Where the Grand Ole Opry took a hit to its reputation amongst traditional country music fans in the late oughts for trying to get too young and too quickly, the last couple of years have seen a resurgence of interest in the institution from traditionalists as it seems to have shifted to making sure the roots of the genre are well exposed on its slew of weekly shows. The quote attributed to Opry General Manager Pete Fisher for years was that he wanted to see less gray hairs on the stage and in the audience, but in the last few years the trend has been anything but.
This may not be a symptom of a change of heart in the Opry management however. It may be out of necessity as more an more of the Opry’s newest members continue to shirk their obligations to the show, and older artists who are more available and willing to play the hallowed stage for minimal pay slide in to fill the void.
Grand Ole Opry historian Byron Fay runs the always curmudgeoney, but equally well-researched Fayfare’s Opry Blog, and his yearly recap is always a must-read for Opry fans and industry types. In 2014′s installment, Byron explains that the Opry performances continue to be handled more and more by older artists—something older country fans may applaud, but something that may not bode well for the institution moving forward.
Every Opry member is expected to make at least 10 appearances on the show each year. That’s way down from previous requirements. For example in 1963, the requirement was 26 appearances, and by 2000 the number had dropped to 12. Though the exact way appearances are tabulated depends on who you talk to, with some saying weekend performances by a big star can count for additional appearance credits, when some younger artists are appearing only once or twice, it becomes pretty clear their obligations aren’t being met.
For example in 2014, Darius Rucker, the former frontman of Hootie & The Blowfish who was a controversial pick in 2012 as a new inductee, only appeared twice at the Opry, despite the adulation he spilled out when his membership was announced. Blake Shelton, who might be the Opry’s most famous side stepper of duties amongst recent inductees, also made only 2 appearances, as did Dierks Bentley and Brad Paisley. And Rascal Flatts, 2011′s controversial pick for induction, made 6 appearances. The newest inductee Little Big Town made 8, but wasn’t inducted until later in the year.
Out of the 67 current members of the Opry, only 25 of them fulfilled their 10 appearance obligation, and three of those (“Little Jimmy Dickens, Jimmy C. Newman, and George Hamilton IV), died during the year. 11 members didn’t make any appearances at all.
But what may be more interesting is who is appearing on the Opry to take up the slack. Out of the Top 11 members of the Opry in 2014 in regards to the number of appearances made, calculated by Opry historian Byron Fay, there were no artists who were in their 20′s, 30′s, 40′s, or even 50′s in age, and there were only three artists in their 60′s out of the Opry membership. That means the majority of the top Opry performing members are in their 70′s or older. Of the Top 11 performing members at the Grand Ole Opry in 2014, the average age was 79-years-old, taking in account that a couple of the top performers are groups and can change the math with individual members.
- Jeannie Seely -88 Appearances – Age: 74
- Riders In The Sky-68 Appearances – Age: (Leader Doug Green) 68
- Bill Anderson -67 Appearances – Age: 77
- John Conley -67 Appearances – Age: 68
- The Whites-67 Appearances – Age: (Leader Buck White) 84
- Connie Smith-64 Appearances – Age: 73
- Jim Ed Brown-50 Appearances – Age: 80
- Bobby Osborne-47 Appearances – Age: 83
- Little Jimmy Dickens-39 Appearances – Age: 94 (deceased)
- Jesse McReynolds-37 Appearances – Age: 85
- Jean Shepard-34 Appearances – Age: 81
So much for Pete Fisher’s plan to reinvigorate the Opry with younger talent.
Zooming out even farther and looking at the 25 members who played the Opry their appropriate 10 times, only one is below 50-years-old, and that’s Carrie Underwood at 31. She is the only current top tier mainstream artists who consistently meets her Opry obligations. No other member in the Top 25 in appearances is even in their 40′s, and only 4 of them (Vince Gill, Lorrie Morgan, Craig Morgan, and Mike Snider) are in their 50′s.
Old Crow Medicine Show, who was 2013′s new inductee, played the Opry 9 times in 2014.
Meanwhile as many Opry members are shirking their duties, non members are also taking up much of the slack. Chris Jansen made 32 appearances in 2014, and The Willis Clan made 30. But they are not members. Elizabeth Cook, Sarah Darling, and The Henningsens made 16 appearances each throughout the year. As historian Byron Fay points out, “Would the Opry be any worst having these folks as members versus those who are members and do not show up?”
So what does this all mean? It’s sort of a mixed bag, depending on your perspective. In the end, the word out on the street is that The Grand Ole Opry remains profitable, and so as long as that’s the case, the higher ups are likely to be happy with the way Pete Fisher is managing the institution. And older artists playing the Opry generally means a more traditional sound emanating from WSM come Opry time. But for the institution to remain viable, it must bring in new blood, and it must entice mainstream-relevant talent to at least pay attention to the institution. What good are rules if nobody follows them? There may be a lot of loyal Opry listeners and attendees who are happy Darius Rucker and Blake Shelton aren’t making more appearances, and that older artists are getting more opportunities. But that doesn’t make it right that these artists have signed up to be members, and are not fulfilling their quota to country music’s most storied institution.
As first reported on Tuesday (12-3) and then confirmed Wednesday afternoon, President and CEO of the Big Machine Label Group Scott Borchetta has partnered with American Idol to become the show’s new “mentor”—a position that was held for years by producer Jimmy Iovine, and then last year by Randy Jackson who moved into the position from a judge spot on the show. Jackson announced earlier in the year he was leaving the show after being a part of all 13 seasons.
Today we get confirmation of the Scott Borchetta addition, but even more intriguing is what the partnership will entail. Borchetta will not only be American Idol‘s mentor, he will also sign the eventual winner of the show to Big Machine Records—the home of Taylor Swift, Florida Georgia Line, Brantley Gilbert, Rascal Flatts, The Band Perry, Tim McGraw, and many others. This extra layer of commitment between Borchetta and American Idol could have big implications for both parties. And as arguably the most influential label in country music currently, it could have a big impact on country music at large with American Idol potentially becoming a proving ground for Nashville-based talent moving forward. Borchetta has already participated in the show’s “Hollywood Week” portion by watching performances of contestants he will be advising moving forward.
All of this news comes in stark contrast to how Scott Borchetta felt about the show in 2010 in the aftermath of Taylor Swift’s now legendary off-key performance at the Grammy Awards. Facing fierce criticism for the performance, Borchetta defended his burgeoning starlet by calling her the “voice of a generation” who was above the criticism of her not technically perfect singing. “This is not ‘American Idol,’” Borchetta said. “This is not a competition of getting up and seeing who can sing the highest note. This is about a true artist and writer and communicator. It’s not about that technically perfect performance.”
American Idol Season One winner Kelly Clarkson took exception to Scott Borchetta’s comments and fired back.
“I understand defending your artist obviously because I have done the same in the past for artists I like, including Taylor, so you might see why it’s upsetting to read you attacking ‘American Idol’ for producing simply vocalists that hit ‘the high notes.’ Thank you for that ‘Captain Obvious’ sense of humor, because you know what? We not only hit the high notes, you forgot to mention we generally hit the ‘right’ notes as well. Every artist has a bad performance or two and that is understandable, but throwing blame will not make the situation at hand any better.
“I have been criticized left and right for having shaky performances before (and they were shaky), and what my manager or label executives say to me and the public is ‘I’ll kick butt next time’ or ‘Every performance isn’t going to be perfect.’ I bring this up because you should take a lesson from these people and instead of lashing out at other artists (that in your ‘humble’ opinion lack true artistry), you should simply take a breath and realize that sometimes things won’t go according to plan or work out and that’s okay.”
Whether it’s selective amnesia, a change of heart, or simply a savvy business move, Scott Borchetta has officially decided to step out of the shadows of country music label ownership to become a public pop cultural figure, and one who could have a big stake in making sure the next American Idol winner or winners do something that many recent winners have failed to pull off: actually becoming “Idol’s” instead of names forgotten a week after the finale.
That’s right, the The Country Music Antichrist, aka President and CEO of the Big Machine Label Group Scott Borchetta is in talks to become the newest mentor on the singing reality show competition American Idol. He would be replacing Randy “Dog” Jackson—the only member of the show’s original cast aside from host Ryan Seacrest who’s been on the show all 13 seasons. Jackson was a judge for the first 12 seasons, and then moved into Jimmy Iovine’s role as the show’s “mentor” for season 13 before announcing he would exit the show entirely for season 14. Last year’s judges Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez, and Harry Connick Jr. are all slated to return this upcoming season.
As a respected talent evaluator in the industry, and one that lately has shown more interest in coming out of the shadows and becoming more of a public personality, Borchetta as American Idol‘s mentor makes savvy sense for both parties. Borchetta was responsible for discovering Taylor Swift, the biggest pop star in the world right now, and Big Machine properties also have under contract Florida Georgia Line, Brantley Gilbert, Rascal Flatts, The Band Perry, Tim McGraw, and now Reba McEntire under the new NASH Icon joint venture with Cumulus Media. Scott Borchetta is arguably the most powerful man on Music Row in Nashville, and now he’ll be taking his name international if the reports from US Weekly are correct.
If consummated, it would make Borchetta not just one of the most powerful label owners in music, but also one of the most visible, bolstering both Big Machine’s and Scott’s personal brands. Reports from late October saying the Big Machine Label Group was up for sale were later denied by Borchetta, but remaining one of music’s few major independent labels, sale rumors continue to linger. Scott’s partnership with American Idol could also facilitate more collaboration between the reality singing competition and Big Machine artists in live performances and song choices.
Scott Borchetta was affectionately coined the “Country Music Antichrist” by Saving Country Music in 2009 for his stretching of the term “country” with artists like Taylor Swift. However unlike many of Music Row’s label heads, Borchetta is known for extending more creative freedom to his artists.
Once again Scott Borchetta reveals his desires to be much more than simply a record label head, but a powerful and influential entertainment mogul of the recording industry—a desire that could continue to send reverberations throughout the country music industry.
Defendants of the adverse trends corrupting mainstream country music will give you many reasons why the trends aren’t really adverse at all, including that if you don’t like the music, you should simply exercise your right to not listen, and that the music isn’t necessarily affecting behavior so in the end it’s harmless. But part of the problem with popular country music these days is that it is so effusive throughout society. You turn on a college football game or watch a wrestling broadcast, and there Florida Georgia Line is singing the intro or taking you into a commercial break. Country is now the most popular genre of American music, meaning it’s being piped into grocery stores, being played at schools, and is ever-present in cars being driven by moms and dads all across the country as their kids sit in the back seat soaking it all up and singing along to catchy songs with simplistic rhythms and repetitive themes perfect for getting stuck in the heads of youngsters.
Compounding the problem is that just a few short years ago, country was one of the safest places on the radio dial for parents with small kids in the car. Think about the “soccer mom” effect that country music was cultivating in the late oughts, when artists like Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, and Rascal Flatts were dominating the country airwaves. Country radio was full of fluffy pop country songs that parents could feel fine, if not proud of playing in front of their kids compared to the filth pervading Top 40 radio at the time.
Now the entire radio field has been reversed, even though parent’s presets may still be on the country station. Country is where the perverse sentiments of popular culture have come to roost, and the endless droning in songs about drinking, drug use, materialism, and misogynistic views towards women are nearly required to get your music at the top of the country charts. It’s been theorized by Saving Country Music that part of the reason for this trend is a backlash from the mid-00′s when the rising sentiment became that country music was becoming woosified. That’s when you had artists like Eric Church, Jason Aldean, and then later Brantley Gilbert and Florida Georgia Line beginning their ascent, purposely focusing on many non family-friendly themes and constantly trying to prove how country they were in their lyrics.
However we got here, country music is now a haven for filth on the radio, easily giving pop and even hip-hop stations a run for their money. And as mom and dad find their own personal preference on the country station, the themes in the music get incessantly pumped into the young skulls riding in booster chairs and holding sippy cups in the back seat. It’s not that drinking themes haven’t always been present in country—you could argue they’re one of the foundations of the genre. It’s more about who they’re being played to and in front of, and how these themes are being portrayed (glamorous instead of cautionary). Even if you choose to avoid the music yourself, you can’t help but worry how it is affecting society as a whole when so many young people are being subjected to this music.
This was illustrated just about perfectly on Friday (11-21) by CBS Evening News reporter Steve Hartman when he took a deeper look into how his two young kids were computing the lyrics of country songs in their developing brains as they sat and listened to popular country music in the family motor carriage.
Steve Hartman’s conclusion? “I’ve got some sobering news — Nashville is alcohol-poisoning the minds of our young people,” he says in his report.
Hartman goes on to illustrate just how deeply popular country’s drinking themes have burrowed into his two son’s brains as they recite titles and lyrics to popular country songs effortlessly. Hartman turns his blame to Kix Brooks, the host of the syndicated American Country Countdown, where apparently the majority of the Hartman kids’ exposure to popular country music comes from as they listen to the weekly show on the way to swimming lessons. So papa Hartman took the kids to Kix Brooks’ studio and asked the man himself what he thought about the trend of drinking songs in country, and Kix initially drew a blank, illustrating the sort of “deer in headlights” moment many parents feel when faced with the reality that what their kids are listening to might affect them adversely in the future.
Reporter Steve Hartman did a good job of explaining how kids listening to popular country songs can be a good teaching opportunity for parents to explain the ideas behind responsible drinking, etc., but it may be a little too much to expect this from most busy parents who listen to popular country song’s party themes as their own form of escapism. And as Hartman says, these lessons were something he was hoping to avoid until “after 1st grade.”
And Steve Hartman can’t be painted as some modern country hater or alarmist. After all, he was voluntarily listening to the American Country Countdown himself, and many in the industry, including Big Machine Label Group CEO Scott Borchetta have seen their own dilemma with so many drinking songs, saying in December of 2013, “Everybody in Nashville must be drinking 24-7. We’re a bunch of drunks down here. There’s too much, to be honest with you. We can’t keep talking about Fireball and Coors Light and having the tailgate down, etc.”
Of course all of this is anecdotal. There’s no direct data corroborating that five-year-old’s are hitting the sauce too early because they listened to Little Big Town’s “Day Drinking.” But it does illustrate how when people show concern for the themes of country songs, even if they’re not inclined to listen themselves, they’re concerned that it could be having adverse effects on society as a whole. Like teachers in a madras, with a lack of variety, these popular country songs drive home the same themes over and over until it can be recited effortlessly by impressionable minds. It also make one wonder if the underlying reason is to make young consumers for country’s principal advertisers, like the Joe Camel effect of 2014.
Hartman’s report only deals with the drinking aspect of popular country songs, but really you could do a similar experiment dealing with sexual themes, possibly with very young female listeners. This all doesn’t mean these songs are patently evil. Music made for adults who (hypothetically) have the ability to rationalize what they’re listening to and not let it affect them adversely is fine. But just like drinking itself, the music should be consumed by an age-appropriate audience, and as with all things, in moderation. However mainstream country at the moment is on the drinking song binge of its life, even if the substance of the songs is slowly improving, and the question remains if it’s having an effect on the behavior of listeners, or if it will shape the behavior of listeners in the future.
This story has been updated (see below).
The potential sale of the Big Machine Label Group—home of Taylor Swift, Florida Georgia Line, Tim McGraw, Rascal Flatts, Brantley Gilbert, and many more—just got a whole lot more interesting, and now has sprouted tentacles that could have major implications across the entire music landscape as Taylor Swift has unexpectedly pulled her complete catalog from Spotify.
Murmurings of an impending Big Machine sale first surfaced in a Hits Daily Double column posted on October 23rd, and were expounded upon by Saving Country Music on October 27th. Subsequently The New York Post released a story on November 1st reinforcing the presence of behind-the-scenes chatter on an impending sale. Reports have Big Machine President and CEO Scott Borchetta asking $200 million for the label group that includes the subsidiary labels Valory Music, NASH Icon, and joint ventures with Universal Republic Records, Republic Records Nashville and Dot Records. Big Machine is an independent label distributed by Universal Music Group—one of the parties rumored to be interested in purchasing the star heavy label.
From the beginning, the lynchpin of any deal has been centered around superstar Taylor Swift who has one more album to release with Big Machine before the expiration of her contract. Making matters that much more intriguing, and potentially making the value of Big Machine never greater, is the development that Taylor Swift’s new album 1989 released on October 27th has become nothing short of a historic commercial blockbuster. Preliminary sales numbers have 1989 selling 1.3 million copies in its first week—the best one week sales performance for any album since Eminem’s The Eminem Show released in May of 2002. When taking into account the flight from physical sales and now even digital downloads in the face of streaming services such as Spotify, this sales feat is nothing short of miraculous.
One of the factors being given credit for Taylor Swift’s tour de force in sales is the Spotify embargo she usually puts on her releases for the first 60 days to stimulate more album sales. Scott Borchetta told Rolling Stone near the release of Taylor Swift’s Red in 2012. “Why shouldn’t we learn from the movie business? They have theatrical releases, cable releases. There are certain tiers. If we just throw out everything we have, we’re done.”
Scott Borchetta had mostly held pat to this Spotify approach until recently. Releases by other Big Machine artists in the last few months such as Tim McGraw and Florida Georgia Line were released straight to Spotify, though Brantley Gilbert’s Just As I Am released in May did not, holding to the 60 day embargo. Sales for Brantely’s album where much higher than most industry experts expected, and the album has now sold over 600,000 copies—this from an artist who is not considered to be on country music’s top tier.
Taylor Swift’s 1989 did not appear on Spotify upon release, though the lead single “Shake It Off” was available. Then the shocking news came down Monday morning that Taylor Swift’s entire discography was pulled from the Spotify network, singles and all.
“We love Taylor Swift, and our more than 40 million users love her even more,” Spotify posted Monday morning after her music disappeared. “We hope she’ll change her mind and join us in building a new music economy that works for everyone. We believe fans should be able to listen to music wherever and whenever they want, and that artists have an absolute right to be paid for their work and protected from piracy. That’s why we pay nearly 70% of our revenue back to the music community.”
Billboard on Monday also posted quotes from a Spotify employee with “intimate knowledge of the situation” saying, “This came as a complete surprise. Big Machine is in the process of selling itself, and that can’t be forgotten here. [They're looking to] increase the multiple for the sale of that company. Scott Borchetta is a very old-school thinker. He’s wrong.”
However there may be an element of spin going on from Spotify, or multiple elements of spin. Though Spotify is trying to link the Big Machine sale to Taylor Swift pulling her music, every other Big Machine artist still has all of their music available through the streaming service.
Also in Spotify’s official comments, they speak more specifically about the philosophical and financial dilemma Spotify is posing to the music industry at large. “We believe…artists have an absolute right to be paid for their work and protected from piracy. That’s why we pay nearly 70% of our revenue back to the music community.” Why would Spotify bring up this point if the concern was the Big Machine sale and not Swift seeing the financial benefit for herself and other artists at large by exiting the streamer? Also, is Scott Borchetta though to be an “old-school thinker”? Most in the industry consider Borchetta the opposite, and it very well could have been Swift’s decision, not Borchetta’s, to pull the catalog from Spotify.
In a Taylor Swift op-ed from the Wall Street Journal posted in July, she said, “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free.”
The impact of Taylor Swift removing her music from Spotify, especially after she just revealed herself as the biggest artist of the last decade-plus and possibly of a generation, cannot be overstated. This could be the moment of leadership music has been waiting for that spurs other artists to stand up to the incremental loss of revenue presented by the streaming paradigm, and it could also have a big impact on Spotify’s standing in the marketplace. Or it could simply mean you can’t stream Swift on Spotify. Either way, the implications of Swift’s decision should be watched very closely, and could have big reverberations throughout music.
Whether the Spotify decision is linked at all to Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine sale is difficult to determine without access to the specifics of any deal. But to be sure, 1989‘s resounding commercial success is necessitating a shift of perspective on how music is sold in America, and the standing of Big Machine Records as one of the most important and influential labels in music today.
Meanwhile streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, and others continue to have issues showing how their business model can become profitable, with some looking to negotiate the royalties paid to artists down even more.
***UPDATE (11-4): According to Scott Borchetta of the Big Machine Label Group, the company is not up for sale. Borchetta told All Access, “If you notice, any time we put a Taylor album out this little item comes up again. We are not for sale, but Taylor’s great new album ‘1989’ is!” Of course, companies are notorious for refuting any sale rumors … until they eventually sell. So this should be taken into consideration. As should the fact that if it is true that Big Machine is not up for sale, this would refute the Spotify insider who told Billboard the Big Machine sale has to do with Swift pulling her music.
Nashville’s and country music’s most influential record label is reportedly getting ready to be put up for sale according to a new report from Hits Daily Double, and Taylor Swift’s 1989 album release and pending contract situation could have a big impact on it. $200 million dollars is said to be the asking price for Scott Borchetta’s prized possession.
Despite being a big label with many famous artist and significant subsidiaries, the Big Machine Label Group remains independently owned, operating through distribution deals with Republic Records in the United States, and Universal Music Group internationally. Along with Taylor Swift, the label group is the home of Florida Georgia Line, The Band Perry, Tim McGraw, Rascal Flatts, Justin Moore, Reba McEntire, and many more.
This is not the first time Big Machine has been rumored to be up for sale. In 2011, Sony was reportedly in negotiations to acquire the label for the same sum of $200 million, and they weren’t the only ones showing interest. Big Machine’s distribution partners Universal Music Group were also rumored to be considering entering a bid on the label.
Key to this new deal would be Taylor Swift according to reports, who after the release of 1989 will owe Big Machine one more record before being free of her contract. Whether Scott Borchetta can re-sign the mega-star, or whether she will decide to run her own labeling and distribution similar to how she does with booking and management remains in question. “Swift’s valuation will be far more meaningful for Borchetta if he can re-sign her, because she’s clearly the jewel in Borchetta’s crown,” says Hits Daily Double. “The fact of the matter is that Borchetta must bring Swift with him in order to make his company truly attractive in the eyes of prospective bidders.”
Taylor Swift is considered one of the biggest artists, if not the biggest artist of this generation, and many of the early estimates of how many albums 1989 could sell have her becoming 2014′s first Platinum-selling act, denoting 1 million albums sold. Her last album Red debuted with 1.2 million in sales on the way to marking over 4 million units moved, but this was two years ago before music streaming took over in earnest. Others are wondering if Swift moving from country to pop will put a dent in her sales from loyal country fans.
Also interesting, and something that has gone virtually unreported is that Borchetta recently dropped his moratorium on releasing albums to Spotify, Rhapsody, and other streaming service until after a certain time period. “We’re not putting the brand-new releases on Spotify,” Borchetta told Rolling Stone near the release of Taylor Swift’s Red in 2012. “Why shouldn’t we learn from the movie business? They have theatrical releases, cable releases. There are certain tiers. If we just throw out everything we have, we’re done.” But recent Big Machine releases from Tim McGraw and Florida Georgia Line were available immediately on Spotify. So far, Swift’s 1989 released officially on 10-27 has not surfaced on the streaming service, though her first single “Shake It Off” is available. The Spotify quotient could cause cause Swift’s album sales numbers to be more robust compared to other 2014 releases that went straight to streaming.
Another question appears to be the standing of both Scott Borchetta and Taylor Swift in the greater country community. Swift leaving country may have ruffled the feathers of Big Machine’s Music Row bunk mates who also may fill the roster of prospective buyers. Meanwhile Borchetta has been making waves of his own on Music Row, with his aggressive practices angering some in the business. Borchetta tends to play by his own rules as opposed to the unspoken writs of the Music Row oligarchy. His big deals with iHeartMedia (formerly Clear Channel) on radio play rights, Cumulus Media with NASH Icon, producer Dr. Luke with writing and production work, and similar deals have Borchetta running circles around his Nashville competition, and leaving some with a sour taste.
The Big Machine Label Group was founded by President and CEO Scott Borchetta in 2005 after he left DreamWorks Records, and includes the subsidiary labels Valory Music Group, Dot Records, NASH Icon, and a joint venture with Universal Republic Records, Republic Records Nashville. The label began as a partnership with Toby Keith, but Keith dropped his affiliation with Big Machine in 2006 to start his own Show Dog-Universal label. Keith still owns a stake in Big Machine however, and this is one of the reasons he remains the highest-paid entertainer in country music. Taylor Swift’s father, Scott Swift, also owns a stake in Big Machine. Taylor Swift was Big Machine’s first signing.
Though we’re still only a few months removed from George Strait’s final show as a touring performer, it’s pretty safe to say that the record breaking concert will go down as one of the biggest concert events in the history of country music, especially for an event centered around a single performer. From shattering the indoor attendance record, to all the special guests, to the circular stage, to the songs and performances themselves, country music may never top what happened on June 7th, 2014 as a farewell to a legendary country performer.
When it came to how the show would be sold to those who couldn’t attend, we knew to anticipate that commercial interests would be considered heavily in the deal. When a selection of the performances from the concert were broadcast via CMT on August 29th, it was no surprise there was a heavy dose of Jason Aldean, Sheryl Crow, and other performers that could attract eyeballs to the broadcast, even though they would also attract the ire of some of George Strait’s traditional country fans. And the same could be expected for the album The Cowboy Rides Away: Live from At&T Stadium when it was released on September 16th.
But what nobody could anticipate is that a George Strait album would be the vehicle for the most excessive, and most blatantly obvious use of the pitch correction software known as Auto-Tune that I have ever, ever heard in the history of recorded music, barring projects purposefully using Auto-Tune as a special effect. The use of Auto-Tune on The Cowboy Rides Away is egregious, and embarrassingly obvious to the point where I can’t believe that a project like this would ever be released for public consumption, especially when such a legendary performer, and such a legendary event, are involved. This is outrageous. It is an abomination. And whomever is responsible for mixing in and mastering this Auto-Tune hatchet job should be marched into someone’s office, forced to listen to King George’s masterful vocals getting transmogrified by 1′s and 0′s like lambs to the slaughter, and then be unceremoniously fired. Then a new version of The Cowboy Rides Away sans the Auto-Tune should be offered to anyone who spent good money on this album. And all this should be done posthaste.
What the hell were they thinking? Who approved this? Who believed that they could slather such excessive Auto-Tune on this project, and people simply wouldn’t notice?
Beyond the deceit that the use of Auto-Tune presents in itself, it is especially difficult to employ in this particular context where you have a live performance, and a performer who doesn’t use Auto-Tune on a regular basis. George Strait sings at times with a cadence that Auto-Tune can’t keep up with. Many times he purposefully sings by beginning a note out-of-tune to eventually bend it back into place in an attempt to squeeze the emotion out of a lyric. This is called “Twang,” and is a critical part of the George Strait experience that someone in a studio decided to destroy because of some silly notion that George Strait’s singing must be perfect. Performers who regularly sing with the aid of Auto-Tune like Rascal Flatts, they know what to do to make sure to not send the program into overdrive. When you add Auto-Tune on to a live performance after the fact, it almost always results in obvious artificial electronic sounds that erode the authenticity of the listening experience.
Auto-Tune was never meant to be used in the way it was used on The Cowboy Rides Away. As audio engineers will tell you, “Everyone in Nashville uses Auto-Tune,” and to an extent, this is probably true in the studio. But the point of Auto-Tune originally was to take errant notes here and there in an otherwise excellent vocal performance, and fix them slightly and harmlessly so an entire new vocal take wasn’t necessary. It was a tool, not a crutch. Almost immediately of course, artists like Cher, and eventually T-Pain began to use it as a vocal enhancement. But when it is administered en masse as it is on this album, the result is something much worse than what a few missed notes would ever sound like. No care, no love was put in the vocals on this album and how the Auto-Tune was administered. Even if some Auto-Tune correction was decided to be used here and there, to the extent it was used on this album is an insult to the listener’s ears.
Veteran producer Chuck Ainlay is given credit as a producer on The Cowboy Rides Away: Live from At&T Stadium. So is George Strait. I have no idea if George Strait had any say so with what happened with this album and the Auto-Tune or not. But even if George Strait himself doesn’t have a problem with it, many fans do. And those fans should demand either their money back, or an unadulterated version of this album. Because this artist, and this concert were too important to mar in such an unnecessary manner.
Harris Interactive has just released a new poll that queried the American public about their favorite music artists, musicians, and bands, and some noteworthy country music names made the list. When pollsters asked for unprompted responses to the question, “Who is your favorite singer/musician or band?”—George Strait was the 5th highest answer, and the highest amongst country music stars. Garth Brooks also made the top 10, coming in tied for 7th with The Eagles, Celine Dion, and Neil Diamond.
Willie Nelson also made the top of two of the lists broken down by demographics, even though he did not make the top 10 overall. Willie was the favorite artist of “Mature Adults” (69 or older), and was tied with The Beatles for the favorite musical artist amongst Republicans (despite Willie’s left-leaning politics). The Beatles came in #1 overall in the poll, right in front of Elvis at #2.
What is even more interesting for country music fans is who is not on the list, and who slipped off the list since the same poll was conducted the last time in 2010. Four years ago, Tim McGraw was #5, Rascal Flatts was #8, and Alan Jackson was #9. None of these country artists made the top 10 again. In 2010 George Strait was #7 in the poll.
With all three of the country entries into this year’s poll being more classically-oriented artists, and none of them being current stars (where is Taylor Swift in this poll?), it speaks to the continued appeal of older country artists and classic country music we’ve seen in similar studies by Edison Research, and in the move to split the country format to give more radio representation to older artists.
The younger artists that made the top 10 of the poll were Beyoncé at #3, and Bruno Mars at #6 who was potentially boosted by his recent Super Bowl appearance.
The Harris Poll was conducted online within the United States between July 16th and July 21st, 2014 among 2,306 adults (aged 18 and over). Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online.
“Who is your favorite singer/musician or band?”
Base: All adults
DROPPED OFF OF LIST IN 2014
U2 (was No. 2), Tim McGraw (was No. 5), Lady Gaga (was No. 6), Rascal Flatts (was No. 8) and Alan Jackson and Frank Sinatra (both ties for No. 9)
TOP MUSICIAN AMONG DIFFERENT GROUPS
|Gen X (38-49)||
|Baby Boomers (50-68)||
|Parent of child under 18||
|Not parent of child under 18||
Ever since the joint venture between Cumulus Media and Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Label Group called NASH Icons was announced, one of the biggest questions on the minds of consumers has been what the actual scope of the venture will be. Sold to be the solution to the problem of aging artists getting shuffled off of mainstream radio, NASH Icons looks to revitalize the careers of artists from the last 25 years; artists like Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, and Reba McEntire that are seen to still have great appeal, but have been left behind by country’s current obsession with youth.
On Wednesday it was announced that NASH Icons had made its first hire, and it’s a heavy hitter in the music business. Jim Weatherson, a 35-year veteran of music management has been tapped to be the NASH Icons General Manager; a move that signals a deep commitment from both Cumulus and Big Machine to the endeavor.
Jim Weatherson’s resume includes a recent stint at the Nashville office of 19 Entertainment, best known for its ties to American Idol. Weatherson also worked at artist management group ’13 Management’ which oversees Taylor Swift, and was also previously the general manager of Walt Disney Records. He’s also worked previously with Brad Paisley and Rascal Flatts. “I have known Scott Borchetta for nearly 25 years,” Weatherspoon says. “And I am honestly thrilled and honored to finally get to work directly with him and his team as well as Cumulus on this groundbreaking concept.”
“Jim Weatherson is the perfect executive to lead the charge for NASH Icons,” says Scott Borchetta. “We have a longstanding relationship of working together on some of the biggest Country artists and album releases in history. To land him and have his 100% focus on Icons will only lead to one thing: success.”
“Jim’s experience and the respect he’s earned in the music business will enable NASH Icons to quickly become a leader in recording and live events for the Country stars we hold in such high regard,” says John Dickey of Cumulus.
In late May, Cumulus Chairman Lew Dickey said that he expected NASH Icons to recruit big names like Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson, and that announcements on the signings would be happening within a month. Though no artist names have been released yet, the announcement of Jim Weatherson would be a first step to recruiting talent for the label. Meanwhile the rest of country music looks on curiously, wondering if the launch of NASH Icons will result in a true format split.
Time was in country music when the Southern drawl was going the way of the dinosaur. I know, strange to think because of how pronounced Southern accents are today and since they’re usually considered part and parcel with country music. But in the mid to late 00′s when soccer moms were country’s most coveted demographic and artists like Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, and Rascal Flatts were ruling the roost, the Southern accent began to lose its prominence and be seen as unsavory by an industry trying to soften its image and appeal more to a pop-oriented crowd. Strong Southern accents were discouraged in country’s sippy cup era.
Nowadays it is a much different story. Southern twang is back in a big way baby, as bro-country dominates the format, and female performers try and turn up the sass to compete. As opposed to trying to apologize for their Southern roots, today’s country artists can’t shut the hell up about them, regularly reinforcing all things country in laundry list form with elongated drawls. This has seen the rise of the Southern accent once again, but along with it, questions about the authenticity of some of the performer’s twang.
Miranda Lambert, one of country’s leading ladies, seems to have the ability to accentuate or turn off her Southern drawl depending on the mood of the song she is singing. There is little doubt listening to the Lindale, TX native talk that her Southern accent is real. The question is if she enhances or diminishes it in an unnatural way when she sings, and if so, does that diminish the authenticity of her music or the performance?
Tyler Hubbard of the band Florida Georgia Line has one of the most pronounced Southern accents when singing of any popular country music artist today. From Monroe, GA, once again you just have to hear Tyler speak to know his Southern accent probably isn’t a put on. But is it unnaturally bolstered in Florida Georgia Line’s music? Interestingly enough, much has been made about the other member of the duo, Brian Kelley, not singing lead much at all. Whether it’s the way the songs were written or the way their producer (Joey Moi of Nickelback fame) arranged them, it was quickly identified that Tyler’s twang was the money maker, not Brian Kelley’s more normalized tone.
Big Machine artist Justin Moore from Arkansas may have the most accentuated Southern accent of them all, almost caricaturist compared to even some of his most twangy peers. Once again it makes one wonder if it’s faked until you hear him talk and his accent is just as pronounced, if not more than it is in his music. He would be an interesting person to ask about another concern facing the Southern twang, which is non Southerners all of a sudden sporting an accent once they get behind a microphone and start singing country music. This is exactly what radio station DJ Broadway from Country 92.5 in Connecticut did in a recent Justin Moore interview, and the conversation quickly veered toward how people think Justin Moore is sporting a fake twang.
“It seems like everyone, once they get to Nashville they have an accent, whether they’re from Michigan or Arkanasas, it doesn’t matter where they’re from,” Broadway observed to Justin Moore. “Does that drive you mad? Do you ever turn you head and go, ‘You were just talking to me, you’re from Michigan and that’s where you were born and all of a sudden you’ve got a Southern accent? Where did that come from?’”
Justin Moore replies, “People have said in my career that mine’s fake. But I mean, you and I have known each other for what, seven years or something? I mean I feel like going, ‘If you think I talk redneck, go hear my mom talk.’ I don’t have the time or the energy, or whatever has the thought process out there for people who have said that mine’s fake. Why in the world would I want to talk fake for the rest of my life?”
But a few will probably still believe that Justin Moore is faking it, probably because other performers without native accents will probably continue to employ it in their country music. Why? Because the Southern accent is a hot commodity in country music right now, and we can probably expect things to get even more twangy and drawn out from here.
With Martina McBride at the crossroads that every big country music superstar knows they must ultimately face at some point in their career, where their radio relevancy is slipping through their fingers and the industry is slowly relegating them to the ranks of legacy acts, Martina does something very, very curious: she releases an album solely consisting of soul and R&B standards.
It was only a few years ago when Martina McBride was one the names on the list of nominees for the ACM and CMA Female Vocalist of the Year on a perennial basis. When her name slipped from those lists, that is when we entered this almost comical round-robin era we’re currently in, exemplified by shoehorning names into that fifth spot like Kelly Clarkson who isn’t country, Sheryl Crow who just recently turned country, and Kacey Musgraves before she even had released her first major album. After winning the CMA Female Vocalist three consecutive years between 2002 and 2004, if they could in any way justify McBride’s name being on a nominations list, it would be. Hell, it seems like just yesterday she was performing her big sentimental Cancer hit “I’m Gonna Love You Through It” on the CMA Awards. Now she seems like refugee of the country music industry.
This isn’t the first time Martina has done an album of standards. 2005′s Timeless featured McBride performing 18 classic country songs. Martina’s last album, 2011′s Eleven was championed by the Scott Borchetta imprint Republic Nashville. Borchetta has made a mint picking off aging talent from other labels, including Tim McGraw and Reba McEntire, Trisha Yearwood, and Rascal Flatts. However Everlasting was released through Kobalt Music Services, which by looking at their roster, specializes in being a safety net for aging talent and boasts about allowing artists to retain their rights. That’s all well and good, but it leaves Martina without the mainstream industry she’s enjoyed for nearly 20 years. Martina’s name still held enough strength to see Everlasting debut at #1 on the country charts, but with only an anemic 21,000 albums sold. I remember when Toby Keith once won the dubious distinction of having the lowest-selling #1 ever when his 2010 offering Bullets In The Gun sold 71,000 copies. My, how the times have changed.
Country music needs Martina McBride—or at least it did need her. With the showing of women in country in nothing short of a crisis, and Martina still possessing one of the most powerful female voices the genre has ever witnessed, it would have been nice for her first album in three years to be a retrenching; to bring some worthy singles to the table to at least challenge country radio’s male-dominated oligarchy to consider them. You can’t fault Martina for doing what she wants to do, though. Pardon me for mentioning a lady’s age, but she’s 47-years-old now and has been playing the game for many years. If Everlasting is the album she wanted to make, then that’s all the justification anyone should need. “You have to follow your instinct and your creative voice, and my creative voice was saying, ‘This is what you need to do at this time,’” Martina says. Though it may have been nice to see Martina challenge country’s ageism and sexism with a serious country offering, it just wasn’t in the cards.
What was in the cards was recruiting noteworthy producer Don Was, and working through a fairly recognizable list of Motown-style hits, including “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”, “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted”, and Van Morrison’s much-covered “Wild Night”. What’s there to hate about these songs? Not much. Don Was brings in horn sections to bolster the recordings, and Martina of course nails every damn performance. The record is very cohesive, made to listen to from cover to cover. But they played it very safe here with these songs; very down-the-middle. No risks were taken, no “interpretations” or true liberties were made with the songs. They’re simply Martina’s versions.
There’s a lot of reasons one could find to hate on this album. Why did Martina abandon country? I’m not sure she has for more than just this album, so this may not be a fair accusation to make. Why did Martina not put out an album of original music? Maybe because she’s finally free to do what she wants, and she didn’t want to. Why couldn’t she at least given these songs some sort of a country twist? That’s a good question, but she may have wanted to stay within the original spirit of the compositions.
On paper, I wanted to take this album and Frisbee it across the room. No offense to Martina, but there’s just very little useful purpose for an album like this in regards to championing the cause of music. But listening to it, I surprisingly didn’t want to immediately turn it off. It was well done, for what it is, and Martina McBride can still sing.
Martina McBride made something very clear here: If she was going to be put out to pasture, she was going to do it her way. And it’s very hard to fault her for that.
1 1/4 of 2 guns up.
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The alert and conscientious country music fan has always held deep suspicious that country music award shows, especially the ACM’s, featured lip-synced performances on an annual basis, but we may just now be discovering the depth of the deception on the American public during the presentations.
Country trio Rascal Flatts faced a lip syncing controversy coming out of the 2014 ACM Awards after they decided to pantomime to a pre-recorded track of their song “Rewind” for the presentation. The lip-sync was so obvious, the band was forced to come clean the next day, telling fans, “After having performed several shows earlier in the week, Gary [LeVox] lost his voice. So, instead of cancelling our commitment to do the show, we made a last minute decision to lip-sync. We’ve never done it before, and we’re obviously not very good at it. We look forward to singling live again in the very near future!”
That’s all fine and good, maybe it was just a once-in-a-lifetime thing and Rascal Flatts and the ACM’s had learned their lesson, right? Well, not so fast. The executive producer of the ACM Awards RAC Clark while speaking to Country Aircheck in their latest issue and looking to sweep the lip-sync controversy under-the-rug as no big deal, instead allowed the skeletons to come cascading out of the ACM’s lip-syncing closet.
“There have been plenty of people who have lip-synced on our show,” RAC Clark said, thinking this knowledge would somehow make the Rascal Flatts subterfuge not as big of a deal. Instead it finally validates the suspicions of many viewers and country music fans that what they’re seeing on the ACM Awards many times is not real.
We knew there was an issue in dress rehearsal. In talking with [managers] Clarence Spalding and Randy Goodman, they said he can’t sing. We talked about the options, which were basically canceling and lip-synching. And I told them, that’s up to you. And they didn’t want to cancel. I think it was a good move. There have been plenty of people who have lip-synched on our show. I’ll never reveal who, but there are a lot of activities in Las Vegas with other concerts, private shows, radio remotes – there is a lot of talking. Not to mention the lack of humidity and hotel air. Some artists, especially those with a finely tuned instrument like Gary LeVox’s, can only handle so much.
Making the matter worse is the fact that the 2014 ACM Awards started off with host Blake Shelton cracking a joke at the expense of current Las Vegas residency performer Brittney Spears (and sis of Jamie Lynn Spears who was sitting in the audience) saying viewers shouldn’t expect a lip-synced show, but “real live music.”
ACM executive producer RAC Clark also explained why Album of the Year winner Kacey Musgraves was not given a performance slot on the night, saying, “It started as a shorter performance, and she declined. We came back with something a bit longer, and it eventually came down to her wanting a full performance. We kept pushing at time, but couldn’t make it work. No disrespect to songwriters, but the viewing habits of the public are now at about 1.5 minutes.”
The lip syncing revelations come in a rough year for the ACM Awards where concerns about the lack of female performers on the show and Justin Moore’s ineligibility for New Artist of the Year tainted the year’s festivities in some fan’s eyes. Ratings for the show were slightly down in 2014, but came the year after a 15-year ratings peak for the presentation.
The 90′s deadlocked R&B pop band Milli Vanilli will be collaborating with country pop trio Rascal Flatts on an upcoming project called “Vanilla Flatts“, with an album tentatively scheduled to be released in the Fall according to representatives of both groups. Rascal Flatts’ Gary LeVox, Jay DeMarcus, and Joe Don Rooney are said to be excited about the upcoming project, while Milli Vanilli’s Fab Morvan is said to be “excited to have any work, at all, whatsoever.”
The idea for the collaboration came about when Rascal Flatts frontman Gary LeVox reached out to Milli Vanilli’s Fab Morvan to get advice on how to handle the recent lip sync scandal the group found themselves in after admitting to pre-recording their recent performance on the 2014 ACM Awards. “Fab Morvan was very understanding and helpful when Gary called,” says Rascal Flatts spokesperson Annie Frankenfurter. “He was able to give Gary and the rest of Rascal Flatts some perspective of how to handle, and not handle the public backlash.”
Milli Vanilli was one of the biggest bands in all of popular music in the late 80′s and early 90′s, and were awarded the Grammy’s Best New Artist in 1990 as both a critical and commercial favorite. Then it was found out the duo hadn’t sung any of the music on their debut album Girl You Know It’s True. Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus were stooges hired for their looks by producer Frank Farian in Germany who was looking to feature the work of vocalists deemed unmarketable. The ruse was exposed by LA Times writer Chuck Phillips, and resulted in a public backlash and the eventual implosion of Milli Vanilli.
Much of the music of Milli Vanilli has endured in popular culture however, and apparently the members of Rascal Flatts are big fans. “Gary and Rascal Flatts found a lot of strength in this crisis by going back and listening to Milli Vanilli’s work,” spokesperson Annie Frankenfurter continues. “And the trio and their label Big Machine Records were surprised to find out just how similar Milli Vanilli’s music sounds to the pop country music of today, and specifically the music of Rascal Flatts. As Gary was confiding in Milli Vanilli’s Fab Morvan amidst the scandal, they found they had so much in common musically that they felt the calling to collaborate.”
In true Milli Vanilli fashion, their contributions will be done solely by other uncredited artists, which is especially helpful since the second Milli Vanilli member Rob Pilatus died of a drug overdose in 1998. “Basically they’re two overhyped bands best known for their hair,” says Frankenfurter. “And joining forces should create the type of vacuum of substance that thrives in today’s music marketplace.”
Superstar country music group Rascal Flatts has confirmed that they indeed lip synced their performance Sunday night on the 49th Annual Academy of Country Music awards. The Big Machine Records trio lit up twitter when they took the stage, with observers wondering why the performance looked so wonky and wondered if lip syncing was the answer. Saving Country Music has been waiting since the performance for clear video evidence of the lip sync, but today the band spilled the beans and ended all suspicion by releasing a statement through Twitter.
After having performed several shows earlier in the week, Gary [LeVox] lost his voice. So, instead of cancelling our commitment to do the show, we made a last minute decision to lip-sync. We’ve never done it before, and we’re obviously not very good at it. We look forward to singling live again in the very near future!
Though lip syncing has always been suspected from many country music artists in multiple award show performances, this is the first one that has been openly admitted to on record. Apparently the group felt since it was so obvious, it was better to open up about the issue instead of continuing to perpetuate the lie to their fans. Ironically, the ACM presentation opened up with hosts Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan making a joke about Brittney Spears lip syncing, and how people would only see live music on the show. However backing tracks and other non-live sounds have also been used at country award shows, including in 1994 when Alan Jackson told his drummer to play with no sticks to tip off his fans the rhythm section wasn’t live.
Rascal Flatts is just the latest to get swept up in a lip sync controversy. In January, the Red Hot Chili Peppers admitted to not playing live during their Super Bowl performance.
2014 is turning out to be the year of the celebrity crotch sniffer in country music. The word is out that country is fertile ground for advertisers and is a fast-rising subject in popular culture, so interlopers and carpetbaggers are rolling out the red carpet for country all over the place, and it’s getting quite stupid.
If you have anything to do with “media” the chances are you’re betting big on country music in 2014. Clear Channel’s trying to build a country music empire that would give Napoleon a stiffy, Cumulus has the brilliant idea of making country music food, paint, clothes, and furniture, Rolling Stone has even promised to get into the country music game, but the stoners at Rolling Stone got beat to the punch by none other than People Magazine, who has just launched their own dedicated country music website. Yes, how did we ever get along without this before?
I know, you’ve been wondering who’s going to broach such hot button, riveting, in-depth country music stories like “Luke Bryan Is the Kevin Bacon of Country’s Gang of Georgia Boys” (No, I didn’t make this title up), or “Third Child on the Way for Joe Don Rooney” (That’s the non weird-looking dude from Rascal Flatts), or “Dan + Shay: 5 Things to Know About Country’s Hot New Duo” (The only thing you need to know is their label have anointed them superstars because of their looks, despite not having the talent to even deserve a developmental deal). Well now we’re all in luck, because People CoUnTrY is HERE!
You can’t say that People Magazine hasn’t been on the country beat before though. Remember when they ran that story all about how Jason Aldean was the perfect husband and father …. the same week he was caught feeling up some American Idol castoff in L.A.? Now there’s a scoop.
Actually, I give People Country credit on this point: there’s so many country music outlets these days where the music is just an excuse to talk about people in the public eye instead of anything substantive, at least someone has the rocks to do it without pretense. Plus, I scored some killer makeup tips from their tour of Taylor Swift’s makeup drawer!
The fact the People Magazine now has a dedicated country wing proves the theory that people aren’t into popular country music for the music, but for the celebrity culture and image that surrounds it. They’re too busy fighting off the glare from Jason Aldean’s sparkling white teeth to pay attention to the fact that the music sucks. The only way I know how to solve this country music conundrum is to call in the Kinkster.
Preach it Kinky!
Former Hootie & The Blowfish frontman turned country artist Darius Rucker was on sports personality Dan Patrick’s radio show Tuesday (3-4), and had some interesting things to say about who the new torch bearers are for country music’s Outlaw legacy. Outlaw artists like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, David Allan Coe, and Johnny Paycheck shook up the country music world in the mid 70′s by re-instituting a harder country sound and taking back control of their music, and now according to Darius Rucker and Dan Patrick, the new Willie and Waylon is Luke Bryan and Eric Church.
The Darius Rucker interview starts out with Dan Patrick giving some playful ribs to Rucker about his lack of country music bad boy credentials. “I mentioned at the end of last hour that, you know, Luke Bryan’s the new bad boy, and Eric Church is the new bad boy in country,” said Patrick. “Darius Rucker can’t be a bad boy ’cause he was the lead singer of Hootie & The Blowfish. Right? No matter what …. How can you be a bad boy? You know you can’t be Tim [McGraw], you can’t be Hank Williams. You know, you were Hootie & The Blowfish.”
“That’s funny but true,” Rucker responds, laughing. “You’re absolutely right. I’m always going to be country lite, there’s nothing I can do about that … Brad [Paisley]‘s not a bad boy. Rascal Flatts, they’re not bad boys. Not everyone can be a bad boy. You know, that’s cool.”
Then Dan Patrick asks, “But there’s so much money in country now that can you be a bad boy and be crazy like Waylon and Willie used to be?”
“Yeah man, we’ve still got those guys,” Rucker says. “You know, Jamey Johnson, he’s a bad boy that’s for sure, and he’s doing well. You know, like you said Luke and Eric, Eric’s probably the closest we got to Waylon & Willie I think.”
This was not the first time Darius Rucker has made interesting statements on the Dan Patrick Show. In November of 2013, Darius said on the show that he thought he deserved a Grammy nomination for his cover of the Old Crow Medicine Show / Bob Dylan song “Wagon Wheel” or quote “country music’s screwed.” Dan Patrick and Darius Rucker are good friends, going back to the time when Darius was winning Grammy Awards with Hootie & The Blowfish.
You can see the entire interview below.
Glam metal band Mötley Crüe confided in the world today that they are calling it quits after three decades, and are doing so in a dramatic fashion by signing a legally-binding contract that stipulates that the band cannot tour after 2015—the time after an upcoming 75-city final tour is scheduled to wrap up.
But buried in the litany of announcements and side stories about the Mötley Crüe retirement was a little nugget of info with a country music angle. Apparently the band has signed a contract with Scott Borchetta and Big Machine Records—the home of Taylor Swift, Rascal Flatts, and Tim McGraw—to produce a country-themed Mötley Crüe tribute album to be released this summer.
Scott Borchetta was at the press conference announcing the Mötley Crüe retirement, and proclaimed himself a “not-so-secret” fan of the Crüe, saying, “Our album will highlight just how great the Mötley Crüe song catalog is.”
Mötley Crüe will not be playing any of the music on the album, and the band is not planning to “go country”. Instead the music will be handled by a list of current country stars. Confirmed artists already on board for the tribute album include Big Machine artists Florida Georgia Line, Brantley Gilbert, and Justin Moore, as well as LeAnn Rimes Eli Young Band, and reality star Cassadee Pope.
Insert your favorite anecdote about how modern country is nothing more than rehashed 80′s hair metal here.
Forget about the intended use of Antares flagship software product known as “Auto-Tune” for a second, and how it can make the rising falsetto of prickly-haired Rascal Flatt’s frontman Gary LeVox sound as pure as the wind-driven snow. Almost since the inception of the pitch-correction software, Auto-Tune has been utilized as a vocal effect as well, and one that has become an indelible part of popular music.
The Cher song “Believe” from 1998 was one of the first popular songs that took the Auto-Tune effect and turned it up to the highest degree to where the tone of Cher’s voice sounded computerized, with the notes having clearly-recognizable steps in between them instead of the more rounded, natural tone of the human voice. And Auto-Tune as a popular vocal effect was off to the races. Next thing you know you have artists like rapper T-Pain using Auto-Tune as a primary focus of their sound.
But country music stayed mostly on the sidelines of the Auto-Tune phenomenon….besides of course behind-the-scenes as that unspoken magic little helper to make up for artists that were big on looks but light on talent. Country music has always been seen as the major American genre that is the most wary of the infusion of technology into the format. Electric instruments were once banned from the Grand Ole Opry stage, and even up to a few years ago, synthesized music or other technological sounds were still frowned upon in country, including Auto-Tune as a vocal effect.
But lo and behold, as yet another symptom that popular country music is fresh out of ideas and would rather become subservient to the influences of other genres instead of engaging in a true search for talent among its own ranks, Auto-Tune here in 2014 has reared its ugly head as an accepted element of popular country music songs.
Of course like all new things in country, the injection of Auto-Tune use was subtle and slow. Music Row seems to think that if they try to be sly about it, nobody will notice, and little parts of popular songs started to feature the vocal enhancement here and there in 2013, and some before that. But here in 2014, the Auto-Tune training wheels are off, and you’re not surprised to hear it in just about any new single from a popular country music artist.
One of the most gross offenses is in the recent single from Jerrod Niemann called “Drink To That All Night.” Though the song hasn’t been a huge commercial or chart-topping success so far, when it came out you could tell it would be a game changer in the way it went in an EDM/Auto-Tuned direction unlike any other song from an established country artist before, pushing the boundaries of what would be acceptable in country. And then last week we heard a new Tim McGraw single called “That Girl” which feels like the big coming out party for Auto-Tune in country music, featuring the vocal effect unfettered and full blast throughout the entire song.
But the alarming thing about the impending country music Auto-Tune phenomenon is not necessarily the use of the technology itself, but how it is yet another symptom of the underlying disease gripping country music of being so demonstrably behind the curve. Country music is constantly feeling like it has to apologize for itself, and to prove to the rest of the world that it can be cool and hip too. With this mentality, country never leads, it follows, waiving its little hand at the side of the popular music stage saying, “Hey, we’re here also! And we can use Auto-Tune too! We’re not just hayseeds!”
The problem is, the use of Auto-Tune in 2014 as a vocal effect actually proves just how lame and behind-the-times country music is. Auto-tune isn’t making country music hip, it’s proving it’s unhip and completely behind-the-curve.
Over the last few years, the trend of country rap emerged in the country genre, with artists and labels insisting that country music must evolve to stay relevant. But what these artists and labels failed to understand that there was nothing current and relevant about rap any more than any other genre. Rap is a 30-year-old art form whose origins go back even farther than that.
With Auto-tune, it’s a similar paradox. Using Auto-Tune was cutting edge when Cher did it in 1998. In the mid-2000′s, Auto-Tune enjoyed the height of its popularity. But today? Today, though the use of Auto-Tune can still be heard in some pop and hip hop songs from artists like Future, it is generally old hat, outmoded, even lampooned and admonished, and T-Pain is the laughing stock in many sectors of the hip hop community. T-Pain is seen as a one-trick gimmick, and it’s expressly because of his Auto-Tune use.
In June of 2009—a good 4 1/2 years ago— hip hop artist Jay Z released a song called “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune).” He was inspired to write the song because he felt the use of Auto-Tune had become a crutch for many artists, and a gimmick. The tipping point was when he saw it used in a Wendy’s commercial….again, nearly half a decade ago. Jay-Z said the point of “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)” was to “draw a line in the sand.”
The song went on to be called the best song in 2009 by MTV. Did the use of Auto-Tune die by Jay Z’s decree? No, of course it didn’t. But its use was arguably already in decline when the song was released and it has continued to be in decline….until country music found it in the forgotten dust heap of relevancy, brushed it off, and started implementing it en masse as an element of its misguided “evolution.”
Country music doesn’t need to adopt Auto-Tuned vocals to be relevant, it needs to find its own new wrinkle, its own game-changing element that makes other genres look at it and want to incorporate it into their formats. By using Auto-Tune, country music is not leading or evolving. It’s not even following. It’s proving once again how it’s falling behind.
Wednesday is the beginning of the someteenth season of American Idol, and it will feature a new slate of judges that will include former Idol judge Jennifer Lopez, an interesting new selection in Harry Connick Jr., and last year’s lone holdover, country star Keith Urban.
Struggling with years of declining ratings, American Idol is looking to rebrand itself in the new season by fielding a panel of judges who will have great chemistry—something that was not the case last year when judges Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey had a public and publicized spat early on in the season, resulting in Minaj walking off the production set, and moans of ratings baiting being leveled by critics.
But one of the overlooked elements of the Minaj / Mariah story is how it was centered around the age old country music debate. It started when Keith Urban took a contestant to task for saying that she “did the country thing,” implying that she had some fleeting interest in the genre, but it wasn’t where her heart was. Urban’s contention was that either you’re country, or you’re not. Mariah Carey somewhat agreed, and as the judges began asking the contestant questions about her musical background, Nicki Minaj joined in saying, “Why are we picking her apart [over] a country comment?” and eventually stormed off the set during the impending verbal melee.
Keith Urban, similar to artists like Darius Rucker and Rascal Flatts, have always been solidly pop or contemporary country, but have been insulated to some extent from the brunt of the country music culture war from rarely crossing the line into the drekish trends of things like country rap that artists like Blake Shelton or Jason Aldean have dabbled in. But recently when Keith Urban was interviewed by Michigan Live and was asked if definitions like “country,” “rock,” and “pop” are important or meaningless, Urban replied,
Totally meaningless to me. I make music and people decide what it is. That’s it. I don’t think about it any more than that. I grew up as a country artist, but had very contemporary country influences. Contemporary country music – well, what that is, is what you hear on the radio. People have this relentless ongoing conversation about what’s country and what isn’t. It’s never changed. If people really really were country fans, they’d know it’s always been there, in every single decade.
What’s great about country is its simple, organic way of absorbing pop inspirations into its sound, and pulling the genre forward. It’s been that way since the ’50s. That period, the mid-to-late ’50s, when rock ‘n’ roll exploded, it started to take over the country audience. Guys like Chet Atkins intentionally started to put string sections on country songs, which had never been done before. Everybody at the time thought that was sacrilegious – they said, “That doesn’t sound anything like Ernest Tubb. What are you doing?” But it was a way for them to keep the sound moving forward and expand the boundaries.
What’s happening today is, in the words of David Byrne, same as it ever was. (laughs)
What Urban points out about pop and how it has always been a part of the country genre is completely true, and this continues to be one of the biggest oversights of some traditional and purist country fans, eroding their arguments against the infiltration of pop in country. However what Urban’s comments do not take into account is the degree of cross-genre influences that country music is facing today, and how it might be eroding the integrity of the genre in the long term. Yes, artists like Eddie Arnold and Patsy Cline were seen as pop stars within the country format in their time, but their music was still a timeless treasure, verified by it’s continued popularity half a decade later.
And obviously, Keith Urban’s comments seem to counter what he said on American Idol at this time last year. People have a right to change their minds, but Urban’s new perspective on the lack of importance of the term “country” may be a sign of just how much that term and the importance behind it have suffered in the last year.
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 they 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 count 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.
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