Since my wife gave me satellite radio for my car two Christmases ago, I haven’t felt compelled to listen to much country radio. There is a wonderland of new alternative and roots music to discover, as well as comedians to amuse me and informative political talk to get my dander up. However, after dropping my daughter off at work, driving her car (sadly deprived of XM/Sirius), I decided to check in on what’s happening on the country airwaves.
Although I’d recently read about some exciting new country acts making fresh sounds, a brief visit on the FM dial reinforced everything that is sorely wrong with corporate-formatted radio, and the contemporary, hit-country format in particular. As I homed in on the station, the song playing was a veteran act’s rendition of an old pop ditty I’d heard hundreds of times.
The next singer, introduced by the DJ as one of the “fresh new voices” of the genre, proceeded to perform a paint-by-numbers homage to small town life. Every lyric of the song was predictable, trite and third-hand, and the musicianship and production of the record was gutless and safe, safe, safe. It was as if somebody had entered “hit country song” into a computer song-writing program, and this pap regurgitated. Honestly, does the world really need even one more “it was good enough for my daddy, so it’s good enough for me” song? I felt like Dr. Strangelove, as I restrained my finger from punching another radio preset.
The next tune, by a more established artist, was just as same-old, been-there-done-that as the previous one—another cliché-ridden tribute to American family values. The production pushed every button, placing the breakdown of the chorus at the perfect spot, followed by that modulation anyone could have seen coming from 5 miles down the dirt road the song kept praising.
Then, finally I was relieved to hear something that stirred me—a contemporary classic with genuine emotional resonance. Tim McGraw’s "Just To See You Smile" still hits me square in the heart with its honest, vulnerable statement of unabashed devotion. So craftily written by Mark Nessler and Tony Martin, sung simply and honestly by McGraw on top of Byron Gallimore’s understated track (the track that brought back the banjo, BTW), this record proved once again that great songs and timeless themes never grow old. But, hearing this one also drove the truth home—that truly great songs are also extremely rare.
What followed was a new record by a rock-star-turned-country-singer—a pale copy of such fine recent “life’s too short” hits as "You’re Gonna Miss This" and "Don’t Blink." By then, I was pulling up in front of my house, thankful that I could escape my daughter’s car and free my ears from that continual country-radio mediocrity.
So, out of the five songs I heard that morning, only one communicated anything of any real value to me — and that song was almost 10 years old. The three new records were really nothing new at all and, in fact, were stale ideas executed with little or no imagination. Are the major labels and radio conglomerates at all surprised that sales have plummeted and listenership is down across the board? They have lulled the listening public into numbed ennui, feeding us nothing but standards we know by heart and bland new pablum. Is there anything to get us excited? Where do we go to find a fresh, new experience?
Think of some of the artists who have broken over the last 15-plus years with real impact: Montgomery Gentry with “Hillbilly Shoes,” Toby Keith with “Shoulda Been a Cowboy,” Gretchen Wilson with “Red Neck Woman,” Tim McGraw with “Indian Outlaw,” Dixie Chicks with “There’s Your Trouble,” Dierks Bentley with “What Was I Thinkin’,” Trace Adkins with “Every Light In The House Is On,” Blake Shelton with “Old Red,” Miranda Lambert with “Kerosene,” Carrie Underwood with “Jesus Take the Wheel.” Every one of those songs is distinct, and the artist comes through as an individual. While I certainly don’t love all of these compositions, they all make a statement, come from an identifiable voice and paint a unique musical landscape.
When are labels, producers and radio programmers going to learn that copycats don’t establish careers? Formula may get you on the radio, but it will also make you invisible to a public that longs for vibrant personalities with distinctive points of view. Find your spine, Music Row! We had a grip on the largest radio audience in the world. Now we’re fading into the background like so much white noise.