That's My Story And I'm Stickin' To It
May 22, 2014
Collin Raye says, "Enough already."
In a Thursday, May 15th piece published on the Fox News website, Raye, a consistent Country music hit maker in the early '90s to 2000s, made a plea to "the gatekeepers of the industry," saying the Bro-Country phenomenon must cease, asserting, "Now is the time for Nashville to get back to producing and more importantly, promoting good singers singing real songs."
Without reading his entire open letter, a lot of people will assume Raye is bitter, because he's not getting airplay as in previous years. But peruse it for yourself and you'll see this isn't a "You kids get off my lawn!" rant. In fact, admits Raye, "I know I run the risk of being labeled as a 'has-been, carrying sour grapes' by speaking out. Nothing could be further from the truth. I had my run from 1991 until 2002 and I'm quite thankful for that."
No, this is a calm, clearly stated opinion piece from a talented, humble, thoughtful artist and self-described "Lifelong fan of the genre" who believes Country music is off-course right now. An artist who believes, "It's time for Country music to find its identity again before it is lost forever."
A noble idea for sure, but in fact, the toothpaste is largely out of the tube.
For the current generation, this IS Country music's identity. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, when younger listeners of this format (12-34-year-olds) were recently asked to use one word describing Country music, without thinking or hesitation, those words were: "Fun," Upbeat, "Party," Good times," "Spring break" and "Happy."
That's an entirely different take-away from previous generations of heavy -- and especially peripheral -- Country users, who would say, without blinking, that the music was mostly about trucks, trains, dogs, divorce, prison and dying.
But Country's identity today isn't exclusive to its current consumers; it's shared by the new artists as well. This is their version of Country music and how they express it; their root system is totally unique to previous artists, but no less valid or genuine. This is their time and the music is making a connection with their contemporaries. Give them credit for that.
And it goes back to a theory I have also previously shared: Country music is one among many genres of music they listened to growing up ... maybe not even their favorite back in the day. By the way, genre is a word you and I and maybe Collin Raye still use. To most people in their 20s, there are no borders or designations for music. It's all one giant playlist of stuff they like.
To support that premise, I'll share observations from my years-long focus group of an admittedly small sample size: three males, now all in their 20s. They just happen to be my sons and members of the first full, downloading, file-sharing generation. I've always been amazed at the vast amount of music from all genres (again, MY word) they became familiar with and are still fans of, in spite of not one of them ever compiling a physical CD or album collection growing up and, for that matter, not much radio consumption either.
All of what they love was available in mass quantities online and completely blows away any music collection I or my contemporaries could ever have amassed, no matter how long we hung out at a record store or how many mix tapes we swapped.
In short, this generation of Country music – the users and makers of it – grew up in a world of accelerated information, entertainment and media exposure and usually had easy access to their insatiable appetite for it. I know this to be a fact, too, because I was a key enabler for my focus group participants, dutifully supplying them with desktop, laptop and handheld computer gear for years. Therefore, the interpretation and expression of Country music we're hearing from artists of today merely reflects their accelerated culture.
And here's another bug-a-boo to Raye's desire to restore, "Good singers singing good songs."
Um ... The format has never been hotter, used by as many people, more mass appeal, garnered bigger ratings, developed more superstars, seen bigger tours, etc. etc.
Blake Shelton just finished another successful season on "The Voice." Keith Urban is a judge on "American Idol," which was renewed for a 14th season; one can assume he'll be back. Brad Paisley just signed on to judge a new singing competition, "Rising Star" and ABC-TV renewed the fictional drama, "Nashville."
Collin: Love you and yea, agreed, I don't always love all the new stuff on Country radio either, but damn. I mean, it sure seems to be working for us right now.
You urge the Nashville music community, to "Reclaim the identity and poetic greatness that once was our format."
Well, there's no collective, governing body for the Country music industry you're making a plea to here. Specific to radio, that would be its listeners I guess ... the ones who are drinking this current musical cycle by the gallon. Like you, Collin, PDs are a bit tired of a lot of this stuff (Just don't quote them!). But ask them to take a stand and remove proven hit music from their radio station, especially in a PPM market where there is so much dial-hopping and where fewer than 10 meters in most cases determine a station's ratings? Well, they simply can't afford it when so much revenue is at stake. It would also be fundamentally wrong to do so.
"I think we can all agree by now that everything's been said about a redneck and his truck, that can possibly be said," believes Raye. "It is time to move on to the next subject. Any subject, anything at all."
Even a "Donkey?" (Sorry, couldn't resist).
Raye went on to say, correctly, that, "Great fun, rockin' party songs, describing the lifestyle of blue-collar country folk have always been a staple of the genre." Continuing, he compared, "The poetic, 'middle American Shakespeare'-infused lyrical prose of classics like Hank Williams' 'Jambalaya' or Hank Jr's 'All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight' or Garth Brooks' 'Friends in Low Places' or, 'Ain't Goin' Down Til The Sun Comes Up' to the likes of contemporary offerings like 'That's My Kinda Night,' or any of the other 300-plus songs from recent years that say the exact same thing in pretty much the exact same way. It's like comparing a Rolls Royce to a 10-speed."
Wait. "All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight?"
That song just may be the ground zero for "Bro-Country" music when you break it down. It has all the elements of the music Collin decries, what with "Beer on ice," "Girls that can cook, girls that can clean and girls that can do anything in between." There's also "A pig in the ground," (poor thing!) and all of this debauchery is taking place at Hank Jr.'s "Party pad out in the woods." Oh, and let's not forget "Miss Mississippi." But hey, there's a heartfelt, touching side to this song, too, because it all begins with "Ketchup on my blue jeans/I just burnt my hands."
Rolls Royce to a 10-speed? Maybe more like apples to apples. But it ain't Shakespeare.
All of THAT said – wait another minute ... this isn't a Country song ... it's the opening theme to "Monday Night Football!" ... Right?
Here's the thing:
Most of what Collin Raye is concerned about will eventually run its course and something new will supplant it. And I think that's good. It will give the format another layer, with more diversity and variety which will help us continue to be dynamic, interesting and appealing.
What is dangerous -- and there is some of it right now -- is Nashville's habit of signing and recording a knock-off of a knock-off of a knock-off . Eventually, the original, genuine magic initially so appealing becomes watered down and cliché -- and that's when things starts sounding like crap. Anybody remember the mid-'90s, post-"Class of '89" era?
A lot of the music Raye doesn't care for is NOT in the wheelhouse of Country radio's traditional 35-54 females core and I hear some people are seeing some dissatisfaction there. That's also dangerous, because, lose them and you lose a lot of occasions. And as good as things are right now, we all know it's hard to sustain the attention of 12-34s for very long ... they'll find the next new thing that we can't control.
And Collin, all of this might be moot anyway. Maybe your next letter should be addressed to John Dickey and Cumulus, who just decided it's time to create a new segment of the Country format by rolling out the "Nash Icons" brand.