction of more substance.
Justin Timberlake stars in the movie Inside Llewyn Davis opening today, and talked with The Tennessean about his potential, or very likely country music move.
“The next move for me is to sink some teeth in here [Nashville]. I’ve done it before. I got a taste of it,” says Timberlake, referring to the song “The Only Promise That Remains” that Timberlake wrote and produced for Reba McEntire last year. “…it reminded me of the songs that my grandfather used to make me listen to when I was a kid — in a great way. It hit me, ‘Oh I wrote this song because of my childhood.’ It ended up being this thing that country radio wouldn’t play.”
Timberlake’s comments then took an even more interesting turn, when he began to speak about Taylor Swift and how to navigate going from a “bubblegum” star to an artist entering adulthood. “There might be another calling for me out there. And it might be being a part of music in this way as a communicator and a teacher and a guide…I was in a group that was bigger than bubble gum. It’s almost like, with anything, when you do settle into adulthood is when when people respect you in a different way. But there’s no question in my mind that that’s where [Taylor Swift's] going, if she so chooses. For me I am sort of the oracle of the idea, and I’m also the communicator of it.”
Nashville seems synonymous with country music to Timberlake, and he would not want his work in the genre to be from the outside looking in.
“A good song is a good song is a good song. There’s still so much that can happen in Nashville, and I look to the future and I want to be a part of it. And I’m not just blowing smoke. I don’t say that about Los Angeles. I don’t think I would move to Nashville. I know I would move to Nashville. It’s a matter of time. And it’s what this place could offer me, to be that outlet for all these different styles.”
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Remember back in the 80′s and 90′s when the big stereotype about country music was that it was all about losing your job, your spouse leaving you, your truck breaking down, and your dog dying? Well now there’s a new set of negative stereotypes being engraved in the face of country music. With so many mainstream male artists drinking from the same well of lyrical themes and using the same select few songwriters, songs about beer and trucks are becoming our generation’s vilified country caricature.
For a few years now, distinguishing country music listeners have been sounding the alarm about laundry list/checklist songs and how their repetitiveness and permeation of the format could lead to burnout. But unwavering, their numbers have increased and their chart performance has improved as the demographics of country music shift away from its traditional audience. But like most trends and fads, especially ones that swap sustainability for the sugar rush of here-and-now success, country’s tailgate, truck, and beer songs could be reaching a critical mass point.
Much of country music’s recent criticism from artists has centered around the beer and truck thread.
Kacey Musgraves when asked what trend needed to die out, she said, “Anyone singing about trucks, in any form, in any song, anywhere. Literally just stop – nobody cares! It’s not fun to listen to.”
Zac Brown said, “If I hear one more tailgate in the moonlight, daisy duke song, I’m gonna throw up.”
And Jake Owen said, “We need more songs than just songs about tailgates and fuckin’ cups and Bacardi.”
Yes, artists like Zac Brown and Jake Owen might be hypocrites for criticizing songs that are similar to ones they’ve released themselves, but at the same time their words may even hold more weight than some traditionalist who may just come across as bitter. Hatred for truck songs has permeated the highest ranks of country stars, and as the quote from ABC’s Nashville at the top of this page illustrates, it is also becoming institutionalized in culture. Multiple stories have ran in major publications about what is being labeled by some as the “bro country” phenomenon, allowing the knowledge (and disgust) for the truck song trend to reach outside the confines of countrydom to casual music listeners.
Then you take a look at the charts where a few months ago beer & trucks songs were dominating the top spots, and we’re beginning to see some churning and turnaround. Two truck songs, Florida-Georgia Line’s “Cruise” and Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind of Night” positively dominated the #1 spots on Billboard’s Country Hot 100 for the majority of 2013, but right now sitting at the top is the Keith Urban / Miranda Lambert duet “We Were Us,” making for the first time a woman has seen the top of the charts in months, with a song that bucks the trend of starting out with a hip-hop beat, and instead builds out from an acoustic rhythm. Taylor Swift also cracks the Top 5 with “Red,” and even even the Florida Georgia Line #4 entry “Stay” is a much more subdued track that focuses more on story compared to their laundry list anthems “Cruise” and “Shine On.”
Even more importantly is what country music has coming up for 2014. Where 2013 was heavy with releases from truck song titans like Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, and Blake Shelton, the two biggest releases slated for country in 2014 are Taylor Swift, and a much anticipated new album from Eric Church. When Church released his latest single “The Outsiders,” he couldn’t have struck a more discordant tune to the truck song trend. Say what you will about Eric Church or “The Outsiders” specifically, but the song was a gorilla-like chest-pounding announcement from Church to not expect him to pander to the truck song formula. Though “The Outsiders” has pulled back in popularity from its bellicose debut, Eric Church’s new album may just be the monster to chase away the country truck trend.
Time will tell if we are beginning to see the erosion or burnout of country truck songs, and if so if it will usher in a new trend of more story-based music or something even more awful. But with the weight of public opinion swelling against them, it’s hard to see this trend lasting much longer.
A monument dedicated to country music legend George Jones was unveiled today (11-18-13) in Nashville at the Woodlawn Roesch-Patton Funeral Home and Memorial Park at 660 Thompson Lane in the Berry Hill portion of southern Nashville. The event was open to the public, and also included a special presentation by George Jones’ widow Nancy Jones announcing the establishment of a scholarship fund for Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) on behalf of George. George Jones died on April 26th, 2013.
The monument features a tall arch made in the likeness of a guitar fretboard that reads “Jones” at the very top, with a large mantle across the face of the monument that reads “He Stopped Loving Her Today” in tribute to one of Jones’ signature songs. On the left of the monument is an image and eulogy to George Jones, while the right of the monument is reserved for his wife Nancy. In the center is a guitar with a placard with George’s most-famous nickname, “The Possum.”
The monument was first announced in June to honor George Jones’ “life and contributions to country music.” Initially there was a plaque in the place where the new monument sits with an artistic rendering of the monument and the note, “Thank you for all your love and support shown to George and to me. God bless, Nancy.”
The unveiling comes days before a star-studded tribute to George Jones that is set to transpire on Nov. 22nd in Nashville at the Bridgestone Arena called “Playing Possum, The Final No Show” with over 70+ performers scheduled to appear.
Photo is from Chris Cannon of NBC 5 in Nashville.
ABC’s Wednesday night drama Nashville just entered its second season, and though like many network television dramas, the drama can feel over-the-top and contrived, the show’s impact on a wide range of issues that fall under the charge of Saving Country Music is undeniable, if not unprecedented. Shot within Music City, showcasing music from independent artists overseen by Executive Music Producer Buddy Miller, and barreling head first into many of the important issues facing the country music industry in 2013, Nashville is as an important player in country music politics, and is as influential as anything else in country music media right now.
Though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the show to distinguishing consumers, it’s still important to understand Nashville‘s impact on mainstream consumers who may see the music industry as a mystery. Like so many mass produced products, if consumers actually knew where their music came from and how it was made, they may not find it so appetizing. An educated consumer makes better choices, and every week Nashville pulls the curtain back and gives a surprisingly accurate portrayal of country music’s internal workings.
So let’s take an in-depth look at some of the lessons country music consumers are learning from Nashville.
How Older Artists Are Pushed Aside For Younger Artists
This is the overarching, founding theme of the show. The hot, young starlet Juliette Barnes is on the rise and pushing the aging legend Rayna James out of the spotlight. Emanating from there are more specific themes and story lines throughout the show that speak to just how callus the industry can be with aging stars. Season 2 opens up the theme where a reality TV star threatens to depose Juliette Barns as her label’s top focus.
How Artists Are Dealt With Unfairly By Labels
Main character Rayna James is pestered throughout Season 1 by label executive Marshall Evans who holds the threat of releasing a “Greatest Hits” record over her head unless Rayna does what he wants (Mike Curb anyone?). The trailer for the series shows Rayna James and Marshall Evans in a heated conflict, with Rayna walking away, quipping, “Well you can kiss my decision as it’s walking out the door.”
Also during the first season, up-and-coming country rocker Avery Barkley gets signed by a big label and producer from Atlanta, and then is subsequently forced to fire his band, and eventually burns the masters of his recordings when the producer manipulates his music to sound like something he doesn’t want.
In the first episode of the second season, main character Juliette Barns wants to delay the release of her album, but when she talks to her manager about it, her manager replies that “The label has been sucked into this massive conglomerate.”—a problem that is very real for many artists when mergers and acquisitions happen in the business and artists and their music gets marginalized. In episode 2 of season 2, a reality TV star threatens Juliette’s career.
These narratives and others throughout the show are not just very close to the realities many artists face, some of them are downright ripped from the headlines. As it is in the real music business, artists are regularly toyed with and manipulated by the industry at the expense of their creative freedom.
A Whole Other World Of Independent Artists
Possibly the most important element of the show, three of its main characters are artists that are not big time, but struggling up-and-coming musicians and songwriters: Scarlett O’ Connor, Gunnar Scott and Avery Barkley. Likely as the series progresses, these characters will continue to climb the ladder of success, but through the first season and along their ascent, viewers see the everyday struggles independent artists go through, while at the same time seeing that their talent is often equal, if not greater than the big artists playing the main stages. Nashville‘s up-and-coming artists are observed playing small shows in Nashville’s independent music joints. They’re seen scrounging for rent, struggling to write songs, etc. This exposes viewers to the reality that there’s more to the music world than mainstream radio and stadium shows.
Back in the real world, Nashville has become an invaluable outlet for independent country and roots music. Showcased in the soundtrack for the show have been up-and-coming artists like Caitlin Rose, Lindi Ortega, Shovels & Rope, Ashley Monroe, Derek Hoke, and many, many more. With original Executive Music Producer T Bone Burnett, and current Executive Music Producer Buddy Miller, the music of Nashville has an unapologetic, non-industry, independent, Americana bent. Yes, there’s mainstream music as well, but it’s not always portrayed in a positive light. Not only does a song showcased on Nashville give these artists great exposure to a national audience, it is a financial windfall. Behind-the-scenes songwriters also benefit when the main characters sing their compositions.
Nashville has also given little cameos to cool, noteworthy artists like Del McCoury, Sam Bush, and Dan Auerbach.
That Many Country Stars Don’t Write Their Own Songs
Independent, knowledgeable music consumers already know this, just like they do many of the inner workings of the music industry. But the passive fan may not realize that what they’re hearing from their favorite stars is in fact an original expression from someone else.
How The Songwriting Process Works
Nashville has gone very in-depth in its exploration on how the songwriting process works down to some of the smallest details. Viewers of the show watch main characters like Scarlett O’ Connor and Gunnar Scott navigate the entire songwriting process of getting signed to a publishing house, writing songs in an office setting on Music Row, having songs put on “hold” (meaning a bigger star is considering recording and releasing it), etc. etc. Another character, Avery Barkley goes through a struggle of whether he should sign over his publishing rights or not while in negotiations with a label. Numerous other specifics of the songwriting process that even educated music consumers may not understand the ins and outs of are illuminated in the show.
How Talent Is Developed
From shots of the Bluebird Cafe where young artists and songwriters develop their chops, to the character Scarlet O’ Conner auditioning for Rayna James’ new label near the end of season 1, Nashville gives a mostly realistic insight into how an artist goes from writing songs in their bedroom and playing dive bars, to being developed into a star. And Nashville does a good job showing both sides of the coin—the victories and the pitfalls.
How Much Side Musicians Have An Impact On Music
Whether it is on the stage or on the radio, the spotlight rarely shines on the sidemen who are just as seminal to performing, recording, and sometimes writing the music, let alone being there as friends, confidants, and psychiatrists for big stars. This very real, and very important position in popular music is embodied on Nashville by good guy Deacon Claybourne—the guitar player for Rayna James, and later for Juliette Barns, and mentor to his niece Scarlett O’ Connor and her (sometimes) boyfriend(s) Gunnar Scott and Avery Barkley.
Artists Want To Be Respected For Their Artistic Integrity
At one point in season 1, pop country character Juliette Barnes is criticized by guitar player Deacon Claybourne for being too much about show, and not enough about substance. When Deacon sees the size of Juliette’s entourage, he quips, “Johnny Cash only needed two.” This stimulates Juliette Barns to re-focus on her songwriting, and to do a solo acoustic performance at one of her concerts against the wishes of her management. The performance ends up being a success.
The History of Country Music
All of the episodes from season 1 were named after Hank Williams songs. All the episodes from season 2 are being named for Patsy Cline songs. One of the episodes in season 1 was centered around the Ryman Auditorium, the historic, original home of the Grand Ole Opry, also known as the “Country Music Mother Church.” Along with many other important country music landmarks that are featured here and there in the series, watchers are passively receiving a country music history lesson.
The Use of Auto-Tune
Though a very small thread in the series, in the pilot episode and the extended trailer for season 1, Juliette Barnes’ manager says, “Thank God for Auto-Tune” while Juliette is singing in the recording studio. This continues to help get the word out about the pitch-correction tool that some artists use as a significant crutch to make up for their vocal weaknesses.
How Much Songs Matter
Despite the spotlight being mostly on the drama between the characters in the series, songs play a seminal role in Nashville. Whether they are the setting for a dialogue between two characters, or the centerpiece of a scene at the Bluebird Cafe, songs are handled with great reverence in the series, and the series goes a long way toward educating viewers of why songs are important. Nashville shows that it is cool not just to hear, but to listen.
Country music in 2013 feels like the best of times, and the worst of times. While a few top male performers perpetrate untold atrocities on the integrity of the genre, the rise of independent music and infrastructure in the marketplace is now almost to the point where it equals its corporate counterpart. Quality songs and worthy artists are beginning to see more and more support, while current events and new outlets create avenues for substantive music to find its way to hungry ears. It is so easy to focus on the negative because it still seems to pervade the popular consciousness. But here are twelve reasons it is looking up for country music in 2013.
Yes, Kacey Musgraves. Even if you see her as some Music Row machination meant to offer an alter ego to the Taylor Swift’s of the world (Taylor equals Kacey’s noms with 6 herself), at least mainstream country is now offering a choice to consumers. What Musgraves’ symbolizes is that you don’t have to prove overwhelming commercial success to get noticed. Her biggest hit “Merry Go ‘Round” didn’t even make the Top 10 of Billboard’s Hot 100 Country Songs. Musgraves is a songwriter in a traditional sense, even if some of her best, and most-heady material didn’t make her big debut album. The reason she was able to rake up so many nominations is because of her songwriting credits, accounting for half of her CMA considerations. Kacey Musgraves’ 6 CMA nominations proves that regardless of how stupid country music’s leading males are trying to make the genre, in 2013, songs matter.
Yes ladies and gentlemen, it is getting dirty out there, and the more artists that speak out, the more other artists gain the courage to join the chorus. And not to shy away from the fight, Kacey Musgraves could be characterized as leading the charge, coming out multiple times to complain about where country music is headed. Alan Jackson also had some choice words recently, as did Gary Allan, Tom Petty, and most recently Zac Brown. Country music may be crossing more unfortunate lines than ever, but at least it’s genuine artists are being vocal about their dissent.
Yes, it was bad that Blake Shelton had to disrespect large segments of country music listeners when he ostensibly called them “old farts and jackasses,” but the backlash that ensued became a unifying element for disenfranchised country fans. Ray Price wrote a blistering letter to Blake Shelton, resulting in Blake having to make a public apology. Dale Watson wrote a song about the whole incident which has since become one of the most popular numbers of his show. An “Old Farts & Jackasses” group on Facebook boasts over 93,000 “likes,” and the list goes on from there. Blake Shelton awakened a beast, and gave it a rallying cry. Who would have thought in 2012 that people would be proudly calling themselves “Old Farts & Jackasses” ?!?
The days of inducting traditionally-leaning artists and bands seemed to be over with the Grand Ole Opry’s recent membership invitations to Darius Rucker, Keith Urban, and Rascal Flatts. But lo and behold, the Grand Ole Opry can still get it right, inducting an act that has paid their dues many times over, and deserve to be recognized as one of the forefathers to the re-popularization of string bands that has seen the rise of bands like Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers, and The Lumineers. The news is not only good for Old Crow Medicine Show, but other artists who may not be top tier names in country music, but deserve the distinction.
It’s so easy to read the headlines and see the top of the Billboard country charts and say that all is lost in the genre. But as long as Sturgill Simpson is out there touring, you can’t say country music is dead. Out on tour with Dwight Yoakam, playing the Grand Ole Opry, inspiring critics from coast to coast and overseas to sing his praises, Sturgill Simpson is giving hope for the future to country fans that has a value beyond his music specifically.
Yeah, I’m not too much for the silly cliffhanger drama-laden plot lines either, but Nashville has become an invaluable teacher of how the music business works, specifically on the songwriting side of things. An educated consumer makes better choices, and if they see and understand how backroom politics stultify the creativity and freedom of artists, and how a song goes from inspiration to the big stage, they just may make better choices, and think about where the music they enjoy comes from. Furthermore, Nashville has become a music outlet to a nationwide audience that may otherwise not be exposed to the music of independent artists like Caitlin Rose, Lindi Ortega, Ashley Monroe, Shovels & Rope, and so many more.
There are many good, independent country bands that are enjoying a rise in interest in 2013, but there may not be a bigger rags to riches story (so to speak) than Hellbound Glory landing an opening spot on a Kid Rock arena tour. Going from playing half-empty bar rooms to sold-out arenas, Hellbound Glory is seeing the recognition their quality country music has been deserving for years. And the opportunity has been paralleled by bigger crowds and better support even after the arena tour ended.
Caitlin Rose, Valerie June, Lindi Ortega, Austin Lucas, Amanda Isbell, Cory Branan, Jonny “Corndawg” Fritz, and so many more that call east Nashville home (or at least to some extent) have seen career watermarks and burgeoning interest in 2013. Forget Music Row or the circus downtown, Nashville, not Austin, is the new vibrant epicenter for independent music, and the artists there pushing and supporting each other is fostering a creative environment that regardless for how long it lasts, will be looked back upon fondly in the future as a time and place that got it right, and set the bar for artistry and substance. Add on top of that already-established and influential artists like Jack White and Dan Auerbach, and Nashville is the place to be in 2013.
“Cowboy” Jack Clement and Bobby Bare Inducted Into the Country Music Hall of Fame
Yes, two very important players in the rise of country music’s “Outlaw” movement finally got their due this year, and it was especially timely for “Cowboy” Jack Clement who would pass away only a few months after the announcement. Though there is still a long list of worthy inductees that many fans worry will never get in, these two men prove that the Outlaws will not be forgotten, and move other important country music icons one step further to being inducted themselves.
If you feel like the Outlaws of country music have not been dealt a fair deal and they need need a new institution to give them the support and recognition they deserve, your wishes were granted in 2013 when it was announced there will be a new Outlaw Country Music Hall of Fame in Lynchburg, Tennessee coming soon. Nashville may have swept their legacy off the streets like common refuse, but at least somewhere the Outlaws will ride eternally.
If you desire more validation that 2013 is the “Year of the Song,” then behold the overwhelming breakout success of Jason Isbell in 2013. Bolstered by his manager Traci Thomas, a bulldog of the Thirty Tigers group, Jason Isbell is becoming the defining songwriter of our generation. If you ever wished you could go back and re-live the heyday of Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt in their prime, watching Jason Isbell and his 2013 tear is the next best thing.
With radio becoming less and less accessible through every measure of consolidation by Clear Channel and Cumulus, new outlets must open up to support independent music. And they are in 2013, and sometimes in the most uncanny places. David Letterman not only has been giving his stage over to artists like Dale Watson, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Pokey LaFarge, Shovels & Rope, and so many more, he’s been seeking out this talent to play his show as a fan of the music. Where big network TV debuts for independent artists seemed to be a thing of the past, now they seem to be a weekly occurrence.
“If there is one thing I can respect more than anything, it’s individuality in music. And I think back in the early era of country music that was so apparent. Like you could really tell your Johnny Cash from your Waylons from your Merles. They all had a distinct thing happening. And they were all really great at what they did. It was really important for me to etch out my own thing as a student of that.” — Lindi Ortega
Exquisitely antiqued and strikingly original, old school country singer and native Canadian Lindi Ortega is the northern emissary for country music’s current female revolution. A class act all around that is regarded just as highly for her self-penned songs as her heavenly (or devilish) voice, Lindi is a creative maelstrom that sends the room spinning from her ability to expose the most blinding beauty from life’s inherent darkness.
Now living in Nashville, and benefiting from some song placements in the new ABC drama series named after her new home, Lindi is starting to pack venues across the country, leaving a trail of broken hearts and positive buzz. After a rousing show at Austin’s most legendary listening room The Cactus Cafe on Monday (7-1), the gracious and arresting songwriter was kind enough to sit down and explain the inspiration behind her music.
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Trigger: There’s sort of two burgeoning movements in country music right now, and you’re part of both of them. Last year and this year we keep getting great albums from Canadians. How is it being a Canadian playing country music, as a perspective?
Lindi Ortega: I never really think about that when I do what I do. I just know what I listen to and what I’m inspired by. I don’t think about the fact that I wasn’t born in the southern United States and raised on a farm. I feel like maybe in a past life I might have been. That’s why it speaks to me. My mom was really into country music when I was growing up. She sort of planted the seed in my mind; a seed that grew into a great love and appreciation for especially old school country; you know Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn, Waylon and all of them. So I don’t really think about the fact that I’m from Canada when I’m writing songs, or paying tribute or homage to that music. I just happen to be.
Trigger: You’re also part of this revolution of young, beautiful, talented women that are giving country a shot of substance and showing respect to the music’s roots. There’s a lot of people talking about 2013 as the “Year of the Woman” in country music. Names like Caitlin Rose and Kacey Musgraves are brought up, and so is Lindi Ortega as an example. Why do you think the women are outpacing the men right now as far as substance in country music?
Lindi Ortega: I don’t know, but I’m glad that it’s happening. It’s so great because when I started doing country-inspired music in Toronto, I didn’t know anybody who was doing it. I didn’t even hear it around me. Then the more I was doing it, the more I would hear about it. And then of course I moved to Nashville and it’s all around me. It’s so great that people are appreciating the old school way. It’s nice to know that that art of live off-the-floor recordings, and not a shitload of Auto-tune and fancy stuff is going on. I’m glad that’s not a dying art. And I’m glad that females are doing it.
Trigger: So back in Toronto, you’re playing music and you had the nickname “Indie Lindi.”
Lindi Ortega: I still do!
Trigger: So you’re playing this music, and you weren’t in a scene in Toronto of rootsy musicians?
Lindi Ortega: Yeah I was a little bit autonomous. I was kind of anti-social to a fault I guess. I just stayed in my room and wrote songs. I wasn’t really part of any scene. There was a scene. When I was doing music there was much more of an indie rock scene. Now it’s a bit different, there’s a little more variety there. But there’s wasn’t a whole lot of alt-country back then. Now it’s everywhere.
Trigger: Is that what you consider yourself? Because you said “country-inspired” before and you’re saying “alt-country” now.
Lindi Ortega: Well there’s so many labels for it and I don’t know I guess. Some people don’t think I’m country at all. And I guess if you’re listening to the radio, I don’t sound country. I like to say I’m very much inspired by old-school country. And what kind of country that is in this day and age in the modern era, I don’t know. Hey, you can call it whatever you want. As long as people are listening to it is all that’s important to me.
Trigger: Did Cigarettes and Truckstops feel like your breakout album?
Lindi Ortega: In a way, yeah. I feel like there were a lot of things that led to having successful shows. One would be the Social Distortion tour that I did; the crazy pairing with me and Social D and I did two tours with them and it exposed me to a wide audience. Amazingly they were very accepting of me and the music I’ve done. And of course the Nashville TV show, and having a few song placements on there helped.
Trigger: Have you physically seen a bump from the Nashville TV exposure?
Lindi Ortega: Yeah. People tell me at shows, “I heard your song on Nashville and I checked you out.” I think it’s amazing that it was able to resonate that way. It actually led to people coming out to shows which is great.
Trigger: Attractive women are not supposed to be as talented as you are. Usually if someone is strong in one suit, they’re not strong in another. You just don’t see a lot of beautiful women that are creative dynamos. (READ if this part of the question offends you.) Where does your motivation to make music that may not appeal to everyone come from?
Lindi Ortega: You’re too kind to me. I spent my whole day going, “I’m getting old!” But my motivation comes from my influences, and people that have stuck to their guns. I read a lot of biographies. If there is one thing I can respect more than anything, it’s individuality in music. And I think back in the early era of country music that was so apparent. Like you could really tell your Johnny Cash from your Waylons from your Merles. They all had a distinct thing happening. And they were all really great at what they did. It was really important for me to etch out my own thing as a student of that.
I don’t care about money. I honestly don’t. I don’t give a shit. I could stay at a shitty motel, I think it’s more fun. And I like riding in little vans and I love doing it that way. I think there’s a story in that, and I write songs that are stories and that tell stories. My influences inspire me to have integrity and to do what I love and be passionate about it. I don’t care about making millions or any of that. Of course if it happens, like everyone says it’s icing on the cake. But I’m happy doing what I do. I love what I do, and this is a beautiful existence for me. I get to tour. I get to go to different cities and see the world. I can’t imagine a better existence than this.
Trigger: Are you a road dog?
Lindi Ortega: I love it. I get antsy when I’m not on the road. I start to miss it and I can’t wait to get back out. It gets to a point where hotel rooms feel more like home.
Trigger: How do birds inspire your music and image?
Lindi Ortega: Yeah, I’m a bird lover. And recently I guess ravens have been my thing. But I love all birds. I have a tattoo that says, “Bird On A Wire.” It’s a Leonard Cohen song. The image of a bird on a wire and that whole song just speaks to me. Something about flying in the sky and that type of free existence resonates with me. I always think my style’s a little bit of Frida Kahlo meets Wonder Woman meets Johnny Cash. The Johnny Cash thing is of course the black thing. I always think of that movie and the line and the manager saying to him, “Johnny, why are you wearing black? You look like you’re going to a funeral.” And he’d say, “Well maybe I am.” And I was like, “Oh, that’s brilliant! I want to go to that funeral too!” I’m half Mexican, so that whole Dia de los Muertos thing, and dying and death and the whole fleeting of our existence is always running through my mind. And I don’t always think of it in a morbid way. I guess I think of it in the more Mexican way, the colorful aspect.
Trigger: You mentioned Frida Kahlo and I saw a picture of your guitar case and Frida Kahlo is all over it. How did she influence your music?
Lindi Ortega: Well I saw the movie a long time ago. That was the first thing that inspired me because she was such a character. And then I learned more about her life and read biographies about her. And I thought in the midst of all her emotional pain she was so full of life, and it was so interesting to me. And her art was so incredible. Her self-portraits I found most fascinating because the expression on her face I felt was very familiar to one I’ve seen in the mirror a couple of times; moments of loneliness and it spoke to me. I love her. I think she’s an incredible artist and a strong woman, an inspiration and I’m slightly obsessed, and I have a song about her on my next record.
Trigger: Speaking of that, is there any hints of new stuff that you can tell us? Do you have a new album coming out?
Lindi Ortega: I do. I have a new one coming out hopefully in the fall. I’m really excited about it. Dave Cobb was the producer. He did Secret Sisters and Jason Isbell. We had a blast, it was a lot of fun. Everyone that played on it was awesome.
Anti-Nashville, anti-Music Row, and anti-pop country songs have a long and proud tradition in country music that stretches almost all the way back to the beginning of the genre. As long as there’s been country music, there’s been folks arguing about how to define it, what it should sound like, and speaking out when they think it’s going in the wrong direction.
The amount and the approach of protest songs seems to parallel the trends in country music. When the genre begins to move more in a pop direction, country’s traditional artists pipe up in song. After compiling this list, it was clear the majority of them were written around the early 2000′s. This was the heyday for anti-Nashville sentiment, though there’s been a recent rash of new anti songs here recently.
Let’s look back at some of the most memorable country music protest songs, and below that is a semi-complete list of all of the protest songs we could aggregate from around the web in no certain order. If you see one that is left off, please pipe up in the comments section, and if it is a song whose existence can be verified, we’ll add it to the list. And the song needs to be at least somewhat “country,” and needs to be mostly about speaking out; not just a line or two in a song. And no, this doesn’t include parodies.
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Dale Watson – Country My Ass, Nashville Rash, Real Country Song
Maybe the king of the country protest warrior poets, Dale Watson’s arsenal of anti-Nashville songs rivals anyone’s. All three of his big ones appear on his 2002 album Live in London…England. He’s since moved on somewhat from his early 2000′s orneriness, though you can still hear light jabs at Music Row in most all of Dale’s 20+ albums.
Larry Cordle – Murder on Music Row
Arguably the most successful country protest song of all time, it was written by Larry Cordle and Larry Shell, and originally appeared on an album of the same name with Cordle’s band Lonesome Standard Time in 1999. It was made popular as a duet between Alan Jackson and George Strait, first being performed on the 1999 CMA Awards, then awarded the 2000 Vocal Event of the Year award by the CMA, and then winning the CMA Song of the Year in 2001. “Murder On Music Row” was never officially released as a single, but still charted #38 on Billboard’s country chart. In 2006, Dierks Bentley and George Jones recorded a version of the song only made available on a Cracker Barrel compilation.
Hank Williams III – Trashville, Dick in Dixie, The Grand Ole Opry (Ain’t So Grand)
Probably the loudest and the most foul-mouthed of the anti-Nashville bunch, the grandson of Hank Williams pulls no punches. No, “Dick in Dixie” ain’t about a guy named Richard, nor is that what Hank3 suggests Jimmy Martin would tell the current Opry managers all to “suck” if he were still around in the song “The Grand Ole Opry (Ain’t So Grand).” Immature or not, Hank3 made tremendous strides in raising awareness about many of the issues arising in Music City.
Waylon Jennings – Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?
One of the earliest country protest songs and possibly the most potent. With two chords and the truth, Waylon lays the wisdom down thick about how country music had lost its way in 1975 while in the midst of the “Nashville Sound” era. The song became a #1 hit, and spent 16 weeks on the Billboard country chart. It remains one of Waylon’s most signature songs, and the standard bearer for country protest songs, with the lyrical theme being reworked many times (and many replacing Hank’s name with Waylon’s) in modern songs of protest. Waylon was not known as a prolific songwriter, but he wrote this one himself.
Other Waylon Protest Songs: If Ol’ Hank Could Only See Us Now, Nashville Bum, Nashville Rebel
Darrell Scott / The Dixie Chicks – Long Time Gone
Everyone got so swept up in the political blowup surrounding The Dixie Chicks, they forgot they were a serious, substantive country roots group. Their excellent album Home included the most commercially successful country protest song of all time, and the 2nd best in chart performance, only rivaled by Waylon’s “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way.” Written by Darrell Scott and originally appearing on the album Real Time with Tim O’Brien, the song tells the story of a farm boy that moves to Nashville, become disenfranchised, and moves back. It became a #2 hit on Billboard’s country chart, and #7 on Billboard’s Hot 100.
The bridge begins the protest portion of the song, followed by the pointed 3rd verse: “Listen to the radio, they hear what’s cooking, but the music ain’t got no soul. Now they sound tired but they don’t sound Haggard. They’ve got money but they don’t have Cash. They’ve got Jr. but they don’t have Hank…”
George Jones- Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes?
The most subtle of the protest songs, George Jones asks who will fill the shoes of all the country greats of the past. It was the title track on his 1985 release from Epic Records, and reached #3 on the Billboard country charts, written by Max D. Barnes and Troy Harold Seals. The song was also accompanied by a great video.
List of Songs of Country Protest
- Tom T. Hall – The Last Country Song
- Hank Williams Jr. – Old Nashville Cowboy
- Eleven Hundred Springs – Hank Williams Wouldn’t Make It Now in Nashville, Tennessee
- Josh Abbott Band – I’ll Sing About Mine
- Robbie Fulks – Fuck This Town
- Dough Sahm – Oh No, Not Another One
- John Hartford – Tear Down The Grand Ole Opry
- BR549 – Movin’ The Country, A-1 On The Jukebox
- Jesse Dayton – Hey Nashvegas!
- Alan Jackson – Three Minute Positive Not Too Country Up-Tempo Love Song
- Jason & The Scorchers – Greetings From Nashville
- Cory Morrow – Nashville Blues
- The Carter Family III – Maybelle’s Guitar
- Willie Nelson – Sad Songs & Waltzes, Write Your Own Songs
- Sturgill Simpson – Life Ain’t Fair & The World Is Mean
- David Frizzell & Bobby Bare – Cowboy Hat
- Vince Gill – Young Man’s Town
- Jason Eady – AM Country Heaven
- Brad Paisley, Bill Anderson, Buck Owens, George Jones – Too Country
- Dallas Wayne – If That’s Country
- Marty Stuart – Tip Your Hat (not really a protest song, but very close)
- Brigitte London – Mr. Nashville
- Hellbound Glory – Waylon Never Done It Their Way
- Jello Biafra & Mojo Nixon – Let’s Burn Ole Nashville Down
- Shooter Jennings – Outlaw You, Solid Country Gold, Put The ‘O’ Back In Country
- The Waco Brothers – Death of Country Music
- JB Beverley & The Wayward Drifters – Dark Bar & A Juke Box
- Barbara Mandrell – I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool
- Tom VandenAvond – Wreck of a Fine Man
- Cross Canadian Ragweed – Anywhere But Here, Record Exec.
- The Geezenslaws – Bad Rock and Roll
- Austin Cunningham – 15 Songs
- Corey Smith – If That’s Country
- Houston Marchman – Viet Nashville
- Kenneth Brian – Something’s Wrong with the Juke Box, Nashville Line
- Laney Strickland – Ca$hville
- The Hackensaw Boys – Nashville
- Jamie Richards – I Guess They’ve Never Been to Texas
- Those Poor Bastards – Radio Country
- The Rounders – That Ole Jukebox
- Joey Allcorn – In Nashville, Tennessee; This Ain’t Montgomery
- Brent Amaker & The Rodeo – Sissy New Age Cowboy
- Joe Buck Yourself – Music City’s Dead
- Emily Herring & Henpecked – Has Country Gone To Hell
- Heather Myles – Nashville’s Gone Hollywood
- The Skeeters – Country Pop
- Erik Koskanen Band – Ain’t No Honky Tonks
- The Gin Palace Jesters – Nashville Penny
- Tommy Alverson – Purty Boys
- Ronnie Hymes – Dueling Kazoo (a Finger for Trashville)
- John D. Hale Band – Outlaw Groove
- Bobby Bare – Rough on the Living
- Marty Stuart – Sundown in Nashville
- Merle Haggard – Too Much Boogie Woogie
- Josh Thompson – Too Country
- Daryl Singletary – I Still Sing This Way
- Gary Gibson – I’ve Had All of Nashville I Can Stand
- John Anderson – Takin’ The Country Back
- Keith Whitley – Buck
- George Jones – Billy B. Bad
- Will Hoge & Wade Bowen – Song Nobody Will Hear
- Jackson Taylor & The Sinners – Country Song
- Jarrod Birmingham – Where’d You Go Country Music
- Reckless Kelly – New Moon Over Nashville
- Red Eye Junction – Living Proof
- Rebel Son- Stereo
- Lance Miller – The Beach
- Audrey Auld – The Next Big Nothing
- Pale Horse – Outlaw Breed
- Lummox – New Country
- Tim Hus – Country Music Lament
- Tex Schutz – Put The Country Back in the Music (and the Rock Back in the Ground)
- Roger Alan Wade – Jingle Jangle Angel
- The Deep Dark Woods – The Won’t Last Long
- Tom Russell – The Death of Jimmy Martin
- Jamey Johnson – The Last Cowboy
- Jerry Kilgore – Ain’t Got One Honky Tonk
- Whitey Morgan & The 78′s – If It Ain’t Broke
- The Divorcees – You Ain’t Gettin’ My Country
- Wesley Dennis – Country Enough
- Rodney Hayden – Goodbye Country Music
- Davey Smith – Country Went to Hell
- Ernie Clifton – Goodby Country Music Hall of Fame
One of the most remarkable music events of 2012 must be how Nashville and some of its biggest, most bloated and notorious corporate citizens did the inexplicable: they began to tackle the issue of the massive talent glut in American roots music. As big record labels continue to tighten their ships, and radio companies like Clear Channel continue to buy up radio stations all around the country and nationalize programming, the ability for America’s major media companies to offer true choices in content continues to diminish. And when it comes to radio, the issue is likely effecting rural areas and country listeners disproportionately.
T Bone Burnett, renown music producer and the music director for ABC’s new television drama Nashville spelled out the problem in October, right before the Nashville series started.
Because the bottleneck of commercial country radio is so profound, there’s a wealth of incredible material laying around town. This is a big surprise to me, how many extraordinary songs we’ve been able to find. An industrial amount of bad songs, to be sure, but a surprising amount of really good, handcrafted, personal songs that people are willing to share with us because there’s no longer a platform for them to share their music at all. I hope that we become the platform for the people who are writing from their whole hearts.
And that is exactly what the Nashville show has become, pushing independent music from artists as varying as The Civil Wars, Lindi Ortega, and Shovels & Rope. In a recent article in The Tennessean, musician and writer Peter Cooper asked about Nashville, “How come the country music in a soap opera, sung by actors, is better than what I hear on mainstream country radio?”
When talking about Nashville, I often have to explain that I don’t “like” the show, and don’t even recommend people watch it. But that’s different from understanding the importance and power of an outlet like Nashville, and how its opening up tremendous opportunities for some independent artists.
And who owns ABC? Disney does, the largest media conglomerate in the world. Who is helping fund Nashville? Ryman Hospitality (previously Gaylord Entertainment), which owns The Grand Ole Opry and has been notorious for ignoring aging and emerging talent over the last few years.
And not to be outdone, another subsidiary of a massive media conglomerate based in Nashville, Viacom’s CMT, has figured out how to get on the independent music bandwagon by launching their new outlet with an emphasis on the legendary and the unknown, CMT Edge. 6 months ago, it would have been unfathomable to see an artist like Rachel Brooke featured on anything related to CMT. Now CMT Edge is digging deep, and doing what they can to shine a bigger light on music from the Americana world to aging greats.
Sony ATV, Nashville’s biggest music publisher, just announced a new program called Nashville Guitars and Bars meant to showcase budding talent coming up in the singer/songwriter ranks.
All of a sudden the big boys in the media business are playing a part in re-populating the country and roots music farm system that for years has been anemic and ignored. Why?
Because as I and others have asserted for years, there is commercial viability in independent music. No, of course it is not as financially lucrative as artists like Tim McGraw or Toby Keith, but that doesn’t mean that companies cannot create revenue by either helping to manufacture this music, or promote it or cover it. And as time goes on and the ranks of listeners disenfranchised with corporate music and its inherent lack of choice continues to grow, the trends favor independent music becoming even more popular in the coming years.
There is money in independent music, no matter how much independent fans might want to grovel over its monetization. Fans and artists have a right to be speculative of the intentions of some of these Nashville institutions wanting a piece of the action, seeing how their closed doors and derelict attitudes towards artistic expression and creative freedom is part of the reason an independent movement in music exists in the first place.
For years people have thought of Nashville as the home of corporate music, and that’s still true. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a rapidly-growing independent scene on Nashville’s east side and in other spots around the city. The word from many of the folks on the inside looking out is that Nashville has long surpassed Austin as the epicenter for independent roots music, despite Music City still being the home of Music Row and many other trappings of the mainstream music business.
I was as speculative as anyone about the intentions and viability of outlets like ABC’s Nashville or CMT Edge, and will probably continue to keep one suspicious eye turned in their direction. But for now, they appear to be working from a sincere approach of broadening musical perspectives and choices.
I’ve always said that all that independent, up-and-coming artists need is a chance. You put the good stuff right next to the stuff people are force fed through Clear Channel radio and they will begin to make better choices. Finally here in 2012, those choices are being made available through mainstream outlets, and the glut of viable artists and credible content pushing at the edges of Nashville like a balloon ready to burst is finally being alleviated by new outlets channeling real music to hungry ears. Without question more needs to be done, but this is a good start.
ABC’s new drama Nashville just signed on for a full season of shows, and has been winning its time slot in the ratings virtually every week since its inception. As canned as the drama may be, as ugly of a construct of modern TV as it may be, and as dirty as it may make anyone feel for watching it (or even enjoying it), it’s safe to say the show will be around for a while. And with its continued popularity, it will likely have a keen impact on American culture.
So what positives could come from the show? If you take away all the drama between the characters that’s really the central focus of the series, what you have is the biggest inside look into the business of country music ever released to the public through popular media, and a vehicle for presenting new music to millions of folks. The ugly trappings of Nashville go with out saying. Here are some of the positives.
I have to hand it to the show’s music czar T Bone Burnett. I’ve always been on the other side of the silly love affair the Americana world has with this man, but he’s been showing tremendous breadth of music knowledge so far in the series. I thought we’d see a healthy dose of the usual suspects of Americana in Nashville; the same names who win all the AMA awards annually and feel very much like an exclusive crowd. Instead we’ve heard from such outliers as Shovels & Rope and Lindi Ortega.
Sure he could always dig deeper, and I’d love to see some of that independent love extend to the country, Texas, and Red Dirt worlds. But we have to understand this is the big time here. The bump even a 30-second snippet of music or a quick appearance from an artist can give to their name can be immense, not to mention the mailbox money ABC pays out to use a song.
And it hasn’t just been independent, rising-stars getting love from Nashville. Oldtimers like Del McCoury and behind-the-scenes musicians like Sam Bush have enjoyed cameos, while clips from country legends like Tammy Wynette have weaseled their way onto the soundtrack. Nashville is exposing all the alternatives to mainstream country: past, present, and future.
Important Nashville landmarks, from The Country Music Hall of Fame and the Ryman Auditorium, to cool little independent night spots in east Nashville and on lower Broadway are getting favorable face time through the series, and it’s hard not to see how if the show remains popular people won’t make it a point to visit these spots when they visit the city. Sure, this can have a negative impact too, taking away the exclusivity or authenticity of some of these venues in the long term (see Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge). But the series works as one big infomercial/tourist brochure for Music City that will likely result in a positive economic impact.
UPDATE (11-29): Last night’s Episode 7 featured two very important Nashville landmarks, The Ryman Auditorium, aka “The Country Music Mother Church”, and Layla’s Bluegrass Inn, a venue that was at the very heart of the formation of underground country. It also featured a cameo of Hank3′s bass player Zach Shedd.
Terms like “opener,” “co-headliner,” “Autotune,” and “demo” are commonly used on the show, and will become familiar vernacular to the mainstream fanbase that otherwise just waits for the superstar to take center stage and generally thinks that all the rest happens by magic. The whole process of how an album is put together or a big time tour is assembled is showcased as the backdrop to Nashville’s character drama. Songwriter characters play major roles in the show, articulating to viewers the evolution of how a song goes from the page to the stage.
Let’s face it, most mainstream music lovers have little idea where music actually comes from, and standard procedure in mainstream music is to keep all of that behind the curtain. Now through Nashville, the general public sees that it takes seasoned musicians in the studio and at the back of the stage to make an album or a show happen, and that sometimes these people are just as important to the process as the stars. They now know those hit songs are written by other people, many who struggle just to make ends meet, who have to work second jobs and who aspire to be stars themselves.
Nashville has met the issues concerning aging talent head on, and how that talent is mercilessly dealt with on the business side. Sure, the show may not offer any solutions to these problems in the short term, but when people watch Nashville and then see aging artists on the stage or hear about them losing record deals or see young stars come up that may not be talented than the older ones, they will understand on a more intimate level why that is happening. And traditionally, educated consumers make better choices. Nashville is music education through osmosis. It is the music equivalent of hiding your dog’s medicine in a piece of cheese.
Excitement About Music
We are now about a year or so removed from music’s lost decade that spanned the majority of the 2000′s. There are many things to blame for what happened to the music business: the slow move to digitization, the lack of talent, a slow economy, the ever increasing mergers and acquisitions that make the majority of the corporate music world controlled by fewer and fewer people.
But during this period I think overall the American culture was evaluating what the role of music was going to be in our lives moving forward. Sure, when music is harder to get, not as good, and you don’t have as much expendable cash to spend on it, there’s going to be a pullback. But we don’t talk enough about how the entire traditional music industry was teetering on collapse, and how in the last year or two it’s completely pulled out of the tailspin. And also, that one possible way the music industry righted the ship was by offering a slightly better product.
Aside from all the specific factors, I believe part of the reason for the music industry reversal is because people want music to play an integral part in their lives, whether their tastes and dispositions lie in the independent world, the mainstream, or somewhere in between. And that’s why the music of Nashville is such an integral part of the show, and why the show represents all aspects of it.
Music is back, and the success of Nashville proves that, and is in part because of the show’s independent focus, not in spite of it, proving that the independent music world can gain widespread mainstream acceptance if only given a chance.
Like most fictional characters in popular culture, the characters of ABC’s new drama Nashville are probably based more on stereotypes than real-life folks. But for fun, let’s see if we can’t match up who the real-life inspiration is for the principals of the Nashville cast, and through the experiment see if the show really does represent all aspects of the Nashville music scene.
Real Life Counterpart(s): Reba McEntire and/or Martina McBride
“Well you can kiss my decision as it’s walking out the door.”
Aging country pop queen concerned about her sagging skin has to worry about the kiddos running under foot and the budding buxom starlet on the rise trying to trample her career. On the outside she sticks to her principles, but on the inside she will do whatever she can to save her stardom.
Real Life Counterpart: Taylor Swift? No, girl from Dale Watson’s “Country My Ass”
“Oh, I’m always nice.”
Out of all of the Nashville characters, this is probably the one most based on a stereotype instead of an actual person. The creators of the show have said Juliette is not supposed to be Taylor Swift. Swift is seen as the proper, good girl who doesn’t use Auto-tune, while Juliette Barnes nails anything she can to get ahead except the proper note. The mold that fits Juliette Barns perfectly can be found in a Dale Watson song. “She can’t sing a lick, and in a bucket, she couldn’t carry her tune. She’s pretty as a picture, and she sure has a nice set of…wits. And she misses her producer that seduced her–I mean produced her a hit.”
Real Life Counterpart: Mike Curb
“That’s alright if you see me as your enemy. Don’t you be foolish enough to make that a two-way street. ‘Cause my enemies don’t fare too damn well.”
Just like Mike Curb using the money he usurped from country music artists to spread his name all across Nashville under the guise of charity and civic duty, Lamar Wyatt wants a new baseball stadium and is willing to use his money and influence to appoint a puppet mayor of Nashville that he can use to run the city through behind-the-scenes. These old-guard aristocratic megalomaniacs are like two peas in a pod.
Real Life Counterpart: Caitlin Rose
“They’re just poems, not songs.”
A reluctant, timid songwriter that lacks nothing in talent either as a writer or performer, that when coaxed into action can rear back and command a crowd with both passion and skill.
Real Life Counterpart: Justin Townes Earle
“I guess I’m just naturally suspicious of anyone that confident.”
Long, lanky, a songwriter, and a gentleman (as opposed to the “punk country” Avery Barkley), he’s more Americana than country, symbolizing the new independent approach to Nashville that emphasizes artistic appeal and substance as opposed to commercial success.
Real Life Counterpart: Ryan Adams
“It’s kind of an alt-country punk, but more cerebral.”
Dangerous sideburns and a confident swagger, the chicks swoon over him and his bad boy persona and rock star attitude. But watch out, he’ll probably do them wrong.
Real Life Counterpart: David Rawlings
“I promise to not use it as a coaster.”
The consummate loyal sideman whose an excellent guitar player and an accomplished songwriter himself. A true music good guy whose willing to lurk in the shadows most of the time to allow good music to come to life. Whether there’s something romantic going on with the boss or not, it’s easy to assume there is.
Real Life Counterpart: A Young Scott Borchetta
“Take the money and run.”
Savvy, slick, new-school business man who Svengali’s a young starlet into signing with him so he can springboard to a seven-figure music executive career in the coming years. Glenn is a Scott Borchetta starter kit.
You can probably make a pretty good case that no matter what ABC’s new drama Nashville served up I was predisposed to not like it. I’m one of those non-TV snobs whose never had cable, and though I’ve attempted to be vigilant over the years separating the City of Nashville from Music Row, the erosion of many music values has happened within the confines of that fair city’s four corners. And being an individual who grew up in Dallas but lived most of his life away from it, I know just how hard it is to slay negative stereotypes hardened into the brain by pop culture and television specifically (no, I don’t own cattle or work in the oil business), and cringe at what a series like this could do to the perception of what I have found over the years to be a beautiful and diverse city.
The early reviews of Nashville have been of the nature where you can sincerely call it “critically acclaimed” and I concur that at least from the perspective of the first episode, it was well written. And aside from the obvious, and at times horrifically out-of-sync lip syncing during the singing parts that took away from the value of the songs themselves, the show was superbly acted. With only 40-something minutes to work with, the writers did well in presenting complex characters and scenarios, though there were a few of those moments that gave you that dirty, gossipy feel that TV will when they were presenting the numerous love triangles that then intertwine with each other to the point where even Isosceles would be asking for a breather.
In a series that could have been potentially filled with cliche characters, the only obvious one so far is the young, up-and-coming starlet Hayden Panettiere whose hitting on anything with an outie to get ahead. But I understand, this is drama and you need your villains. You don’t keep the masses engaged with subtly.
Judging the Nashville premier episode solely based on its entertainment value as a television show, I would give it a solid 1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
As for the musical impact, I would say that at this point, this is the thing the least to be determined so far, and that it may take months to gauge what a plus or minus Nashville might have on the sonic world. It was cool to see Del McCoury get a cameo and to hear the tail of a Tammy Wynette song being played in prime time. At the same time, all of this stuff is being portrayed as the old, “has-been” music that is fighting for its life against the young blood looking to steal the spotlight in Nashville.
And though one of the story lines in Nashville is the cronyism that permeates the city, cronyism is exactly what is making the music in this series purr. The show’s music producer is T Bone Burnett, who is the husband of the show’s executive producer Callie Khouri. In the first episode, a song clearly picked from The Civil Wars was showcased, and Burnett has said he wants to work with people he’s worked with before on the show, like The Civil Wars, Lucinda Williams and others. Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine label is exclusively distributing the music showcased on the show, and Gaylord Entertainment, now Ryman Hospitality is one of the big money entities behind the series.
And this gets me to the icky feeling that I have about this whole thing. Nashville smacks of the same type of tactic used by Music Row’s major labels to re-integrate and monetize anti-Nashville sentiment through “new Outlaws.” Instead of trying to tackle and resolve the issues facing the country music industry–like how to deal with aging talent, the intrusion of industry into the creative process, the use of Auto-tune, and the all-too-common practice of kinky sex being used to evaluate music instead of the music’s creative value–they are using these negative aspects present in mainstream country music as dramatic fodder, with the backdrop being many of Nashville’s historic institutions like The Grand Ole Opry, The Ryman Auditorium, and the Bluebird Cafe.
Is it compelling? Sure. Is it right? Of course not. Will it result in either the increased exposure of good music as T Bone Burnett hopes, or the greater awareness of the issues plaguing mainstream country? Well have to see. But I remain skeptical. I would rather see Nashville attempt to fix their problems as opposed to try and make money off the drama they create. But of course, that doesn’t make for compelling television.
A lot is still to be determined about Nashville, but I continue to believe the show’s impact could be massive in one direction or another. So I will be fighting through lip-syncing, bad love scenes, and general modern television bullshit to keep a close eye.
Big shot producer T Bone Burnett whose in charge of the music for the new ABC drama Nashville premiering tonight (10-10) had some pretty scathing words about the state of music in Music City when talking to The New Orleans Times-Picayune about the upcoming television series.
“These days, (country) radio is essentially a guy in his room with a computer,” T Bone told the paper. “Maybe he plays the guitar part and maybe he plays the bass part. The rest of it’s all computer.”
T Bone went on to share that the music they’re producing for the series will be “very, very commercial” when it pertains to the character Hayden Panettiere: the young, up-and-coming crossover star. But he told the Picayune everything else will work “around the edges” while calling mainstream Nashville music, “not that interesting.”
The most interesting things that happen in Nashville all happen around the edges. The things we all know about Nashville, we all know. And it’s not that interesting… Vince Gill doesn’t have a record deal, but he’s still every bit as genius an artist that he ever was. We’re going to work with all of those people to create an alternate universe of country music. It’s the universe that is the way it would sound if I was in charge.
T Bone Burnett also says there’s a glut of good material laying around Nashville because that’s not the type of material commercial country wants.
Because the bottleneck of commercial country radio is so profound, there’s a wealth of incredible material laying around town. This is a big surprise to me, how many extraordinary songs we’ve been able to find. An industrial amount of bad songs, to be sure, but a surprising amount of really good, handcrafted, personal songs that people are willing to share with us because there’s no longer a platform for them to share their music at all. I hope that we become the platform for the people who are writing from their whole hearts.
On Thursday Oct. 4th, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean announced plans to permanently locate the Songwriters Hall of Fame to the new Music City Center, the behemoth convention center and hotel complex in downtown Nashville being built right beside the Country Music Hall of Fame. It was announced previously that the Country Hall Of Fame would be connected to Music City Center and have some shared space between the two buildings. Now the Songwriters Hall of Fame whose home has been virtual up to this point, will have a permanent place as part of the project.
But there is an important wrinkle to this story that is going unreported.
As important of an institution as the Songwriters Hall of Fame is, it may not be the most deserving of a spot in Music City Center. If all things were equal, that opportunity would go to the Musicians Hall of Fame: the institution that was imminent domained by the City of Nashville and given a week to remove its artifacts before being bulldozed to make way for the new building. And more importantly, the Musicians Hall of Fame was the one initially promised the space.
The Musicians Hall of Fame opened in June of 2006 just across 4th St. from the Country Hall of Fame in Nashville, with the charter of showcasing the unsung heroes of music: the musicians behind the big names, and the big names that are excellent musicians as well. Though located in Nashville, the Musicians Hall of Fame didn’t showcase just country music, but all genres, and hosted music lessons and workshops, as well as private events in their museum space.
When plans were launched for the new Music City Center complex, it was determined by the City of Nashville that the Musicians Hall of Fame had to go. Nashville initially reached out to the institution and offered them a space in the new building.
“We were told that they would provide us a place to go for free while the construction was goin’ on for the convention center for the next three years, and then we would move into the new convention center,” says Joe Chambers, the founder and CEO of the Musicians Hall Of Fame. “They brought plans over, they had the plans drawn out for us.”
Where things went south was when the city’s appraiser valued the Musicians Hall of Fame land for $4.8 million, half of what a private appraiser, and the same appraiser that evaluated the property when the Musicians Hall of Fame bought it in 2003 valued it at; $9.8 million. When Chambers refused the City of Nashville’s discounted offer, Nashville took the matter to the courts and had the property seized through governmental fiat. Then the Musicians Hall of Fame was only given 7 days to vacate the 30,000 sq. ft. of space filled with the museum’s priceless artifacts.
This is where the story gets worse.
Since the Musician’s Hall Of Fame was a museum with no home, they were forced to put all of their artifacts in storage. Then in the middle of May, 2010, when downtown Nashville experience historic flooding, the storage place housing the museum’s artifacts was flooded, destroying many of the priceless instruments, including the first drum ever played on the Grand Ole Opry, the upright bass played in Hank Williams’ last recording session, and guitars from people such as Jimi Hendrix, Peter Frampton, and Johnny Cash.
Eventually the Musicians Hall of Fame did find a new home a mile down the road at the Nashville Municipal Auditorium. The Hall of Fame will be housed in the building’s basement, and the name of the building is being changed to “Musicians Hall of Fame at the Municipal Auditorium” but this is no gift from the City of Nashville. The Hall of Fame is having to lease the space from the city instead of owning it like the previous location. They also must pay for all the expenses due to the name change of the auditorium.
The good news is the Musicians Hall Of Fame did eventually find a new home, and one that still exists in downtown Nashville. The Musicians Hall Of Fame is still not open at its new site. Its website says the hope to open sometime later in 2012. Calls and emails to them from Saving Country Music for comment were not immediately returned.
The question that citizens of the City of Nashville and citizens of the music community should be asking is how did the Songwriters Hall Of Fame and the Musicians Hall Of Fame get swapped in the Music City Center project? If there is enough room for a hall of fame on the premises, why would the preference not go to the one initially promised the space, and whose home got razed in the construction?
No offense to the Songwriters Hall Of Fame. It is great they finally have a physical home, and it appears that the Musicians Hall Of Fame is happy with their location at the municipal auditorium, and that the city is working with them to attempt to make it right. But with the announcement of the Songwriters Hall Of Fame being part of the Music City Center complex, if feels like an injustice has been done to the Musicians Hall Of Fame. Once again.
Fallout from the sale of Gaylord Entertainment to Marriott International continues. Shareholders approved the $210 million dollar deal on Tuesday (9-25-2012) despite one of the leading investors in the company wanting Gaylord to spin off its Grand Ole Opry assets. Now the deal has ruffled the feathers of a country music heavyweight: Dolly Parton.
In January, Dolly Parton and Gaylord announced intentions to partner up and build a snow and water-themed amusement park in Nashville. The 114-acre, $50 million park was to be located near the Gaylord Opryland hotel on an entertainment zone off Briley Parkway. But when Gaylord Entertainment let it be known they had plans to sell the company to Marriott International and restructure the company into an REIT or Real Estate Investment Trust, Dolly Parton began to get cold feet, saying at an August 10th press conference:
There are a lot of changes going on. Gaylord is actually involved at the moment with some changes of their own, so we are just kind of waiting until they get their things straightened out before we go forward with that.
Now Dolly Parton has completely pulled out of the deal and is not mincing words about why, apologizing to the City of Nashville and the State of Tennessee, but seemingly laying fault at the feet of Gaylord.
Gaylord makes decisions that they feel are good for their company and their stockholders and I have to make decisions based on what is best for me and the Dollywood Company. Governor Haslam, Mayor Dean, and all the folks in government have been great to work with. I really appreciate their support through this process.
The proposed theme park was one of the Gaylord Entertainment assets that was scheduled to be re-aligned under Marriott International control like other Gaylord properties in Nashville, including the General Jackson Showboat and the Wildhorse Saloon. Gaylord is keeping managerial control of its large hotel properties and The Grand Ole Opry under the new Marriott umbrella, and renaming the company to Ryman Hospitality.
Dolly Parton owns the Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, TN, and Gaylord was hoping for the country music legend to bring her high-caliber name and theme park expertise to the new amusement project. Now they are left looking for new partners. The Nashville theme park was originally planed to be a 50/50 venture between Gaylord and Dolly.
The Gaylord/Marriott deal is also turning out to be a job killer, at least for the Nashville area. The dissolution of the Dolly/Gaylord deal could cost Nashville as many as 450 jobs the theme park was hoping to create, and that doesn’t include the construction jobs to build the park. That is on top of the 310 positions expected to be cut in Nashville in the coming days with Gaylord restructuring into Ryman Hospitality.
ABC has announced that a new TV drama called Nashville has been picked up for their Fall season. The show intimately involves Nashville’s mainstream music scene, with former Friday Night Lights actress Connie Britton portraying an aging country star trying not to be overtaken by the up-and-coming young starlet Hayden Panettiere from NBC’s Heroes. The pilot was written by Callie Khouri of Thelma & Louise fame and shot in Nashville last month.
A look at the trailer for the series seems to hint that Nashville will follow a similar story to the 2010 country music movie Country Strong starring Gwyneth Paltrow, though Nashville may even get more specific and more salacious, with the young Hayden Panettiere nailing anything not tied down, and producers mentioning Auto-tune out in the open. The themes and characters look like they could have been ripped out of a Dale Watson song or a story on Saving Country Music.
The biggest difference between Country Strong and Nashville will be that the TV version dramatizing country music’s eternal culture war will have to fill hour-long segments for a whole season. Old vs. young, twang vs. pop may be explored with greater detail than ever before, though many times television dramas as they age (hospital dramas for example) tend to veer away from the hard information that creates their setting, and focus more on love threads and side stories between characters.
It will take the airing of the show to really flesh out what Nashville‘s impact will be on the greater country music world, but just from watching the trailer it is safe to say that country music’s culture war has gone mainstream, a development that has been evolving for a while now. The idea that country’s aging talent is being unfairly pushed aside and its roots being neglected for the crossover flavor of the month is no longer a fringe, underground idea. It now goes without saying, and to Nashville‘s similarity to Country Strong, it may even be cliche.
This also speaks to the commercialization of the anti-Nashville sentiment. A few years ago, Music Row and Nashville’s major labels saw this anti-Nashville trend growing, and to commercialize it and reintegrate those fans they launched a new generation of “Outlaws” with songs complaining about pop stars and how nothing on the radio is country anymore, in songs that ironically sound way more like rock and originate from the same labels as the pop country performers do. Nashville could be the television version of anti-Nashville monetization. That leads us to who the big money is behind the Nashville series: Gaylord Entertaiment.
Gaylord is the owner of The Grand Ole Opry (which is featured prominently in the pilot) and many other core Nashville country music and non-music institutions, and reportedly is a big producer and financier of Nashville. Anyone concerned about what impact this series may have on country music and the city of Nashville should focus in on this relationship first.
The Grand Ole Opry stage is one of the biggest theaters in the country music culture war, with constant battles being fought over who deserves stage time and membership to country’s most important institution. It could be argued that without the drama Gaylord has already created through its management of The Opry, the Nashville series would not be possible. It seems only appropriate that the initial conflict between the series’ two main characters in the pilot happens at The Opry. Instead of answering or resolving the issues many country fans and performing artists have with the way The Opry is run, they appear to be using it as plot for a television show.
It is in the portrayal of the cultural divide that polarizes country music where it will be deemed if the Nashville series’ impact will be positive or not on country music, on The Grand Ole Opry, and on the city of Nashville. It appears from the pilot that a mayoral race is involved, so Nashville’s political dynamic will be part of the drama as well. As someone who grew up in Dallas, I can attest to how a single television series can create very strong, and sometimes very negative stereotypes about a city and its people that sometimes takes generations to erode and unwind afterwards.
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UPDATE 10/09/12: Scott Borchetta and his Big Machine label continue to empire build in Music City. They have signed an exclusive deal with ABC to market the music from Nashville.
“Music has to feel organic, appropriate and authentic when it is paired with on-camera visuals,” said Scott Borchetta in a statement about the deal. “When I saw the pilot for ‘Nashville,’ I knew instantly we needed to be part of it. Not only does our partnership make sense given how closely the show reflects the nature of the music business, but the show’s talent has created some incredible music.”
The music on the show is being produced by industry powerhouse T Bone Burnett. Some of the original songs for the series have been written by The Civil Wars, Lucinda Williams, and Elvis Costello.
Saving Country Music will be keeping a close eye on Nashville.
Let me start this off by admitting this is somewhat of a hairbrained idea, and that the chances of it actually happening are slim. Talking about the Country Music Hall of Fame buying The Grand Ole Opry is the music version of fantasy football. However what makes the idea interesting is how perfect it would be, and it is nurtured along by the ever so slight, but nonetheless present possibility that it could actually happen, or happen in some partial measure, some day.
The Grand Ole Opry is the most revered and important institution in country music, charged with preserving the history of country music and the legacies of its performers, while still remaining a relevant institution by showcasing today’s talent. Country music, The Grand Ole Opry, and the city of Nashville are all tied at the hip. If it wasn’t for country music, The Grand Ole Opry would have never existed. Without the The Grand Ole Opry, Nashville may have never become country music’s home. Without Nashville and The Grand Ole Opry, country music may have never become a dominant American music genre.
Why Gaylord is a Bad Fit for The Opry, and The Country Music HOF is a Good One
The problem with The Grand Ole Opry is that it is owned by a public company, Gaylord Entertainment, who is beholden to shareholders and profit margins before the Grand Ole Opry’s charter of preserving the roots and traditions of country music. Gaylord’s ownership fits in the classic modern dilemma for the American investor. With money tied up into investments, we all demand not only profit, but growth from our companies. To achieve this profit and growth, corporations like Gaylord must must deliver less and take more, ostensibly robbing investors of what they desire to eventually be repaid back in dividends and stock appreciation.
The Country Music Hall of Fame on the other hand is a private, not-for-profit institution that subsists on admission fees to The Hall and special events, retail sales in its gift shop and cafe, renting of its spaces, and donations. The Country HOF has no need to show profit or growth, only a balanced, sustainable budget, insulating it from trend chasing, austere cost cutting campaigns, and other corporate bureaucratic trappings of public entities.
The fundamental problem with The Grand Ole Opry is it was built on a business model constructed in the early 20th Century, when radio was the dominant media, and real estate and talent were cheap. The promise of The Opry to its performers has always been that if they give to The Opry during the heyday of their career, The Opry will be there to support them in the twilight of their career. But unfortunately this handshake-like, loose relationship does not translate to the modern, HR-style corporate policies that Gaylord must operate under. This has resulted in lawsuits and bad publicity like in the Stonewall Jackson age discrimination case and others.
Under Gaylord ownership, The Grand Ole Opry can only worry about the preservation of country music history and values in ways that also can fit in Gaylord’s business model and turn profit and growth. Part of Gaylord’s management structure and executives do not have backgrounds in country music, rendering them uninformed and/or out-of-touch with the public demands of the unique Opry institution.
What is The Grand Ole Opry?
The business consists of five major assets:
- The copyrighted “Grand Ole Opry” name.
- Local radio station WSM in Nashville.
- The Opry radio show broadcast on WSM, and their live performances at The Ryman and Opry House.
- The Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville.
- The Grand Ole Opry House 9 miles east of downtown Nashville.
Would Gaylord Entertainment be sellers?
Over the last 15 years, Gaylord Entertainment has dramatically shifted their business model from a broadcast and entertainment company, to a hospitality resort-holdings, real estate-based model. Gaylord used to own over 10 local television stations, as well as CMT (Country Music Television), TNN (The Nashville Network), WKY Radio in Oklahoma City, The Daily Oklahoman newspaper, and the massive Acuff-Rose music publishing firm (now Sony ATV), and other broadcasting and entertainment assets. All of these have now been sold off, with The Opry’s WSM the only remaining broadcasting arm of the business.
Today Gaylord’s core business is its 5 resorts and convention centers in Nashville, Orlando, Grapevine, TX (Dallas), National Harbor, MD, and Denver (scheduled to open 2014), as well as other real estate assets including the Wildhorse Saloon in downtown Nashville, and the General Jackson riverboat. The way The Grand Ole Opry fits into Gaylord’s structure is not as a country music institution or a broadcast entity, but as a tourist destination.
If you take away the real estate and tourist component from The Grand Ole Opry, the Opry franchise sticks out like a sore thumb in the current Gaylord Entertainment business structure. One of the reasons Gaylord may be reluctant to sell or otherwise part with its Grand Ole Opry assets is because of the very lucrative naming rights that come with the Opry/WSM franchise. “The Grand Ole Opry” is one of the most powerful brands in the city of Nashville, and is tied to their Opryland Resort, and was previously-tied to the Gaylord-owned Opryland USA theme park that closed in 1997 that later became the Opry Mills shopping mall. A new theme park partnering Gaylord with Dolly Parton is now scheduled to open in 2014 adjacent to the Opryland Resort.
Why Would The Country HOF Be Buyers?
As an entity whose purpose is to preserve the roots and history of country music, and one that is not beholden to public shareholders or profitability, the Country Music Hall of Fame is a perfect fit for The Grand Ole Opry. Furthermore, whether the Country HOF wants to be a buyer, they may have no choice but to be a buyer to preserve The Grand Ole Opry as an institution long term. Radio, especially country radio, continues to be a dwindling asset with declining revenues and listeners. The sale of WSM and The Grand Ole Opry as a radio show to an entity that can maintain the institution on a not-for-profit basis may be the only way long-term for the asset of the Grand Ole Opry radio show to be sustained.
There is precedent for the Hall of Fame purchasing or taking control of satellite properties or assets, as well as partnering with other entities. The Hall of Fame is already working closely with the Nashville Convention Center being constructed across the street from it, and eventually the two buildings will be joined with the Hall of Fame expanding into a collaborative use of space with the Convention Center. Another great example is the old RCA Studio B that is now part of the Hall of Fame despite being located 1 1/2 miles west, on Music Row. The Hall currently shuttles museum attendees back and forth to the studio’s location as part of their tour.
Comparatively the Ryman Auditorium, the original home of The Grand Ole Opry, also dubbed the “Country Music Mother Church” and where the Opry still holds winter shows, is only a few blocks from the Hall of Fame. In many ways the Hall of Fame’s stewardship of The Ryman seems perfect, and in line with its charter to preserve country music’s history. The Ryman was virtually abandoned for over 20 years after the Opry House was opened in 1974.
A Partial Sale
As unlikely as any sale or exchange of ownership of The Grand Ole Opry may or may not be, it is significantly more likely that a partial sale or split of the Opry assets could occur. Gaylord is probably less likely to sell its Opry real estate assets of The Grand Ole Opry House and The Ryman since real estate is Gaylord’s new core business, but these properties could be split, or leased to The Hall of Fame or another entity as part of the sale of WSM and The Opry radio show.
Maybe the most coveted asset of The Grand Ole Opry to Gaylord, the precious naming rights, might could be negotiated in a lease or partial ownership arrangement. Either the Opry name could be retained by Gaylord and leased to the Hall of Fame, or they could be given or sold to the Hall of Fame and then leased back to Gaylord for use in their Nashville properties. The naming rights are probably the most difficult portion of the dilemma of how to divest Gaylord from The Grand Ole Opry, and probably the main reason The Opry has not been spun off or sold yet like all of Gaylord’s other media assets.
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However unlikely it might be that The Country Music Hall of Fame would buy The Grand Ole Opry, the likelihood that Gaylord Broadcasting would be sellers is somewhere between likely and inevitable, especially if the difficult naming rights issue can be resolved with the new owners. The list of other potential new owners if The Hall of Fame is eliminated is limitless, but in the changing world of media where radio’s relevance and revenue is declining, this might just plunge the Grand Ole Opry into a foster care situation where it is bounced back and forth in the portfolios of companies that care even less for its history and significance than Gaylord does until it is eventually liquidated.
Pointing up from the top of the dome of the Country Music Hall of Fame is a radio antenna, with a corresponding antenna pointing down into the center of the Hall’s rotunda, symbolizing the importance of WSM and The Grand Ole Opry radio program to the formation and continued success of country music. How fitting it would be if that antenna actually broadcast the station and program it was built to symbolize, with its base being the circular Hall itself lined with bronze plaques of its inductees and the eternal question “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” The Hall of Fame taking stewardship of the most reverent of country music institutions in The Grand Ole Opry may be the only way the answer to that “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” question continues to be “No”.
Back in 2005 when Hank Williams III entered into a public feud with his label Curb Records and it’s owner Mike Curb, it might have been easy for many to laugh off the young tattooed musician as an ungrateful punk with no respect, and overlook the cause he was taking up. It may have been more difficult to overlook when the courts sided with Hank3 and forced Curb to release his album Straight to Hell, but the event still remained obscure aside from Hank3 fans and a few industry types.
Now with the very public brush-up between Curb and Tim McGraw, and with McGraw winning a crucial court battle, both anti-Curb sentiment, and the knowledge of Curb’s very restrictive business practices has gone mainstream. As thousands of Tim McGraw fans searched for answers to why his Emotional Traffic album was yet to be released, they learned about Hank3′s story, and the stories of LeAnn Rimes, Hank Williams Jr, Clay Walker, Jo Dee Messina, and many more artists who’ve had major problems with the Nashville-based label.
And maybe even more alarming is the fact that these public feuds between Curb and artists may just be the tip of the iceberg. Many currently-signed Curb Records artists may be afraid to speak out like Hank3 and Tim McGraw did, in fear their projects and careers could be further restricted. As part of the ruling for Hank3 to have his Straight to Hell album released, he made a concession in his contract that said he could not publicly criticize Curb Records. There may be some, or many Curb artists with similar clauses in their contracts right now, and unlike Tim McGraw, they cannot get their story out to their fans or to the public.
I don’t think it is a stretch to surmise that many, if not the majority of Curb’s artists at this point are engaged in some point of conflict with the label. After the Tim McGraw ruling, LeAnn Rimes fired off on Twitter: “Omg, I am doing the happy dance like its going out of style. Congrats Tim McGraw!!!!!!” Unlike McGraw, Hank3, and Hank Jr., LeAnn Rimes is still under the thumb of Curb, who seems very content with waiting a prohibitive 5 years between it’s artist’s album releases, to keep them on the label as long as possible.
When in Nashville this summer, I took the opportunity to walk downtown Nashville. All of it, with a map in my hand, walking around every city block, observing the buildings, the improvements, how everything was related and laid out. Then I walked down to Music Row and did the same thing. As the Holy Land of country music, every square foot of the downtown Nashville corridor could be considered as important to the country music legacy as the artists and songs themselves.
I compiled a few observances from my walk, and a few concerns. One of the concerns was how much I saw Mike Curb’s name. I saw his name more than I saw the name of Hank Williams. From his star on the Music City Walk of Fame, to the “Mike Curb Conservatory” and “Mike Curb Courtyard” that are an integral part of the front of the Country Music Hall of Fame right across the street, to his ownership of the whole block surrounding 16th Avenue and South Street on Music Row where the Curb headquarters are, the name “Mike Curb” is everywhere as the millionaire has been been unloading his war chest over the last few years to proliferate it all over the city.
And let’s not forget the “Curb Center” at Vanderbilt University, the “Mike Curb College of Entertainment and Music,” “Curb Event Center,” and “Curb Cafe” at Belmont University, the “Curb Family Music Center” at the Harpeth Hall School, or the numerous other Nashville landmarks that as a token, or a consequence for taking Mike Curb money, must embolden his name in columns and cornerstones to be seen forevermore.
Don’t get me wrong, I do not want to criticize the practice of philanthropy, or any of these specific entities that partook of Mike Curb money. My question is with the motivation, and the long-term outcome for some of these institutions. Many have opined that Mike Curb’s motivations for manipulating artists like Tim McGraw are not about money, but about power and legacy. I think it is fair to ask, where did the money come from for these building projects, from manipulative contracts and manipulating artists? From overpriced music and overbearing business practices? And in the current tax scheme, many times ultra-wealthy people are better served to donate their money as a tax write-off, which pays off in etching their legacy on landmarks, instead of simply getting a paper receipt from Uncle Sam.
And what makes the Mike Curb story that has unfolded in the last five or six years that much more disturbing is that Mike Curb is supposed to know better. The fundamental reason country artists based on Music Row have always been dealt with differently than artists from other genres is because most Music Row labels are subsidiaries of bigger companies that have to answer to folks in New York or LA, so a restrictive environment is insisted upon to keep costs in line and a system in tact; to keep the big bosses outside of Nashville happy.
But as a Nashville-based, independent label, Curb was supposed to be the musicians savior from the traditionally-restrictive Music Row culture. As Hank3 explains, he signed with Curb Records because his manager Jack McFadden wanted to deal with someone local, instead of someone splitting time between Nashville and one of the coasts. Now Mike Curb is arguably the poster boy for the restrictive, combative, and sometimes outright illegal practices by Nashville-based music labels.
As Nashville and Nashville-based entities are erecting what will be landmarks, and looking for funding for capitol improvements, before taking money from Mike Curb, or maybe when negotiating the terms of how that money changes hands, maybe they should take to heart the headlines that have hounded the Mike Curb name over the last few years, and ask themselves if that name is a legacy their building, their institution, or the City of Nashville wants to tie their future to.
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