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Nashville Reaches Out

Cole Swindell performs during the New Faces of Country at the 2015 Country Radio Seminar in Nashville, Tenn.
Terry Wyatt
Getty Images
Cole Swindell performs during the New Faces of Country at the 2015 Country Radio Seminar in Nashville, Tenn.

One need not follow mainstream country music to have heard half a dozen country singles released this decade, or fragments of them at least. This past January, a mashup of swaggering bro-country hits by chart fixtures and relative newbies Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton, Chase Rice, Parmalee and Cole Swindell went viral. Producer Gregory Todd had chopped up the tracks, pitch-shifted them to the same key, sped or slowed them to a uniform tempo and Frankensteined them into a surreally seamless three-and-a-half minute jam, posting the results on YouTube under the handle "Sir Mashalot." Todd's home studio handiwork attracted loads of attention, particularly because it seemed to confirm the assumptions of outside observers: that current country songs all sound the same; that their expertly constructed hooks, truck cab settings, flirtatious lyrics and fusion of nu metal guitars and club-ready programmed beats are interchangeable and that they're therefore categorically dismissible. Yet there's a whole wide world of aesthetic and social values and creative and commercial agendas where those tracks came from.

This is the week that the nation's most prominent gathering of country fans, CMA Music Festival, descended upon downtown Nashville, drawing somewhere in the neighborhood of 80,000 people a day. Five of the six acts included in the mashup are scheduled to perform, and they surely won't be the only ones with a soused party song or two in their set lists. Still, it won't be all bro country, all the time; even Bryan and FGL detour into reflective or sentimental territory when they want to. As a general rule, the smaller the stage — CMA Fest has many to choose from, the majority free of charge — the broader the stylistic range of its lineup. An intrepid fan could conceivably catch classic southern rock, blue-collar hick-hop, modern bluegrass and hooky folk-pop, along with bar-hardened Red Dirt bands, storytelling singer-songwriters, singers with sleek, soul-pop leanings and aging stars whose once-novel sounds have come to represent tradition, then cap it off with the hit-makers holding court on the stadium stage each night.

The lineup will be low on, but not entirely lacking in, diversity along the lines of race, gender, nationality and sexuality. Singer Ty Herndon, who came out as a gay man last November, is headlining the Concert for Love and Acceptance. Both Kacey Musgraves and Laura Bell Bundy are staging showcases at a queer dance club. Performers from the U.K., Canada, Australia New Zealand and the Netherlands have an entire night's lineup to themselves. In addition to CMT's Next Women of Country showcase on Thursday, acts prominently featuring female singers and instrumentalists comprise a quarter or more of the festival schedule on most days, a markedly better gender ratio than country radio has at the moment (more on that in a bit). And the artists of color scheduled to make official or unofficial appearances include Country Music Hall of Famer Charley Pride, former Hootie & the Blowfish front man Darius Rucker, country-pop diva-on-the-rise Mickey Guyton, country-soul singer Rissi Palmer and Jessy Wilson, of the stylish blues-rock duo Muddy Magnolias.

Fans make the trek to CMA Fest not only to watch these performances, but to personally interact with the performers — those whose ubiquitous singles have grown their fame and those whose music lands nowhere near country radio playlists — through fan club brunches, meet-and-greets and photo lines. While the sounds and sensibilities at mainstream country's center and margins are continually shifting, the genre's most devoted listeners look for consistent, fan-first accessibility from their favorite artists. The festival is one place superstars can demonstrate they've stayed true to the fans who've actively supported them and their music. Diane Pecknold, author of The Selling Sound: The Rise of the Country Music Industry, observed, "There's still an aspect of mutual obligation between artist and fan that is enacted at CMA Fest that strikes me as pretty unique. ... I mean you have devotees in lots of other genres, but you don't have the performed obligation of the industry to the fan in the same way, I don't think, in any other genre."

If CMA Fest is about rallying an especially engaged fan base, and its buying power, around the music, Country Radio Seminar is where the music's mass appeal is professionally strategized. Nashville played host to CRS, an annual convention of enterprising station managers, decision-making program directors, caffeinated on-air personalities, numbers-crunching researchers and record label reps, back in February. Though it's a fraction of the festival's size and receives considerably less media coverage, aside from industry-targeted outlets, it's no less essential to understanding the factors in play at the commercial vanguard of contemporary country music.

Leading up to the event, a Sony Nashville exec made the sweeping declaration, "If you're not on country radio, you don't exist." The guy no doubt knew how well that hyperbolic soundbite would play with radio movers and shakers en route to CRS, but he wasn't completely exaggerating; terrestrial radio still wields considerable star-making power in the country music business (satellite radio now plays more of a role too). What's more, country is simultaneously the nation's leading format and a perennial pop culture underdog, phenomenally popular but pegged by many an elitist rock critic as unhip, unsophisticated, lowest-common-denominator fare.

There was a time when the country radio format was a hard sell commercially, too. As the respected, late Billboard chart guru Wade Jessen explained in an interview during CRS, "Many years ago, Madison Avenue and the culture warriors, if you will, didn't know anything about country music and didn't particularly care. It was southern and a little bit esoteric. The Country Music Association was formed in 1958 to persuade radio station owners to put country music on their stations. That was their main drive, was to get country music on the radio outside the southeast and a few other places out west." He went on: "The Country Music Association is unique to country music. It's really still the only genre that has a muscular, well-funded, driven and micro-focused marketing trade association. And then you have the Country Radio Seminar, which came about [as a parallel concern] 12 years after the CMA was formed. ... Part of the reason that country music has become as mainstream as it is is due in no small part to this convention and the organization that sort of pushes it out."

One of the most talked-about panels at this year's CRS, "The State of the Music," sought to unpack bro country's impact from a front-lines perspective. The tone of the conversation taking place in the carpeted Nashville Convention Center banquet hall often verged on triumphant. Market data projected on a giant screen showed that country radio's already massive audience share is still mushrooming. Other slides spelled out precisely how popular the bro country template has been; it delivered nearly half of the highest selling country singles of 2014 and the first part of 2015. For program directors — who aren't at all shy, by the way, about specifying that they're in the business of selling the largest possible listenership to their advertisers, as opposed to the business of selling music — the dominance of bro country isn't problematic. It's the very definition of mainstream success. When panel moderator Lon Helton, who publishes the industry insider magazine Country Aircheck, opened the floor for a question-and-answer session, producer Gregory Todd was the first to the microphone. Regardless of how his mashup had been interpreted beyond the country world, he wasn't there to call out the spread of a bro country formula. The way he looked at it, he'd highlighted the formula's chart achievements.

That's not to say that the panel was strictly celebratory. Helton opened by acknowledging the cutting reviews bro country has gotten. Then, and throughout the rest of the conference, there was robust debate about whether and how the current trend is effecting age demographics and squeezing out variety. And therein lies the rub; advancing the mass appeal of a radio format, which bro country has done, is definitely not the same thing as championing the distinctive identity of a musical genre.

Weighing in the morning after the panel, Jessen put the format-vs-genre tension in perspective. The critique of country playlists' current sameness, he thought, was on target. "I think that anybody that watches [the charts] as closely as I do would have to agree with that," he said. "But it isn't the first time in the music's history that it's become homogenous. It's just that each time that country music takes an evolutionary step, stylistically or thematically, there's a certain amount of discomfort for those who still feel strongly that country music is a cultural/ethnic kind of music."

Commercial music can, of course, also be culturally resonant music, and it often is. Escapism is not an insignificant quality to find in a song. A fan might discern what Tex Sample has called the "politics of festivity," the impulse to use drinking and musical carousing as a way of resisting one's low social standing, in a party-hearty single. And female artists, when they make it into the Top 40 of the Hot Country Songs and Country Airplay charts at all, have sometimes pushed against the retrograde gender politics of the bro country numbers in which women are cast as alluring passengers (see: Maddie & Tae's "Girl In a Country Song," Miranda Lambert's "Red Wagon" and Lambert and Carrie Underwood's "Something Bad").

Country radio leans heavily on research for everything from the ratings that attract potential advertisers to the call-out surveys that predict what will keep listeners tuning in, and thereby guide programming decisions. In late May, a radio consultant responded to an interview question about why women have been getting so little country airplay for the past few years with a generalization about ratings research, driven home by an incendiary metaphor: female acts, he said, are the tomatoes sprinkled conservatively on the format's otherwise male salad. Amid the impassioned tweeted and published responses to his interview, one astute music blogger spelled out how misreading data can lead to significant miscalculations about what people want to hear. A few fans are proving their investment in the debate over gender disparity on the airwaves by walking around CMA Fest this week in custom-made t-shirts bearing the line "Without tomatoes, lettuce is just ... limp."

Over the past couple of years, the bro country surge has coincided with a surge in Millennial listeners, seeming to nail their omnivorous, Spotify-acclimated tastes, their readiness to embrace country that's absorbed hip-hop, EDM and modern rock production values. CRS devoted an entire panel to the subject, and Andrew Cohen, who handles branding for the reactivated I.R.S. Records imprint, participated as a panelist. A twenty-something himself, he spent much of his speaking time emphasizing what fickle radio listeners he and his peers are. The next day, in his Music Row office, he monitored multiple Twitter feeds on his computer screen while explaining the science of promoting youthful artists like countrypolitan-updating singer Ashley Monroe and vocal-guitar duo Striking Matches to an equally youthful audience. "We'd love to get a radio hit," said Cohen. "Beyond that, we're also gonna hit the press angle. We're also gonna make sure we're touring in the right markets and we've got the right people talking about our artists. There's so much you can do to build an artist outside of radio."

Fickle or not, the most marketable demographic for country radio, known as the "money demo," spans the ages of 25 and 54, meaning that the bulk of Baby Boomers have already aged out, or are close to it, and stations need to replace them with their children, or grandchildren. "The only birthday that was really depressing for me was this last year, because I turned 55," jokes Becky Brenner, a leading country radio consultant. "I'm not in the radio demo anymore." Artists age out of the format too, but not out of the genre (which is still, on the whole, viewed as grounded, adult music). The corporate radio network Cumulus has been experimenting with switching stations over to something sort of like a country equivalent of classic rock; under the Nash Icon banner, playlists ostensibly have room for both new and old music by artists who can't, or wouldn't want to, compete with current chart-toppers' youth appeal.

Brenner just doesn't want to see the country format lose any of its sonic elasticity to the popularity of bro country. "Look at all the hits it's given us," she remarked. "The only thing that's bad about it is you do want more variety than that at country [radio]. At any given time, we've always had the luxury of being able to play pop-country, rock-country, bluegrass-country. Our listeners will like a lot of that, and like a lot of that mixed together. So the best era is the one when people are doing all different kinds of songs."

Nate Deaton, general manager of a San Jose country station, decided to put a very different kind of song indeed — a spare, bruised ballad of Brandy Clark's that gives eloquent voice to insecurity — in rotation. "I was sitting on my couch, watching the Grammys," he recalled, "and she got up and did 'Hold My Hand.' It was just such a compelling performance that I thought we needed to showcase that on the air." It wasn't that anyone had actively pitched him on the song. "Interestingly enough, I actually had to go buy the single, because no one actually serviced it or anything."

During every available moment at CRS — breakfast, lunch, cocktail hour, dinner and late night — record labels were actively promoting the artists on their rosters, wining, dining and zealously wooing the folks who could make the decision to play a single or not. One night, Sony Nashville sponsored a riverboat banquet. While the boat cruised up and down the Cumberland River, the crowd on board watched sets by liltingly effervescent singer-songwriter Cam and backwoods brooder Tyler Farr, not to mention known quantities like Trisha Yearwood and Brad Paisley (both on his own and with that legendary country combo Cheap Trick). Lean and leathery country-rock trio The Cadillac Three, Taylor Swift's label mates at Big Machine, managed to get the industry crowd singing along in a private event space at Hard Rock Café, which is no small feat.

Universal Music Group Nashville packed 16 performers into a single showcase at the Ryman Auditorium. Conference attendees scooped up boxed lunches on the way in, eating their sandwiches in the wooden pews while, one by one, baritone crooning loverman Josh Turner, Kacey Musgraves, the leading light of kitschy, clever, western-tinged pop, sensitive stylist David Nail, harmony-rich quartet Little Big Town, down-home country-soul belter Chris Stapleton, arena-packing singer-songwriter Dierks Bentley, the hot-picking Brothers Osborne, heavyweight songwriter Eric Church, in confessional mode, and an array of other acts played one song each with acoustic accompaniment. No two performers sounded much alike, and precious little of what they sang was party-geared fare. After emceeing the event, Royce Risser, Universal's Senior Vice President of Promotion, said, "I was trying to think of anything on the show today that would be considered a bro country song. I don't think there was a single song out there. ... We've been very successful with radio at UMG by being diverse in our releases. We're trying to create something new, and something different, and something that people will gravitate towards. You're not gonna see us go chase one avenue down."

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