Reading through the recently released biography of country Music Hall of Famer Randy Travis called Forever And Ever, Amen, Randy tells a story that really helps underscore how strange it is that so many non country artists in today’s monogenre environment feel like it’s their right or obligation to be considered on the country charts. Pop star Bebe Rexha’s song “Meant To Be” now holds the all time record of a whopping 50 weeks atop Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, while Lil Nas X’s expulsion from the country charts recently caused a huge stir.
But when it comes to many country artists, historically the last thing they want is their songs and records invading the charts of other genres. In fact, many go out of their way to avoid it, almost seeing it as a stigma. For example, some consider Carrie Underwood as the poster girl for a pop star in country these days, but throughout her career, she’s purposely avoided releasing pop versions of her songs, or specifically courting that side of the music sphere with her music.
“I’ve never been one for doing remixes,” Underwood told CMT a few years back. “Then I’ve gotta decide which version am I gonna be tonight: country Carrie or pop Carrie? I’d rather just make country music that anybody can get into no matter what they listen to … I’m not gonna try to make it something that it’s not. I’m not gonna think, ‘I need to “countrify” this by adding more fiddles and steel guitar.’ We do creatively what the song wants.”
That doesn’t mean Carrie’s songs haven’t found their way onto the pop charts in the past, because they have. But this is different from actively courting pop. When it came to Randy Travis, his take on the matter was even more severe. In 1988 when he released his third studio album Old 8 X 10, it immediately shot up the charts since he was the hottest thing in country at the time. The album sold through so well, it landed on the pop charts too.
“I was shocked to discover that my new album was #5 on Billboard’s Top 100 pop charts,” Travis says in the new biography. “The folks at Warner were celebrating, but I was irate. ‘Pop charts? What’s it doing on there? Get it off there,’ I said sternly. ‘I’m not a pop singer! I’m a country singer.’ “
Being told he landed on the pop charts is also about the only account in the book of the famously shy and soft spoken Randy Travis getting angry.
“Randy, they aren’t saying you are a pop artist,” said Janice Azrak, a Warner publicity representative who happened to be in the room. “They are saying your album is the #5 album in the USA in all genres,” to which Travis then responded, “Oh. Okay. I guess that’s all right then.”
Randy Travis also explains in the biography how he was rejected for years by Music Row’s record labels for being “too country.” He washed dishes and fried catfish at the Nashville Palace near the Opry, and moonlighted on the Nashville Palace stage until he received his big break. Randy’s neotraditional style is given credit for helping to turn country music around at the time, and set the table for country’s big commercial explosion in the early 90’s. Country found its footing by distinguishing itself from pop as opposed to chasing it. As Garth Brooks says on the cover of Randy’s new biography, “Randy Travis saved country music. I wouldn’t have had a career if it weren’t for him.”
A lot of pop music pundits like to profess that it’s a sum positive for country when pop or hip-hip stars land on the country charts, or get opportunities to perform on country tours and award shows. The idea is that it helps breathe relevancy into country music and keeps it fresh. But what they fail to understand is the only thing country music has ever desired to be is relevant to is itself. Unlike pop stars that aspire for world domination, country stars are just happy to serve the country music community they’re a part of. That doesn’t mean country can’t be enjoyed by everyone, or that country stars don’t want to expand their audience, or that collaborations across genre lines should be discouraged. But none of these things should be at the expense of country performers who show loyalty to the country format receiving the attention they deserve from the format’s institutions. Often cross genre collaborations simply promote the other side of the radio dial and erode distinctions between country and pop as opposed to keeping country “relevant.”
Of course there are exceptions to the rule of country stars not wanting to invade pop. Shania Twain notoriously released two versions of her 2002 album Up!—one country, and one pop. Taylor Swift also courted country and pop charts simultaneously during her early career as a “country” star, and Maren Morris recently had a massive pop hit with Zedd called “The Middle.” But even then important distinctions were made. Shania released two versions of her album for the purpose of not disrupting country radio with pop songs. When Taylor Swift officially made her move to pop, she made a point to declare it publicly, and refused to allow her label Big Machine to release songs to country, even though her label head Scott Borchetta requested she do so. And “The Middle” never made its way to country radio, even though it could have, and wouldn’t have sounded that far off from some of the “country” songs played on the radio today.
Many pop artists want to be included in country these days through collaborations or remixes to skim some of those fans off for themselves. But country music should be careful of continuing to allow this to happen. The music world was much better when pop was too sugary for country, and country was to corny for pop. There has always been pop influences in country, and country influences in pop. But when the dividing lines are more distinct, it offers more variety for consumers, instead of everything sounding the same no matter what genre it’s labeled, or where you are on the radio dial.
As Garth Brooks and many others will tell you, it was Randy Travis that was the catalyst to making country music relevant again. And he didn’t do it with pop. He did it by being more country than anyone else at the time, and filling an appetite forgotten by Nashville.