The Hodgepodge: Is Country Music at the Point of No Return?

Country Picture

A couple of months ago, Josh published a two-part Hodgepodge series about the mainstream country bubble on the verge of bursting. (Read part 1 and part 2 for some background). Call this an indirect continuation of that series, if you will. It’s no secret that mainstream country has been consistently low quality this year. How many new singles have Josh and I graded at three or lower in 2015? Quite a few; and the output from country’s biggest artists don’t appear to change that trend anytime soon.

The question I want to explore today is if country music has reached the point of no return? Has Music Row spread itself too thin with trend chasing and genre experimentation to return mainstream country to its roots? When I was at the Cody Canada & The Departed show last Saturday, the band played a Hank Cochran cover song. Before doing so, Cody Canada addressed the crowd and said, “Once upon a time ago, there was this thing called country music. You guys remember that?” While extreme, the comment was directed to Nashville and is rather true. That comment got me wondering if mainstream country could ever return to being country.

Luke Bryan’s new song debut from the upcoming Kill the Lights is an R&B influenced sex ballad called “Strip it Down.” It sounds similar to the likes of Chase Rice’s “Gonna Wanna Tonight” and “Ride.” Jason Aldean’s last couple songs since “Burnin’ It Down” have been R&B influenced. With two of the biggest superstars out of Nashville pumping this trend out, we can expect this to only be the beginning. It’s happening because some audience focus group responded well to this trend, so the powers that be in Music Row have adopted it as the next trend to follow tailgate parties.

The immense backlash from us and our fellow critics like Grady Smith, Trigger, and Farce the Music are just a snapshot of the negative feedback reaching the attention of said superstars. That’s why we’ve been treated to complaint after complaint about these guys hating the bro-country criticism; that’s why Luke Bryan is one of the many to get immediately defensive about his music when someone even mentions the word “party.”

Trigger at Saving Country Music penned a letter to Luke Bryan encouraging Bryan, arguably the biggest name in mainstream country right now, to step up and show some leadership. The Tennessean argues that it may take more than just one artist to lead the charge for better quality. But will anyone step up and take the necessary leadership, or are the stadium sellout tours too infectious and blinding to anything else? These stadium tours are killing the culture that built country music.

As trends continue to evolve, country music seems willing to bend and go where the wind blows. This creates two problems: Firstly, building new artists/careers around these trends doesn’t allow these artists to develop a sustainable musical identity to carry them past said trend. Secondly, as discussed on Twitter by Grady Smith, these new artists being put in opening slots on arena and stadium tours doesn’t develop their skills to perform in other capacities.

The songs are built to be like arena anthems; the songs’ hooks are the key component for these openers to attract a crowd that probably doesn’t care about anyone on the stage before 9pm. So when these same artists transplant themselves onto a stage like the Opry, it’s awkward because they don’t know how to perform in that more intimate, listening-centered environment. Watch a recent Opry performance of Michael Ray’s “Kiss You in The Morning” vs. Ashley Monroe’s “The Blade” or Will Hoge’s “Little Bitty Dreams.” Ray isn’t engaged with the crowd beyond the people up front, as he has no idea how to get the crowd’s attention beyond his stage persona. Whereas Monroe or Hoge simply stand in the circle and let their music and delivery draw the crowd in; a skill they’ve mastered through their countless shows in smaller settings like bars. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that both songs are simply better than “Kiss You in The Morning.”

I’m not convinced that mainstream country can ever fully revive itself at this point. Country music is trying too hard to be everything but country, and it’s alienating the country fans that originally brought these superstars to their pedestal. I think the trend chasing and desire to sell out stadium shows have created a new culture that’ll continue to expand itself into every popular genre until no one cares about it anymore. The “rock is dead” comparisons to country music today aren’t that far off. Thankfully, the spirit of country music is alive and well in independent artists, and the Americana genre has adopted those more traditional country artists and roots rockers.

Upcoming/Recent Country Music Releases

Today in Country Music History

  • Alison Krauss (1971), Neil Perry of The Band Perry (1990), and Danielle Bradbery (1996) all celebrate birthdays today.
  • Alan Jackson tops the charts in 1994 with his cover of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues.”
  • Vern Gosdin has the #1 song on Billboard in 1983 with “Set ‘Em Up Joe.”

Throwback Thursday Song

“Don’t Close Your Eyes” by Keith Whitley. Whitley left this world way too soon in 1989. Keith Whitley is one of country’s many great vocalists and made quite the impact in the late 80s. “Don’t Close Your Eyes” was his first number one single, and was the start of five straight for Keith in 1988 and 1989.

Non-Country Suggestion of the Week

Wilco’s Star Wars. This was a surprise release from the band last Friday. I honestly haven’t listened to any of Wilco’s music before, but I was intrigued to see an album named Star Wars, and even more curious with an album cover of a fluffy white cat and flowers. This album is an experimental rock album that’s as random and unpredictable as life itself. It may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but I found the album to be enjoyable.

Tweet of the Week

Divorce is never an easy thing to go through, and it sucks that Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert couldn’t make their marriage work. At the end of the day, they’re still people. They asked for privacy to deal with the issue, but I can understand why media outlets nationwide would want to publish the initial news of the divorce.

However, our favorite corporate country tabloids in The Boot and Taste of Country took it a step further. They published article after article of a Blake and Miranda relationship timeline, a photo montage/slideshow of the couple during their time together, and reaching for conclusions and making assumptions as to why Miranda may have gotten more emotional than usual during a recent concert. To be frank, it pissed me off seeing those headlines. Exploiting personal, private issues for site traffic is low.

An iTunes Review to Make You Cringe

Screen Shot 2015-07-21 at 9.18.56 PM

This was left under Luke Bryan’s Kill the Lights. This is just one of many positive reviews of people already in love with an album that hasn’t been released yet.

18 thoughts on “The Hodgepodge: Is Country Music at the Point of No Return?

  1. Raymond July 23, 2015 / 11:08 am

    I still have to say I’m still really looking forward to the Ashley Monroe album. When can I expect the review. So excited.

    Like

    • Josh Schott July 23, 2015 / 11:27 am

      My review on it will be out tomorrow.

      Like

    • Megan Conley July 24, 2015 / 2:41 am

      I will have a review on it later today as well. I have to say I was looking forward to this album more than either Alan Jackson’s or Jason Isbell’s. I also featured her on my Female Friday column today.

      Like

  2. Zack July 23, 2015 / 11:32 am

    I have to say, as someone who has a family who loves mainstream country (I’m literally the only person who likes the independent scene… 😦 ) I have been to several mainstream concerts. I see the crowds, the shirtless bros, the young females who think that “George Straight” is stupid and are only interested in dancing. I’ve always noticed that the music is tailor made for these live shows. As you noted however, most of these “fans” are only interested in the headliner. Meanwhile, while some guy you’ve never heard of is singing a loud pop/rock song about having sex in a field, most of these people are getting wasted with their friends near a truck getting “ready”. It’s sick. Granted, I know this isn’t an article on the deplorable nature of concerts (which I take the most offense of in mainstream country), but there’s certainly a relationship between the two, as you noted.

    The thing is, is that I fit right into the demographic that is pitched to on mainstream country. But I’m not a bro who is aiming to party to some pop/rock/rap/EDM style of music. I want some music that is country and evokes some damn authenticity and emotion.

    I saw Dierks Bentley last month, and guess what song garnered the biggest applause? “Riser”. Why? Because it is a heartfelt tune that can connect to a wide audience and actually conveys emotion.

    Also, I’m pretty sure that Michael Rays album will be self titled. Of course they are using the same damn cover for the album as they have for the single. Seriously, how much more boring can mainstream album covers get?

    I love Keith Whitley, so great pick with the throwback there! 🙂

    As far as the Blake/Miranda thing, The Boot and Taste Of Country really disgusted me with their tweets. They even were cruel enough to @ both singers in their tweets. Very low class, actually, no class.

    To that “reviewer”: “amazeballs”?!? Really? Back to that whole “Has Country reached a point of no return”……

    Liked by 2 people

    • Derek Hudgin July 23, 2015 / 11:57 am

      Exactly. The concert scene is awful, which is why you have Trigger at SCM with article after article about mass arrests and misconduct at these mainstream shows. For the most part, I think large concert and festivals in general provoke that sort of tailgating atmosphere. I was at Calf Fry here in Stillwater a few months ago, a Red Dirt country music festival, and as I arrived early to catch William Clark Green on stage at 6:30, you had the same sort of tailgaters drinking around their trucks. Granted, I was lucky enough to have a VIP pass to the barricaded front section so I don’t know what the overall crowd was like in the lawn.

      But the difference between Red Dirt and Mainstream in this case is how the songs I heard weren’t anthem after anthem encouraging a party. The songs certainly perpetuate the behavior. Yet at The Departed show at Cain’s Ballroom, we had a great crowd in a standing room only environment. People were there to enjoy the music and that’s what happened. The only issue we had was some poor soul drunk at 8:30 who was swaying and yelling “hey” as if he was at a FGL show, but his friends found him and we didn’t see him again in my area!

      Basically, when artists care about the songs and find an audience who cares about the music, then concerts are a great thing!

      Like

      • SRM July 23, 2015 / 7:09 pm

        I think that the “mass arrests and misconduct” gets blown a bit out of proportion. I was recently at Keith Urban’s concert at Summerfest in Milwaukee and I didn’t see any sort of misconduct from where I was, and I was near the lawn. Similarly, a friend of mine went to see Kenny Chesney and Jason Aldean at Lambeau Field, where that “police squawk” that everybody was buzzing about for a while was recorded, and he said that he had a great time. And he’s not a drinking/partying sort of guy.

        I don’t discount that there have been many unfortunate occurrences at arena/stadium concerts in the past two years, but I don’t think it’s as big a problem as some are making it out to be.

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  3. fromthewordsofbr July 23, 2015 / 11:33 am

    “amazballs”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Josh Schott July 23, 2015 / 12:30 pm

    Americana is essentially code for actual country music. I’ve noticed more and more real country artists are identifying themselves with Americana. Kacey Musgraves is starting to appear on the Americana charts even. It’s something I’m keeping an eye on, as I think it could turn into something.

    I’m pretty much convinced at this point that country music is at no point of return. It’s too poisoned of a name to redeem itself. So many nowadays identify country music with what’s on the radio and therefore I always see and hear negative reactions when I mention country music to people. I mentioned country radio to a friend who’s been in college and he said he doesn’t listen much anymore because it sounds like pop music. It’s getting to the point that people are quietly quitting country radio because to them this is all country music is and that’s sad.

    Also for those on Google Play I believe you can still get that new Wilco album for free. I got it for free this past week and I think the deal lasts until 3 am ET tonight.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. southtexaspistolero July 23, 2015 / 1:35 pm

    Would love to see a review of CC & the Departed. I saw Ragweed back in ’07 in Lake Charles, LA and they kicked major arse.

    As to whether country music is at the point of no return…I don’t know. Maybe mainstream country is, but at this point I really don’t give a crap about the mainstream anymore. I haven’t listened to mainstream country radio in more than five years for more than a few minutes at a time, always leaving thoroughly disgusted with what I hear. I’ve been listening to nothing but Texas, Red Dirt, and classic country with some of the Americana artists like Jason Eady and Jason Isbell here and there since then, and I don’t think I’ve missed anything worth listening to. And there’s been plenty of great music that’s come out in those other scenes for quite literally decades now. The mainstream can burn for all I care.

    You can add NashvilleGab to the list of blogs exploiting the Blake-Miranda split. The whole thing is just absolutely disgusting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Derek Hudgin July 23, 2015 / 2:31 pm

      I didn’t plan on officially reviewing it, but I can give you a small blurb here. They played quite a bit of Ragweed songs during the first hour. “Dimebag” “Alabama” “Lighthouse Keeper” “Constantly” “Sister” “Fightin’ For” “Soul Agent” (w/ Scott Evans, the song’s writer, dueting w/ Plato). They sang a new song, and “Inbetweener” and “Worth The Fight” from The Departed catalog. And that was pretty much the first hour.

      The second half of the show was a Tom Skinner tribute. Cody invited John Cooper from the Red Dirt Rangers along with Scott Evans and Bo Phillips (who opened the night), and together they all played a bunch of different Skinner songs. “Skyline Radio” and “Water Your Own Yard” which they recorded on the Indian Land album. Scott Evans sang a different song he had written that I didn’t know, and I think they played another Skinner song before they ended the main set with “Like a Blind Man” and “Boys From Oklahoma.” And the encore was everybody joined CC & The Departed on stage to sing “Used To Be.” It was a pretty great show overall!

      Chance Anderson Band and Bo Phillips Band both had good opening sets too.

      Like

      • southtexaspistolero July 23, 2015 / 2:46 pm

        Awesome. I figured it’d be great. Wasn’t real big on “Soul Agent,” but all the rest reside as favorites for me. “Water Your Own Yard” was one of my two favorite songs from This Is Indian Land, though, along with “A Little Rain Will Do.”

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Scotty J July 23, 2015 / 3:54 pm

    I really think the major moment in this saga was the combination of Aldean’s ‘Burnin’ It Down’ and then the emergence of Sam Hunt. Before a rational country music fan could say that maybe things would return to something a little more normal for the country genre as the Bro thing started to die off but instead the next step was even farther from the base.

    The major question now is will there ever be another critically loved, high selling performer who is loved by the traditional country fanbase that will make it big on mainstream country radio again. And I mean a totally new act not an already established act.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Kevin Davis July 23, 2015 / 3:58 pm

    Great choices, Derek, to compare the three Opry performances. It’s a night and day difference between Michael Ray and Monroe/Hoge, and your comments are spot on.

    I’ve been anxiously waiting to hear what David Nail’s next album will produce. I have mixed emotions about the new single. Of course, I’m not too surprised by “Night’s On Fire,” because Nail said that they wanted to capitalize on the momentum from “Whatever She’s Got.” Both songs have their charm and merits, but they also perpetuate the current trends to an extent. But, to what extent? Nail’s version of this common theme (late night, off-road romance) is considerably better and more thoughtful than his fellow male peers. “I was hoping, would you shelter me from showers; I believe every word in the candlelight.” This is light-years beyond anything recent from Aldean, Rice, Bryan, etc.

    So, I hope that this single does what it is aimed to do: generate radio play. I have listened to it several times now, and the merits of the song increase with each listen. But, I trust that the rest of the album will be more in line with the best of his earlier work. He’s a legitimate artist, well worth exploring.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kevin Davis July 23, 2015 / 4:57 pm

      Oops, the lyrics I posted are from a Mike Oldfield song that someone else posted as David Nail’s. Regardless, I stand by everything else I said! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    • Nadia Lockheart July 24, 2015 / 4:31 am

      I’ve heard “Night’s On Fire”, and I’d consider my feelings mixed on that as well.

      Vocally, Nail is still by far one of the best among male mainstream country vocalists, and he gives it all he’s got to provide an emotional resonance to the feeling of “your first time”. It actually makes the song sound pretty affecting.

      Unfortunately, I was not impressed with the production. Yes, I know Nail is quoted for saying his intention was to use the success of “Whatever She’s Got” as inspiration for how to harness his mainstream presence moving forward. But even if I can get behind that…………….firstly, why is that hip-hop beat necessary? It’s not! The track would have benefited just fine with organic percussion. And secondly, enough with the reverb and those pesky “Whoa oh ohs!” already. They’re used way too much in this track to where, in the hands of most other male vocalists, it would be an utterly forgettable heap of filler.

      *

      Honestly, as much as I really want to love David Nail and already acknowledge he is one of the best male vocalists in country’s mainstream and also had a solid sophomore album in terms of standout tracks, there’s something about him that has always been a bit off-putting to me……………..especially on “I’m A Fire”.

      “I’m A Fire” did very little for me, in all honesty. As great a vocalist as Nail is, the album does so painfully little to give him the breathing space to spill his guts or give it all he has got. He’s left without much presence on that album. Worse still, almost all of the songs don’t suit him and his capacities well either with lyrics that have a Maroon 5 or John Mayer at their worst-esque self-absorption and, when coupled with Nail’s earnesty, can be painful hearing. “The Secret” and “Broke My Heart” are good examples of this.

      Top that with mostly MOR clunky and sterile production courtesy mostly of Frank Liddell, and I absolutely don’t understand where all the hype surrounding “I’m A Fire” is coming from. It’s just not a good album to my ears. Still, I KNOW Nail has a great album somewhere in him, and I think the sooner he ditches Frank Liddell, the sooner we’ll get that album.

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      • Kevin Davis July 24, 2015 / 3:07 pm

        Thanks, Nadia, for the thoughtful response. I agree that Nail has untapped potential, and it will probably come down to whether he finally gives-up on the mainstream or charts his own course. As for the new single, you are exactly right: “firstly, why is that hip-hop beat necessary? It’s not! The track would have benefited just fine with organic percussion. And secondly, enough with the reverb and those pesky “Whoa oh ohs!” already.” After about three listens, I was somehow able to ignore these deficiencies and enjoy the song better, but that’s not saying much.

        Like

  8. brettp July 23, 2015 / 5:19 pm

    Nice hodgepodge this week. Been busy but i wanted to say that I enjoyed the throwbacks and non country suggestions. CCR and Keith Whitley are staples in my work truck visor no doubt! How was the Canada/Departed show, very jealous. I did see Dwight Yoakam couple weeks back though. Just to be different i wanted to mention Wilco. Their not mentioned too much in country americana ranks nowadays. This new album though pretty good but more indie rock for sure, a little busy for my taste however. I am a fan of their music though, their first two albums are alt country gold in my opinion. Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt…early 90s was a good time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Derek Hudgin July 23, 2015 / 6:43 pm

      Thanks! I’ll have to check out Wilco’s early catalog for sure!

      The show was good, I go in more detail about it in an earlier comment.

      Like

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