Derek is busy dealing with some stuff this week (don’t worry there’s nothing wrong, he’s just a little too busy to write), so I’m stepping in this week to write the Hodgepodge. It was good timing too, as I have multiple things on my mind I would like to discuss at the moment regarding the current states of country and Americana music. There was no way I could pick just one topic, so I’ve decided to do a little state of the genre type address on some topics I feel are pressing and need addressed. So enough pleasantries and let’s get to the talking points, starting with the most prevalent on my mind…
1. Country & Americana Music are Down in Quality in 2016
This seems to be the consensus amongst not only you the readers, but the industry as a whole. I agree with this sentiment, to an extent. There hasn’t been as much quality music being churned out this year compared to recent years. This is true not only for mainstream/popular country, but in the independent and Americana scenes too. But I see people talking like there’s a complete lack of quality and this just isn’t true. I think the issue people are getting mixed up here is genre qualifications and quality standards. No two albums exemplify this more than Sturgill Simpsons’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth and Robert Ellis’ self-titled album. Here you have two artists that have been consistently identified as country artists by the fans and are pretty popular too. They then both release albums that are sonically different from all of their previous releases. It’s a departure from their usual sound and as you know music fans don’t always react well to change. People are calling these albums bad because they’re not fitting their standards of genre qualifications. It’s not evaluating the actual quality of the music for what it is, but rather arbitrarily dismissing them for not meeting their sonic standards. This is flat-out lazy on the part of listeners and reviewers employing this train of thought. I will never dismiss quality music just because it doesn’t fit what I wanted. If its quality, it’s quality. I don’t give a shit if it doesn’t fit the genre I wanted it to fit. Of course I’ve already laid out this thought process on my review of Keith Urban’s Ripcord.
With this point aside, I think the better way to describe country and Americana music in 2016 is that there hasn’t been enough quality music that reflects the roots and sounds of the genre. There’s a lot of different sounds and influences being experimented with right now. I think mainly it’s a lot of artists trying to find a way to stand out while also trying to satisfy their own creative itches. I also stand by my point that a lot of artists are tired of being put in genre boxes. As Robert Ellis sings on “Elephant,” how can you call it art when you’re sticking to a dotted line? I have faith that things are about to improve, especially in the month of August where there are several potential album releases that could be album of the year contenders.
I think there’s a bigger problem though facing artists that is rearing its head in 2016. Both in mainstream and independent scenes the competition for eye balls has never been greater, which makes these problems so concerning…
2. Too Many Independent Country & Americana Acts are Failing to Stand Out/Get Their Name Out There
Many up and coming acts love to look at the likes of Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton as inspirations for their own path to success in music. They love to think they too can replicate the paths they took and be household names just like them. I get a lot of pitches every single week of starry-eyed, hungry and ambitious artists looking to have their music featured here right on the blog in the hopes that they can get enough promotion to stand out and be “discovered.” But here’s the problem I see: they don’t do enough to stand out. It’ll be good music, but it does absolutely nothing to stand out and be different from the crowd. Keep in mind I get pitches from all over the world, not just in the United States. As an independent artist you have to remember you’re going against thousands of other acts in the same position as you. If you want to be recognized and featured on blogs like mine, you have to do everything you can to be unique while also producing genuinely great music. It’s easier said than done. I may be coming off sounding like a pompous ass, but that’s not my point. If I featured and reviewed everything pitched to me, I would never get any sleep. Readers would be driven away by the lack of quality standout music. It’s my job to feature the very best not only to keep my sanity and keep readers’ attentions, but because somebody has to be a gatekeeper for quality. This means I have to turn down upwards of 90% of what is pitched to me.
Then of course there are artists out there who do make great enough music to standout and get featured on my blog, but they simply don’t do enough to grow their fan base and stand out even more. This could be due to lack of a web presence, social media presence and/or touring presence. It’s maddening to watch talented artists who have a chance to really break out squander opportunities before their very eyes and be stuck in the same position for years. Just being featured and getting critical acclaim on blogs like mine isn’t the end all be all to get your name out there. It’s 1% of the things you need to do to grow.
Of course on the flip-side…
3. Major Labels Have Become Too Reliant on Radio to Break Out New Artists
This comes after I had a lengthy and constructive conversation with Christopher Baggs the other day on Twitter. For those unaware, Baggs is a country music chart tracker and industry insider who is very knowledgeable when it comes to these subjects. I highly recommend following him if you don’t already. Anyway our conversation begins after he pointed out how this week on the aircheck chart that 30 of the top 70 songs did not move up or lower in position from the week before with their bullet along with no recurrent. On top of that there’s a very crowded release schedule. This is obviously a big problem. To see the full conversation between us, start at this tweet (click on the date to see the full conversation):
We both agree that right now the labels are on a very dangerous path that could potentially hurt all parties involved. Anyone who follows the Current Pulse of Mainstream Country Music knows that there are a lot of songs being pushed way too long on the chart and overstaying their welcome. Chase Rice’s “Gonna Wanna Tonight” spent over a year on the chart! Major labels are taking a boom or bust approach to breaking new and lower level acts via radio and this in turn is delaying new albums from these artists. The Cadillac Three have spent several years on Big Machine and are just now releasing their first album under the label in August. This is all because labels are hell-bent on making singles work and this is just short-sighted. With all of the technology and resources at their disposal there’s no reason why they can’t find other ways to break these artists out and get their names out. I don’t understand why these labels just can’t accept that sometimes a song is not a hit and move on. If a song spends 20 weeks in the 30s to 40s on the chart without hitting the top 30, that should be a sign that this song is just not going to work. But every label has seemed to adopt this boom or bust attitude, so now we’re about to find out what happens when you try to put 100 gallons of water into a 20 gallon bucket (it’s not going to be pretty),
4. Female Artists Still Aren’t Given a Fair Shake
I’ll keep this one short and simple. It’s over one year after Tomato Gate and not a damn thing has changed in regards to female artists at radio. The only female acts that can get consistently played at radio are Carrie Underwood (an established star) and Kelsea Ballerini (a pop artist that has a label behind her willing to throw obscene amounts of money into marketing because her boyfriend’s dad runs it). Jennifer Nettles will be gone from the chart soon. Miranda Lambert will get a nice initial run with “Vice,” but I highly doubt this song reaches the top of the chart. Maddie & Tae have appeared to be Musgrave’d by programmers. All the while labels continue to pigeonhole their new female acts into two categories: straight pop or throwback country. Of course things aren’t exactly great for female artists in independent scene either. Just like in popular country, male artists get far and away more attention than female artists at festivals. It doesn’t help also when critics like myself stick our feet in our mouth and call them great female artist when we should just say great artist like we do for male artists (I saw an artist point this out and it made me realize I’m guilty of this on occasion). Just overall we could do better on giving female artists a fairer shake and opportunities.
5. Despite all of these issues, I think fans are becoming more informed than ever.
I think slowly but surely more and more country fans are realizing they can’t rely on mainstream media and radio to get their country music fix. They’re taking to the Internet and discovering great artists on their own and through blogs like this one. It may not be that noticeable, but I can truly sense that people are no longer accepting the status quo that has been presented to them. If enough fans become informed and call the bullshit out, that’s when real change and progress gets made. Support your favorite artists and tell your friends too.
Upcoming/Recent Country & Americana Releases
- As far as I’m aware there are no major releases on our radar this week. But next week the following albums will be released
- Lori McKenna – The Bird & The Rifle
- Hillary Scott – Love Remains
- In two weeks Alan Jackson will release the box-set Genuine: The Alan Jackson Story digitally. It was released last year exclusively in a physical format at Walmart. As someone who owns it, I highly recommend it if you’re an Alan Jackson fan.
- Also on August 5 Cody Johnson will release his new album Gotta Be Me.
- Dolly Parton will be releasing a new album on August 19 titled Pure & Simple.
- Amanda Shires announced she will be releasing a new album titled My Piece of Land on September 16.
- On September 30 the legendary John Prine will be releasing a new duets album called For Better, or Worse. The female talent featured on the album will be staggering and expansive, including the likes of Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves.
Throwback Thursday Song
“Help Me Make It Through The Night” by The Highwaymen – Country’s greatest supergroup performs the classic Kris Kristofferson tune together. Just hit play and enjoy.
Non-Country Suggestion of the Week
“Let The Storm Descend Upon You” by Avantasia – I’m not usually a big metal listener, but I instantly loved symphonic metal group Avantasia upon first listen. Their entire new album Ghostlights is highly recommended from yours truly, but my favorite on it is hands down this song. It’s a whopping 12 minute epic! But I assure it’s fantastic. This is probably one of my favorite songs of 2016.
Tweet of the Week
This is in reference to a recent interview Granger Smith had with The Boot, calling Texas the minor leagues. And this tweet is pretty damn funny (funnier than anything Earl Dibbles Jr. has ever done).
The Perfect Steven Tyler Album Review
There’s no chance in hell we’re reviewing the new Steven Tyler album because it is all kinds of awful. This iTunes review here sums it up pretty well (although I’m not sure if I agree on the Run DMC version of “Walk This Way” being bad). Tyler is nothing but a trend chaser desperately trying to cling to the spotlight.