A thoughtful look at Billboard's country charts might suggest there's a storm brewing.
On the Country Songs chart dated Aug. 13, Zac Brown Band earned its sixth straight No. 1 single -- a feat no group has accomplished since Restless Heart did so 23 years ago. And in its rise, it drew more listener impressions in one week than the radio chart has seen in six years at country.
Meanwhile, Eric Church -- a down-home, by-the-grace-of-God country boy -- comes out of left field to top the Billboard 200 albums chart without so much as a top five radio hit on the Country Songs chart under his belt.
The two have plenty in common, but the attributes these two acts don't possess are what illuminates their consumer appeal. With relaxed instrumental precision, the Zac Brown Band dresses down to deliver escapist themes of toes (and asses) in the sand, beers in the hand, and the innate value of life's simple pleasures. Church speaks similarly to the blue-collar crowd, singing unapologetically about "smoking a little smoke," and getting right with God and the world on current single, "Homeboy." He's also clearly connecting with a segment of the touring audience already attenuated to a similar but more seasoned messenger as the opening act on Toby Keith's current tour.
While it is fair to say that these aren't exactly new ideas for country music, both artists are delivering these time-honored themes without all the conventional trappings of the Nashville star-making machine: no cowboy hats, no hip Los Angeles or New York hairstyles and no rhinestone spangles. More importantly, no jingoistic, name-check heavy songs, or records that don't sound like they used the same half-dozen Nashville producers and the same dozen Nashville session musicians.
Both Brown's group and Church are delivering these messages artfully and authentically, without the sound-alike chest-beating of some of their male peers. That Church's album sold so well in its opening week most likely tells us that fans who like his music aren't hearing enough of it on their local stations, and that leads to an overall examination of the themes on country radio, and a critical look at Nashville's artist-development system.
Make no mistake, there are plenty of contrived and formulaic records on the radio chart. With a small handful of notable exceptions, Church and Brown's band vie for radio airplay amid a bevy of male stars at various stages of development (and in Church's case, with far more impressive radio chart stats) who are pounding single after single, practically begging for the elusive backwater authenticity that seems to come far more naturally for Brown and Church.
Such songs by male artists have recently come under fire from a pair of Nashville's most respected music writers, too. In a July 12 column in the Tennessean, journalist Peter Cooper bluntly says he simply doesn't believe the messengers.
"There exists a grand country music tradition of writing about southern lifestyles, about good country people and bad country people and about the ways that common men and women bide their time, mourn and celebrate," he writes. "I dig Hank Williams' 'Jambalaya' and Mel McDaniel's 'Louisiana Saturday Night' and Jason Aldean's agrarian rumination, 'Amarillo Sky.' But this morning, most every male country singer on the radio, your antics have grown tiresome. Anyway, you and I, if our necks are red, it's not from plowing the fields, it's from leaning out the driver's window on a hot summer day to place our onion ring order at the Sonic."
His sentiments aren't lost on CMT and CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo (and Billboard's former Nashville Bureau Chief), who wrote about what he calls a "faux outlaw' movement in his June 30 "Nashville Skyline" column.
"Wanna-be outlaw traces are all over many recent country releases," he writes. "Image and 'brand' are beginning to become artist temptations that may turn out to be lethal. Next to the Outlaw index, the next branding categories include: more country than you, more patriotic than you, more small-town than you, more back road than you. Can you spell 'credible song'? Or 'career suicide'? It's interesting that the only current country artist with a genuine claim to be a true outlaw heir has never claimed to be anything other than what he is on his own. That would be Jamey Johnson, who doesn't need to pose to get his musical message across."
Although it is difficult to find radio programmers willing to comment, much less be completely candid on the topic -- they do, after all, rely heavily upon label and artist consideration to market stations to listeners -- one programmer who asked not to be identified says, "The real issue is the glaring lack of powerful songs in the vein of Garth Brooks' 'The Dance' and 'Unanswered Prayers,' or Tim McGraw's 'Live Like You're Dying' or Lee Ann Womack's 'I Hope You Dance.' Those songs were life-altering for many people, and we just don't have them at the rate we once did. When you don't have one or two of those songs in a decent rotation, the contrived and phony messages are far more conspicuous."
The programmer thinks that in many cases, the artists aren't completely to blame. "When you hear [these songs] for the first time, you have this mental image of three or four professional songwriters sitting around popping open their briefcases and coming up with these hooks in comfortable offices or at corporate retreats on exotic islands. Much of this material is inauthentic to the point of being offensive. And if I'm offended, you can bet your ass that they're insulting the sensibilities of at least some of the people listening. This isn't anything new, either. Who can forget "country as a turnip green" back in the '90s?"
At the Billboard Country Music Summit in June, artist Joe Nichols asserted that country music is no longer lifestyle music, but rather a simple matter of consumer music preference. Assuming Nichols is correct, why do so many of the format's songs rely on lifestyle themes? Troubling though it is to many industry observers, the faux-authenticity issue is likely being exacerbated by Aribitron's technology-based radio audience measurement (PPM), wherein programmers are measuring tune-in and tune-out by the minute, not by what survey participants recall listening to as was the case in the old paper diary system.
Programmers need to ride herd on rotations and playlists to ensure that when a listener tunes in, there's always a song playing that immediately identifies the station. Relying on such lifestyle-sounding songs is likely to be more a matter of calculated, strategic programming than painstaking, routine critical assessment of brand new records. Sharp programmers know what they need to sculpt and mold their stations' overall musical sound, and they'll play whatever they need to accomplish that.
With so many PPM stations claiming higher or sometimes double the listenership they got credit for under the diary system, an argument could be made that the audience is staying put even when they hear songs that industry observers and music critics wince at. Nevertheless, if country radio doesn't find a way to integrate meatier material into the mix, it may find itself far more vulnerable to alternate delivery systems like Pandora and Spotify than it ever collectively imagined itself to be.