(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Exhibit One: One of Nashville’s best and most accomplished singer-songwriters was recently talking about the state of recorded country music. After observing that almost no one he knows actually listens to country radio, he said — and I paraphrase here — “I get a feeling that we’re all very good at making records we wouldn’t buy.”
Exhibit Two: The comic strip, Arlo and Janis, recently showed the couple out for a walk. Arlo says to Janis, “There was song after song about how great life is! About all the fun they have on Saturday nights. … About how much they love their sweethearts! When did country music get so happy!?”
Exhibit Three: Here are random lyrics from recent and current country radio songs that are about “mama, Jesus and Jones” and “John Wayne, Johnny Cash and John Deere.” And “Lordy mercy, it’s a real good life in the backwoods.” “It’s a ride in a Chevrolet!” “It’s a Springsteen song!” “I’m a little more country than that.”
How many fishin’ poles and fishin’ holes and old dirt roads and small towns and beat-up pickup trucks and pinches of Skoal and images of pastoral creeks and farms does the audience need before it overdoses on how country we are or are not? When does country music become just a fantasyland?
Junk songwriting and shallow lyrics and shorthand shopping lists of objects that supposedly should be desired by country fans have always existed in country songs, but I don’t think they’ve ever been as celebrated as they are now. Or as ubiquitous. Or as successful.
One reason is that there seem to be no — or very few — musically-knowledgeable people at radio because of radio consolidation and perhaps because the bosses don’t want anyone messing up the process with talk of quality or of good songs. I should not, but I have to laugh sometimes when I read in one of the radio newsletters a profile of a country radio station program director or music director in which he or she (usually he) talks about pivotal music that was career-defining and influential. And more often than not, it’s usually some artist like Poison or Meatloaf or Motorhead. That kind of mindset does not translate well to a country sensibility.
Another reason is the old cycle of record labels recording artists and songs that radio says it wants, and that usually calls for the lowest common denominator. And for songs that test well with the right demographic. And then that means songwriters have to write the kinds of songs that will actually get recorded and played. And that cycle repeats over and over.
There, of course, are still some very good songs being recorded and played, to be sure. Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me” is as good as anything that’s come along in years. And the video is a gem. Laura Bell Bundy’s new “Drop On By” is a sultry and sensual song that evokes the days of Dusty Springfield and Bobbie Gentry and is well worth your listen. Even though “Drop On By” is not being released as a radio single, look for the video. It will be on CMT and CMT.com on Monday (April 12).
The music I have heard from Dierks Bentley’s upcoming bluegrass album Up on the Ridge, is very impressive, and I suspect it may well prove to be a career landmark for him. I am listening a lot to Gary Allan’s Get Off on the Pain album, which shows that he continues to carve out a unique place for himself in the current musical landscape. Alan Jackson’s new Freight Train is like a welcome revisit to Old Faithful. And I’ll tell you what: Lady Antebellum’s astounding CD and digital sales figures for Need You Now are a very reassuring reminder that listeners are always eager to have good, solid, credible and melodic music in their lives.
Songs in country are usually slow to believably incorporate progress, whether it’s social or political or technical or other. Brad Paisley managed to work some now-dated technology into a “Welcome to the Future” and its Pac-Man reference. Now, new country artist Lee Brice has a song — and it’s a very country-sounding song at that — about a man who quits his drudge job to start a one-man computer venture and who subsequently sells the company to Microsoft. The song, “Love Like Crazy,” doesn’t say if the computers were available in John Deere green, but I’ll bet they were. Now, that’d be country.