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Yes, it was still 2013, and it was still a modern country music awards show, and so traditional and independent-minded country music fans still had plenty to look sideways at if they were brave enough to watch. But that doesn’t mean that the 47th Annual Country Music Association Awards wasn’t a retrenching of the roots and substance in the genre’s most important institution, and a sign of hope for country fans who’ve simply been asking for years for balance to be reinstated into the mainstream country format.
Luke Bryan, who was the big winner at the ACM Awards in April, was completely shut out. So was Jason Aldean. Florida Georgia Line wasn’t, but this was understandable because of the historic success of their song “Cruise,” but they were bested by Kacey Musgraves in the New Artist of the Year category. And in the end, George Strait, King George, bested everyone by taking home the most coveted trophy in country music, the CMA for Entertainer of the Year.
Was it a parting gift for Strait after announcing his final tour? Of course it was. But it doesn’t mean it wasn’t deserved, and it doesn’t mean it isn’t sweet, both for George, and for traditional country fans, even the ones who may not mark themselves as big George Strait supporters. Strait’s win marks the first time in a decade a true country artist has won the trophy. Alan Jackson, George Strait’s duet partner for “He Stopped Loving Her Today” during a stirring George Jones tribute, was arguably the last traditional-leaning artist to win the award in 2003.
Which leads us to the performances of the 47th Annual CMA Awards. Along with the somewhat abridged, but heartfelt George Jones tribute, there was a tribute to Kenny Rogers, who was presented with this year’s Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award—an award that was founded last year. Lo and behold, a steel guitar made an appearance early in the presentation during Kacey Musgraves’ set, despite the disappointment of the lyric “roll up a joint” in her song “Follow Your Arrow” being censored out. Taylor Swift of all people, offered a stripped down acoustic set that featured Vince Gill, bluegrass maestro Sam Bush, Alison Krauss, and not just as backing musicians. Both Gill and Krauss took turns on verses, no doubt stimulating not a few younger fans to take to Google to figure out who these artists were, facilitating that important initial spark of discovery.
Even Luke Bryan, whose performance of “Country Girl (Shake It For Me) on the 2011 CMA Awards seemed like the pinnacle of indecency for a country awards show at the time, offered a somewhat stripped down, heartfelt performance that featured songwriter Chris Stapleton. In fact, there wasn’t really any performances that seemed gratuitously over-the-top. Apparently there was a moratorium on choreographed backup dancers for the 2013 CMA’s, and about the only pyrotechnics aside from Eric Church’s over-the-top performance of “The Outsiders” were some sparks streaming from beneath the wheels of a simulated boxcar during Jason Aldean’s song “Night Train.” Even the cross-genre moment was when the well-beloved Dave Grohl joined the Zac Brown Band on drums—a stark contrast from the rappers and Kid Rock’s of the world that have somehow become regular fixtures of country award shows recently.
What does this all mean? For one, it means there is a reason to be positive. Whether it is because of the collective crying out about the disenfranchising of country music’s traditional and independent fans through events like Blake Shelton labeling them “Old Farts and Jackasses,” or whether it is the tangible demographic data that shows that country fans as a whole want more traditional country in the country format, someone, somewhere is listening, and some of the change fans have been clamoring for in recent years is finally being enacted.
All that has been asked for is balance—a place at the table for alternatives to pop country—and though the ratio may still be somewhat out-of-whack, some balance was reinstated during the 2013 CMA Awards. If there was another winner during the event beyond the award winners, it might be CMA producer Robert Deaton. Deaton told the Tennessean on Nov. 1st, ““I think the biggest thing I want to strive for is balance. I’m talking about balance of who we are as a music and a genre because we are a lot of different things, you want to be current but you also want to pay tribute to the shoulders that we stand on.” And Robert Deaton backed up those words in the presentation. As much as the censoring of Kacey Musgraves may be a black eye of the 2013 CMA’s, it was done to make sure families and traditional viewers were not offended.
Furthermore, the proof that balance works is in the ratings pudding. The ratings for the CMA Awards was up by 21 percent over last year’s telecast in viewers and 24 percent in the key demographic. The growth was particularly big among young males, with ABC touting a nine-year high among men 18-34.
In September, Saving Country Music published 12 Reasons To Be Positive About Country Music in 2013, and the 47th CMA Awards was yet another one to add to the list. However slowly, however incrementally, and however offset by the continuing lows of some of country music’s mainstream males, things are changing. It had been years since true country fans felt a reason to stand up and cheer and had a reason to feel represented at the CMA Awards. But the 47th installment offered a few of them, and one very big one.
In November of 1994, then President Bill Clinton and his Democrat Party suffered a historic and debilitating defeat to Republicans in the mid-term elections that would later be known as The Republican Revolution. Led by Newt Gingrich, Republicans picked up 54 seats in the House of Representatives and 8 in the Senate, gaining solid control of both houses of Congress in an election that was seen as a wholesale rebuke of Bill Clinton and his policies.
Bill Clinton, reeling from the election, did something unprecedented to recover politically. Behind the back of his long-time aids, most importantly his Communication’s Director and Senior Adviser George Stephanopoulos who’d been with Clinton since his early days in Arkansas, Clinton hired a Republican pollster named Dick Morris to secretly regain his political footing. Clinton was initially so embarrassed of hiring Dick Morris, he had a code name, “Charlie,” and while the rest of Clinton’s staff worked on writing Clinton’s 1995 State of the Union speech in the conventional manner after the big midterm defeat, Clinton himself was hiding out with Dick Morris in the residential portion of the White House writing the speech that he would ultimately deliver.
Dick Morris was the mastermind of “triangulation,” which was a way to appeal to as many voters as possible while giving little regard to political ideology. It was all about winning. Soon Dick became one of Clinton’s chief advisers, and was Clinton’s campaign manager for the election in 1996. According to George Stephanopoulos, over the first nine months of 1995, nobody had more power over the President than Dick Morris. Stephanopoulos also said he “despised” Dick Morris. Despite Stephanopoulos being considered one of the key figures behind Bill Clinton’s success, he was marginalized in the Administration by Morris. In 1996, Stephanopoulos quit the Clinton White House.
If there was a parallel in the music world, about the only difference between what George Stephanopoulos was to Bill Clinton, and what producer Nathan Chapman was to Taylor Swift is that when Nathan Chapman began to be pushed aside, Taylor Swift wasn’t in the midst of defeat, she was riding an overwhelming wave of financial and industry success.
Nathan Chapman is a session musician, songwriter, and record producer. If you wanted to point to one individual behind the sonic success of Taylor Swift, it would be him. The first record Chapman ever produced was Taylor Swift’s first, self-titled release in 2006. Swift picked Chapman because he produced her first demos when Swift was only 14. He believed in her when nobody else did. Since then Chapman has been the primary producer on every one of Swift’s albums. He also plays much of the music that makes it onto Taylor Swift records: drums, acoustic and electric guitars, piano and keyboards and synthesizers. Nathan has won 2 Grammy’s, a CMA, and ACM Award as Taylor’s producer, and been nominated for several more. If you hear a Taylor Swift song, you’re hearing just as much of Nathan Chapman as you are Taylor Swift….except to when it comes to Taylor’s last album Red.
Despite the partnership of Nathan Chapman and Taylor Swift creating arguably the most successful modern country artist, with sales beating every other country star and winning Taylor two CMA Entertainer of the Year awards, apparently this was not enough to appease Taylor’s label owner, Scott Borchetta. During the recording process of the Red album, Scott Borchetta inserted himself into the production—something he’d previously prided himself in staying out of aside from his role as an executive. Borchetta suggested that Taylor Swift needed help beyond Nathan Chapman.
“I said, ‘You know, this song isn’t working yet.’ They both looked at me (Swift and Nathan Chapman) with a blank stare. “The chorus isn’t elevating like it needs to. Where you’re wanting to take the song, it’s not going there. It needs a Max Martin type of lift.”… At that point Borchetta called Martin. Both Borchetta and Swift agree that it was a turning point for “Red”.
It was the Dick Morris moment in Taylor Swift’s career. Borchetta, feeling that Taylor’s success could even be greater than her already world-beating status, reached out to two Swedish producers from the pop world—Max Martin and Shellback—renown for cutting mega hits that appeal to the widest possible audience for bands like the Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync. They were the parallel in the music world to Dick Morris and the “triangulation” theorem.
Max Martin and Shellback were not just brought in as producers, but co-writers for Taylor Swift’s songs. Though the partnership only resulted in three tracks for the album Red, it included the album’s two biggest singles by far, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” and “I Knew You Were Trouble.” The Max Martin/Shellback material made up three of the album’s first four singles, while many of Swift’s original Red songs that she penned solo stayed shelved.
“I see myself as kind of this girl who writes songs in her bedroom,” Taylor recently told the Associated Press. “You can kind of dress it up all you want…but I’m always going to be a girl who writes songs in her bedroom in my own personal perception of myself.”
This type of simplicity in approach was what built tremendous loyalty among Taylor Swift’s fans. She wasn’t an artist on a pedestal. She was real; someone they could relate to. But the Max Martin/Shellback material was completely counter-intuitive to Taylor’s “writing songs in her bedroom” image, both in style and approach. The songs also pushed the boundaries of what music sold as “country” sounded like, with “We Are Never…” being a decidedly bubblegum pop song, and “I Knew You Were Trouble” featuring a dubstep beat.
Taylor Swift also told the AP about her next album, “It’s too early to tell who are going to be my predominant collaborators, but I do know that my absolute dream collaborators were Shellback and Max Martin on the last project.” By all accounts, Max Martin and Shellback came into the album-making process near the end of Red, when Scott Borchetta was not hearing the type of radio singles he wanted. With Swift’s next album, Max Martin/Shellback collaborations, or rough equivalents from other well-known pop producers could be the predominant direction of the material, with most of the vestiges of the adolescent Swift as songwriter and co-producer falling away.
Meanwhile Nathan Chapman must be wondering what else could he have done. It is very likely he will still be involved in Swift’s album making process for her new record in some capacity, but his role as the man behind Taylor Swift’s sound, and her initial success through making music that was simple, yet substantive, appear to be over. Just like George Stephanopoulos, Nathan Chapman has been left in a lurch when the thirst for wide appeal overruns principle.
Founder, president, and CEO of Big Machine Records Scott Borchetta, affectionately known around Saving Country Music as the Country Music Anti-Christ, and arguably the most powerful man in Nashville, continues to reign in on the freedom and creative control of his performers, and significantly influence their musical decisions—something that is in stark contrast to one of the benchmarks that made Big Machine one of the most sought after destinations for artists as one of the few Nashville-based major labels that generally allowed their roster to do what they wanted.
During the writing and recording phase of Taylor Swift’s last album Red is when Borchetta first notably inserted himself into the creative process, suggesting to Taylor that her songs were not good enough, and that she solicit the help of Swedish pop producers Max Martin and Shellback to help write, record, and produce songs, resulting in Swift’s most pop-oriented material to date.
Now according to Swift, she had to go against the wishes of Scott Borchetta and strong arm Big Machine Records to release her latest song “Sweeter Than Fiction” as part of the upcoming film One Chance. “I had to fight to do this,” Swift told the BBC, “I had to go around and ask people, ‘Can I please, please put something out?’ even though we’re supposed to be going quiet. My management, my label were like, ‘No new music until the next album comes out.’“
Eventually Taylor Swift did get her way and the song was released, but the song has received little push from Big Machine.
Scott Borchetta was initially bestowed the nickname “Country Music Anti-Christ” because he was the principle man behind-the-scenes slowly eroding the integrity of the term “country” by using country channels to push pop music, cross-genre music, and manufactured “Outlaws” to take advantage of marketing angles.
One such example is Justin Moore from Big Machine’s Valory Music imprint. Arguably the most audacious of the “new Outlaws” looking to capitalize commercially on growing anti-Nashville sentiment, Moore released an album in 2011 entitled Outlaws Like Me. His latest effort Off The Beaten Path just released in September includes a song called “I’d Want It To Be Yours;” an awful, immature example of both the tasteless direction of mainstream country, and the country rap trend. The song includes hip-hop elements, a small bout of rapping, and references to pop celebrities like Snoop Dog and Kim Kardashian—all from a guy that claims to be too country for Nashville.
In the eyes of Justin Moore’s critics, “I’d Want It To Be Yours” is the worst offering from Justin Moore’s new album, and one of the worst songs of 2013. But according to Justin, he didn’t want to record or release the song. It was at the insistence of Scott Borchetta that “I’d Want It To Be Yours” made the final cut.
“‘I’d Want It To Be Yours’ is ridiculous,” says Justin in the EPK for the song. “It’s just me being a perverted idiot in all honesty…I never thought it would end up on an album. We wrote it just kind of as a joke.”
The song seemed to take a very similar life to the infamous track “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” that even lends a lyric to “I’d Want It To Be Yours.” It was written sarcastically between a few songwriter buddies looking to blow off steam. But Scott Borchetta saw something different. ”When we were playing stuff for the label, Scott Borchetta said, ‘You have to put this on the album.’” Justin Moore explains. “And I’m going, ‘Really?’”
As Scott Borchetta and Big Machine Records continue to win market share and talent from its rival labels on the Music Row campus, his propensity to inject himself more and more into the creative process could become a bigger problem. Excessive control of artists is the classic sin of Nashville’s big music labels, and as Big Machine gets bigger, so could the artistic control dilemma, and the dilemma of maintaining control over the quality and purity of the term “country.”
Country music in the second half of 2013 is going through some of the most historic changes the format has ever seen, with hip-hop influenced songs, albums, and artists dominating the charts, female artists being excluded like never before, and a litany of songs with laundry list lyrics or that are purposely written to be stupid garnering the lion’s share of attention. The ever-present erosion of what the term “country” defines has never been greater, and the charge of preserving the roots of country music has never been more dire.
As a symptom of all the change and upheaval, big-time artists are speaking out about the direction of country music like never before. We’re not talking about the usual suspects of country criticism like Dale Watson and friends, we’re talking about artists at the very top of the mainstream country food chain. Over the last three months, an average of 3 artists per month have spoken out about the direction of country—an overwhelming number when you consider these bouts of outspokeness would usually happen only a few times a year. And there’s no reason to believe this trend won’t continue.
So below we have aggregated a timeline of some of the music world’s top artists speaking out against the direction of country. In all likelihood, this timeline will continue to grow.
Speaking to American Songwriter, Kacey Musgraves said:
“My voice is undeniably country, and I love country. Do I love what it’s turned into? No, not all the way. It’s a little embarrassing when people outside of the genre ask what I sing and I say country. You automatically get a negative response, a cheese factor. My favorite compliment ever is when someone says, ‘I hate country music but I love your music.’”
During an in interview with Rolling Stone, Tom Petty said:
“Well, yeah I mean, I hate to generalize on a whole genre of music, but it does seem to be missing that magic element that it used to have. I’m sure there are people playing country that are doing it well, but they’re just not getting the attention that the shittier stuff gets. But that’s the way it always is, isn’t it?
But I hope that kind of swings around back to where it should be. But I don’t really see a George Jones or a Buck Owens or any anything that fresh coming up. I’m sure there must be somebody doing it, but most of that music reminds me of rock in the middle Eighties where it became incredibly generic and relied on videos. I don’t want to rail on about country because I don’t really know much about it, but that’s what it seems like to me.”
When asked by GQ what music trend needed to die out immediately, Kacey Musgraves said:
“Anyone singing about trucks, in any form, in any song, anywhere. Literally just stop – nobody cares! It’s not fun to listen to. I thought dubstep was cool for two seconds - but that can go away now too. It sounds like a malfunction of some kind.”
Kacey also said when asked what the best-dressed men in Nashville are wearing these days, “Nothing by Affliction. Just burn the warehouse down. It’s just douchey and really gaudy.”
While speaking with Reuters, Sheryl Crow, who just made a move to the country format and released a country album called Feels Like Home, said about her country move:
“The country format is more pop than pop was when I came up two decades ago,”
In an interview with The Baltimore Sun, Alan Jackson said:
“Right now, it seems like it’s gone. It’s not that I’m against all that’s out there. There’s some good music, good songwriting and good artists out there, but there’s really no country stuff left. It’s always been that constant pop-country battle. I don’t think it’s ever going to change. What makes me sad today is that I think the real country, real roots-y traditional stuff, may be gone. I don’t know if it’ll ever be back on mainstream radio. You can’t get it played anymore.”
During an interview with Larry King, Gary Allan was asked if Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood were country, and he said:
“You know, I would say no. I would say they’re pop artists making a living in the country genre. I also feel like we lost our genre. I don’t feel like I make music for a genre anymore, and I did, you know, 15 years ago. But I think since the Clear Channel’s and the Cumulus’s and the big companies bought up all the chains, now it’s about a demographic. You know, so they’ve kind of sliced everything up, feeding it to the public in demographics.
“Like if you want to get to the young kids, you put it on the alternative station. We’ve sort of ended up in this…we’re nicknamed the soccer mom, like 35 to 45 year-old woman I think is what our demographic is. So it’s very different. You used to be able to turn on the radio and you knew instantly it was the country station just by listening to it, and now you’ve got to leave it there for a second to figure it out…. To me, country music is still Monday through Friday, and pop’s about what happens on the weekends.”
Gary Allan later clarified his statements, saying his words were taken out of context, and that he appreciated country radio and everything it had done for his career.
When speaking to Barbara Beam of 93.7 JR FM in Vancouver, Canada, Zac Brown said:
“I love Luke Bryan and he’s had some great songs, but this new song is the worst song I’ve ever heard. I know Luke, he’s a friend. ‘My Kind Of Night’ is one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard. I see it being commercially successful, in what is called country music these days, but I also feel like that the people deserve something better than that. Country fans and country listeners deserve to have something better than that, a song that really has something to say, something that makes you feel something. Good music makes you feel something. When songs make me wanna throw up, it makes me ashamed to even be in the same genre as those songs.
“If I hear one more tailgate in the moonlight, daisy duke song, I’m gonna throw up. There’s songs out there on the radio right now that make me be ashamed to be even in the same format as some other artists. You can look and see some of the same songwriters on every one of the songs. There’s been like 10 number one songs in the last two or three years that were written by the same people and it’s the exact same words, just arranged different ways.”
When speaking to “The Barnyard Show” on 92.5 in Connecticut about why there is so few women on the country music charts, Sheryl Crow said:
“I do think that in the last ten, fifteen years art has gone the way of commerce. Whenever there’s money involved, then you figure out what’s going to bring in sponsors, and what’s going to resonate with people and what’s going to sell records….I’d love to see that change.”
When talking to Rolling Stone about his new album, Jake Owen said:
“We need more songs than just songs about tailgates and fuckin’ cups and Bacardi and stuff like that. We need songs that get ourselves back to the format that made me love it . . . [like] when guys like Randy Travis released songs like ‘He Walked on Water’ – songs that meant something, man!”
When speaking to Country Weekly about country rap, Toby Keith said:
“You hear the hip-hop thing start kicking in, and you start going, ‘Is that what we gotta do now to have a hit?’ I don’t know how to do that. Is that what I need every one of my songs to sound like now?…You start playing [deep songs] to a twenty-something audience, and it’s like, ‘Naw, man, there ain’t no mud on that tire. That ain’t about a Budweiser can. That ain’t about a chicken dancing out by the river. That ain’t about smoking a joint by the haystack. That’s about somebody dying and sh-t.’”
No, this isn’t any more of a watershed moment in the ongoing incursion of rap into the country format than when Taylor Swift did a faux rap with T Pain called ”Thug Story,” exclaiming “I live with my parents, yo.” Country Music Hall of Famer Dolly Parton is good friends with rapper turned daytime stay-at-home personality Queen Latifah, and on a show set to air this Monday (10-21-13), the self-proclaimed “Queen of Dollywood” comes out and does a 90-second rap routine before her interview. Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah recently starred together in the 2012 musical movie Joyful Noise.
Though Dolly’s performance is nothing more than a spoof, it comes at a time when rap is taking dominant role in the country genre, with top male acts like Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, and Blake Shelton cutting country rap songs and seeing them climb to the top of the country music charts. Though the 67-year-old Dolly Parton had her part in country’s crossover phase in the early 1980′s, she’s also been one of traditional country’s biggest champions over the years and is revered as a country music queen.
One interesting note about Dolly’s rap routine vis a vis telling Miley Cyrus “I got your ‘wrecking balls’ right here” (in reference to Miley’s latest single), Dolly is Miley Cyrus’s godmother, and the two women are apparently pretty close. Miley has been known to sing Dolly’s hit “Jolene.”
It’s so easy to get swept up in stereotyping mainstream country as being completely void of anything worth your time these days, but in truth there’s still a lot of great music in the popular music world, however a small percentage it might be of the total package. Saying the mainstream has nothing good to offer is narrowing your musical experience no different than saying that music is bad because it’s not popular. Life is too short to impose unnecessary limitations on your music perspective, and a strong case could be made that mainstream country has actually become better over the past few years when it comes to mainstream country’s females.
Some quick ground rules: Not included here are legends who still might be considered part of the mainstream but are obvious even to independent fans like George Strait, Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, Reba, and even more contemporary names like Martina McBride and Lee Ann Womack. They go without saying. Many consider Eric Church and Miranda Lambert as exceptions to the mainstream rules, but they’re both sort of their own case studies. Same could be said for the Pistol Annies who it is unclear if they even still exist at the moment. And of course if you think there’s a mainstream artist worth listening to not mentioned here, please feel to leave their name below in the comments. And just to clarify the term “mainstream,” consider it an artist that is on a major Nashville label, or has been on a major Nashville label recently.
In many respects you can’t blame independent fans of being a little suspicious of a former American Idol contestant signed to Sony who just won Dancing With The Stars. But Kellie Pickler’s staunchly authentic album 100 Proof was so damn good, Sony dropped her and she became the poster girl for taking back the music in 2012. Since then Kellie Pickler has done nothing but re-affirm her career path of doing things her own way and fighting for the integrity of the music, measuring success not by album sales, but how true she is being to herself. Pickler may not top the Billboard charts, but she’s become a critic’s favorite and an inspirational story of what can happen when a mainstream artist stands up for themselves.
I’m not sure what is more miraculous, that Easton Corbin is able to get away with being as country as he is in the mainstream, or that’s he’s actually been able to find some commercial success with that sound. Though some independent fans might find him a little cheesy, it is hard to deny that Easton Corbin’s music has substance, and the songwriting and traditional approach to his music is refreshing. Even his big #1 “A Little More Country Than That,” which some may decry as a laundry list song is at least country as it lists out its countryisms, and was written by Roy Lee Feek of the traditional group Joey + Rory. Singed to Mercury Nashville, Easton Corbin deserves as much credit as anyone for trying to keep the mainstream honest.
Though her much-anticipated debut album maybe have been a little more cautious than what her long-time fans know she’s capable of, Kacey Musgraves still remains the symbol of how songs and songwriting are making a resurgence in 2013. Though she has yet to have one Top 10 single, with support from her label Mercury Records, she has reached the very top echelon of female performers in the country music industry, somehow becoming a perennial shoe-in for the “Female Vocalist of the Year” nominations from both the CMA and ACM Awards seemingly overnight, and getting nominated for more CMA Awards in 2013 than anyone except for Taylor Swift who she equals with 6. Though Musgraves still needs to prove her muster as a country superstar by delivering a big single, she has already proven to be a fan and critic favorite, and has springboarded to the very top of the business despite her underdog status.
They may be signed to the Country Music Anti-Christ Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Records (same as Taylor Swift, Rascal Flatts, etc.), but you won’t find a better, and at times, more outspoken artist and band than Raul Malo and the Mavericks. In 1995, The Mavericks won “Vocal Group of the Year” for both the CMA’s, ACM’s, and the Grammy’s, but their hard-to-define sound proved to be too much for mainstream country to handle on its journey south to pure pop. But The Mavericks remain solid members of the mainstream world, even working as the house band for the 2013 CMT Awards. Their latest album In Time is as good as any.
The vixen-esque career songwriter with eyes the size of Cajun tires has been slaying audiences for years with her solo material and her work with the Pistol Annies, and now that she’s unleashed her much-anticipated solo album Like A Rose through Columbia Nashville, Ashley symbolizes the one glimmer of what could be considered traditional country in mainstream channels. As expected, with music as authentic as hers, the industry has been timid to get behind her and deliver the radio plays and awards she deserves, but she still remains one of traditional country’s biggest mainstream champions.
Because Gary Allan has always resided just one tier shy of country music’s top names, it’s easy to be mislead just how much commercial success he’s seen over the years. Over his 17-year career with Decca and MCA Nashville, he’s been awarded two platinum records, two gold records, eleven Top Ten hits, and four #1′s. Yes, he’s had some singles that are clearly courting of mainstream radio, and he himself would tell you his sound is just as much, if not more rock than country. But Gary Allan is one of those guys that can still get attention from country radio without making you gag, while album cuts show a real sincerity to his music. He also has been outspoken about the state of country music recently (though he did back peddle somewhat afterwards).
Say what you will about one of the co-writers of “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” Jamey Johnson was able to take a very traditional sound and authentic country songs and make it to the very top of the charts and industry awards in a business that is usually unforgiving to this type of true style. His double album opus The Guitar Song sneaked its way all the way to #1 on the Billboard charts upon its debut, and his song “In Color” won Song of the Year accolades from both the CMA and ACM Awards in 2009, and was nominated for a Grammy. Though his original output has slowed as of late and he’s apparently not writing and frustrated at his contract situation, his 2012 Hank Cochran tribute still charted #3 on the Billboard Country Albums chart.
After Zac Brown recently made some inflammatory statements about Luke Bryan’s song “That’s My Kind of Night,” his own country career came under intense scrutiny. Brown has always been out front saying he believes he is more Southern rock than country, but appreciative of all the support the country industry has given him, which has been huge to the tune of being a perennial contender for Vocal Group awards at both the CMA and ACM’s. Songs like “Chicken Fried” and his numerous beach tunes leave him open to criticism, but it is still hard to not name Zac Brown as so much better than your average mainstream country music fare.
When discussions are broached about mainstream country artists that still have substance, Dierks’ name invariably comes up. Throughout his career, he’s strived to create a balance between courting radio and creating a music legacy that isn’t devoid of creative expression. With albums like Up On The Ridge, Dierks progressive and traditional fans glimmers of hope. But then he will turn right back around on you and put out the biggest cry for commercial attention, giving listeners a headache of where they’re supposed to be with him. In the end it’s best to resolve that Dierks will likely always be a mixed bag, but is worth appreciating when he does decide to do country music right.
That’s right. A scandalous accusation I know, but one I stand behind with puffed chest and other such countenance to covey, “Yeah, I said it. You got a problem with that ?!?!”, and one that holds up when taking the most basic look at our little genre known as country music, and simply asking, “Where in the hell are the women?” Especially on country radio.
No, I don’t have any hidden camera footage of country music scheming with his fraternity brother that runs HR to systemically keep the women of country music at a lower pay scale. But if country music in 2013 were the equivalent of an office worker, it would be a douche-tastic, handsy, shallow, down-looking chauvinist with triple sec on his breath after lunch that specializes in subtle pelvic thrusts during elongated, unnecessary hugs, and pubic hair jokes.
Currently on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs Chart, there is not one single female artist in the Top 20. Not even one. Not even a Taylor Swift, Miranda Lambert, or Carrie Underwood. Not even a song from a country music group like The Band Perry or Lady Antebellum that has a female member. And this isn’t the first time in recent memory that this has happened. In fact aside from the occasional errant single from one of the aforementioned girls, a country music sausage fest is the default setting for country music’s Top 20 in 2013.
A deeper look into Billboard’s other charts and Neilsen’s radio ratings reveals similar discrepancies when it comes to the female gender and country music. But it doesn’t just stop there. The term “sexism” has two definitions:
That’s right. It’s not just that the women of country music are getting locked out of the process, being ignored by radio programmers who are predominantly male, and are being under-developed by the male-dominated industry. It’s also that the songs, artists, and albums that are dominating the charts and that are being pushed first and foremost by the industry are portraying women in a very objectified, stereotypical manner, both in the lyrics of the songs and in the accompanying videos.
Hey, I’m a red blooded male with fully-functioning male plumbing and a propensity to want to look at T&A just as much as the next guy. All males were instilled with the stupid gene to drool at cleavage through evolution. But there is a time and a place for everything, and when I’m walking through the grocery store with my young, impressionable niece to buy her a freeze pop, I don’t want to be accosted by a Luke Bryan song that works like the soundtrack to a date rape terrorizing our ears. Do these assholes not have women in their lives that they hope will be respected by other men? There’s a time for all adults to get raunchy, but country radio is supposed to be that one place of respite on the FM dial. Here in 2013, Top 40 country music is just as much of a den of iniquity as anything.
Artists like Luke Bryan, Tyler Farr, and Florida Georgia Line have no respect for women, and they have no respect for country music. Or if they do, there’s no evidence of it in their songs and videos. It’s just stereotypical fashion-plate models in bikini’s in objectified roles with the sole purpose of being oogled at just like their shiny new jacked up pickup trucks.
But even worse, when I watch concert footage of these country music cocks of the walk up on stage strutting it like Chippendale’s dancers, I’m not seeing a bunch of men of the front row pumping their fists. No, this female-less country phenomenon is not just about males using their physical superiority and good ole boy system to keep women down. The women of mainstream country are taking the role of willing accomplices, inviting this cultural degradation and humiliation with their hands raised in their air submissively and screaming for Luke Bryan to shake his butt. The problem isn’t just that male record executives and male program managers at radio stations aren’t giving women their proper due. It’s that the women are the ones that are demanding this drivel and driving the market.
And no, I’m not just calling for an equal playing field for women. If you have to, you gerrymander the damn system to makes sure you have at least one song on the charts that showcases female talent. Are you telling me there’s nothing out there from a female fit for the Billboard Top 20? There are many women who could immediately make country music better right now—professional, proven, beautiful, appealing, relevant, and ready to take their music big time and represent women in a positive light in a genre that has always been about showcasing strong women like Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Alison Krauss.
Come on country music, let’s do this. I’m tired of telling folks I’m a fan of country music, and then having to put a paper bag over my head in shame, or load it down with qualifying points. We have an obligation to discover, nurture, and showcase female talent. If country music was a board room of 20 members and not one female, some uptight women’s league would be suing their asses from hell to breakfast. So why should country music be held to a different standard?
The dirty little reason that women are not being showcased on country radio is because they’re not willing to sell out like the men. The women of country music respect themselves just fine. It’s the male performers of country music, their industry counterparts, and the women who fawn on them that are driving this trend.
And I’m mad as hell about it.
The last few weeks might go down in history as one of country music’s most feud-laden moments. From Gary Allan going off about country music and indirectly accusing Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood of not being country, to Zac Brown calling out Luke Bryan’s song “That’s My Kind of Night,” and Jason Aldean calling out Zac Brown in Luke’s defense.
Though country music feuding may be on a sharp rise here recently, it is not an uncommon or recent occurrence in country music by any stretch. Many artists have had a beef with the Grand Ole Opry over the years, including Johnny Cash and Stonewall Jackson. Curb Records has been in the middle of many feuds, most notably with Leann Rimes, Hank Williams III, and a big one with Tim McGraw that pitted cross-town heavyweights Mike Curb and Scott Borchetta against each other. But nothing gets folks talking like a good old artist on artist donnybrook. Here are some of the most infamous over the years.
Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner were one of country music’s most legendary pairings, but when Dolly wanted to leave the Porter Wagoner camp in 1974, things turned heated. Parton did the best she could to leave Porter’s side in an amicable way, even penning and performing her legendary song “I Will Always Love You” for her long-time singing partner. But Porter turned around and sued her for $3 million in a breach of contract suit in 1979.
However, the two made up eventually, and Porter performed with Dolly on her TV variety show in 1988. Dolly Parton was also by Porter Wagoner’s side when he passed away in 2007.
In the midst of Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Achy Breaky Heart” success, Travis Tritt was asked what he though about it, and always willing to be a lightning rod, Travis Tritt responded, “I haven’t seen his show so I can’t say anything about that. I haven’t seen the man personally, so I can’t say anything about him personally. I haven’t listened to his albums, so I can’t make a statement about that. But I have seen the video and I have heard “Achy Breaky Heart”, and I don’t care for either one of them. It just seems kind of frivolous. The video doesn’t appeal to me because it shows him stepping out of a limousine in front of thousands and thousands of fans, and nobody’s even heard of this guy.. Garth Brooks didn’t even do that. It doesn’t seem very realistic to me.”
Travis Tritt recalled in his autobiography Ten Feet Tall and Bulletproof, “I apologized to Billy Ray, told him I hoped he sold ten million copies of the record. Went home. I sent Billy Ray a peace lily and a get well card because I heard he’d been feeling bad enough to cancel his Fan Fair appearance. Headline in the local paper the next day. ‘Travis Tritt Trashes Billy Ray Cyrus.’ The more I said about it, trying to rectify the situation, the worse it got.”
Waylon Jennings really didn’t like Garth Brooks, and wasn’t very good at hiding it. Though in the portions about Garth in Waylon’s autobiography he was careful not to use Garth’s name, during interviews in the 90′s Waylon would regularly let his anti-Garth anger slip. For example in an interview with The Inquirer form September, 1994, Waylon said about Garth, “I think he’s the luckiest s.o.b in the world. He’s gotten more out of nothing than anybody I can think of. I’ve always accused him of sounding like Mr. Haney on Green Acres.”
There’s another Waylon quote about Garth that goes something along the lines of “Garth Brooks did for country music what panty hose did for finger fucking.” But there has yet to be a verifiable attribution of the quote.
Still to this day, not much is known about the exact details of the feud between these two men, but in the mid-70′s you couldn’t find two artists more tied to the hip than Waylon and Tompall. Tompall was the proprietor of Hillbilly Central in Nashville—a renegade studio where Waylon mixed and mastered his album Honky Tonk Heroes, and recorded his album This Time. Waylon and Tompall appear together on Wanted: The Outlaws—country music’s first million-selling album. The two became close friends and were kindred spirits from their hated of Music Row’s business practices. They would spin long hours battling each other on pinball machines or picking out tunes or playing pranks on each other. But when the friendship went south in the late 70′s, it went south hard, and the two men never resolved their differences before their respective deaths, despite both men still insisting on their deep love and appreciation for each other.
The crux of the beef between two of country music’s most famous sons is that Hank3 felt Shooter Jennings stole his persona. Hank3 had a song called “Dick In Dixie” that included the line, “I’m here to put the Dick in Dixie, and the cunt back in country.” Shooter, who previously had been in a rock band called Stargunn, came out with his first country record entitled Put The ‘O’ Back In Country in 2005, and Hank3 perceived the title was a little too close for comfort.
If you wanna go down that road and rip us off, mutherfucker, I’ll see you in ten years and five thousand shows down the road.” Hank3 said. We’ll see where the fuck you’re at. You know, I called him out and just flat out said, “fuck you if you’re gonna rip us off like that on your first release.”
Shooter for his part seemed unwilling to reciprocate the feud, saying “You know what, I don’t even comment on these things, really. I don’t even know him. I met him once, I think, for a second. And somehow all this stuff started about how he hates me. I don’t know. It’s, like, stupid.”
In fairness to Shooter, Carlene Carter had used the line “If that doesn’t put the cunt back in country, I don’t know what will” at a show in New York in 1979 when her mother June Carter and father-in-law Johnny Cash were in attendance. Eventually Shooter and Hank3 reportedly buried the hatchet.
Hank3 is the legitimate son of Hank Williams Jr., but Hank Jr. was not Hank3′s everyday father. Hank3 was raised by his mother, and usually only saw Hank Jr. once a year when growing up. In 2001, Hank Jr. began collaborating with Kid Rock in songs like “The ‘F’ Word” and others, and Hank Jr. often referred to Kid Rock as his “rebel son.” This stimulated a rumor that Kid Rock was in fact Hank Jr.’s biological offspring. Though both men denied it, the urban myth grew legs, and Hank Williams III began to be asked by people if Kid Rock was his brother, which didn’t sit too well.
Then the situation escalated when Kid Rock accosted Hank3 at a show in Detroit, trying to patch up the strained relationship between Hank3 and his father. “He kept trying to come on the bus, you know, him and Pam Anderson, and all that shit,” Hank3 recalls. “And I said, ‘Tell that motherfucker I got nothing to say to him,’ and then he finally get his way back in there and tells me how I need to be treating my father, and I’m like, ‘All right, you crossed the line motherfucker.’ And I don’t know how many times I have to say it: No, he’s not my fucking brother . . .”
The altercation eventually led to the line in Hank3′s song “Not Everybody Likes Us,” “Just so you know, so it’s set in stone, Kid Rock don’t come from where I come from. Yeah it’s true he’s a Yank, he ain’t no son of Hank, and if you though so god damn you’re fucking dumb.”
It is considered one of country music’s most legendary moments—when Charlie Rich took out his lighter at the 1975 CMA Awards and burned the envelope announcing John Denver as Entertainer of the Year while Denver watched via satellite. Rich had clearly been drinking, and his antics were taken as an act of defiance against the intrusion of pop influences into country music, and have since become a rallying cry for country music purists.
Recently when video surfaced of the incident, people began to question what Charlie Rich’s true intentions were because Rich didn’t appear to look as malicious as the moment had been materialized in many people’s minds without the aid of the archived footage. Though historians and the Country Music Hall of Fame clearly spell it out as being considered a conflict at the time, Charlie’s son Charlie Rich Jr. says that his father was simply trying to be funny. So maybe there was a Charlie Rich vs. John Denver, or maybe there wasn’t, but the moment still makes for great country music lore.
Probably not much more than the names of these two needs to be said to to infer that they wouldn’t get along. Maines started the scuffle in response to Toby Keith’s song “Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue” saying, “I hate it. It’s ignorant, and it makes country music sound ignorant. It targets an entire culture—and not just the bad people who did bad things. You’ve got to have some tact. Anybody can write, ‘We’ll put a boot in your ass’ … ”
Toby Keith’s response? “I’ll bury her. She has never written anything that has been a hit…” Maines kept up the heat, wearing a shirt with the letters F.U.T.K. on the 2003 ACM Awards. And of course, all of this was exacerbated when Maines criticized President George Bush at a concert in London a month before.
Keith was the one to publicly bury the hatchet, saying in August of 2003, “You know, a best friend of mine lost a two-year-old daughter to cancer. I saw a picture of me and Natalie and it said, ‘Fight to the Death’ or something. It seemed so insignificant. I said, ‘Enough is enough’ People try to make everything black and white. I didn’t start this battle. They started it with me; they came out and just tore me up. One thing I’ve never, ever done, out of jealousy or anything else, is to bash another artist and their artistic license.”
Toby Keith vs. Kris Kristofferson
It sure made for a juicy story at the time, but according to both of the named belligerents, it was a feud that never was. In April of 2009, actor Ethan Hawke published a story in Rolling Stone that without naming his name, accused Toby Keith of saying to Kris Kristofferson at Willie Nelson’s 70th birthday in 2003, ““None of that lefty shit out there tonight, Kris.” According to Hawke, a rolling argument ensued that ended with Kris Kristofferson saying, ““They’re doin’ to country music what pantyhose did to finger-fuckin’” (see Waylon Jennings vs. Garth Brooks above.)
However, according to both Toby Keith and Kris Kristofferson, the incident never happened. Even more damming to Ethan Hawke and Rolling Stone, though Toby Keith became famous from his flag-waving songs, he’s a registered Democrat, making the likelihood Kieth saying to Kristofferson “lefty shit” very unlikely. Ethan Hawke and Rolling Stone stood by their story, but the press who perpetuated it got an earful from Toby about it at the 2009 ACM Awards.
Feuds that involve accusations of songs getting ripped off can get especially nasty, and this was the case when Jason Isbell took to Twitter to accuse Dierks Bentley of ripping off his song “In A Razor Town.” “‘Dierks’ has officially ripped off my song ‘In A Razor Town.’” Isbell fired off. “Dierks is a douchebag. The song of Dierks is called ‘Home.’” Isbell continued to pummel Dierks through Twitter, even getting political because of the flag waving nature of “Home.” Dierks in his defense referred to an interview one of the song’s co-writers Dan Wilson did with ASCAP that explained how the song came together.
The result? Though Isbell went silent after he said he was told to do so by his lawyer, if there was ever litigation over the song, the results were never made public. Isbell has since in interviews blamed his heavy drinking at the time for his Twitter tone. Though the two songs do sound similar, whether it was truly a ripoff or not seems to remain inconclusive.
Robert Earl Keen put Toby Keith in his crosshairs when he believed Keith lifted the melody from his song “The Road Goes On Forever” for his 2010 song “Bullets In The Gun.” Keen recalls, “I got all these calls from my friends. They were saying, ‘This is ridiculous. What are you gonna do? I felt like this individual had been picking on me for a long time, and I was sick of it. So instead of getting really ugly about things—I don’t really believe in lawsuits or threats—I took the Alexander Pope road and answered this guy in song.”
Keen recorded “The Road Goes On And On” as a shot at Toby Keith (though he never mentions his name), with lines that included:
You’re a regular jack in the box
In your clown suit and your goldilocks
The original liar’s paradox
Your horse is drunk and your friends got tired
Your aim grew weak and uninspired . . .
Toby Keith has never formally responded to the accusations.
This battle of heavyweights ensued when Eric Church was quoted in Rolling Stone in late April of 2012 saying, “Honestly, if Blake Shelton and Cee Lo Green turn around in a red chair, you got a deal? That’s crazy. I don’t know what would make an artist do that. You’re not an artist. Once your career becomes about something other than the music, then that’s what it is. I’ll never make that mistake. I don’t care if I starve.”
Miranda Lambert, who is married to Blake Shelton and also has a reality show past, came out swinging, saying through Twitter, “I wish I misunderstood this . . .Thanks Eric Church for saying I’m not a real artist. You’re welcome for the tour in 2010,” referencing Church’s opening spot on one of her tours.
Eventually Eric Church apologized, saying, “The comment I made to Rolling Stone was part of a larger commentary on these types of reality television shows and the perception they create, not the artists involved with the shows themselves. The shows make it appear that artists can shortcut their way to success… I have a problem with those perceived shortcuts, not just in the music industry…I have a lot of respect for what artists like Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, and my friend Miranda Lambert have gone on to accomplish. This piece was never intended to tear down any individual and I apologize to anybody I offended in trying to shed light on this issue.”
As some have pointed out since, Eric Church apologized to Miranda, but never apologized to Blake.
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Eric Church also created a firestorm with Rascal Flatts in 2006. While playing in an opening slot, he purposely played too loud and for too long after numerous requests to respect the tour’s wishes, resulting in him being kicked off the tour. It also resulted in a young starlet named Taylor Swift getting a chance to open on the big tour, which many experts give credit for helping Taylor’s meteoric rise.
Blake Shelton vs. Ray Price
When Blake Shelton’s comments about how he considered country music’s traditional fans “Old Farts and Jackasses” came out, Country Music Hall of Famer Ray Price shot back, saying, “Every now and then some young artist will record a rock and roll type song , have a hit first time out with kids only. This is why you see stars come with a few hits only and then just fade away believing they are God’s answer to the world. This guy sounds like in his own mind that his head is so large no hat ever made will fit him. Stupidity Reigns Supreme!!!!!!! Ray Price (CHIEF “OLD FART” & JACKASS”) ” P.S. YOU SHOULD BE SO LUCKY AS US OLD-TIMERS. CHECK BACK IN 63 YEARS (THE YEAR 2075) AND LET US KNOW HOW YOUR NAME AND YOUR MUSIC WILL BE REMEMBERED.”
Blake Shelton later apologized, saying, “Whoa!!! I heard I offended one of my all time favorite artists Ray Price by my statement “Nobody wants to listen to their grandpas music”..And probably some other things from that same interview on GAC Backstory.. I hate that I upset him.. The truth is my statement was and STILL Is about how we as the new generation of country artists have to keep re-inventing country music to keep it popular. Just EXACTLY… The way Mr. Price did along hid journey as a main stream country artist.. Pushing the boundaries with his records. “For The Goodtimes” Perfect example with the introduction of a bigger orchestrated sound in country music.. It was new and awesome!!! I absolutely have no doubt I could have worded it better(as always ha!) and I apologize to Mr. Price and any other heroes of mine that it may offended.”
Ray also later apologized to Blake Shelton for being so harsh, and along with wife Miranda Lambert, they attended a Ray Price show in Oklahoma to patch things up in person.
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.
This story has been updated (see below).
The parade of country artists coming out to criticize the direction of country music continues, with Gary Allan now coming out in an interview with Larry King, decrying country music’s move towards pop, and specifically Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood.
“Is Taylor Swift country? Is Carrie Underwood country?” Larry King asks.
“You know, I would say no. I would say they’re pop artists making a living in the country genre. I also feel like we lost our genre. I don’t feel like I make music for a genre anymore, and I did, you know, 15 years ago. But I think since the Clear Channel’s and the Cumulus’s and the big companies bought up all the chains, now it’s about a demographic. You know, so they’ve kind of sliced everything up, feeding it to the public in demographics.”
“It’s an amalgam then?” King asks.
“Exactly. Like if you want to get to the young kids, you put it on the alternative station. We’ve sort of ended up in this…we’re nicknamed the soccer mom, like 35 to 45 year-old woman I think is what our demographic is. So it’s very different. You used to be able to turn on the radio and you knew instantly it was the country station just by listening to it, and now you’ve got to leave it there for a second to figure it out.”
Larry King then asks, “Do you like it or don’t like it?”
“You know I personally don’t like it because I loved the character of country music and I loved what it is and the lifestyle of it…. To me, country music is still Monday through Friday, and pop’s about what happens on the weekends.”
Gary Allan joins a chorus that includes Alan Jackson, Kacey Musgraves multiple times, and other prominent country stars from the past and present coming out against the direction of country. Though the pop vs. country fight has been happening since the very beginning of the country genre, pop and rap’s recent dominance of the country format brought on by the monopolization of radio that Gary Allan references above, and Billboard’s recent decision to change its chart structure to boost “crossover” songs has tipped the scales to where influences outside of country music dominate the sound of the genre like never before.
Gary Allan is a platinum-selling country artist singed to MCA Nashville, who’s released 9 studio albums and 26 charting singles. His most recent album Set You Free was released in January.
See the relevant clip from the Larry King interview with Gary Allan below.
UPDATE ( 9/17/13 9:00 PM CDT):
Gary Allan has “clarified” his statements to Larry King in a post to his fans on Facebook. Here it is in its entirety:
As many of you know, last week I sat down for an interview with Larry King. Larry asked me several pointed questions about the state of country music. In particular, he asked me how I would classify several of my peers. A short clip from the interview was posted online last Friday.
Several writers have since taken my what I said out of context and added a spin that takes my words in a direction they were never meant to go in.
For the record, I always have and always will love country music. While our genre has evolved, I stand behind what I said in the interview, “To me country is still about Monday through Friday, and pop is about what happens on the weekends. But it’s definitely changed.”
It’s true. Country music has changed. During the interview I made it a point to say that my own music has changed over the years. I used to make very different music 10 – 15 years ago. As I also mentioned during the interview, I’m a country artist whose music leans towards rock, although I tend to love the more traditional sounding country of Haggard, Jones and Buck Owens.
When talking about country radio, I went on to say “It’s very different. You used to be able to turn on the radio and you knew it instantly it was a country station just by listening to it. Now you’ve got to leave it there for a second to figure it out…and not that it’s a bad thing.” It’s not a bad thing. It’s just different than it used to be.
Larry nailed it in three words during the interview. When trying to put context to my words he said, “it’s an amalgam,” meaning a mixture or a blend. “Right,” I said, “exactly.” Country music is a blend these days. Our genre has enough room in it for me, a country artist whose country leans towards rock and for more pop sounding country artists, as well as more traditional sounding country artists. None of us are the same, but we all make country radio our home.
Today, my interview with Larry King will run in its entirety. I know you are busy and that time is hard to come by. I hope you will take a few minutes to watch it for yourself. That way you can hear actually what I said, rather than read someone else’s commentary or take on what I said.
Editor’s Note: Though Gary Allan doesn’t mention Saving Country Music specifically and there is no specific reason to think he is referring to us when he says his words were taken out of context, please understand that all Saving Country Music did was take the questions and answers Larry King posted in the above video and transcribe them verbatim and in total. We also couched them as being critical with the current state of country music, which they were. Then we also posted the video where the comments came from to give further context. If anything was taken out of context initially, it was the video from Larry King that included only a portion of the entire Gary Allan interview. Other websites may have taken more specific comments out of context and couched them a certain way, but Saving Country Music simply posted what was said.
UPDATE ( 9/21/13 1:15 PM CDT):
Gary Allan continues to clarify the statements he made to Larry King, now scribing a handwritten letter to country radio.
When country music purists characterize pop’s intrusion into country as a recent phenomenon, they jeopardize undercutting their entire argument. Pop has always been a part of country, and asserting otherwise is a misrepresentation of history. But when pop country apologists use this same argument to say there’s no reason to be alarmed of how pop the country format has become, they aren’t taking into consideration the reduction of quality in pop over the years, or the degree in which pop has impinged on the roots of country as a per capita measure of the entire genre.
Enter Sheryl Crow, who after years of flirting with country is finally taking the big “gone country” plunge and is making a marathon tour of country radio stations ahead of releasing her first official “country” album Feels Like Home on September 10th. Sheryl—who credits Brad Paisley for finally convincing her to go country—didn’t have to augment her sound much to make the move to the country format, because as much of her pop and rock music has always been somewhat rootsy, country music has veered much more in a pop direction, allowing the two styles to virtually intersect.
“The country format is more pop than pop was when I came up two decades ago,” Sheryl explained to Reuters late last week when being interviewed about her new album, illustrating the degree of country’s move to pop in recent years. Of course Sheryl isn’t saying anything that some country fans haven’t been clamoring about for years, but as someone looking to make their way in the mainstream country world, Sheryl Crow’s perspective and honesty speaks to the degree of change in country music.
When pop or rock artists “go country,” their initial albums tend to be a tinge more country than many of their established pop country counterparts as they attempt to prove their muster in the genre. A similar observation could be made of Darius Rucker when he made the country move. Nothing Sheryl Crow or Darius Rucker have done in country so far can compare in pop caliber to Taylor Swift’s dub step-inspired “I Knew You Were Trouble” or Blake Shelton’s country rap “Boys ‘Round Here” for example. As time goes on, pop artists may not even need to declare their country allegiance to move to the genre, they may simply stand still and be involuntarily engulfed by the ever-present shift of country towards pop, and become country by proxy. Sheryl Crow may be the first example of this phenomenon.
There’s nothing I value more than a mainstream country music record that bucks all trends and is truly worth your ear. It goes without saying that the ranks of unknown and under-appreciated artists in the independent and underground realm is where our generation’s true creativity resides, but finding improvement in what the masses are being exposed to is the truest barometer of cultural improvement. Enter Charlie Worsham and his debut album Rubberband that is being lauded by many critics and fans alike as a breath of fresh air for the mainstream radio dial.
The album features traditionalist country favorites Vince Gill and Marty Stuart on a track called “Tools of the Trade,” and the first single “Could It Be” has already seen some moderate chart success. But Charlie Worsham may be benefiting from the same phenomenon that has aided the legacy of Garth Brooks in recent years. As mainstream country music males continue to descend into a malestrom of checklist countryisms and crossover hip-hop forays, everything that isn’t a dirt road rap song all of a sudden begins to sound a whole lot better to our audio palettes.
Rubberband is a very fun album that sucks you right in, with sensible instrumentation, slick production with juicy hooks and choruses, and songs that are easy to relate to. But boiled down it is still a derivative, and just a step above the Rascal Flatts and Keith Urbans of the world on both the country and creativity meters. There’s nothing to be offended by here per se, and hardcore country fans will hate to admit how much they like some of these songs, but Charlie Worsham is no Kellie Pickler. Rubberband is pop country, despite some moments of depth.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean it is more bad than good. I certainly don’t blame folks for being excited about this album, and it has a really warm, innocent feel to it like a country pop record from the 80′s. The fact that an artist on Warner Bros Nashville could sneak an album in the door that doesn’t include a litany of Chevy truck and ice cold beer references, or the appearance of some washed-up rapper, is a victory in itself these days. Wosham co-wrote all the songs on this record, and I’d be lying if I said songs like “Tools of the Trade,” “Rubberband,” or the especially-catchy and potential breakout single “Want Me To” didn’t have me tapping my toes along.
Charlie Worsham resides in the rarely trodden space between mainstream and independent country, and this allows him to be different things to different people. He’s toured with Taylor Swift….and Wade Bowen. He can be catchy without feeling contrived. And this could open up a wide audience for him. And who knows, it also may deliver a slight bit more substance to mainstream radio, or at least, a choice for mainstream fans of a male performer who is not willing to slavishly follow trends.
1 1/4 of 2 guns up.
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“You know, when you get old, in life, things get taken from you. I mean, that’s a part of life. But, you only learn that when you start losing stuff.” –Al Pacino, playing Coach Tony D’Amato in the movie Any Given Sunday.
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This news of Linda Ronstadt losing her voice due to Parkinson’s Disease seems like an especially sinister storyline. What a cruel machination of mother nature to rob a woman of her one defining gift while she still has life and clear cognitive factories to contemplate her fate. This isn’t any voice, or any woman. But Linda Ronstadt is smart and strong, and I’m sure she will come to peace with it.
And we must come to peace with it, but how do we replace the Linda Ronstadt voice? With Miley Cyrus twerking up a wall and dropping immature drug references in her droning dance club songs? With Brittney Spears, and the images of her shaving her head to avoid a positive drug test in a custody battle, and making out with Madonna on the VMA Awards? With Taylor Swift, who arguably can’t even sing? It’s just one voice, but it’s one we can’t replace. None of the voices that lent their talent to defining the American culture as the preeminent showcase for artistry and talent are being replaced as the greats falter and disappear and their contemporaries are relegated to obscurity. Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio…indeed.
Linda Ronstadt’s first solo album, Hand Sown…Home Grown, was arguably the first ever alt-country record. Like Gram Parsons, Ronstadt was responsible for showing legions of music fans that country music could be cool. Ronstadt’s 1987 collaboration with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris called Trio resulted in one of country’s most timeless records.
She fell out of favor with some of the core of country fandom when her career moved in a more rock and pop direction. But Linda didn’t strike her widespread, universal appeal by being a genre-bending, attention-thirsty trend chaser, she did it by exploring and satiating the different influences she was exposed to as a child and young adult. She didn’t release a classic Mexican album at the height of her career because that is what the masses were clamoring for. It is because it is what she wanted to do, and lo and behold, the record had more mass appeal than expected despite the language barrier because Linda Ronstadt’s voice was so powerful.
With the way social networking works today, when it comes to celebrity tragedies like Linda Ronstadt losing her voice, we all seem to be more wrapped up in the dissemination of the news than the deep contemplation of what it all actually means. We like to be the first of our friends to see the reports and post it on our respective feeds, we want to have the most poignant quip and get the most retweets and the most shares. It’s like in a moment of supposed empathy, we become somewhat selfish in this new paradigm of experiencing and sharing the grieving process in a public manner, in real time, for people we rarely know on a personal basis, with people we rarely know on a personal basis. It becomes just as much about us as it does the victim or the tragedy.
Then again, we all are victims here. Linda Ronstadt didn’t just lose her voice, we all lost Linda Ronstadt’s voice. And the sounds of life will be one more shade towards grey henceforth.
Welcome ladies and gentlemen to the LIVE blog for the 2013 broadcast of CMA’s Fan Fest, dubbed over the last few years as “Country’s Night to Rock.” Since our live blogs for mainstream country’s big awards shows have been so successful over the years, and because we had many requests to also create a platform for commiseration as what they call “country” music will dominate ABC’s airwaves for the next 3 hours, it was decided we’ll give it a shot for this event too.
This is not a live event. It is culled from footage taken during the CMA’s Fan Fest in downtown Nashville June 6th through the 9th at LP Field. As the night progresses, we will post our observations in an attempt to give voice to the other side of the country music spectrum. You are invited to join in through the comment section below. All times Central time.
Here we go!
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10:05 PM: Welp, that sucked. The show, most of the performances, the fact that my online stream crapped out twice, throwing me off my game considerably. But thanks anyway for everyone showing up, and to all those that participated in the comments (positively and negatively).
Now let’s cleanse our palettes with some true Nashville rising stars that exude soul and true country artistry.
9:59 PM: So hard to pick the most evil pop country star right now, but it certainly is a male performer, and Luke Bryan makes a real good case for himself.
And yes, you have NO idea how hard it is for me right to not make a certain off-color remark about a portion of Luke Bryan;s anatomy. But I made a promise not to revisit that line of humor….
9:57 PM: Just don’t understand The Band Perry appeal.
9:49 PM: Kip Moore would get his bung hole bleached on stage if he thought it would make him a star. No scruples.
9:48 PM: From SCM’s rant on “Wagon Wheel”:
As if legions of college town string bands full of anthropology majors mercilessly regurgitation “Wagon Wheel” over and over to try and score hummers from undergrads after the show in their Volvos with the back windows tattooed with political stickers wasn’t enough, now Hootie has lent his back to the collective toil of the Western World to do everything humanly possible to run this song into the proverbial ever-loving ground so hard that it taps the mantle of the earth and causes a catastrophic volcanic and tectonic event that wipes out the entire human fucking race.
9:45 PM: Who is Old Crow Medicine Show? Huh, never heard of them.
9:39 PM: Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood will host the CMA Awards again in November. Are we surprised? They have pretty good chemistry when the writers give them decent material.
9:36 PM: And yes, we sort of found a new online stream, though it’s kind of like trying to find a nipple through 1980′s cable filter fuzz.
9:33 PM: Kid Rock is like the accidental anchovie on my Zac Brown / Blackberry Smoke Hawaiian pizza right now. The reason his nickname is the “Wet Cigarette of Country Music” is because he can take anything and make it trashy.
9:26 PM: Yes, you absolutely positively can’t have any single music event in the English-speaking world regardless of genre or context without a washed up Sheryl Crow showing up and wheezing into a microphone at some point.
9:24 PM: A lot of people observing that Will Hoge’s Chevy Truck commercial is the most country thing on this presentation.
9:20 PM: If Little Big Town’s “Pontoon” didn’t mention “motorbotin’,” and “motorbotin’” didn’t have an adolescent sexual connotation, the song would have never made it out of ASCAP’s songwriting cubicles.
9:17 PM: Just remember folks as you’re watching Lenny Kravitz, he later flipped off this same crowd when they wouldn’t get into his 12-year-old rock anthem.
9:15 PM: Carrie Mess on Twitter:
“Hey Miranda, your boobs are on fire.”
“Are those vegan leather boots Carrie [Underwood]is wearing? Is she vegan pocahontas?
9:13 PM: Alright , so as we work to re-connect to the broadcast, well share some observances from other folks on Twitter and from around the web…
9:10 PM: Still trying to find a good online stream of the program folks! Looks like the CMA’s are shutting all the live online feeds down like the creativity in a Music Row recording studio. We’ll keep trying!
8:58 PM: Sorry folks, still trying to re-connect. All of our fail safe online TV watching outlets are not working at the moment. If anyone can procure a good link, please share in the comments section.
8:48 PM: Sorry folks, we are on the West Coast, and the only way to watch live is online, and our stream just got yanked. We’re working on getting re-connected!
8:43 PM: Aaaaaannndd, there goes our live feed. Working to re-connect!
8:42 PM: Got no problem with Zac Brown, though he’s not really my bag. Interesting footnote: Shooter Jennings, an artist that struggles to pack 350-person venues is charging $85 for meet and greet packages at his shows. Zac Brown band who regularly sells out 15,000-20,000 person shows at arenas, has an “eat and greet” where you eat a meal with Zac Brown and the band…. $55.
8:38 PM: Eric Church is not Outlaw, just ask him……but he’ll sell you an Outlaw T-shirt.
8:35 PM: Wait a second, did this asshole in Little Big Town really compare Eric Church with Willie, Waylon, and Cash ?!?! Blasphemy!
8:32 PM: There’s something especially sad a desperate about idolizing Luke Bryan and trying to craft your career around learning from his success, but falling short. That’s where Jake Owen is.
8:28 PM: “Double wide trailer back in the holler on a country road”? Jake Owen lives in an antiseptic penthouse suite and spent $800 on a fung shway expert to align his modernist couch and nouveau coffee table with his Tao.
8:25 PM: Hillary Scott is wondering why her man doesn’t take her downtown anymore? Because she’s got one 8 months in the oven. We don’t need anyone’s water breaking on the subway.
8:23 PM:Um, music?
Actually screw that, I’d rather see this chick school these dudes in ping pong than a Lady Antebellum live performance any day.
8:22 PM: How stereotypical is it that they got an Asian to be the super ping pong shill in this stupid bit?
8:15 PM: The name of this song is “Highway Don’t Care (hot pop star saves struggling has-been star’s dwindling career in label-forced collaboration)”.
8:12 PM: Who knows how much they cleaned this up for the tele, but this is the most on-pitch live performance I’ve seen from Taylor Swift in a while.
8:08 PM: Watching Taylor Swift 2013 is like watching the awkward girl next door nearly breaking her ankle trying to walk around in high heels. Just be yourself.
8:06 PM: Someone ask Taylor Swift what Max Martin, Shellback, and Scott Borchetta did with her soul after they stole it.
8:01 PM: What the hell is this? It ain’t even at the CMA Fan Fest. Jason Aldean is such a tool, and “1994″ was a total dud.
8:00 PM: They edited out the part when Jason Aldean got his various wallet chains stuck in the braces of one jubilant 14-year-old fan in the front row.
7:56 PM: I just don’t get these country music groups like Little Big Town and Lady Antebellum. It’s hard to identify with the various players. It all seems so arbitrary and random. One of the reasons we love music is through identifying with individuals. These groups are simply designed to take advantage of award show nominations.
7:51 PM: Working to confirm that Blake Shelton’s drummer was indeed injured before the performance, and was replaced by a Chippendale’s dancer, complete with sleeveless tuxedo and white tie.
7:49 PM: Yes, here’s the reigning Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year….to sing a rap song. Beam me up.
7:47 PM: Leave it to pop star Kelly Clarkson to be the first performer to feature some traditional country instrumentation.
7:46 PM: SECURITY! There’s a banjo on stage!
7:44 PM: Man, that opening riff of Kelly Clarkson was straight up ripped off from Led Zepplin’s “Heartbreaker.”
7:42 PM: This show teases work like disclaimers. “WARNING: Coming up, Jason Aldean, Darius Rucker, and Taylor Swift collaborating with Tim McGraw.”
7:39 PM: Interesting factoid, it took 7 Hobbits using shoehorns to squeeze Luke Bryan into his skinny jeans.
7:37 PM: Interesting factoid, The Perry Brothers’ hair was used by Peter Jackson to model the hair of the Hobbits in his latest movie.
7:35 PM: Kimberly Perry of The Band Perry needs to focus more on delivering an inspiring vocal performance instead of her pop-inspired stage gesticulations. They make her performances annoyingly breathy, though this is admittedly better than her AWFUL ACM performance.
7:32 PM: And “Ho-Hey” by the Lumineers is now officially the most ubiquitous song in the history of music.
7:30 PM: Going back to Carrie Underwood opening with a Guns & Roses song—this is par for the course for primetime country broadcasts. They feel the need to apologize for being country, so they always start off with a off-genre song.
7:25 PM: Of course we couldn’t get the performance of Brad Paisley with Charlie Daniels from Fan Fest. That would be against their “no gray hair” policy.
7:23 PM: The thing is Hunter Hayes is a good musician, who apparently can play anything. But he uses his talents for the forces of pop evil.
7:21 PM: Hunter Hayes on the Ellen Show, courtesy of Farce The Music:
7:20 PM: Hunter Hayes is the Justin Bieber of country music. Eternally pre-pubescent.
7:18 PM: So apparently I missed Carrie Underwood channeling Axl Rose?
7:16 PM: What??? They allowed Brian Kelley to sing??? That 7 seconds right before the commercial was the first peep I’ve heard from that dude during a performance in 2 years.
7:14 PM: Sorry folks, our online stream crapped out, but we got a good one now! Right in time for….oh, Florida Georgia Line.
7:00 PM: Here we go!
6:58 PM: In the spirit of full disclosure, I am currently located on the West Coast, so I am trying to hop 2 time zones away so that I can pick up the live feed. This may result in some broadcast interruptions as our feed has already gone down numerous times.
6:55 PM: One performance we will probably not be seeing is the one put on by Lenny Kravitz. During CMA Fan Fest, he went 15 minutes over his appointed set time, trying to get the crowd engaged into chanting a 12-year-old rock song. They would have none of it, and eventually Kravitz chided the crowd for not being able to “get with love,” and then ironically, flipped them the double bird as he walked off stage. So much for his upcoming “gone country” career.
6:52 PM: So according to Saving Country Music intel, the event is going to be hosted by Little Big Town, and will feature performances by Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley, Kelly Clarkson, Blake Shelton, Taylor Swift, Tim McGraw, Keith Urban, Eric Church, Kid Rock, Lenny Kravitz, Lady Antebellum, Jason Mraz, Kacey Musgraves, Jake Owen, Kellie Pickler and Darius Rucker.
(Editor’s note: This is a rare Saving Country Music guest contribution. It comes from Deb Bose, aka Windmills Country, originally posted it at mjsbigblog.com. You can also follow Windmills Country on Twitter.)
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Billboard and the echo chamber that is much of the entertainment media/blogosphere made much hoopla last week over Florida-Georgia Line’s “Cruise” breaking the all-time record for weeks at #1 on the Hot Country Songs chart. With 22 weeks and counting atop the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, “Cruise” surpassed the 21-week totals accumulated by Eddy Arnold’s “I’ll Hold You in My Heart (Till I Can Hold You in My Arms)” in 1947-1948, Hank Snow’s “I’m Moving On” in 1950, and Webb Pierce’s “In The Jailhouse Now” in 1955. Although Billboard acknowledges that this happened because of its new chart methodology (introduced in October 2012) incorporating airplay from all genres, paid digital download sales, and streaming into chart rankings for its genre-specific Hot Songs charts, it has failed to acknowledge how much this new chart record misrepresents the real impact of “Cruise” compared to other big country hits.
Closer scrutiny of the charts shows that, contrary to the flashy press releases and hype you may see regarding Florida-Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” its “record-setting” week is the historical achievement that isn’t. As I will show below, Cruise” isn’t even the biggest country hit in the past 3 years, never mind all time. The fact that “Cruise” is now Billboard’s record holder is the direct result of the timing of a methodology change, and if the same methodology were in place 7 years ago, “Cruise” would now rank 3rd or 4th among country crossover hits. Not first, and not close to first.
Let’s start by acknowledging the following: with 5.35 million in download sales and counting (41% and counting of that total from a remix of the song featuring rapper Nelly according to Wade Jessen of Billboard), plus major cross-format airplay that led to a #1 peak on the country airplay charts followed by top-10 peaks on the CHR/Pop and Adult Pop/HAC airplay charts, “Cruise” is an undeniably huge hit. Let’s also acknowledge Billboard’s well-intentioned desire to capture the changing environment for music consumption, which is what prompted last October’s move to carry the Hot 100 methodology over to genre-specific songs charts.
But let’s also note the problems with the change. Foremost, the incorporation of airplay from other formats basically handed control of the top of Billboard’s genre-specific Hot Songs charts over to programmers of the format that generates the largest audience impressions: Contemporary Hit Radio(or CHR)/Top 40. Because CHR/Top 40 programmers allot significantly more spins to their top songs than country programmers, more than twice as many in most cases, top 10 CHR/Top 40 hits generate larger audience impressions than top 10 country hits, and that’s before you consider the spillover from CHR/Top 40 playlists into Adult Top 40 (or Hot AC) and Adult Contemporary playlists. A look at the current Billboard airplay charts shows that the #10 song on the Billboard CHR/Top 40 chart (“Same Love” by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis featuring Mary Lambert) racked up higher audience impressions (49.558 million) than the current #1 song on the Billboard Country Airplay chart (“Runnin’ Outta Moonlight” by Randy Houser, which racked up 45.785 million AIs).
Let’s also make it clear that the objections to the new Hot Country Songs methodology have never been the incorporation of sales and streaming into a genre chart. The objection is to the inclusion of airplay from other formats on a genre-specific chart, especially the inclusion of airplay from other formats for remixes of a song, and also to the inclusion of sales of remixes on a genre-specific chart. Had the Hot Country Songs chart counted only airplay and sales for the original Florida-Georgia Line-only version of “Cruise,” the chart would have come closer to a true representation of the impact of “Cruise” as a “country” song. Let us also note that despite acknowledging that it was the release of the remix with Nelly that led to “Cruise”‘s surge back to #1 on the Hot Country Songs chart and crediting Nelly on the Hot 100 chart, Billboard declined to credit Nelly on the Hot Country Songs chart.
How Billboard Overstates “Cruise”s Impact Compared To Other Crossover Hits
Now, let’s dig deeper to show just how unrepresentative the current Billboard Hot Country Songs historical ledger is when it comes to chart impact. To do that, let’s look at the airplay peaks and sales of some of the biggest crossover hits of the past seven years (arranged in chronological order of release)
Digital download sales
Carrie Underwood, “Before He Cheats” (charted from 2006-2007): 3.82 million
Taylor Swift, “Love Story” (charted from 2008-2009): 5.6 million (according to Billboard)
Taylor Swift, “You Belong With Me” (charted from 2009-2010): 4.3 million (as of 6/12/13, according to this article)
Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now” (charted from 2009-2010): 6.2 million (according to Billboard)
Florida-Georgia Line, “Cruise” (charted from 2012-2013): 5.3 million (according to Billboard)
Sales of ‘host’ album
Carrie Underwood, Some Hearts (released November 2005): 7.334 million as of 8/10/13 Billboard chart
Taylor Swift, Fearless (released November 2008): 6.757 million as of 8/10/13 Billboard chart
Lady Antebellum, Need You Now (released January 2009): 3.996 million as of the 6/01/13 Billboard chart
Florida-Georgia Line, Here’s To The Good Times (released December 2012): 917k as of 8/10/13 Billboard chart
Country Airplay peaks:
“Before He Cheats”: #1 for 5 weeks (5 weeks at #1 on Hot Country Songs)
“Love Story”: #1 for 2 weeks (2 weeks at #1 on Hot Country Songs)
“You Belong With Me”: #1 for 2 weeks (2 weeks at #1 on Hot Country Songs)
“Need You Now”: #1 for 5 weeks (5 weeks at #1 on Hot Country Songs)
“Cruise”: #1 for 3 weeks (22 weeks and counting at #1 on Hot Country Songs)
Adult Pop Songs (Hot AC Airplay) peaks:
“Before He Cheats”: #5
“Love Story”: #3
“You Belong With Me”: #2
“Need You Now”: #1
Adult Contemporary Songs peaks:
“Before He Cheats”: #6
“Love Story”: #1
“You Belong With Me”: #1
“Need You Now”: #1
“Cruise”: TBD – “Cruise” is currently #17 on the AC chart.
So “Cruise” is the #3 digital download seller, its host album is at less than 1/4 of total sales of other albums with big crossover hits and unlikely to ever reach their sales levels, its pop airplay peaks are lower than those of “Need You Now,” “Love Story” and “You Belong With Me,” and it spent less time at #1 on the country airplay charts than “Need You Now” and “Before He Cheats.” Yet the historical record represented by Billboard Hot Country Songs claims that “Cruise” is by far the biggest Hot Country Songs hit.
Obviously, the reason for the discrepancy is the difference in methodology in tabulating the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. “Need You Now,” “Love Story” “You Belong With Me,” and “Before He Cheats” accrued their weeks atop Hot Country Songs when it was a country airplay-only survey. But just how off is the historical record that the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart represents when it comes to “Cruise” vis a vis other big crossover hits?
Well, the closest we can get to assessing this question is to comb through the Hot 100 charts, which since February 2005 have reflected the top songs by all-format airplay and paid digital downloads. As of October 2012, the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart is simply a distillation of the top country songs on or eligible to chart on the Hot 100. So, using Hot 100 rankings for country songs over the past 8 years will give us an extremely close approximation of what the top of Hot Country Songs chart would have looked like had it been constructed using the methodology used today (the only difference is that streaming data is absent from Hot 100 calculations prior to March 2012 in the case of Spotify and other audio streaming services and prior to February 2013 in the case of Youtube and other video streaming services).
I went back through the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the October 7, 2006 chart and noted the top charting country song on the Hot 100 every week, which would have been the #1 ranking song on the Billboard Hot Country Songs under the new methodology (minus streams, but those often favor crossover hits, anyway). Here’s what I found:
Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” was the Hot 100′s top ranking country song from: the 10/21/06 chart through the 2/24/07 chart, from the 3/24/07 chart through the 4/7/07 chart, on the 4/28/07 and 5/5/07 charts, and again from the 5/26/07 chart through the 9/08/07 chart.
Total weeks “Before He Cheats” spent as the top ranking country song on the Hot 100:40
Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” was the Hot 100′s top ranking country-based song from the 9/27/08 chart through the 10/25/08 chart, on the 11/8/08 chart, and again from the 12/06/08 chart until either 3/21/09 chart if you want to count Miley Cyrus’s “The Climb” as a country song or until the 4/4/09 chart (when the Carrie Underwood/Randy Travis duet version of “I Told You So” rode a sales wave to become the top ranking country song on the Hot 100). Starting with the 4/11/09 chart through the 6/13/09 chart, “Love Story” was the top ranking country song unless, again, “The Climb” counts.
Total weeks “Love Story” spent as the top ranking country based song on the Hot 100: (if we don’t count “The Climb” as a country song) 33 (if we do count “The Climb” as a country song): 21
Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” became the Hot 100′s top ranking country-based song either on the 7/04/09 chart (if we don’t count “The Climb”) or on the 7/11/09 chart (if we do count “The Climb” as a country song) and remained in that position through the 11/07/09 chart. It once again became the Hot 100′s top ranking country based song on the 11/21/09 chart and for 3 weeks starting with the 1/09/10 chart.
Total weeks “You Belong With Me” spent as the top ranking country based song on the Hot 100: (if we don’t count “The Climb” as a country song) 23 (if we do count “The Climb” as a country song): 22
Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” was the top ranking country-based song on the Hot 100 starting with the 11/28/2009 chart through the 1/2/2010 chart and again on the 1/30/2010 chart. “Need You Now” also held the top ranking for country based songs on the Hot 100 from the 2/13/2010 chart straight through to the 8/27/2010 chart.
Total weeks “Need You Now” spent as the top ranking country based song on the Hot 100: 33
Lengths of other notable reigns as the top ranking country or country based song on the Hot 100:
Miley Cyrus,”The Climb” (if we count it as eligible for Hot Country Songs): 15 weeks
Taylor Swift, “Teardrops On My Guitar”: 12 weeks
Taylor Swift, “Back To December”: 13 weeks
The Band Perry, “If I Die Young”: 10 weeks
Jason Aldean (featuring Ludacris), “Dirt Road Anthem”: 8 weeks (tied for the longest reign since October 2006 without major crossover airplay)
Luke Bryan, “Drunk On You”: 8 weeks (tied for the longest reign since October 2006 without major crossover airplay)
“Cruise” has just achieved 22 weeks as the top ranking country based song on the Hot 100, but had the same Hot Country Songs methodology been in place 7 years ago, it would still be months away from catching Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now,” Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” (arguably), and Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats.” With “Cruise” now on the decline, Luke Bryan set to release a new album on 8/13 and hits by Randy Houser and Hunter Hayes gathering airplay and sales momentum, it is unlikely “Cruise” will be able to maintain its perch as the top ranking country song for the time needed to match those other crossover hits.
What’s illustrated above is why Billboard’s crowning of Florida-Georgia Line’s “Cruise” as the longest Billboard Hot Country Songs chart-topper of all time is a milestone without meaning. As music awards season heats up, we can likely expect a lot of crowing from Florida-Georgia Line’s team about “Cruise’s” achievement and why it’s necessary for the industry to acknowledge it over more acclaimed, substantial and risky work like that of country singer/songwriter Kacey Musgraves. But as you can see, this is a historical accomplishment that isn’t, and it exposes more than anything why Billboard importing the 68 year history of the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart into the chart with this new methodology has compromised Billboard’s status as a reliable and representative historical chart authority. There is more reason than ever to not believe the hype.
The importance of authenticity and realism in country and roots music cannot be overstated. And as you work your way down the musical food chain from big stadium acts like Kenny Chesney and Taylor Swift, to more artistically-minded acts like The Civil Wars, all the way down to the guy playing guitar down at the local bar, that authenticity becomes even more important in the minds of listeners.
We like to think of musical duos and groups as troupes of kindred souls that get together to share the musical experience, and that we are simply the fortunate voyeurs who get to peer into their reality and share in their joy. In truth, most musical enterprises are burdened with some sort of tension and conflict, even if it only exists in the short term. From the outside looking in, fans are often confounded why certain musical pairings can’t tough it out through conflict for the good of the music (and for the project’s financial gain), but the melding of music and egos can be such a perilous thing, the stories of musical collaborations sticking it out in the long term is more of the exception than the rule.
These issues become compounded when you’re dealing with a musical relationship that has become much more than a duo or group, but a major entertainment franchise whose name constitutes a financial mint that sometimes millions of dollars has been invested in by record labels, promoters, and other backers.
Like big banks, many times these franchises become “too big to fail,” and performers must fight through bad blood and tension, sometimes for years, to keep the franchise going, sometimes against their will because of financial or contractual obligation.
Brooks & Dunn were said to be beset with this type of unbearable tension for a period before their eventual break up, reportedly not speaking to each other off the stage near the end. Superstar trio Lady Antebellum had to hire a mediator in their early days—a sharp contrast to the smiling faces on stage that would allude to the idea that the three members are friends. In truth Lady Antebellum and many of country music’s big acts should be characterized more as carefully orchestrated business arrangements instead of creative endeavors amongst friends.
And this brings us to this ongoing, unusual situation with the award-winning Americana singing duo The Civil Wars. The recently-split duo is now set to release a new album…though they’re completely open about the fact that they’re not even speaking to each other. How is a music fan, or specifically a Civil Wars fan supposed to perceive this? How can you submit to their music when you know there’s open tension between the two, especially when their music has depended so much on the intimacy the duo strikes in their singing and lyricism?
At least they’re being honest about their once dubbed “irreconcilable differences,” which is a curiosity in its own right because the term “irreconcilable” seems to allude to never reconciling, yet the duo must agree in spirit to some things to at least see this latest album out into the world. They’re even going as far as saying that they’re using the tension as a source of inspiration and muse. Is this sentiment built from sincerity, or a sales pitch to circumvent their fan’s concerns?
Some have even surmised that maybe this whole bubbling feud is simply to spark interest and intrigue in the project. Maybe they both simply have to fulfill a contract or face financial ruin, and they are simply fighting through their hate. And don’t for a second fancy The Civil Wars as a small, boutique musical franchise. Though their music may have much more of an artistic aim than mainstream country, over the years they’ve enjoyed big accolades from industry awards like the CMA’s, ACM’s, and Grammy’s, and surely have amassed much wealth from their music, and many obligations. Maybe suspicious notions of the duo are unfair, but when you’ve raised the facade on your intimate stage persona that presented the duo as kindred spirits in song, it’s hard to blame folks for wondering what else they’re not being shown.
Is it in any way possible for this collaboration and their latest album to be successful under the circumstances? One of my open criticisms of The Civil Wars over the years has been the sappiness of their presentation. I once compared it to Sonny & Cher; how in better days The Civil Wars would stare in each other’s eyes so sweetly on stage. Maybe this intense, and in many ways unnatural affection is what led to their differences becoming irreconcilable. Maybe The Civil Wars burned too bright, too quickly, found overwhelming success overnight, and now the flame is gone.
But Sonny & Cher were able to reconcile after their divorce, at least for the cameras, and at least for a while when they launched the Sonny & Cher Show in 1976. But the show eventually floundered. The chemistry between the two stars was gone, and no amount of writing and production could bring it back. Chemistry is that big unknown quotient that you can’t manufacture, and was one of the principle ingredients to The Civil Wars’ success.
What kind of money is awaiting the surviving members of Led Zeppelin if they decided to book a reunion tour? Would it be the highest grossing tour in the history of music? Possibly, but Robert Plant is perfectly content playing big clubs and small theaters with his Band of Joy. Why? Because the experience feels more real to him. When I look at the eyes of The Civil Wars’ John Paul White, that is what I see—a yearning to return to the days when it was about the creative process and intimate crowds. While in Joy Williams I see a woman who wants to make the world her oyster; not wanting to give up on what the duo has already built. Of course, these are all personal perceptions. What the reality is, that’s anyone’s guess. But it’s the perceptions, not the reality, that may be the duo’s biggest problem.
In the end, whatever you may read on the internet or in magazines has no bearing on the quality of the music The Civil Wars release. But then again, everything you read and know about The Civil Wars has everything to do with how that music will be perceived. The Civil Wars are not Jason Aldean or Toby Keith, and can’t rely on a passive audience who suspends disbelief as a matter of habit to resolve the lack of authenticity from their favorite artists. The Civil Wars appeal to an elevated, active music listener. And that may be The Civil Wars circa 2013′s biggest hurdle when it comes to presenting their new music, and having you believe it.
Much ado has been made about Rolling Stone giving accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev rock star treatment by putting his mug on their latest issue. Though it’s a free country with free press and I would fight for the right of Rolling Stone to put whatever they want on their cover, here are some simple, friendly, and current alternative ideas of what could have graced the front of Rolling Stone‘s July 2013 issue.
A country music superstar who won wide cross-genre appeal despite his heavy traditionalist sound, and who’s currently in the struggle of his life after suffering a major heart ailment and subsequent stroke, who better deserves to be on the cover right now than Randy?
One of rock & roll’s most legendary bands just released a comeback record called “13″ that both critics and fans are raving about, produced by studio extraordinaire, Rick Rubin. This story is custom made for the Rolling Stone cover.
He just released a career album in Southeastern that has critics falling all over themselves. The former Drive By Trucker is beginning to be recognized as one of the great songwriters of our generation, and a Rolling Stone cover could help solidify this distinction and broaden his audience. (In fairness, their last issue did have a story on Isbell).
Mavis is a force of music nature who is seeing a massive resurgence in interest in both her work as a Staple Sister and a Gospel Goddess. She’s worked with folks as wide ranging as The Band, George Jones, and Ray Charles, and even made an appearance on a Johnny Paycheck tribute album. Mavis just released an album called One True Vine, and would be a good candidate to grace the Rolling Stone cover.
Because he’s Willie Nelson. And yes I know he’s been on the cover before. But again, he’s Willie Nelson. Nuff said.
Caitlin Rose & Country’s Inspiring Women
Rolling Stone justified their use of Tsarnaev on the cover saying that he was at an age that their readers could relate to. Well so is Caitlin; a young, budding starlet with a very interesting story of how her mom is the woman who helped write many of Taylor Swift’s hits. Caitlin’s music has a fresh and relevant take, and if Caitlin isn’t big enough for you, consider including all the women that have made a splash in country in 2013 that have many proclaiming (including former Rolling Stone senior editor Chet Flippo) 2013 the “Year of the Woman” in country music.
I don’t know if there is a neotraditional artist that has benefited from such a meteoric rise like Pokey LaFarge in the history of music. Pokey’s now got Jack White pushing him, and he just played Letterman. Pokey’s crossing genres, and surely deserves a bigger spotlight.
After all, Chet was a towering personality in music journalism, and called Rolling Stone home starting in graduate school, working his way up to Rolling Stone‘s New York Bureau Chief, and eventually to Senior Editor in 1974. He wrote books about The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, David Bowie, and Hank Williams, and having passed away last month, could have surely been a worthy choice for the cover.
The Town of West, TX
If you want to delve deep into the anatomy of a tragedy, the toll it takes on a community and the psyche of its people, and end it with a positive statement on the resiliency of man, there’s no better example than here.
The People of Boston
For being courageous and persevering through and unspeakable tragedy foisted upon them unexpectedly.
If you needed any more proof that The Svengali of Country Music, one Shooter Jennings is all about creating a cult of personality and pursuing his name as product, just sit back and appreciate that in this recessionary economy when many artists are slashing ticket prices and making themselves more accessible, Shooter is now asking his hard working fans for $85 simply for the opportunity to shake his hand right before his show and walk away with a tote bag. Yes, quite a hefty price tag for someone who has recently been touting himself as a proponent for independent, grassroots music.
Announced a few days ago, “VIP meet & greet packages” are being offered at many of Shooter’s upcoming appearances, including at the Muddy Roots Festival this late August. What do you get for your $85? A T-shirt, a tote bag, 5 guitar picks (that grand total will cost Shooter less than $12-$15 wholesale), and this is my favorite one, an “Invitation to pre-show private shopping experience.” That’s right folks, for your hard earned $85, you get the exclusive opportunity to spend even more money on Shooter’s merch. What you don’t get for $85? Actual admittance to the show. That will cost you extra. So will the tacked on fees for buying the VIP ticket. After a transaction and convenience fee, the actual cost for a Shooter photo op is $90.64.
For an artist of Shooter’s size, and even ones many steps above him on the music food chain, this type of arrogant cash grab from fans is absolutely unparalleled. Furthermore, Shooter Jennings specifically asking to be dealt with in this manner of privilege at the Muddy Roots Festival is a complete insult to the standing culture and spirit of that particular festival, and all grassroots festivals for that matter. One of the things that makes grassroots festivals such an enjoyable experience is that nobody is above anyone, there are no VIP perks, and fans and artists interact freely.
Even more curious, the Muddy Roots Festival is one of the few events that Shooter has decided to purposely promote this $85 package for.
In May of 2011, SCM interviewed the Galaz brothers who are the promoters of Muddy Roots. They spoke specifically about the access the festival gives fans to the artists:
Anthony: The fans and bands were together. There was no barricade, no barrier, no VIP sections backstage. And that’s what gave the people who made the pilgrimage to Cookeville from whatever state or country such an experience, because all the bands they listen to, they could just go up and talk to them and hang out with them. There’s was nobody that was “too cool.” There were no pedestals.
Jason: I like that, there were no pedestals. It wasn’t, “Hey, there’s rock stars, let’s look at them, but we can’t talk or touch them.”
In August of 2011, SCM interviewed Zale Schoenborn, the promoter of the Pickathon Festival in Portland that this year is featuring Dale Watson, Wayne Hancock, Sturgill Simpson, Caleb Klauder, and many other country acts in a diverse lineup. Zale spoke specifically on how separating artists from fans and setting up VIP perks erodes the festival experience for everyone.
We designed the (Pickathon) space to where you come in and relate to the space without a lot of barriers. And that includes the artists. We don’t wall them off, we don’t have VIP sections, but we do create some communal spaces, and when the artists come out they’re part of the audience. It’s very common sense type stuff. It’s like what you would do if you were hosting people at your house. When people are planning it from X’s and O’s, those decisions about the human element fall to the numbers side. It’s unfortunate because those little things are what people tend to take away.
At last year’s Muddy Roots fest, the 86-year-old country music icon Ralph Stanley stayed after his set and signed every piece of memorabilia brought before him, and took pictures with anyone that wanted one, with no time limit, and no money changing hands for the autographs or photos. So did many of the other bands that played the festival. At Pickathon, after each performer plays, they go to a designated merch area where fans can get memorabilia signed and take pictures with the artists.
The meet and greet marketing tool is traditionally only reserved for large corporate country music festivals and top headliner names way beyond the sphere of Shooter Jennings who is a mid-level club draw at best. Many artists selling out arenas don’t even ask for this type of cash for meet and greets, if they even give their fans the option at all. Many times the meet and greet is for certain members of a fan club or an artist’s message board who have proved their fandom over the years. Even Taylor Swift has a system that rewards the loyalty of fans instead of wealth. At each concert, Swift has a team of people that fan out across the venue looking for attendees that show the most spirit, and hand select them for a free meet and greet opportunity after the show.
Kid Rock made headlines recently announcing he was charging only $20 for tickets for his summer tour, and was also working with venues and promoters to lower prices on food, beverages, and merchandise. “It’s gotten out of hand, price of concerts, the price of entertainment, period,” Kid Rock says. “I’ve been very fortunate, I’ve always tried to keep prices what I think are fair, and I’ve always said I’m proud that I can walk around with my head held high and look someone in the eye, knowing that I haven’t taken an un-honest dollar from a working man. I make a lot of money, I can take a pay cut. All my friends are taking pay cuts, that are in unions, that are farming in Alabama, whatever it is. I can surely take a pay cut, too.”
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Expect the next thing from Shooter to be an explanation of how this was all the result of a snafu between him and his marketing arm, or that he will offer even more incentives now, drop the price, or donate the proceeds to charity, and make a big point of shaking people’s hands at shows who didn’t pay the exorbitant fee, because like all of Shooter’s gross missteps, they’re always followed by a cavalcade of excuses and explanations that his surrogates, sycophants, and toadies always believe, while his underlying approach to selling himself as product and using the names of others as stepping stones remains the same.
Like I have always said to independent and underground music entities, you don’t need Shooter Jennings, Shooter Jennings needs you. Like a politician, Shooter has been out kissing babies. Taking artists out to Chuck E Cheese and buying bloggers drinks, playing artists on his radio show and shaking hands with fans over the last few years was simply setup to an opportunity to cash out on the backs of well-meaning underground roots artists, fans, and entities. And if this latest evidence doesn’t prove this to Shooter apologists, nothing will.
I once heard the worse thing a man could do is draw a hungry crowd
Tell everyone his name, pride, and confidence, but leaving out his doubt
I’m not sure I bought those words, when I was young I knew most everything
These words have never meant as much to anyone, as they now mean to me
Since Saving Country Music is in tune with the plight of the common man, and know many of Shooter’s fans would love to get their picture with him but can’t pay the exorbitant fee, we are manufacturing a life-sized, transportable photo-op of the picture below, to be provided at Shooter Jennings’ live performances. Poor, hapless Shooter fans and their friends can simply stick their faces through the provided holes, and have the next best thing to getting their picture taken with the Country Music Svengali himself. And it’s all free! (sorry, no tote bags will be given away)
(7-11-13 9:20 PM CDT): Shooter Jennings and/or his management have decided to drop the offer of VIP packages at festivals. As I said above, “Expect the next thing from Shooter to be an explanation of how this was all the result of a snafu between him and his marketing arm,” and on cue, Shooter surrogate Jon Hensley explains, “There was a miscommunication between myself and the company that makes these VIP upgrades possible.” You can read Jon Hensley’s entire statement below.
With no malice or mincing of words, I commend Shooter Jennings and/or his management for seeing that these VIP upgrades at grassroots festivals were unfair, unfeasible, and against the spirit of independent country and roots music. Though I still believe the price Shooter is asking for his VIP upgrade is egregious and unparalleled for an artist his size, and that the whole culture of VIP treatment has no place in independent roots music, the elimination of the option for festivals helps preserve the camaraderie and the independent spirit that makes these festivals so enjoyable for fans, and gives them a unique experience in music where all patrons are treated equal.
Jon Hensley’s statement:
Just to clarify…we are not offering any VIP ticket upgrades at any festival Shooter Jennings is playing this year or any year. There was a miscommunication between myself and the company that makes these VIP upgrades possible. But, they will ONLY be available for club and theater dates. To any son of a bitch that has a problem with us offering these upgrades you should talk to any of the fans that have actually purchased one. Ask them if they felt like their money was well spent. It is totally laughable that some stupid asshole hiding behind a computer thinks he has the right to tell Shooter’s fans how they should or should not spend their own hard earned money. This is a business and at the end of the day we all have to make smart business decisions to survive. Offering an optional concert ticket upgrade to loyal fans is not wrong or unheard of and no matter what anybody thinks about it we will continue to offer the upgrades until the world comes to an end. And, if any “blogger” has a problem with them they can address it face to face. All you have to do is purchase the ticket upgrade and see us at the meet and greet.
I have no problem meeting someone face to face and explaining my grievances with Shooter’s VIP package, but to act like not doing this initially is some sort of move of cowardice is pretty high school. Where is Jon Hensley at the moment? Is he within driving distance? I don;t have a problem meeting him, but maybe the matter is more practical to deal with through the miracle of internet. Also, nobody is hiding behind a screen. Last weekend I was out in public at Willie Nelson’s 4th of July Picnic for 12 straight hours. I’ve been at 4 of the last 5 Pickathon Festivals, the last 2 Muddy Roots Festivals, SXSW a dozen or so times, and live events on a regular basis. If someone wants to come and speak to me in person, I am very accessible, wherever I am. And I don;t say anything on this website that I wouldn’t say to anyone’s “face.”
When looking at the historical timeline of country music, many times it is big events that set the wheels of change in motion, for the good and the bad. Whether it is intrusion of pop or rap into country, or the ill-treatment of country music greats, here are some of the most embarrassing moments in country music history.
Shuttering of the Country Music Mother Church
The Grand Ole Opry needed a bigger home and the move was inevitable, but the result was the complete shuttering Ryman Auditorium, also known as the Country Music Mother Church, for 20 years. Aside from being opened by special permission to shoot videos for folks like Jason & The Scorchers, John Hartford, and for parts of the Coal Miner’s Daughter movie, the venue was abandoned between 1974 and 1994, also allowing the surrounding lower Broadway area to be overrun with strip clubs and dirty bookstores. It wasn’t until Emmylou Harris recorded a live album at the Ryman that a renewed interest in the historic venue was sparked, eventually leading to its restoration and re-opening.
Garth Brooks Goes Flying Over Texas Stadium
In 1993 at the old Texas Stadium in Irving, TX, Garth Brooks does a video shoot and decides to pull a Sandy Duncan and go flying over the crowd suspended with wires. Though it was a one-off demonstration, it illustrated Garth’s influence of turning country into more of a commercial, arena-rock presentation.
Jessica Simpson plays the Grand Ole Opry
You already forgot that reality star Jessica Simpson had a stint trying to be a country performer, didn’t you? Her career lasted weeks, but that was long enough for the Opry to decide to give her an opportunity to be on the sainted Opry stage on September 6th, 2008, while many other more worthy performers still wait indefinitely in the wings for the distinguished Opry opportunity.
Unfinished Hank Williams Songs Turned Into Lost Notebooks Album
Publisher Sony ATV cashed in on a collection of lyric sheets left behind by Hank Williams—some unfinished, and all without music—by doling them out surreptitiously to Bob Dylan, and a bevy of undeserving artists including Jakob Dylan and Sheryl Crow, to finish and record. The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams raised the ire of many, including Hank’s daughter and Williams estate executor Jett Williams who said about the project, “It was like ‘here are some lyrics’ instead of trying to think, “If Hank Williams was sitting here with me and it’s got his musical footprints all over it.” You would think that when you heard the song being sung by the artist, that it would have some kind of (Hank) feel to it, which I’m not feeling it myself.”
DeFord Bailey Fired from the Grand Ole Opry
Harmonica player and Country Music Hall of Famer DeFord Bailey was one of the early stars of the Grand Ole Opry, and was an official member from 1927 to 1941 when a dispute with BMI-ASCAP wouldn’t allow him to perform his most famous songs on the radio. Instead of standing behind one of their founding performers, the Opry fired DeFord. This ended his performance career and DeFord shined shoes for the rest of his life to make a living. DeFord did not play the Opry again until 1974 when he appeared on an “Old Timers’ Show.”
Jason Aldean Performs “Dirt Road Anthem” with Ludacris on CMT Awards
“History has been made baby!” Ludacris declared from the stage in June of 2011 when country music saw its first rap performance on an awards show, and the first live mainstream collaboration with a rap artist. This event and “Dirt Road Anthem” hitting #1 would open the country rap flood gates.
Olivia Newton-John and John Denver Winning CMA Awards
Olivia Newton-John’s CMA for “Female Vocalist of the Year” in 1974, and John Denver’s CMA for “Entertainer of the Year” in 1975 symbolized the historic intrusion of pop into the country format in the mid-70′s. The trend was staved off the next year when Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings ushered in the Outlaw movement in country.
Taylor Swift Wins First CMA for Entertainer of the Year
The date 11/11 was not good luck for country music in 2009, when Taylor Swift took home her first Country Music Association “Entertainer of the Year” award along with three other trophies on the night. Teen pop had now taken center stage in country music.
Induction of Keith Urban, Rascal Flatts, & Darius Rucker Into The Grand Ole Opry
The Grand Ole Opry had already been wanting to appeal to a younger, more youthful crowd, but in recent years they have ratcheted it up another notch, completely ignoring older country stars worthy of induction for pop country’s latest trends.
“Struggle” Turns Waylon Songs Into Rap
It was bad enough when rap infiltrated country music. Now it has gone back in time to overwrite the songs of country greats that have passed on. Waylon Jennings’ grandson-in-law nicknamed “Struggle” (his real name is Will Harness, and his real grandfather is Duane Eddy) took 7 Waylon Jennings songs, and rehashed them into rap songs in an album entitled I Am Struggle released in May of 2013. It was an unprecedented intrusion of rap into country music’s past, perpetrated by one of the few people who could get the blessing of the Waylon estate to do so. (read more)
Stonewall Jackson Stonewalled by the Grand Ole Opry
After having his performances on the Grand Ole Opry cut back so much that he lost his health benefits, Stonewall Jackson sued the Opry claiming age discrimination against Opry General Manager Pete Fisher. Stonewall claimed the Opry breached a long-standing code that if stars performed a set number of dates each year, even when they could make more money playing tour dates, they would always have a place to play at the Opry even in their older age. The lawsuit was eventually settled in court, and though the specific details of it were never revealed, Stonewall was happy with the outcome, and his performance schedule increased afterward.
Garth Brooks Becomes Chris Gains
In 1999, a bored Garth Brooks created a fictional dark pop character from Australia called Chris Gaines and released an album called The Life of Chris Gains. It gained Garth one Top 5 hit, “Lost In You,” but Brooks’ Chris Gaines idea met with very heavy criticism and confusion from fans, and after only a few weeks, Chris Gains rode off into the sunset and Garth Brooks re-appeared before a planned movie The Lamb could go into production.
The Grand Ole Opry’s Refusal to Reinstate Hank Williams
Even though there is a Hank Williams impersonator to greet Opry attendees at the door, the institution has refused to reinstate one of country music’s most legendary icons, and one that made the Opry an internationally-known institution, even in a symbolic gesture. Hank was dismissed from the Opry in 1952 for missing performances and rehearsals due to alcoholism, and was told he could return once he sobered up. Hank never got that opportunity, dying on New Years Eve of that year. A movement called Reinstate Hank looks to reinstate the country star back into the institution.
George Jones “Choices” & Other CMA Performances Cut Short
At the 1999 CMA Awards, George Jones was asked to perform an abbreviated version of his song “Choices.” George refused and boycotted the show, and in response Alan Jackson, while preforming his song “Pop A Top,” cut his own song short, and launched into George’s “Choices.” (read more)
This was actually the second time an artist boycotted the CMA’s. In a much less publicized event, Waylon Jennings refused to perform an abbreviated version of “Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line.” Waylon recalls, “They told me not to get smart. Either I did it or I got out. They said, ‘We don’t need you.’ I decided that was true and left.”
It was November of 2008 at the annual Country Music Association Awards, and Kid Rock came out on stage to perform “All Summer Long,” a remixed rap rock song that borrows from Lynyrd Skynyrd and Warren Zevon. Never before had such a non-country genre-bending song been performed on the CMA stage, but considering Kid Rock’s strong ties to the country music industry, the performance seemed par for country’s course of slowly contemporizing away from its traditions….except for one curious thing.
Trailing Kid Rock out on the stage was hip-hop icon Lil’ Wayne. It was curious that Lil’ Wayne was there, but not completely surprising. Lil’ Wayne had performed “All Summer Long” with Kid Rock only 2 months before at MTV’s VMA Awards. But instead of rapping like he did at the VMA’s, Lil’ Wayne just sort of stood there, pretending to strum a guitar that clearly was not in the mix.
Why was Lil’ Wayne there? Nobody was quite sure, but at the time Saving Country Music surmised that this was an act of desensitization from Music Row in Nashville. Facing nearly a decade of declining sales and needing something to shake up the landscape, allowing rap to infiltrate country’s inner sanctum could be a way to grow country’s fan base, entice younger listeners, and maintain the commercial viability of the industry. The country music industry would have to warm the country fan base up to the idea first. So bring Kid Rock out, and Lil’ Wayne with him, but don’t allow anyone to rap just yet. There would be time for that down the road.
Just 2 weeks after the 2008 CMA’s, country rap king Colt Ford released his first major album Ride Through The Country, and soon small but well-supported independent country rap outfits like the LoCash Cowboys and Moonshine Bandits began to emerge, creating a substantial country rap underground that saw significant success in the YouTube realm, garnering 5 and 6 million hits on some videos despite having no initial label support, and no radio play. Country rap had already been around way before 2008, with Cowboy Troy releasing his debut album Loco Motive back in 2005, and many other independent artists dabbling with the genre blending concept years before. But Colt Ford began to open the door of acceptance for country rap in the mainstream by collaborating with country artists like Jamey Johnson, John Michael Montgomery, and Brantley Gilbert. Country rap songs were still not receiving radio play or award show accolades though. The country rap commodity was just too risque for mainstream labels and radio programmers to get behind, and it remained a very small sliver of the greater country music pie.
Then came Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem,” a song that initially appeared on Colt Ford’s first album and co-written with Brantley Gilbert, and everything changed. A mild-mannered song compared to most country rap, and coming from a polished Caucasian performer that the mainstream country community was already comfortable with, country rap was able to finally find it’s acceptance on the popular country radio format. In early June of 2011 at the CMT Awards hosted by Kid Rock, Jason Aldean came out to perform the quickly-rising single, and hip-hop artist Ludacris joined Aldean on stage, this time to actually rap. “History has been made baby!” Ludacris declared from the stage, and it had been. Mainstream country now had its country rap cherry officially popped, and rap was now a viable, accepted art form in country music.
And it would become a commercially successful one too when “Dirt Road Anthem” eventually hit #1 on the Billboard charts in late July of 2011. The effects of “Dirt Road Anthem” hitting #1 were significant. Radio programmers who had been reluctant to bring country rap to the airwaves for years had officially waved the white flag. At the time Saving Country Music also predicted:
Just like how you can blame a blizzard on a rash of births nine moths later, the Music Row machine undoubtedly is being retooled to meet the burgeoning country rap demand, and we will be seeing the results in the upcoming months. The only question is, in what form will it be? Will we see established artists adopting the new style? Or will it be the popularization of the Colt Fords and Moonshine Bandits of the world?
The prediction of Music Row retooling to become a assembly line for country rap was correct. What was not correct was the timeline. Apparently 9 months lead time was a little too optimistic, and after “Dirt Road Anthem” dominated the charts, country rap went somewhat dormant in mainstream country for nearly 1 1/2 years. “Dirt Road Anthem” was the best selling single in all of country in 2011. But in 2012, country rap was virtually absent from the mainstream country scene. As Saving Country Music explained looking at 2012 end-of-year sales numbers:
Rap sales were significantly down in 2012, bucking the trend of being one of the few areas of strength during music’s decade-long decline. Similarly, unlike 2011 when Jason Aldean’s country-rap “Dirt Road Anthem” was the best-selling single in all of country, 2012 did not see a dominant country-rap single, album, or artist. Rap is still asserting itself as an influence in country, but may not be finding the commercial strength it needs to stick. 2012 mono-genre songs like Tim McGraw’s “Truck Yeah” underperformed to expectations, never cracking Billboard’s Top 10 on the country chart.
Then came 2013, and “1994,” Jason Aldean’s follow-up country rap to “Dirt Road Anthem.” Though the song was a little too fey for mainstream country ears and topped out at #10 on the Billboard charts, it was the spearhead to what would become a massive and historic influx of country rap songs and influences flooding the country music format heading into the summer of 2013.
Blake Shelton, the reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year and influential personality from his work on the popular reality TV show The Voice, released his own country rap song “Boys ‘Round Here” that quickly became a #1. Country duo Florida Georgia Line who regularly incorporates Ebonic verbiage in their songs achieved a #1 single with “Cruise” that is currently poised to become the best selling song of 2013. When the duo remixed the smash hit with hip-hop star Nelly, it created yet another chart-topping country rap collaboration.
All of a sudden, hip-hop influences were, and currently are dominating the top of the country music charts, asserting just as much influence, if not more than indigenous country influences, with a bevy of new country rap tunes from numerous artists ready to be released, and mainstream artists lining up to try and be a part of the trend. Brad Paisley and LL Cool J made waves by collaborating on the country rap song “Accidental Racist.” 90′s country star Joe Diffie, the muse for Jason Aldean’s country rap “1994,” has released an “answer” song called “Girl Ridin’ Shotgun” with the Jawga Boyz to attempt to exploit the renewed attention for his career. And Luke Bryan has recorded a country rap song with Auto-Tune maestro T Pain to be released soon.
But the infiltration of country rap is not just confined to underground circles and mainstream collaborations, it has touched the very foundations of country’s traditions and history. In May of 2013, the rapping grandson-in-law of Waylon Jennings named “Struggle” released an album with 7 of the 9 songs being Waylon tunes with Struggle rapping over them. The country rapping LoCash Cowboys have a song called “Best Seat in the House” from their new self-titled album that includes a collaboration with the recently-deceased George Jones—an icon of traditional country fans who traditionally do not favor the influx of rap influences in country music. The country rap collaboration is possibly the final track George Jones ever recorded.
Other artists that are traditionally seen as respites from the commercial trends in Nashville like Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and their mutual band The Pistol Annies have participated in the country rap craze, leaving mainstream country fans that are looking to avoid the trend few options. The Pistol Annies appeared in Blake Shelton’s country rap song and video “Boys ‘Round Here,” and Miranda Lambert participated in the “celebrity remix” of the song, even though at one point she took to Twitter to proclaim that remixes “pissed her off.”
Ashley Monroe appears in a just released acoustic version of the Macklemore rap song “Thrift Shop.” June of 2013 has been jam packed with new country rap song and video releases, with new collaborations rumored seemingly every day as artists and labels scramble to figure out how to capitalize on the country rap phenomenon.
Which begs the next question, is this a craze that will show a predictable lightning-fast life span and quickly fizzle, or are we seeing the long-forecasted dramatic, wholesale, long-term change in the traditional genre formats of American music, where all genres coalesce into one big mono-genre where contrast and diversity between disparate art forms will be resolved, leaving no true regionalism and no cultural separation, just one homogeneous corporate American music culture?
That remains to be seen. But wherever country rap goes, we can say with confidence that the way country music sounds in the summer of 2013 is very similar to the way the mono-genre would sound like if it is realized in the long-term.
Potential Ramifications of Rap’s Infiltration of Country
The benefits of the emerging mono-genre can be the breakdown of musical prejudices across genre lines, but the main impetus is the broadening of markets of music consumers for record labels to take advantage of. Though traditional genres can be helpful to consumers by classifying the style of the music so they can choose if it is worth their time, genres limit the scale of potential consumers for a given music franchise.
The problem with the mono-genre, especially for country music is the potential loss of autonomy and control over the music by the genre, both sonically and through the genre’s infrastructure and institutions. During music’s lost decade of the 2000′s when the industry bobbled the move to digitization, country music weathered the storm much better than other genres because it had its own built-in institutions like the CMA and ACM Awards shows, and the Country Music Association itself which unites US radio broadcasters around the country format. And unlike hip-hop or rock and roll, country music is heavily steeped in tradition, with legacy institutions like The Grand Ole Opry acting as pillars for the music. But if the term “country” can’t define a well-recognized sound, it risks diminishing the effectiveness and viability of these country music institutions in the long term.
Since the beginning, country has taken a submissive role to hip-hop in the formation of the mono-genre. Though you may find some small exceptions, country influences have not encroached on the mainstream hip-hop format virtually at all, and certainly haven’t risen to the point of dominating the hip-hop charts, like hip-hop influences are now dominating the country charts. Helping this trend along is Billboard’s new chart rules that take into consideration sales and plays of music from other genres in rating country artists. So country artists whose songs cross over to the pop or hip-hop formats gain extra points compared to their pure country counterparts.
Hip-hop is in the cat bird’s seat in the mixing of the two genres. Artists like Ludacris, Nelly, and Lil’ Wayne can benefit from the exposure the country format gives them, but hip-hop doesn’t have to return the favor. The reason there are no country-influenced songs at the top of the hip-hop chart is because the hip-hop community would not allow it.
Hip-hop as a genre is secure and confident in its standing with young demographics, and in its future, while country seems to be constantly wanting to apologize for itself and find new ways to attract younger listeners. Hip-hop artists are just sitting back, waiting for the managers of mainstream country artist to call looking for collaborations, and all of a sudden the hip-hop artists’ name and music are exposed to an entirely new crowd.
Some mainstream country artists like Tim McGraw and Taylor Swift have participated in hip-hop collaborations not featured in the country format, but the collaborations are almost always done on hip-hop’s terms, with the purpose of exposing hip-hop artists to a wider audience primarily, instead of vice versa.
The debate about the encroachment of rap and other hip-hop influences into country is much broader than disagreements based on taste. To maintain the autonomy and integrity of country music’s institutions, the genre music keep in check influences from other mediums. The argument regularly made for allowing hip-hop influences to infiltrate the format is that country music needs something new to continue to grow and appeal to new audiences and younger people. What this argument fails to recognize is that rap in itself is an over 30-year-old art form, and that it has a dubious history when mixing with other genres at the mainstream level.
When rap mixed with mainstream rock in the mid 90′s with acts like Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park, it was seen as the beginning of the mainstream rock format losing its identity, and the diminishing of rock music’s control over its radio format and institutions. This gave rise to “indie” rock, and punk and metal undergrounds that purposely avoided mainstream rock avenues and robbed talent from the mainstream ranks. Soon rock ceased to be the catch-all term for guitar-based American music, and country and hip-hop emerged as the more dominant and influential genres. Eventually rock artists like Darius Rucker, Sheryl Crow, Aaron Lewis of Staind, Kid Rock, and many more had to solicit country for support in the aftermath of mainstream rock’s implosion.
It is unfair to completely hypothesize what will happen with the mixing of country and hip-hop by what happened in the past because of the tremendous flux the music industry is experiencing due to the ever-evolving technology quotient. Everything an educated guess at best these days in music. But what we do know is that we will discover what the effects of the mono-genre will be because it is unquestionably upon us. The next question is, will it stick around, or will the mono-genre break back down into its traditional genres in the future? How country music as an institution will endure the changes remains to be seen, but country would be wise to keep open a debate on influence, tradition, and autonomy, with a very long-term perspective always in mind. Because if not, country artists could be finding themselves searching for another genre for support, just as rock artists did in the aftermath of hip-hop infiltrating its genre.
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