Celebrity. Judge on The Voice. Spokesperson for Gildan. Cross-over artist. Miranda’s now former husband. These are the most common monikers I’ve seen thrown at Blake Shelton over the past few years. His stature has risen to new heights and continues to grow his fan base. Along with Adam Levine, he’s the face of The Voice. Over the course of 2015 it was all about his big divorce with Miranda Lambert. It was all about the fallout afterwards and his dating of fellow judge on The Voice and pop artist Gwen Stefani. I’m sure you’ve seen his underwear commercial at some point. All of these different monikers and yet the most important is notably missing. What happened to Blake Shelton, country artist?
It’s pretty easy to sit back and take pot shots at this notion. His head got too big. Ever since he has joined The Voice it’s easy to point to the fact that his music has gone down hill and taken a more pop turn. Perhaps more pressure to look cool? He sold out to popular trends with terrible songs like “Boys ‘Round Here” and “Sure Be Cool If You Did.” He had guest appearances on albums by Christina Aguilera and Shakira. Who can forget his “old farts and jackasses” quote? It was disrespectful and over the line and he knew it as soon as he said it. And of course he attempted to cover an iconic song like “Footloose.” To put it politely, it was laughably bad.
All of this has made Blake Shelton forget what he is at his core and that’s a country artist. Once upon time Blake was only just a country artist who focused on putting out country music. Not just country music, but pretty good country music. It all started with “Austin,” his debut single that went on to achieve Platinum status. Then there’s “‘Ol Red,” considered the traditional song of Blake’s catalog. I always laugh at this because up until about 2009/2010 Shelton consistently put out sensible and country rooted singles. Go check out songs like “Goodbye Time” (a Conway Twitty cover), “Nobody but Me” and “She Wouldn’t Be Gone.” You never heard a song from him and wondered if it should qualify as country. The next couple of years got increasingly pop country, but it wasn’t until 2013 when Blake started “crossing over” into other genres with aforementioned sellout songs above.
For the majority of his career, Blake Shelton has put out passable music. Of course it’s all about what you’ve done lately and it doesn’t exactly put the best taste in your mouth. Shelton hasn’t been near the worst offenders in the genre as of late, as the likes of Sam Hunt and Old Dominion are hell-bent on taking it to new lows never seen before. But he has clearly not been up to full potential. His last album, the 2014 release Bringing Back The Sunshine, felt like it never got off the ground. It was mediocre and came off as safe. This is arguably worse than putting out a terrible album because at least people remember those. The only thing people will remember from Bringing Back The Sunshine is Shelton’s decent duet with the talented Ashley Monroe, “Lonely Tonight.” Preceding it was “Neon Light,” a song that was pulled out of the oven ten minutes before it was ready. The third single “Sangria” was the definition of toothless and “Gonna” was forgettable pop music. This has all added up to paltry album sales for Bringing Back The Sunshine, which as of this moment has only sold 437,100 units. His 2013 album Based On A True Story has sold 1.46 million units and his 2011 album Red River Blue has sold 1.24 million units.
Throw in all of the tabloids chasing him down constantly and things have never been more chaotic for Blake. He has no critical buzz, sales are down and his divorce took a hit on his image. It’s why now more than ever Shelton needs to focus on his music because in my mind it all sets up for redemption. The country artist in Blake should be able to harness the emotions from all of this and create compelling music. More than anything it should be a return to his roots to demonstrate maturity and respect. Blake Shelton is a 39-year-old man. He should not be chasing trends with the Sam Hunts of the world. He should be putting out some of the best music of his career and becoming the elder statesman of a genre that badly needs one in the mainstream realm. And it’s not like he would lose any radio appeal. Tim McGraw has been proving that with his single choices in recent years. There’s no reason Blake Shelton can’t follow his lead.
One encouraging sign of this possibly happening is apparently Shelton was quite eager to get the lead single out from his new upcoming album. According to 92.5 WBEE assistant program director Billy Kidd, he wanted to release it right now, but his label ultimately pushed it back to March. I haven’t seen this type of enthusiasm out of Shelton in a while in regards to releasing new music. Even more encouraging is what he told Country Countdown USA:
“I found some people in my life that have changed my life forever. Some has been bad and some that’s been pretty good. I’m doing what I’m supposed to do, and that’s put all I’ve gone through and put it into music, and I never felt more connected to a record before. When people hear this record, they may not know what happened to me, but they’re gonna know how I felt about it. And that’s exciting for me, to just lay it out there for people.”
We won’t know of course if this record is truly good until we hear it (which might come out as soon as May). But Blake appears pretty focused and excited about it. It’s a sign that he still cares about his music and that’s something you never want to see an artist lack. Everything is setting up perfectly for Blake Shelton to make 2016 his year of redemption. Despite all of the ill will you might hold towards the man, at the end of the day he’s still got a lot of talent. All it can take is one good record to wipe past woes and blues away. Ultimately an artist is judged by his art. And if he focuses on his art again, people will stop thinking of Blake Shelton as a celebrity or a television judge. They’ll think of him as a country artist.