(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
I find it fascinating that country music remains an alien art form to many media outlets and their audiences. A very valid recent case in point is Blake Shelton. After a national audience for the TV show The Voice discovered what country audiences have known about Shelton for years, the media are trying to decipher and explain his appeal and how he became such a stealth crossover success.
In recent weeks, Shelton has done what no country artist has accomplished before: being lavishly covered and praised in the pages of both The New York Times and New York magazine at the same time. (Taylor Swift has been well-covered in New York magazine and The New York Times and appeared on the cover of the New York Times Style Magazine.)
In recent years, the mainstream media’s touchstone for how to comprehend and understand and explain the appeal of a country crossover artist has been Taylor Swift. And she accomplished her conquest by careful songwriting and sheer personal force, and she generated a tidal wave of sales and radio play and social media and concert mania. In the more recent past, the sheer crossover retail sales of the artists Shania Twain and Garth Brooks commanded headlines, but there were few credible attempts at deciphering the success.
By contrast with Garth’s and Shania’s commercial onslaughts, Shelton’s achievements have been more gradual and more incremental. It culminated for him this week when his new album, Red River Blue, landed atop both Billboard’s 200 all-genre chart and country albums chart.
Shelton has been plugging away at it for more than a decade. He left Ada, Okla., after high school and headed for Nashville, where he landed a songwriting contract. He was “discovered” by the famed songwriter Bobby Braddock, who virtually adopted Blake and produced his early efforts. Blake’s first single release was originally intended to be the Braddock song “I Wanna Talk About Me,” but they eventually settled on “Austin.” The song went to No. 1 and became a karaoke staple. Toby Keith later recorded “I Wanna Talk About Me,” which also became a No. 1 hit. “Austin” turned into a career song for Blake. “I Wanna Talk About Me” would not have done the same thing for him.
His career has steadily progressed upward, but it has been his role on The Voice that made him a TV star.
It is unprecedented for The New York Times to devote the entire top half of the before-the-jump portion of the front page of its prestigious Sunday arts and leisure section to a country music artist. And then jump the story to a full page inside the section.
But that’s what the Times did on July 10 of this year. The story was headlined “Country Boy for the Whole Country.” The sub-headline read: “A Star of ’The Voice’ Becomes a Nashville Ambassador to the Mainstream.”
He has what the talent TV shows have lacked: a character with male and female appeal across the boards, good looks, musical credibility, personal sincerity, a whiff of danger, a genuine sense of humor, a certain bawdy appeal and a wham-bam give-a-damn approach to the whole damn thing. Just bring it on. And a recent romance and marriage to a spitfire country music female star, in Miranda Lambert. So they’re already being compared to such storybook country music marriages as the George Jones–Tammy Wynette coupling. With a better outcome, presumably, this time.
I still remember being just offstage at the CMT 100 Greatest Duets concert when Shelton and Lambert performed a duet of “You’re the Reason God Make Oklahoma,” and you could just feel the electrical sparks flashing back and forth between Blake and Miranda. I exchanged glances with a couple of CMT producers: They could see it and feel it, too. It was a genuine experience, a real human thing.
That’s what I think is what The Voice’s audiences have discovered in Shelton. He doesn’t hide who and what he is or try to be something that he is not.
This new success has also prompted New York magazine — not at all a fan of country music — to run a sort of Blake-Shelton-for-dummies feature story on July 11. This Blake-for-dummies is a bulleted guidebook for New York hipsters and others with no cognizance at all of Blake or of country music.
The most telling line in the magazine piece is this: “To a country music fan, the sudden nationwide fuss over hunky Voice judge Blake Shelton must be a little annoying.”
How very true. The piece goes on to note that “Blake Shelton has been a country music star for years! He’s released six albums … and nine No. 1 singles. … He recently married fellow singer Miranda Lambert, solidifying their long-held status as Country Royalty, and he’s always been tall and handsome … But for the newly-converted Blake Shelton fan, the I don’t listen to country music (except for Taylor Swift) cohort, there’s still much to know.”
The overriding message from both of these articles is obviously this: “Well, now! Here is a country music artist that we can actually approve of! So it’s officially OK for you to like him, too!”
Country record labels and managers and publicists wanting crossover success for their artists are, I’m sure, studying all this closely.