Category Archives: Articles

“It’s Always the Songs”–What we Should Learn From Steve Earle’s Recent Outbursts

Ahead of his new album So You Wannabe an Outlaw, Steve Earle has not been afraid to speak his mind. IN a recent interview with The Guardian, Earle calls out, among other things, the current state of pop country and says that the mainstream is nothing but “hip-hop for people who are afraid of black people.” He also says that “the best stuff coming out of Nashville is all by women except for Chris Stapleton.” I don’t want to focus too much on this interview since that’s not originally what this article was meant to be about, but it adds new light to it and strengthens the point I was originally going to make here–Steve Earle is not afraid to be honest and share his opinion. However, the thing is, although it’s not overly common, bashing pop country is certainly not uncommon, and we’ve seen our fair share of artists do so over the past several years. The thing that makes Earle’s recent statements different comes in light of another interview, which before today had been the main focus of this piece.

IN another interview in Canada, with The Globe and Mail, when asked about Canadian songwriters, Steve Earle mentioned Colter Wall, citing him as “the best singer-songwriter I’ve come across in years.” Here’s where the interview takes an interesting turn.

I haven’t heard his new album yet, but I heard him [Colter] described as “bad Richard Buckner.”
Richard Buckner sucks. Richard Buckner is the most overrated songwriter in the history of songwriting ever. Girls liked him, because he stared at his feet. He’s a neanderthal. I know Buckner.
I’m quite fond of Buckner’s music. Particularly, The Hill (2000).
He can’t write his way out of a wet paper bag. Richard Buckner was nothing but a painfully alternative hipster’s darling. But I hate a lot of things people think are brilliant. I will not read Cormac McCarthy again. Technically, he’s one of the best writers I’ve ever come across. But I don’t think his intentions are good. I don’t think he likes us. I don’t think he likes himself. Actually, I think he likes himself just fine. That’s what’s so disgusting about it. I think he thinks the rest of us are pieces of [garbage].
Painfully alternative hipster’s darling, you say about Buckner. Can you explain that?
I don’t want to be a part of a culture that defines itself by what it hates. I can’t stand alternativism. I mean, I hate disco, but I have to admit there’s been some great art coming out of dance music.
But out of hate and alternativism comes great art. Punk rock, as a reaction to disco, for example.
Sure. But the stuff that’s great in punk rock are the songs. The songs hold up. The stuff lasts. Nirvana’s not Nirvana because of punk rock. Nirvana’s not Nirvana because it was different than hair metal. Nirvana is Nirvana because Kurt Cobain was a world-class songwriter. It’s always the songs.

First of all, I had never heard the name Richard Buckner before this interview, and let me tell you, after getting acquainted, Steve Earle is entirely correct, Richard Buckner sucks–but that’s beside the point. The point is, and it’s been strengthened today by his criticism of the mainstream, that he’s not afraid to judge the independent/Americana/alternative in the same way as what is popular. We’re all pressured by that in this independent country scene, to like everything Americana just because it’s not on the radio or isn’t considered mainstream. But let me tell you, a lot of it bores the hell out of me, and Country Exclusive was founded on a principle of honesty. When I said that, I didn’t just mean bashing the mainstream, and I get that there’s a certain problem with spending too much time unnecessarily bashing the little guy, but there’s also this elitist attitude in the Americana world that makes it seem as if you can’t criticize anything about these artists. Hell, there are albums I enjoy but have slight criticisms about in Americana, but somehow, if we say that, it’s a horrific thing. Criticism is meant to be constructive, and to share an opinion–and if the artist deems it necessary to listen, perhaps to make that artist better, but again, it’s just someone’s opinion. WE all find it easy to bash Nashville and pop country, and we all rally behind people like Steve Earle when they do the same. So why do we attack him for saying something negative about an Americana artist? I love that last point–“It’s always the songs.” Let it always stay about the songs. That goes for you mainstream fans afraid to like Jason Isbell, and for you independent/alternative/Americana fans afraid to like Chris Stapleton because he wrote some mainstream hits. Just let it be about the songs. They should, and will, speak for themselves.

Collaboration with Critically Country and the Critical abyss

So I did another collaboration piece for the month of May, this time with both Alex of Critically Country and Leon of The Critical abyss, formerly Country Music Minds. Topics include stuff we covered in May, that God-awful Chris Young song, midyear lists and albums emerging as our respective favorites of 2017. You can check that out here.

The Country Music Chat Featuring The Critical Abyss and Country Exclusive

You Know What? I Couldn’t Care Less About the Production on Colter Wall’s Album

Recently, I reviewed Colter Wall’s self-titled debut album, and if you haven’t heard that record, you’re honestly depriving yourself for no good reason. It’s right up there with the best of 2017 so far; it got a 9/10 here, but only just, due to one song, “You Look to Yours,” which admittedly has gotten only slightly better and less boring since my initial thoughts…but I digress.
Many outlets had a common criticism, in varying degrees of intensity, of the production. Produced by Dave Cobb, this record was minimalist to say the least–in fact, Cobb did virtually nothing, letting Colter and his guitar speak for themselves on a good portion of the album. This was quite a contrast from Wall’s debut EP which featured more interesting instrumentation and sometimes lively fiddles. I wrote that I thought that might have worked in some places on this record, and that Dave Cobb was to blame. I was careful to add that I personally thought that on this particular album, Dave Cobb did a fantastic job, getting out of the way of Colter–but I added that Colter will have to expand his sound going forward, and I agreed that the concerns of production are valid, if perhaps a little early.
But now? After listening to this several more times, and as this record becomes one of my personal favorites of 2017, as well as one of the best from a critical standpoint, I have to take back those comments. I think the production here was fantastic, as I already said, and I do think Colter’s next album can’t be more of the same without running the risk of it feeling a little stale, a la Stapleton. However, Stapleton is an easy comparison because they used the same producer; the bigger problem with Stapleton wasn’t Dave Cobb’s production as much as a general lack of passion from Chris Stapleton himself, which stands out even more on a minimalist Dave Cobb project where there’s not much going on to distract you. Now, I do have a problem with some of the production on Stapleton’s album, but my point is that it made it easy at first for me to draw comparisons with Colter Wall and seek out problems with the minimalistic approach, especially one that differed so much from Colter’s previous output.
But that’s just it; Stapleton’s two albums sound exactly the same, whereas Colter’s album and EP sound nothing alike, so I believe this means that any concern we have about him sliding into a rut with production is completely unwarranted until his next project. That concern should have no bearing on this album, and when I listen to this album, I can find no flaw in the production. Colter Wall and his guitar are enough, and that is all the more reflective of his talent and of the strength of these songs. I’m actually glad Dave Cobb got out of the way of this and let Colter and his stories shine. I can still understand people who wanted more production wise, but it is no longer my criticism–and as for expanding his sound going forward, we’ve already seen two very different sounds from Colter Wall, so I’m no longer sure we have to worry about this either. Now seriously, go listen to this album, it’s still incredible.

A Note to my Fellow Bloggers

I’m not saying readers can’t get anything out of this, but mainly this is directed at my fellow country bloggers who may read this and get something of value from it. I’ve seen blogs shut down, go on hiatus, change format, question themselves, whatever you want to call it, in some form or fashion, quite a lot these past few months, and I took a break for most of 2016. I see so many people who have come to be friends in this little world questioning where they go with their blogs and trying to find themselves and figure out what works for them. And I definitely don’t have it all figured out; Country Exclusive is so much different than it was when it started in 2015. Back then, it was much more structured and scheduled; we covered charts and had scheduled opinion pieces, and you know what? That sucked the joy right out of it for me.
The key part of that? For me. So I had to come back and figure out what parts I enjoyed. I love the reviewing, and I love talking about random topics such as this, but not on a scheduled basis, where I feel pressured to come up with something. It may be different for all of you, but my point here is find what makes you passionate, and then do that. Be yourself.
I was originally going to write a post this week on the value of honesty and criticism in music, and how we shouldn’t give up on the mainstream and/or the negative viewpoints. Country exclusive was founded on honesty above all else, and there’s a reason my Twitter handle is @honest_country. With that in mind, be yourself when it comes to review. If you have something unpopular to say, say it; we won’t ostracize you for it. And let’s be blunt here, growth is a big concern for all of us–Saving Country Music is perhaps the most hated institution in all of country media/journalism/blogging, and it’s also the most unflinchingly honest, and yes, the most viewed–with maybe the exception of stuff like Taste of Country, but certainly when it comes to independent country music journalism. Trigger is nothing if not himself, so if it’s growth you’re worried about, don’t be afraid to put yourself out there.
But back to the main point…just be yourself, and find what makes you passionate about this whole thing. You started doing this for a reason, just like I did. You all obviously loved it at one point, and I hate to see so many people lose that part of it as they copy other styles or try to be something they’re not. All of that’s hard though, and it comes with time, and I’m speaking as someone who went through it, and has come out, mostly, on the other side. Just get back to doing this because you love it, or else it’s not worth doing.
So, I’ll get back to reviewing music now, I just thought I’d share that with you all, and maybe you can get something from my personal experience.

What Happens When you Take Women Out?

I debated whether or not I should write this piece because it’s really quite personal, and I’m not sure if it will be relatable or have a point when I’m done here, but it’s still on my mind after a couple of days, so I’ll try my best to be articulate as I express my thoughts.
The inspiration for this piece came after the news that Miranda Lambert’s “Tin Man” fell from #38 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart this week to #42, despite its sales and the ridiculous spike after her ACM performance. Now, as I’ve seen a lot of people point out, Miranda has never had the greatest treatment at radio anyway. There’s also the fact that “Tin Man” is stripped down, not necessarily radio-friendly, and quite traditional, so it’s got those strikes against it–although “The House That Built Me” had all of these characteristics and still gave her a #1 hit. But the glaring fact is, a big part of this simply has to do with the fact that Miranda Lambert is female, and in 2017, despite all the think pieces and supposed inclusion of more women by the country awards shows, females are still systematically ignored on country radio and by the country industry as a whole–and if you think these awards shows really want to include more women, why are there fewer nominees for ACM Female Vocalist of the Year? Sure, more women have been signed to major labels recently, but they’re not generally given the same chances to succeed; there’s a quota for females on country radio, and Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood are filling it. And now it looks like Lambert will be replaced by Kelsea Ballerini, who is as non-country as Sam Hunt and the bros.
Keith Hill said back in 2015 that radio should “take women out.” The more infamous part was calling them tomatoes, but the more alarming part was taking them out. Lindi Ortega said then, “I can’t begin to describe to you how my blood boils at those words. Erase us, delete us…make it so we don’t exist.” And that’s what country radio is systematically doing–taking the female perspective so completely out that it’s shocking to imagine a woman’s point of view beyond the “girl” on the tailgate. Maren Morris recently spoke about this when she wrote that women in country can’t be sexual in their songs–they are supposed to be pretty and desirable but not write about their own desires. That inspired another piece which I haven’t yet written and have many conflicting feelings about writing–mostly because so many people I know will read it, and Maren Morris is a stronger person than I am–but it’s a more specific issue deriving from the same problem: take women, and their perspective, out. “Girls” are okay–and that’s why Kelsea Ballerini’s music can succeed on country radio; that, and that it isn’t country and seldom has substance.
So what actually happens when you take women out? I could go on about how it takes away their perspective in the mainstream, or how it leads to radio being one-sided and favoring music that marginalizes them, but I’m going to answer it from a personal place instead. I grew up in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, and one of the first country records I ever owned was a Dixie Chicks album, Wide Open Spaces. I fell in love with their music because it was country, but also because I could sing it and relate to it. They were women, and what they sang about appealed to me. I loved Martina McBride and Faith Hill, and later Miranda and Carrie. I sang an inordinate amount back then, so I will say that part of the appeal in their albums was that I could sing them; their ranges matched mine. But more than that, I related to them. I enjoyed plenty of music by male artists–and still do–but I naturally gravitated toward more women artists. Even today, on this blog, I can go back and look at the very few tens I’ve awarded–it’s a subconscious thing, but more of those records are by women. They have nothing in common in production, style, lyrics–but tens are set apart from nines for me because they can connect emotionally, and I have connected emotionally with more women in the history of running this blog, it seems.
The point of all this is that I fell out of love with country radio for the same reasons you all did; it lost its sound and its substance almost overnight. More than that, here in Oklahoma, radio killed Red Dirt around the same time. It had once lived on our radio stations along with mainstream music, but things like the rise of iHeart helped to destroy it. Even more than all of that, though, I became disenchanted with country radio because of the lack of women. I didn’t know then that there was all this independent music floating around just waiting to be discovered, and all of a sudden, I couldn’t relate to anything on the radio or sing along with any of the records. I mentioned that I sang, and I will now say that I grew up wanting to be those women. And I don’t think it’s even possible to do that now. You can’t turn on country radio and hear Miranda lambert as a young girl and say, “I want to sing like her” or get that passion for country music like I did. It’s the same thing I said in my piece about genre awhile back, that it makes me sad that your average young person can’t just turn on the radio and find and fall in love with traditional-sounding country. But even that’s starting to make its way back in, (slowly), with Stapleton, Morgan, Pardi, Midland…while the women are being pushed further and further out. Sure, there are plenty of them out there if you know where to look, but you have to love country first before you go seeking out Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley and Margo Price.
And I’m not saying a girl can’t fall in love with country from listening to men, or anything close to that; I’m only saying that in my case, I don’t think I’d be sitting here writing this if I hadn’t heard all those women on country radio back then, and if country radio’s systematic ignoring of females keeps even one girl from falling in love with this wonderful genre, then that’s the real problem, and the real danger of taking women out.