Dear Luke Bryan,
Thanks for taking the time to read my letter, if in fact you do so. I can only imagine the time constraints a man of your success has, and you’ve already been taking of your time over the last few days to help clear up a mess that I guess I had some part in creating. Calling the families of Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard to apologize about your recent comments about Outlaws—-characterized them as cocaine addicts “laying in the gutter, strung out on drugs“—was a noble gesture. I know you probably feel those words were a little twisted from what you meant, but whatever, water under the bridge at this point. We all make mistakes. It’s what we do afterwards that is the measure of the man. Putting the music aside, I’ve never had reason to believe on a personal level that you were anything less than a forthright dude, and if anything, this episode has reinforced that.
But I’m not writing to apologize, because frankly I don’t feel an apology is necessary. I felt what you said needed to be challenged, and I did so. Taking quotes that mischaracterize certain country music fans or artists, or cast dispersions at institutions or sentiments I believe strongly in and refuting them is something that’s pretty standard fare on Saving Country Music on a weekly, sometimes daily basis. But it’s funny how sometimes these quotes can get glossed over and barely raise a blip, and other times they breed controversy that reaches to the very crest of the genre where it’s all people are talking about. I can count half a dozen quotes uttered just in the last calendar year that were significantly more callous or incorrect compared to what you happened to say, yet not much was made of them beyond a dedicated segment of die-hard country readers. And then you have situations like with your ACM Awards co-host Blake Shelton and his “Old Farts and Jackasses” quotes that because of timing or other factors, blow up to grand proportions.
And don’t think it’s just the top artists of country who have to watch what they say or some opportunistic opinionator will abscond with it and turn it into World War 3. Just ask radio consultant Keith Hill about his “tomato” comments, or former Sony CEO Gary Overton about the “If you’re not on radio, you don’t exist” row. You never know what is going to touch a nerve at a given time and erupt into an imbroglio of viral proportions, or what will amount to a popcorn fart. Causing grand conflict is not necessarily the intent when a quote is called to the mat and extrapolated on by me or other writers, but the author doesn’t really have the ability to compartmentalize the reaction or control the outcome. It is the public who deems a quote or situation as one that is worthy of wider discussion or viral backlash.
Nonetheless, in my personal assessment, in the case of your particular quotes and measuring them against the reaction received compared to the concern they should have elicited, the punishment didn’t seem to fit the particular crime. Again, that’s not an apology; it’s more of an acknowledgement that maybe a misspeak and muddling of thoughts was made a little too much of. And upon that, I think we can mutually agree.
At the same time, the backlash is completely understandable. Just for a second, imagine standing in the boots of someone who would rather listen to someone such as Waylon Jennings or Merle Haggard as opposed to an artist like yourself. Representation of authentic country at award shows, on mainstream radio, and at special events like CMA Fan Fest has gone from marginal, to token, to virtually non-existent over the past five to ten years. And to make matters worse, these more traditional-leaning fans are characterized as fuddy-duddies—folks lost in time who don’t want country music to evolve and only want to listen to music that sounds exactly like Johnny Cash and Hank Williams over and over till kingdom come.
In truth, this depiction probably only represents about five to ten percent of non-mainstream country music fans. Talk about a mischaracterization, Saving Country Music gets painted with this brush often, when in reality I agree country music must evolve, and regularly make music recommendations upon that theory. Meanwhile it might be a silent majority of country music fans who are not happy with the current direction of the genre. That’s why you see artists like Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard scoring #1 records these days, along with other independent artists like Aaron Watson and Blackberry Smoke.
These people are angry Luke, because not only have they lost the fight for the heart of country music, then they have to sit back and be lampooned by popular culture, like many felt you did with your comments on Outlaw country. That is why the backlash was so heated, because these people already feel put under and marginalized, and now they’re being pursued with ridicule.
Country music is right smack dab in the middle of the culture war at the moment, but look, it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way. Right now, you’re the biggest artist in country music. You’re the top dog. And with that comes an opportunity for leadership that country music needs. I know, you’re just a performer and have enough on your plate, but just hear me out for a second:
The reason there’s so much conflict in country music, and why you felt the need to explain why you don’t sing about the same themes of Willie, Waylon, and Merle is because country music right now is two worlds living on top of each other. Think of it like Israel and Palestine, with two polarized factions fighting over the same piece of land. What country music is to you and your millions of country fans, is not what it is to millions of other country music fans. But we’re in luck, because unlike Israel and Palestine, there’s room for us all.
You may think I get some greedy satisfaction from causing a viral storm to swirl around your offhand Outlaw comments, but the reality is I hate this shit. Sure, it brings a little bit of renewed attention to this web portal, but I positively hate it, and I hated it when it happened with Blake Shelton’s “Old Farts & Jackasses” comments. I certainly don’t crave this style of vitriolic conflict, and I can’t imagine you do either. So how about we really start thinking about formulating pragmatic solutions where country music can stop being so top heavy and allow more older and traditional artists, more women, and more music of substance a chance to be heard, so performers like you can do your thing unfettered?
One idea that’s be floated out there is to split the country music format and have one version of country where you and other Top 40 artists can what you wish without worrying about whining traditionalists wanting their seat at the table, and another version that could be the country equivalent of classic rock, but maybe with some newer stuff mixed in theere too if it fits the style—a home for older artists like Willie and Merle, but one that also facilitates a radio forum for artists like Sturgill Simpson and Kacey Musgraves.
Of course, you don’t have the power to make this idyllic scenario turn into a reality any more than I do. But maybe if we all start rowing in the same direction, it could turn into a reality. And hey, that’s just one of many ideas of how to open up the music and reduce some of the animosity that exists between these two very distinct country music worlds.
Remember back to the 2014 ACM Awards last April when George Strait bested you for Entertainer of the Year? It was a big deal. Members of your posse even lost their cool and said George Strait’s win was nothing but a sympathy vote. And hey, maybe they were right. But think about how unjust it felt that you lost out even though you were arguably the bigger “Entertainer” at the time? That is how more traditional country artists and fans feel every time an award is handed out these days, or they listen to the radio, waiting for something they can relate to, and hear nothing. George Strait’s 2014 win might be the last big moment for authentic country music, but why does it have to be? Why not hand out traditional country awards right beside the contemporary awards so there’s never another situation like you faced at the ACM’s in 2014? Again, it’s just a thought.
But look, when folks felt like you called out Outlaw country music, they took it so personal because this isn’t just the music to them. Country it is the lives they lead. It is their cultural identity, and it is being robbed from them a little more every day. They feel like something very important to them is slipping away, and so that’s why they fight for it.
I did an exercise a while back looking at today’s big country artists, including yourself, and what they started off singing and playing in their careers. I know that deep inside you Luke there is a fan of music that is not as contemporary as the music you play today. And for the record, I agree with your assessment that aside from a few of your big hit singles, you are not a 100% “Bro-Country” artist like Florida Georgia Line for example, or a complete genre-shifter like Sam Hunt. I’d be laying if I didn’t tell you all of those Dallas Davidson singles you release are positively terrible in my opinion. But hey, it’s just an opinion.
My point is that when you started out in country music, you were much more similar to what Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard fans might want to listen to than what you are today. One of your first songwriting credits was for Travis Tritt. You debut album was called I’ll Stay Me. Deep inside of you, I know there’s a true country fan. Yes, we all change and evolve, and who am I to question your career path when it had led to such success. But that success can also bestow you a position of leadership to help country music navigate through this period of conflict.
Work with us. Help us. Just like you did when you reached out to the families of Waylon and Merle, extend a hand, open a dialogue, and work to bridge an understanding between the two factions of country fans so the next generation of country stars and fans don’t have to deal with these constant incendiary conflicts over and over again.
And maybe every once in a while, release on of those better album cuts as a single and help lead the music in a more substantive direction as well.