When it comes to singers and bands, there seems to be a general consensus of either making songs that are radio hits, or album cuts that are more rich in artistic expression. I think you can make the argument for any genre with a radio outlet that there are songs written and recorded for the sheer purpose of making money without any regard for the content of the song. If it’ll sell, it’ll be made. This has been the idea in country music for years from the Nashville sound of the 60s and 70s to bro-country and metro country today, producers and labels cater to the hot trend and nothing else. In the minds of the label executives and producers, making music for profit and making music on the basis of artistic expression seem to be mutually exclusive values.
Dierks Bentley’s new song, “Somewhere On a Beach,” hits all the checklist points of a cater-to-the-radio-trend single. After announcing an album that promises to be a personal one about relationships, a screw-you single is a release way out of left field. It’s not hard to imagine that this Dierks Bentley playing give and take with his label and producers. Dierks wants to release an album with heart and soul. His label says yes, but you must record this song so we can have a guaranteed radio hit from the album. Dierks comprises. Riser was an album full of heart written in the wake of Bentley’s father passing on. Singles like “I Hold On” and “Bourbon in Kentucky” and album cuts like “Here on Earth” were responses to that tragedy. Dierks also had balled singles from “Say You Do” and “Riser” while party songs like “Back Porch” and “Pretty Girls” were left on as mere album fillers. If anything, Riser proved that an album in this decade and era of country music could be filled with soulful radio singles and remain mildly successful, even if “Bourbon in Kentucky” and “Riser” didn’t make the desired chart impact.
Did every country fan in 2013 really want to listen to 15 remakes of “Cruise”? Were producers naive to think that they, too, could have a country/rap crossover hit? Or did label executives see an ignorant fan base and take advantage of the listeners’ blind acceptance of music on the radio? Whatever the reason for the sudden rise of bro-country and its lingering effects, artistic expression in mainstream country music was a victim.
The approach to country music for the past couple of years has been radio hits. That’s why we get albums with 90% radio ready hits: some bro country, some slow jam inspired ballads, club-like jams, etc. They’re not albums in the artistic sense; they’re collections of songs. Committees are brought into the music lab to write, mold, listen, create, and conjure up the perfect song for radio to go on the perfect album. This album will sustain the artist through a long tour with at least four singles ready for whatever radio trend they predicted to arise.
But country music was built on artistic expression. Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Waylon, Cash, Yoakam, all our country music heroes are icons because these are the artists who dug deep, allowed themselves to be vulnerable, and put their hearts and souls into the music. These guys have the reputation of fighting the establishment because they’re not just singers, they’re artists. They have a voice, a purpose, and story to tell. Most singers on the radio today are just that: singers. They’re not artists with a story to tell. They are merely singers whose sole purpose is to make money.
Every now and then, these producers realize that they need to remind these radio listeners that country singers are artists. They try to convey a facade of artistry with a committee written ballad. The result of which are contrived songs like “Confession” and “You Should Be Here.” These songs are labels trying to convince fans that Florida Georgia Line and Cole Swindell aren’t just party animals, but also “deep” artists. This is the problem though, when you create a persona through several singles than try to backtrack and reset the image. They want these singers to seem deep, but they can’t compromise any chance of losing traction on radio in the process. So throwaway lines about cold ones and cold beers are thrown in to remind the fans that it’s still a party.
The artistic expression of mainstream country is lost. Maybe it wasn’t the best option for Bentley to go back-to-back with ballads as singles, but was “Riser” such a bomb that Bentley’s label had to back track to a generic, soulless song? Or are label executives just afraid to let their singers dig deep and actually be artists? And the real victim of it all is the general radio fan of country music. These are fans who probably don’t know that there are singers like Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, and Tami Neilson out there making some of the best music today. Instead, these fans are subjected to party anthems, classless revenge sex songs, and half-assed ballads. And because of this, songs like “You Should Be Here” and “Die a Happy Man” are praised as deep, thoughtful, expressive ballads. And that’s exactly what will happen when you put three people in a room to conjure up a hit ballad. However, true artistic songs are ignored. Songs which are true expressions of the artists’ heart. Song which required the writer to be vulnerable and dig deep within him or herself, sometimes in the most painful places, to find the words. Those are the real, powerful songs country music needs. You don’t get a song like “Cover Me Up” from a committee writing session.
Upcoming/Recent Country Music Releases
- Aubrie Sellers, daughter of Lee Ann Womack, will release her debut album New City Blues on January 29. Sellers recently released the music video of her single “Sit Here and Cry.”
- Tomorrow, The Cactus Blossoms, will release their album You’re Dreaming.
- Bluegrass and Americana artist Sierra Hull will release her new album, Weighted Mind, on January 29.
- “Humble and Kind” is officially Tim McGraw‘s next single.
- Another 90s rock act has gone country. Sister Hazel will release a country album called Lighter in the Dark on February 19.
Throwback Thursday Song
“Reno” by Nic Cowan. Nic Cowan (now officially named Niko Moon) is a Georgia based singer/songwriter who has collaborated with Zac Brown on many songs for the band’s albums. The narrator meets a singer and a painter and is mesmerized by their creative passion. In light of today’s post on artistic expression, this song seemed appropriate. “What is it that drives you to create? She said ‘I never had a choice to make. It chose me long before I wrote a song. It’s what I feel, boy.'” That first chorus says it all.
Non-Country Suggestion of the Week
Daughter Not To Disappear. This English indie folk trio released their second album last week. Lead singer Elena Tonra’s voice is quiet, yet haunting as she sings her songs of loneliness, love gone wrong, and even a mother dealing with Alzheimer’s. The album is hindered by a production monotony among several of the songs, but poignancy of the music and lyrics are worth giving this album a listen.
Tweet of the Week
— Jason Isbell (@JasonIsbell) January 17, 2016
I certainly hope that “if” becomes a “when” because an Isbell – Simpson collaborative album would be incredible!
Two Simple, But Great iTunes Reviews
The effective review of “absolute garbage” was left on Drew Baldridge’s EP. If you don’t know who Drew Baldridge, he’s a pop/dance/disco singer being passed off as country. Do your ears a favor and take this reviewer’s for it.
The eloquent “pure unadulterated garbage” was left under The Raging Idiots’ kids’ music EP (The Raging Kidiots). It’s children’s music so it’s meant to be goofy, but the EP popped up in the country section in iTunes, so why not put it here. Who would want to pass up a chance to make fun of Bobby Bones?