Walking The Walk This Way
May 18, 2015
"This is for all you f-$@#-ers in the back!"
Before I met Steven Tyler in person last week during a listening event in Los Angeles where we shared a nice, albeit brief personal chat, that's the last thing I remember him saying directly to me.
Okay, fine. So he wasn't talking DIRECTLY to ME. I mean, there were roughly 350,000 of us in the crowd, but I was one of those select "fuckers in the back." And I mean waaaay in the back, at Ontario Motor Speedway for California Jam II on the night of March 18th, 1978.
Steven was kind enough to dedicate "Train Kept a Rollin" to me and my fellow FITB that lovely evening, and I never doubted his sincerity. Speaking of "I nevers," the idea of me someday being involved with Country music was on that list; so was eventually meeting Tyler one-on-one. Last week, those two streams crossed in one of life's odd, serendipitous happenstances, and -- BOOM! There I was in my home town, chatting up Steven Tyler about his upcoming Country album.
Now, 37 years and two months removed from Cal Jam II, I still don't doubt his sincerity. It's one thing to say, "I want to make a Country album!" History has provided us with chapter upon chapter of cautionary tales from both anonymous and well-known artists who've tried and failed to make a Country connection (Jessica Simpson, anyone?), but this is not a stop-and-chat for Tyler. He's been living in Nashville and immersing himself in the songwriting community for months now; by that, I mean not just listening to songs, but participating in grind-it-out, perspiration-over-inspiration sessions, crafting well-constructed, by-gawd Country tunes. As an example, one impressive 'behind the curtain' moment came when Tyler played a very raw demo of an as-yet-untitled tune. He told the room he and the Warren Brothers demoed the song within 10 minutes of finishing it - but nine HOURS after starting it. So we heard Tyler - and the Warrens - delivering a song in its entirety for the first time ever - and absolutely nailing it.
During an hour-long listening session, Tyler mentioned a virtual who's-who of Music City-based songwriters he's had sessions with - the ones responsible for much of the current chart and Country's overall direction during the past five years or so - the Warrens, Brett James, Eric Paslay, Hilary Lindsey and Rhett Akins, just to name a few. And here's the moment when it occurred to me that Tyler has a solid understanding of this town and a feel for the format: The lead single (and this week's most-added song with 38 commitments!), "Love Is Your Name," is NOT something he wrote. That nuance, the confidence of knowing one person can never out-write this town, is an important one. So is picking a tune written by Paslay and Lindsey Lee for your initial foray into Country.
In spite of a big first day, here's a shocker for ya: There are naysayers, and the project is polarizing, because - let's be honest, shall we? - Country as a format, as a sector of the music business, and specifically the community of Nashville - often has a tendency to be somewhat parochial in thinking. So now, propose the idea of Steven Tyler, lead vocalist of an iconic Rock band, transitioning to Country music and you realize what rolling a meatball up a hill or baking a watermelon is like.
But who are the naysayers? Are they Country listeners or the format's gatekeepers? Are they 45-54-year-old music fans who remember Tyler's inseparable connection to Aerosmith and can't fathom the idea of him doing Country? Or is it 18-34s, some of whom only know Tyler as that guy who was a judge on "American Idol?"
We know longtime Country artist Clay Walker isn't a fan. Interviewed by the Modesto (Ca.) Bee last week, Walker said, "I can't stand to see outdated rock-and-rollers coming in to play country music. That really p'ed me off. We have great singers, great country musicians. There's no reason we have to dilute it by letting people in the format that don't have any business being in the format."
Clay, if you're reading this, we've been friends a long time and I love you. But, "Letting people in the format?"
Apparently I missed the memo about Country as a format becoming a private, exclusive club, where potential members are carefully screened -- with some sort of initiation rite, annual dues, and a secret handshake required before limited entry is granted. Maybe you live in a gated community; I don't.
Will Tyler ultimately be judged on the IDEA of a rocker making Country music - or the actual Country music he's just made?
Does anybody remember a similar conversation when Darius Rucker - one-time front man for Hootie and the Blowfish - announced he was making a Country album? Yes, Rucker's band didn't have as much longevity and heritage as Aerosmith, but who among us can't recall people actually referring to Rucker as "Hootie?" How's that for an obstacle when launching a new project? But Rucker immersed himself in this format, and the community too, making tons of radio friends by hitting the road and doing grassroots-style campaigning. He's come out the other side as a solid mainstay artist for this format - so much so that I submit when people saw Hootie and the Blowfish reunite on David Letterman back in April, some probably said, "How come Darius Rucker is playing with those guys?"
Similar to Rucker's Country debut, Tyler has demonstrated a genuine feel for Country with "Love Is Your Name," the essence of which are stories, and how they're interpreted through song. This is a dialed-back Tyler, vocally and production-wise, but you still feel his signature powerful, soulful presence. He's not out of character or trying too hard. In fact, he's trying less here. Steven Tyler can really sing - always could. But the result of his less-is-more approach vocals on this project for Dot is somewhat transformational for Tyler. The songs and stories are the thing here; his always amazing vocal skills are assuming the role of delivery vehicle. Thus, as a Country artist, Tyler understands he must be more nuanced storyteller than all-out crooner.
BMLG Pres./CEO Scott Borchetta whispered the words 'Album Of The Year' candidate to me when talking about what will be the finished product. Is he biased? Well, yeah. But Country radio will have several legit songs to consider, and there's a subtext to the album, too. In the form in which I heard them, several other songs are potentially embraceable by Triple A radio programmers; and there are several additional straightahead rockers, because that's just who Tyler is. He's positioned himself for critical praise and commercial airplay at the same time. This will allow new and existing fans the chance to peel back another layer or two on Tyler from a musical standpoint - they will appreciate and enjoy what's deep inside.
Before any music was played in LA, Tyler shared a story about hearing - and loving - "The Battle Of New Orleans" when he was a boy, thanks to his dad. After doing the math on both Tyler's and the song's origin, I'm assuming he meant the original, Johnny Horton version, which was released in 1959. This was an early introduction to Country music for Tyler, whose connection to it has apparently remained - amid, and in spite of the aforementioned historic career with Aerosmith .
Right now, Country as a radio format has a small, elite unit of arena/stadium-packing superstar artists and a large stable of new and developing ones. That latter group hasn't collectively achieved consensus on a definable sound driving the format's future growth and popularity so far. We're diverse, but a signature sound is currently a total jump ball.
A subset of that toss-up for the format is the male vocalist category, which feels more crowded than ever in 2015. The most likely contenders to grab the baton next, and ascend to star status, seem to be Cole Swindell, Sam Hunt, Brett Eldredge, Thomas Rhett and Chris Young.
Into that equation, say hello to a potential grenade named Steven Tyler, freshly tossed into the room with pin cleanly pulled and ready to send stuff flying everywhere. And maybe that ends up being the point - that the format's signature sound right now IS a wide-open diversity.