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.

What Are You Thinking Brad Paisley?

Brad Paisley
Wikimedia Commons

As a country music fan, everyone remembers the artists they grew up listening to that made them fall in love with the genre. Many older fans grew up with big names like Cash, Waylon, Jones, Haggard, Willie, Loretta, etc. But I’m little younger. I grew up with 90s and 2000s country, which many of these traditional fans from previous eras shunned for its pop sound. Nevertheless there was still a lot of great country music being made in this era. There were three artists I could always listen to on the radio and enjoy their music. These three are the reason why I got into country music and became a fan for life. Those three artists were George Strait, Alan Jackson and Brad Paisley.

Strait just retired from touring, but is still making great country music. Jackson is sadly no longer featured on the radio, but he’s still making great country music too. He even made a pretty good bluegrass album recently. These two have stuck to their roots regardless of the current trends plaguing the genre. And then there’s Brad Paisley. I remember last year at this time I was still a fervent defender of Paisley, even though I found Wheelhouse to be sub par compared to his previous albums. There were still a few quality songs on it though and he was still regarded by myself and many others to be one of the few “good ones” left in mainstream country music.

Then in the spring of 2014, Paisley announced he was releasing a new album and released the first single from it titled “River Bank.” I was hoping for the best. Then I listened to the single and became disgusted and enraged. My first thought was he sold out to the latest trend in country music. It prompted to me to write what I believe to be my first ever negative review of Paisley. But I then convinced myself to hold out hope that “River Bank” was the anomaly of his new album and that the rest of it would be much better. That hope was squashed when I read this in an interview he had with Billboard:

Produced with longtime collaborator Luke Wooten (Dierks Bentley, “Nashville”), “Moonshine” sees Paisley adapting the modern technology of EDM and dubstep to the classic country formula. “When you hear a banjo through stutter edit, it’s the coolest thing you ever heard,” Paisley said. “I have a song that’s a basic love song, it’s got a great groove, and I cut this guitar part that gets distorted when I turn the nob up. I would say to Luke, ‘Oh, that should’ve been done 20 years ago, but they couldn’t.’ The rulebook’s gone, or was there ever one? They try, but I don’t play by it.”

EDM and dubstep? Are you kidding me? What the hell are you smoking? I had a bad feeling that after his previous album Wheelhouse didn’t perform great on radio or the charts that he could sell out (or the insane thought he could go back to this roots). And it looks to me he’s desperate to remain relevant in mainstream country. While I shun him for his desperation, I do understand the other side of the coin. As I said in my Ronnie Dunn post, it’s hard for artists to accept they’re no longer one of the most popular names in their genre. But they fail to realize that there are a lot of fans that still support them. Many of them have been supporting them for years. I still recall Paisley’s earliest material, songs such as “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” and “We Danced.” Paisley sang with two all-time country greats George Jones and Bill Anderson on “Too Country.” Remember this Paisley?

 

That collaboration happened 13 years ago. Now who’s he collaborating with? The latest monstrosity for him to release (actually leaked by Bobby Bones) is a rap remix of “River Bank” with Colt Ford. Yes, ladies and gentlemen this is not a joke. Paisley has now teamed up with Colt Ford of all people on a “country” song. He went from singing with the likes of country royalty to the bottom of the barrel in his desperate attempt to remain relevant. I’m not going to put the video of that remix in this article because unlike Paisley I appreciate my readers. If you insist on hearing it, just click the link above.

I know critics of my sentiments will counter with statements such as: “He’s evolving country music. Nobody listens to old country anymore.” “The music he’s making now is appealing to the fans.” “Have an open mind.” I’ll address each one of these statements. First, he isn’t evolving country music. EDM and rap collaborations are not evolving the genre, but rather mainstream country’s desperate attempt at popularity. Country may be the most popular genre right now, but it’s only temporary. It’s a passing fad. The bubble is going to burst eventually, so this is really hurting country long-term. You know who’s evolving country music? Sturgill Simpson on his latest album. His music on Metamodern Sounds in Country Music is steeped in the roots and traditions of country music, yet have a modern sound too. Zac Brown Band collaborated with Dave Grohl on their latest EP. The single from that EP, “All Alright,” is doing good on radio. The marriage of Brown’s sound and Grohl’s sound make great music that feels fresh, yet still country. And Old Crow Medicine Show is proof you don’t even have to evolve your sound to make great country music.

The music he’s making now is not appealing to the actual country music fans. What fans is he appealing to with his latest single and album? The fad fans. These are the fans that simply hop from one fad to the next. Five years ago these people never even bothered with country music. They’re only interested now because it’s the most popular music to listen to right now. They listen to this music for the social status (or they want to f*ck the artist singing the song), not because they truly love it. How else do you explain the popularity of such shitty music? These are the types of people who couldn’t name you one George Jones song, but could recite every song on the latest Luke Bryan album. In a few years these people won’t give a shit about country music and yet these are the people Paisley is appealing to with his latest music. I’ll still be listening to country music though. And as far as having an open mind? Look at Country Perspective’s Top Songs of 2014 so far. There’s plenty of variety. I assure you my mind is open to all forms of country music.

What’s the point of this long rant? Paisley cares more about the almighty dollar and fame than he does his loyal fans and making quality music. Once he saw his stature slipping he ran towards the open arms of Nashville executives and their dirty trends. Why does he even wear a cowboy hat still? He should just throw those in the garbage and borrow some of Luke Bryan’s ball caps. Then put it on backwards, get some dark sunglasses and start shaking his moneymaker at all of his concerts. He clearly doesn’t care about his legacy or reputation anymore. I’m not even that angry at Paisley. I’m just disappointed. He once made great country music and now he’s lowering himself to everyone else’s standards. Enjoy your temporary fans, Brad. This longtime fan is turning your music off.