If you’ve been following this blog for a while or even just a little bit, you can deduce that I’m not happy with the current state of mainstream country music. How many weeks in row now has the Pulse been in the negatives? I’ve lost track. One discussion I’ve seen pop up from time to time is how mainstream country music got to be such a laughing-stock. For those who would argue otherwise, there are stats that back up my claim that people are hating mainstream country music more and more (kudos to Saving Country Music for bringing this data to light). Traditional country fans have been warning for years that trend chasing would catch up to genre eventually and turn fans against them. I warned against it months ago. Now we’re starting to see some true backlash to the genre’s decision-making.
But before we figure out how mainstream country music will regain people’s trust, I wanted to figure out how it has gotten to the state its in currently. After all you can learn a lot about the future if you look to the past to see what mistakes were made and how to avoid them again. I’ve seen a lot of theories and ideas thrown around as to when mainstream country music began to slip and I’ve thought a lot about each of them. But none of them represent what I feel was the turning point of this genre. Many love to argue that mainstream country music began it’s down turn upon the dawning of the Garth Brooks era. While the pop country of Garth and Shania Twain certainly didn’t help, I’ve found that during their heyday that they were more the exception to the rule instead of the norm. Look throughout the 90s and I think many would agree with me that the quality of country music for the most part was overwhelmingly good. I certainly spent more time listening to country radio than skipping over it like I do now. (This is all subjective of course)
The point where I think mainstream country music started its downward spiral was on March 10, 2003. That was the infamous day where country super group Dixie Chicks denounced the war in Iraq at a concert in London. I’m not going to get into this situation too much because of the political nature and my preference to avoid politics on here. I’ll just leave you with this quote from country icon Merle Haggard:
I don’t even know the Dixie chicks, but I find it an insult for all the men and women who fought and died in past wars when almost the majority of America jumped down their throats for voicing an opinion. It was like a verbal witch-hunt and lynching. Whether I agree with their comments or not has no bearing.
I believe this is the starting point that set off the events that led to today’s state of country radio. First let me give you an idea of how important and big this was for the Dixie Chicks and country music. Up until 2003, the Dixie Chicks won four Grammy awards, 10 CMA Awards, six Billboard Music Awards, two American Music Awards and eight ACM Awards. Their 1998 album Wide Open Space Spaces sold over 10 million copies and was certified platinum 12 times. Their 1999 album Fly sold over 8 million copies and was certified platinum 10 times. The only country artists to ever sell this many albums or more are Garth Brooks, Kenny Rogers, Patsy Cline and Shania Twain. So when country music fans, radio stations, award associations and artists ran the Dixie Chicks out of the genre, they ran out the top act in country music. Throughout the course of music history has another genre blackballed their top artist like country music did to the Dixie Chicks.
So all of a sudden there’s a giant void at the top of the genre, since the Dixie Chicks haven’t had a significant presence in the genre since they were blackballed. This brings us to the next point, which is the rise of Toby Keith, who had a public feud with Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines over his single “Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American).” Maines called the single “ignorant” and said it “makes country music sound ignorant.” A couple of months after the incident in London, Maines wore a t-shirt to the ACM Awards with the acronym “F.U.T.K.” While Maines’ manager said it stood for “Friends United in Truth and Kindness,” many believed it stood for “Fuck You Toby Keith.” Keith went on to win Entertainer of the Year over the Dixie Chicks, despite the Dixie Chicks’ latest album outselling Keith’s latest album by a wide margin.
The Dixie Chicks’ spiral downwards allowed Toby Keith’s stature rise to new highs. The blatant patriotism he injected in his songs from the early 2000s onward and still puts into his music to this day, let him be the anti-thesis to Dixie Chicks. The swell of patriotism in the United States after 9/11 caused country artists to inject more references to country pride and freedom into music and led to it becoming one of the most used clichés in country music. Toby Keith was the poster boy for it. Also it’s kind of ironic that an indifference over political ideas and 9/11 that led to more patriotism in country music gave rise to politicians liking country music more. This explains why you see Presidential candidates talking about why they love country music so much and incorporate it into their campaign. Remember this next time you complain about it.
So Keith rises to new heights. From 2003 onward, he won three American Music Awards (one before 2003) and four ACM Awards (three before 2003). He sold more records than ever before and had several badly written singles go to top 15 at country radio, including doozies such as “Get Drunk and Be Somebody,” “High Maintenance Woman,” “Get My Drink On,” “She’s A Hottie,” “American Ride,” “Every Dog Has It’s Day,” “Made In America” and “Red Solo Cup.” That last one is on my list of worst country songs ever. All of these bad songs had lots of success on country radio and in my opinion were apart of the dumbing down of country music throughout the 2000s. Instead of well thought out lyrics with heart and meaning, we get pandering to patriotism, references to getting drunk and classifying women solely by their looks.
What’s significant about all of these singles I cite above is they all precede or happen around the years 2011-2012. Why is this significant? This leads right into the bro country era, the successor to the checklist era of Toby Keith. Checklist country like Keith’s music evolved into bro country. In 2011, Luke Bryan released “Country Girl (Shake It For Me)” as a single. It went to #1 and launched Bryan into superstardom. In 2012, Florida Georgia Line burst onto the scene with their mega-hit “Cruise.” Bro country becomes a huge trend and the rest they say is history. Bro country had a good run from 2011-2014 before now being replaced by the R&B, pop stylings of Sam Hunt.
Now I know some of you are wondering why I failed to mention the rise of Taylor Swift happening. Well I believe Swift had no bearing on the most popular trends of the genre. Other acts and labels figured out quickly they could not replicate Swift’s music. And pop country is something that had existed in the genre for years. Swift had nothing to do with checklist country nor bro country, despite her music also bringing the quality of the genre down. She has left country music now and is in the genre where she belongs, which is something I respect her a lot for and wish her the best.
So as you can I see I believe that the blackballing of Dixie Chicks is what led to country music becoming the laughing-stock it is today. Just think for a second if that incident in London doesn’t happen. The Dixie Chicks were really just hitting their stride and showed no signs of slowing down. They could have went on to become one of the biggest acts in country music history. They were so popular that they crossed over into pop and alt-country with their music. The Dixie Chicks were a group that appealed to casual fans and hardcore fans. If the Dixie Chicks stick around they continue to release quality music and in the process dilute the presence of checklist country music at country radio. Toby Keith doesn’t become as big of a deal. Bro country maybe doesn’t become a thing and therefore R&B country doesn’t become a thing. This is all speculation. We will never know how much of an impact Dixie Chicks could have made on country music. But at the end of the day the dismissal of the Dixie Chicks from country music ultimately hurt the genre.
Upcoming/Recent Country Music & Americana Releases
- The Voice alumnus Jake Worthington will release his self-titled debut EP tomorrow.
- Chris Janson’s next single being sent to radio is “Power of Positive Drinkin’.”
- After weeks of speculation, it’s confirmed that Maddie & Tae will be releasing “Shut Up & Fish” as their next single.
- Stoney LaRue will release an album he calls a “tribute to his fans” tomorrow called Us Time.
- Carrie Underwood will be releasing her new album Storyteller next Friday.
Great Music Currently at Country Radio
The very best of country radio right here in a nice playlist. In order for a song to be added to the list, it must currently be in the top 60 of the Billboard Country Airplay chart, so this will be updated weekly.
Throwback Thursday Song
Eddie Rabbitt – “Drivin’ My Life Away” – Now here’s a classic song many forget about. Some might consider this song “too pop,” but I don’t care. I enjoy it and it’s the perfect traveling song.
Non-Country Suggestion of the Week
Father John Misty – “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment” – I’m pretty sure Derek recommended this in The Hodgepodge before, but I’m going to do it again. You need to check out Father John Misty’s album I Love You Honeybear. It is my favorite album of the year across all genres. Above is my favorite song from it and he just released this video for it. A little warning: his videos can get weird and NSFW, so proceed at your own volition.
Tweet (s) of the Week
Another reason to like Kacey!
iTunes Review That Rocks
I promise I didn’t write this (my username on there is CountryPerspective). But when I saw it I knew it would go perfectly with this Hodgepodge. Beating a dead horse is a good summation of the last decade or so of Keith’s career.
Thanks for reading and be sure to weigh in below!