It’s always interesting to see how music industry awards reflect (or don’t reflect) larger narratives in the industry itself.
If you’re interested in the narratives behind this year’s CMAs, look no further than the two men who’ve made the biggest strides on the ballot: Blake Shelton and Jason Aldean. Both show up in Entertainer and Male Vocalist, plus Album and Single, plus assorted other stuff. But the marketing approaches that have gotten them there are vastly different.
Shelton’s is the traditional wisdom: cover all media ground with an inoffensive product until the people buy in. So he’s a core act at radio; he’s on a popular TV show (The Voice); he hosted the ACMs; he was in a ton of magazines for his marriage; he Twitters a lot.
Then there’s the Aldean approach: make a distinct product, generate enough radio support to plant the seeds, then go straight to the fans, tour relentlessly, build up word-of-mouth – let the industry come to you. I think it’s the more effective approach, personally. Look at Eric Church, who has a fraction of Shelton’s ubiquity but beat him in first-week album sales and is still beating him cumulatively - no TV spotlights, no gossip mags, no Twitter.
And look at how many acts on this ballot started on indie labels. Aldean, Taylor Swift, Zac Brown Band, Thompson Square, the freaking Civil Wars. Major-label power still matters, but it seems to mean less all the time. Media saturation still matters, but it seems to mean less all the time. Music is the only thing that always counts, and even the highly political CMAs are starting to have trouble ignoring it.
Just my thoughts, anyway. What say you to this list?
Who’s In: Jason Aldean, Blake Shelton, Taylor Swift
Who’s Out: Lady Antebellum, Miranda Lambert, Zac Brown Band
Who’s In: Jason Aldean, Kenny Chesney
Who’s Out: Dierks Bentley, George Strait
Who’s In: Sara Evans
Who’s Out: Reba McEntire
The Civil Wars
Who’s In: The Civil Wars, Thompson Square
Who’s Out: Brooks & Dunn (historical moment!), Joey + Rory
The Band Perry
Little Big Town
Zac Brown Band
Who’s In: Nobody
Who’s Out: Nobody
The Band Perry
Who’s In: The Band Perry, Eric Church, Thompson Square
Who’s Out: Easton Corbin, Jerrod Niemann, Zac Brown Band (won)
Notes: Bryan and Young are both on their second nominations here, but for once there’s no obvious frontrunner. Thompson Square pick up the category-filler nom from Jerrod Niemann. This reminds me: where has Easton Corbin gone?
Blake Shelton, All About Tonight
Jason Aldean, My Kinda Party
Taylor Swift, Speak Now
Brad Paisley, This Is Country Music
Zac Brown Band, You Get What You Give
Notes: Shelton’s is a low-selling EP. Uhhh.
Sara Evans, “A Little Bit Stronger”
Zac Brown Band, “Colder Weather”
Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay”
Blake Shelton, “Honey Bee”
The Band Perry, “If I Die Young”
“Colder Weather” – written by Zac Brown, Wyatt Durrette, Levi Lowrey, and Coy Bowles
“Dirt Road Anthem” – written by Brantley Gilbert and Colt Ford
“If I Die Young ” – written by Kimberly Perry
“Mean” – written by Taylor Swift
“You and Tequila” – written by Matraca Berg and Deana Carter
Notes: Nice to see there are still some Matraca Berg fans out there amid the Brantley Gilbert ones. Interestingly, Swift’s first nomination in this category.
“As She’s Walking Away” – Zac Brown Band featuring Alan Jackson
“Coal Miner’s Daughter” – Loretta Lynn, Sheryl Crow and Miranda Lambert
“Don’t You Wanna Stay” – Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson
“Old Alabama” – Brad Paisley with Alabama
“You and Tequila” – Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter
Notes: I’m troubled by the fact that “Don’t You Wanna Stay” is nominated for Single and “As She’s Walking Away” isn’t.
“Honey Bee” – Blake Shelton
“If I Die Young” – The Band Perry
“Mean” – Taylor Swift
“Old Alabama” – Brad Paisley featuring Alabama
“You and Tequila” – Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter
Notes: The worst Brad Paisley video ever to be nominated here, I think.
I can’t tell if it’s because she was a bit hoarse, or if she was trying to hold back her tears. Either way, it was so stunningly powerful that I was even a bit shaken up by the whole thing.
I know that there’s going to be the inevitable claims of authenticity and real talent and such, which makes sense given the pop landscape that she’s performing in. But honestly, it’s been a really long time since anything has happened on a country music stage that’s even come close to what Adele pulled off that night.
It reminded me of Reba McEntire’s performance of “For My Broken Heart” on the 1991 CMA Awards. She’s a seasoned pro who rarely misses a note, but she tears up so much in the final chorus that she can’t get the notes out, and imperfection that makes the performance timelessly perfect:
I can’t find the clip online, but it also reminded me of Vince Gill singing “The Key to Life” on the 1998 show, also breaking down in the final few lines of the song. I miss moments like this in country music.
No wonder I’m so awfully disinterested in country this year. Besides the usual mainstream drivel, I’ve also been disappointed by new albums from usually reliable folks like Dolly Parton, Todd Snider, Alison Krauss & Union Station, and even Emmylou Harris. I’ve taken to pretending that The Civil Wars are somehow country so that I don’t write the genre off completely this year.
The only thing I’ve really loved so far? Matraca Berg’s The Dreaming Fields. It’s got that same rawness that must be speaking to me for some reason these days. There’s no chance of Berg making it back on the radio in 2011, but with all the shameless format-hopping that’s been allowed by country programmers in recent years, maybe we can get them to give a few spins to Adele.
World: meet Underwood. She’s fiercely compassionate and endearingly idealistic (the riveting “Change”). She holds her beliefs with a firm but quiet conviction (“Temporary Home”). She’s as comfortable and convincing at tearing down a wrong-doer (the Dixie Chicks-esque “Songs Like This”) as she is nursing an irreparable heartache, whether it’s in the form of a haunting country standard (“Someday When I Stop Loving You”) or a rich pop ballad (“What Can I Say?”). And she’s one of the most gifted vocalists of this generation, possessing an instrument that, when colored and layered with emotion as she’s aptly learned to do on Play On, can have bone-chilling effects.
Like it or leave it, Play On is the most authentic encapsulation of Underwood’s artistry and persona to date, and serves as an exciting glimpse at how far a little growth can carry her. The best is yet to come, but in the meantime, the “good” is pretty damn good. – Tara Seetharam
#9 Sara Watkins Sara Watkins
As most people know by now, Sara Watkins is the female member of the now-disbanded (hopefully temporarily) New Grass trio, Nickel Creek. While Nickel Creek was difficult to classify in a certain genre (not bluegrass, not country), they were embraced by bluegrass and country music fans alike. Each member of the popular trio has released intriguing projects outside of Nickel Creek, but Watkins’ album has assumed the most decidedly country direction of them all. As a result, we are treated to a sublime album thanks to Watkins’ sweet voice and a set of impressively solid songs. – Leeann Ward (more…)
Out of all the writers at Country Universe, I’m probably the one who is least likely to discover an unsigned artist’s music online and fall in love with it. But thanks to a friend’s shout-out on Facebook, I’ve discovered The Civil Wars, a Nashville-based duo that is nothing short of completely awesome.
My friend linked to their cover of “Billie Jean”, which is charming in its own right, but it was the discovery of their live album that made me fall head over heels for this band. You can download their entire album for free at their website, or by following the link below. Here’s a clip of them singing one of my favorite songs from their album, “Poison & Wine,” which features the memorable chorus “I don’t love you but I always will”:
Honestly, this music is so good that I’m going to have to send them some cash for it, which is also an option. This live album is toward the front of the pack among my favorite albums of 2009. Check it out now so you’re not scratching your head in confusion when you read my Top Ten list this December!