Don’t You Think This Whole Propaganda Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand?

Kris_Willie_Waylon

Did you hear the good news? Country music has been saved! The streets of Music Row are now paved in gold, heavenly choirs are singing in unison from the heavens above and country radio is using its powers for good. With the release of Jon Pardi’s new album earlier this year and William Michael Morgan’s debut album Vinyl this week, this seems to be the overwhelming sentiment I’m hearing from all corners of country music. Since Pardi got a #1 song at radio with “Head Over Boots” and Morgan got a #1 at radio with “I Met A Girl,” that means country music is all well and good now. It’s been saved!

Give me a damn break.

First off let me just address the absurd notion of “saving” country music. It’s an idea built on sensationalism and propaganda to appeal to the gullible and rebel hearted. Country music has never needed to be saved and it never will. It’s a marketing tactic that people will use to paint us vs them themes and build up a fictional battle taking place right in your backyard. It’s pandering to a natural human instinct to rebel against “the man” if you will. It’s no different from Toby Keith singing about having sex on the American flag on the back of an F-150 truck while fireworks go off in the background and bald eagles fly overhead. If you look me in the eye right now and told me country music needs saved I would laugh and point to Sturgill Simpson, Whitey Morgan and Margo Price. If you did this same thing in the 90s I would point to Alan Jackson, George Strait and Reba. In the 80s I would point to Dwight Yoakam, Keith Whitley and Randy Travis. I think you get my point. Every time in country music history where people think the genre needs “saved” a couple of traditional artists come along and gain popularity to appease the traditionalist masses. It’s a natural cycle that everyone tends to forget about and even yours truly at one point bought into the stupid idea country music needed saving.

This year in particular has really made me open my eyes up to what the real problem has been all along. It made me realize how exactly mainstream country would solve its traditional problem and would do it in the most predictably wrong way. The real problem all along with mainstream country music the past several years has been songwriting. It’s very easy to get hung up on all of these pop sounding songs and their terrible production that doesn’t resemble country in any way. Music Row wisely saw this, so you’ve seen a lot of acts this year go back to a more neutral/pop country sound. Just listen to Blake Shelton and Cole Swindell’s new albums. Zac Brown Band has just promised they’re going back to their roots on their next album. They’re all adjusting to a more country sound to easily appease a lot of people, all while they’re lyrics have not/will not change. Jekyll + Hyde pissed me off more with its lazy songwriting than its two EDM songs. That did more harm to the album than Brown’s egotistical attempts at making EDM music.

But this sound adjustment goes much deeper and clever than this. Music Row knows they can’t fool everyone with these slight pivots and the rest will have to be won over with more elaborate maneuvering. The rest is traditional country fans and what better way to win them over than with pedal steel guitar and a fiddle. Enter Jon Pardi, William Michael Morgan and Aaron Lewis. Pardi and Morgan both don cowboy hats and give numerous interviews talking about how proud they are to be country. Lewis’ leading song when joining Dot Records was about how things just aren’t country nowadays and he’s here to bring it back. All feature generous amounts of steel guitar and fiddle in their music. It all helps these labels frame and paint the exact narrative they want to spoon feed the public.

Now I’m painting a picture here insinuating that these artists aren’t genuine in their intentions. In the case of Morgan and Pardi, I don’t think they’re being disingenuous. I think they’re being quite sincere in their efforts of releasing traditional country music. I think Lewis on the other hand is a sleazy con man using traditional country as a vehicle to revive his career from irrelevancy because he pretty much admitted to it when he said he talked shit on pop country artists as a means to pander to his crowd at shows. Pardi and Morgan while sincere, make the perfect pawns for their respective labels and for the industry at whole, but they don’t realize it and won’t until years later.

These three artists being championed by country circles is the industry’s way of saying, “Ha! We still put out traditional country. Happy now? We gave you what you wanted.” While it may have given a lot of people what they wanted, it didn’t give the industry what it needs and that’s better, more honest songwriting. Many people and outlets are going to applaud Morgan and Pardi for bringing traditional country “back.” If you enjoy their music, that’s fine and I don’t knock you for it. Enjoy the music you want to enjoy. But there’s two artists in mainstream country this year that have run circles around everyone else and nobody is talking about them like they should: Tim McGraw and Eric Church. These two have been showing the real change that’s needed at radio and that is deeper songwriting. But because they’re not part of some propaganda movement or don’t have overwhelming steel guitar in their music, their accomplishments are glossed over. Church in particular has been doing more for country music with his songs and attitude than he’s ever done before.

So while Pardi and Morgan’s sound may harken back to Strait and Jackson, their lyrics certainly don’t measure up to the two titans. Both albums suffered from sub par and bad songwriting (yes, I’ll freely admit I overrated the Pardi album and it did not deserve the grade I gave it). But thanks to bringing back a sound many people craved, this was overlooked by many and including yours truly at first. While this traditional revival may sound like the real deal, its substance is still as fake as the pop country it opposes (Morgan and Pardi’s intentions are real, but their respective labels and the industry certainly aren’t). And the substance that is songwriting is something that cannot be faked no matter how hard Music Row tries. You’re not going to consistently get heart and soul out of the assembly line writers on Music Row. The music of Strait, Jones and Nelson is remembered not only for its great instrumentation, but heartfelt songwriting. A song is not just about how it sounds, but what it says.

The point of this post isn’t to bash Pardi and Morgan, who are great, talented artists with very bright futures ahead of them. I’m coming from a place of honesty and genuine care that you the country music fan is being treated like a fool. The point of this post brings me back to something Jason Isbell once said to a fan on Twitter. Isbell said who needs genre, citing off numerous great acts in different genres. A fan said critics need genres and Isbell replied, “Only the lazy ones.” Another quote I leave you with comes from poet W.H. Auden: “Propaganda is a monologue that is not looking for an answer, but an echo.” The country music industry is being lazy and wants you to buy this propaganda that’s being pushed and it’s not right. Don’t be manipulated by what’s taking place and think for yourself. Otherwise you’re playing the part of the echo they desire.

 

Ranking Mainstream Country Artists: Grade D

After looking at the very best, the very good and the very in-between, it’s now time to take a look at the artist hurting country music much more than they’re helping. Let’s just say I wouldn’t miss their music if they stopped making music. If you missed the first three parts of these rankings you can find them in the corresponding links below:

Grade A

Grade B 

Grade C

Keep in mind these rankings were entirely compiled by yours truly. It’s only my opinion. The only artists I’m considering in these rankings is mainstream country artists that are on major labels and/or still get radio time. I’m also including legends and acts that are too big to be considered independent artists. The way I determine these rankings is by looking at the overall body of work of the artist, as well as taking into account the most recent offerings from them. So bro country artists that have been churning out hit after hit will be lower on the list. If an artist made bad music in the past, but is now putting out better music lately that will help them. But that bad music won’t be forgotten either. One more thing: attitude and respect for the genre will be considered. The rankings will be determined by grade. Now I’ll take a look at part four of this series, the artists I feel are worthy of a D grade.

Grade D

These artists aren’t the absolute worst of mainstream country music, but they’re pretty close. They have one or two redeeming qualities that save them from the dreaded F grade. Derek and myself have given these artists a lot of negative reviews probably too. If you’re a fan of these artists, don’t get angry because you think I’m attacking them (I’m not). I’m simply giving my opinion of them. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

Rascal Flatts

Rascal Flatts – These guys have never been country and never will be. Their music is pop music with token fiddles thrown in and then marketed as country to the masses. Their latest album was their saddest offering yet as they desperately try to remain relevant with their own takes on bro country. I will say this though: I don’t get as angry as others do about their music. I just kind of roll my eyes and chuckle. Each of the members of the group seem like nice guys and is really the reason I didn’t put them at an F grade. Being nice isn’t going to make me like their music, but it also prevents me from saying really mean things about them too.

399px-Toby_Keith Public Domain

Toby Keith – You know I really thought about putting Mr. ‘Murican at an F grade. I think I get more angry about Toby Keith’s music than anyone else I know. I absolutely despised “Red Solo Cup” a few years ago because it officially confirmed to me that Keith is only still making music for the money and simply does not give two shits about making quality material anymore. Really ever since 9/11 there’s been no other artist that has cashed in and pandered harder to the sweeping American patriotism across the country. Throw in some F-150 trucks and some beer and you have yourself the material for every single Toby Keith song since 2001. What prevented him from an F grade? He made some good music early in his career.

Lady Antebellum – I gave Lady Antebellum a pass for several years, but this year I finally ran out of passes. What caused me to finally sour on this group? “Bartender” is what caused me to sour. It’s such a stupid song and would have easily won worst song of the year several times in pre-bro country years. But since bro country is so terrible this song doesn’t get enough flack for it’s awfulness. Their new album 747 is a straight pop album. They didn’t even try to make it country. I think I might actually enjoy their music if they went pop though because it makes for decent pop music.

Little Big Town – Some people will cry foul with this position for Little Big Town, but I’m going to explain why they absolutely belong in the D category. It feels like it has been 10 years since I’ve enjoyed a Little Big Town song. The only two songs I have ever even liked from this group are “Boondocks” and “Little White Church.” The rest is nothing special to me. I also loathed “Pontoon” more than anyone else I know. Before I discovered the greatness of country music in the independent scenes, I was stuck with what was on radio. You know what got overplayed to the point I wanted to kick my radio? “Pontoon.” Yes I listened to “Tornado” and I don’t think it’s anything special.

Kenny Chesney

Kenny Chesney – I originally had Chesney at a C grade because his music has never annoyed me as much as other country critics. Then I go and listen to his early material. It’s pretty good stuff. Of course the last ten years he has made beach music and raking in the dough. This makes me angry because here’s an artist that is capable of making a great country album and instead puts out mediocre crap. This is just shear laziness. He promised better music in his new album too and he didn’t deliver anything too much different from what he has been doing the last ten years. Get your head out of the sand, Kenny.

Billy Currington, Lee Brice, Randy Houser, Justin Moore, Dustin Lynch, Chris Young, Joe Nichols, Easton Corbin and Josh Thompson – All artists that made good country music in the past and now have sold their souls to the bro country devil all in the name of the almighty dollar. Enjoy your money, boys. You just had to trade your respect to get it.

Darius Rucker – I always cut Hootie a break when he joined country music because he was new and seemed to want to be a part of the genre. Then he covered Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel.” Now believe me I’m appreciative of the positive aspect of this song becoming a big hit for him. This exposed a lot of people to Old Crow Medicine Show and their music, which was just fantastic. They absolutely deserved it. The negative aspects of this becoming a big hit for Rucker? One there are several misinformed people out there who think this is his song. Two some are actually aware of O.C.M.S and still say Rucker’s version is better (what the hell are you hearing?). Three this is pretty much the best we’re going to get from Rucker. How long has he been milking this song? He was still playing it at an awards show earlier this year. Get new material!

Hunter Hayes – Pop country boy who will become an afterthought once puberty hits for him. He belongs in the pop genre.

Scotty McCreery – American Idol teen heart throb who could probably sing a good country song, but chooses instead to put out songs like this one (listen at your own discretion):

 

But hey he did give me this comic relief during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade a few years ago:

 

Montgomery Gentry – They used to be a reputable country group who put out decent songs. Then they put out a song called “Titty’s Beer.” Screw you Montgomery Gentry.

Aaron Lewis – I’m not going to beat around the bush. This guy is a douche and just another rocker trying to cash in on country music’s popularity. All he did in his first album was beat his chest about how American he is and then he went and botched the national anthem in the World Series. This guy is a Toby Keith reject with an even worse personality.

 

Parmalee, Thompson Square, Dan + Shay – If these artists stopped making their bad pop country music, would you notice? They just all sound like everything else you hear on country radio nowadays. These artists are bad, but easy to ignore.

That’s all for part four! The fifth and final part will be coming soon!

Album Review – Nashville Outlaw’s Tribute to Motley Crue

When it was announced that there would be a tribute album for rock band Motley Crue from “Nashville Outlaws”, two questions popped into my head. First, why? Why, why, why? What has Motley Crue done in their career to warrant a tribute album from Music Row? They aren’t southern rock; they never ran to country for relevancy before. Motley Crue has always been bad boy hard rock. This tribute album is 100% pointless. My second question comes from this viewpoint. I understand to make the album seem badass and edgy in country music, the producers advertised it with “outlaw”; I understand logic behind the marketing. But how in God’s name can you consider half of these artists as outlaws?!?! Rascal Flatts?! Are you kidding me? They are the furthest thing from a country outlaw.

With those questions and mindsets in place, I approached this album expecting the worst. Surprisingly, there were some good moments on the album, hell, even some great covers. When an artist approaches a cover song with creative liberty and creates an original composition to the lyrics, and executes that liberty well, it is one of my favorite things. Save for a select few songs that accomplish that, the album is mostly a bland, pointless tribute album.

The Worst Songs on the Album

Right away, we are introduced to the worst song of the entire collection. Rascal Flatts’ cover of “Kickstart My Heart” is, in one word, terrible. Gary LeVox does not have a voice suited for rock music. When you listen to it, you can tell he’s way out of his element. The worst thing about the song, for me, came at the “When we started this band” bridge. They censored the word “ass” in this bridge. “Years gone by, I say we’ve kicked some [HEAVY GUITAR LICK].” You’re seriously attempting to pass off this soccer-mom pop band as “outlaw” and you censor them from swearing? Gary LeVox, you’re now an outlaw, it’s okay to say ass when you sing. But by doing this, you take away whatever microscopic outlaw credibility Rascal Flatts apparently had to warrant a spot on the album. The other song that truly stood out to me as awful was Brantley Gilbert’s take on “Girls, Girls, Girls.” On paper, Brantley is easily the most outlaw of the fifteen artists represented here and musically the most capable of doing a Motley Crue cover song justice. But in real life?  Nope. Brantley Gilbert sounded bored out of his mind singing this song. There are no vocal inflections, no emphasis on words or anything. Gilbert is completely monotone throughout the whole track. I was bored listening to this song. To me, the bad thing about both these tracks was that there was no attempt to bring anything new or original to these songs. Both of these songs are essentially carbon copies of the original with new vocals dubbed over and it doesn’t work.

The Best Songs on the Album

I was surprised that there were actually three songs that I enjoyed on this tribute. Each of these songs took a lot of creative liberty with the covers, recomposed the melody to fit their style of music and delivered great vocal performances. “Without You” by Clare Bowen and Sam Palladio took the tough-guy power ballad and turned it into a beautiful, stripped down love ballad sang as a duet. The music fits perfectly with the lyrics. My favorite track on the album is Lauren Jenkin’s “Looks That Kill.” This rendition is a haunting reworking of original rock song. The track is filled with many electric string instruments, which gives the heartbreaker in the song a more mysterious personality. It’s almost as if Lauren is singing along to a Vitamin String Quartet instrumental of the song.  It’s brilliant; cover music done right, in my opinion.  The last song that stood out to me was The Mavericks’ reworking of “Dr. Feelgood.” Imagine watching an old-west movie about a drug dealer in the town’s saloon. This would make for a perfect theme song for that movie. The Mavericks also take some liberty with the lyrics and make it work to a completely new beat and feel for the song.  You can tell The Mavericks are having fun and enjoying themselves on the track.  It’s a fun listen.

The Rest of the Album

The ten remaining tracks are relatively bland in my opinion. Big & Rich, Cassadee Pope and Florida Georgia Line all do their best to make these songs their own, but overall they just don’t measure up to the bar set by the three songs in the above section. They’re not bad; and quite frankly, Cassadee Pope sounds natural as an alternative rocker in “The Animal in Me.” But sonically, that song, along with FGL’s “If I Die Tomorrow” are similar to that of Nickelback or Three Days Grace.  They don’t sound like themselves on the tracks, and they vary too far from Motley Crue to justify it as a carbon copy cover.  Many of these artists, including Justin Moore, The Cadillac Three and The Eli Young Band don’t stand out on the track because they don’t stray too far from Motley Crue’s original song.  And as for the rest of the artists who do take that risk, most of them strikeout. Aaron Lewis’ production is far and away the most classic country song on the whole album, but he fabricated a southern drawl for the verses that takes away from the track. Gretchen Wilson is on the verge of screaming throughout her whole song. LeAnn Rimes takes advantage of her song and shows off her vocal abilities, but the song is “Smokin’ in the Boy’s Room.”  She didn’t change the lyric to “girl’s room” so I find it odd that they chose a female to undertake that song.  Darius Rucker, surprisingly, has a good cover song here. It’s an honest melody to his established country sound, and if I didn’t know this was a cover tribute, I’d assume this was an original for Hootie. This version of “Time for Change” is 100% Darius Rucker, and I think it would be a decent country single for him (had his last major hit not also been a cover).

Overall Thoughts

The album is just bland, uninteresting and inconsistent. In my opinion, tribute albums like this should stick to one mindset. Either pay tribute to Motley Crue by bringing in artists who can do the song justice without changing the melody too much, or bring in artists like Lauren Jenkins and The Mavericks who will do a country tribute to the band and recompose their songs to be country. This Nashville Outlaw tribute jumps between the two mindsets and doesn’t offer much of anything. Three points for three good songs.

Grade: 3/10