A Day In The Life Of The Music We Love
September 28, 2015
We all got into this business because we love music. Along the way, that term "the rest is just details" crept into our day-to-day -- subjecting us to budgets, hiring, firing, cutbacks and whatnot. That's because if we stuck with it long enough, life happened; some of us became grownups with actual responsibility thrust upon us (i.e. PDs, OMs, VPs and/or Managers), and let's face it, sitting around just listening to music for music's sake doesn't pay the bills.
But damn, we still love it, and sometimes there are days that refill that passion to overflow proportions, giving us a large and much-needed deposit in our emotional bank account, which counterbalances so many of the painful withdrawals that often have us wondering if it's all worth it.
Well, it still is.
I'll always thank the musical gods above for Wednesday, September 23rd, when I suddenly had face-to-face access to, and samplings of the wide variety of music now available in this format. Inside a 13-hour period, the menu included George Strait, Sam Hunt, Charles Kelley of Lady Antebellum, Big Loud Records' new guy Chris Lane, Blake Shelton, and finally, on my way home, Thomas Rhett.
This epic day of music started with George Strait pinging my e-mail inbox. Okay, not the ACTUAL George, but new music from the iconic, living legend and Country Music Hall of Famer. We found out less than 24 hours earlier it would be coming, ahead of an album dropping on Friday (9/25) and news of four 2016 concert dates in Las Vegas. Remember that time Strait retired from the road last year in record-breaking fashion at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX before more than 104,000 fans? Apparently he still has a desire and the chops to play live and, hey -- why not take four dates in Las Vegas? Name one Country fan who WOULDN'T want to see him again. (Cue crickets) Aaaand, we're back! This is a win-win and certainly lucrative for his bank account and by that, I don't mean the aforementioned emotional one. As for new music - the single, "Cold Beer Conversation," is everything you'd expect from Strait - like he's gonna go all Sam Hunt on us now? This is the closest you'll ever hear Strait get to Bro-Country, as he describes a conversation over some cold ones with longtime friends that cover topics every mature male who's 'been there, done that' ponders. I'm sure the MCA promo team has realistic airplay expectations too, given the current, sonic state of the format and radio's obsession with shiny new objects. That said, I hope there will always be a place for Strait somewhere on Country radio for years to come, because "The King" will always be cool.
Speaking of "shiny new," later on it was coffee at Edgehill Café on the Row, and helping Ashley Silver at CRS with airplay stats on two Sam Hunt #1 songs that were to be honored that afternoon. For those who don't know, #1 parties are a big deal; kind of a tradition in Nashville, and CRS - on behalf of radio -- always honors the artist and songwriters at these shindigs. On this day, "Take Your Time" and "House Party," two of Sam's three #1 singles, were set to be celebrated. Just two days earlier, Hunt's latest, "Break Up in A Small Town" had the biggest add day in the format. This song and his entire "Montevallo" album are envelope-pushing and boundary-crashing. Can any of us imagine - say just three years ago - a song like "Break Up," with its R&B infused, spoken-word-driven verses that eventually explode into an edgy chorus dominating the add board? But strip away the production, read the lyrics, and this is as stone-cold Country as it gets. It also makes a huge statement about how it is now impossible to throw a blanket format descriptor on Country music right now. More on that later.
A meeting at Fusion Music with Lady Antebellum manager Daniel Miller was up next, and I heard some upcoming solo tracks from the band's Charles Kelley. Lady A members already announced they'll take most of the next year off, with Hillary Scott concentrating on a family, faith-based project and Dave Haywood spending well-earned time with his wife and baby after a long tour. Apparently Kelley has been noodling around with songwriters in the studio; noodling which has now turned into "a thing." I heard four songs, all of which - I believe - will quickly establish Charles Kelley as one of the format's most unique solo male voices, a title that right now, Brett Eldredge and Tyler Farr share. Without giving away more details due to a double-secret handshake and mysterious oath Miller asked me to recite in his presence, get ready for some incredible stuff from Kelley.
Big Loud Records President Clay Hunnicutt had his debut artist, Chris Lane, give Albright & O'Malley & Brenner's Becky Brenner and I a guided tour through some of his new music. I found Lane to be personable, real and outgoing; someone that I, being a Southern Californian, hereby grant "regular dude" status and that's meant in a good way. Produced by Joey Moi, the sonic architect behind Florida Georgia Line, Jake Owen, and many others in and out of Country, Lane's music has all of Moi's studio touches; it sounds big, layered, hooky, up-tempo, commercial, and right in the format's sweet spot right now. I'm one of just a few who scratched their head when Clay Hunnicutt left iHeartMedia after a successful radio career of 27 years to launch a record label. Did he know something I don't about Big Loud and Lane, or are both some kind of mid-life crisis that (thankfully) takes the place of a 23-year-old blonde and/or a red, European sports car? After hearing about six songs, I'm relieved and happy to say the current and future state of Clay's mental and musical health appear to be in terrific shape.
A short walk down 16th Avenue to Warner Music Nashville was next, where an estimated 10,000 fans were in front of the building for the previously announced free Blake Shelton concert. The show evolved from the label's summer, "Pickin' On The Patio" series - which usually features a new, emerging artist - but with a greatest hits package coming next month, apparently something on a grander scale was on Blake's mind. As WMN VP/Promotion Kristen Williams said on her Facebook page the next morning, "When Blake says 'build a stage,' you do as he asks." Yeah, I guess so.
Shelton treated concert-goers to a steady stream of hits chronicling his career, most of which will be part of his "Reloaded: 20 #1 Hits," set for release on Friday, October 23rd. Early into the show, Shelton recalled first arriving in Nashville some 21 years ago and hoping just one label along the city's famed Music Row would simply let him in the door. While marveling at the size of the crowd that showed up and which required several streets along the Row to be shut down, Shelton then said, "All those other labels who wouldn't let me in can now kiss my ass." His set was fantastic, he sounded great, and kudos to WMN for flawlessly executing something of this magnitude on short notice.
The drive home that night finally afforded me enough time to hear Thomas Rhett's new "Tangled Up" album uninterrupted in my official listening chamber -- also known as my car -- and I will tell you right now, this one already has a reserved slot on my annual, year-end "Top 5 Albums (According To Me)" list, coming in December. I first heard this at a Big Machine event last month where Rhett took us through it cut-by-cut. The album has a lot of different sounds running through it: Soul, R&B, Country for sure, and elements of Hip-Hop. As Rhett said to those at the first listening preview, "I was born in the '90s - don't hate." "Tangled Up" basically contains a lot of what he listened to growing up, which is to say, pretty much every genre imaginable. He's already scored a #1 hit with the lead single, "Crash And Burn" and the follow-up, "Die A Happy Man" will not only be #1 number two, it will be a career song. That single and this album will launch Rhett onto another level altogether as an act, making him the next young artist to grab the superstar baton and run like hell with it.
This is the party album of the year that leaves you with an exuberant, feel-good afterglow and a strong desire to go out and have some fun with people you love hanging with. It might even allow you to tolerate the people you can't stand. That how "feel-good" it is. Additionally, "Tangled Up" is that album you give to those people who know you work in Country, but still constantly and annoyingly remind you that they never listen to it and don't plan on starting anytime soon. After hearing this, they will.
Rhett's "Tangled Up" and Hunt's "Montevallo" are emblematic of the diversity and creative revolution now taking place in this format, a movement which has already distinguished itself among some of the previous eras which helped evolve and grow the format, albeit somewhat disruptively.
Drums - yes, drums; Hank Sr.; Western music; Rockabilly, Countrypolitan, the Bakersfield sound, The Outlaw movement; Urban Cowboy, the Class of '89 (a.k.a. "The Garth Era"). Each of these periods shook the foundation of Country and were met with varying degrees of discomfort, skepticism and critical displeasure, eventually proving to be important periods that stretched its appeal long-term, a few growing pains notwithstanding.
Yes, I think what's happening right now is totally on par with the eras mentioned above, critics and haters be damned. Some of them want to keep Country music in a tightly controlled box and make the genre an exclusive club with initiation rites, secret handshakes, and special permission granted to those who meet stringent entrance requirements. What's happening now can't and won't ever be as good as say, what Johnny Cash left us, they insist! Although, I have to believe when people like Cash, Buck Owens and cohorts like them were breaking the established rules of the day, somebody was complaining because it didn't measure up to the musical integrity and quality of Jimmie Rogers, The Carter Family, or Ernest Tubb.
Meanwhile, the days of someone else curating music and defining boundaries for consumers are quickly dwindling. Today's music consumers are the ones writing the rules about what is what, and I suppose that yes - you could say the inmates are running the asylum to some degree. This generation of younger music fans who like what they like eagerly -- and without judgement -- throw all of it into one huge mixing bowl labeled "songs I really like." Genre descriptions? Hey, that's a YOU problem; maybe you should work on getting over it.
There's a great song on Rhett's "Tangled Up" called "The Day You Stop Looking Back." and yes, this one is for Country radio; one I hope will be a single. Penned by Jaren Johnston and Luke Laird, two of the songwriters driving a lot of these era-defining, disruptive sounds from a story-telling perspective, it perhaps best speaks to the haters and skeptics about Country's current revolution: "The day you stop lookin' back you're gonna find that the future sure beats the hell out of that past."