On Blake Shelton Pondering Retirement

The best in country music don’t make music because they want to. They make country music because they have to. It’s not a means to an end financially. It’s a requisite emotionally and spiritually. Making country music is how a true country music artist unburdens their soul, and finds equilibrium in life, whether they get wealthy doing it, or go broke pursuing it. They don’t choose the music. The music chooses them.

That is why you have an artist like Willie Nelson saying he wants to die on stage, or artists like Merle Haggard, George Jones, and Johnny Cash who pretty much did. They would rather be dead than not be making country music, no matter how far past their prime and commercial relevance they may be. They must make and perform country music like the rest of us must breathe.

George Strait tried to retire. He went on a retirement tour in 2013. And though he doesn’t tour as hard any more, he’s still good for a dozen+ performances a year, and is still releasing albums. It’s in his blood.

A couple of weeks ago at the annual Country Radio Seminar conference in Nashville, Blake Shelton was being interviewed by country radio personality Lon Helton, and had some interesting things to say about the lifespan of country artists, and potentially, his retirement.

“You have to be honest with yourself and you can’t believe that this is going to go on forever because it’s not,” Shelton said. “People are going to get tired of you winning the awards. They’re going to get tired of you having number one, after number one, after number one, and they may not be mad at you, but they’ve already got two or three of your albums. How many albums do I need by Blake Shelton?

For some, one album from Blake Shelton would be too many, and they are mad at him. They were tired of Shelton many years ago, whether it was after he called classic country music fans “old farts and jackasses,” or he released terrible Bro-Country songs like “Boys ‘Round Here.”

But in truth, Blake Shelton was never as bad as some of his contemporaries, and some of his most recent songs and album have been even better than average for the mainstream. He’s also done more than some of his contemporaries to put support behind some of country music’s older artists. But ever since landing his big gig on NBC’s The Voice, he’s pretty much just been one foot in with country music. In 2019, he said he many never release another album again, saying he didn’t want to. Now the 45-year-old seems to be leaning towards the idea of retirement sooner than later.

“You have to be honest with yourself and you can’t believe that this is going to go on forever because it’s not,” Shelton continued. “I want to make great records and the moment that I feel like I’m really not that relevant anymore, I don’t think I want to make them anymore. I’m not somebody that’s ever going to beat my head against the wall, because this room, these people, this industry has given me way, way more than I ever deserved.”

There’s a lot of things you can glean from these Blake Shelton comments. Miranda Lambert fans will glean much joy that Blake Shelton is pondering retirement, as will many who were offended by the whole “old farts and jackasses” thing. Many of Blake Shelton’s hardcore fans may lament it, and disagree with his assessment that having “two or three” Blake Shelton albums is enough.

But this is a big mainstream artist being honest about the cyclical nature of the industry, and smartly so. It’s also an artist basically devaluing his own output. It really tells you how much worth Blake Shelton puts into his own music, and into the desire to make more of it. Where many music artists look at their albums and songs like their babies—like pieces of their soul—Blake just seems to see them as commodities, while not really expressing much desire to make more of them aside from just the thing you do to further your career and get your label off your back.

And then think of an artist like Willie Nelson, who will release his 98th studio album on his 89th birthday on April 23rd called A Beautiful Time, which will include multiple new songs from him. Willie Nelson could have retired long ago, from the studio and the stage, and has long past being relevant on radio. But making country music is what he does. He knows no different. And it’s not endangering his heath to go riding around in buses and performing. It’s what is keeping him alive. Taking him off the road might kill him quicker.

There’s nothing wrong with retirement. For many occupations and people, it’s something to celebrate and look forward to. But being a country music artist isn’t as much as an elective occupation as it may seem on the surface. Sure, some may have the singing skills and performing acumen to make it in country music, and it’s better than working in a cubicle farm or a factory.

But others, they were born to do it. And those tend to be the ones whose music withstands the test of time, who just two or three records from would never do, when they die young it feels like a tragedy, and you can never have enough music from them no matter how much they record and perform throughout their career because their passion comes bounding through the music, and it feels as essential to you as recording and performing feels imperative to them.

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