Walking a Define Line
September 26, 2013
To no one's surprise here, last week's column detailing Zac Brown's recent comments about Country music in general and Luke Bryan specifically elicited some strong feedback about the format's diversity, direction and definition.
I'll start with a portion of one note that was unattributed:
"There is a perception among labels that a certain kind of song (with trucks, tailgates, parties, beer) is their best bet for airplay, and that it's safer to bet on a new or not-yet-established solo male to get airplay than a new or not-yet-established solo female. The national Country airplay charts bolster that perception. So does the near-total absence of traditional Country from the current airplay charts."
I don't know what current airplay chart this reader is referring to when it comes to an "absence of traditional Country music." Last time I checked -- and that was Monday (9/23) -- Justin Moore had the #1 song on the Mediabase Country chart with "Point At You."
For those unfamiliar, Moore is a hat-wearing, hunting, fishing native son of Poyen, AR (population: under 500) who is decidedly, unashamedly and genuinely COUNTRY. In fact the only people who could accuse him of being Pop and still be taken seriously are his children.
Joining Moore in this week's Top 10 are Billy Currington, Tyler Farr, Chris Young and Tim McGraw. Now, sound coding is a very subjective thing, but this former PD would tag all of their current singles as at least leaning traditional and I seriously doubt any of them aspire to make music that would cross over to Top 40 anytime soon.
Back to Moore for a moment. There's a word for the kind of week he's having so far; that word is what we who grew up in Southern California (population: Over 10 million) refer to as: "Bitchin'."
After waking up Monday with the #1 single in the U.S., it only got better Wednesday (9/25) when his new LP, "Off The Beaten Path" debuted at #1 on the Country albums chart and #2 on the all-genre chart.
And he wasn't the lone ranger on that all-genre chart.
Impressively for the format, Moore was one of five Country artists in the Top 10 there, joined by Chris Young's "A.M.," Currington''s "We Are Tonight," Luke Bryan's 'Crash My Party" and Keith Urban's "Fuse."
I can't and won't dispute this reader's point about the ongoing, frustrating lack of female depth in our format. A look at this week's Mediabase Country singles chart bears that out, as only seven of the top 30 songs feature a female voice and two of those are either part of a duet (Keith Urban & Miranda Lambert) or a group (The Band Perry). That said, I believe label execs and their A&R people are paying attention to this Achilles heel of ours, based on inroads made this year by Kacey Musgraves, Cassadee Pope and some advance music I've been able to hear from newcomers Leah Turner, Lindsay Ell and Kelleigh Bannen, just to name a few.
Another observation came from longtime programming consultant Scott Huskey, Co-President of RWPC, who wrote, "We are forever trying to define what Country is and it's a target that keeps moving. Historically, when we begin these debates about 'Country not being Country,' good things usually happen."
And there was this from Glasco Media's Bob Glasco: "What defines Country music is up to whoever is defining it -- for themselves."
Taking Bob's lead, I have safely concluded that traditional Country defines our format
Well, for now anyway. And by now, I mean this week.
Huskey is spot on about Country's signature sound – or, lack thereof - as a debatable, moving target. This is evidenced by the diversity of the format's #1 singles during the past seven weeks:
Most recently, Moore's "Point At You," preceded by Florida Georgia Line's "Round Here," Keith Urban's "Little Bit Of Everything," Carrie Underwood's "See You Again," Brett Eldredge's "Don't Ya." Hunter Hayes' "I Want Crazy" and Randy Houser's "Runnin' Outta Moonlight."
For those of you PDs and MDs out there, tell me that isn't an appetizing goulash of sound codes that constitutes an easily scheduled and versatile portion of any given hour.
That assortment of sounds is part of what Cameron Broadcasting VP and veteran Country programmer Craig Powers attribute to the format's rise:
"One of the great things about the Country format these days is the variety," Powers wrote. "Whenever there is variety, it surges and draws in the masses, just like back in 1980 and again in 1990. Now it's happening again."
This variety Powers speaks of from artists both new and established, personifies what has kept Country relevant – even in soft music cycles – over the years. And that is, the natural baton-passing of dominance from established to developing artists.
Look at the career chronology of these recent #1 achievers: Urban in 1999 (as a solo artist), Underwood in 2006, Houser 2008, Moore 2009, Hayes 2011, Eldredge 2010, and Florida Georgia Line 2012, although it seems like only 10 minutes ago. Obviously, Urban and Underwood are the only "established" artists here, with years and multiple #1s under their belts. But also percolating inside the top 10 and poised for his own #1 run: Tim McGraw, who has been making hit Country songs for 20 years.
"Country music is now much more consistent with the reality of our nation," commented Majestic Communications VP/Operations John Sebastian. "It is diverse, from traditional Country to what the hottest new Country artists are creating; essentially very reminiscent of the great rock songs of the '70s and '80s."
And right on cue, sitting in line for this week's #1 is another established artist with his own, rock-leaning sound: Jason Aldean and "Night Train."
Fall arrived Sunday, September 22nd. So all those songs "with trucks, tailgates, parties, beer" our first letter-writer lamented will soon cycle off the radio. I guess in a few weeks we'll be lamenting all the sappy, slow-tempo ballads we're forced to deal with and that will define Country – for a month or so. Stay tuned.