Tag Archives: Scott Borchetta

Random Thoughts of the Week: The Top Five Signs of Hope for Mainstream Country

2015 has been the year of the sellout in country music. The two most disappointing sellouts of the year for me were easily the Zac Brown Band and the Eli Young Band, the former with the release of the EDM single “Beautiful Drug” to country radio, and the latter with the terrible single “Turn it On” and the subsequent EP, as well as the horrible “country remix” of “Honey, I’m Good” with Andy Grammer. Keith Urban was a close third, using his talent to give us the brilliant “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16,” a song that personally pisses me off about as much as “Kick the Dust Up” because Keith Urban knows better. Easton Corbin used his George Strait-esque voice, previously used for “A Little More Country Than That,” to record an album full of bro country pickup lines. Brett Eldredge, though never really carrying a torch for traditional country, was never really working aginst us until his recent r&b album Illinois. Danielle Bradbery has remade herself into a wannabe pop star for the sake of reviving an already struggling career. Even the legendary Alabama sunk to the low of releasing “Southern Drawl,” a desperate attempt to be cool that failed in every respect, coolness especially. And now, Eric Paslay’s new single, “High Class” seems to have finally pushed everyone off the deep end with its blatant metro-bro bullshit lyrics and style–and this coming from the person who obviously knows better, as “She Don’t Love You” so effectively proved. In times like these, people start saying we should forsake country altogether and start calling ourselves Americana fans, that we should just surrender our beloved “country music” to these sellouts, country carpetbaggers, and metro-bro douchebags, and go listen to Americana. They say that all hope for “country” as we knew it is lost.

Well, here are some signs of hope, in no particular order of importance.

Dierks Bentley

Dierks Bentley is not selling out, as his latest single, “Riser,” has proven. I will be incredibly shocked if he succumbs to the trends, as he has no reason to. He has found the perfect balance between quality and airplay and doesn’t seem to care that he often does not get the recognition he deserves. He has made quality music throughout his career and has no reason to change that now; he’s found a formula that works for him even in this country radio climate.

Carrie Underwood

Carrie Underwood is not a traditional country artist, but she’s here because she defines what actual pop country should sound like. She takes the best of pop and country and blends them well, offering songs that both display depth in storytelling and are radio-ready. Although I was not as impressed with her new single, “Smoke Break,” as many, it certainly does not follow the current trends, and her new album, Storyteller, could be a factor in turning back the tide of mainstream country music to a real pop-country sound–what we have now is straight pop poorly disguised and incorrectly labled as country.

Cam

True, Cam has only given us two singles and an EP so far, but the reason she’s in my top five signs of hope for mainstream country is that On the Verge supported her. Her first single, “My Mistake,” was a nice pop country blend, but “Burning House,” the sponsored single, is a completely acoustic, traditional country song. The fact that this program supported an artist like that signals change. Cam’s debut album cannot come soon enough!

Chris Stapleton

Some would argue whether Chris Stapleton is mainstream, but I don’t see why. He’s on a major label and has even received some airplay. Traveller is nominated for Album of the Year by the CMA, and Stapleton is nominated for Male Vocalist of the Year and New Artist of the Year. Stapleton with three nominations is a sure sign of hope.

Maddie & Tae

I have written a lot about these ladies, but I’ll say it again–they can bring those that think “country” = Sam Hunt and Kelsea Ballerini back to country. Radio has actually given them a shot. They’ve proven they’re not afraid of fighting for country; they’ve spoken out against drum machines and their debut single was “Girl in a Country Song.” The fact that Scott Borchetta and Big Machine are behind them and that they’re actually getting played is a huge sign of hope.

Despite all the selling out, there are still a lot of reasons to hope for mainstream country, perhaps now more than ever. More and more independent artists are seeing success in album sales that mainstream Nashville can’t ignore. Country legend Merle Haggard, a name-drop in many of today’s songs, is openly speaking out. Represented above are established artists and newcomers alike, fighting for real country music. I didn’t even mention Mo Pitney, Ashley Monroe, Kacey Musgraves, Jon Pardi–the list goes on. Not to mention Tim McGraw’s new album will unashamedly be titled Damn Country Music. I wasn’t thrilled by the lead single, but the album title certainly intrigues me. The point of all this is that mainstream country is far from hopeless–in fact, after years of fighting, we are finally seeing numbers on our side, artists speaking out, and more traditional artists being signed and getting airplay. In short, although it is happening slowly, we are seeing results. Why should we give up now? The day we leave our own fight and run to Americana is the day that country music will be lost.

Tomato of the Week: Jamie Lin Wilson

I featured her friend and fellow Texas country artist, Courtney Patton, last week, so this week, I am covering Jamie Lin Wilson. Check out her full article on Female Friday!

Random Country Suggestion: Randy Rogers Band–Burning the Day

A great album from one of my favorite Texas/Red Dirt bands.

Listen to album

No non-country suggestion, just go listen to these glaring signs of hope.

Random Thoughts of the Week: Songwriting and the Artist Identity Crisis

I have been wanting to address the lack of good songwriting in mainstream country music since I started this blog, and now is the perfect opportunity. Many of you have heard Danielle Bradbery’s terrible new single, “Friend Zone,” a pathetic attempt at relevancy that relies on fake drums, rap, a token banjo, and confusing sports metaphors to save Danielle’s already underwhelming career. (I had actually planned to rip apart this song, but SCM and Country Perspective have already done it for me, and this song is not going to save Danielle’s struggling career by any stretch of the imagination, so I’ll save my ranting for other worthy songs.) If by chance you haven’t heard it, here it is, consider yourself warned.

This song, as well as The Band Perry’s worse single “Live Forever” (I can’t bring myself to even post this piece of crap), have caused many to wonder if these artists have any sense of identity. Are they sellouts, or are they being forced to sing this bad pop music because they have no idea who they want to be? In both Danielle Bradbery and The Band Perry’s cases, Scott Borchetta was blamed for “turning his artists” into bad pop crossovers. Borchetta probably had a lot to do with it, but as much harm as he has caused the genre, it’s important to be fair here–and in the spirit of fairness, Borchetta also gave us Maddie & Tae, who produced the best mainstream country album of 2015 so far. So why do Maddie & Tae get to have their own “vision” for their music, while other artists are forced to sing whatever the label assumes will sell? I think it boils down to an artist’s identity, or lack thereof. If you watch The Voice for more than ten minutes, you will hear the phrase, “You know [or don’t know] who you are as an artist.” This is a crucial part of an artist’s career; a lot of people can sing, but not many have this part figured out. Maddie & Tae seem to have it figured out, but Danielle and The Band Perry obviously don’t, so they will sell out and sing whatever their label tells them will sell.

So what is causing this identity crisis in country artists? I think a large part of it has to do with the way many of today’s mainstream artists view songwriting–as an art, or as a business. Songwriting should, especially in country music, reveal things about the writer. Good songwriting should tell a story and often reflects the writer’s thoughts and emotions. This makes the art of songwriting relatable and is one thing that makes country music stand out among other genres. Say what you want about Taylor Swift, but there is a reason her music is so popular–she is an excellent, relatable songwriter. Songwriting also helps artists discover who they are and gives them individuality, which is another lost concept in country right now. This is songwriting as an art, and artists who recognize it as such will write good music and/or choose well-written music to release. But somehow, in the past five years, songwriting on Music Row has turned from this personal experience of connecting with the listeners and discovering artists’ identities into a formulaic hit-making process requiring at least three contributors. Thomas Rhett’s latest train wreck, “Vacation,” took fourteen songwriters, and it is one of the worst songs I have ever heard. How can Thomas Rhett or any of these artists ever hope to have an identity if they only contribute a line or two to a song, or rely on the Dallas Davidsons of the world to churn out #1 hits which relate to no one except frat boys and preteen girls? This is songwriting as a business, and if you recognize it as such, of course you would have no artist identity–you have never had to write anything from your heart.

I haven’t reviewed a great deal of albums and singles on this site yet, but one thing that has set good music apart consistently so far has been the songwriting. Jason Isbell, Alan Jackson, Courtney Patton, Kacey Musgraves, Maddie & Tae, and Kasey Chambers all immediately come to mind as names whose songwriting stood out–there were obviously others, and I mentioned them in the reviews, but I named these to illustrate the diversity in style among these albums. Not all of these albums were strictly country; represented here are both men and women, Americana, traditional country, Texas country, pop country, etc. They all stood out because they contained honest, relatable songwriting with the storytelling that sets country music apart. Each of these albums told me, both as a reviewer and as a fan, something about the respective artists. Rather than listening to polished-up, radio-ready singles, I was hearing something real from each of these artists. In short, the albums they made reflected their identities.

By contrast, the albums and singles I have ripped so far have had formulaic, unrelatable songwriting–Luke Bryan and Easton Corbin’s albums, Thomas Rhett’s aforementioned train wreck, and Kelsea Ballerini’s “Dibs” come to mind here. Not all mentioned here were strictly non-country; in fact, Easton Corbin’s album was pretty country musically. However, all of these lacked honest songwriting containing substance and relatability. Rather than telling honest stories, these songs were marketable singles written for the sole purpose of appealing to specific groups of people–in other words, these artists and writers have taken the art of songwriting and made it into a business. Every song I have given a negative review to has lacked the storytelling for which country has always been known best. And without a story to tell, how can an artist be expected to have an identity? And without an identity, why not sing whatever you think/hope will sell? Enter singles like “Friend Zone”–a song that desperately screams for us to relate to Danielle Bradbery when she can’t even relate to herself.

Tomato of the Week: Kacey Musgraves

I debated whether or not to do a Female Friday over Kacey Musgraves because she is well-known, but I think it is needed. Too many people know her and typecast her only for “Follow Your Arrow,” and she is much more than that. See Kacey’s full article on Female Friday!

Random Country Suggestion: Miranda Lambert–Revolution

If you want to find some good country songwriting, early Miranda Lambert is a great example of it. Both this and her first album, Kerosene, display her songwriting in full force.

Listen to Revolution

Non-Country Suggestion: Fleetwood Mac–Rumours

One of the most personal, relatable albums in history, written while all five members were going through separations. Two separations were within the band. They wrote honestly, and this produced the biggest album of their career.

Listen to Rumours

Female Fridays: Featuring Sunny Sweeney

Last week, I featured Katie Armiger and noted that she is one of my favorite underrated female country artists. I love her sound because it is pop country that is done very well. This week, I am featuring Sunny Sweeney, one of my favorite traditional country females.

How You Might Know Sunny

Sunny Sweeney had a top 10 hit in 2011 with “From a Table Away” which many will remember. She was also an opener on Miranda Lambert’s recent Certified Platinum tour.

Bio

Sunny Sweeney (born December 7, 1976 in Houston, Texas, and raised in Longview), got a degree in public relations and even tried to make it in the “real” world for awhile. That is, until one day when she picked up a guitar and made the life-changing decision to pursue singing and songwriting. She began playing several shows a week in Texas and quickly had a growing fan base. In 2006, she independently released Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame, which, according to her Web site,
found its way onto the desk of Big Machine Records president Scott Borchetta
This turn of events led to a record deal and the re-release of the album in 2007, with three singles making the Texas Music Chart.

In 2010, after signing to Republic Nashville, a joint venture between Big Machine and Universal Republic, Sunny released the well-known “From a Table Away.” This has been her highest charting single–on a major chart–and peaked at No. 10. it was followed by the excellent album Concrete. Concrete was my first experience with Sunny Sweeney, and I couldn’t wait to hear more music from her. Other less-known singles from that album include “Staying’s Worse Than Leaving” and “Drink Myself Single.”

For whatever reason–we can speculate on many–Sunny Sweeney and Big Machine parted ways after this album. In 2014, Sunny released her third album, Provoked with Thirty Tigers, the self-proclaimed
“home for independent artists.”
The first two singles, “Bad Girl Phase” and “My Bed”–a duet with fellow Texas singer Will Hoge that Sunny co-wrote with Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley of the Pistol Annies–hit No. 1 on the Texas Music Chart. This makes Sunny Sweeney the first female to have two consecutive singles hit No. 1 on the Texas charts. She said of the experience, “I am very honored to be the first female to ever have two number one songs back to back on the Texas music chart…I believe firmly that if you just keep following your heart and working your butt off, you will see the payoff and positive results.”

Why Sunny Belongs on Country Radio

Why? Well, for one, she’s already proved she can get chart success with “From a Table Away.” That song wasn’t a pop song either–it was a traditional sounding song about the “other woman” witnessing the husband, whom she thought was ready to leave his wife, from a table away with his wife. The husband is obviously still in love with the wife, and the other woman is confronting him later after having seen them together. This song did well on the charts, so why is it inconceivable to think Sunny could have radio success again? Not to mention she’s doing very well on the Texas Music Chart right now–proving that if actual country music was getting played on “country” radio, she would be highly successful. Also, much like Katie Armiger, her songwriting is relatable and autobiographical. However, unlike younger artists, such as Katie and Taylor Swift, Sunny writes from a place of more experience. Her songs speak of marriage, divorce, and adultery–many times from the view of the “other woman,”–in a way that says she’s lived the lyrics.

In addition, Sunny got a lot of exposure from Miranda Lambert’s Certified Platinum tour, so many more people should know her music now. But sadly, when I was standing in line before the doors opened to see Miranda on that very tour, a local DJ was spinning Miranda Lambert and Justin Moore hits (Justin was the other opener.) After awhile, he called out, “All of you know Miranda Lambert” to which we all cheered. Then he added, “But how many of you know Sunny Sweeney?” A handful of people answered. He said, “Well, here’s one of her songs,” and played “Bad Girl Phase,” one of the recent No. 1 Texas Music Chart singles. For many standing around me, that was the first they’d heard of Sunny Sweeney, and that speaks volumes. The same crowd that was cheering for Miranda Lambert should have been cheering for Sunny Sweeney, and yet most did not even know her name.

Tracks I Recommend

You cannot go wrong with either Concrete or Provoked, but if I had to narrow it down, here’s where I’d start.

1. Amy–Concrete
2. From a Table Away–Concrete
3. Fall for Me–Concrete
4. Staying’s Worse Than Leaving–Concrete
5. My Bed (featuring Will Hoge)–Provoked
6. Carolina on the Line–Provoked
7. Find Me–Provoked
8. Bad Girl Phase–Provoked
9. You Don’t Know Your Husband–Provoked
10. Drink Myself Single–Concrete
11. Refresh my Memory–Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame

Listen to Concrete

Listen to Provoked

These are the two No. 1 Texas Music Chart singles. Both are great, but my personal favorite is “My Bed.”