The Curious Curation of Country Music’s Recent Tribute Concerts

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This story has been updated.

On Tuesday (7-18), Country Music Hall of Famer Kenny Rogers announced in a highly-touted press conference that he would be playing his final show, and in a tribute fashion at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville with a host of special guests, including his most well-known duet partners, Dolly Parton. Called All In For The Gambler: Kenny Rogers Farewell Concert Celebration, it is one of numerous recent tributes to country legends held at the Bridgestone Arena and other locations, and sponsored by concert promoter Blackbird Presents.

All In For The Gambler will feature performances from Kenny and Dolly, Alison Krauss, Jamey Johnson, Elle King, Little Big Town, The Flaming Lips, and other performers to be named closer to the October 25th event. You may be asking, why The Flaming Lips? But Kenny Rogers’ service time in music wasn’t completely isolated to country. As some may remember, Rogers started out as the bass-playing frontman of First Edition, which started somewhat in the psychedelic realm with their hit “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).” Nonetheless, inviting The Flaming Lips to a Kenny Rogers tribute seems like a bit of a curve ball for what otherwise will be a fairly dedicated country music affair.

This is not unusual for events concocted by Blackbird Presents however, especially their tribute concerts. In fact adding The Flaming Lips to a Kenny Rogers tribute is probably one of their more tame decisions. Certainly the promotional company deserves incredible kudos for putting together these recent tributes for country legends in the first place. Similar concerts for Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kirstofferson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and others have been assembled over the last few years, and resulted in opportunities to discuss the contributions of these legendary country music performers that otherwise may not occur.

But to put it bluntly, the ability of Blackbird Presents to curate talent for events is pretty terrible, and appears to be done without any true understanding of the layout of the current country music landscape. Forget the nuances that separate different tastes and sensibilities of certain scenes under the greater country music umbrella that not everyone can be attune to. And yes, why not think a little outside of the box and invite some folks from other genres who may have loose ties to the artist being paid tribute to help broaden the audience and speak to the tributee’s influence outside of country? But some of the invites for these Blackbird Presents events seem so incredibly blind to the realities present in country music fandom, it’s remarkable.

In February, Webster PR put together a tribute to Randy Travis that included a star-studded lineup. Garth Brooks, Jamey Johnson, Ricky Skaggs, Wynonna, and some newer artists such as William Michael Morgan and Shane Owens performed. But someone decided it would be perfectly fine to let artists like Michael Ray and Chris Janson play, along with one of the most vilified newer “country” artists alive—the repugnant Kane Brown—who’s on record saying that country has moved on from older artists like Randy. You’ll never build a consensus around any specific artist, but among Randy Travis fans, you’re sure to find more vitriol for Kane Brown than favoritism, if Travis fans even know who he is.

Blackbird Presents recently released the audio and video recordings of a Waylon Jennings tribute held in Austin in 2015. The talent assembled for the tribute was nothing short of legendary. To have Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson share the stage, while Willie Nelson, Kris Kirstofferson, Bobby Bare, Jamey Johnson, and a bunch others anchored the tribute lineup was epic.

But when everyone was called to the stage to sing the finale “Luckenbach, TX,” you could tell Sturgill was visibly shaken to have to share a mic with the likes of a drunk Toby Keith, who took the occasion of Eric Church’s opportunity to sing a line of the song to play grab ass on stage in what was supposed to be a reverent moment. Toby Keith also had to be positioned on one side of the stage, and Robert Earl Keen on the other due to bad blood between the two over accusations from Keen that Keith lifted the melody from “The Road Goes On Forever” for his song “Bullets in the Gun.” Whether you’re pro or con Toby Keith, a Waylon tribute is probably not an appropriate venue for his demonstrative personality, and his presence sullied the experience for many tried and true Waylon fans.

Sometimes it’s not who is at the tribute, but who isn’t. On April 6th of this year, Merle Haggard finally received the Nashville tribute he deserved, and via Blackbird Presents. But where was Sturgill Simpson, the one artist that in his last year on Earth, Merle Haggard said was the only new artist he thought was worth a damn? Perhaps Sturgill was busy, or perhaps he learned his lesson at the Waylon tribute. Sturgill eventually asked Blackbird Presents to leave his tribute song to Waylon off the audio compilation from the concert for undisclosed reasons. Maybe Sturgill just didn’t want to be seen on stage with Toby Keith again, who seems to turn up at most all of these tributes.

In fact that another interesting observation when looking at the rosters of these Blackbird Presents events: there are certain artists that seem to play nearly all of them. Sheryl Crow, Jamey Johnson, Alison Krauss, Toby Keith, even The Avett Brothers and Alabama seem to show up in an inordinate amount in the lineups, even when they’re presence doesn’t really fit the bill.

In 2017, Blackbird Presents decided to go beyond the tribute concerts, and synced up with Willie Nelson’s camp on the self-proclaimed Outlaw Festival tour with six stops throughout July. Then in May, they added an additional five dates for September. Some of the names you would expect to play something titled the “Outlaw Festival,” such as Willie Nelson’s son’s band Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real, Margo Price, and select dates on the tour/festival with Hayes Carll, Jason Isbell, Nathaniel Rateliff, and Blackberry Smoke. These aren’t your typical “Outlaw” country bands per se, but they certainly fit on the periphery, and share a lot of the same fans.

But then you have bands such as The Avett Brothers, My Morning Jacket, and the always-polarizing and omnipresent Sheryl Crow. Does anyone consider these acts “Outlaw”?

One excuse given previously to the presence of Sheryl Crow at Willie Nelson events is that Willie just likes playing with her, and that’s understandable. But some of the slottings at these events smack much more about making certain promoters, managers, or publicists in the industry happy as opposed to putting forth the best lineup, or even an intuitive one. Of course beggars can’t be choosers when it comes to putting together a tribute concert, and sometimes schedules just don’t sync up. But that’s not an excuse to make a bad booking. There are plenty of artists who may not be big names, but would make better, more appropriate additions to a lineup.

Something else curious about the Blackbird Presents operation is the cozy nature they have with the Willie Nelson camp, which also has a history of making curious booking decisions for certain productions. At Willie Nelson’s 2016 4th of July Picnic in Austin, someone though it would be a good idea to put Brantley Gilbert on the lineup. This year the wild card was Sheryl Crow, likely because the whole Outlaw Festival lineup was partially rolled into Willie’s 4th of July Festivities this year. Meanwhile some reports from the Outlaw Festival dates are of very low ticket sales.

Also, Willie Nelson and Toby Keith share some of the same management. This may be the reason the two seem to be linked so often, especially at these tribute concerts, even though they represent polarizing opposites on the country music spectrum.

There has also been questions swirling around just how everyone is getting paid, and where the money is going for these Blackberry Presents tribute concerts. Are the estates of the artists being paid tribute seeing a penny? Do the artists themselves see anything? This was partially cleared up in a recent feature on the company by the CEO Keith Wortman.

“What I do is certainly not for the faint of heart,” said Wortman to Billboard Country Update in late June. “There’s tons of moving parts. On the financial side of things, it’s not the typical standard fee an artist might get for a concert — of course, they’re not doing a full concert; they’re doing a song or two. But we cover all the artists’ expenses, which often can be very significant if you’re the kind of artist that has private jets and things like that, and also all artists participate on a royalty basis in the release of everything from the show.”

Keith Wortman started Blackbird Presents in partnership with producer and legendary bass player Don Was, who often acts as bandleader and music coordinator for the events. Since each artist only plays one or two songs, they utilize a house band for the music as opposed to each artist’s personal band.

“The primary focus and the primary interest was really this labor of love of creating these once-in-a-lifetime, large-scale concert events celebrating my music heroes, and doing so by bringing out a who’s who of incredible artists and performers,” Keith Wortman says.

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It only takes an elementary understanding of the country music landscape to identify that a stark and undeniable cultural divide runs right through the middle of the genre. Concert promoters and tour organizers know this, and understand certain names act like Kryptonite with other artist’s fan bases. Robert Earl Keen and Toby Keith would be one example. Sheryl Crow and anyone who is truly considered an “Outlaw” would be another. That’s no offense to Sheryl Crow; she just doesn’t belong at the Outlaw Festival, or in country music, though sometimes fan bases identify more with artists outside the country genre than they will certain contemporary performers, or polarizing characters such as Toby Keith.

Should we all be able to come together regardless of taste and grievances to show respect to certain artists who came before and helped make country music into the force it is in American culture and beyond? Yes, we should. But one of the reasons some of these legends are being pushed out of the spotlight and such tributes are even necessary is the fault of some of the artists booked at these tributes.

It appears that Blackbird Presents is completely clueless to the cultural divide, and by reaching out to inappropriate artists to play these tributes and tours, are not helping to bring people together, but are instilling a polarizing element into their events and stirring up bad blood that is unnecessary, and probably somewhat bad for business.

This isn’t meant to be a blistering commentary on Blackbird Presents. If they weren’t curating these start-studded tributes to country legends, in all likelihood nobody would be. And for that, it’s not only a worthy cause, it’s a good business model that judging by their 2017 expansion, is working for them at least to some extent. As many of these artists are being left behind by the mainstream, Blackbird Presents is picking up the slack. But they most certainly need help on the curation side—someone who understands the chemistry of country music to create more memorable moments and legendary liuneups that leave your mouth agape, and ones not wrought with bad blood or divided loyalties, or just poor lineup decisions. It would also be good to know where all the money goes for the concerts. Certainly Blackbird Presents deserves a big cut, but so does the estate and the performers.

It is easy to look at any festival lineup and poke holes in it—who is there that shouldn’t be, and who got left out. It’s an annual exercise for so many promoters and festival goers that can get nauseating for everyone. It’s not even about including all like-minded acts, or even similar genre acts on a bill. Stagecoach in California has shown you can have both the independent and mainstream side by side and still make it work. AmericanaFest, Pickathon, and to some extent the new version of the Newport Folk Fest take often disparate elements of the music scene and somehow make them work together.

But there is a point where loyalties and appeal become strained, and Blackbird Presents seems to have a knack of finding that point on a consistent basis, as opposed to avoiding it.

There are also those moments where a lineup is so well-curated, it becomes legendary even before one note is played, like Willie Nelson’s 2015 4th of July Picnic lineup, or the lineup for this year’s Tumbleweed Festival. These are they type of lineups Blackbird Presents should aspire to. That way when fans look back at these tributes in the future, they’re not focused on who was on stage, but what happened because the chemistry between the performers was just about perfect.