(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
I have been hearing that “may be old but …” quote around town quite a bit lately. Makes me wonder if perhaps there might be something to it.
Especially when the widest music choices available seem to be mediocre pop or mediocre country. It seems like only yesterday that a seemingly clueless 13-year-old girl named Rebecca Black posted a music video that went viral. Her “Friday” is a clumsy Taylor Swift copy that became the most viewed and most talked-about video on the Web. But will it matter in six weeks, let alone in six months or six years? I find it fascinating that “Friday” was both eviscerated as the worst music video ever and simultaneously hailed as a brilliant parody and as an “unintentional commentary on a business mining nitwits for nickels,” to quote Bob Lefsetz.
That above “suck” headline, by the way, is not meant to be personal and is not directed at any individuals or companies whose music inadvertently sucks. And it’s especially not directed personally at you. Unless you’re complicit in that musical fraud and intentionally release music that sucks. In which case, feel free to take it to heart.
Speaking of which, how long can the Music Row assembly-line songwriters and record labels keep going back to the “I’m country/you’re country/he’s country/she’s country/we’re so country/trucks/beer/backroads” memo till it’s completely exhausted?
Probably until it’s completely used up. It’s like drilling for oil. When those wildcat wells are gushing full bore and money is raining down from the sky, you never imagine your well will someday run dry.
Part of the country music dilemma these days is the labels’ attempts at aping pop music and concentrating on song downloads and at becoming singles factories, as opposed to recording albums. Now, the efforts involved in breaking a single at country radio take up to a year or longer. Lee Brice’s last single seemed to take 12 years to climb Billboard’s country songs chart. Who can listen to the same trendy single several times a day for a year? Apparently only call-out researchers at mainstream radio.
A recent Internet campaign was aimed at ACM Awards voters for a certain fairly new young artist who has had a few hits. The video showed clips of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson … and then our new young singer. As if he belongs in that pantheon of greats. Give us all a break. Well, these things always seem to sort themselves out in the end.
I actually have heard some good music recently that is reassuring and tells me the cause is not lost. There are still songs that are written about being human, rather than about being country. Or being real country.
I was totally rejuvenated at hearing an as-yet-unreleased song recorded by Ronnie Dunn, late of Brooks & Dunn. “Cost of Livin'” is a stunning dose of lyrical reality dealing with the plight of the working class. With simple but powerful lyrics and an understated but very strong vocal performance by Dunn, the song packs a strong social message. Which is something country has been sidestepping of late. His first solo album, Ronnie Dunn, is due June 7.
The return of Foster & Lloyd is good news for hardcore fans. It’s odd to realize they were a duo for only five years and three albums and have been solo artists for 21 years now. But their new recordings sound as if they never went away.
The new album is due in May and titled It’s Already Tomorrow with 12 Foster-Lloyd collaborations including “Picasso’s Mandolin,” which they co-wrote with Guy Clark (and which appeared on his Boats to Build album). Musical guests here include E Street Band member Garry Tallent, Cheap Trick’s Tom Petersson and singer-songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman.
The veteran Nashville singer/songwriter Matraca Berg returns with her first new solo album in 14 years. The Dreaming Fields is due May 17. I especially like “Oh Cumberland” from the album (she also recorded the song with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band). Besides writing and recording memorable music on her own, she has yielded unconventional songs that became unlikely country radio hits, such as “Strawberry Wine” (co-written with Gary Harrison) for Deana Carter. You can hear “Oh Cumberland” on Berg’s MySpace page.
And speaking of Deana Carter, she has a striking duet in the pipeline with REO Speedwagon’s Kevin Cronin.
All of this comes into closer focus with recent Nashville radio ratings that show that unconventional station WSM-AM is challenging the city’s three Top 40 country stations for ratings and has, in fact, pulled ahead of its namesake FM station — and slave to the country singles chart — WSM-FM. How is WSM-AM doing it? By airing an eclectic mix of traditional country music, young artists, bluegrass, Americana, roots music, live shows and a blend of longtime station staffer DJs with musical credibility and integrity. In other words, it’s the kind of stuff that you genuinely like to hear. Give me a country music authority like DJ Eddie Stubbs and a 50,000-watt signal and I’ll rule the world.
The next time you hear an “I’m so country” song on country radio, consider this: It will soon be the 10th anniversary of the last truly great modern-era country song. “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” will endure forever, because it was written from the heart.