Twenty Minutes With Country Radio

Radio has never been my primary way of receiving country music. Growing up in NYC, we had a decent country station in 103.5 WYNY. But 24-hour CMT was better, back in the days when it played everything from the hot new artists to the legends to Canadian imports in roughly equal rotation. By the time that the station folded, I was heading to Nashville and attending college.  By the time I was back to NYC, the internet had replaced the video outlets as my preferred method of discovering new music.

But radio is the way most country fans have discovered new music for generations now. So why not give it another try? Normally, I wouldn’t, but as we began an overnight drive up the east coast, I was growing weary of the easy listening station that was on. Air Supply will do that to you. So I went up to the next station, and the radio displayed that it was a country station.

The sound, however, was virtually identical to the seventies and eighties light rock I’d been listening to already. By the chorus, I was able to discern that what I mistook for a lesser Gordon Lightfoot was actually Zac Brown Band. “Highway 20 Ride” was the song. Not bad, but kind of faceless and generic in that Seventies Gold way.

Things went downhill quickly. The next record was that Steve Holy hit “Brand New Girlfriend”, which sounds just as clever now as it did back then. Interpret that as you will. Then Eric Church sang about a girl who was “Hell on the Heart”, and Lee Brice screamed about some people who chose to “Love Like Crazy.”

Finally, an artist that I liked came on. Tim McGraw. Singing “One two three, like a bird I sing,” the start of his worst post-Everywhere single, “Last Dollar (Fly Away).” Suddenly, a feature that had begun as “An Hour With Country Radio” became “one more bad song and I’m plugging in the iPod.”

Then I heard the gentle intro to Alan Jackson’s “Remember When.” I actually do like country music, I’m reminded. And I can hear this song and more on my iPod. Cutting my losses before Taylor Swift or Danny Gokey surfaced, I said a quiet thank you to Steve Jobs and switched from FM to AUX.

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35 Comments

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35 Responses to Twenty Minutes With Country Radio

  1. highwayman3No Gravatar

    Haha, I had a similar situation. I stopped listening to country radio 2 years ago but recently was flipping through stations, stopped by the country station to have a boo, and low and behond The Band Perry – Hip To My Heart came on. I got half way through the song and frantically switched it before I had a coronary. The words ‘I like your lips like I like my Coca-Cola how it pops and fizzes’ almost had me calling in sick to work that day.

    If I dont have my Ipod in the car its newsradio or AC. I told someone at work I liked country so he started changing the station to find a country one for me, how insulting.

  2. I’d probably share your frustration if I still listened to terrestrial country radio, Kevin. Thank God for Sirius satellite radio and the iPod — the first is GREAT for discovering new music to put on the second.

  3. I abandoned radio entirely several years ago, with the odd exception for a Reds game I want to follow that isn’t on TV. About a week ago, I hitched a ride with a friend and his wife to a ballgame and the whole way there we listened to the radio because he still likes radio.

    It was excruciating. Every time a song came on one of them disliked (which was frequently), she’d begin dialing across the frequencies for something different. Then there were the instances when a disc jockey had the temerity to actually speak on radio, prompting us to flee that station. Commercials? Same result.

    I can’t tell you now how many actual songs we heard, but the only one in an hour’s drive I can name that we actually sang along with at all was “Amarillo by Morning.” What made the drive perfect, though, was that the rest of the time my friends spent lamenting how much they didn’t care for current country music!

    I’ve tried in vain over the years to tell them they’ve only themselves to blame for subjecting themselves to the corporate controlled nature of radio if they don’t like what they’re hearing. In 2010, there’s just no excuse for not having an alternative means of playing music in the car, whether it’s an iPod run through an auxiliary jack or an old school tape deck. There’s simply way too many artists who have recorded music I do like for me to spend my time changing stations because someone else is playing something I don’t like.

  4. That’s one of the ways I’m finding new music to buy these days too.

    I vividly remember the moment that I decided I was done with FM country radio. It was a weekend in 2006 when I realized that I only liked about five songs on the top 40 countdown. This was a huge realization for me, since up until that moment, I had listened to country radio religiously. In all honestly, I probably should have stopped listening sooner, but I was slow to admit the my growing dissatisfaction, since country music had been my lifeline for so many years.

    Fortunately, I’ve found various ways to continue to love country music, just not much of the top 40 stuff.

    I do like that Zac Brown song though.:)

  5. Whoa…Sorry for all the typos.

  6. Tara SeetharamNo Gravatar

    I’m surprised you don’t like Highway 20 Ride, Kevin!

  7. Steve from BostonNo Gravatar

    Thank God for Alan Jackson for keeping it classy, creative and most of all COUNTRY! (amazing he can still get air time..)

  8. I know radio devotees aren’t necessarily interested in being exposed to new artists, though for my money that’s one of the biggest draws of having liberated myself from the increasingly sterile corporate playlists of radio. It kills me that Bruce Robison can’t buy airtime, even while other artists have hit the top of the charts with songs he’s written and previously recorded.

    But even within the confines of Top 40 artists, there’s something wholly different about breaking free from radio and actually experiencing the albums. If I was just a radio listener, I’d have been burnt out on Kenny Chesney sometime around 2004. As it stands, my radio devotee friends do nothing but gripe about the guy…and I’ve found him to be a consistently enjoyable album artist. It’s amazing to me how often he can half half an album loaded with ready-made radio-friendly singles, but supplement them with very strong album material. There’s a whole layer of artistry to the guy’s discography that radio-only listeners haven’t experienced at all, and I eagerly await the release of his forthcoming album.

    I know my friends will let me know about three weeks after they hear the lead single that they’re tired of him already, that he’s not growing as an artist, etc. And I’m just as sure I’ll buy the new album and find enough material that resonates with me that I’ll say to them they need to quit relying on Clear Channel’s programming director for the entirety of their case against the guy and actually listen to an album. They’ll respond that he’s not interesting enough to them to pay money to hear, and the argument will repeat in cycles. I know this, because we’ve had the same rote conversation for each of his last four albums.

    And maybe they would be left cold by those albums even if they heard them. I can’t speak to that point. All I know is that Chesney is a good microcosm for exploring their frustration with modern country music. They willfully create the environment in which they have no real say over what they hear, dislike what they hear, but aren’t willing to break free and go exploring even the discographies of artists they like, much less artists who have lacked the exposure of the very artists they continue to listen to on radio while complaining about them.

  9. Hmmm…I have listened to Chesney’s entire albums, but still haven’t found much to like about them even in the non-singles.

  10. TomNo Gravatar

    …i love country radio. the moment of suspense, when you wonder, whether the next song after that chesney/underwood/paisley/swift song is…another or even the same chesney/underwood/paisley/swift song is one of a kind.

    however, the thing that isn’t of much help is the weather reports and forecasts for midland/odessa tx that the station continously repeats – must be a terribly unstable climate there. it just ain’t very useful helping me making my mind up, whether to take an umbrella with me or not, when leaving the house here in switzerland.

    on top, had i not been listening to this cumulus station (perhaps the reason, why they’re so fanatic about the weather), i probably still wouldn’t know that: size matters!!! and that there exists a male enhancing formula that puts the winning bull at any county fair well into the minor league when you walk by after making use of the free trial offer.

    no, i couldn’t complain about country radio – not at all.

  11. @Leeann Ward – At least you’ve listened to a Chesney album to know his material doesn’t do it for you. My point wasn’t really that Kenny Chesney himself is somehow unfairly judged by his singles, but rather that there is more to an artist than his or her radio presence.

    Additionally, I often marvel at how labels and artists can manage to screw up the selection process of which songs should be released as singles. I still think the last decade of Brooks & Dunn’s career might have gone somewhat differently if they’d released “Go West” from their “Steers & Stripes” album. Kix Brooks never sounded better, and that song was radio friendly and even video ready. Instead, the balance had entirely shifted and while Kix was still on stage and on the albums, it was all Ronnie Dunn on radio. We might not even be seeing them dissolve the duo, had Kix had another hit and I still believe that song was his best chance in ages. Alas…they didn’t ask me!

    In the grander scheme of things, I think the one thing that has really cut down on radio listening for a lot of us is that, as Clear Channel and Cumulus consolidated ownership of so many stations, they de-localized the broadcasts. Playlists are made by corporate; the local DJ has virtually no say in what gets played. There was a time when stations took requests on-air; my market’s largest country station still does it…as long as you’re requesting a Top 40 hit they were going to play, anyway.

    Even the classic country stations are in a similar rut. Conway Twitty had a ton of #1 hits, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to a classic country station, where they only ever seem to play “Hello Darlin’,” “I’d Love to Lay You Down,” “Slow Hand” and “You’ve Never Been This Far Before.” That still leaves, what? 36 #1 hits, not counting recordings that weren’t chart-toppers? Conway at least fares that well; there are other artists whose entire discographies are reduced to a single recording, as though they only ever recorded one song. I don’t know who decides what material to exclude on a classic country station, but if I had a crack at it, I certainly wouldn’t limit myself to 100 songs out of an entire 20 or 30 year span the way they do!

  12. I still listen to mainstream country stations, but I’m constantly switching between presets in a vain attempt to avoid all the crap songs. But at least my little Kentucky hometown is only an hour away from Nashville, so I can get WSM from here, which is the best country station ever.

    96.7 WBVR is playing Alan Jackson right now. I’ll have more of that, please.

    By the way, you know what I’d enjoy reading/ commenting on? A post about Guilty Pleasure Songs (if there hasn’t already been one) – a post in which we are all encouraged to reveal the songs that we like, but are ashamed to admit that we like.

  13. Ben,
    I know that post exists here. I’ll try to find it.

  14. claudiaNo Gravatar

    Couldn’t agree more with Travis McClain’s comment on Brooks & Dunn. Saw them do “Go West” live back in 2001, and it was awesome. Would have made a great single. But Kix didn’t get short-changed on just that one. How about “She Wants To Get Out Of Town” or “Chance of a Lifetime”? Don’t get me wrong, Ronnie’s a great singer, but a “sameness” set in for B&D. Kix has said he understood the deal, and didn’t want to mess with a good thing, but maybe he should have. (At least it might have saved us from “Honky Tonk Stomp”.)

  15. Thanks, Leeann. I just had to get those guilty pleasures off my chest for some reason.

  16. I know what you mean, Ben. It’s kind of cleansing.:)

  17. Andrew LeprichNo Gravatar

    I stopped listening to radio about two years ago, and haven’t looked back. Country blogs like this one are my primary means of discovering new music. My knowledge of country music has increased tenfold after abandoning the limited playlists of radio, and I couldn’t be happier.

    Also, I second Travis’ sentiments about album cuts. As much as we all gripe about the sorry state of mainstream country music, the truth is that many mainstream artists are recording some very interesting material – you’re just not very likely to hear it on the radio.

  18. BobNo Gravatar

    From Kevin’s article and the comments, maybe country music fans in NYC were actually fortunate to have lost their only country music radio station when Y-107 folded in May of 2002. I did not think so at the time even though I only listened to the radio about 15 minutes a day, the total time it took to drive from home to the train station and back. It forced us to look to the internet and CMT for new country music.

    It seems a bit strange that for the years I listened to country radio in NY, I can’t remember the name of 1 country music DJ. Before Y-107, I listened to 103.5 WYNY that Kevin mentioned and WHN 1050 before that. Yet I can remember the rock DJ’s from the late 50′s and the 60′s. Maybe I just paid more attention to the DJ’s in my youth. Were the country DJ’s just a lot more unobtrusive than their rock counterparts?

  19. @Claudia – For my money, Kix’s second finest recording was also on “Steers & Stripes” – “I Fall.” That song kills me every time I hear it. I loved “My Heart Is Lost to You” and “Every River” in the context of being on the album, but grew very tired of both on radio very quickly. They were the only two singles out of five that didn’t hit #1 (“Heart” hit #5, “River” stalled at #14). I still think either, or both, of those Kix songs could have hit #1. More importantly, it would have given him *something* more recent to perform in concert!

    Back on topic, have any of you ever filled out a song survey for radio? It cracks me up, because every one I ever took only asked me about songs that had already been in heavy rotation. I wasn’t given the chance to rate songs that hadn’t cracked the Top 40 yet, and I certainly wasn’t asked what I thought about artists who weren’t mainstays in the regular radio world. Clear Channel asked what I thought about the current Tim McGraw, Rascal Flatts, Kenny Chesney, etc. singles…but had no place in their survey to ask me about, say, the latest from Allison Moorer. So, when the programming department went over the data, all they could conclude was that I liked this song, was tired of that song and while I liked this other song, I was tired of hearing it. It seems the only thing they learned from those surveys was, “Keep playing these artists” because there was no room to rate, much less request, someone else.

  20. NicolasNo Gravatar

    I often have to change between the 3 country stations I get because of all the crap that does get played, but luckily I do hear a lot of great stuff. I hear “The House That Built Me” almost every time I go somewhere on one of the stations.

  21. Nicolas,
    You unintentionally, I’m assuming, bring up another point about radio. I love “The House that Built Me”, but another reason that I’m glad not to listen to country radio is the narrow playlist. If I had to hear “House” as much as it’s likely played each day, I probably wouldn’t like it anymore.

  22. Erik NorthNo Gravatar

    I have to say that my appreciation for country music as a whole comes from the experience of having listened to it at a time (1977-1990) when both newer and more classic artists were being played at more or less an even 50/50 split, and when the subject matter of country songs was of the rural and working experience–which is what I thought the genre was supposed to be about. And living as I’ve always had here in Southern California, we got a large amount of the Bakersfield Sound (Merle; Buck), and the progressive country-rock of the womenfolk (Linda; Emmylou) alongside Waylon, Willie, Johnny Cash, and other super-legends.

    Since then, however, I am hard-pressed to name too many artists of the last twenty years, at least insofar as mainstream country radio goes, that I like a whole heck of a lot. There’s way too much emphasis on inoffensive dreck and party anthems, and almost nothing about the things that made both traditional and progressive country music of years past so memorable, this along with onstage performances that are more arena-rock spectacles than substance. I couldn’t name a single male performer now that I feel good about. I also cannot name any current hot female acts that do much for me. The Chicks and Trisha Yearwood are much closer to my sensibilities here, but they can’t get arrested on radio nowadays, and maybe not anymore at all.

    The irony is that the singer I consider the best female artist to have come down the road since the turn of the century is one that I never would have found out about if I had not surfed the Internet, and only listened to the radio–Tift Merritt, who is generally regarded as an Americana or alt-country artist. I have to say I like her far more than I can ever conceive myself liking Taylor Swift or Carrie Underwood, but Tift herself may be far too good for country radio.

  23. EvanNo Gravatar

    I live in rural, central Pennsylvania and get 6 country stations. Between crap songs and advertisements, about 2 of the stations are playing songs that I like at any given time. I enjoy both traditional and pop country if it is done correctly.

  24. @Erik North – You bring up another important point. Mainstream country radio, it seems, is marketed toward middle-aged soccer moms these days. I remember thinking, when I first heard “Grown Men Don’t Cry” by Tim McGraw, that there was a time that song would have been told from the point of view of the single mom living with her son in a car. Now, it’s about how seeing that mom upset the guy who drove off in his Suburban but felt like he was a decent guy because seeing them made him cry.

    I’m not saying every song has to be about life in the country, either. I think too often we’ve seen those kinds of songs come off as one-dimensional and border on being self-parody (“International Harvester,” anyone?). But you’re absolutely right that it seems radio is far more interested in playing songs that speak more to the minivan demographic. Maybe that’s why I prefer to keep my Waylon-heavy iPod handy!

  25. I agree with Leeann. I also like “The House That Built Me,” but for a long time it seemed like it was playing every time I turned on the radio. I remember the same thing happening when “Before He Cheats” came out. It does seem like the radio playlist is far too narrow, with the same songs being played over and over. Even when the songs are good, they do get tiresome after a while. I’ve noticed that on a lot of light rock stations they play as much music from the 70s and 80s as they do modern music. If only the country stations were more like that.

  26. @Ben Foster – There once was a time that country, more than any other genre, prided itself on its past. A pop or rock listener might have cringed at hearing something outdated, but you could expect a country fan to enjoy hearing songs from yesteryear.

    Now, it seems that country is embarrassed of its past, where other formats have found that listeners are more open to hearing those old songs. They might be hearing them through the filter of nostalgia, or in the context of being “ironic” (I still don’t understand how that word came to be used in this way), but they’re accepting nonetheless.

    Play an 80s pop or rock song, and you’ll get a chuckle at least, or outright enthusiasm. But no one seems willing to do that with the country format. Maybe they’re afraid the suburban soccer moms won’t like old school country, and maybe they’re afraid playing some of the old stuff will expose too much of the new stuff as weak.

  27. I see what you mean, Travis. These days, homage paid to the legends seems only like lip service. It’s a shame how country seems a bit “embarrassed” of its past. I would think that songs like “Backwoods” and “She’s Country” would be much greater causes for embarassment.

  28. Erik NorthNo Gravatar

    The thing about stuff like “Backwoods”, “She’s Country” or “International Harvester” is that, far from showing pride in America’s rural roots, these are just little short of an insult to rural folk in a way, making them look even more “backwards” than before. And all the current paens to the working man, coming as they do from millionaires, can come off sounding like a hustle, as opposed to when Merle and Johnny Cash were running things in the 60s and 70s.

    It reminds me of something that jazz legend Miles Davis once said, of how much he himself loved country music; when one interviewer asked him what it was about the genre he liked, he said, “The stories, man, the stories.” That very storytelling aspect which has informed the genre throughout its history is practically absent if you just hear current country radio today. It’s too much about slogans, about posturing, and about attitudes.

    I’m not saying that it should go back to the hay bales and cornpone stereotypes of decades past, but country music should get back to the storytelling and honesty that made it work in the past. It can be a heck of a lot better than it is, and there have to be artists out there who realize this (IMHO).

  29. It’s funny you mention Johnny Cash. It absolutely kills me to hear him name-checked in songs that are so far removed from what he represented. People forget, but Johnny Cash was a very outspoken activist who railed against the way inmates were treated, the way the American Indian had been done dirty and he wasn’t afraid to call out holier-than-thou Bible thumpers.

    I can’t imagine someone in the current country industry having the temerity to suggest that our corrections system is misguided. I was fairly stunned when I heard “The Heaven I’m Headed To” on Dierks Bentley’s sophomore album; but I knew it would never see the light of day as a single because the mainstream industry isn’t interested in any song that calls for a thoughtful examination of any particular issue.

    And yet, Darryl Worley is going around whining that his current single, “Keep the Change,” is “too controversial” for country radio. Maybe you agree with his politics, maybe you don’t, but there’s no getting around the fact that a song that goes after President Obama is hardly “controversial” for the same audience that lashed out against the Dixie Chicks seven years ago…and hasn’t let up. (And for what it’s worth, I think Worley’s song aimed for Haggard but turned out little more thoughtful than a bumper sticker.)

    I caught Willie Nelson on “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson” a while back and Craig asked Willie what he thought about the current state of country music. Willie asked, “Well, how would I know?” I laughed, but it was a sad laugh. Willie’s not just an icon; he’s a living national treasure and I adore the man. I’ve kept up with his releases as best I can, and it’s outright criminal that modern radio won’t play his material unless it’s a duet with someone they’re already playing.

    Which brings me to one more question that no one has ever been able to answer: Why don’t classic country stations ever play new material by old artists? It’s bad enough that the new format stations won’t play Willie, but it seems like the classic country listeners are tuning in *because* of him and artists like him. Why don’t they play some of the new material by those classic artists? George Jones, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, even Loretta Lynn releases an album every couple of years. I’d love to tune into a station and hear, say, Haggard’s “Mama Tried” followed by Willie’s “Worried Man” from his reggae album “Countryman.”

  30. I am way late to the conversation, but I haven’t been able to listen to FM country radio in a long time. I do have Sirius, and the Highway is programmed into my top set of presets, but even that is a bit hit or miss for me. I am ashamed to say that if anything could bring me back, it would be more tracks like “Lover Lover”, which I remember back as a Sonia Dada song back in the 90s.

  31. Devin HoseaNo Gravatar

    I’m a bit late to the conversation as well, but I read this blog from time to time, and feel the need to chime in.

    I should preface this by saying that I am young (19) and only recently found country music 2 years ago, and from that point on, I haven’t listened to anything else since.

    To me, country radio has been a great asset. It exposed me to much of the music today and of the last 10 years, which is what I would relate most to and opened up the doors for me to explore more country music on my own.

    I think everyone’s criticism is a little unfair. Just because the radio station doesn’t cater to you, doesn’t mean its awful. I personally don’t care terribly much about listening to the “old” or “real” country music as some of you call it. My interests go back as far as about the 80′s with George Strait and the like. That’s “classic” country to me. I enjoy true country music, but what everyone else considers “pop-country” or “country-rock” is still country to me, because it’s all I know.

    Now don’t get me wrong; I can spot the non-country BS from a mile away as well. And that’s my biggest complaint with the country music industry in general is that they allow anything to be labeled country nowadays. I mean, there is crap on the radio that makes Rascal Flatts and Taylor Swift look like country, and that’s a bit sad.

    Okay, couple more topics brought up in here I want to address even though it’s a few days late:

    One of the 3 country stations I listen to plays classic country regularly and even dedicates an entire day of the week to only classic country. So it’s unfortunate you guys don’t have better radio options.

    I feel like listening to the radio keeps me more in tune with the country scene. I’ll often hear a song on my local station weeks before I ever see a review of it pop up online at a site like this.

    I don’t understand the bashing of “country life” songs. Everyone keeps saying they are borderline offensive to those who live a rural life and also alienates a large part of the listening base. I’m from a small town and live what most would consider a “country life” and I love those songs because they speak to me. I don’t want to hear them every other song on the radio like you do now, but that type of song shouldn’t be ridiculed or devalued just because doesn’t know what that lifestyle is like.

  32. @Devin Hosea – It’s great that you’ve enjoyed the artists and songs that you have. There’s no obligation any listener has to appreciate a given artist, or even an entire era. That said, I suspect that as you continue to evolve as a listener, you’ll find that songs that you’re okay with now might seem weaker later in life.

    Think about movies. You’re 19, so you would have been about 4 when “Batman & Robin” came out. You might have thought that was a fun movie as a kid, but if you’ve seen it recently–especially after Christopher Nolan’s last two Batman movies–it’s hard to imagine you would take it seriously. More likely, you’d just cringe at it, wondering what you ever saw in it. The same holds true for music, literature; pretty much anything whose appreciation is subjective. As you change, so do the lenses through which you see the world.

    And I hate to play the age card here, but I suspect you’ve still got a lot of experiences ahead of you. The songs that seem to say it all for you now may prove insufficient for speaking to you in the next decade, as you go through things that simply haven’t happened yet. I hope I don’t sound like a condescending old codger here; that’s not my intent. But those experiences of your 20s and 30s really do make you more discerning about what kind of song will resonate with you.

  33. Devin,
    It’s never too late to weigh in. Your perspective is very valid. I remember feeling exactly as you do about 16 years ago when I first embraced country music. As Travis has said, however, my tastes have shifted and my perspective has too. This, of course, is not to say that yours will or even should, but it has for me over the years. So, I wonder what you’ll think in 15 years.

  34. Just to follow up on the subject of changing tastes, I recently went through a phase of nostalgia for the late 90s and compiled a pair of mix discs. Driving back from Daytona a couple weeks ago, my wife and cousin and I played them and I couldn’t help but think how I’d taken for granted some of the artists and songs of that period. I was in my late teens/early 20s at the time, and so something like Steve Wariner’s “Two Teardrops” came on the radio and I thought at the time, “Pleasant sound, contrived lyrics.”

    I don’t know what it was about hearing it this time (maybe being 11 hours into a 16 hour drive), but it just struck me that I’d been way too hard on the song in my younger days. Maybe it’s because the same song today would have been arranged more bombastically, maybe I’ve just gotten softer all the way around; whatever the reason, I’ve found myself feeling that, in general, I had tunnel vision in my youth that kept me from enjoying quite a lot…while chaining me to things that haven’t proven themselves as worthy over the years of my original adoration.

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