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

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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.

Album Review – Mack McKenzie’s One Last, One More is An Absolute Gem

Mack

When reviewing an artist’s debut album, I usually don’t set my expectations too high. After all it’s the first real look at the artist and you usually only have one song to go off of heading into the review. The best you can usually expect in debut albums is a few great songs with some bumps along the way. It’s natural that an artist’s debut isn’t great all the way through because they’re still finding themselves. Well everyone once in a while you have a debut that bucks this conventional wisdom and that’s exactly what Mack McKenzie’s debut album One Last, One More does. Why does is his debut so good? It’s because Mack knows exactly who he is and the music he wants to make.

The first song to kick off the album is “The Anthem (Broke and Busted).” This song is what it says it is right in the title. This is Mack’s anthem of who he is and what he will always be. Being that it’s his first album, think of this song as his introduction to everybody. The steel guitar is loud and proud in this song, prepping you for what you’re about to hear in One Last, One More. The second song is “Don’t Go,” which is a heartbreak song through and through. The man in the song is pleading to the woman in his life to not leave him, but it’s clearly over. When hearing Mack’s voice in this song, one artist immediately came to mind. I know this is a lofty comparison, but I really hear a lot of Jason Eady in Mack’s voice in this song. In fact this song would pass for an Eady song easily. And that’s a good thing. Not only do you hear it in this song, but throughout the album.

“Your Ways” is another heartbreak song, except this is one is much more upbeat. The piano is featured heavily throughout this song and you know how much I’ve been advocating for more piano play in country songs. With this heavy piano play it gives the song a country western feel. This is arguably the best instrumentation featured on the album. McKenzie slows it down next with “Oceans.” It’s about how a man feels like he’s just woken up on an island, tossed onto it by the ocean. The ocean represents the woman in his life and the island representing how lost he feels at the moment. The use of an ocean sound effect at the beginning and end of the song is also a nice touch because it’s another element that adds to the story being told in the song. The stripped down instrumentation allows McKenzie to tell a story with his lyrics, making for a great song.

His first single from the album that was featured here on Country Perspective a couple of months ago, “I’m Doing Alright,” is about depression and dealing with demons. As McKenzie said in my interview with him, the narrator in the song saying they’re alright is really a “façade.” The instrumentation and lyrics come together perfectly in this song and once you understand the theme, you will appreciate it even more. “Leaving Kind of Love” is about a relationship where both sides have been saying for a while they’re leaving each other, yet they stay together. By the end of the song they realize despite rocky moments they both belong together and love each other. It’s really a unique love song compared to the average country love song because I think it’s a more realistic look at long-term romantic relationships. Many like to paint it as a fairy tale, but it’s really a battle and I think Mack gets this point across well.

Mack McKenzie

Following this is the album’s title track, which is about two people who can’t move on from their past relationship and continue to give it one more try. Again Mack does a great job with his lyrics painting a realistic scenario of how relationships play out, from the feeling of internal conflict of doubt expressed to the willingness to give it another go. It’s really a deeply layered song and it shows how great of a storyteller McKenzie is with his music. Switching gears, McKenzie dishes out his own protest song, “Tan Lines and Tailgates.” McKenzie expressed his distaste for bro country in our interview and that comes through here on this anti-bro country anthem. There is a little humor thrown in at the beginning, but the rest of the song is more serious and McKenzie just flat-out spells what country music should be about. For example, he sings that drinking songs should be not about the drinking itself, but what you’re thinking about.

Speaking of what drinking songs should be about, McKenzie backs up his talk with a genuine drinking song, “Beneath Your Feet.” The man in the song is obviously distraught about his life and is asking for someone to take the drink from his hand to get some relief. He’s hit rock bottom and is asking for help. The tone set by the instrumentation of the song fits perfectly with it’s theme and I think McKenzie’s take on a drinking song is quite good.

The entire album has been pretty damn good up to this point and yet McKenzie saves what I believe to be the very best song for last, “Walk With Me.” This song is about a man who has just lost his wife of 50 years and he recounts his life with her throughout the song. The string instrumentation used in this song is fantastic and progresses the song perfectly. The use of a female background vocal is also hauntingly effective. By the end of the song, the old man’s time has come too and although he is a little scared, he knows his love his waiting for him on the other side. This is the best song on the album to me because McKenzie’s storytelling and ability to create the right emotions is top-notch. This is music artistry at it’s finest.

So as you can tell I really like this album. McKenzie shows that you can take a little and make a lot, as he doesn’t have the most nor the best equipment at his disposal. Really he shows that all you need to make great country music is three chords and the truth. The songwriting on this album is honest, raw and layered. The instrumentation isn’t flashy and it doesn’t need to be. It’s just right. Although he reminds me of Jason Eady at times with his vocals, McKenzie is still himself and has his own sound. I feel like there was only one ingredient or something missing that prevented me from giving this album a 10. I can’t put my finger on it. Nevertheless a debut album shouldn’t be this great and yet it is. Mack McKenzie’s One Last, One More is highly recommended and I think his music future is quite bright.

Grade: 9/10

 

Review – Maddie & Tae’s Self-Titled EP Reveals More of Who They Really Are

When word got out this summer that Scott Borchetta had signed Maddie & Tae to the resurrected Dot Records and revealed their first single would be an anti-bro country song, it set the country music world on fire. Everyone was discussing it and eagerly awaiting to hear this protest song that would take down the loathsome bro country that has been plaguing the country air waves for years. While it certainly isn’t no “Murder on Music Row,” the song did live up to its name of calling out bro country. Several hit bro country songs were mentioned in the song and anti-bro country people everywhere loved it. The problem is taking down popular trends is hard. It’s even more difficult when the artists calling out a popular trend are brand new to music and are only teenagers. Borchetta put them in bad position, as anti-bro country fans looked to them as heroes and at the same time the vocal pro-bro country crowd was angry. Or they responded in a sexist manner like known douchebag Chase Rice. I’m not even going to link that disgusting tweet he sent out about the song because I’ll just get angry. Just take my word for it. So this pretty much forced Maddie & Tae to stand down and play the song off as good-natured parody, much to the chagrin of the anti-bro country crowd.

On top of this many felt this was a gimmicky song to start for the duo to start their career off with. I don’t know why Borchetta started them off with this song and instead just pick one of the songs I’m about to review off their debut EP. It would’ve been better if they did “Girl in a Country Song” as their second or third single, but I digress. They hurt their standing with the traditional country crowd even more when they had that sub par performance on Letterman back in September too. I didn’t want to pass judgment on them based on one song, especially one that is a protest song, so I’ve been eagerly awaiting to hear new material from the duo to get better idea of who they really are and what kind of music they want to make. I was a little disappointed to see only four songs on their new EP, with one of them being “Girl in a Country Song.” So since this is such a short EP I’m going to grade each song individually instead of as a whole.

“Girl in a Country Song” – I already reviewed this song of course back in July. It was quite popular on the site throughout the summer, along with other Maddie & Tae related content. If you missed my review here’s the gist of it: “Many people rush to call “Girl In A Country Song” a protest song. But this isn’t a modern-day “Murder on Music Row.” There is no venom or anger behind the lyrics in the song nor from Maddie & Tae in interviews. Think of this more as a parody song. It’s a tongue in cheek poke at the clichés of bro country. You can look at this song from two different perspectives. You can look at negatively because it’s another corporate produced trend in country music. Or you can look at this positively because many people will view it as a protest song. It’s going to wake up many people who have been blind to the bro country craze and make them demand better music possibly. I choose to look at this through the latter perspective. “Girl In A Country Song” is going to do more good than bad and for that I applaud it.” To read the full review click here.

Grade: 8/10

 

“Sierra” – So here’s the first song after “Girl in a Country Song” and the first real glimpse at Maddie & Tae as artists. The song is about a girl named Sierra and according to Maddie & Tae she’s not a very good person. The evidence of this is Sierra dumping her friends, being cruel hearted and treating boys like crap. Now some people might find the topic of this song to be a little juvenile, but keep in mind this is coming from two teenage girls. This song sounds like it’s genuinely coming from them, which some people didn’t feel with “Girl in a Country Song.” Another good thing they do with this song is they utilize their harmonies well and is something I want to hear from them more. It’s really hard to describe the sound of this song. There are points where it sounds blatantly pop country and then other moments where it sounds decidedly country. There are audible fiddles at one point! This song is catchy, genuine and could do well at radio. One more thing is Maddie & Tae show their personality in this song, which is nice to see. (By the way I like the more stripped down acoustic version of this song in the video below)

Grade: 8.5/10

 

“Fly” – This song is an inspirational song about not giving up and pursuing your goal. This is the first slow tempo song from the duo and I think it’s a solid showing. The theme of the song is a little generic, but I’ll take generic inspiration over a lot of other themes on country radio. Another thing to point out is the song seems to be pointed towards young girls, a void in country that needs filled after Taylor Swift left the genre. If the intent of this song was to appeal to young females it does a great job of this. This is the most country sounding song on the EP, as there is plenty of acoustic guitars and a banjo featured throughout the song. I wish the lyrics were a little better in this song. It has the exact opposite problem of “Girl in a Country Song”: Generic lyrics, but a great sound.

Grade: 8/10

“Your Side of Town” – An upbeat song about heartbreak. Basically it’s what the song title says. The woman in the song wants her ex to stay on his side of town and she’ll stay on her side. It’s mostly country with some pop influences. To me it gives off a Miranda Lambert song vibe. The attitude is feisty and in your face, so that would explain the Lambert vibe. There’s not a lot of vocal range displayed here, but the I don’t think this song is trying to be serious. It’s more of a fun radio song. Once again fiddles make an appearance on the EP. It’s decent and does it what it sets out to accomplish.

Grade: 7.5/10

After listening to this EP it’s given me a better idea of what kind of artists Maddie & Tae aim to be. Based off this little sample, they seem to want to have a traditional sound while at the same time sounding modern. I think they straddled this line well for now, but it will be hard to pull off on a full album. They need to pick one side and go with it (hopefully traditional). Again this is just a small sample and we still don’t have a full picture. With Big Machine Records currently up for sale along with all of it’s imprints, including Maddie & Tae’s Dot Records label, it’ll be interesting to see what happens with this duo in the future. If they don’t make enough money to suit the new owners I could see them getting the boot, which would be sad to see. The reason I say this is a possibility is because Nashville labels have demonstrated in recent years that they have no problem ditching female artists at the drop of a hat. Plus the duo seems to be a Borchetta project and he would be gone when new management takes over. Putting that aside, I think this was a good sample for the duo and I look forward to hearing future material.

To preview and buy Maddie & Tae’s self-titled EP on Amazon, click here

Watch: Maddie & Tae’s “Girl In A Country Song” Music Video

 

Maddie & Tae have officially unveiled the music video for their new anti-bro country hit, “Girl In A Country Song.” And I have to say it’s quite well done. I love how they reversed the roles and had the sexist guys you usually see in bro country videos dressed liked and acting like the ladies in those same videos. It’s pretty hilarious. It also sends a pretty clear message.

Review – Maddie & Tae’s “Girl In A Country Song”