Essays, Rants, and Ramblings

Gotta Love “We Hate Pop Country”

If you saw this morning’s post about my being blocked by We Hate Pop Country – know that it was all a mistake and the post has been deleted! I take it all back. Whether this was Facebook’s glitch or an accident on the part of WHPC editors, who knows and who cares. But it certainly wasn’t their page taking a ham-handed approach to comments, politics, or diversity. Quite the opposite. Many thanks to them for their speed, professionalism, and courtesy.

We know return you to your regularly scheduled meme sharing.

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When Jamey Johnson Sings “This Land Is Your Land”

Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” is an amazing song. NPR tells the story, which you may already know:

He was irritated by Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” sung by Kate Smith, which seemed to be endlessly playing on the radio in the late 1930s. So irritated, in fact, that he wrote this song as a retort, at first sarcastically calling it “God Blessed America for Me” before renaming it “This Land Is Your Land.” Guthrie’s original words to the song included this verse:

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me.
The sign was painted, said ‘Private Property.’
But on the backside, it didn’t say nothing.
This land was made for you and me.

Guthrie’s recorded version was more or less lost until [1997]… Still, it was sung at rallies, around campfires and in progressive schools. It was these populist lyrics that had appealed to the political Left in America. Guthrie’s folk-singing son, Arlo Guthrie, and Pete Seeger have both made a point of singing the more radical verses to “This Land Is Your Land,” also reviving another verse that Guthrie wrote but never officially recorded…

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple,
by the relief office I saw my people.
As they stood hungry,
I stood there wondering if God blessed America for me.

That’s not an easy verse. This song is not a nationalistic rah-rah ditty full of blind jingoism. It’s not even an actual patriotic heralding of America’s greatness. It is a lament for her people, left to suffer in hard times while the rich wall off their land and hoard the country’s growth – but it makes me love America all the more, for it sings of her true strength, its people. The words are, as Stephen Foster wrote in this blog’s namesake song, “a song that will linger forever in our ears… a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave, Oh! hard times come again no more.”

I have heard two singers cover This Land Is Your Land as a dirge, truly highlighting it as an ode to the poor: David Crowder and Jamey Johnson (who, side note, shares Guthrie’s birthday). They do it slowly, poigniantly, beautifully. I am moved every time I listen to either of them cover Guthrie.

So what the hell is wrong with Johnson’s audiences when he sings this song?

I saw him live last month in New Haven, CT. The music was great, but the audience was mostly terrible – far too many frat bros getting drunk on daddy’s money. They spent Johnson’s songs yelling insults at each other and spent the time in between the songs angrily screaming out requests for his biggest hits. “Seen it in Color!!! COME ON!!!!” Dude, have you not been to a show before? It’s his biggest hit. He’s going to play it, he’ll probably do it at the end, just shut up! Johnson himself, and his band, were great, especially with his George Jones medley and old Hank Cochran tunes, but I don’t blame him for not giving that unappreciative Friday night party crowd an encore.

But what cheesed me off the most was that when he sang his slow, beautiful cover of the “This Land Is Your Land,” INCLUDING the verse against private property, the crowd just chanted “USA! USA! USA!” like we were at the Olympics. No respect for the song’s true nature at all. Now, I can understand why everyone saw the song that way, given the way elementary schools sing the tune as one more patriotic ditty alongside God Bless America and America the Beautiful. It’s easy to not know the true backstory. But the way Johnson sings it – slow, solemn, minor chords – should be a clue that something special and different is happening. NOPE.

And it’s not just the Yale frat bros. I went looking for the song on YouTube, and found video of another show in Illinois where the crowd whooped and hollered, or just plain chatted, the whole way through. Those paying attention kept starting the verses faster than Johnson with no regard for pauses, the way they were taught in elementary school, ignoring his slower pace. It could just be the recording of course, with a different feel in the room, but the recording’s all we’ve got. What the hell is wrong with these people?

Anyway, rant over. All credit to Johnson himself; his approach to the song is perfect, even if the crowd isn’t paying enough attention to hear it. But I love the recording from Farm Aid 2015 – taken about a month before I saw him, and in Illinois like the other show – which I posted at the top. The video unfortunately includes audience members waving hands and beer cans, but the microphones are pretty much only on stage so it doesn’t interfere with the sound. I’m also including David Crowder’s similarly slow version, one of my favorite recordings of any song ever – even more than the Johnson, honestly, though I’ve not seen it live. Crowder’s was part of a series of protest songs released by Bono’s ONE poverty campaign:

(I wonder if they’re singing the same arrangement, or if they’re just being similarly slow? Either way, both are beautiful.)

 

The First Haikus I’ve Written Since High School, or, A Thank You Note to Country California

I’d like to offer a salute to Country California. Chris M. Wilcox’s one-man operation Country California was one of the best, and perhaps most important, independent and alternative country websites out there. I don’t blog nearly often enough, but when I do, it’s often inspired by something Chris included in a roundup of recent music quotes or country news. I also often appreciated his wit and humor, particularly in his country haikus. We’ve tweeted at each other a little, more recently.

After seven years, Chris is moving on from Country California. He’s certainly earned the right. You can keep reading his stuff, just not strictly about country music and without the news clipping service, at chrismwilcox.com – some new song lyrics on important topics like mass incarceration, and musings on topics like how we use social media for good and for ill. In his honor, I’d like to try my hand at some of them fancy haiku doohickeys.

What, California?
Country is Texas, Nashville!
Also, California.

Country is family
And it’s emotions and life
It is in your soul.

And apparently,
It is California.
Who saw that comin’?

This leaves a void that hopefully someone (not me) will be able to fill soon. That was a fact that Trigger lamented in a recent post on his important and impressive site Saving Country Music, “The Death of the Great American Music Blog.” There have been a number to go by the wayside in 2015 as writers find that adblockers are removing their revenue and folks just aren’t willing to pay for content. As a result, that content disappears. Everybody’s got to make rent, especially full-time writers, so off they go to the mainstream websites and the publicists. The downside to this, Trigger writes, is that

Blogs don’t appear to be getting replaced by anything, except maybe direct interactions between labels, publicists, artists, and the consumer, with no 3rd party to check the validity of the information being delivered, or to offer any perspective or opinion… And all of this could hurt independent, and small-time artists looking to get noticed more than it will larger, major label artists. Losing music blogs and websites for more economically-viable or technologically savvy replacements is one thing. Replacing them with nothing, and having the music industry itself fill in the void through bias, paid content could result in much bigger issues than no good place to read about your favorite bands.

Hard Times No More will likely never occupy the kind of space Saving Country Music does and Country California did. Music is my passion, but justice and faith are my calling. I would love to find a way to do this full time, but I’d also love to be the play-by-play man for ESPN’s Wednesday Night Baseball, and I think it might be fun to ride unicorns with Teddy Roosevelt across New Zealand. These things ain’t gonna happen. Maybe one day I’ll have both the time and energy to post three substantive articles a week. That would be nice. But I tip my hat to the folks who make this space run and who give it their all for even a few years. I hope that someone else will ride up to be their calvary – those of us with medical or students deferrments need you to win this for us.

The country landscape
It has become full of hope
Now, a little less

Still, we keep singing
Music is universal
Roads goes on forever

Good luck to you Chris
Thanks for all you’ve done for us
But really, try Texas

Everyone is Included when We Sing “This Land Is Your Land”

This blog was named after the Stephen Foster 1854 American folk song, “Hard Times Come Again No More“:

Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears,
While we all sup sorrow with the poor;
There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh! Hard times come again no more.
‘Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard Times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;
Oh! Hard times come again no more.

The song doesn’t pray for no more hard times just for Christians, or just for Americans. It is a universal lament that every one of God’s children has felt during one dark time or another. Can’t we hear these words coming from the mouths of today’s victims of terrorism? From those Syrians who are persecuted, Muslim and Christian alike, by Daesh/ISIS and are now fleeing to our shores as refugees, crying out for a land of religious freedom like the English pilgrims before them?

Via @PastorDan

Via @PastorDan

I try to be a man of deep faith, and have certainly led a very political life, but I generally try to keep those things off of this blog. If justice is my calling and my career, then music is my passion and my hobby. I like to keep those two worlds separate so that the music can reach as wide an audience as possible for its own sake.

I can’t do that today. This is too important. Part of “Americana” music is “America” – and all the values that that word claims to stand for. Values like love, justice, compassion, and hospitality. America should not and can not stand for hatred, bigotry, nationalism, or rejection. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” These are the values we have always sung about, and what we must keep singing. What do we want America to be is a question that all of us answer every minute of every day, and need to talk about in every space, even music blogs. So I write today as an American, as a Christian, and also, later in this post, as a music fan, so if you only came for the music, please press on (or scroll down).

Donald Trump said this week that Muslims in the U.S. “absolutely” have to register in a database, and that we need more than just databases to manage them. He did not argue with comparisons to Third Reich Germany requiring its Jewish citizens to wear identifying symbols and tattoos. His bigoted broadside against religious freedom comes on the heels of Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz’s comments that America should allow Christian refugees, but not Muslim refugees – never mind that Daesh/ISIS’s primary victims are its fellow Muslims.

Jesus calls me to love everyone. Everyone means everyone, but especially Muslims, my brothers and sisters in the God of Abraham. These brothers and sisters face far too much violence – abroad from ISIS, at home from bigotry – leaving them bleeding at the side of the road. Jesus says I need to love my neighbor, to think of everyone as my neighbor, and to help the person bleeding by the side of the road. He used a Samaritan as the example, because Jews in 30 AD looked at Samaritans the same way Trump, Cruz, and Bush look at Muslims today. But, Jesus said, that’s not what matters.

I love what the Rev. Daniel “@PastorDan” Schultz wrote on Twitter this week about the refugees:

“You want to witness to the gifts of Christ? This is how you do it. You care for the poor, the powerless, the strangers. Yes, even though there’s some risk. *Because* there is some risk. Because to be a Christian is to open ourselves to vulnerability, in imitation of Christ who made himself vulnerable to us.”

Syrian Girl Osman Sagirli

The photographer, Osman Sagirli, said the little Syrian girl thought his camera was a gun, so she put her hands up as her mother had taught her.

Trump has led the presidential primary polls for months. Cruz has shown he has the influence to shut down the federal government, and Bush is the son and brother of two past U.S. presidents. These men matter, a great deal. Don’t think that the history books won’t record their hatred and ignorance, or that the rest of the world isn’t taking notice now – and don’t think that those historians and global neighbors won’t also attribute that hatred and ignorance to us if we are not seen speaking out, loudly and vehemently. American Muslim citizens are also noticing, and we need to let them know that we stand by them. They need to feel that they are not alone or endangered during this dark time. If we don’t light a candle in the darkness, who will?

It is especially important for us country and Americana fans to speak out. The country music world is overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) white and Christian. Americana may not be quite as heavily Christian, but it is also a very white genre. We are the ones who are most likely to support politicians like Trump, Cruz, and Bush. We are the ones being defined by their words. We are also the ones with the most ability to become good neighbors to all of our brothers and sisters. But just as our actions can be powerful, so is our inaction – we are the ones who can leave our Muslim friends feeling abandoned, ignored, and threatened. We need to choose action over inaction, and stand with them in love.

Let’s also remember that there is a long, rich musical tradition of singing out our values of compassion, love, and justice, especially in Americana, country, and folk. It wasn’t just Foster. Woody Guthrie wrote the dust bowl ballads about struggling farmers and migrant workers. Pete Seeger sang about unions and fair wages. So much of roots music was shaped by slave spirituals, praising God and yearning for that most precious human right, freedom. After 9/11, many country stars emphasized the importance of standing together. And folk music was home to hundreds of civil rights and Vietnam War protest songs. (Many ask where today’s protest songs are. They still exist, but they’re not folk anymore – they are hip hop. But in a way, if folk music is the lyrical voice of a people, isn’t hip hop the folk music of certain urban landscapes? I digress.)

Returning to the issue at hand, America is “one nation, under God” and “e pluribus unum” – out of many, one. We do not treat Muslims differently than Christians. We are one people. And it’s not just a slogan – it’s the law. As our First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” And earlier, in Article VI, paragraph 3, we read, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Rejecting people of a faith different than our own could not be more un-American. If we do not stand for religious freedom for all, we do not stand for religious freedom at all, and we do not sing our country songs of praise with pure or honest hearts.

I cried for 15 minutes when I saw this picture of little Aylan Kurdi in September, just three years old. Photographer Nilufer Demir of the Dogan News Agency said her "blood froze."

I cried for 15 minutes when I saw this picture of little Aylan Kurdi in September, just three years old. Photographer Nilufer Demir of the Dogan News Agency said her “blood froze.”

We have made these mistakes before. At the same time that Hitler was requiring the Jews to register, we were turning them away, refusing to let in refugees because we were afraid that German spies would hide among their ranks. One of the would-be refugees denied entry was Anne Frank herself. We have made these mistakes before. We cannot make them again.

And it’s easy to love Muslims. Like George W. Bush told us, Islam is a religion of peace. Yes, it has its violent Scriptures, but so does Christianity. Terrorists are to Islam what the KKK, Westboro Baptists, or Irish wars are to Christianity. But even if this were not true, we are also called to love our enemies.

I don’t have to choose values-based arguments – there is definitely a practical side to this issue. I could argue, and have elsewhere, that turning away refugees is exactly what ISIS wants us to do (and they’ve said so in their propaganda to one another). I could argue in favor of the rigorous 18-month vetting process that refugees face. I could point to the overwhelmingly positive statistics that show refugees simply don’t commit terrorism here. I could talk about how it doesn’t make sense for a terrorist to come as a refugee – there are faster, easier ways to strike.

But values are what matter most. We show who we are when times are hard, not when they’re easy. This is when it’s most important to stand by the values we proclaim, and not shrink like cowards in the face of fear. I think Joe Biden put it wonderfully yesterday in an off-the-cuff answer to a reporter’s question:

“One way to make sure that the terrorists win is for us to begin to change our value system. That’s number one. Number two, we have a real vetting system for refugees coming into the country. We can assure Americans that they will be safe. For us to turn our back now, for us to turn our back now on refugees is turning our back on who we are. The only way terror wins is if they cause you to change your value system. ISIS is no existential threat to the United States of America – simply stated, they are not. And we are going to be working as hard as we can to open our arms to refugees.”

Shame on every member of the U.S. House of Representatives, both Republican and Democrat, who voted against American values of compassion, hospitality, and justice yesterday – and shame on every one of us who stands idly by without saying a word. Please, look up how your member voted here, then call Congress and ask for your representative at (202) 224-3121 to either thank or chastise them. And because this conversation needs to be loud and public, please share posts like this one, and also this one from the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the one from above by Pastor Dan, this one, and this one on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, or whatever else you use. It won’t be easy – you might have friends or family who fight you for it. But that’s why it matters. That’s where love needs to be planted most.

“For the Lord your God is god… who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 10:18–19

“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Matthew 25:35

Jason Aldean is a sexist

“Country” star Jason Aldean told the Washington Post that all country’s little ole females are the same. Put the men on stage and the women in the kitchen, or at least in the dressing room for after the show.

“I feel like a lot of times female singers, to me, when they’re singing – and I’ll probably kick myself for saying this – a lot of times, it just seems like I can’t distinguish one from the other sometimes if I just listen to them, you know?“ Aldean said. “A lot of times they just sound really similar to me.”

You know what, Jason? It’s a helluva lot easier for me to tell Brandy Clark from Kacey Musgraves from Courtney Patton from Sarah Watkins than it is to separate out your rapping dreck from that of Brantley Gilbert or Luke Bryan or Tyler Hubbard. Go soak your head in a bucket of Bud Light and cow piss.

Chris Thile and Jason Isbell talk about stupid iPhone videos

In recent weeks, I’ve come across quotes from two favorite artists, Jason Isbell and Chris Thile, expressing frustration with concert-goers who watch their shows through the viewfinder of a phone camera or, God forbid, a tablet. What’s interesting is that neither singer/songwriter was upset about losing revenue through unauthorized recordings – both were lamenting artistic problems with the practice.

Here’s Isbell in a 2013 interview with the New York Times:

Isbell reserves special scorn for people who record his shows on cellphones and post clips to YouTube. “It’s an intrusion because I’m not performing for documentation’s sake, I’m performing for people’s ears and their eyeballs,” he said. “I don’t mind the scrutiny of it. We’re good every night. I just feel like people aren’t participating in the community of the room when they’re behaving that way.”

He shook his head. “My favorite thing about going to concerts has always been looking around and thinking that there’s a lot of people in here that are very much like me, a lot of people in here I could have a full conversation with. I might even get laid in this room. You’re not getting laid if you’re standing there with your cellphone.”

Then he laughed and said: “I can’t get too mad. I would have done the same with Neil Young when I was a kid, if I could have.”

And here’s Thile in this year’s January-February issue of relix magazine:

“Now, to be a performing musician is to look out on a group of people who are largely experiencing the concert through their devices—sometimes, with 40 percent of the crowd, you just see iPads and phones, with that barrier between you and them… I’ve thought about that a lot: the continued human desire to connect, to be connected, to be a part of something bigger than you, to have meaningful interactions with one’s fellow human beings. But how we go about it these days is more convoluted than ever. Many times, it’s prompted by a wonderful impulse, which is to share with someone else who can’t be there; that’s a beautiful thing to do and it’s something that’s important, and we, as a band, have benefited from that. But at what cost to the person who actually captured that moment? In our desire to share things with people, we need to make sure we’re not depriving ourselves of a vibrant existence.”

It’s interesting to think about this from the artist’s perspective. As an occasional preacher and former high school debater, I can tell you that, no matter how sneaky you think you’re being, the speaker up front can tell exactly how much attention you’re giving. Closed eyes are obvious; I’m looking right at everyone in the crowd and I know how they’re all reacting. You know if you have the room or not. So if it’s damn ugly to look at a picture and see hundreds of people raising their phones, how bad must it be for the band to look out at that?

But I do take photos – very rarely videos, though I’ve done that too, especially in the more distant past – but I do take photos. And it’s for exactly the reason Thile describes: To share with people who aren’t there. (See: This blog.) I try to just snap a few with different focuses and different stage lighting, put the most focused few on Facebook and Twitter in real time, then say mission accomplished and put my phone away for the rest of the night to take in the show. I used to be a much more egregious offender, but unless you’re a professional photographer, there’s not much chance your 200th photo will be any different than your 20th, and a concert is about sound, not sight, so get your damn Facebook shot and then just put the gadget down.

What do you think? Do you take photos, or even videos, at concerts? Why or why not? Do you agree with Isbell and Thile? Do you think there are important differences here between the fans’ perspectives and the artists’?

Remember that Luke Bryan is a 38-Year-Old Father of Two Children

Once you’re on the float, you’re on the float. And then I’m like, ‘Alright, don’t get drunk. Don’t get drunk. Don’t get drunk.’ And I don’t know if there’s any way around that, and then I’ve got to do the show at like 11:30PM, so man, we may have a no cell phone clause on that show, a no Youtube (video). See, first of all, I’ve never been to Mardi Gras, and I’m the worst about getting excited about something and then overdoing it. So, yeah, I’ll be toast.

Luke Bryan in Taste of Country, as quoted by Country California. His two children are ages 4 and 6. Good to know he’s got no discipline or self-control, that’s clearly the kind of guy who makes the best husband and father.

I like to end most posts with a YouTube video, but I refuse to post one of Luke Bryan. But this is probably just as appropriate.

 

Eric Church Praises the False God of Homogenization Once Again

Eric Church RS coverI wouldn’t call myself an Eric Church fan. I don’t change the station when his music comes on. Most of his stuff is middling, but every now and then he does a great song. It’s more rock than country, but at least it’s closer to rock than it is pop or rap, unlike most of  of today’s radio. And since Church only puts an album out every three years and wrote 120+ songs for the new one, I do believe he’s in it for the music. Best yet, in the cover article for this week’s country issue of Rolling Stone, he praises Kacey Musgraves, rightly says “Brandy Clark should be the face of the genre,” and criticizes laundry-list bro-country as “shallow”. Bravo!

But on the giant other hand, Church is an arrogant jerk who glorifies and encourages violence, hypocritically performs with and thus enables some of the very acts he calls “shallow,” and insists he’s an “outsider” despite his industry awards, giant label, and huge sales. That’s either the biggest case of self-delusion the world has seen since Harold Camping, or just pure marketing crapola.

But my real issue is that Eric Church doesn’t respect country music or even understand what real country music is – to the point that he says that, like Santa or the Tooth Fairy, it doesn’t exist. From the RS story:

You can’t really put Bruce [Springsteen] in a box – what kind of music does Bruce do?” says Church. “It could be country. If he came out right now? No doubt, that’s where he’d live.”

Church’s music, on the other hand, could easily have been considered rock in the Eighties and Nineties… “True red-white-blue American rock & roll fans have gone more toward country. Hip-hop has gone down. Rocks’ down. People are kidding themselves if they think there’s a bigger format than country.”

“What kind of music does Springsteen do”? What a stupid question! ROCK! The answer is ROCK! Right in the middle of his own show, he’ll proclaim the concert “a rock and roll exorcism!”

Then Church says that “country” is now the biggest genre. Well, yeah, and if you want to change Alaska’s name to “Alabama,” then we could call Alabama the biggest state in the country. Which is exactly what Church is doing when he says “Born to Run” is rock if it’s the ’80s but country if its the 2010s. NO! It’s the same recording in any time, so it’s the same genre in any time! Nor is the country audience truly growing – the labels and radio conglomerates are just appealing to various portions of the pop, rock, rap, and country lite crowds all at once. It’s a bigger audience than country has, sure – the same way New York has a bigger population than Chicago. Moving from one to the other didn’t mean the city grew; you changed cities!

This “country” format Church says is so big is NOT country. It’s rap, pop, and rock thrown into a blender with a dash of banjo to mask the lack of twang and story. Simply calling it “country” is not enough to make it country.

Eric churchBut Church disagrees – he seems pretty adamant that rock and country are now the same thing. Last year, he told ABC, “Genres are dead. There’s good music. There’s bad music. And I think the cool thing about Nashville is it is at the epicenter of that kind of thinking.” An odd quote for a guy who says Brandy Clark should be the face of the “genre” – and complete horse hockey. To say there’s nothing more to it than bad vs. good music is to demand that we all have the same taste, to declare that if you like country then you’d damn well better like pop and rap, too, because you’re not allowed to have one without the other anymore.

This homogenization is a terrible thing. It is the true straitjacket on country innovation, and it is an attack on the diversity of fans’ tastes.

I know that a lot of people hate “labels.” They feel like you’re putting them in a box and taking away their individuality, especially in music – plenty of artists claim their music transcends genres and labels.

I understand and respect genre hopping. I do. But I also think labels can be a good thing. If I ask for chicken for dinner, don’t tell me, “There’s good food and there’s bad food, pull something out of the good bad!” No, dammit, this bag is labeled “Cheetos” and that bag “chicken” for a reason. Neither iTunes nor the last few record stores actually remaining are going to merge everything into two sections called “Good Music” and “Bad Music,” and it would be too overwhelming to have just one section alphabetizing EVERYthing. Broad labels are not a bad thing – they help us narrow things down, and give our searches somewhere to start.

Switching gears just a little bit, the RS article goes on to quote publisher Arthur Buenahora saying, “With Eric, we don’t need fuckin’ twin fiddles” – as if fiddles are a bad thing! Sure, you don’t NEED them to do country, but why is that supposed to be a laudatory goal rather than just something different?

The same giant, fiddle-appreciating audience that existed for George Strait in the ’80s, Alan Jackson in the ’90s, and Brad Paisley in the ’00s still exists today. It was only four years ago that Easton Corbin had back-to-back #1 hits! No, that audience’s taste hasn’t changed; it’s just that the music industry is ignoring that audience for a new one. It’s not about the music — it’s about the greed, the money, the bigger and bigger profits. So the next time Church defends homogenization, he should think about where that homogenization is coming from, and remember his own quote, “Once your career becomes about something other than the music, then that’s what it is. I’ll never make that mistake.”

Should country radio split into two formats?

According to Trigger over at Saving Country Music – perhaps the best blog in this space – “The Split of Top 40 Country & Classic Country Is Upon Us.”

Empsall at a George Strait Concert in 2007

The writer at a George Strait concert in 2007

Big Machine Label Group (BMLG) – the label for Reba, Taylor Swift, Florida Georgia Line, and many others – has signed a deal with Cumulus, the country’s second biggest radio conglomerate, to create a new format. They’ll launch stations that only play “classic” country artists from a 25-year period (likely 1989-2014, but I could also see something more like 1985-2010 to bring in more George Strait and Alabama and cut out all, not just future, hick-hop). This comes at the same that BMLG is looking to sign new legends like Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson and just after a station in Kentucky experimented with playing only Garth Brooks (and is now focused on ’90s hits, similar to the new Cumulus format).

This kind of a split would finally acknowledge that Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan aren’t even remotely the same genre of music as Trisha Yearwood or even Kenny Chesney. Pros for neo-traditional country fans: Finally the chance to hear “Blue Clear Sky” and “Fancy” on the radio more than twice a year again. Cons: BMLG CEO Scott Borchetta says the format would replace many of the current classic country stations, so all that extra Brooks & Dunn would actually come at the expense of what little Merle Haggard we currently get.

Do I think this split is a good idea? No, and not just because of what it means for country’s distant past. I’m also worried about what it means for the future of country music. Limiting a station format to only certain artists, rather than a certain sound, essentially enshrines that sound in history. It would basically ban any new artists with a neo-traditional sound from the airwaves – they would be neither hip-hoppy or poppy enough for one format nor old or established enough for the other.

That said, I am all for a split in country formats, just not this particular split. Base the split on sound, not time. Make it about the actual music, not a nostalgia for country “oldies.” Mix together all the different subgenres of country and even pop that draw on American roots – neo-traditional country, outlaw country, folk singer-songwriters, indie folk, newgrass – and let the hick-hop and country pop groups go off to do their lousy little thing. That would still accomplish Borchetta’s goal of bringing back Alan Jackson’s full catalog and playing the new stuff from older folks like Billy Joe Shaver, but it would also harness the power of the Avett Brothers to elevate lesser known acts (at least lesser known among the mainstream) like Sturgill Simpson, Nickel Creek, Kelly Willis, and Brandy Clark.

No, it’s not a perfect blend. I’m not pretending that Mumford & Sons and George Strait go together – but they go together a helluva lot better than Jerrod Niemann and Strait do. It may not be a great compromise, but it beats the one that’s been shoved down our throats these past few years, and it wouldn’t shut out newer roots voices like the new Cumulus plan would do.

 

What country music needs is another Willie Nelson

In a Texas Monthly cover article devoted to George Strait’s retirement from touring, Craig Havighurst argued that there may never be another George Strait.

George has been my favorite singer since I was 11, so I don’t say this lightly, but I would submit that what country and roots music need is not a new George Strait, but a new Willie Nelson.

Willie’s greatest accomplishment isn’t any one song or album, helping pioneer the outlaw sound, or even managing to make one beat-up old guitar last this long. It was the bringing together of diverse crowds that had always been at odds and finding among them common ground, new friendship, and a powerful movement. Like Bruce Robison sings,

“Like a miracle all those rednecks and hippies // From New York City down to Mississippi // Stood together and raised a brew // When it’s all gone wrong, what would Willie do?”

We need someonImagee to do that again – someone who can unite the red dirt cowboys, the Mumford hipsters and Lumineer moms, and the old singer-songwriter foagies.

Think about it. I went to a Nickel Creek concert earlier this month in Washington, D.C., and the audience was incredibly young – dare I say largely hipster. Now I’m not saying that that’s newgrass’s main demographic. It was the venue, the 9:30 Club, more than anything. Still, it was encouraging to see such a young crowd at a fundamentally bluegrass show.

And take indie folk, definitely a big draw for college students and hipsters. Personally I like Mumford and Sons, but I know a lot of folks find them insufferable. That’s fine, but love them or hate them, there’s no denying the influence folk and bluegrass had on their instrumentation and harmonies. Of course they’re not Americana, they’re British! But while Marcus Mumford, the Lumineers, and their ilk may be more of a response to pop than country, they are still our distant kin.

And yet, I would wager that the Mumford and Nickel Creek crowds of the east coast bear very little resemblance to a red dirt festival in Oklahoma or a Kacey Musgraves home crowd in Texas.

The question is, how can we elevate roots music and take back country music from hick-hop light beer bros? How can we build a coalition large enough to make the record labels take notice, the way they noticed George Strait in 1983 and turned away from Nashville easy listening to the neo-traditionalists? We need some way – someone – to unite the the subgenres and create a movement.

L-r: Drew Ball of the Riverbreaks, Sturgill Simpson, and the author, Nathan Empsall

L-R: Drew Ball of the Riverbreaks, Sturgill Simpson, and the author, Nathan Empsall

Maybe, just maybe, Sturgill Simpson will bring together the hipsters and cowboys the way Willie brought together the hippies and bikers. He’s a country traditionalist but one who’s not afraid to experiment, and after refusing to compromise with the major labels, his independent second album smashed through and debuted at #11 this month. Who are the crowds taking notice and driving that to the top? He comes from Kentucky coal country but has been featured on NPR; are those audiences coming together to give Metamodern Sounds in Country Music such a big boost? And will radio take notice?

I don’t know. But whether Sturgill is the next Willie or not, he’s at least a herald – if not the roots Messiah, then maybe our John the Baptist, proving that a better future is coming soon. That said, I don’t mean to put pressure or expectations on him; his art is already a breath of fresh air that speaks for itself. I’d say let’s just cross our fingers, but you can’t pick a guitar with crossed fingers. Instead, pour another round, play that Uncle Tupelo album one more time, and we’ll see what we see when we see.

UPDATE: After writing this post, I did some more reading, and found that Trigger over at Saving Country Music makes a similar arugment.