The Hodgepodge: Is Country Music at the Point of No Return?

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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.