Country artists selling trucks or being sponsored by truck brands is nothing new in country music. It’s as old as the genre itself. Don’t let anyone tell you that promoting brands or being backed by a corporate sponsor is a new low for the current generation of country artists. Just go back and listen to the radio segments sponsored by Mother’s Best Flour that contain the biggest collection of Hank Williams performances we have archived, or watch Willie Nelson star in a Taco Bell commercial.
Corporate sponsorship is the grease for the wheels that makes country music turn. That’s the way it always has been, and always will be. That doesn’t make it any less fun to point and laugh when an artist Toby Keith becomes a caricature of himself and starts changing up the lyrics of his songs to sell Ford Trucks, or any less troubling when corporate sponsors find new ways to encroach into the creative process to promote their brands.
What is new about corporate truck sponsors in country over the last couple of years is how deep they have embedded into the country music culture, to the point where now smaller, independent artists can be seen out there participating in helping to promote full sized trucks. Back in the early 70’s, if you were opening a car dealership in the Austin, TX area, then you would hire Willie Nelson to come play the Grand Opening. In the early 70’s, Willie Nelson was the man in Austin. Today the man in Austin is Dale Watson. And similarly, Watson can be heard in truck commercials in Austin and the surrounding areas.
Part of the appeal of Dale Watson for advertisers is he has a natural country voice, and so when he works as a pitch man for certain companies, it’s not always part of his country music career, or considered an endorsement. Dale Watson once lent his voice to a payday company in Canada, where people wouldn’t necessarily recognize who the pitchman was.
Chevy trucks is a huge underwriter on the regional television show Texas Music Scene hosted by Ray Benson. Sometimes on the show, artists are asked to drive around in Chevy trucks as they are interviewed. It’s Chevy’s sponsorship that allows a well-produced show to support regional artists who otherwise may never get the opportunity to be featured on television. Without a major sponsor like Chevrolet, the Texas Music Scene may not exist.
It’s not just Texas where full sized truck brands and fully independent music artists are interfacing like never before. If it wasn’t for the corporate sponsorship of Nissan in 2015, the Americana Music Association may have not been able to stream their annual Americana Music Awards live for the first time.
East Nashville artist Otis Gibbs is not only known as a great songwriter, but he hosts one of the best Americana podcasts called “Thanks for Giving a Damn.” In 2015, Gibbs was able to parlay his podcasting success into a gig with one of Pandora’s new brand-affiliated stations called “Country Built.” As host, Otis Gibbs introduces the songs, conducts live in-studio sessions and interviews with independent artists from the East Nashville scene and beyond. And of course the whole thing is underwritten by Ford Trucks, which is prominently displayed as part of the Pandora interface.
Some fans were shocked when watching the 2016 ACM Awards to see Chris Stapleton starring in a Ram Trucks commercial, but perhaps they shouldn’t be. He’s now the most decorated country music artist in the last 12 months, and so it would only make sense that trucks brands would be looking to court him for commercials. But the story of Stapleton’s Ram endorsement goes a bit deeper, and again punctuates the new dichotomy of seeing your favorite artists featured beside full sized trucks.
On March 24th, Chris Stapleton played a concert at his hometown high school of Johnson Central in Paintsville, Kentucky where he graduated in 1996. As part of the event, Ram trucks and ACM’s charitable “Lifting Lives” arm dedicated a newly constructed outdoor stage for the school. Like many parts of Kentucky, times are tough in Paintsville due to the drying up of the coal economy, and the community is continuously losing population and funding for its public schools. It was during Stapleton’s visit home that a set of Ram commercials were shot.
Maybe most surprising is Ram also has chosen Dave Cobb—the producer for Chris Stapleton and many other upsurging country artists—to star in a commercial. Does the greater population beyond music websites recognize Dave Cobb enough where his involvement in a commercial would sell more trucks? The answer may be the same for if Dale Watson and Ray Wylie Hubbard can help sell trucks in Texas. Where much of the perspective of country radio has gone nationwide, in specific locales, folks such as Dale Watson and Dave Cobb are considered superstars. And though neither might be hurting for money, the opportunities may give them more exposure than the corporate-run music industry will.
In 2015, one of the best mainstream country songs released all year was a song called “Roots and Wings” by Miranda Lambert. But it wasn’t released on country radio, even when Miranda’s other singles were struggling for traction. It was released as part of a Dodge Ram commercial.
One of the knocks on many modern country songs is they sound like nothing more than commercials for trucks and beer themselves. Then when your local country station cuts to commercial, you can’t tell the difference. The reason is because country music listeners fit into the demographics of who full sized truck companies are looking for. These companies are starting to favor more independent artists is because they want the authenticity these artists symbolize. Chris Stapleton, Dave Cobb, and Dale Watson have street cred, and companies want to bring that to their truck brand. They also want credit for “supporting music,” even though in the end, these a for-profit companies who ultimately have their bottom line in mind first and foremost.
Seeing favored country music artists in full sized truck commercials can put independent country music fans in a precarious position, even some who may enjoy or drive full sized trucks. It just feels like the clashing of two separate worlds, and brings out the ugly question if they’re participating in the much-dreaded action of “selling out.” But the underlying question is, is it better to see cool country artists featured in truck commercials or sponsored by corporate truck brands in original programming, or to not see them at all? Because for some, a commercial or corporate-sponsored show is one of the few opportunities they may ever get to enjoy the exposure of mainstream media.