Blake Shelton: Country Music Must Evolve

Oklahoma Singer's New CD Is Pure BS

We dare you to tell Blake Shelton that country music isn’t as good as it used to be. (See below to get a clue about his inevitable response). During a recent visit to CMT, the Oklahoma native talked about the funny songs on his fourth album, Pure BS, his favorite era of country music and facing the dwindling odds of becoming a superstar. What caught your attention when you first heard “Don’t Make Me”?

Shelton: “Don’t Make Me” is a song I found about a year ago. [It was written by Marla Cannon-Goodman, Deana Bryant and Dave Berg.] I recognized the voice on the demo immediately, but it took me a day or two to figure out who it was. It was Billy Currington. He told me he had the song on hold for a long time, like years. When he was making his current album, he was going to put it on there. For whatever reason, it didn’t make it on there. So I stole it, basically.

It’s a really cool slant on a love song. I never heard a song that was written like a warning before. The first thing that caught my ear was the melody. I really got caught up in that melody. I was looking for songs that were going to push me as a vocalist. That’s definitely one of the harder songs that I’ve recorded to pull off live. But I love a challenge like that. That’s my passion — being on stage.

Are you concerned that by recording too many funny songs, people won’t take you as seriously?

No, because when you get down to it, I’ve really only released one funny song, “Some Beach,” and really I’ve had more success with my ballads like “Austin,” “The Baby” and “Goodbye Time.” But it definitely has crossed my mind because the next single is called “The More I Drink,” and it’s right along the lines of “Some Beach.” There’s definitely a line you’ve got to walk. You want people to take you seriously, but I don’t know how seriously I really want people to take me. I’m not an intense guy, you know what I mean? Those songs are kind of my personality. I think people are getting the right reading on me if they think I’m a goof-off.

People sometimes shrug off country music from the 1980s as just Urban Cowboy stuff, but there is a lot more to it than that. What is it about that music that keeps you coming back?

When you talk about the Urban Cowboy era of country music — or the era from 1985 and back or even 1988 back — that’s my favorite era of all music put together, especially country. I don’t know what it is about it. A lot of the sounds that you hear, they’re not that great, technically, but that’s what charming about those records to me. You just don’t hear stuff like that anymore. You don’t hear some of those goofy synthesizer sounds on any of these new records. Earl Thomas Conley had synthesizers all over his records just because they were new at the time. He wanted to put them on his record, not necessarily because they sounded that great, but I can’t imagine those records without those sounds now. In fact, I get to the point where I can’t wait until the synthesizer solo on “Somewhere Between Right and Wrong” at the end of the song. It’s so funny to me to hear it, and I love it.

I guess it’s just a growing-up thing. That’s what was big when I was growing up and you don’t ever get over that. Those are your first impressions and those are your heroes. I guess that’s why I keep going back, although I’m starting to learn that there are more of those artists that I really love, and I’m just now starting to discover their music, like T. Graham Brown and Eddy Raven. There are some incredible singers from that era.

How often do you find people in the business who love those songs as much as you do?

Honestly, there isn’t anybody who loves them as much as I do. A lot of people know who John Conlee is — or Earl Thomas Conley or Dan Seals — but they can’t sit here and name you a bunch of their hits. It makes you think there are a lot of artists out there who have memorized a few names because that’s somebody from the ’80s. They feel like, “I can talk about them like they’re my hero and make me look like a country guy.” And there’s nothing wrong with not knowing who they are, I guess. The only problem is when you act like you do when you don’t. That’s a good way to make yourself look like a complete moron. I’ve seen it time and time again. If your hero is AC/DC, then your hero is AC/DC. There’s nothing wrong with that. If your hero is the Backstreet Boys, my God, wear their T-shirt and go to the concert. But don’t try to act like you’re familiar or that you’re a fan of these old guys if you’re not, because I’m going to catch you.

What is your response when people say that country isn’t as good as it used to be?

I tell them to kiss my ass, for real, because I think it has to evolve and it has to grow. It’s really easy to sit around and whine about the direction that country music is going. I hear tons of stuff about Rascal Flatts and how they’re not country. I guarantee you that Barbara Mandrell was not country like some of the old-timers in her era wanted her to be. She was pushing the envelope. “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed” sounded like a pop record. It did. It sounded like Captain & Tennille, but guess what? She was leading the way back then. She was one of our flagship artists. You’ve got to evolve. You’ve got to change. You can’t rehash the same stuff over and over again. No matter how much you love it, you’re going to end up losing your audience. I’m glad that Rascal Flatts and Carrie Underwood are bringing in young people to our industry because none of us would be sitting here talking about this if country music wasn’t popular, and it wouldn’t be popular if we were still making three-chord records.

Do you want to reach that level of success like Rascal Flatts?

Oh, God, yeah! My God, that’s what we’re all going for, I think. People who say they’re not going for that ultimate level of success like Rascal Flatts are seeing are just saying that because know they’re not ever going to make it. I’m sitting here telling you that the odds are I’ll never make it to that level. I’m four albums in right now, and the odds are starting to stack against me. Maybe I’ve gotten as big as I’m ever going to get, but I’m thrilled with that. I’ve gotten to be a country singer, have some gold albums and be on tour. I’m living the dream. I can’t sit here and complain about what level of the dream I’m living. I’m definitely trying to get to that point. I just don’t know how to do it. Do you?

Actually, that was my next question.

I don’t know how you get there. I think it comes down to timing and lining up three or four monster hits in a row or maybe getting arrested or something like that. I’m not sure how you get to that superstar level, but that’s why I’m in the game. That’s what I’m going for and I’m having a ball trying to get there.