Country music star and current CMA Entertainer of the Year Luke Bryan may wear a million-watt smile anytime a camera is affixed on him, but his story is one of personal tragedy and perseverance. In 1996, when Bryan was days away from moving to Nashville to pursue a country music career, his brother Chris died unexpectedly in a car accident. Chris was 26-years-old at the time. Instead of moving to Nashville, Luke Bryan took a step back from the music to refocus on his family. He went to college at Georgia Southern and stuck around home before graduating in 1999. Eventually Luke did move to Nashville to pursue his dream, but only after he felt he’d met his obligations to his family.
Then in 2007, Luke Bryan’s sister Kelly died unexpectedly while she was at home. She was 39-years-old, and despite autopsies, her cause of death has never been determined. On top of that tragedy, Kelly’s husband, and Luke’s brother-in-law Ben Lee Cheshire died unexpectedly in November of 2014. This left the couple’s 13-year-old son Til as an orphan. In February of this year, Luke Bryan formally adopted Til into his family. Bryan had been taking care of Til ever since Ben’s death.
In July when Saving Country Music posted comments from Luke Bryan that questioned the character of country music “Outlaws” and characterized them as “laying in the gutter, strung out on drugs,” Luke Bryan personally called up members of the families of Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Waylon Jennings (the three specific artists who’d been named) to personally apologize. Merle’s son Ben Haggard, Waylon’s widow Jessi Colter, and others received phone calls from the country star.
“He called to personally apologize to me and the Haggard family for his comments in a recent interview,” Ben Haggard said at the time. “I have never spoke to Luke in my life, but one thing was for sure, the sincerity in his voice. Let’s all remember (including myself) we’re all humans, we make mistakes and say things we wish we hadn’t.”
In May of 2012 Taylor Swift donated a whopping $4 million to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville for the non-profit to open a new education center. Making the gift even more remarkable, at the time Taylor was already plotting to move from Nashville to New York, and from country to pop.
Taylor Swift remains one the most charitable celebrities in America, and not just in music, and not just in sheer numbers, but in per capita compared to her overall income. Taylor’s topped dosometing.org’s “Celebs Gone Good list” three years in a row.
Just last week, and for the second time in six months, Blake Shelton made headlines when he helped some folks stranded near his home in Oklahoma by pulling them out of a mud hole. It was one of many instances of Blake showing he’s willing to go out of his way to help others, including conducting a memorial for slain country artist Wayne Mills on The Voice, and recently speaking on the Cancer tragedy of country performer Joey Feek.
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But of course, the quality of the music of these do-good artists can sometimes be an entirely different story than the quality of their character. Such an assessment is subjective mind you, both on the musical and personal side. But generally speaking, the generosity of a given celebrity and the standards of their music doesn’t always go hand in hand.
Upon occasion Saving Country Music will have some not very nice things to say about a certain artist’s music. Sometimes this is met with strident rebuttals from specific fans citing the artist’s track record for supporting the troops, giving to charitable causes, or other such personal stories that are offered up as if to absolve these performers from any criticism concerning their creative output.
The truth is most celebrities, especially in mainstream country music, tend to be pretty good people. And they all give to charities, and usually in ample portions. Not to besmirch their charitable efforts, but under the current American tax system, many celebrities choose to give to charities because in the end it’s an expense that can be written off, while the donation buys positive press and loyalty among fans. Country music fans especially seem to want to feel like they’re supporting celebrities who are good people beyond the stage, and many times this factors in to whom they deem to be their favorite performers.
But stellar character is not always the case with country artists. Jason Aldean, for example, has shown on numerous occasions what would be considered quite questionable decision making, whether cavorting with other women while married, or wearing blackface on Halloween. Yet to shun Jason Aldean for certain actions in his personal life would be a bit hypocritical for some fans of classic and traditional country music.
Though the listening public will quibble over any perceived personal failing from a music celebrity these days, the stars from years ago exhibited all manner of bad behavior and poor decision making on a regular basis—stuff today that probably would get them completely expelled from showbiz. From the domestic violence of Willie Nelson, to the drug abuse of Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and George Jones, to the violent behavior by Spade Cooley and Johnny Paycheck, and the politically-incorrect language of David Allan Coe, country music is full of troubling stories and troubled characters.
Nonetheless, many “real” country music fans would much rather listen to the music of these previously-mentioned artists as opposed to the music of Luke Bryan, Taylor Swift, or Blake Shelton. In fact much of the bad behavior of legendary country artists is the stuff of country music legend itself.
There’s people, and then there’s music, and it’s always important to separate the two, especially when bringing strong disapproval against someone’s music. Music criticism is not always a commentary on personal character, nor should it be taken that way.
This is especially true in the era of social network, where music fans are more and more exhibiting a strange version of musical tribalism like never before. A certain artist, or a certain scene might breed such undying loyalty in an artist or band, the fans will unilaterally defend that artist no matter what the offense in their personal life. They will justify bad behavior by citing good music, or justify bad music with good behavior.
Some fans will use how an artist treats their fans, or treats others as a reason to either approve or disapprove of their music. But many of the best musicians tend to be right-brained, socially awkward individuals with personal demons aplenty. That’s what gives these artist the type of personal experiences and insight to make their music so compelling. That also may be one of the reasons so much of the music from mainstream artists feels so uninspired and formulaic—because today’s mainstream country artists are so balanced and convivial, and any major crises or moments of catharsis that come through their music must be manufactured.
But you can’t always assume this. Luke Bryan’s music may comes across as mostly whitewashed, syrupy, palatable-to-the-masses fluff, but that doesn’t mean his own life hasn’t been dogged by personal tragedy, or even struggle at times.
In the end, people must come first, and then music.