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.

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Thursday, 12 September 2013


"You make me wanna roll my windows down and cruise." Florida Georgia Line landed the country hit of the decade in Cruise, which vaulted to the top of the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart on April 20. But it didn't come down – not until August 31, at least. That's 19 weeks at number one! Crazy.

So while I don't think I need to say any more about Cruise, I'd like to point out what a great album Here's to the Good Times is as a whole. The duo is comprised of Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard from Florida and Georgia, respectively. According to their website, the two essentially decided to hit the road and perform after graduating from university in Nashville. Two years and two EPs later, they're one of the hottest acts in country.

Their follow-up Get Your Shine On is a bass-driven, cellphone-waving track – atypical of a country drinking song. "Summer sky drippin' rhinestones/Turn your party lights on/Baby get your shine on." As with a number of their songs, the lyrics aren't easy to make out on the first listen. You could say that  the Florida Georgia Line boys are sloppy writers, or that they know how to use slang effectively. I pick the latter.

Round Here, the duo's current single, is another upbeat rocker. However, you'll notice that it does all start to sound the same after a while, lyrically and musically. "We find a little spot on the edge of town/Twist off, sip a little, pass it around."

In It'z Just What We Do, Florida Georgia Line amps it up to a whole new level of grinding guitars. And they're anything but ashamed of their backwoods habits. "Kick back, relax/You know we're just a bunch of hillbillies." 

The only heartbreaker on the album is Stay, and while that's not their niche, the guys do a good job of delving into the dark sides of emotion. "I'd sell my soul just to see your face/I'd break my bones just to hear your pain." So yes, they can be "deep" too.

The final song Party People leaves me with a bad takeaway as a mediocre effort, but that doesn't seem to affect Florida Georgia Line's momentum. Another track worth mentioning is Dayum, Baby, a softer ballad with some great imagery and plays on words. "I can see you'll probably be keeping me up all night/Yeah, but that's all right." And you probably won't get that song out of your head anytime soon, either.

To sum it up, Florida Georgia Line was born for radio. Their feel-good harmonies and blazing country/rock sound have crossover potential only fully realized with the remix of Cruise featuring Nelly. Here's to the Good Times is brilliant in the way it hits home with the average fan. The only downside is the lack of lyrics with real substance.

Country Luke's Rating: 8/10 

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Thursday, 5 September 2013


In her debut Same Trailer Different Park, Kacey Musgraves proves that doing something different can be extremely effective. The 24-year-old's mellow vocals are more comparable to the pop sound of Colbie Caillat than contemporary country artists. And although Musgraves' range is only average, her tone and songwriting certainly aren't. 

Driving home late one night, I was at first startled to hear the satirical lyrics of Merry Go 'Round streaming from a country station. But unlike the sometimes shallow, wishful-thinking songs that become hits, this one was real. And refreshing. "We think the first time's good enough/So we hold on to high school love/Say we won't end up like our parents."

Merry Go 'Round eventually climbed to number 14 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. The album's title is also derived from that song, and while it's Musgraves' most popular, she is not a one-hit wonder. 

Silver Lining opens things up with the encouraging message that while we all deal with hard times, they are necessary to enjoy the good things in life. Musgraves takes tired cliches and turns them into powerful images. "Lemonade keeps turning into lemons/And you wear your heart on a ripped, unravelled sleeve." It's a motivating song, but again, says it like it is.

My House is a lighter tune about living out of a motorhome. For Musgraves, it isn't about the location so much as the company. "Anywhere beside you is the place that I'll call home." The harmonica intro is a nice touch. 

Perhaps her signature acoustic sound is featured nowhere better than in I Miss You, a bittersweet song if there ever was one. Musgraves sings about having the having the "sunshine on [her] shoulders" and a "fistful of four-leafed clovers," but leads back to the simple title that overshadows all else. Musgraves plays on listeners' emotions in a way that can't quite be explained, leaving them guessing at  unexpected plot twists. 

And while she can use sarcasm cheerfully, we get a sense of general pessimism throughout the album. "Stupid, love is stupid/Don't know why we always do it," she rants in Stupid. It's a little Debbie Downer, but who's to argue?

Musgraves has sparked controversy surrounding her more provocative lyrics. The closing song It Is What It Is belittles intimate romance as a casual pastime. "Maybe I love you/Maybe I'm just kind of bored." In Follow Your Arrow, she condones smoking marijuana and homosexual behaviour, topics rarely addressed in country music. "Follow your arrow, wherever it points." While I am impressed that Musgraves is using art to speak to social issues, I don't agree with a number of her conclusions. 

As quoted in The Observer, Kacey Musgraves does not want to be "the McDonald's of music." Her style is not likely to top the charts, but has great potential for longevity. Same Trailer Different Park is one of those albums people will listen to decades from now and still say, "That was something special." It's probably the most thoughtful country album I've ever heard – just don't be manipulated by all the wit.

Country Luke's Rating: 8/10

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