Blake Shelton has a point. Just, uh, not the point he thinks he has.
Been watching this Blake Shelton thing snowball. It’s an interesting light show, lot of fireworks and untold hordes of keyboard commandos mobilizing to unleash a wall of sound and fury.
Signifying mostly nothing.
Here’s my take:
- Nothing Blake Shelton says or sings or thinks or writes or in any way communicates is relevant in my world. He is legitimately and fully an absolute nobody to me. Where he touts his CMA awards as validation of his relevance, I view them as proof that he is solely an entertainer and utterly lacking in artistic merit. It’s a simple equation for me. Perhaps as Obi-Wan Kenobi might say it is all about one’s point of view. Mine’s clear and won’t be changing and I don’t care what Obi-Wan might have to say about that.
- What Shelton said is interesting on a couple of levels. First, it is enlightening that he has flat come out and said what those of us who treasure traditional country music have always thought/known — Music Row is all about the bottom line, and what sells is what gets recorded and shipped. No surprise there. We’ve talked about that subject plenty of times before. Did Jack Ingram sell out? (No, for the record) Is Kevin Fowler a sham? (Yes, for the record) Does anybody on Music Row have any legitimate respect for either the beating heart or the living roots of country music? (Unequivocally no, for the record) Blake just said it out loud, and that’s a new twist in the ongoing saga. Further, while doing so he made it clear he believes anybody who takes issue with the bottom line corporate stance on Music Row is an old fart or a jackass. Not one of the cool kids. Not anybody who’s buying records (Seriously, who the hell buys records anymore? It’s all downloads. Did he miss the memo about what havoc iTunes is wreaking on the industry?) So you’ve got a prominent entertainer (not an artist; an entertainer. nothing more) stating clearly that it’s all about the benjamins and insulting anybody who thinks different. At least he’s honest.
But the second level of interest is where it gets, well, interesting. Least for me. What Shelton said is that since he’s got his CMA award he must be one of the “winners” who get to choose where country music goes. That it has to evolve, can’t always be grandpa’s music. To the victor go the spoils, eh? I think that’s the underlying shock of reality that’s really setting people off. It’s one thing to know an industry has no use for you. It’s another thing entirely to hear one of that industry’s shining lights tell you so to your face. Realization is sinking in and people are maybe for the first time understanding that Nashville ain’t coming back. If it does, it’ll just be a money grab disguised within a sound you’re more comfortable with and/or accustomed to. You know, sorta the same way that payola and the buddy system and a consistent sound that’ll make the sorority girls frisky have combined to undermine and emaciate the Texas/Red Dirt scene. Cracks me up when I see the players in that group wearing their “Fuck Nashville” shirts. Guess nobody covered the definition of irony in any of the classes they accidentally managed to attend. But that’s a whole other rant and we’re not here right now to break down all the ways Rich O’Toole isn’t qualified to wash Mike McClure’s or Jason Boland’s sweaty jockstraps.
- Given the above, in my opinion Shelton’s a symptom and not a problem. The problem is that a bunch of suits in shiny towers who live and work in urban settings have been able to set up focus groups with their urban neighbors and draw a tight little bead on what exactly it is that’ll make the soccer moms wet. If that’s country, you can kiss my ass. But…. they were successful in passing it off as country, weren’t they? You don’t think Tim McGraw’s prancing around in leather pants because he’s a sure enough top hand, do you? No. They sold an image. People bought it. So that became the focus of what would “evolve.” Same way a lot of you fellas used to pop a chubby when Shania Twain would release a new video. Sure, she was a hottie. So what? Your hormonal support for her is the reason we’ve got a Carrie Underwood and a Taylor Swift to deal with. Or ignore, although the fact that the masses seem to think both those ladies are country artists still results in fallout we have to deal with. If you can’t tune your car or truck radio to the largest “country” station in your area, you’re dealing with the results.
So here’s where I’m landing on this deal. I do not care one bit about Blake Shelton. Don’t care how many songs he records in his life. I couldn’t name a tune of his right now if you held a gun to my head. And nothing he does will ever stick with me throughout a lifetime. Because he is an entertainer. Entertainers are not timeless. Artists are. Quick sidebar proof:
- Nobody knows the name of a single court jester from the Middle Ages
- Even the people who wrote “A Knight’s Tale” and turned it into a movie knew who Geoffrey Chaucer was
Didn’t think so. Now. Quit focusing on the fact that an entertainer admitted he’s nothing but an entertainer, a trained monkey performing other people’s assembly line songs and having them detailed with machine precision in prep for delivery to the masses. You already knew that anyway if you have a brain, and the only news here is that someone would call you names out loud that they’ve been calling you in board rooms and conference rooms and A&R meetings for decades.
The machine is the machine. Its focus group demographic studies aren’t going to change. There’s always gonna be a new Rascal Flatts pawned off on us. Always gonna be a new Lady Antebellum. Or a new faux outlaw, in the Keith/Aldean/Bryan vein. They’re going to hand out what they believe will sell.
You want the passion you’re feeling to matter? Want all the noise on the interwebs to be effective? Then stop. Back away from your keyboard. Put down your pithy comments just waiting to be unleashed in fervent frenzy.
Take a breath.
Think about the actual artists whose Music you know. Think about the challenges they’re facing. Think about what you’ve done to support them so far in your life. Think *hard* about what additional support you could be offering.
Go find an internet radio station that respects the roots of country. Doesn’t all have to sound like Hank, either. Not bad if it does, but things do evolve. Shelton was right about that. Him and about 9 billion other people. Don’t let the Music Row machine convince you that country is a sound. They’ve been horrifically successful with that very angle for far too long. Stop allowing it to work on you.
Country music is not now, nor has it ever been, as simple as a sound. For every Hank Williams, there is a Red Steagall. Do they sound alike? For every Dale Watson, a Dwight Yoakam. Every Waylon, a Strait. David Allan Coe has written some of the very best country songs the world has ever heard. So has Tom Russell. So did Cindy Walker.
It’s not about a sound, kids. Music Row needs you to believe that it is, because if it’s a sound, then there’s a safe strategic roadmap for radio. Which means there’s a safe strategic roadmap for video shoots, for arena concert schedules, for waves of merchandise. If it’s a sound everyone’s identifying with, it can be manipulated and tweaked and formulated and the profits can be maximized.
But country music is not a sound. It is a spirit. It is the rural American dealing with nature and the elements while caring for livestock and carving out a life. It is also the grizzled road warriors like a Billy Don Burns whose lives require concrete and neon for sustenance. It is the independent singer songwriter, a la Brian Burns, whose dedication and commitment and talent and professionalism have earned a decent living. It’s Hank, but it’s also Jason Eady. It’s Waylon, and it’s also Cody Jinks. It swings easily between a steel guitar and a blazing Telecaster when it’s held safely in the capable hands of a Kevin Higgins or a Jackson Taylor or even a Mike Ness.
At its core, down deep in its soul, country music is us. It’s not them, not the clowns on Music Row. Its spirit is timeless, and its purveyors are artists first and entertainers or performers second or third or sometimes not at all. That’s the reason that in fifty years you will still know the words to “Me and Bobby McGee” or “El Paso” or “Angels and Outlaws.” The inverse is the reason that in fifty minutes you won’t know the words to whatever Kenny Chesney’s last hit was. And that in fifty years nobody’s likely to remember who Chesney was at all.
Let the machine feed its pablum to the masses if it and they wish it so. It’s their golden spoon, after all. And it’s the masses’ sordid tongues who lick the pablum from the spoon like so many ravenous coyote babies. Let them think Jason Aldean understands the first damn thing about a bareknuckle country life. Who cares?
But support the artists whose work will withstand time’s inexorable test. Seek out the stations, whether local terrestrial stations or internet radio or satellite as applicable, who devote themselves to playing the music that speaks of, speaks to, and inherently moves the ever-beating American heart. Share your knowledge with those around you. Don’t bogart the joy.
Whether real music ever makes a comeback comes largely down to you and me. The artists who make it don’t have a choice; their souls cry out the visions that are then poured out for us on six-strings. Because of that, real music will survive long after the assembly line cookie cutter crap has gone to join the dodo bird and the dinosaur.
In the meantime, people like Blake Shelton are going to say some supremely arrogant and stupid things. Check your anger, pull out a history book. You’ll quickly see that’s nothing more than a longstanding malady mercilessly afflicting the irrelevant. And make no mistake, anyone who chases a dollar at the expense of their heritage and their soul is irrelevant at best.
The sound and the fury all over the web right now gives you a chance to proselytize, to share with others the artists who matter to you and why exactly they matter. Use the opportunity. Iron’s hot. Strike.
Otherwise, you’ve done naught but contribute to the inevitable part where the sound and the fury die down and measure out to, well, nothing.
~ Dave Pilot
Dave Pilot lives in north Texas with his first good wife (don’t ask about the other one), seven horses, and five dogs. When his wife’s not looking, he tries to figure out ways to feed the 987 or so cats to the coyotes out behind the fenceline. When he’s not trying to raise his kids to turn out better than he did, he’s hitting historical sites on his way to honky-tonks from Denton to Port Aransas. Visit Dave Pilot on Facebook.
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