First off, let me say how stoked I am to jump into this conversation. You’ve already covered a lot of really important territory: standout voices, #squad fatigue, and crossover conundrums of 2015, etc.
Craig, I’m glad you brought up signs of “soul searching” in the country music industry. (Carl, could this by chance be the country renaissance you were referring to in your opening thoughts?) For the past few years, the “bro country” posture of so many of the format’s big hits has been endlessly panned by critics, some of the loudest dismissals coming from those who don’t listen to enough country to be able to tell that while this stuff can be incredibly formulaic, it’s by no means monolithic. What’s bothered me the most about the prevalence of hick-hop swagger is that it’s effectively marginalized so many other kinds of countrified postures and vantage points—women’s voices, for sure, but also other conceptions of masculinity, down-home identity, playfulness, and sensuality.
That definitely didn’t go unnoticed within the industry. A few years back, CMT exec Leslie Fram started championing female acts with a promo campaign, and eventually teamed with a couple of other industry vets, Tracy Gershon and Beverly Keel, to convene town halls that sought to Change the Conversation around women’s prospects in country music. What really lit a fire under the movement midway through this year was a moronic interview quote from a radio consultant; he actually summarized the systemic gender prejudice operating in many sectors of country radio with a salad bar metaphor. (See: #Tomatogate.) Responses ranged from really smart deconstructions of the radio data he cited to Miranda Lambert, one of the format’s two leading women, taking every available opportunity to showcase female music-makers she believes in, and a rising artist like Maren Morris proving her commercial potential with a self-released streaming hit. And while critical darlings Kacey Musgraves and Ashley Monroe mostly had to work around mainstream channels to get their new music heard, a handful of notable female voices did have big breakthroughs at radio in 2015.
As you pointed out, Craig, Little Big Town’s slow-burning, teasingly homoerotic expression of female desire “Girl Crush” was one of them. I thought it was a shame that Cam’s debut single, the buoyantly sex-positive number “My Mistake,” wasn’t a bigger hit, but she made a lasting impact after that with her stripped-down, regret-purging ballad “Burning House.” Then there was “Dibs,” a casually flirtatious chart-topper from Kelsea Ballerini, who’s developing an almost Swiftian ability to make teen girls feel heard, and the inspirational “Fly,” a very different sort of song from Maddie & Tae than the smart-assed “Girl in a Country Song” of last year. I’m hoping Morris, Mickey Guyton, and Clare Dunn will get to flex their vocal muscles for far more listeners in the year to come, too. Julianne, I totally share your fear of poptimism’s potential to pressure us all into unceasing, indiscriminate cheerleading for the mainstream, but from a certain angle, I can’t help but see the efforts to clear the way to the country mainstream for an array of talented women as poptimism in practice. There’s still a long way to go, though, before country hits by women no longer feel like anomalies.
The other pivotal 2015 country moment that Craig mentioned was the night that Chris Stapleton and JustinTimberlake out performed everybody else on the CMA Awards. In the wake of the show and Stapleton’s resulting spike in sales and airplay, the rugged country-soul belter was made a reluctant symbol of a certain kind of raw, expressive country authenticity, despite the fact that as a highly successful Music Row songsmith, he’s happily coexisted with country’s commercial priorities for over a decade. I find it heartening to think that there’s a place in the country mainstream for Stapleton’s artful oscillations between stoicism and emotionalism, not to mention his singing voice.
But I’d say that it was the other member of that show-stealing duo who truly embodied what’s happened in the format this year. One reason J.T. fit in so well on that stage was that country singers like Thomas Rhett and Brett Eldredge had already gone into suave, soul-pop loverman mode on their latest albums. Just this week I saw Eldredge play up his smooth crooning chops at a Sinatra-styled industry soirée. I’ve also been noticing an uptick in country slow jams, from Eric Church’s “Like a Wrecking Ball,” a track from The Outsiders that wasn’t released as a single until this year, to Luke Bryan’s “Strip It Down” and Carrie Underwood’s “Heartbeat.”
Part of what’s going on, I think, is an expansion into more uptown or intentionally adult-sounding modes of expression, perhaps even some implicit pushback against the perception that contemporary country seduction is boorish and juvenile. There’s certainly a classist layer to those readings, as Carl noted earlier this year. It’s also worth considering how these musical moves are re-enacting the cycle by which country ups its sonic progressiveness through borrowing from soul and R&B traditions, a fraught history of racial-musical exchange that Charles Hughes masterfully unpacks in this year’s Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South.
I snuck in to this critical chain letter after you were already through discussing how chart crossover worked this year. If I’m being honest, I’ve probably spent less time watching the charts—certainly much less than you, Chris—than I have pondering acts of repositioning and reinvention across the music landscape. Bieber’s an obvious example, the way he rehabbed his image with artier collaborations and a come-to-Jesus moment. I found it refreshing that the Weeknd owned his commercial ambitions when interviewers, Carl included, asked about his transition from brooding abstraction to killer hooks.
Even the Americana scene had its share of tweaked narratives, styles, and identities. Earthy, roots-rock frontwoman Grace Potter took a burnished dance-pop solo turn, Joy Williams veered from the theatrically romantic tension of the Civil Wars with immersive introspection in the key of Peter Gabriel, Nathaniel Rateliff underwent a transformation from somber singer-songwriter into throwback soul man, and, let us not forget, Mumford & Sons made this the year that they laid down their banjos.
Artistically and commercially, some of these moves worked a lot better than others, but the one that I found the most satisfying to watch, by far, was the transformation of the Alabama Shakes, who shook off retro-soul strictures and broke free of essentializing notions of what a soul-loving, blue-collar guitar band from the Muscle Shoals area, fronted by a woman of color, ought to sound like. It was a thrill to hear Brittany Howard chase down her wildly imaginative, almost avant-garde arrangement ideas and experiment with kaleidoscopic multi-tracked vocals, and all the more so when she followed up months later with her side project Thunderbitch, performing in grease paint “white face” and archly nailing rock ’n’ roll tropes right on the nose.
Lindsay, Julianne, and Carl, I’m anxious to hear what reinventions have fascinated you this year.
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