Are Outlaws In Vogue?
May 29, 2014
There are certain things in life I'm not sure whether to believe - like just about everybody on Facebook the other day, suddenly posting their "Most inspiring" Maya Angelou quote to honor her passing. I know a lot of these people; some quite well. I had no previous inkling they were such ardent fans of the author and poet. But that's what makes Google so awesome, I suppose. It can make us fans, experts and aficionados of just about anything in a matter of seconds, allowing us to seize the day!
Me? I prefer data; hard, cold facts. Like Nielsen Soundscan figures, which this week showed Valory Music's Brantley Gilbert selling more than 211,000 copies of his "Just As I Am" album in its debut week (by the way, I didn't Google that).
That easily made Gilbert the #1 selling Country album for the week and #2 all-genre, behind Coldplay's "Ghost Stories." It's also notable for being the year's second-best Country debut of 2014 behind Eric Church, whose "The Outsiders" moved 290,000 units in February and is only the third debut since the beginning of 2013 to exceed 200,000. The other? Hello! Remember Luke Bryan's "Crash My Party" and his 528,000 first-week tally in August of last year?
In short, Gilbert's first-week showing is a big-ass deal and proves the Athens, GA native is now, as an artist, a "Grown Ass Man" as he sings on the deluxe version of "Just As I Am." It makes you wonder if somehow, somewhere, team Coldplay is looking at each other saying, "Brantley who? ... WTF?"
It's not shocking to see the British band move so many first-week units, really. They have deep career equity dating back to 2000 when they debuted with the Grammy-winning (and, may I say, terrific) "Parachutes" album. That one went multi-multi-Platinum, as have all their others.
Ditto Luke Bryan, who hit the scene in 2007, but whose trajectory went from ordinary to considerable with 2009's "Doin' My Thing," making him and Platinum certification BFFs ever since. Bryan's subsequent releases, "Tailgates & Tanlines" and the aforementioned "Crash My Party," basically carved out the "Bro-Country" sound that has helped widen Country's young appeal.
Ah yes! Bro-Country. The format's new taste sensation and "Sub-genre" as WLHK/Indianapolis PD Fritz Moser calls it. The one with its very own sound code, eliciting much conversation recently - admittedly, a lot of it here - as all of us try to assess its credibility and maybe more importantly, long-term viability for this format.
I believe that conversation has overshadowed another aspect of Country's growth in the last few years: the decline of Rock as a format, causing its listeners to search for something edgier to connect with. Enter the likes of Jason Aldean, Eli Young Band, Zac Brown Band, the more uptempo songs by Randy Houser and The Band Perry and recently, Country radio's growing acceptance of Cadillac Three.
And if "Bro-Country" is a sub-genre to the larger format picture, than what Brantley Gilbert and Eric Church bring to the table to complement the Rock lane for Country is too: Outlaw Country.
This latest sub-genre is ready for its close up again after basically being idle in terms of new music for a while. Before Church's "The Outsiders" this year, "Chief" was released in 2011, yielding two #1s, a top 10 and two top 15 singles. More importantly, that album was a game-changer for his career and this format, as it had the appeal -- on a mass level -- those Rock fans were desperately seeking. I don't believe Church stood pat on "The Outsiders." Rather, I think he pushed the envelope even further.
Similarly, Gilbert went four years between 2010's "Halfway To Heaven" and last week's "Just As I Am." Both of these and especially (to my ears), "Just As I Am" bring a rock-edged feel to the incredible songwriting on the album. It feels guitar-driven, but not so much that it drowns out the storytelling quality important to core Country fans. It is also the next iteration of his edgy, dare I say, "bad-ass" sound.
I remember first realizing Gilbert was in fact, a badass, while attending the Eric Church show at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena a couple years ago, a show which Gilbert opened. I was blown away by the crowd, all of whom made sure to be there for Gilbert's set and who knew every word to every song he performed. At the time, both artists that night were having the success trifecta indicative of something impactful and real: chart, sales and touring. Oh and one more thing ... they both moved a ton of merch that night.
As Church and Gilbert's respective albums and singles cycled out, in stepped Florida Georgia Line, Bryan's ascension to mega-stardom and what we now know as "Bro-Country."
If gatekeepers are currently tiring of that direction, maybe the Outlaw movement -- small yet mighty at the moment but with potential -- could be the next shiny object to catch their attention. In my weekly conversations with PDs and MDs, many expressed anticipation at getting new music from Church and Gilbert this year, as a gritty, rowdier alternative to "Bro-Country."
That said, I'm not sure my newly dubbed "Outlaw Country' sub-genre has enough bench strength just yet to quickly duplicate the success of "Bro-Country." Brantley Gilbert and Eric Church are of course driving it and Cadillac Three can potentially be included, along with selected titles from various artists. Take Jason Aldean, for example. I would call some of his stuff "Outlaw," but I'd also classify his other titles either Rock or "Bro-Country" as well.
What I do know is that just as Gilbert and Church have done, any growth in their Outlaw movement has to be organic, real and rule-breaking. Because that's what makes it outlaw (see the Oxford American Dictionary for exact definition). The originators of that sound were Waylon and Willie. Go back and listen to a Waylon album from the '70s sometime. It's not perfect and certainly not slick but it connects, warts and all.
Back to Gilbert's huge debut week for a second. What's cool about it and what speaks to the "organic and real" requirement for Outlaw status, is that "Just As I Am" is only his third album. Granted, his second, "Halfway To Heaven" was Platinum, but he's only accumulated three #1 singles and made no TV appearances during his recent launch week. He did, however, embark on a six-day Harley ride from Athens, GA to Arlington VA, stopping at Best Buy retail outlets along the way. He aligned himself with the "Folds Of Honor" organization that provides assistance to families of killed and disabled servicemen and women. All of this ended on Memorial Day, at Arlington National Cemetery, where he helped place a wreath on the graves of soldiers and met with their families.
Motorcycles, grassroots marketing and patriotism? I'm not sure it gets more "organic and real" than that.
I keep saying the pendulum will eventually swing in favor of female artists ... of which there is currently a deep roster of potential stars ... and I still believe that. But maybe if paired with edgy, badass, "Outlaw" music on Country radio we'll keep evolving a variety of sound codes that grows our appeal, helping sustain Country's dominance.
But perhaps the late Maya Angelou said it better: "We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty."
I know for a fact that she once wrote that ... I Googled it.