― Upton Sinclair : I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked
I believe this quote from American author and industrial gadfly Upton Sinclair deftly underscore the mindset of Blake Shelton, who most recently stated on an episode of Great American Country’s “Backstory” that:
“If I am “Male Vocalist of the Year” that must mean that I’m one of those people now that gets to decide if it moves forward and if it moves on. Country music has to evolve in order to survive. Nobody wants to listen to their grandpa’s music. And I don’t care how many of these old farts around Nashville going, ‘My God, that ain’t country!’ Well that’s because you don’t buy records anymore, jackass. The kids do, and they don’t want to buy the music you were buying.”
One word, “duh!”
Don’t fool yourself into thinking that that there was some home-spun, old timey, sepia-washed era when country music was a noble art of heartfelt expression, Void of any motivation soiled by filthy lucre. The country music industry as an institution has always been about money. When Polk C. Brockman recorded Fiddlin’ John Carson in the 20’s he did so to provide media, namely records, to increase record players sales out of his family furniture store.
The ’50s brought us producers Chet Atkins, Owen Bradley, and Bob Ferguson. The brain trust that engaged in a mass purging of hayseed elements, honky-tonkisms and general twang from Music Row product, broadly branded the “Nashville sound.” They created a a multimillion-dollar industry by heading uptown to the city supper clubs more accustomed to genteel strings and syrupy Jordanaires accompaniment.
As Chet Atkins quipped when being asked about what the Nashville sound was. He reached into his pocket, shook the loose change around and say “That’s what it is. It’s the sound of money”.
Not since new York’s famed Tin Pan Alley has there been such a close, and profitable, relationship between commerce and art than Music Row. there is nary a hair of space between the music publishers , songwriters and the performers. The sole purpose of Music Row, as it was of Tin Pan Alley, is to make money, not to serve as a steward of cultural preservation.
This last part leads us to the big lie of Music Row that Shelton’s words exposes – that tradition in the country music industry is something to be honored. With all of this pretense of honor end product, the music, does anything but. Sure a song might name-check The Hag or The Possum but there is no other discernible stylistic or lyrical element that would lead you to believe that that song is even distant cousins with “He Stopped loving Her Today.”
Of course these changes in style are explained away as “evolution” and “changing times.”I get that. Lefty Frizell and Ernest Tubb might have been surprised by some of the pioneers of country music evolution – Willie Nelson. Buck Owens and Steve Earle. But I doubt they would conclude these newcomer’s music wasn’t an evolution kin to their very own evolved sound.
Speaking of Earle and Buck, these are the exceptions that prove the rule. If there was no entrenched industry of Country Music product they would not be measured against anything. Bluegrass, Outlaw Country and Americana are all creative cultural reactions to music Row’s stranglehold on radio, distribution, labels and brand.
Try as I might I wasn’t able to find any redeeming point in Shelton’s career. No point where he didn’t sound like anything but a shill for the system. Sure Shelton covered Mary Gauthier’ excellent song I drink for his 2004 album Blake Shelton’s Barn & Grill. But this inspired bit of risk was an aberration of a 12 year career of playing it safe. Since the he’s been towing the Music Row line.
This predictability is precisely what put Shelton in the position to be the right man for the job of telling us Music Rows’s quasi-covert MO. He’s their currently anointed wonder boy with the country music Association Male Vocalist of the Year and Entertainer of the Year tucked neatly under his $1000. belt. Celebrated performers before him had the decorum to at least give lip-service to legacy and legends while roasting them on a spit of radio fodder. Not Shelton, Oh no! This man comes clean. Loud and proud. He get’s to, in his words “decide if it moves forward and if it moves on.” Old farts and jackasses be damned!
That is as long as he colors within the lines and keeps those hits coming. Keeps those arenas packed and the money rolling in. Otherwise the next big thing get’s to fill those rhinestone boots. If Blake Shelton is guilty of anything it’s saying, perhaps inadvertently, what Music row has been screaming at us for decades. It’s about feeding the beast not someone’s nostalgic notions. It’s about awards, celebrity and status. It’s about shunning the past in pursuit of chart jockeying. Music row does not and has never been a steward of cultural preservation.
For Shelton to think otherwise would have him questioning the worth of those awards, and what churning out those those hits like McDonald’s burgers cost in personal integrity. For him to ask these questions would be asking him to “understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
In the end Shelton said out loud told us what many of us knew all along, the Music Row emperor has no Nudie Suit.
Though Shelton and his pre-fab predecessors might be the mouthpiece of the commercial and industrial wing of Country Music TM, we the people will determine what little “c” country music will become. I believe the latter will be a hell of a lot more interesting and enduring.