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…that includes Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, and Thompson Square? Ugh…
Not since the second installment of the Waylon – The Music Inside series was released with the names of Colt Ford and Justin Moore making their way on the track list have we had such a quizzical collection of artists for a tribute album. As cool as it is to see any attention paid to Merle these days from the mainstream establishment, and to see Merle’s much-deserving song Ben Haggard make the cut of contributors, hearing Luke Bryan covering “Pancho & Lefty” (and is that really a Merle song anyway?) or Dustin Lynch taking time from singing about tractor sex to offer his take on “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” is not what’s going to get your average Merle fan’s motor running.
The Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard compilation out April 1st (no fooling) is being put together by Broken Bow Records, and of course, just like many of these tributes recently, it’s mostly a showcase of label talent with a “tribute” as the backdrop. Jason Aldean, Kristy Lee Cook, Dustin Lynch, Joe Nichols, Randy Houser, Parmalee, and Thompson Square all reside on Broken Bow and bow in on the track list, most with two contributions.
And if you were hoping that maybe they would approach this thing with the Merle spirit, just listen to what Luke Bryan has to say about his veryÂ “Mumford & Sons” take on “Pancho & Lefty”: “The original had a Spanish-Mexican flair. We took a real different approach with it …. something with some edge that moves along pretty good. It’s an interesting take.”
Something else interesting: They begged Garth Brooks to allow them to use his cover of “Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down” from his recent blockbuster Blame It All On My Roots box set. But just like the box set, you can only get the song if you buy the tribute from Wal-Mart.
Complicating the love-hate relationship a true Merle fan might have with this compilation, the ACM Awards being held April 6th are planning to bestow Merle Haggard with a Crystal Milestone Award as part of the ACM festivities, with this tribute as the centerpiece. Once again, it’s great to see the ACM’s or anyone in the mainstream acknowledge Merle (even if it’s half a decade after Taylor Swift was given the same Crystal Milestone Award), but you wonder how much of this is just a platform for Broken Bow to display their own talent.
Luckily if you’re looking for Merle Haggard tributes with not as many question marks swirling around them, there’s been a few of great ones released recently. Suzy Bogguss released Lucky last month: a 12-song tribute to The Hag. And Vince Gill with Paul Franklin paid tribute to Merle & Buck Owens last year with Bakersfield.
Track list for Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard:
- Misery and Gin, Randy Houser
- Footlights, Joe Nichols
- Going Where the Lonely Go, Jason Aldean
- Today I Started Loving You Again, Kristy Lee Cook
- Carolyn, Toby Keith
- Pancho and Lefty, Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley
- Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down, Garth Brooks (Walmart edition only)
- You Take Me for Granted, Thompson Square
- Mama Tried, Ben Haggard
- That’s the Way Love Goes, Dustin Lynch
- Make Up and Faded Blue Jeans, Jake Owen
- I’m a Lonesome Fugitive, James Wesley
- Workin’ Man Blues, Parmalee
- Are the Good Times Really Over, Jason Aldean
- Let’s Chase Each Other Around the Room, Thompson Square
- I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink, Dustin Lynch
- The Fightin’ Side of Me, James Wesley
- My Favorite Memory, Joe Nichols
- Ramblin’ Fever, Randy Houser
- Sing Me Back Home, Ben Haggard
You wouldn’t traditionally think of Oklahoma as a proving ground for cowpunk. As the home to some of the wealthiest names country music can boast like Toby Keith, Garth Brooks, and Mr. & Mrs. Blake Shelton, all sharing the same dirt with many of the founding members and freshest names in the Red Dirt/ Texas country scene like Jason Boland and the Turnpike Troubadours, it’s hard to see where there would be the space for a bunch of loud-playing, punk-inspired hillbillies to get a word in edgewise.
But then again, Red Eye Gravy is not your prototypical cowpunk band. Sure, their sound in places builds out from a high-energy, hard country mindset with the train beat being slapped out in the background, but many of Red Eye Gravy’s songs veer toward the traditional side of country and stay there, while others show they type of depth of songwriting and composition usually reserved for the Americana tag. In the end what you get with Red Eye Gravy is a little bit of all the good stuff and in just the right measure, similar to the homemade concoction that constitutes the band’s name, famous for combining country ham drippings and coffee to smother your favorite Southern food in comfort.
Though I wouldn’t go far as to characterize Red Eye Gravy’s new album Dust Bowl Hangover as conceptualized, there’s certainly a thread and a message throughout this project, very much inspired by the band’s Oklahoma surroundings and the history thereof, painting a very ominous and bleak picture for the plight of the poor man from the dusty plains, both of yesterday and today. Destitution and heartbreak are the theme of Dust Bowl Hangover, however the music itself is a very enjoyable experience, with great melodies, catchy hooks, smart and engaging arrangements, and a remarkable amount of spice and variety in the instrumentation to really elevate this album to something much higher than the band’s humble, undiscovered status.
There’s a surprise around nearly every corner of Dust Bowl Hangover. “Hard Livin’ (Comes Easy To Me)” is one of the best country music songs I’ve heard all year so far. The subdued artistry and songwriting efforts of songs like “Take Me Back” and “Pistol” counterbalance the balls-out attitude of cowpunk rockers like “I Wanna Go Home” and “Swingin’ From A Rope.” “Never Thought It Could Be” taps into an excellent melody while a unexpected, muted trumpet takes it to the next level of taste and artistry. Then the very next song “Oklahoma Girls” is an offbeat, foul-mouthed hillbilly elbow swinger featuring some awfully impressive Oklahoma yodeling very few could pull off with such authenticity and skill.
The greatest virtue of Dust Bowl Hangover is that if I was trying to lure an Americana listener into this album, I could pick out a couple of songs that would immediately speak to them. Same could be said for the cowpunk/hellbilly crowd, or for the folks whose hankering is for Texas country. Some of the heavy language here and there, or the stark variety might turn some people off or make Dust Bowl Hangover one to be picked through instead of enjoyed cover to cover, but there truly is something here for everyone, and in multiple servings. The 16 songs may have been a little too much (though the first and last tracks serve as an intro and outtro), and maybe a weaker song like “Give Down The Country” that somewhat failed to meet its objective could have been left on the sidelines and the album condensed down to be even more potent. But I fail to find the passion for many gripes about this effort, and Dust Bowl Hangover comes highly recommended.
Two Guns Up.
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Red Eye Gravy is featured on the latest episode of the “Old Soul Radio Show”.
The Season of Discontent in country music continues with yet another big name country music personality lending his voice to decrying the wayward trajectory of the genre. But this time it’s not a performing artist, it is Scott Borchetta, the label owner of Big Machine Records, affectionately known at Saving Country Music as the Country Music Anti-Christ, and arguably the most powerful man in the country music business.
Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine label is the home of Taylor Swift, Rascall Flatts, Tim McGraw, Brantley Gilbert, and most importantly in 2013, Florida Georgia Line, whose song “Cruise” shattered all manner of records in 2013, including becoming the longest-running #1 song in the history of country music. However as Saving Country Music contributor Deb Bose pointed out in August, the record is virtually meaningless because of how it was achieved, and because it was bolstered by a remix with rapper Nelly. NPR’s Neda Ulaby also pointed this out recently in a piece entitled, “How A Hip-Hop Remix Helped Make ‘Cruise’ The Year’s Biggest Country Hit” (listen below).
In the piece, Scott Borchetta is asked to comment on what some are calling the “bro-country” phenomenon, and Scott Borchetta, just like many of his artist contemporaries, states that he believes country music has gone too far with all the references to alcohol and tailgates, and needs to get back to music with more substance.
“Everybody in Nashville must be drinking 24-7. We’re a bunch of drunks down here,” Borchetta jokes to NPR, but then turns serious. “There’s too much, to be honest with you. We can’t keep talking about Fireball and Coors Light and having the tailgate down, etc.”
But what Borchetta says next is the most intriguing portion of his comments. “So we’ll task our writers and artists to dig a little deeper.”
This is something that would be easy for anyone else to say, but few like Borchetta actually have the power to task writers and artists to do anything. Sure, Borchetta may just be paying lip service to what he believes the NPR crowd wants to hear. In October Saving Country Music pointed out that Borchetta was personally responsible for Justin Moore’s sophomoric song “I’d Want It To Be Yours,” and this isn’t the first time that someone has called out country music’s wayward trajectory in 2013 while also being personally responsible for it. But here at the end of 2013, everywhere you look there is criticism being levied at country music’s beer and tailgate songs, and a smart and savvy businessman like Borchetta must see that the trend is not sustainable, begging the question if the tide has turned for country truck songs.
Borchetta is actually not the first label executive to speak out about country’s recent flight from substance. Though he’s known mostly as a performer, Toby Keith is the owner of the Show Dog Universal label and helped start Big Machine with Scott Borchetta before the two labels split. Keith had some critical comments about both hip-hop in country and beer/tailgate songs himself in October, saying,
You hear the hip-hop thing start kicking in, and you start going, âIs that what we gotta do now to have a hit?â I donât know how to do that. Is that what I need every one of my songs to sound like now?âŚYou start playing [deep songs] to a twenty-something audience, and itâs like, âNaw, man, there ainât no mud on that tire. That ainât about a Budweiser can. That ainât about a chicken dancing out by the river. That ainât about smoking a joint by the haystack. Thatâs about somebody dying and shit.ââ
A video of punk rock frontman turned public speaker, comedian, and actor Henry Rollins penning a letter to Toby Keith has been making the rounds lately, likely stimulated by the political site aattp.org positing it on their human interest page a few days ago. The video features Henry undressing Toby Keith’s oafish approach to entertainment, and the damaging effects the message of his music could have on the psyche and behavior of his consumers.
The video nothing new though; it was uploaded to YouTube in late June, and actually originates from a 2006-2007 episode of The Henry Rollins Show on the Independent Film Channel, of which the “Letters From Henry” segment was a staple of. However it doesn’t make the letter any less poignant, or Henry’s approach any less intelligent, or the information any less topical, except for the specific song and album that Rollins references in the letter.
Keith actually responded to the open letter in 2009 when he told Country Weekly,
Well I happened to be [watching TV] one night and I come upon this show called The Henry Rollins Show on one of the small cable networks. I just happened to click on it to see what he was doing…and [he] critiques my song âGet Drunk and Be Somebodyâ and in the middle of it this guy, whoâs supposed to be a no-nonsense, stand-up kind of guy, goes, âHey, Iâm not asking for an ass-whipping here . . . â Talk about a hypocrite! I see those kinds of things on a daily basis. You just sit back and scratch your head. I will not come out of the box on somebody, especially that I donât know, and critique their music. Thatâs not right and I wonât do it. We donât bring a bunch of hate to the table.â
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Dear Mr. Keith,
I must confess. I have never written to an icon such as yourself. I’m not trying to be funny. You are most certainly aware of your popularity, targeted as it is. Mainly for the blue of collar, and the red of neck. I can’t see NYU hipsters going out of their way to load your music into their iPods. I saw you interviewed on television a few months ago where you discussed the title of your recent album at the time, “White Trash With Money.” As I recall, you told the host that you overheard a conversation where you and your family were characterized as such. I’m sure these people are aware of their faux pas now, and I’m happy you were able to turn the insult into something positive.
I also recall you saying that a single off the album was called “Get Drunk and Be Somebody.” The title stuck with me so I looked up the lyrics. In the song you depict the life of the working man: nothing but a number, a cog in the machine who punches a time clock 5 days a week, and then finds himself through alcoholic salvation. I wonder if you tailor your lyrics to what you think your audience wants to hear, or if the lyrics really reflect how you think and feel.
Whatever the case may be, the sold out concerts and sheer tonnage of records you sold would testify to the fact that you connect solidly with millions of Americans. Please don’t take it the wrong way, but that fact troubles me. Now I’m sure you’re patriotic as all get out. I know you’re a USO member, and we all thank you for the time spends with our nation’s finest. But don’t you think that at some point your music loses its salve in the wound potency by merely pointing out the truth? And does it ever occur to you that perhaps you’re making a good living off the fact that a lot of people don’t? A little Nero-esque, don’t you think?
If it were me, I would want to be part of changing their situation rather than suggesting they just do their forty hours for the man, and then go get fucked up, and then providing the soundtrack for their beer soaked self-destruction. Do you ever consider your music defeatist? I’m not into censorship, and I’m not looking for one of those good time ass kickings you could no doubt hand me. But still, I wonder. Well, I’m sure you’ve got better things to do than read this elitist twaddle. I wish you and your family only the best. In the meantime, my hope is that you’ll stop convincing blue collar workers that the best thing they could do for themselves is buy a $40,000 pickup truck on a $30,000 salary.
Country performer Jake Owen first joined the chorus of detractors against the direction of country back in October when he told Rolling Stone in part, “We need more songs than just songs about tailgates and fuckinâ cups and Bacardi and stuff like that. We need songs that get ourselves back to the format that made me love it . . .Â like when guys like Randy Travis released songs like âHe Walked on Waterâ â songs that meant something, man!â
Now he’s back at it as his single “Days of Gold” climbs the country charts, telling Country Weekly,
I donât mean to sound negative. I love country music right now, itâs awesome. But Iâm guilty of it, too. We all have songs that weâre tending to put out because theyâre working and itâs helping our careers. But songs like âThe Thunder Rollsâ or John Michael Montgomeryâs âLifeâs a Dance,â they were songs that meant something to people. You donât hear a lot of those songs anymore….People were like, thatâs real. There are so many songs now, and I have them, too, that are [about] sunshine, blue eyes, a tan. Thatâs not always real to everyone all the time. Or passing moonshine jars around. People do that when theyâre kids, but people also grow up. . . . Itâs important to have all kinds of songs.
As Saving Country Music pointed out about Jake Owen’s previous comments, Jake is the pot calling the popular country music kettle black when you listen to some of his songs like his current “Days of Gold” single. But in fairness to Jake, he’s also pointing this fact out too, again highlighting that even some of the artists that are part of country music’s current laundry list trend may not be doing it under their own recognizance, but are following orders from on high from labels looking to sell records, or doing what they music to keep their mainstream career relevant.
The amount of input an artist has on what songs end up on their major label album may be minimal to begin with, but they rarely have any control over what songs are released to radio as singles. As Jake Owen explained in his conversation with Country Weekly, he believes his song “What We Ain’t Got” is an important track. âIt has to come out at some point. Itâs the kind of song that will help my career tremendously, but I think it will hopefully help country music. Just to where other artists will know that itâs OK that radio will play songsâhopefullyâlike that, to where theyâll start recording really great songs again.â
But there’s no guarantee that the song will make it to radio, and even if it does, that anyone will listen. Jake’s comments virtually mirror comments by Toby Keith about his song “Hope On The Rocks” that his label (that he owns) was reluctant to put out because, “…there ainât no mud on that tire. That ainât about a Budweiser can. That ainât about a chicken dancing out by the river. That ainât about smoking a joint by the haystack. Thatâs about somebody dying and shit.ââ
As much as concerned country fans may see comments by Jake Owen and Toby Keith as hypocritical, it also speaks to how the concern and criticism about the lack of substance in country music has reached the very top reaches of country music. It’s not just bitter ramblings of country artists that never made it and their undying fans.
Back in March, country music Outlaw David Allan Coe was in a horrific accident where his black Suburban was broadsided by a semi truck in Ocala, Fl. Coe suffered cracked ribs and bruised kidneys in the accident, but was able to recover to perform again.
In the aftermath of the accident, there was a shakeup in David Allan Coe’s band and inner circle. As Saving Country Music reported after attending David Allan Coe’s first show back as part of Willie Nelson’s 40th Annual 4th of July picnic, David was quoted as saying, “…everybody quit me, except my wife. Sheâs the only one that didnât quit. My road manager of 35 years, he quit me. My band quit me. This is a brand new band, this is a brand new me.â
On November 8th, David Allan Coe’s son, Tyler Mahan Coe, who played guitar for his father, posted an in-depth letter describing his side of the story, saying in part, “The implication is that every person in his life, except his wife, abandoned him after his recent auto accident. Certainly, it doesn’t make sense to me that everyÂ person in someone’s life would take a hike because that person had a little accident. Must be something else going on there.” In short, Tyler blames David Allan Coe’s wife Kimberly for manipulating his father, leading to him and others being forced out of his father’s music business. Tyler also spelled out and addressed numerous concerns and grievances he and many David Allan Coe fans have had about his father’s live performances in recent years.
David Allan Coe’s accident, the subsequent fallout, and Tyler Coe’s letter have stimulated a discussion about David Allan Coe, his ethics and character, his contributions to the music world, and have many fans finally speaking out about a lackluster live show that they we’re unwilling to speak about previously out of respect for the performer.
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Look, this is the deal with David Allan Coe. David Allan Coe is a piece of garbage human being. As Al Goldstein once said straight to David’s face enlisting a cackle from David, “You’re a fucking degenerate.” He’s a sexist, racist, scary, weird, train wreck of a man; one of these people we all knew growing up in school or in the neighborhood that was always in someone’s face and that could twist off at any moment.
As Waylon Jennings once pointed out, David Allan Coe will stab you in the back and then ride off your name like he’s your best friend. He wears a stupid, waist-length golden-haired wig on stage as if he’s fooling anyone. He bashes anybody and everybody for getting in his way, abandoning him, or otherwise keeping him down, when he is clearly an arrogant, disrespectful, down-talking asshole who has little regard for anybody but himself, has bashed his Outlaw contemporaries while praising people like Kid Rock and Toby Keith, and once bragged about standing on top of the desk of a record executive, dropping his pants, and ordering him to perform oral sex on him.
At the same time, and for some of the same reasons, David Allan Coe is an American treasure, and a country music legend. Hank Williams Jr. may have sung about being a “Dinosaur,” but David Allan Coe truly is one. In a world where we’re all so whipped and so trained to not speak our minds, or to say what we think, and respect authority that is many times much more immoral, unfair, and corrupt than we could ever be, an individual like David Allan Coe is a breath of fresh air, and in a strange way, an inspiration in the way he is blatantly obvious about who he is, what he wants, and what he believes.
Anyone who wants to diminish David Allan Coe’s importance to country music, whether it’s because he’s put out some bad songs, bad albums, has a bad live show, or because he’s is a bad person, isn’t paying attention to the full breadth of his contributions, including some of the most indelible, important, and influential works of the country music canon. Forget “Longhaired Redneck,” go listen to “Jody Like A Melody” or “River” and then tell me David Allan Coe has nothing to offer.
And to simply call him “sexist” or “racist” really doesn’t do justice to the complex and tragic history of David Allan Coe’s life and upbringing, or the true nature of his opinions. David Allan Coe is one of the truest products and examples of the American experience because there is no bullshit from him, however ugly it is to behold. His attitudes and actions are a reflection our own sins and flaws as an American society, personified in a man who has zero respect for phony custom, or plastic courtesy. At the same time, it’s embarrassing that some choose to use him as their phony idol or icon for racist or sexist platitudes or principles, only reveling in the bad parts about David Allan Coe, and missing the complete panorama of his message and musical contributions.
I do not know Tyler Mahan Coe personally, though I have seen him perform with his father before. Having read many things he’s written over the years, including his latest letter clearing the air about what happen with his father, Tyler comes across as an intelligent and thoughtful individual, and I tend to take what he says as being the truth, and find his honesty and candor refreshing. Tyler Coe is right. Seeing David Allan Coe on any given night can be an exercise in disappointment, from his poor stage presence to his stupid vocal effects. But there is nothing that I read in Tyler’s letter, or anything else that gives me reason to respect David Allan Coe any less. The grim reality with any performer is that as time goes on, they will lose grip with their talent and abilities, especially when they live the type of self-destructive life fans expect, if not demand from certain artists.
When I saw David Allan Coe perform this summer at Willie Nelson’s 40th Annual 4th of July picnic, it was the most God awful performance of “country” music I had ever seen in my life. His band setup included two keyboards flanking him on the left and right, some weird percussionist guy, and struck the vibe of an underfunded and unrehearsed amateur church band that had set up in the food court of a mini mall in some forgotten region of scary, small-town USA preaching to inbreeds and introverts circa 1987.Â At the same time, I was super glad to be there to catch it, and to be able to see David Allan Coe still alive and performing after his accident.
Why? Because when David Allan Coe is gone forever, what he symbolizes and embodies will be gone forever too. And country music, and the rest of the world, will be a lot less of a colorful place. Because whether you like him, respect him, or hate him, there will never be another person or performer in country music or the American culture like David Allan Coe.
In mid October, Toby Keith lent his voice to the litany of artists criticizing modern country music in one capacity or another, specifically taking on the recent country rap trend, telling Country Weekly, “You hear the hip-hop thing start kicking in, and you start going, âIs that what we gotta do now to have a hit? Is that what I need every one of my songs to sound like now?’â The comments came in the context of Keith explaining how hard it is to get a country-sounding song played on the radio.
In another recent interview with Country 92.5 in Connecticut (listen below), Keith expanded on his statements, saying that his remarks weren’t a “diss,” but then doubled down on his opinion that rap shouldn’t be a predominant part of the country format.
I started that stuff with “[I Wanna] Talk About Me”… I think itâs cool to step out and do something like that, I just donât think itâs cool to make a living doing that….Itâs cool to step out and do some R&B stuff. Itâs cool to step out and do some rock stuff. Itâs cool to do traditional country. But at the end of the day if youâre gonna be a country artist, I donât think you just keep making a living off of turning country into hip-hop songs. I think the hip-hop artists would get tired of listening to you do bad country.
Artist like Colt Ford, Cowboy Troy, and even more mainstream artists like Florida Georgia Line regularly release singles that feature country rap, while some of country’s biggest male stars like Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean have released multiple country rap singles. Keith also opens up the conversation about how country rap is viewed by a hip hop community that may be just as disappointed about what is happening with rap as many country fans are with country when the two formats mix.
Toby Keith’s “I Wanna Talk About Me” released in 2001 is given credit for being one of the first modern country rap songs, though at the time Keith was quoted as saying about it, “They’re going to call it a rap, [although] there ain’t nobody doing rap who would call it a rap.” The song was written by Country Music Hall of Famer Bobby Braddock, and was originally slated to be released by Blake Shelton before being turned down as “too risky.” Later in the interview with Country 92.5, Keith left open the possibility of doing country rap in the future, but only as a one-off collaboration instead of a sonic direction for his music.
My son played on an elite football team that played Canada in San Antonio and Snoop Dogg’s son was on the team too. And we met down there and I had “Red Solo Cup” out then and he was going, “Man I need to get in the studio with you and hit on some of that ‘Red Solo Cup.’” I’d love to. Me and Snoop would be fun. It wasnât a diss as much as a do what you do, but get in your zone if youâre
going to be country.
Robb Flynn, vocalist, guitarist, and frontman for the long-running heavy metal band Machine Head is the latest to join the chorus of dissent against the direction of country music. In a journal entry sent to subscribers and posted publicly on Facebook, Flynn decried CMT and modern country music videos as the “Blinding of America.” Flynn’s comments were part of a bigger commentary soliciting fans for feedback about the direction they wanted to see Machine Head’s music take.
So when I get to the gym, I jump on the elliptical machine to warm up and often the TV has been left on the CMT (Country Music Channel) and sometimes I’ll change it to the news and other times I’ll just stare at the CMT channel and watch in silence. Well, virtual silence because I stare in disbelief and seethe at the soundless images coming off the screen at me….And all those video images are cut with carefully manicured guys and gals in jeans and cowboy hats, playing songs written by a high paid group of other writers who produce simple pop songs that have slide guitar and acoustic and sound all shit-kickin’ and country-fied….I ask myself while watching these fucking mind-meltingly bad videos, what do I want?
Flynn specifically takes on the flag-waving and religious aspects of modern country that many see as pandering.
I stare at the blinding of America. I stare at an endless stream of country music videos all showing the same thing – programming, subverting, and manipulating the viewer with religion and the well-oiled military machine. Visually the current theme is “heroes coming home from war, and their damsel-in-distress-lonely-women waiting for them as they stare at Jesus and touch their cross necklaces, praying.” I watched this same video play out over and over and over again. The not so subtle message playing out: âWar’s over guys, pray to Jesus!â
Flynn also talks specifically about Toby Keith’s song “Red Solo Cup,” but leaves it sort of ambiguous if he’s being sarcastic or not.
Every once in a while you’ll get a video like Toby Keith’s “Red Solo Cup” which is just about partying and acting a fool, and I dig that, it’s not mindless propaganda other than well I guess… selling Solo cups and booze for his alcohol sponsor. But fuck it, I love that song!
Robb Flynn’s comments come within the wider context of a Season of Discontent where artists from inside and outside the country fold are speaking out about the direction of the genre more than ever before.
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 itâs turned into? No, not all the way. Itâs 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. Iâm sure there are people playing country that are doing it well, but theyâre just not getting the attention that the shittier stuff gets. But thatâs the way it always is, isnât it?
But I hope that kind of swings around back to where it should be. But I donât really see a George Jones or a Buck Owens or any anything that fresh coming up. Iâm 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 donât want to rail on about country because I donât really know much about it, but thatâs 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 â nobody cares! Itâs not fun to listen to.Â I thought dubstep was cool for two secondsÂ -Â 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. Itâs 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:
âThe country format is more pop than pop was when I came up two decades ago,â
In an interview with The Baltimore Sun, Alan Jackson said:
“Right now, it seems like itâs gone. Itâs not that Iâm against all thatâs out there. Thereâs some good music, good songwriting and good artists out there, but thereâs really no country stuff left. Itâs always been that constant pop-country battle. I donât think itâs 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 donât know if itâll ever be back on mainstream radio. You canât 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:Â
“You know, I would say no. I would say theyâre pop artists making a living in the country genre. I also feel like we lost our genre. I donât feel like I make music for a genre anymore, and I did, you know, 15 years ago. But I think since the Clear Channelâs and the Cumulusâs and the big companies bought up all the chains, now itâs about a demographic. You know, so theyâve 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. Weâve sort of ended up in thisâŚweâre nicknamed the soccer mom, like 35 to 45 year-old woman I think is what our demographic is. So itâs 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 youâve got to leave it there for a second to figure it outâŚ. To me, country music is still Monday through Friday, and popâs about what happens on the weekends.â
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 ofÂ 93.7 JR FM in Vancouver, Canada, Zac Brown said:
“I love Luke Bryan and heâs had some great songs, but this new songÂ is the worst song Iâve ever heard.Â I know Luke, heâs a friend. âMy Kind Of Nightâ is one of the worst songs Iâve 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, Iâm gonna throw up. Thereâs 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. Thereâs been like 10 number one songs in the last two or three years that were written by the same people and itâs 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 thereâs money involved, then you figure out whatâs going to bring in sponsors, and whatâs going to resonate with people and whatâs going to sell records….Iâd 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 fuckinâ cups and Bacardi and stuff like that. We need songs that get ourselves back to the format that made me love it . . .Â [like] when guys like Randy Travis released songs like âHe Walked on Waterâ â songs that meant something, man!â
When speaking to Country Weekly about country rap, Toby Keith said:
âYou hear the hip-hop thing start kicking in, and you start going, âIs that what we gotta do now to have a hit?â I donât 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 itâs like, âNaw, man, there ainât no mud on that tire. That ainât about a Budweiser can. That ainât about a chicken dancing out by the river. That ainât about smoking a joint by the haystack. Thatâs about somebody dying and sh-t.ââ
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If you’re a male performer in country music right now, you may no longer have a choice. If you want to see your singles and records reach the top of the charts, if you want your songs played on the radio, and if you want to be in contention for the big awards, you better add some hip hop elements into your music.
It seems almost inexplicable that this statement could be made about American country music, but when looking at the top performing songs, albums, and artists in the format, and how many of them have at least some form of the hip-hop culture embedded in their music, the statement isn’t controversial, it is conclusive. And Saving Country Music isn’t the only one pointing this out.
“You hear the hip-hop thing start kicking in, and you start going, âIs that what we gotta do now to have a hit? Is that what I need every one of my songs to sound like now?” says Toby Keith, who not only was the best-selling country artist from the 2000′s decade, but is the owner of the influential Show Dog Universal label, and the highest paid person in country music from his stake in multiple record companies.
Even as a top label executive, Toby is having trouble convincing his own people to push music that doesn’t include electronic beats or rapping. According to Keith, when he brings them country songs, they tell him, “Eh, it doesn’t sound like whatâs going on the radio today.”Â
The two best-charting, biggest-selling songs of 2013 so far have been songs that lean heavily on hip-hop influences: Florida-Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” and Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind of Night.” Both songs broke records in 2013, with “Cruise” breaking the all-time record for any country single with 23+ weeks at the #1 position, and “That’s My Kind Of Night” breaking a record for the most consecutive weeks at #1 for a solo male performer—a record held since 1966.
Currently, the #1, #2, #6, #7 songs on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart feature hip hop influences, while Jason Aldean, Blake Shelton, and Tim McGraw at the #4, #5, #9 positions respectively have all had major country rap singles, including Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” that was the biggest-selling song in all of country in 2011. Three of the five nominees for both Entertainer of the Year and Male Vocalist of the Year for the upcoming CMA Awards have cut country rap songs.
But just because a song has hip hop influences, doesn’t make it bad. It has been the combination of country rap and the laundry list style of lyricism that has been the 1-2 punch to the integrity of the country genre, and especially the material emanating from male talent. This trend has caused a recent uproar, with many artists speaking out, including artists who have themselves participated in either the country rap or laundry list trend, including Jake Owen who recently said, âWe need more songs than just songs about tailgates and fuckinâ cups and Bacardi and stuff like that,” potentially dissing Toby Keith’s hit “Red Solo Cup.” Â Keith was also arguably responsible for the first country rap song in the modern era when he rapped the verses in his 2001 hit “I Wanna Talk About Me.”
It may not be as much that Jake Owen and Toby Keith are being hypocritical as much as they are big stars that are expected to deliver hit singles, and they are sick and tired of chasing the current trends where there is little or no room for substance. When Keith spoke about his recent single “Hope On The Rocks” that stalled at #18 on the Country Airplay chart, he said, “…you start playing it to a twenty-something audience, and itâs like, âNaw, man, there ainât no mud on that tire. That ainât about a Budweiser can. That ainât about a chicken dancing out by the river. That ainât about smoking a joint by the haystack. Thatâs about somebody dying and shit.ââ
So does that mean we can expect Toby Keith to go the country rap route? “I donât know how to do that,” Keith explains. “Iâm not going to change much. And when it quits working, I’ve got other stuff to do.â Â But if he doesn’t, Keith runs the risk of losing his relevancy as a mainstream country artist. That is why we’ve seen middle-aged country performers like Tim McGraw and Ronnie Dunn cut country rap songs recently, and why most of the up-and-coming country males that are making their mark are doing it through country rap.
Peer and financial pressures are making it mandatory for male country artists to start off their songs with a hip hop beat, or rap the verses to their songs, even if it is just a verse or two. Forget the stigma of trying to bring hip hop into the country format. If you’re a male country star in 2013, you can’t afford not to.
Yet another big name country star is speaking out about the current state of country music. This time it is RCA Records’ Jake Owen who is out promoting his new single “Days of Gold” ahead of the release of his upcoming album of the same name December 3rd. On that album is a piano and pedal steel-driven ballad called “(We All Want) What We Ain’t Got,” and when talking to Rolling Stone about the song, Jake said:
“We need more of those kinds of songs in [country music]. “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 . . .Â [like] when guys like Randy Travis released songs like ‘He Walked on Water’ â songs that meant something, man!”
Jake Owen is referring to the current trend amongst mainstream country males to depend on very obvious and simplistic songwriting formulas that simply refer to artifacts of country life, known to their detractors as checklist, or laundry list country songs. His reference to “cups” may be a specific dig at Toby Keith’s recent hit “Red Solo Cup.”
Jake Owen joins a growing chorus of artists decrying country music’s current direction, including Alan Jackson, Kacey Musgraves, Gary Allan, and most notably Zac Brown who recently called Luke Bryan’s current #1 single “That’s My Kind Of Night” the worst song ever. But as it has been asserted about some of the other recently outspoken country stars, Jake Owen’s criticisms seem like a case of the pot calling the kettle black, and certainly even more so than that case could be made about Zac Brown or Gary Allan.
Jake Owen acknowledges he’s not always been the deepest of performers in the same Rolling Stone interview, saying, “I’ve definitely had moments in my career where I’ve released songs that were not necessarily the most, you know, in-depth-written song, or maybe it was a party anthem. I wanted to start adding more validity to my music.” But a few seconds into Jake’s current single “Days of Gold” and you don’t hear validity, you hear hypocrisy compared to his recent statements, however much substance the other songs of his upcoming album might have.
“Long truck bed hop in it, Fire engine red like her lip stick
Out here we can let it go, But just me and my good friends
Jug of wine little sip, Out here baby you just never know”
There seems to be little or no trouble for country music’s stars to spy the problem of constantly calling on the same tired formulas for hit radio singles, but they don’t seem to be inclined or empowered to do anything about it. It’s very likely Jake Owens’ new album will include songs with more depth, just like many of the albums of country’s top male stars do. But in a music world dominated by singles, song downloads, streams, and viral videos, it is unlikely the public will hear them en masse as they will a song like “Days Of Gold.”
Pot, meet kettle.
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, Iâll see you in ten years and five thousand shows down the road.” Hank3 said. Weâll see where the fuck youâre at. You know, I called him out and just flat out said, âfuck you if youâre gonna rip us off like that on your first release.â
Shooter for his part seemed unwilling to reciprocate the feud, saying “You know what, I donât even comment on these things, really. I donât even know him. I met him once, I think, for a second. And somehow all this stuff started about how he hates me. I donât know. Itâs, 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 Iâm like, ‘All right, you crossed the line motherfucker.’ And I donât know how many times I have to say it: No, heâs 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 cultureâand 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, “âNone of that lefty shit out there tonight, Kris.â According to Hawke, a rolling argument ensued that ended with Kris Kristofferson saying, “âTheyâre doinâ to country music what pantyhose did to finger-fuckinââ (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.” ââDierksâ has officially ripped off my song âIn A Razor Town.ââ Isbell fired off. âDierks is a douchebag. The song of Dierks is called âHome.ââÂ 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, âThis 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 thingsâI donât really believe in lawsuits or threatsâI 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? Thatâs crazy. I donât know what would make an artÂist do that. You’re not an artist. Once your career becomes about someÂthing 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 toÂ Rolling StoneÂ 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 Godâs 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 âOLD FARTâ & JACKASSâ) â 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 âNobody wants to listen to their grandpas musicâ..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 EXACTLYâŚ The way Mr. Price did along hid journey as a main stream country artist.. Pushing the boundaries with his records. âFor The Goodtimesâ 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.
I like Will Hoge. I think he’s a good songwriter. A few months ago I wrote an article about 7 Men Who Could Immediately Make Country Music Better, and I included Will Hoge on that list.
Will Hoge is a man who could make a difference. While delving into the business of Saving Country Music, folks can get baited into falling into the routine of lampooning anything construable as pop country, and championing anything independent or traditional. But in the end it may be artists like Will Hoge who reside between these two worlds—who have both commercial appeal and artistic substance—that have the greatest chance of making fundamental change in the mainstream music world.
When Will Hoge scored a #1 as a songwriter for Eli Young Band, he was destined to become a hot Nashville commodity, and that is exactly what has happened. His latest release is a song called “Strong,” and like so many of Will’s compositions, it demonstrates heart, depth, soul, and taste. There’s a lot of emotion in this song. It’s weighty. But in the immortal words of Ralphie from A Christmas Story, it’s….
That’s right. The song itself is not a commercial per se. It was written to stand on its own. But just like Bob Seger’s “Like A Rock,” and John Mellencamp’s “Our Country,” it has been tapped to become the official song of the Chevy Silverado—destined to be played half a dozen times during every single football game for the next two years at least, and maybe longer. You may love this song now, but let’s see how you feel about it after the Super Bowl in 2015.
Unlike the other Silverado songs, “Strong” was never released on its own before being assigned this distinct position. Here in 2013, the official song of the Chevy Silverado feels just as much like an indelible American institution as anything. You can guess someone’s age by asking them what song they heard in Chevy commercials growing up. Does it make it somewhat shady, or blur the lines even more between commercial and artistic content that the song was never given its own legs before being released in this way?
I say no, and yes. By definition, this is a sellout move by Will Hoge, whether we like him as an artist, or not. Would it be fair to give him any less criticism than some people give an artist like, let’s say, Toby Keith, who’s made many appearances in Ford commercials over the years, and calls himself “The Ford Truck Man”? Does it make any difference that, unlike Toby’s Ford jingles, “Strong” actually has substance, and that it’s from an artist whose built a career on sincerity?
And then we get to the whole business of trucks, commercials, and country music to begin with, and my little semi-conspiracy that auto companies have been targeting the country music demographic with their marketing, and that is why there are so many truck songs in country music these days. And this leads to the conversation about the blurring of lines between what is music, and what is marketing. Jay-Z releases an album for free to people who buy a certain phone. Will Hoge releases a song through a Chevy commercial. At some point, it may become commonplace for artists and labels may use commercials and promotional product giveaways to release music in lieu of radio. But then again, who can blame them when corporate radio has become so collusive?
In the end, is the song good? Yes. For certain fans that worry about such things, is it unfortunate that it was released in a commercial? Of course. It’s a new paradigm that were likely to be faced with increasingly as music revenue continues to dwindle and artists and labels continue to try and discover new avenues to get their music to the masses. In the end, it was probably better that it was Will Hoge getting the payday for his truck song (that only mentions a truck once), instead of Jason Aldean or Tim McGraw, and that we will all be subjected to “Strong” over and over through the NFL season, and not McGraw’s “Truck Yeah.”
1 1/4 of 2 guns up.
(the 1 1/4 for a good song, the 3/4′s for releasing it as a commercial)
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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.
We all know them and we all hate them, those ubiquitous and ridiculous pop country songs that make us hang our heads in shame, embarrassed to call ourselves country fans, constantly making us having to explain that no, we don’t listen to that type of country. They pursue us doggedly, on the radio, over the speakers at the grocery store, blaring from a car full of high school kids at a red light.
Please note that this list has a few ground rules, namely that a song must have been released as a single to qualify (i.e. no Brad Paisley’s “Accidental Racist”). Also, songs that may have been classified by radio as “country” but were classified by artists or their labels as pop (principally Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”) will not be dignified by being included on this “country” list either.
Positively nothing more than a pop dance song with a banjo, Luke Bryan commands country girls to âshake itâ for the birds, the bees, for the crickets and the critters and the catfish swimming down deep in the creek, for the gerbils crawling way up his rectum to massage his prostateâŚ oh wait, he left that line out, but you get the point. This song is like a frozen sledge hammer to the balls of anybody who has any sort of musical taste or dignity.
Yes my friends, this song actually exists, and was even released as a single. How do you out cornpone your corny competition? Make a pun about corn and insert into a sexually-charged urbanism, aka the Honky Tonk Badonkadonk songwriting formula. The writers of this songÂ Jeffrey Steele and Shane Minor are not laughing with you, theyâre laughing at you for buying into this worthless piece of drivel. If you think âCorn Starâ is funny, then the jokeâs on you.
13. Stuck Like Glue – Sugarland
This song sounds like it was made with a bubble machine. I don’t know what I hate worse in this song, the reggae breakdown, or the way Jennifer Nettles sings way on top of every note making this song especially unbearable to listen to. At least Sugarland’s cries for relevancy were answered by the song reaching #2 on the country charts, and eventually being certified double platinum. However since then, they have yet to have another hit single, and both Sugarland members are pursuing solo careers.
Florida Georgia Line is a horrible combination of Rascal Flatts pretty boy hyper-pop, and designer jeans Jason Aldean âbackroadâ laundry list pap. They are everything bad about quotation mark âcountryâ combined into one big stuffed crotch sandwich. Punctuating how pathetic âCruiseâ is, is the fact that these two dudes apparently donât know how to use punctuation. The first line of the song goes, âBaby you a song,â instead of, âBaby youâre a song.â But what else can you expect when the title of their firstÂ EP was Itâz Just What We Do. Yes, itâs one of those albums, blurring the lines between Ebonics and idiocracy. (read song review)
11. Save A Horse (Ride A Cowboy) – Big & Rich
Big & Rich may think they’re saving horses with their fringe-lined parasols, dandy top hats and prancing midgets, but it is at the expense of our hearing. “Save A Horse (Ride A Cowboy)” acts like a good healthy turn of a corkscrew right after it’s been inserted in one’s earhole. “Save A Hose” has the the shelf life of a knock knock joke. Hear it once and maybe it makes you smile. Hear it twice and you can’t reach for the radio dial quick enough. This song is the reason fans of other genres think all country music sucks.
Boy, little did we know back in 1999 that this machination of mixing sex and farm machinery would become such a prevailing trend in country music. Chesney should’ve just stuck to figuring out what to rhyme “coconut” and “flip flops” with in his idiotic and incessant beach songs. What Kenny and his sexy tractor cohorts lost sight of is that the beauty of country living is in its simplicity.
9. Brown Chicken Brown Cow – Trace Adkins
Some songs we call “a joke” figuratively. This one is a joke, literally. No really, they took a punch line and figured out how to build a song out of it. “Brown Chicken Brown Cow” mentions corn fields and slopping pigs, but since these days less than 2% of Americans actually live this type of traditional farm lifestyle, he is not using these things to relate to people, but to disguise the fact that this really is a hip-hopish rock song, and that he isnât singing to country folks, heâs singing to suburbanites that like to listen to this kind of smut as a form of escapism. Trace Adkins has become one of the kings of gimmick songs, with his super hit “Honky Tonk Bandonkadonk” being his most well-recognized hit. But even Trace had to admit later that”Brown Chicken Brown Cow” went too far, saying, “I guess I went to that well one too many times.”
8. Red Solo Cup – Toby Keith
Thatâs right ladies and gentleman, raise your red solo cups high, and letâs all toast the onset of idiocracy! This is not only one of country’s worst songs ever, it was possibly the first song written to be a video first and foremost. Make a stupid viral video for an even more stupid song and you have the spoon fed public eating out of his hands. And just because Toby Keith admits this song is stupid, doesnât mean itâs still not in fact stupid.
A creatively-repressed Tim McGraw finally breaks free from the 20-year-old bounds of Curb Records, and like an out-of-control Catholic schoolgirl unsupervised, releases this scandalously ill-advised attempt at country rap, forever soiling his reputation. Realistically speaking, this may be one of the worst, if not the worst song on this list. But since it’s creative depravity is so heinous and obvious, it petered in the charts, and its impact was marginal compared to the Frankenstein-like super hit McGraw and new label partner Scott Borchetta were hoping to score.
“Achy Breaky Heart” is country music’s version of waterborading. The song itself was not as awful as the machine gun frequency and pandemic-like omnipresence it terrorized society with throughout 1992, until it and Billy Ray Cyrus’s atomic mullet rose to the level of becoming a national embarrassment that America will likely never absolve.
5. I Wanna Talk About Me – Toby Keith
Yes, you forgot about this little bit of mullet-era Toby Keith awfulness, didn’t you? Before there was “1994″ and before there was “Dirt Road Anthem,” there was this wretched piece of pseudo country rapping released in 2001, written by Bobby Braddock of all people. The song was supposed to be a hit for a young, emerging Blake Shelton, but his label turned it down as too risky. “I Wanna Talk About Me” wasn’t even Toby Keith’s first country rap. He had another single “Getcha Some” in 1998. But it isn’t just the rapping that makes this song awful, it is the self-centered arrogance of the lyrics.
4. Honky Tonk Badonkadonk – Trace Adkins
The title says it all. No really, it does.
3. Boys ‘Round Here – Blake Shelton
Blake Sheltonâs âBoys âRound HereâÂ is songwriting by algorithm and analytics, fashioning together words and sounds known to have the widest impact on mainstream radioâs weak-of-mind demo. It is the worst combination of both mainstream country rap and laundry list songwriting. The âboysâ in the title of âBoys âRound Hereâ is fitting, because this song is rank immaturity. Itâs the audio equivalent of sneaking out of your momâs house to smoke pot behind a Pizza Hut. Though Jason Aldean’s “1994″ may be a worse song, “Boys ‘Round Here” might be more dangerous as because it is a chart-topper.
This song seems rather innocuous now compared to the newest wave of country rap that has given rise to songs like “1994,” “Boys ‘Round Here,” and “Truck Yeah.” But at the time, “Dirt Road Anthem” was the edifice of awful, the one that broke the doors open for country rap. As the best-selling song in country music in 2011, the impact of “Dirt Road Anthem” cannot be understated.
1. 1994 – Jason Aldean
Jason Aldean and his crack team of producers and songwriters were exhaustive in their efforts to compile only the absolute worst elements from every corner and crevice of popular music and then assemble them together to compose this ode to the decay of Western Civilization. At their dispose are hip-pop, wiener rock, laundry list country, Auto-Tune, and the general douchebaggery awfulness caused by a complete lack of self-awareness that Jason Aldean is a exemplary specimen of. These ingredients are then extruded into a feces-like industrial slurry that is injected into the hollow, mulleted, cop-mustached corpse of 90â˛s country semi-star Joe Diffieâs dwindling career.
In Music Rowâs everlasting quest to train all of its resources on scouring America to unearth only the finest, most purest form of audio diarrhea, they have struck the mother of all motherloads originating from Jason Aldean’s unholy bowels. Yes Nashville, pat yourself on the back, let all of the Auto-Tuned stars sing out in unison as Stratocasters bray out a cacophony of stadium rock riffs in unified celebrationâyou have officially discovered the shittiest country music song to ever touch the human ear drum. (read full review)
This last weekend, the eyes of the country music world were affixed on the 7th Annual Stagecoach Festival in Indio, CA. Combining mainstream acts like Toby Keith and Lady Antebellum, with classic country acts like Marty Stuart and up-and-coming talent like Justin Townes Earle, Stagecoach and its 50,000 attendees comprise the starting gun for the summer’s big, corporate-run country music festivals.
But relatively unnoticed, and certainly less-covered in the national country media, the 25th annual Larry Joe Taylor Festival transpired outside of Stephenville, TX, with an equally-impressive 50,000-head crowd and a beefy lineup of Texas Country / Red Dirt headliners like The Departed and Jack Ingram, legends like Ray Wylie Hubbard and Chris Knight, and up-and-comers like The Damn Quails. The price of a Stagecoach? $239.00 for a general admission pass. Larry Joe Taylor Festival? $105 for five days of music instead of three.
On the Sunday after the Larry Joe Taylor Festival, many of the same performers and patrons trekked down to the Texas Music Theater in San Marcos for the 5th annual Lone Star Music Awards. Big winners were the Turnpike Troubadours for Album of the Year (Goodby Normal Street) and Song of the Year (“Good Lord, Lorrie”), and Ray Wylie Hubbard for Songwriter of the Year, Singer/Songwriter Album of the Year (The Grifter’s Hymnal), and Producer of the Year with George Reiff (see list of winners).
Performers at the awards included Robert Earl Keen, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Cody Canada & The Departed, Jason Eady, and Grammy-nominated John Fullbright among others, with each act playing four or five songs. The event was completely open-to-the-public, and the price of admission was $5.
Robert Earl Keen was arguably the biggest winner at this year’s Lone Star Music Awards, becoming the organization’s inaugural Hall of Fame inductee. In bestowing the honor to Keen, the owner of Lone Star Music said that Robert Earl was vital to the formation of Texas music’s own radio charts. That’s right, Texas music has its own radio charts. It also has its own radio stations and radio shows, and its own television programs like Ray Benson’s Texas Music Scene and others. It has its own hard print magazines, publications, and websites.
Of course the Lone Star Music Awards pale in the scope of mainstream country’s CMA’s or ACM’s. The Texas radio and TV infrastructure cannot compare to the CMA and CMT.Â And despite the recent success of headliner Texas artists like Jack Ingram, they’re still nowhere the draw of Music Row’s biggest acts. But what Texas/Red Dirt has that Music Row/Nashville doesn’t is a true sense of community and a handle on artistic quality that Texas/Red Dirt artists and fans would never swap for more exposure to the teeming masses.
Cody Canada of the Departed might be Red Dirt’s biggest star, and just looking a the guy with his outward rock star persona, you might mistake him for a man that could sell out stadiums. And if Cody had left Cross Canadian Ragweed years ago for a record deal on Music Row, he very well might have made it to that stature. The man just drips cool. But after the Lone Star Music Awards, Cody Canada didn’t retire to the back of his limousine or tour bus, he walked down the street with the rest of the average joe’s and was mingling with fans in a laid-back setting at a free admission afterparty at the Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos. An up-and-coming Texas country band called The Hill Country Gentlemen were playing, and giving their CD’s away for free.
For artists and fans intimately involved in the Texas/Red Dirt movement, none of this is news. This is the reality they’ve been enjoying for many years now. What’s interesting about what is happening in the Texoma entertainment corridor is how little its sustainability and growth is being recognized by Nashville and the rest of the outside world. The scope and the depth of organization that Texas/Red Dirt boasts is nothing short of astounding when it is studied from the outside looking in.
Texas music is becoming hard wired and institutionalized, and this creates a few game-changing, long-term effects on the overall country music landscape. With it’s own infrastructure, the chances that the Texas music scene and the revenue it generates will ever re-integrate with mainstream country dwindles with each passing day. Though mainstream country is still very much alive in Texas and Oklahoma, and even overlaps when it comes to certain Texas/Red Dirt artists, the independent scene is able to thrive thanks to the entrepreneurial spirit of some to create enterprise around the music, the undying loyalty of fans, and the willingness of the artists to not abandon the roots that led to their success.
But maybe most importantly, Texas/Red Dirt is also offering a template to the rest of the music world, and not just country music, of how to regionalize and organize a group of like-minded musicians and fans together to where they’re not dependent on corporate America’s traditional musical industrial complex for sustainability; where you can have artistic integrity and an independent spirit, and not sacrifice financial success. Even other music scenes that exist in Texas right now–some that may not want to associate with Red Dirt because the ease with which it mingles country and rock–could learn how to get organized by the Red Dirt/Texas Country’s road map.
It is not all rosy in Texas/Red Dirt. Though the scene offers tremendous support to its artists, it also acts as a ceiling. It has been hard for some of the biggest regional names to graduate to national recognition once they get pegged as a Red Dirt act. And despite being so big and boasting impressive infrastructure, Texas/Red Dirt finds itself mired with the same trappings that some small music “scenes” do. Political drama, and a culture that sometimes doesn’t want to be critical of artists can result in mediocre music. As the movement has grown, quality control has become an issue, with some acts appearing to be “selling out” for commercial viability no different than mainstream Music Row acts.
But in Texas/Red Dirt, they’ve graduated from simply complaining that Nashville sucks to doing something real, something substantive about it, and something that has proven to be sustainable now over a period of years. JUst like many other “buy local” movements, fans are now considering where the dollars they spend end up. Is this a big threat to Nashville? The biggest threat may be if other regional, like-minded music movements pattern themselves around the Texas model, and begin to institutionalize as well. Either way, independent-minded artists, fans, and scenes should be paying more attention to what is happening down in Texas. And so should Nashville.
“Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”
The comments at the concert beginning a Dixie Chicks world tour sparked off possibly the biggest black balling in the history of American music. Spoken 10 days before the beginning of the Iraq War, the backlash took the Dixie Chicks from the biggest concert draw in country music to relative obscurity in country music in a matter of weeks.
Despite numerous clarifications and apologies from Natalie Maines and the Dixie Chicks, a full on boycott of their music was called for by pro-Bush, pro-war, and pro-American groups. Their single “Landslide” went from #10 on the Billboard charts, to #44 in 1 week, and the next week fell off the charts completely. Radio stations who played any Dixie Chicks songs were immediately bombarded with phone calls and emails blasting the station and threats of boycotts if they continued. Even radio DJ’s and programmers who sympathized with the Dixie Chicks were forced to stop playing them from the simple logistics nightmare the boycott created. Some DJ’s who played the Dixie Chicks were fired.
Dixie Chicks CD’s were rounded up, and in one famous incident were run over by a bulldozer. Concerts were canceled in the US as the Dixie Chicks couldn’t sell tickets, and rival concerts were set up that would take Dixie Chicks tickets in exchange. The Dixie Chicks lost their sponsor Lipton, and The Red Cross denied a million dollar endorsement from the band, fearing it would draw the ire of the boycott. The Dixie Chicks also received hundreds of death threats from the incident.
The boycott eventually lead to the virtual demise of the band. They went on hiatus in 2008, though their bounce back album in 2006 produced by Rick Rubin called Taking The Long Way went gold in its first week, debuting at #1 on the Billboard country charts despite absolutely no radio play.
Perspective on the Demise of the Dixie Chicks 10 Years After
Whether anyone wants to look at what the Dixie Chicks comments as right, wrong, poorly timed, or misplaced being said on foreign soil, it is hard to not see 10 years after the hypocrisy of how the Dixie Chicks were handled by the country music community. At the same time Natalie Maines made her comments, Willie Nelson was also openly criticizing the war, but taking it to another level by floating the idea that 9/11 was a potential governmental conspiracy perpetuated by the Bush Administration to drum up public support for war in Iraq. Merle Haggard released an anti-war song in the summer of 2003 called “America First” with little to no backlash. And then there is the idea that whether you agree with Natalie Maines or not, her right to speak her mind is guaranteed by The First Amendment, one of the things President George W. Bush pointed out himself when responding to the controversy in April 2003:
The Dixie Chicks are free to speak their mind. They can say what they want to say…They shouldn’t have their feelings hurt just because some people don’t want to buy their records when they speak out. Freedom is a two-way street. I don’t really care what the Dixie Chicks said. I want to do what I think is right for the American people, and if some singers or Hollywood stars feel like speaking out, that’s fine. That’s the great thing about America. It stands in stark contrast to Iraq.
As President Bush points out, the people boycotting the Dixie Chicks were also exercising their rights to freedom of speech. The controversy also created positive sentiment and appeal for The Dixie Chicks that it wasn’t there before. Their album Taking The Long Way won 2007 Grammy Awards for Album of the Year, Record of the Year, and Song of the Year; something that was likely not possible without the sentimental vote by the greater recording industry. Outlets like NPR who would have never touched the Dixie Chicks’ music before the boycott began playing them in regular rotation. Taking The Long Way went 5 times platinum eventually, partially on the support of people who sympathized with the Dixie Chicks politically.
How The Death of the Dixie Chicks Changed The Music
Possibly the most untold story of the Dixie Chicks’ saga is the sonic repercussions the boycott and eventual demise of the band has had on country music. The Dixie Chicks were a traditional country band, especially by today’s perspective. They wrote most of their own songs, played traditional acoustic instruments like fiddle, mandolin, banjo, and guitar, and featured 3 part harmonies. The Dixie Chicks benefited greatly from the resurgence in interest in American roots music and bluegrass spurned by the release of the movie O Brother Where Art Thou in 2000. The Dixie Chicks were helping to usher in a more acoustic, more traditional era in country music, and were the biggest-drawing, best-selling artists in country music at the time; the biggest thing since Garth Brooks in country, and one of the biggest acts in all of American Music.
Meanwhile the opposition to the Dixie Chicks and the person at the opposite end of the political and sonic spectrum was Oklahoma’s Toby Keith. He symbolized the loud, electric, arena rock approach to country music that could be argued is still heavily in place in country music today. Toby positioned himself as the antithesis of the Dixie Chicks, and ended up becoming the best-selling artist in country in the 2000′s decade. Toby’s flashy, rock-style arena show thrived while the Dixie Chicks’ stripped down, acoustic approach dwindled back into obscurity in mainstream country. When you see bands today like Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers, and The Avett Brothers, you see that the stripped-down, acoustic approach to music is still relevant, if not the most relevant approach today in popular music. But it’s had to move outside of the country music fold to find a present-day outlet.
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Reflecting back on the Dixie Chicks and the public fallout, it is hard to not see that the country music community’s reaction was unmeasured, unfair, and overall, unhealthy for its future. Country music not only black balled a band that was offering sonic leadership to the genre on how to move forward while still respecting the roots of the music and remaining commercially viable, they lost one of the genre’s greatest economic engines, and may have long-term fumbled their ability to benefit from the universally-relevant appeal of acoustic roots music.
But most unfortunately, the event leaves country music with a black eye as a genre who can’t respect artists regardless of their beliefs. This typecasting of the country music fan as a closed-minded, politically-intolerant animal is a legacy it will take country music a long time to shake. Much longer than 10 years.
2012 was a high profile year for Halls of Fame. From the kilted screecher Axl Rose pulling like a Sex Pistol and telling the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame to kiss off, to the Baseball Hall of Fame not inducting a single member as the steroid era falls like a shadow on the eligibility timeline. Similarly to baseball’s Hall of Fame, and in polar opposite of its rock & roll counterpart, the Country Music Hall of Fame has kept its legitimacy and honor over the years by being an exclusive get.
The Country Music Hall of Fame inductees are selected through a committee process appointed by the CMA. Since 2010, the selection process has been split up into three categories. 1) Modern Era (eligible for induction 20 years after they first achieve “national prominence”). 2) Veterans Era (eligible for induction 45 years after they first achieve “national prominence”). 3) Non-Performer, Songwriter, and Recording and/or Touring Musician active prior to 1980 (rotates every 3 years). With a musician, Hargus “Pig” Robbins selected in 2012, and songwriter Bobby Braddock selected in 2011, it will be a non performer (ie producer, record executive, journalist, etc.) that will be eligible for induction in 2013.
Since 2001 when there was a whopping 12 inductees, anywhere from 2 to 4 names have been added to country music’s most prestigious list each year. Usually one name from the above mentioned categories makes it per year, but if no name gets enough of a majority vote, a category may not be represented in a given year. Or, if two names get enough votes for a single category, then both may come from that category.
Modern Era Possibilities
Modern era inductees are usually big, high-profile names in the first few years of their eligibility. In 2012 it was Garth Brooks. In 2011 it was Reba McEntire. These are performers who would have risen to prominence between 1968 and 1993.
Alan Jackson – This is the big name this year that could be inducted in his first year of eligibility like Reba and Garth. Jackson would be a solid pick as a pretty strict traditionalist who experienced lots of commercial success and still remains relevant in country today.
Ricky Skaggs – Along with Kenny Rogers, Ricky Skaggs was one of the names that felt right on the bubble of being inducted last year. Skaggs has bookened his career as a mandolin maestro, studying under Bill Monroe and now firmly ensconcing himself as a country music elder. In between then, he had tremendous commercial success in the 80′s when country was searching for its next superstar. This would be another pick that few could argue with.
Kenny Rogers – He must have been only a few votes from induction last year, and it only seems like a matter of time before The Gambler gets in. The month after the 2012 inductees were named, Rogers was named the Hall of Fame’s “Artist in Residence,” possibly signaling that Kenny was close, but not quite there. Some purists may complain that Kenny started in rock and also helped usher in a more pop-influenced era in country, but you will find few who can argue that eventually Rogers doesn’t belong in The Hall.
Hank Williams Jr. – Could also be considered a veteran candidate depending on where you start your timeline, and another man who will be a hall of famer at some point (with 2 CMA Entertainer of the Year awards under his belt). The question is, is this the year? Last year Jr. seemed like a strong possibility, and then a political brushup that cost him his long-standing gig as the singer for Monday Night Football seemed to sour Hank Jr. sentiment with some. With so many eligible names and so few slots, if there’s any little reason to leave a name out until next year, it’s likely to be passed over. Hank Jr. has become a polarizing figure, and the selection committee may look for someone who can build more consensus.
Brooks & Dunn – Brooks & Dunn was a commercial powerhouse whose career is somewhat shadowed by the success of Garth and their strange place as a non-familial country duo. Their first album Brand New Man sold 6 million copies, and they won the CMA for Vocal Duo of the Year every year between 1992 and 2006, except 2000. They’ll be in eventually, but is the list of names in their field still too strong for this to be the year? Their success is not debatable, but did they have the type of influence it takes to be Hall of Famers this early in their eligibility window?
Toby Keith – Officially eligible because his “Should’ve Been A Cowboy” was released in 1993, but it wasn’t until the 2000′s when Keith really became a dominant force in country music, both commercially and influentially. He’s a long shot, but a possibility.
Other possibilities: Ronnie Milsap (saddled by his “crossover” status), The Judds, Randy Travis (bad news year for him), Clint Black (and his disappearing act for the last few years), Tanya Tucker, The Oak Ridge Boys, Crystal Gayle, and Mickey Gilley.
Veterans Era Possibilities
It is much harder to compile a field of candidates in this category because the time period is so wide, and the possibilities are so endless. So instead of trying to name off every possibility, here are some serious contenders, and some interesting names.
Gram Parsons – The push to put Gram into the Hall of Fame has been going on for years, but with a wet finger sticking up in the air, I think this year may be the one that if he’s not fully inducted, there will at least be enough votes for him through the induction process that he will really have to be looked at in coming years as a serious candidate. Influential country writer Chet Flippo featured Gram’s influence in August. What once looked like a ridiculous notion, now seems like a real possibility, and that is a victory for the Gram Parson camp in itself.
Jerry Lee Lewis – Jerry Lee has received a big push this year, and is a definite possibility for induction. He may be held back some since he came from rock & roll, and his antics on The Grand Ole Opry and other places over the years. But his contributions as one of country music’s preeminent piano players cannot be denied. If Elvis is in the Country Hall (and he is), his old Sun Studio’s buddy can’t be that far behind.
Jerry Reed – Such a great ambassador over the years for country music from his work with Smokey & The Bandit to Scooby-Doo, but Jerry Reed should be inducted for his stellar and influential work as both a performer and a musician. There weren’t many better guitar pickers back in the day than Jerry Reed.
Lynn Anderson & Dottie West – Lynn and Dottie are the two ladies that probably lead the field for female veteran inductees. The question with Dottie is if she’s known more as a duet performer. The question with Lynn Anderson is a few DUI arrests over the years. Still, both of these ladies are right on the bubble, and would not be surprising as the 2013 veteran pick.
John Hartford – I admit this is a long shot pick, but I believe he deserves induction. As I said in last year’s prognostications, “The Country Music Hall of Fame works like a timeline as you walk through the displays that weave around the massive archive in the center of the building. As you start from the beginning, each artist and their impact is displayed on a plaque that includes their Hall of Fame induction date. When I came to the John Hartford display on my last visit to The Hall this summer, he was the first to have a display, but no Hall of Fame induction date.”
The Maddox Brothers & Rose – The Maddox Brothers & Rose was a name I’m sure was not on anybody’s radar, until this year. With their prominent place at the very beginning of the Hall of Fame’s current Bakersfield Sound exhibit, it is hard not to see how important their influence was on country music, especially West Coast country, and the flashy dress of country performers that still influences the genre today. I agree it is a long shot, but if groups like The Jordanaires and The Sons of the Pioneers are in The Hall, certainly The Maddox Brothers & Rose should be.
Johnny Paycheck and David Allan Coe – These names come up every year from hard country fans, and are names regularly held up as evidence of the Hall of Fame’s illegitimacy. The simple truth is that with these two performer’s shady pasts, Hall of Fame induction is going to be difficult. Johnny Paycheck has a more distinct possibility than David Allan Coe, because Coe could create a public relations nightmare for the Hall of Fame from people (correct or not) who label Coe a racist, sexist, etc. etc. Patience mixed with persistence is what Coe and Paycheck fans need to see their heroes inducted, as time heals all wounds. Eventually I think both men should be in, but they may have to wait for a year with a weaker field. Seeing Hank Jr. go in may be the sign the Paycheck and Coe’s time is coming.
Other possibilities: Johnny Horton, Bobby Bare, Jimmy Martin, Ralph Stanley, June Carter Cash, Tompall & The Glaser Brothers, and an endless list of other possibilities.
Non Performer Possibilities
Possibly the hardest category to prognosticate, I would put Fred Foster as a producer candidate, music publisher Bob Beckham as another candidate, and Chet Flippo as a candidate for a music writer. Chet Flippo wrote the introduction to Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger and Wanted: The Outlaws, and was seminal in spreading the influence of country in the 70′s with his writing in The Rolling Stone.
Really, Mike Curb‘s name should be in the discussion. He is the namesake of the conservatory that greets you when you walk into the Hall of Fame. But with his shenanigans the last few years battling both artists and other labels in the courts, Mike Curb may be waiting a lot longer for Hall of Fame induction, if not forever.
Saving Country Music’s Picks
If I had a vote…
Modern Era: Ricky Skaggs
Veterans Era: Gram Parsons, Jerry Reed, John Hartford, Maddox Brothers & Rose, Johnny Paycheck. If I had only one? Give me Gram and we’ll worry about the others next year.
Non Performer: Chet Flippo
I may not know much, but I will say with complete confidence that a dozen years from now when fans look back on the current era of country music, they will chuckle mightily at the ridiculous amount of truck songs clogging the genre like we do mullets and parachute pants (and the whole of Billy Ray Cyrus’s career) from the past. They are an anachronistic joke from the future that the enlightened can enjoy today. The “truck” theme in country, especially in the context of these drooling “laundry list” songs that machine gun out countryisms, has been run into the ground harder than the bumper of Randy Travis’s F-250 in a drunken, naked endeavor to procure a pack of cigs.
So what’s behind all of these truck songs? The simple, easy answer is that Music Row is a copycat world, and when one song works, the idea is run over and over again until a new frontier for the word “cliche” is found. But I’m not sure if Music Row is the genesis of this. Instead, it might be Madison Avenue.
I admit this is part conspiracy and conjecture, but I think there’s a very interesting nexus between the recovery of Detroit, and the truck-itization of Nashville.
Around the time of the end of President George W. Bush’s last term, the country’s economy went into a tailspin, with one of the biggest anchors pulling it down being the auto industry. Since then, Detroit has seen a massive, overwhelming recovery. And what has been at the heart of this recovery? Trucks. Not hybrids, not new designs or new models, not expensive imports or luxury cars. It’s been trucks. Medium and heavy duty trucks, and lots of them.
Trucks are the most profitable vehicles for all domestic automotive manufacturers, by both profit margin, and by sales volume. The most profitable and best-selling vehicles are 1) Ford F-Series Trucks 2) GM Full Size Pickups 3) Dodge Ram Series Pickups. Check the chart below, covering the last 20 years in sales from pickuptrucks.com:
Truck sales were also way up in 2012; the same year that the “truck” theme gripped Nashville in full force. Also from pickuptrucks.com.
|Rank||YTD Sales||YTD vs. 2011||Year-Over-Year||Monthly Sales||vs. month 2011|
|1||Ford F-Series||+10.3%||December 2012||68,787||+0.7%|
|2||Chevrolet Silverado||+0.8%||December 2012||50,699||+6.1%|
|3||Ram Trucks||+19.9%||December 2012||30,211||+16.1%|
|4||GMC Sierra||+5.4%||December 2012||18,710||+13.4%|
|5||Toyota Tacoma||+27.7%||December 2012||14,030||+15.6%|
|6||Toyota Tundra||+22.6%||December 2012||10,254||+13.4%|
What’s behind this huge spike in truck sales? Part of it is that truck sales were down in recent years because of the spike in gas prices. Since then, gas prices have moderated, at least a little, and people are used to the new reality of gas prices hovering over $3.00/gallon. Plus all of these new trucks come with better gas mileage; a selling point pushed in the commercials for these trucks. And that leads us to the heart of the truck matter: advertising.
Music, and country music specifically is a reflection of culture, and culture is influenced by many things, including economic conditions and popular advertising. Preceding Music Row’s fascination with the truck theme was a full-on advertising blitz by Detroit’s Big Three and Toyota to push their big, profitable, full-size trucks to the American consumer. And since truck owners and country music listeners fit in similar demographics, the bullseye for that advertising was aimed right at country.
Truck advertisers have always drummed up their “toughness,” but the latest generation of truck commercials have ratcheted it up another notch. Celebrity voices have been brought in to narrate these commercials, including Denis Leary for Ford (probably to the chagrin of “Ford Truck Man” Toby Keith), and famous cowboy actor and narrator of The Big Lebowski Sam Elliott for Ram commercials. So as Detroit’s PR firms are parading around the idea that the auto industry is pulling out of its tailspin with innovation and green technologies, in truth they’re going back to their old trusty cash cow of the full size pickup truck to bring revenue back to black; a much more savory savoir than the environmentally-maligned SUV.
Advertising by definition is subliminal. The whole “you’re not a man unless you have a big truck” is a whole other thread, but it’s not surprising that with the sheer volume of advertising by America’s auto industry–and with so many consumers buying new trucks–that this would create a spike in the mention of trucks in country songs. And just like many of these country truck songs don’t actually appeal to people in the country, statistics show that many of these truck drivers live in the suburbs and are using them simply as commuter vehicles instead of the heavy work they’re built for. They are called “never-nevers” by the industry according to the Economist, meaning they never take trucks off-road or use them for towing.
So does this all mean that Madison Ave. and Music Row are in cahoots and all of these trucks songs are just veiled advertisements for Detroit’s most-profitable vehicles? I wouldn’t go that far. Just as Music Row is full of copycats, they’re also notoriously a year or two behind the curve (see country’s fumbling of the move to digitalization). The professional songwriters working away in the BMI and ASCAP cubicle farms on Music Row are just trying to put songs together that will sell. Detroit does send a lot of money to Nashville in the form of advertising on radio and at awards shows and such, but despite how sexy a “truck” conspiracy would be, at this point there’s little evidence of that.
More realistically, all these truck songs are just a simple cultural hyper craze that will undoubtedly be looked back upon with embarrassment by future generations of country fans.
Now if you will excuse me, I need to go feed my pet rock.
One of the most remarkable music events of 2012 must be how Nashville and some of its biggest, most bloated and notorious corporate citizens did the inexplicable: they began to tackle the issue of the massive talent glut in American roots music. As big record labels continue to tighten their ships, and radio companies like Clear Channel continue to buy up radio stations all around the country and nationalize programming, the ability for America’s major media companies to offer true choices in content continues to diminish. And when it comes to radio, the issue is likely effecting rural areas and country listeners disproportionately.
T Bone Burnett, renown music producer and the music director for ABC’s new television drama Nashville spelled out the problem in October, right before the Nashville series started.
Because the bottleneck of commercial country radio is so profound, thereâs a wealth of incredible material laying around town. This is a big surprise to me, how many extraordinary songs weâve been able to find. An industrial amount of bad songs, to be sure, but a surprising amount of really good, handcrafted, personal songs that people are willing to share with us because thereâs no longer a platform for them to share their music at all. I hope that we become the platform for the people who are writing from their whole hearts.
And that is exactly what the Nashville show has become, pushing independent music from artists as varying as The Civil Wars, Lindi Ortega, and Shovels & Rope. In a recent article in The Tennessean, musician and writer Peter Cooper asked about Nashville, “How come the country music in a soap opera, sung by actors, is better than what I hear on mainstream country radio?”
When talking about Nashville, I often have to explain that I don’t “like” the show, and don’t even recommend people watch it. But that’s different from understanding the importance and power of an outlet like Nashville, and how its opening up tremendous opportunities for some independent artists.
And who owns ABC? Disney does, the largest media conglomerate in the world. Who is helping fund Nashville? Ryman Hospitality (previously Gaylord Entertainment), which owns The Grand Ole Opry and has been notorious for ignoring aging and emerging talent over the last few years.
And not to be outdone, another subsidiary of a massive media conglomerate based in Nashville, Viacom’s CMT, has figured out how to get on the independent music bandwagon by launching their new outlet with an emphasis on the legendary and the unknown, CMT Edge. 6 months ago, it would have been unfathomable to see an artist like Rachel Brooke featured on anything related to CMT. Now CMT Edge is digging deep, and doing what they can to shine a bigger light on music from the Americana world to aging greats.
Sony ATV, Nashville’s biggest music publisher, just announced a new program called Nashville Guitars and Bars meant to showcase budding talent coming up in the singer/songwriter ranks.
All of a sudden the big boys in the media business are playing a part in re-populating the country and roots music farm system that for years has been anemic and ignored. Why?
Because as I and others have asserted for years, there is commercial viability in independent music. No, of course it is not as financially lucrative as artists like Tim McGraw or Toby Keith, but that doesn’t mean that companies cannot create revenue by either helping to manufacture this music, or promote it or cover it. And as time goes on and the ranks of listeners disenfranchised with corporate music and its inherent lack of choice continues to grow, the trends favor independent music becoming even more popular in the coming years.
There is money in independent music, no matter how much independent fans might want to grovel over its monetization. Fans and artists have a right to be speculative of the intentions of some of these Nashville institutions wanting a piece of the action, seeing how their closed doors and derelict attitudes towards artistic expression and creative freedom is part of the reason an independent movement in music exists in the first place.
For years people have thought of Nashville as the home of corporate music, and that’s still true. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a rapidly-growing independent scene on Nashville’s east side and in other spots around the city. The word from many of the folks on the inside looking out is that Nashville has long surpassed Austin as the epicenter for independent roots music, despite Music City still being the home of Music Row and many other trappings of the mainstream music business.
I was as speculative as anyone about the intentions and viability of outlets like ABC’s Nashville or CMT Edge, and will probably continue to keep one suspicious eye turned in their direction. But for now, they appear to be working from a sincere approach of broadening musical perspectives and choices.
I’ve always said that all that independent, up-and-coming artists need is a chance. You put the good stuff right next to the stuff people are force fed through Clear Channel radio and they will begin to make better choices. Finally here in 2012, those choices are being made available through mainstream outlets, and the glut of viable artists and credible content pushing at the edges of Nashville like a balloon ready to burst is finally being alleviated by new outlets channeling real music to hungry ears. Without question more needs to be done, but this is a good start.
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