Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Pop Gone Country

Justin Timberlake raised some eyebrows Monday after suggesting he would like to make country music. "[Those dreams are] still alive."

During an interview on satellite radio station The Highway, Timberlake discussed his single Drink You Away, which offers a distinct element of twang. "I still got my eyes on a 'Best Country Album," he said. "There's time for that."

That's a little presumptuous, but it's great to see singers from other genres recognizing country. I’ve often pointed out contemporary country's leanings to pop. But could other genres blend into country, too?

For example, Kelly Clarkson. While still pop, the original American Idol has been featured on a number of country duets, including Don’t You Wanna Stay with Jason Aldean, which peaked at number one on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart.

And then there’s Sheryl Crow, who released her first country album this past September. Her single Easy broke the top 20, and she even sang with Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton at last year’s Academy of Country Music Awards.

Of course, Darius Rucker was lead singer of Hootie & the Blowfish. But he was welcomed into country, and as a young listener, I would never have guessed he used to be part of a rock band. His number one cover of Wagon Wheel is about as traditional as you can get.

There are other examples – like Nelly joining Florida Georgia Line for a Cruise remix. They show that while country can adopt the best elements of other genres, it works both ways. Will Timberlake have a country hit anytime soon? I doubt it, but his comments reflect the fact that music genres are becoming more intertwined than ever.

Photo courtesy of


Tuesday, 12 November 2013


A country artist's first album often doesn't impress – but Thomas Rhett is an exception. The son of Rhett Akins, this singer seems to have inherited some serious songwriting skills too. 

According to his website, the younger Rhett looked at a number of other career paths before settling on music. In 2010, he signed a songwriting deal, and soon had huge co-written cuts by Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line, and Lee Brice.

And that seemed to pave the way for a successful solo gig – two songs from his self-titled EP broke the top 30 of the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. And just last month, he released It Goes Like This

Rhett seems like a classy, fun-loving guy who's up for anything. In Sorry For Partyin', he offers a sarcastic apology for disrupting the neighbourhood. "It started when a couple friends and some dude in a cardigan came rolling in at 3 a.m."

Something To Do With My Hands is super rock-driven and high-energy for country. Maybe that's explained by Rhett's drumming in a punk-rock band during junior high. "So maybe I could could stick 'em in your pockets/Run 'em through your hair and we can get to rockin'."

Rhett brings a hip-hop groove to the otherwise redneck Front Porch Junkies. The gang echoes and effects on Rhett's voice make this song truly original, and it'll be stuck in your head for the rest of the week. "We're just sippin' moonshine watchin' chicken fry/Making that swing swing side-to-side." It's hard to believe everything was recorded in a home studio basement.

If you listen to country radio, you've probably hear the title track – a great tune, to be sure. But even better is Take You Home, a cute rock ballad about Rhett picking up a girl whose boyfriend ignores her at a party. "I know he brought you here and he left you alone/But he ain't worth the time you're spending text him on the phone." And the synthesizer and steel guitar in the chorus don't even clash!

Still, my absolute favourite is Beer With Jesus. Rhett steps back from the romantic themes and asks some tough spiritual questions. "I'd tell everyone, but no one would believe it/If I could have a beer with Jesus." This one really hits me in the gut.

In many ways, Rhett is doing the same things right as Florida Georgia Line. First, the strong and interactive social media presence. He manages to mash country with his personal influences so seamlessly, it's just plain good music. As a country fan who enjoys other genres, I LOVE it.

Country Luke's Rating: 9/10
Photo courtesy of

Thursday, 7 November 2013

CMA Awards: Pinnacle Award

While I have yet to watch my tape of the CMA Awards from Wednesday, I've already heard about Taylor Swift's special moment on the show. The only listed awards she won were a result of being featured in Tim McGraw's Highway Don't Care, but she did receive the Pinnacle Award for giving country music an international stage.

The artists she opened for at the beginning of her career honoured her on behalf of the Country Music Association through a video highlighting her rise to stardom. Swift seemed to shed a few tears during her acceptance speech. "You've made me feel so special right now," she said. "Thank you."

You've got to wonder what was going on behind-the-scenees. In The New York Times, Jon Caramanica asks, "How many Nashville stalwarts does it take to keep Taylor Swift in country music?" It's true that despite her fame across the world, Swift has struggled to win CMA Awards over the past few years. 

The article by points out how some people criticized Swift for bringing a new sound to country music, but now want her to come back from the pop songs of Red.

The Pinnacle Award (given only once before) seemed like a political move, and one that worked. By using the prominence of the other artists on-stage, the Country Music Association proved it accepts Swift and values her contribution to the genre. It has likely always been that way, but now, the organization has removed any rumours of rifts between it and less-than-traditional artists.

For Swift, this was a chance to speak directly to country fans without straying from her pop image. While she didn't make reference to her commitment to the country music industry, her emotional speech won over the crowd and communicated deep respect for traditional artists like George Strait.  "[He] taught me to play the songs your fans want to hear." So while Swift is no longer a primarily country artist, she showed everyone that she still loves the music. And that seemed to be enough. Balance has been restored to the Force.   

Video from

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Tragic Country Crisis

Bad things happen. On Monday, Jason Aldean's tour bus struck and killed a pedestrian in Indiana. According to police, Aldean and the driver were the only people on-board when a 49-year-old man walked out onto the road. 

This is obviously a tragic situation. At this point, it appears Aldean did nothing wrong. Nonetheless, the resulting stories had the potential to make him look very bad if he flubbed the response or didn't give one. So what did Aldean do? He linked this WhoSay statement to his Twitter account and posted the same statement on Facebook:

"With a heavy heart, I'm sad to say that a man passed away last night after stepping out in front of my bus in Indiana. In all the years I've been touring and all the miles we've driven, nothing prepares you for something like this to happen. I'm praying for Albert Kennedy's family and friends today and ask that you do the same."

Now, what makes this significant is that based on the timing of coverage, it seems Aldean broke the story himself. He waited until Monday afternoon to post the statement, and it was mentioned in an all major news stories. By answering before reporters could ask questions, he prevented the crisis from spiralling out of control. Because of Aldean's prominence, there was a risk this could turn into a David-and-Goliath story that reflected negatively on him. There was no chance of positive coverage, but he managed to come across as sincere without implicating his driver by apologizing. 

Unlike at the Indiana State Fair collapse that killed seven people in 2011, here the scrutiny is on the artist, not on an external venue or organizer. I think Aldean did the right thing. And by refraining from regular social media posting, he is sending the message that he cares and hasn't gotten over the incident. Hopefully he will maintain the same level of openness and empathy for the victim's family as the details unfold.

Photo courtesy of

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

CMA Awards 2013: Predictions

The 47th Annual CMA Awards are almost here! I always get excited for "Country Music's Biggest Night," and will try hard to find a TV to watch the show on November 6. In its current issue, People Country made predictions for winners  of the major awards. Although I think they got some right, I have chosen to disagree in some categories. I guess we will see who is right in two weeks...

1. Entertainer of the Year

People Country picked Blake Shelton for this one, and I definitely agree. One of the criteria is "overall contribution to the Country Music image," and Blake Shelton has raised its profile substantially by representing the genre well on The Voice. Still , there's no denying that Taylor Swift is by far the biggest name of the five nominees.

2. Female Vocalist of the Year

Fifth time's the charm. Carrie Underwood has been nominated for this award in each of the past four years, but no luck. I'm going to side with People Country and pick her as the winner for 2013. Good Girl, Blown Away, Two Black Cadillacs, and See You Again were all hits off her latest album, and should be enough to catapult her over Miranda Lambert. Taylor Swift going home empty-handed at last year's CMA Awards makes me think she won't get many industry nods because of her pop leanings. I still don't see how Kelly Clarkson is country, and Kacey Musgraves is too new.

3. Male Vocalist of the Year

Okay, so I agree with People Country again – Luke Bryan, no contest.

4. Vocal Group of the Year

My impression is that some of these nominees have been stagnant on country radio over the past year. People Country says Little Big Town, but I say uh-uh. The Band Perry's sophomore album Pioneer produced DONE. and the chart-topping dark rocker Better Dig Two, competing against Little Big Town's singles Pontoon and Tornado. It's a tough call, but I'll bet on the younger, higher-energy act.

5. Vocal Duo of the Year

I don't know what People Country was thinking in predicting Thompson Square. They certainly make great music, but Florida Georgia Line has taken the country music genre (and more) by storm since its breakthrough.

6. New Artist of the Year

I would fall over if Florida Georgia Line didn't win (don't worry, I'll get someone to videotape). According to Country Weekly, Cruise broke the Billboard Hot Country Songs previous record (from 1955) by remaining at the top spot for 22 weeks. That should be more than enough.

7. Album of the Year

Sorry, Blake. People Country picked Based On a True Story, but I'm going with the underdog Same Trailer Different Park by Kacey Musgraves. This album is unlike anything I've ever heard in country music, and should win over voters who like to see artists push the boundaries of the genre without leaving them.

8. Musical Event of the Year

People Country suggests the star power of Tim McGraw, Taylor Swift, and Keith Urban will make this a hands-down decision. I beg to differ. Florida Georgia Line gave real country music a huge stage by partnering with Nelly for a remix of Cruise. I think that's more noteworthy and a bigger deal than Highway Don't Care, as good a song as that is.

Other Picks (Not Addressed by People Country)

Single of the Year: Cruise – Florida Georgia Line
Song of the Year: Merry Go 'Round – Kacey Musgraves
Musician of the Year: Mac McAnally (Guitar)
Music Video of the Year: Highway Don't Care – Tim McGraw, Taylor Swift, and Keith Urban

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

I Want Crazy, I Need Crazy

What is crazy? Not madness, but perhaps something irrational or unexpected. Author Susanna Kaysen writes, "Crazy isn’t being broken or swallowing a dark secret. It’s you or me amplified." I would add that crazy is our true selves. It's what happens when we stop caring about what other people think.

The same idea applies to relationships. The element of surprise is often what attracts people to each other. As Hunter Hayes sings in I Want Crazy, "I wanna be scared, don't wanna know why/I wanna feel good, don't have to be right." Truth is, we like not being in control.

Have you ever found yourself so deeply entrenched in routine that you don't know what to do with yourself once that routine is gone? Happens to me. Like a bird so used to its cage that it won't fly away when the door is finally opened, I find it hard to break the norm even when it seems logical to do so.

We don't just want crazy, we need crazy. Life's worries can burn us out to the point that we stop caring.  In those moments, we need something random to snap us back. Whether that's a party, a midnight drive, or even a good cry, we feel better when we cycle out of the ordinary.

But that's not the only reason we need crazy. Sometimes, we realize YOLO is for real. We slip out of our busy schedules for a second and see how badly we'll someday regret living a boring life. Like a midlife crisis that can happen at any time. "I don't want good and I don't want good enough," sings Hayes. "I want can't sleep, can't breathe without your love." We want to stand out. We want to be remembered. We want to have fun.

And ultimately, we really are crazy. Even the shyest introvert has an outgoing, risk-taking side. The traits that set us apart make us people. "The world makes all kinds of rules for love/I say you gotta let it do what it does," sings Hayes. So maybe it's time to take I Want Crazy literally and let our real selves shine through a little brighter.

Video courtesy of hunterhayes

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Social Media Criticisms

Angry social media exchanges happen all the time. We don't often hear about them in the country music world, but since artists usually manage their professional accounts, occasional conflict is inevitable. How do you deal with an angry fan, or an unfair remark? Let's look at how some artists have responded over the past month.

1. Let Others Defend You

We discussed this case a few weeks ago. Zac Brown called Luke Bryan's hit single That's My Kind of Night the "worst song I've ever heard," and went on to rant about the state of contemporary country lyrics. Although Bryan is a very outgoing character on-stage, he never reacted. Not a tweet of response.

Usually, I would advise against silence. However, in this circumstance, it was a good decision. If Bryan had lashed out against Brown, it could have started a battle that hurt both parties and distracted from Bryan's recent success. On the other hand, if he had acknowledged the issue without taking a stand, he may have looked like a weak victim. 

Instead, others like Justin Moore and Jason Aldean (not to mention the writer of the song in question) stepped in to back the superstar up. In a stinging  Instagram response, Aldean wrote, "To those people runnin their mouths, trust me when i tell u that nobody gives a s**t what u think." At the end of the day, Bryan looked like the mature one and the incident blew over.

2. Go On The Attack

Then there's Blake Shelton. Westboro Baptist Church threatened to picket an upcoming concert because of his past divorce and remarriage, calling Shelton a "vulgar adulterer hated by God." Shelton's crude response ignited a Twitter feud that lasted three days. Using humour, he obviously won the battle in the public's eyes. However, Shelton appears to have gone overboard in attacking individuals instead of the organization. An aggressive response is likely what Westboro Baptist Church wanted, as offensive and ridiculous as their statements were. Shelton tweeted, "This isn't about God. It's about me using this opportunity to make y'all look like the absolute complete dips***s you are." Unfortunately, he may have actually given them a platform.

3. Show You're Right

Craig Morgan isn't as big of a name, but handled a recent issue very well. When storms forced him to end a show early, an attendee took to Twitter to rudely express frustration. What did Morgan do? Check out the Facebook response below:

"I'm sitting on a plane headed to California, after leaving Nebraska where our show was cut short due to bad storms. I have the uncontrollable urge to write a rebuttal to a twitter post made in reference to the short show last night. Here's the post "@cmorganmusic is a ????? (He used a word I won't put on facebook) afraid of some rain. Hope he doesn't get paid."
However I'm not gonna post a rebuttal here on Facebook, instead I say this:

I am Craig Morgan - a husband and father, a soldier, a singer, a songwriter, a tv show host, an actor, a police officer, an outdoorsman, a Christian (not always a good Christian but a Christian none the less ). I've been a fireman, a construction worker, and an EMT, among other things. My point is, I've done a lot and I enjoy helping others. Of all the things I do and of the things I am, I most enjoy being a dad and husband. Some days I'm not as good at being Dad and husband as I should be, because I'm too busy being all these other things. These are the repercussions of decisions we make to provide for our family, to be successful, or fulfill our dreams whatever the reasons. Not being as good at one thing is the price we sometimes pay for attempting to be great at others. Greatness is seldom achieved. What does this have to do with one, probably drunk person's, pissy remark about us not finishing a show due to a tornado? Not a lot, except in my thoughts about last night I remembered a show a few years ago where a storm blew in and people lost their lives. It made me think how blessed I am to have my family, friends, band and crew that I have, and that someone last night had the guts to say stop just in case! To the University of Nebraska, thank you all so much for letting us be a part of your world. We will be back! These remarks are not intended to entice others to get into a pissing match about what happened.They are just my thoughts that I wanted to share. God bless" 

This is a great example of someone taking what could have turned into a crisis, explaining the situation, and disarming the criticism. It's a thorough, personal response, and while the style isn't professional, Morgan makes his point and looks like the good guy.

In each of the situations above, there was no clear choice in how to best respond to an unexpected comment. It boils down to recognizing how what you say could help or hurt your position, and then choosing an appropriate tone. I respect each artist mentioned, and wonder how these case studies might influence others facing similar situations in the future.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Lyrics Still Matter

What makes country, country? I feel like a broken record talking about the way today's artists are pushing the genre's boundaries. There's no denying it. Much of what we hear on country radio today would have been foreign matter 20 years ago. Think along the lines of Blake Shelton's Boys 'Round Here or I Want Crazy by Hunter Hayes. Taylor Swift might have created her own genre with We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.

While I only listen to pop, rock, and hip-hop on an infrequent basis, I do have the credibility of someone who's entered country from the outside. That is, I didn't grow up on it. So when I hear about a "civil war" in Nashville and tensions between "traditional and modern-country fans", as an Entertainment Weekly article puts it, I'm somewhat baffled. The apparent resistance to change seems illogical. Country is bigger now than ever – why the complaining from some artists and diehard fans?

Yes, there will be divisions. And yes, it is not impossible that there will eventually be a complete break between "traditional" and "modern" country. But while our sound continues to change, our lyrics don't. Not really. You see, I believe lyrics are what makes country, country. And not in the way you might think. It's true that our themes and content are repetitive. However, the real clincher is the way songs are built.

Other genres tell stories. Other genres convey emotion. But we're somehow different. Country lyrics put you into the subject's shoes in a genuine, sensory way.

For example:

"Got a moon and a billion stars/The sound of steel and old box cars/The thought of you is driving me insane/C'mon, baby let's go listen to the night train." (Night Train, Jason Aldean)

"If you still love me/Don't just assume I know." (Remind Me, Brad Paisley)

"He's the reason for the teardrops on my guitar/The only one who's got enough of me to break my heart." (Teardrops On My Guitar, Taylor Swift)

Country music presents sophisticated emotions in ways anyone can understand. We use imagery – ALL the time. We sing the things we can't say in a meaningful way. We put the complexities of life in a nutshell the average Joe can crack.

No, I can't prove it. But while our lyrics and musical style will continue to evolve, the underlying structure of real emotion through descriptive story will always be there.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Drug References in Contemporary Country

This week I’ll expand on a Billboard article contributed by country music industry writer Phyllis Stark. In Has Country Music Gone One Toke Over The Line?, she comments on the increasing number of drug references in country music songs, and specifically on radio. She points to examples like Eric Church's Smoke A Little Smoke, which unashamedly promotes marijuana use – and peaked at number 16 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. Or Kacey Musgraves's Merry Go 'Round, which made it to number 10 using the term "mary jane."

In some instances, like Smoke A Little Smoke, the drug isn't simply referenced. An article by blogger Daryl Lang maintains Kid Rock's All Summer Long started the trend in 2008. "Since then, country radio has awakened to the idea that listeners really like songs about pot," he writes. These songs do seem to be more common and accepted now than they were a few years ago.

Forum Research released findings in August that 36 per cent of Canadians are in favour of the complete legalization of marijuana, with another 34 per cent in favour of decriminalizing small amounts. As we've seen many times before, country music adapts to popular culture and opinion. But does that make it right?

Country is already famous (and infamous) for drinking songs, so how are drug songs any different? Well, there's certainly a difference between singing about regulated substances and illegal ones. There has to be a line drawn somewhere. Stark's article suggests that while drug references may not be controversial, they are not necessarily accepted. Consider the audience – country fans are a wide-ranging bunch. Some are used to edgy content from other contemporary genres, but others certainly are not.

While I don't think marijuana promotion and subtle references to narcotics will have a major impact on the marketability of country songs (provided the artist fits that image), I am concerned for the young listeners these songs might influence. The matter of lyrics is rather insignificant, but the potential impacts are not and are worth discussing. In this area, I feel country has crossed the line. 

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Criticizing Country Music

You may have heard the story. Zac Brown (of Zac Brown Band) recently made some provocative statements during an interview with Vancouver radio station 93.7 JRfm. According to, he criticized the state of commercial country music, asserting that many hit songs use the same themes and are rearrangements of existing lyrics. "When songs make me wanna throw up, it makes me ashamed to even be in the same genre as those songs.”

Brown also called Luke Bryan's current single "the worst song I've ever heard," adding that country fans "deserve something better than that." He later clarified through Twitter that his opinion pertained to  That's My Kind of Night, but not to Bryan as an artist. Still, those were some pretty strong words.

Does Brown make a valid point about modern country music possibly being too generic? Probably. Another quote from the article: "We really write about real life, songs that come from life and our heart. To me country music has always been the home for a great song." I appreciate Brown's desire for emotion and genuineness when creating music. And I believe artists and songwriters do work in the industry for this reason.

Still, I feel Brown goes to far in presenting his own views as an absolute statement about the genre. Who's the person who draws the line between country music and non-country music? And why is this issue such a big deal, anyway? The young radio listener may have a variety of musical tastes, including pop, which helps explain the increase in crossover we're seeing. It's only smart for songwriters to publish songs that appeal to more listeners.

Also, I find it odd that Zac Brown is the one making purist statements about the state of country music. I would personally not describe his band's latest release as being rooted in that genre. Isn't this the same guy who plays island music and wears a toque on-stage?

It is absolutely normal to have preferences within a genre, but I feel Brown should be careful not to speak for other country fans. Because in today's ever-evolving music market, the listener is always right.

Photo courtesy of