It was a busy year in country music, with lots of controversy, lots of legal issues, and even death surrounding country music artists. It was a tumultuous 2015 to say the least. Here are the top news stories of the year taking into consideration 1) Their importance to country music overall 2) The interest, or accumulated interest in the story if covered in multiple articles, based on traffic registered at Saving Country Music.
#13 Outlaw Country Artists Randy Howard Killed by Bounty Hunters
Outlaw Country Artist Randy Howard, a major label recording artist best known for his humorous and explicit anthem “All American Redneck,” was shot and killed by a bounty hunter in his home in Lynchburg, Tennessee on Tuesday night (6-9), and some are wondering why the songwriter had to die over a bench warrant.
A bounty hunter working for A Plus Bail Bonding in Dunlap, TN was serving a warrant from Marion, County, TN when a gun fight ensued inside Randy Howard’s house on Griffin Rd in Lynchburg. The bounty hunter entered the premises, and when he was met with gun shots, he returned fire, killing Howard in what he claims as self-defense. The bounty hunter was also seriously injured in the incident, and was transported to Erlanger Hospital where surgery was performed. The bounty hunter is expected to recover.
As a performer, Howard shared the stage with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Charlie Daniels, Hank Williams Jr., and many others. Later in life he might have been best known for penning songs for Hank Williams III, including the 3rd generation country star’s “I Don’t Know” off of his debut album Risin’ Outlaw, and “My Drinking Problem” from Hank3’s opus Straight to Hell. Howard also toured with Hank3 as an opener early in Hank3’s career. (read more)
It was later revealed that the charges Randy Howard was facing would have likely been dropped in court. (read more)
#12 Merle Haggard Calls Out Modern Country
“I can’t tell what they’re doing. They’re talking about screwing on a pickup tailgate and things of that nature. I don’t find no substance. I don’t find anything you can whistle and nobody even attempts to write a melody. It’s more of that kids stuff. It’s hot right now, but I’ll tell you what, it’s cooling off.”
That was the firebrand language coming from country music legend Merle Haggard ahead of an appearance Sunday, September 6th at the Bluestem Center for the Arts in Moorhead, Minnesota. In preparation for the show, In Forum talked to the 78-year-old performer, and he felt no need to be guarded with his feelings of where country music is headed. However he did show appreciation for one newer country star: Sturgill Simpson. Sturgill, along with Kris Kristofferson, share the September 6th bill. “As far as I’m concerned, he’s the only one out there,” Merle is quoted as saying. “The rest of them sound like a bunch of (crap) to me.” (read more)
The Hag was also interviewed ahead of a show in Toledo, Ohio at the Stranahan Theater on September 9th, and didn’t mince words when questioned what he thought about today’s country sound and the artists making it.
“It needs a melody,” Haggard said to The Blade. “It needs a melody real bad. Not sure what they’ll have to remember. A song is defined as words put to music, but I don’t hear any music. All I hear is the same band, the same sound, and everybody screaming to the ceiling. You stand off at a distance and you couldn’t tell who they are. They are all screaming for one note they can barely get. I don’t find it very entertaining. I wish I did.” (read more)
#11 Jason Aldean Wears Blackface Costume for Halloween
Mainstream country artist Jason Aldean becames the latest to think it is socially acceptable to paint your face black (or in his case, a dark shade of brown) as part of a Halloween costume or comedy skit. In a photo discovered on Instagram right before it was either taken down or made private, Jason Aldean could be seen hanging out with his wife Brittany Kerr and other friends on Halloween, clearly wearing color-altering makeup on his face as part of a costume as either a dread-headed Rastafarian, or possibly a “gang banger” as it has been characterized by some, and may have been characterized by Aldean and his friends.
Wearing a red bandanna, black sunglasses, and a wig of long black dreadlocks, Aldean poses with his head tilted back, while his wife Brittany Kerr can be seen just to his right in a red flannel shirt with her hair in braids, possibly flashing gang signs. Further corroborating that the photo is indeed Aldean and Kerr, Jason Aldean’s sister Kasi Williams Morstad can be seen in the far right of the photo in a cat costume the same exact one she is seen wearing in other Instagram photos from earlier in the evening. Though it may be tough to make out Aldean in the photo at first, the man in blackface clearly has Aldean’s specific facial features when examined closely.
Jason Aldean’s publicist Tyne Parrish confirmed to The Guardian that Jason Aldean did indeed wear blackface on Halloween as part of a Lil Wayne costume. Aldean has yet to address the matter publicly. (read more)
Perhaps one of the most remarkable parts of the story was how it didn’t become a bigger issue. Numerous celebrities have faced harsh criticism in the past for wearing blackface. Jason Aldean wasn’t even forced to publicly apologize.
#10 Tim McGraw Draws Ire For Booking Concert for Sandy Hook Charity
On Monday, April 15th, it was announced that country star Tim McGraw, along with scheduled openers Billy Currington and Chase Bryant would play a concert at the Infinity Theater in Hartford, Connecticut on July 17th, with 100% of the proceeds going to a charity organization called Sandy Hook Promise. Sandy Hook Promise was set up in the aftermath of the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary on December 14th, 2012 where 20 children and six adults were shot and killed by 20-year-old Adam Lanza.
The announcement of the Tim McGraw benefit concert blended in with all the regular country music news on Monday a day usually reserved for the distribution of such press releases, until the conservative news outlet Brietbart picked up the story with the headline, Country Stars Tim McGraw, Billy Currington Headlining Gun Control Fundraiser. The story portrayed Sandy Hook Promise as a gun control group, and attributed a quote to Sandy Hook Promise’s Mark Barden saying that he joined the group “pledging to ‘dedicate the rest of his life’ to pursuing gun control.” (read more)
Later, opener Billy Currington pulled out of the concert. Chase Bryant remained on the bill. In the end, despite the drama when the concert was announced, McGraw played the Infinity Theater without without much fanfare or concern.
#9 Stoney LaRue Accused of Domestic Abuse
Texas country artist Stoney LaRue was arrested for domestic abuse in Oklahoma City early Monday, July 20th, after police received a 911 call from Stoney’s girlfriend. Stoney was arrested without incident, booked into the Oklahoma County Jail and was later released on bond.
“Yesterday morning (7-20), it was at about roughly 7:00-7:30, we got the initial call, and a female was contacting us saying that he [Stoney LaRue] had pushed her down the stairs,” Sergeant Jennifer Wardlow of the Oklahoma City Police Department told Saving Country Music. “Apparently what had happened, he, meaning Stoney, had gone out to have some drinks with another female, and the girlfriend I guess decided she didn’t want to go, and so she went out with this other girl. They came home very early, I think they said it was about 4:00 in the morning, were intoxicated, creating kind of a commotion, so she [the girlfriend] decided to go out and sleep in the car because she had to get up the next day and she wanted to be able to get some rest.”
When the girlfriend woke up early the next morning is when the incident occurred.
“She goes out to the car to sleep, gets up shortly before 7:00 a.m. yesterday morning (7-20), needs to get around, get ready, and the commotion of her getting ready disturbed him because he wanted to sleep,” says Sargent Wardlow. “So he grabbed her curling iron and threw it down the stairs, grabbed her makeup bag and threw it down the stairs. According to the report, when she was bending down to pick those items up, he pushed her, and she kind of went head over feet down the stairs. So officers took him into custody without any problem, [and] arrested him.” (read more)
#8 Jason Isbell, Aaron Watson, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, and Blackberry Smoke All Hit #1 on the Country Albums Chart
This is the number of albums Toby Keith sold upon the debut of his new record 35 MPH Town, and it got me to thinking, which artists and bands have beat that number in a year of unprecedented ascent in independent country music? 2015 is the year it became common to see one of your favorite independent acts and aging legends compete at the top of the album charts, and not completely fall off the radar the very next week. It started at the beginning of the year with Blackberry Smoke, and hasn’t stopped since. And virtually all the albums were also responsible for #1 debuts.
Of course it’s a different day in music, and passive consumers are streaming their music instead of buying records more and more. But meanwhile, independent country fans are holding form, supporting the artists they love with unwavering loyalty, as the ranks of independent fans continue to swell.
No offense to Toby Keith necessarily; he just makes a good case study of a once highly successful country artist who no longer sells records in the new paradigm. Meanwhile the list of indie country artists who’ve beat him unfurls like the candidates for Album of the Year. (read more)
#7 Chris Ferrell Found Guilty in the Killing of Wayne Mills
Christopher Michael Ferrell has been found guilty of 2nd Degree Murder in the shooting death of country music artist Wayne Mills. The verdict was read by the jury at 3:25 p.m. in the court of Judge Steve Dozier. It took the jury just over two hours of deliberations to come to the verdict. Chris Ferrell will be sentenced on April 10th. He faces 15 to 25 years of a mandatory sentence for the crime. Because of the ruling, Ferrell’s bail was immediately revoked, and he was taken into custody. Ferrell showed little emotion when the verdict was read. The family of Wayne Mills was quiet, but clearly relieved by the verdict.
Chris Ferrell shot country music artist Wayne Mills at the Pit and Barrel bar Ferrell owned in Nashville on November 23rd, 2013. Wayne Mills was attending an after hours party at the Pit and Barrel when a dispute about smoking inside caused the two friends to get into a verbal argument. The argument escalated until Wayne Mills verbally threatened Chris Ferrell, and out of fear, the bar owner pulled a .22 pistol and shot three times, striking Wayne Mills in the back of the head with the third shot. Wayne Mills later died from his injury at Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville. The shooting happened on the same night of a George Jones tribute concert at the Bridgestone Arena. (read more)
On April 24th, Ferrell was sentenced to 20 years in prison. (read more)
#6 Joey Feek of Joey + Rory Decides to Cease Cancer Treatment
“Sometimes there just aren’t enough surgeries or doctors or chemotherapies or prayers. And you have to wipe the tears from your cheeks and say the words that you were hoping to never have to say ”¦ Enough.”
This was the heartbreaking, devastating news that fans and followers of the traditional country and bluegrass duo Joey + Rory, and people beyond the music community who had been following their tragic story woke up to on Friday, October 23rd. Joey Feek the wife of Rory Lee Feek, and mother of one-year-old Indiana Feek, is ending her battle with stage IV colorectal cancer. After surgery in July and five weeks of radiation treatment, the Cancer has returned, and been deemed terminal.
“The doctor explained that the scans revealed that two quarter-sized tumors have already grown back in the same area that they had been blasting daily with chemo and radiation. And that many more smaller tumors were visible all throughout the abdominal region. She said that the cancer was aggressively spreading in spite of all they’ve been doing.”
“So we did what you do when the medicine isn’t working, and the doctors are at a loss”¦and when the ‘statistics” say you can do more chemo, but it will only buy you a little time”¦We came home. Not to die. But to live.” (read more)
#5 Luke Bryan Defines Outlaw Country As “Laying in the Gutter, Strung Out On Drugs.”
“Well, yeah. I think that people who want Merle, Willie and Waylon just need to buy Merle, Willie and Waylon. I’ve never been a ‘Those were the good old days’ kind of guy. I’m not big on looking back on the past. I’m not an outlaw country singer. I don’t do cocaine and run around. So I’m not going to sing outlaw country. I like to hunt, fish, ride around on my farm, build a big bonfire and drink some beers and that’s what I sing about. It’s what I know. I don’t know about laying in the gutter, strung out on drugs. I don’t really want to do that.”
The comments set off a firestorm with Outlaw country and traditional country fans. Luke Bryan was eventually forced to publicly apologize, and specifically called the families of Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard to say he was sorry for the comments. (read more)
#4 Chris Stapleton Wins Three CMA Awards
Chris Stapleton won New Artist of the Year, Male Vocalist of the Year, and Album of the Year at the 2015 CMA in early November. This created a wave of momentum for Stapleton that will continue well into 2016, and resulted in one of the largest post-awards sales spikes ever seen in music.
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There’s a awards show bump, and then there’s Chris Stapleton’s awards show bump. After shocking the country music world by walking away with wins for New Artist of the Year, Album of the Year, and Male Vocalist of the Year at the 49th Annual CMA Awards, sales for his debut release Traveller have positively exploded to unprecedented levels, especially considering the general malaise album sales are in across music.
According to Billboard‘s official numbers, Stapleton took #1 with 177,000 equivalent album units earned, and sold 153,000 pure album. That would put him up a ridiculous 6,412% from 2,000 units the previous week. (read more)
#3 “Little” Jimmy Dickens Passes Away
James Cecil Dickens was born in Bolt, West Virginia, and began his musical career performing on WJLS radio while attending college. In 1948, Roy Acuff heard Dickens on the radio, and introduced him to Columbia Records and The Grand Ole Opry, and soon “Little” Jimmy was a mainstay on the radio show and releasing studio records. The “Little” came from his small stature, but Hank Williams later nicknamed him “Tater” after one of his most recognizable early hits “Take an Old Cold Tater (And Wait).” Hank originally penned his song “Hey Good Lookin’” for Jimmy, but later recorded it himself, saying it was “too good” for his Opry friend.
Later in life “Little” Jimmy became a fixture of The Grand Ole Opry, many times as the comic relief character of the sainted stage, and despite his loss of commercial prominence, was well-recognized and beloved even by younger audiences who knew “Little” Jimmy from appearances on awards shows, videos for Brad Paisley, and other notable cameos. (read more)
#2 Radio Consultant Keith Hill Compares the Women of Country to the Tomatoes of a Salad
In an interview posted with Keith Hill on Tuesday (5-26) in Country Aircheck, the industry consultant not only advised country radio not to play female artists, and certainly not to play them back to back, but had the audacity to compare them to the “tomatoes” of the country music salad in a quote that smacked of Blake Shelton’s “Old Farts and Jackasses” or Gary Overton’s “If you’re not on radio, you don’t exist” quotes in the ripeness for public backlash on the insensitivity Richter scale.
“If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out,” Keith Hill said point blank in the interview.
The result was the banding together of country music’s female artists like never before, and renewed push from all sectors to make sure female performers are being fairly represented on radio, awards shows, and in the country music industry overall. In the end, Hill’s comments may have very well had the opposite effect. Though the women of country still face an uphill battle, they’re beginning to return to radio, and there’s now a conscious effort to be inclusive to women throughout the industry. (read more)
#1 Sony Nashville CEO Gary Overton’s Comments on Radio
On February 25, the CEO for Sony Nashville at the time uttered the words, “If you’re not on the radio, you don’t exist,” and a proverbial firestorm ensued. Numerous Texas country artists publicly criticized the CEO for his words, including Aaron Watson, and Charlie Robison. Robison’s rant inspired Florida Georgia Line to respond, and eventually Gary Overton lost his job, though many believe he was on his way out of the position before the comments went public.
Gary Overton’s comments became a rallying cry for many of country music’s independent artists who are not played on the radio. In the face of more and more independent artists releasing successful records, including multiple titles that went #1 in 2015, Overton’s comments symbolized just how out-of-touch the country music industry is and was with the shifting tides in music.
The Dumbest Stories of 2015