The Year That Coun­try Rocked

Big changes have been tak­ing place in coun­try mu­sic – changes that rock fans have been get­ting ex­cited about. As 2018 proved to be the year that coun­try rocked, we get to the heart of why, and talk to some of the new scene’s movers and shak­ers.

Classic Rock - - Contents - Words: Bill DeMain

We get to the heart of why coun­try rock is en­joy­ing some­thing of a re­vival, and talk to some of the new scene’s movers and shak­ers.

The leg­endary song­writer Har­lan Howard once said: “Coun­try mu­sic is three chords and the truth.” In 2018 those three chords are ring­ing louder than ever, and the truth has swung back to­wards the whole dark­and-light hon­esty of Hank Wil­liams and Johnny Cash. You can hear this pow­er­ful com­bi­na­tion in the lat­est re­leases by Eric Church, Sturgill Simp­son, Black­berry Smoke, Brent Cobb and Broth­ers Os­borne, among oth­ers. And at this au­tumn’s Amer­i­cana Festival in the US, with a record at­ten­dance of 68,000, you could hear it in the rous­ing per­for­mances of ris­ing stars such as Aaron Lee Tas­jan, Lilly Hi­att and Fan­tas­tic Negrito.

To un­der­stand the cur­rent state of coun­try mu­sic, it helps to know a bit of his­tory. Af­ter ris­ing out of Ap­palachian folk songs and Protes­tant hymns, mod­ern coun­try mu­sic was born in Nashville in the late 1950s. Pro­duc­ers Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley started spik­ing the old-style hill­billy moon­shine with string sec­tions, twangy gui­tars and dance­able back-beats. The ‘Nashville sound’, as it came to be called, was the cross­over blue­print for much of what we hear to­day. But it also cre­ated a kind of in­ter­nal tug of war within coun­try. When the genre leaned too pop and lovey-dovey, as it did by the late 60s, in came the Out­law move­ment, with Wil­lie Nel­son, Way­lon Jen­nings and Kris Kristof­fer­son, to pull it back to a root­sier place. Af­ter that sound played out, in came the disco-in­flu­enced Ur­ban Cow­boy trend. And so it’s gone to the present day, where the genre has been dom­i­nated for much of the 2010s by the EDM ‘bro coun­try’ of Luke Bryan and Florida-Ge­or­gia Line. What we’ve been hear­ing this year is a kind of rol­lick­ing protest – mu­sic for coun­try fans hun­gry for more than elec­tronic beats and end­less odes to small-town Satur­day nights.

Vince Gill, one of coun­try’s great am­bas­sadors and now a tour­ing mem­ber of the Ea­gles, summed it up: “You do get a lit­tle weary of ‘You’re hot, I’m hot, we’re in a truck.’”

John Os­borne of duo Broth­ers Os­borne agrees: “I think peo­ple are tired of the bull­shit and are ready for real sub­stance.”

Brent Cobb said: “When I write songs, I’m al­ways think­ing about dark and light and life and death.”

Sturgill Simp­son, one of the most suc­cess­ful of the new breed, won’t even put a name on what’s hap­pen­ing. “I’m gonna play rock’n’roll and I’m go­ing to build a lit­tle army, and you’ll come to my show and it’ll be four hours long and it’ll be an Amer­i­can mu­sic show. It won’t be a coun­try mu­sic show, Amer­i­cana mu­sic show or soul mu­sic show, we’re gonna touch it all, be­cause I love it all.”

Lov­ing it all is a com­mon thread that ties all of these new artists to­gether. The Cadil­lac Three’s mem­bers bonded in high school over shared love for both Alabama and the Beastie Boys. And the rocky, elec­tri­fied take on south­ern liv­ing that’s helped them con­nect with au­di­ences from Nashville to Lon­don? Front­man Jaren John­ston says: “Tom Petty is a big touch­stone, but also nineties-era coun­try like Garth Brooks”.

When I went record shop­ping with Black­berry Smoke for a fea­ture in this mag­a­zine, they were scoop­ing up al­bums by Merle Hag­gard and the Fly­ing Bur­rito Broth­ers, but also David Bowie and the Rolling Stones. They’re a per­fect ex­am­ple of how these present-day artists em­brace old-school ideas like us­ing al­bums over sin­gles to con­nect.

Black­berry Smoke’s lat­est,

Find A Light, made the UK Top 20. Their pre­vi­ous record, Like An Ar­row, de­buted at No.1 on

“I’m gonna play rock’n’roll and build

a lit­tle army.”

Sturgill Simp­son

the US Bill­board Coun­try chart, un­seat­ing ra­dio ti­tan Ja­son Aldean. That’s even more amaz­ing when you con­sider that coun­try ra­dio doesn’t even play the band, and this was their sec­ond No.1 al­bum. “Our fans are the ones who make the record Num­ber One, not a pro­gramme di­rec­tor,” singer Char­lie Starr said.

“And we’ve built our au­di­ence one fan at a time,” drum­mer Brit Turner added.

But build­ing au­di­ences in coun­try mu­sic is fraught with the dan­ger of los­ing them en masse if they don’t agree with your pol­i­tics. And those pol­i­tics tend to be right-wing Con­ser­va­tive across the board. In Nashville there’s a verb – to be ‘Dixie-Chicked’. It refers to the pop­u­lar group the Dixie Chicks’ on-stage crit­i­cism of then pres­i­dent Ge­orge W Bush in 2003 and his in­va­sion of Iraq. The back­lash from fans and the in­dus­try de­railed the trio’s ca­reer. In a Rolling Stone cover in­ter­view in au­tumn 2018, Eric Church risked be­ing Dix­ieChicked when he shared his thoughts on the Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion (NRA) and gun con­trol in the wake of the hor­rific shoot­ing at a coun­try mu­sic festival in

Las Ve­gas.

“Peo­ple come to see you play, then all of a sud­den they die? That is not an emo­tion that I was pre­pared to deal with. It wrecked me in a lot of ways,” Church said.

But did the in­ci­dent change his mind about guns?

“A lit­tle. I’m a Sec­ond Amend­ment guy. That’s in the Con­sti­tu­tion, and I don’t be­lieve it’s ne­go­tiable. But no­body should have that many guns and that much am­mu­ni­tion and we don’t know about it.”

He went on to say the NRA was “a road block” and “more of a prob­lem than a so­lu­tion”.

The re­sult was pre­dictable: lots of anger from fans who re­fused to ac­knowl­edge the con­text of his com­ments. As an ex­am­ple, if you look at the thread of Church’s re­views on iTunes be­fore and af­ter the Rolling Stone piece, you see a sud­den drop from five stars to one, and com­ments such as “Real coun­try singers ain’t scared of guns like you!”

Amid the so­cial-me­dia frenzy, Church’s team spun into dam­age-con­trol mode. I know, I was sched­uled to in­ter­view him for this mag­a­zine and it quickly got can­celled. Whether it will af­fect him long-term re­mains to be seen. Other artists, in­clud­ing Broth­ers Os­borne, Faith Hill and Garth Brooks, have also edged in the same di­rec­tion on Amer­ica’s gun-con­trol

prob­lem this year, but Church is the most out­spo­ken.

An­other po­lit­i­cal is­sue stir­ring be­low the sur­face of coun­try has to do with #metoo and bias against fe­male artists: for ev­ery 100 tracks played on com­mer­cial coun­try ra­dio, only 15 of them are by women. While this year saw great new mu­sic from Kacey Mus­graves, Margo Price and Court­ney Marie An­drews, there’s still a sense that they’re ‘out­siders’. And of course it’s even riskier for fe­male artists to be out­spo­ken on po­lit­i­cal is­sues, as the Dixie Chicks showed.

Re­cently, Taylor Swift, the big­gest star that mod­ern coun­try mu­sic has pro­duced, en­dorsed the Demo­cratic can­di­date for se­na­tor in Ten­nessee, while de­nounc­ing the fe­male Repub­li­can’s “anti-women poli­cies” in no un­cer­tain terms. Within two days, 166,000 new young vot­ers had reg­is­tered in the state. Name artists like Church and Swift can start much-needed con­ver­sa­tions and help ef­fect change.

In all of this – sound, con­tent, pol­i­tics – there’s an echo of the 70s out­law move­ment. This au­tumn, Nashville’s Coun­try Mu­sic Hall Of Fame opened a ex­hibit ti­tled Out­laws & Ar­madil­los. Al­though the word ‘out­law’ is of­ten co-opted as short­hand for tat­toos, whiskey and row­di­ness, it’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that what it meant then – and now – in mu­sic terms is artists out­side the main­stream, who want to make mu­sic on their own terms.

Whether it was the mur­der bal­lads of the Lou­vin Broth­ers, or Johnny Cash singing of the plight of the Na­tive Amer­i­can, or Loretta Lynn warn­ing her man not to ‘come home drinkin’ with lovin’ on his mind’, coun­try mu­sic has al­ways been at its best when it faces its sub­ject un­flinch­ingly with sim­ple emo­tion. And as this ris­ing tide of newer, rock­ier artists start mak­ing waves on ra­dio, it’ll be a re­fresh­ing change to hear. “We went through an era of big hit songs that no one is go­ing to lis­ten to ten years from now,” said TJ Os­borne. “And we’re about to hit a decade of coun­try that I think is go­ing to be played for a long time. It’s about to hit the same stride it hit in the nineties.”

“I want peo­ple out there that are in the po­si­tion I was in four years ago to know that there’s hope,” Sturgill Simp­son said. “I wake up ev­ery day and feel like, ‘I wanna fuckin’ crush this game, with­out play­ing the game’, just to prove it can be done. I wanna hit Go­liath in the fore­head with a rock.”

“I think there’s a great change in the air, es­pe­cially in the Uk… It’s like the Bri­tish in­va­sion,

but in re­verse.”

John Os­borne, Broth­ers Os­borne

Broth­ers Os­borne: among the lead­ing pack chang­ing the face of coun­try mu­sic.

Black­berry Smoke: the 21st cen­tury’s an­swer to Lynyrd Skynyrd?

“our fans are the ones who make the record num­ber one,not a pro­gramme di­rec­tor.”Char­lie Starr, Black­berry Smoke

Johnny Cash and (be­low) Loretta Lynn: coun­try mu­sic that faces its sub­ject with sim­ple emo­tion.

The Dixie Chicks: crit­i­cised pres­i­dent Ge­orge W Bush in2003, and the back­lash de­railedtheir ca­reer.

Sturgill Simp­son: one of the most suc­cess­ful of the new breed ofcoun­try artists.

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