When it boils right down to it, what is it going to take to Save Country Music? Hard work, education, and grass roots efforts are one way, but the magic bullet would be an artist that could rise above all the arguments dividing country music, and offer widespread appeal through a new approach while also being true to country’s traditions and it’s traditional sound. This is what Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings did back in the mid 70’s, and they helped shine the light on all the other Outlaw artists that previously had been laboring in obscurity.
We need a leader. The mainstream says the music needs to be “accessible” to appeal to the masses, but all great music leaders haven’t come from accessibility, but innovation; an ability to unite people of different backgrounds and tastes behind a common movement through creative leadership and undeniable talent. It could be an underground artist, or someone currently in the mainstream. Remember, Willie and Waylon started in the Music Row machine.
So my question is, in the current stock of country performers, who might be capable of doing this: uniting the country fans under one flag again, or drawing the attention of the mainstream? I know, I know, some underground elements don’t want to kiss and make up with the mainstream or have their favorite artists become mainstream acts. But shouldn’t country want to celebrate the best and brightest, instead of mediocrity?
Here’s my current candidates for country’s next savior. Leave yours or your thoughts below.
An obvious mention is Hank Williams III simply because his grandfather is the King of country music and his pops is one of the highest-selling country artists ever. Recently Tom Waits called him “Country Royalty, the Strange Prince,” and if you’re anything like me, when you first heard his music, and the anti-Corporate/Nashville message it carries at times, you couldn’t help envisioning Hank III riding into Music Row to sack the interlopers and claim his rightful seat as the heir to country’s throne.
But in the practical world, fights with his label Curb Records and some of his own decisions have kept him firmly in the underground, though in a sort of Grateful Dead way, where creating one of the strongest grass roots networks ever known in country has allowed him to thrive without radio play or marketing campaigns. Now that he is free of Curb, maybe this is the moment when his influence will reach beyond his rabid fan base.
Some will get mad I included his mug here, other will be happy I’m giving him some attention. That’s because Jamey Johnson is a polarizing figure. Yes, I know he wrote the “Bandonka Donk” song, but get over it, that argument is tired. Jamey is nowhere near the filth of the other “New Outlaws” like Eric Church and Josh Thompson. Still, he fits in this awkward middle ground: his songs are just accessible enough to be played on the radio, yet not accessible enough to be big hits. On the other hand his songs are somewhat palatable by underground and REAL country fans, but no so much so that they would name him as one of their favorite artists. So outside of his core fans, he ends up in this gray area.
The game changer for Jamey might be his double album due out 9/24 called The Guitar Song, with the first album about addiction, and the second about redemption. Maybe this is a creative way to play both sides and be all things to all people and unite country fandom. We’ll see.
He may not be the country music savior, but no question Justin Townes Earle’s stock is rising, and rising fast, and not just in the music world. GQ naming him one of the 25 most “Most Stylish Men in the World” means he could cause a ripple in the greater popular culture that could reflect back on the music. However wearing bowties, and baby blue pants two sizes too short, as well as his move to New York City could make him a hard sale to the hardcore country fan.
One of the reasons I named his 2009 album Midnight at the Movies Album of the Year was because of how it bridged fans of the disparate elements of country together under one artist. But lately it seems the JTE camp is actively trying to court the progressive, NPR return music, Old Crow/DriveBy Truckers side of country, leaving some of his fans wondering where the rawness went. There’s also whispers that he’s rising too fast, and its going to his head. JTE also has a new album coming that might answer some questions, and hey, being part of a famous bloodline never hurt in country.
Ruby Jane rocketed to the top of my favorite artists after seeing her live recently, but I was going to include her in this list even before, if only to emphasize that the country music savior might be someone who is still in their formative years, and that it could be a female. Why not?
15 to 25 year-olds might be the most important demographic these days in music, and maybe it will take someone that younger people can relate to, yet someone that holds true to traditions and can hold sway over older people as well simply by their talent. At the Ruby Jane show, there were kids, I mean small kids, as well as many older people, 65+. This proves that Ruby Jane can speak to a wide audience, and do it by being herself, and not trying to pander to a constituency.
What’s you’re opinion? Who are your candidates? For some reason when I think about this, I can’t get Leroy Virgil of Hellbound Glory off my brain.