Sturgill Simpson

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.

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.