Brad Paisley

Toby Keith debuted a new song on Stephen Colbert. And I hated it.

Toby Keith has one of the best voices in country music, and he used to use it to crank out some pretty great songs – remember “Should’ve Been A Cowboy,” “Who’s that Man,” and “My List”?

Those days are long past. Toby Keith is a musical wreck right now, and I’m not even talking about Trigger’s July article about the failures of his restaurants and label. Just WHAT was that train wreck on Colbert’s third Late Show last night? Don’t get me wrong – I used to love Toby Keith, and I want to again. Here’s to redemption, but it won’t come from this song, and probably not from next month’s new album.

The song was “Rum is the Reason,” and it’s the third we’ve heard from Keith’s upcoming album “35 MPH Town.” It’s beach country you would expect from Jimmy Buffett or Kenny Chesney, not Toby Keith – though Buffett will appear on a different track, so maybe this signals a new direction for Keith. That could be fine, but, the tune, which Keith wrote with Scotty Emerick, just doesn’t work.  I have no idea what it’s trying to say – it’s just a mess, it’s all over the place. On the one hand, we’ve got a laid-back beach song about enjoying booze like Davy Crockett or Pancho Villa, and the chorus says “I’m having fun.” But then it also lists Stalin and Hitler as problem drinkers, and the main line of the chorus is “Rum is the reason pirates never ruled the world.” So what the hell IS this song, and WHEN am I supposed to listen to it? Is this to relax on the beach and forget my worries, or is it a cautionary tale for those times I need to get something good done but would rather drink with Hitler? (Which, just so we’re clear, is never.)

Like I said, hot mess, all over the place, no sense whatsoever. 1.5 whiskey bottles out of five. Rum is the reason I’m going to forget this song even exists.

The album’s title track is also a mess, lamenting the decline of America’s small towns. In and of itself, that’s not a bad thing, and in some ways, the song hints of a return to the Keith of old, which I would welcome – a slower song about real life, showing off Keith’s voice and deep themes. But despite setting admirable goals, it utterly fails to achieve them.

As Trigger points out, it lists symptom after symptom, without hitting the causes. And I’ll add that it’s the same list of symptoms folks have been complaining about for decades – even though crime and teen pregnancy rates are actually DOWN. We all know something is wrong and we’re scared, but instead of really digging into it and figuring things out, we just turn to the old comfortable tropes. That’s easy to do, but it’s also counter-productive and ultimately quite divisive. And this song is simply a part of that. At least the feel is country; there are no complaints about that here.  1.5 whiskey bottles out of 5.

I may not review it, but I’ll give the full album a listen on Spotify when it comes out, if for one reason and one reason only – Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Bob DiPiero wrote the first track and first single, “Drunk Americans.” All hail Brandy Clark. The song was the album’s first single, and it feels like a more laid-back version of Brad Paisley’s “Alcohol.” I give it three whiskey bottles out of five, and I could definitely listen to it again. It’s a feel-good drinking song about how we can all come together for a beer, no matter what our divisions. It’s relatively shallow; there’s no real social commentary, despite a picture of Boehner and Obama drinking together in the video. But sometimes simple thoughts like that are the most important thoughts, and really, the song is fun and harmless. Which is just the way I like my drinking songs – unlike, say, oh, I don’t know, “Rum is the Reason”.

I’d love to see some more combinations of Keith’s voice with Clark and McAnally’s songwriting talent. Keith himself used to be a good songwriter and he’s still a great singer, but seems to have lost his way. Maybe they can help him find it again – but that’ll probably have to be with NEXT October’s album, not this year’s. We’ll see.

Please don’t leave us, Brad Paisley

Brad Paisley’s music is about as traditional as today’s mainstream country radio gets – he even used to feature George Jones! – so it was troubling to read last month that the new album will feature dubstep and be EDM-inspired. But you know, he did promote it on Prairie Home Companion of all places, and the lousy sound could be limited to just a track or two. It could even just be hyped. So I took a wait-and-see approach – the album’s not even out yet; let’s ignore the rumors and just wait to judge it on its own merits.

But then I read this in this week’s country issue of Rolling Stone:

Think Van Halen in a 10-gallon hat. “I couldn’t have done that in 1989,” Paisley says. But with country borrowing more and more from classic rock, “that kind of playing fits our format now,” he says. “It all becomes country eventually, somehow.”

It all becomes country? NO! Maybe it all becomes country radio, but that doesn’t mean it becomes country. The sound is the sound and country is country – you can’t just relabel the rest!

I love that Paisley’s guitar is taking centerstage with his voice more and more. But can’t it stay country guitar? Or at the very least, do we still have to call it country once it isn’t?

Please don’t leave us, Brad Paisley.

Turns out the Westboro Baptists are not Brad Paisley Fans

It would seem the Westboro Baptist Hate Group has switched from “God Hates F***” to “God Hates Drunks.”

So Brad Paisley, whose song “Alcohol” just made #54 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time, had a little fun.

SHOT

CHASER

According to the New York Daily News, Paisley “isn’t the first singer to be targeted by the extremist group. Westboro has staged protests against many musicians over the years, including Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga, The Foo Fighters, Taylor Swift, One Direction and Paisley’s fellow country singer Blake Shelton.” I love that while they called Shelton Paisley’s “fellow country singer,” they didn’t give the same label to Swift. That said, after “Boys ‘Round Here,” I’m not sure why Shelton gets the label, but I digress.

As another country reminder for Westboro:

I still have hope for the future of country music

George_strait_texas_monthly_cover_no_typeTexas Monthly is always far more than a regional magazine, but this month’s cover is really something special. No words, no article teasers, just a black-and-white of the retiring (from touring) king George Strait with his hand on his heart, looking straight into the camera and straight at his fans. It’s direct, it’s simple, and it tells a personal story without needing any bells, whistles, or other distractions — just like George Strait himself.

Granted, I’m biased; Strait has been my favorite artist since I was 10, and I write this post wearing jeans from Wrangler’s George Strait line, literally the only kinds of jeans I own. But even allowing for all that, the two cover articles are both must-reads for any traditional country fan – one a retrospective of Strait’s career by TM’s always-excellent John Spong, the other an essay pondering the future of country music by Music City Roots’ Craig Havighurst.

These are dark times for country music, there’s no doubt about that – and sadly, Havighurst argues that there will probably never be another King George. “Were [Strait] starting out today, he’d face a quick-hit culture that would undoubtedly clash against his tempo and timing… Perhaps the system just doesn’t do built-to-last anymore.” (Well, one can only hope that Florida Georgia Line will have the longevity of an Ikea dresser.) Havighurst also points out that Brad Paisley’s momentum is slowing, Josh Turner hasn’t been nominated for a major award in six years, and Kacey Musgraves’ critical adoration “feels like a dark harbinger of how she’ll fare on the radio long-term.” It all reminds me of what singer Clay Walker said late last year:

Traditional country music died. I think that George Strait winning Entertainer of the Year at the CMAs was, to me, a symbolic and a real closing of the door… I think people are fooling themselves if they think for a second that the recording industry is going to accept any more traditional country music on the radio.

Maybe Havighurst and Walker are right, but I’m not so sure. Strait was a traditional singer who toppled slick, commercial music and forced Nashville to make room for a new kind of sound. The way he did it can’t be replicated, no, but perhaps the feat itself can still be accomplished another way.

In 1980, Strait’s traditional, Texas sound was almost as out of place on mainstream country radio as it is today. I don’t disagree that the way Strait broke through then would be almost impossible to replicate today. As Spong explains:

Back then, most radio stations were owned by individuals, and all [manager Erv] Woolsey had to do to get Strait on the air was get program directors to attend his concerts. Now those stations are owned by only a handful of conglomerates like Clear Channel and Cumulus, and the people at the top of those pyramids have decided to stick with this new sound. Sometimes country radio seems like one long, loud song.

What all that means is that in 1983, you could have thousands of chances to make it big in dozens of regional markets; today, you have just three or four chances in one national market.

As dire as that sounds, the future of country radio and record labels is NOT the same thing as the future of country music. In 1983, if you wanted to be a music star, you had to make it big on the radio. That’s still somewhat true today, but things are changing fast, and the market landscape will be radically different by 2020 or 2030.

Radio isn’t dying the same way newspapers are, no, but ratings are falling. It’s true, 92% of Americans listen to the radio each week versus just 20% who listen to Internet radio – but 20% is a huge number when you consider that Spotify is just four years old. Demographics matter, too – what’s the age of the average FM music listener? Today’s youth don’t want to roll the dice and hope the DJ plays something cool when they can just design their own iPhone playlists.

Similarly, while major record labels are still the only way to become a superstar, they don’t have the same stranglehold on middle-tier success that they used to. Thanks to Internet crowd-funding and social media, there are now dozens of ways to build a fan base. Nothing proves that more than this month’s stellar news that traditionalist Sturgill Simpson’s second album debuted at #11 on the charts – independently produced, a perfect bird to the major labels.

Are Internet radio, social media, and crowd-funding the future of pop music? And if so, does that extend to the demographics of a traditionally more-rural format like country? I don’t know. The tech landscape is changing too fast, and too much is at stake in the net neutrality battle, for anyone to authoritatively state that they know what Web 3.0 or 4.0 will look like. But what we can say is that the future does not look like the present.

The deep pockets always tajohnny-cash-fingerke over a genre once it starts to get popular – and the people always counter with something new. When pop became stale, along came rock. When rock became too slick, along came punk. When Nashville threw out the steel guitars, the Texas outlaws gave them the middle finger and the neo-traditionalists pulled Hank Williams’ old cowboy hat out of the dumpster. And today, with pop more obsessed with teenagers than ever, indie folk has come along with its banjos.

Giant corporations try to put profit before people, but there are always just enough people with just enough voice to scream “SOD OFF” loud enough to make it stick. So no, the record labels can’t be beat the same way they were in 1983. But they can be beat another way, and time will show us exactly what that is. Maybe Sturgill is already leading the way.

Brad Paisley, Bipartisan Patriot

It was big news when President Obama visited troops in Afghanistan this Memorial Day weekend to say thank you. It’s easy to forget that we are still a nation at war – the press and most politicians certainly don’t go out of their way to remind us. So anytime Afghanistan is put back in the news, as an activist and the older brother of an Afghanistan vet, I’m grateful.

In lesser but equally cool news, Brad Paisley, fresh off a great appearance on Prairie Home Companion, joined the president on Air Force One for the trip!

Brad Paisley is one of the few mainstream stars still singing real country – and apparently, he’s also a bipartisan patriot. Brad might have spent this weekend with the Democrat Obama, but earlier this year, he was busy teaching the first President Bush how to take a selfie: