(Note: Derek is on vacation this week, so I’m taking over The Hodgepodge!)
What’s the next big movement in country music? We’ve had bro country, metro bro and now we appear on the verge of some sort of weird, heavily Christian-influenced movement. It’s pretty evident when Florida Georgia Line releases “H.O.L.Y.” and Hillary Scott announces a Christian-influenced album. All of the popular country artists are talking about how their new music is going to be more mature and dig deeper. To be honest, you know what I think of all of this? I could not care any less. I’ve reached the point of not caring what the next movement in mainstream country music is because they change sounds like a person changes socks. Besides there’s a much more interesting, albeit less flashy movement happening before your very eyes: The Americana Movement.
While popular country fans fuss over it and critics spend their time on self-important think-pieces on the next big thing on country radio, I’ve been quietly observing something pretty brilliant taking shape with this Americana movement. It’s becoming the “genre” (if you want to call it this) where country artists who don’t want to be called country artists go basically. It’s also home to many older country acts that the genre has cast aside for new shiny toys and other sincere, genuine artists who really can’t put their music into the box of a genre. That last point in particular is why I think many artists are drawn to the Americana label. This allure of not having to play by genre rules and standards is quite appealing. You don’t have to hear some stodgy, old critic or fan tell you that your songs aren’t country enough or shouldn’t include horns. You don’t have to hear some whiny popular country music fan tell you that you’re boring and not pop-y enough. In many ways Americana symbolizes freedom and control of your music to an artist.
Country music fans love to sit around and fantasize a new outlaw era rearing its head like in the 70s where Waylon, Willie and Merle all stood up to make their own music and how country radio was a golden paradise of songs. All of the artists band together and take down the labels and Florida Georgia Line gets put in the music version of Guantanamo Bay. And we all lived happily ever after. This is all fantasy of course. Florida Georgia Line, Sam Hunt and Luke Bryan aren’t going away ever. They’re making a lot of money for themselves, their label and have throngs of fans. This stuff doesn’t disappear. Country radio will never stop playing them (at least until they’re deemed too old to play). Mainstream country and country radio will at best be mediocre and downright garbage at worst.
Back to the Americana movement taking shape, at its core this is exactly like the outlaw movement. These are artists independently taking it upon themselves to make their own music and do things their own way. They’re experiencing sales and chart success in the forms of Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton. “But they’re country artists,” you say. Are they really country artists? For that matter is your favorite country artist really a country artist by today’s definition? Probably not. “I’m talking about the actual country standards,” you say. Define universal country standards that we can all agree on. Go on, I’ll wait. In the meantime I’m going to tell you why these three artists belong to Americana. I’ll start with the easiest argument. Jason Isbell is considered the Americana King, has championed it for years and identifies as such. Everyone pretty much agrees he’s Americana. Then we have Chris Stapleton. When you hear his music, is it straight country? No. You hear blues, soul and even some roots-rock. Now let’s look at the definition of Americana:
Americana is contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues, resulting in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw. While acoustic instruments are often present and vital, Americana also often uses a full electric band.
I would say Stapleton fits this more than country music, especially today’s definition of country music. Finally that brings me to Sturgill Simpson, who’s solo career sums up best why this Americana movement has been growing and has become such a thing. He made his debut with High Top Mountain, an album full of pure country and bluegrass. Independent country fans flocked to him in droves and touted his name as one to watch. Country radio and mainstream of course ignored him, something the fans who fantasize about a new outlaw movement were fine with being the case. Screw country radio they would say. Then he followed it up with Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, an album full of straight country, some roots rock and psychedelic rock-country fusion. It launched him into the stratosphere, gaining the attention of mainstream and hipsters everywhere. Country radio continued to ignore him and country fans continued to say screw radio. However he was nominated for a Grammy for Best Americana Album.
Now that brings us to his newly released third album A Sailor’s Guide To Earth. Country fans expected something straight country or close to it. Hipsters and mainstream bandwagoners expected more psychedelic music. Neither got what they wanted or expected. Despite universal critical acclaim, a large number of people have called out Sturgill for getting away from his roots and what’s best for him in their minds. They’ve criticized the horns on his record. Sturgill’s response is naturally to be a little bit angry. Here’s a group of people holding him to their standards and telling him how to make his music. So it came as no surprise to me that Simpson had this to say at a concert in Dallas this past weekend:
“You won’t see my ass at the ACMs or the CMAs. It’s all politics, and I’ve got a better chance at winning the presidency. I’d rather play for you guys, because who cares about that shit. It might take 10 years, but when they need my help, I’m gonna give ‘em two of these.”
Simpson went on to give a one-finger salute with each hand and earlier in the night defended the horns on his new album. It doesn’t sound like someone who considers himself part of country music. He even admitted before A Sailor’s Guide To Earth came out that it may not be a country record. Of course I’ve seen fans and critics say Sturgill is ruining his career by saying such things and that he should show up to these award shows with open arms These are the same awards shows that have ignored him for years. I’ve even seen fans who said Simpson screwed up by not having some “radio songs” on his new record. Keep in mind this is the same group that said screw country radio the last two albums. Now all of a sudden they care about these pointless award shows and radio? This is flat-out hypocritical. Meanwhile they’re saying Simpson has turned his back on the people who got him where he’s at with these remarks and this new album.
I tell you this entire anecdote on Simpson’s career because it proves the point of the Americana movement. Here’s a talented artist making great music and some people just can’t help but pedantically criticize just to criticize and squabble about genres. Who needs that? There are several more examples that prove why we need Americana to continue to grow, like the ridiculousness of the “Texas Country” scene. Genuine female country artists have been ignored by radio for years and are forced to become “alt-country.” We live in a world where Kacey Musgraves and Ashley Monroe are essentially black balled from major airwaves because they refuse to play the game. Alan Jackson can’t get a freaking add at radio for his new single. There’s a group of talented artists on major labels making great music, but many are suppressed by radio. I could go on and on.
Increasingly any artist with self-respect for their music doesn’t want to be identified with country music. Why would they? They get ignored by the mainstream and radio. Their hard work is ignored and dismissed. The popular country music over the last few years has destroyed the genre’s reputation and made it a laughing stock in some circles. If you walked up to someone on the street and told them you’re a country fan, they’re going to think Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan. This whole fight to restore/save country music is pointless because great music is being made somewhere by someone. It may not be on the radio or charting alongside Beyoncé on iTunes, but it’s being made and you can access it with ease. Why does great music have to be popular? Why does it have to fit in a box? It doesn’t. Popularity should never dictate music. *Genre rules and lines shouldn’t dictate music. The only use of terms like country and Americana is to guide us, the listener. It just makes it easier for us to find what kind of music we’re looking for and wanting to hear. A true artist does not go into a studio and let genre guide the music. They just make music. That’s what Americana is all about for these artists.
*Of course don’t get this twisted to think it’s okay for Zac Brown Band to make EDM music and put it on country radio. He has every right to make EDM music and put it on his album. But when you’re sending “Beautiful Drug” to country radio, you’re calling it a country song. And that means you’re just lying straight to my face, which isn’t okay. That’s like pointing at a duck and calling it a chicken. That’s an insult to my intelligence. Don’t tell me that this song is one thing when it clearly isn’t.
Upcoming/Recent Americana and Country Releases
- The following artists are releasing new albums tomorrow:
- Jennifer Nettles – Playing With Fire
- Michaela Anne – Bright Lights and the Fame
- Hard Working Americans – Rest in Chaos
- Darrell Scott – Couchville Sessions
- Wild Ponies – Radiant
- The Honeycutters will be releasing a new album titled On The Ropes next week
- Luke Bell will be releasing a new self-titled album on June 17
- Jack Ingram announced he will be releasing his first new studio album in seven years on June 24 and it will be called Midnight Motel
- Cody Jinks announced he’s releasing a new album I’m Not The Devil on August 12.
- Avett Brothers announced they will also be releasing a new album on June 24 and it will be titled True Sadness
- Finally some news that caught me off guard and that’s the surprise re-emergence of Josh Turner. In Country Aircheck this week, an ad ran promoting Turner’s new single called “Hometown Girl” and it’s going for adds on May 31.
Throwback Thursday Song
Linda Ronstadt’s “The Only Mama That’ll Walk The Line” – Fellow country writer Jason Scott encouraged me to dig into Linda Ronstadt’s catalog and I wasn’t disappointed. This is from her debut album and one of my favorites from her. If you aren’t familiar with Ronstadt like I was, I encourage you to check her out too.
Non-Country Suggestion of the Week
Kyle Craft’s Dolls of Highland – If you follow me on Twitter I’ve been non-stop praising new artist Kyle Craft. He’s a rock artist who grew up Louisiana before moving to Portland, Oregon a few years back. You can definitely hear the southern influence in the album, along with several other influences from a variety of genres. I’ve seen him compared to David Bowie, but I hear more Queen actually. Anyway he’s fantastic and Dolls of Highland is one of my favorite albums released this year.
Tweet of the Week
Somebody on Twitter wondered what has happened to Kacey Musgraves and she made the perfect response.
A Great iTunes Review
This is a pretty spot-on review of the new Keith Urban album Ripcord. Not much country to be found on it.