by: Thomas D. Mooney
Editor’s Note: Jeff Dennis is a singer-songwriter in Lubbock, Texas. As one of my good friends, we typically talk about music on a daily basis. While it’s commonly either through text message or on Monday Nights at The Blue Light, we’ve decided to make the exchanges of ideas and commentary into a monthly piece. Here’s our recap and rehash of the Grammy’s, Sturgill Superfans, and why country music doesn’t need saving. Follow Dennis on Twitter here.
Mooney: So did Sturgill save country music last night?
Dennis: I didn’t realize it needed saving? It’s just a media trope that country music was ever lost or dead. People of course have a problem with the music industry label of “country,” but they have been doing whatever it takes to sell records to as many people as possible for a long time. I would argue that the layer of cheap mainstream country has to exist for the Jason Isbells & Sturgills to thrive. The Grammys are not particularly representative of the genre of country, as they don’t follow the trends of what sells (credit to Craig Vaughn for that specific idea). Not only that, they’ve tried to “fix” the issue of how to handle all of the different genres of country by dispersing artists across the labels of Country, Americana, and Folk. Sturgill’s Metamodern was a more “country” record, nominated in Americana, whereas A Sailor’s Guide, a much more experimental rock record, got the Country nomination. Ultimately, the Grammys for all Country categories are kind of train wreck. It’s like asking NFL fans to vote for the all-star team and MVP of the FIFA World Cup.
Mooney: Exactly. The trope has been around longer than even the Texas vs. Nashville one (or the Lubbock is a shitty place to live one).
1) That’s an interesting take–that the Top 40 Mainstream layer is necessary for the innovative songwriter class to thrive. You have to have a Jason Aldean to have a Jason Isbell. Now, are you saying this because, let’s call them the “Working Class Artist” class, has to have something to work against–they have to go up against The Establishment? Does that go into the make up of an artist? You have to scratch, claw, and–to an extent–suffer to create? Or is it more so a relativity thing? To know what good music is, you must have some bad music to compare it to?
2) I shared that list of Best Country Album Grammy winner this morning. It was the last 21 winners. What’s a little funny is that the award has, for all intents and purposes, only been around since 1995. Roger Miller won two Grammy’s in ’65 & ’66, but it was discontinued until ’95 when Mary Chapin Carpenter won with Stones in the Road. Shania Twain won in ’96 with The Woman in Me. I said that the list was, for better or worse, a pretty solid representation. We can argue albums, but really, it’s a solid set overall. I guess there’s been a couple of WTF wins, but there hasn’t been a “Where are they now?” winners or true embarrassments–like they didn’t give Gretchen Wilson the award over Loretta Lynn or Alison Krauss in consecutive years. They’ve been consistent. Albeit, that also means not taking too many risks with nominations. Like you’ve said, overall the “country/roots/Americana/folk” categories are a wreck though. They treat them like the minor leagues or the Senior PGA Tour for the most part.
Dennis: 1. I hate to say Top 40 has to exist, because that’s probably not true. In Hank Williams’ day, I don’t know that there was the level of fluff in mainstream music. But today, the reality is that no matter what the labels or radio does, it’s not as though everyone is going to abandon Bro Country and just start listening to Billy Joe Shaver and Slaid Cleaves. It’s funny because, Top 40 Country still makes quite a bit of money, both in touring and even for labels, since country fans still buy more music than most. But I think the excess that it has produced, where every damn song has somebody rolling down a window and talking to/about their “girl,” is that it has turned even more people toward a higher quality product (i.e., the growing indie/americana/roots genre).
2. I honestly didn’t know the history of the Country Music Grammy myself. It has not honored many mainstream artists. I mean, how many country music fans in 2002 or 2017 were/are listening to the Hank Williams’ Tribute? It was a cool record, but never close to mainstream. The outsiders are rewarded more in the Country music Grammys, and this year is especially disorienting, because Sturgill feels so different from the other nominees, who got a lot of airplay on country radio. I think Maren Morris would have been a lock for the award, but Sturgill became sort of an anti-hero at just the right time. That said, I think Top 40 Country radio guys woke up today not worried about putting him in the rotation any more than he already was. I don’t think the award made him “one of them.” Ironically, the CMA and ACM Awards, i.e., the country industry awards, are precisely for mainstream country. They don’t even try to give awards for Americana or Folk or anything else. Sturgill winning one of those would be the more surprising occurrence. But back to the Grammys, the Americana category, outside of the Isbell win last year, is a complete trainwreck. The nominees rarely reflect anything I would consider the forefront of Americana. I mean, take 2014, Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell, Steve Martin & Edie Brickell, or Buddy Miller & Jim Lauderdale–all icons in some form–were received nominations over Southeastern by Jason Isbell. That miss is reason enough to scrap the award until they can figure out what they are doing. And let’s not forget 2012, where Linda Chorney “worked” the system by campaigning to Grammy voters, and got nominated when absolutely no one knew who she was. And guess what? That scheme is still the only reason anyone knows her name today.
Mooney: 1) I think one of the major reasons for that is people have seen the gradual decline in quality of Top 40 radio. At one point, Hank Williams was the biggest damn star in country music. Now, guys who sound like Hank Williams, they’re still around. But you have to actually go out and search for them. Reason for the decline is a two-part answer: A) Pop music has slowly integrated with Country (and every “genre” for that matter) and B) They’re not making replicas of the original anymore. They’re making copies of the last copy (which was a copy of the former copy and so on). The formula and cookie cutter mold has decayed over time.
2) That’s why, in my opinion, Stapleton winning last year was “bigger” than Sturgill’s win this year. One major clue is iTunes. Right now (Was Monday), their top-selling Country records are Sturgill’s A Sailor’s Guide and Morris’ Hero. But let’s see which stays near the top longer (As of Friday, Maren’s Hero is 3, Sturgill’s Sailor’s Guide is 4). Virtually any day this past year, if you looked, Stapleton’s Traveller was a lock for the top spot. That’s why Top 40 ended up playing him–because a year later, he still had the top spot (Hell, right now, Traveller is still at 6).
3) The reason the Americana/Folk/Roots Grammy’s are such a mess is because all those terms are so broad and ambiguous meanings. It’s a catch-all for anything that ranges from “old country sounding” to being Country-Lite to being a rock band from the south who has an accent to midwest alt-country kids to singer-songwriters who play solo to Northwest bands who have at least one record released by Sub Pop. No one knows what it means. American(a) music, at its’ core, is a regional music. It’s like baseball–other than the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox, or Cubs (Ryan Adams, Isbell, Wilco, and whoever)–every other club relies on their regional fanbases.
I’d challenge anyone to decipher the differences between Best American Roots, Americana, Folk–and even Country for that matter. I include Country in there for the sole reason that, an artist like Vince Gill can go from winning a Best Country Album in ’08, be nominated with The Time Jumpers for Best Country Album in ’12, and then win Best American Roots Song and be nominated for Best Americana Album in ’17. There’s no reason to think they’ve changed that much in that decade to give any credence to the switch. I mean, they’re name is The fucking Time Jumpers for a reason.
Are they just throwing old country folks in Americana for the name recognition or to appease them?
Dennis: I would argue that the old Country folks are getting those nominations simply because the Americana nominations are an afterthought. There’s very little politicking going on behind the scenes for that category. According to the Grammy voting rules, people are only supposed to vote in their area of expertise. From reading these, here is my guess at what happens.
1) First round nominations are made by members and by record companies. Fair enough. But, think about who still has a record label (who despite their decreased influence, still have a lot of power here). Rodney Crowell and Vince Gill have much stronger label ties, because they came in under the old system, whereas someone like Jason Isbell was less noticed in this realm because he self-released his record. (Although arguably still a MUCH better business decision for Southeastern to be on his own label). So that’s how we get first round nominees. 2) Now, it’s left to recording academy voters. My guess is that if you are a “country” voter in any form, they would allow you to vote in all of the categories we’ve named. A wide variety of people can be voters (Andy Wilkinson, from Lubbock, told me once that he was for a while). I am also assuming that recording academy membership trends on the older side, so when it comes to voting for the Avett Brothers vs. Bonnie Raitt, who wins? (Spoiler Alert: Bonnie Raitt won the Americana Grammy in 2013).
So that’s my theory. It’s like when I go into the voting booth and I vote for President, Senator, etc., and I get to the Railroad Commissioner category. I won’t say that job isn’t important, but I’ll be honest and say I don’t pay much attention to who has that job in any given year. So who do I vote for? Probably the name I’ve heard before (or maybe bad example, because sometimes it might be NOT to vote for the name I’ve heard of before).
The Grammy selection & voting systems aren’t set up to deal with a music market where everything doesn’t run through the labels. If I had to choose, these should have been the Americana nominees:
The Bird & The Rifle – Lori McKenna (this was nominated)
True Sadness – The Avett Brothers (also nominated)
Midwest Farmer’s Daughter – Margo Price
Heart Like a Levee – Hiss Golden Messenger
Upland Stories – Robbie Fulks (nominated in Folk)
Young in All The Wrong Ways – Sara Watkins
The Very Last Day – Parker Millsap
And if we’re being honest, I would rather Sturgill’s record be in this category. But I won’t begrudge him for winning the “bigger” category of Best Country Album.
Maybe they just need to add a “Has Been” or “Used to Be” Grammy?
Mooney: That’s a very sound and plausible theory. I think it goes back to all those folks being “small label.” Which again, it’s because Americana roots music is so regional.
I want to get back onto the whole Sturgill, Stapleton, Isbell, and Cobb are going to save country music thing. Yeah, it’s the trope and agenda that music journalists and a faction of the industry wants to push. Hell, I’ve even pushed the agenda because I want those guys to succeed. I think buried underneath the politicking, the drivel, the bumper stickers, t-shirt slogans, etc is a single question that is glossed over because it’s a boring question that’s pretty much already answered. The question isn’t if Sturgill, Stapleton, Isbell, Cobb, etc going to save Country music. The real question is if people are going to continue rewarding and appreciating genuine and timeless music overall?
The answer is an overwhelming yes. E.g., look back at who has won the last 23 Grammy’s for Best Country Music Album. When we look back, we always acknowledge those who contributed real songwriting and art. No one is talking about the bubblegum pop of any genre of any era. We love having a revised history. A lot of people make it out like Townes Van Zandt was high-rolling with a five tour bus caravan, dominating the charts, and was a nationally recognized treasure during the ‘70s. That’s simply not the truth. There’s always been a group of artists who were deemed as “not country” enough. Glen Campbell, Marie Osmond, Conway Twitty, John Denver, Ronnie Millsap, Linda Ronstadt, Eddie Rabbitt, Shania Twain, Garth Brooks, etc were all called not Country enough at some point during their career.
Now, we all can agree that this generation’s batch of “not Country enough” stars are less Country than any of their predecessors, but I’ll again go back and ask if history is going to reward them. I’m just assuming they’re not even making room for Montevallo or Kill the Lights in the next 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die edition. And of course, there’s that whole thing where anyone is forcing you to listen to it–or is that the plot of the next Saw film (Do they still does these???)?
Dennis: This reminds me of that t-shirt I bought at a Texas Country show recently. It read: “NASHVILLE SUCKS (Except Isbell & Simpson & Snider & Shires & Lambchop & William Tyler & …okay, Nashville is pretty cool, but we sure wish big labels would give us more money to keep singing songs about Texas).”
But on a serious note, good music persists despite the pop flavor of the month. On the surface, every pop trend seems like kind of a joke after the trend has passed. Growing up in the ’90s, I bought into the idea that all music in the ’80s was just terrible hair metal. In fact, there was tons of great music in the ’80s, but it wasn’t making its’ way to my radio, and I didn’t have an older sibling, so I still don’t know Springsteen’s catalog that well (guilty). And absolutely, Garth & Shania were really not liked by country traditionalists. Yet their music is so tame compared to today’s Top 40 Country–plus, I think a lot of people who grew up with Garth, whether they were fans or not, sort of have a soft spot for him now (E.g., how Garth sold out five straight shows in Lubbock).
The revisionist histories of Townes & Gram Parsons really have overreached in today’s scene. Even Guy Clark, with one of the most impressive catalogs of any songwriter, was never “set for life” financially with any of his songs. They so rarely made it to radio. And in today’s music climate, songwriters make much less simply because people don’t buy music like they used to. There’s so much less artist development these days, because they just don’t have the money to see what works anymore. Instead, they find someone like Dierks Bentley, who arguably could have been a good artist and they make him a product to sell what’s left to sell in the music business–i.e., a party (on a dirt road, in an airplane, etc.). I’ll go on record saying I thought Dierks was going to be really good, but his music is just plain terrible. But he gets to be wealthy and have seven tour buses playing music no one will care about in 20 years instead of grinding it out playing “real” Country in 100 seat venues for the rest of his life, to be remembered as a valiant troubadour who never got the credit he was due. Plus, he’ll probably be in the next Saw movie.
Mooney: I’m going to go off the deep end for a second. Bare with me.
I think over the last 70+ year, we’ve seen two major movements in the music industry. If we look at the major genre labels–Rock & Roll, Hip-Hop, Electronica, Pop (formerly known as Easy Listening), R&B, Folk, Jazz, and Country–on one end, The Top 40 of each has slowly, but surely come closer together homogenizing into a singular sound while on the other end, everything has branched out further apart. There are millions of sub-genres that fall within the major genre heads these days. It’s why there’s 100 versions of Punk music.
In a lot of ways, other than Jazz, Country music was the last holdout to this Top 40 blending. They were like The North in Game of Thrones when the Targaryen’s first invaded Westeros. In Aegon’s Conquest, House Stark and The North were the last to surrender (I mean, technically Dorne never was defeated. They’re like Jazz. They just never engaged with the idea that they’d fight or kneel).
Anyway, these two movements have been spinning in opposite directions all these years. Top 40 is just becoming one thing. It’s being tightly wound upon itself. But the diversity underneath is so rich, complex, and vast, there will always be a class of artists who are the true and real vanguard of their genres.
Long story short, Sturgill, Stapleton, etc ARE Country Music, so there’s no need in saving it. Their music will still be heard 50 years from now. The Hunts, Bryans, FL-GA Lines of the world simply won’t.
Again, who’s winning Grammy’s? I count 8 Grammy’s for Cobb’s crew in just these last two years (2 for Cobb, 2 for Stapleton, 2 for Isbell, 1 for Sturgill, and 1 for McKenna) while there’s ZERO for those they’re supposed to be saving it from.
Dennis: So in the end, people will keep creating interesting new things in music, even though at some point, sub-sub-sub-genres may only have 10 people who really care about them. Truly, some of my most valued musical artifacts are things like bootlegs and live mp3s from shows that aren’t available anymore. At the same time, I don’t expect anyone to care about a random live recording of Hayes Carll from 10 years ago or my CD from Lubbock’s brief experiment in post-rock, Sparks Fly Upward. And there is definitely no money to be made in these endeavors. At some point, these small musical genres return to where music was in the first place–a live or recorded tradition shared with friends and family. That said, the Grammys don’t need to chase that music down the rabbit hole. They just need to figure out a better way to keep track of the music that is really important as opposed to giving Don Henley & Sting the Folk Grammy for an album of Tiny Tim covers.
And conversely, Top 40 gonna Top 40.
Mooney: Top 40 is gonna Top 40.
What I think is a little funny is, that of the major genre labels, it’s really only Country and Rock & Roll that feel the need to have a multiple awards for the genre. Like with Rock, there’s Metal, Rock, and Alternative. With Country, you’re essentially adding the Americana roots as the little brother. Though they categorize it as Rap, it’s technically Hip-Hop (since Rap is a vocal style, not a genre style), you don’t see Best Gangsta Rap, Best Southern, and Best Backpack Album Awards. I don’t think splitting these genres into specific sub-genres will ever work.
If I was overhauling the system, it’d look like this:
Rock, Folk, Country, Hip-Hop, R&B, Jazz, Pop, and Electronica would all have two awards each–Best Album and Best Song. Then, you’d have the Overall Awards like New Artist, Album of the Year, Song of the Year, and Record of the Year. The nominees for those Overall awards would just be the winners of the eight major Genre Categories.
I know, I’m leaving out other categories like Comedy, World, Latin, Christian, etc out, but I’m not nearly familiar enough with them (and they’re really just niche categories anyway). I’d guess having just a just two categories within each–Best Album and Best Song–would suffice though.
I know. It kind of becomes too encompassing–something I was bitching about earlier. I admit that. But, the difference here is 1) It’s so much simpler than the current system and 2) I think there’s less politics. Granted, this probably gives the major labels more power, but hell, they already have a bunch of power and influence.
That essentially means this year, we’d have had the Best Album noms as Adele (Pop), Beyoncé (R&B), Chance the Rapper (Hip-Hop), David Bowie (Rock), Sturgill Simpson (Country), Sarah Jarosz (Folk), Gregory Porter (Jazz), and Flume (Electronica).
So yeah, Adele would still have won. Beyoncé would still have “deserved” it. Sturgill fans would still be acting like Beyoncé fans. And, we’d still be wondering who Flume was.
Dennis: As much as it kills me, you’re probably right that the Americana category has to go. It leaves the Avett Brothers and Ryan Adams, etc without much of a category, unless they have a major hit, but that’s probably okay. Still have to figure out what falls into the Folk category (eg, would Southeastern have fit the bill, since that was definitely not a Country record?), but as long as the focus is on original new music, it’s doable.
Have to include Blues, maybe not traditional and contemporary, but since it’s either the grandpa or great-uncle to most of the other categories, it’s a meaningful distinction.
So who wins for Alt Country?
Ehh, maybe we should save that conversation for another day.
Mooney: Yeaaaaaaaaaaaaah. I should probably include Blues as well as its’ own distinct category. I guess I was thinking most blues music really falls into folk in a traditional way or into Rock & Roll in a modern way. My main reason for leaving it off was because you could see people gaming the system. Take a band like The Black Keys, who are by all means, a Rock band who had definite blues elements when they first started. Who’s to say they aren’t just thrown in that category just because it’d be easier to win than in Rock. I guess they still could do that now, though.
For guys like Avett Brothers, Ryan Adams, Jason Isbell’s Southeastern, etc, I think Folk fits the bill. I know most of the time when you hear the word Folk, you automatically go into thinking Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Greenwich Village, etc. It’s kind of a stale and sterile way to describe Isbell, but so is Americana if you think about it. Maybe a better label head would be Roots-Rock Folk.
I mean, the elephant in the room is that Sturgill’s Sailor’s Guide isn’t really Country anyway. I guess he’s addressed it a handful of times. I really don’t have a problem with him winning the Best Country Album award either, though. Again though, people are deifying him more than they deified Gram Parsons (speaking of alt country!).
Dennis: Country was the highest profile award he could win, so I’m glad he won that one. However, it just isn’t Country by most measures. His win is the latest in the Grammy voters ongoing collective protest against Top 40 Country.
It got him a performance, which was the biggest benefit in my mind. All the people expecting or hoping he would throw his guitar again don’t really understand who Sturgill Simpson is as an artist.
Although, in reality, I don’t know how much Grammy performances matter. His performance was strong, but it was mostly for his fans and probably didn’t go along way to attract the casual Grammy listener. Overall, I am not a big fan of Grammy performances, because I feel like they are contrived attempts at some sort of greatness. I don’t think just because Alicia Keys and Maren Morris play together, (both great artists in their own right), that I should expect that to be a life-changing event. It is just a larger version of what happens at every level of music these days, which is to suggest that every single show is going to be mind-blowing or life-altering. I don’t really like big concerts anyway, because I feel like they are essentially performances for people who don’t know that much about music–who are wowed and awed at various smoke and mirrors. There’s only so many behind the head guitar solos a person can take.
Mooney: For the record, I was one of those hoping he’d throw his guitar again. Five seconds in, I figured it wasn’t happening to that acoustic Martin though. You’re probably right. His SNL performance probably had a bigger impact than his Grammy one.
Everyone’s throwing out hot takes on the Sturgill Grammy thing. At the end of the day, Country music has their shit together more so than the Rock category. That’s where the true identity crisis is happening.
Their Best Rock Album nominations were Tell Me I’m Pretty by Cage the Elephant (winner), California by Blink-182, Magma by Gojira, Death of a Bachelor by Panic! at the Disco, and Weezer by Weezer.
Even if Ripchord by Keith Urban had won Best Country Album, I’d say it’d be better than what’s going on in that dumpster fire.