Country Radio Gets Serious: Weightier Songs Courtesy of Chris Stapleton, Lauren Alaina On the Rise

Courtesy Photo
Lauren Alaina at the Chevrolet Cruze Park Stage at the 2016 CMA Music Festival on June 10, 2016 in Nashville, Tenn.

"Hey girl, let's go ridin' on a dirt road" songs aren't going anywhere, but programmers have been playing meatier songs from Tyler Farr, Lauren Alaina and others.

As summer approaches, the country format often sees the beginning of what becomes a glut of uptempo, lighter songs being serviced by labels and embraced by radio. And while there’s certainly no shortage of those kinds of songs this year as well, a surprising number of singles with meatier content — and more serious themes — are also emerging, featuring such topics as divorce, faith, respecting women, the end of a relationship and missing a deceased loved one.

Current or recent singles from such acts as Tyler Farr, Zac Brown Band, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, Chris Stapleton, Lauren Alaina, Reba McEntire, Miranda Lambert, Lee Brice, Trace Adkins, RaeLynn, Scotty McCreery and John Mayer all feature heavier topics that stand out in the midst of country’s more frequent “hey, girl” love songs and beer-drinking anthems.

Farr’s powerful new “I Should Go to Church Sometime” is one example. Written by Brinley Addington, Michael Hardy and Sarah Turner, the song opens with lyrics about “a man on the sidewalk/‘Hungry’ written in red chalk” and “a kid on the TV/He was only seventeen/Wrapped his truck ’round an oak tree” before launching into a chorus about how Farr’s “prodigal disciple” needs to “go to church sometime” and “walk a little straighter line.”

Alaina’s new single, “Doin’ Fine,” which she penned with Emily Shackleton and busbee, references her parents’ divorce and her father’s struggles with sobriety. RaeLynn’s “Love Triangle” deals with the impact her parents’ divorce had on her as a young girl. On “In the Blood,” Mayer sings about “feeling that I’m never good enough.” The devastating final verse of McCreery’s “Five More Minutes” chronicles the loss of his grandfather, and Zac Brown Band’s “My Old Man” similarly laments the loss of a “giant” of a father who imparted valuable life lessons to a son now following in his footsteps.

Sony Music Nashville senior vp A&R Jim Catino says he’s excited to see so many of these songs emerging from Nashville’s songwriting community, noting that such material is “what our format’s been built upon and what’s special about what happens here.” He adds, “What our listeners have always reacted to are deeper songs that talk about the meaning of life and other aspects of everyday life.”

Mercury Records vp national promo Damon Moberly says he and his team have been hearing regularly from radio programmers that “there is an absence of depth” in the music, so he’s happy to help counter that with new singles like Alaina’s, as well as Stapleton’s “Either Way,” a gut punch of a song about a couple that has fallen out of love.

While deeper songs are often accompanied by a slower tempo, making them sometimes harder to work, Columbia Records senior vp promotion Shane Allen says the upside is that they often engender a more passionate response faster from programmers and, ultimately, listeners. That can make for “bigger stories out of the gate” with a new single, he says.

Radio programmers are happy to see the tide turning toward thought-provoking content. “I’m always in favor of a greater variety of topics,” says consultant Joel Raab. “Words matter, stories matter, and the more relatable we can make the music, the better.”

“We’re seeing a resurgence of story songs,” says KTTS Springfield, Mo., PD Mark Grantin. “Ballads and story songs have always been the backbone of the country format. Certain styles or sounds can be popular for a short time, but for the long-term health of this format we need real, relatable songs.”

“After the so-called bro-country movement jumped the shark, Nashville artists, writers, producers [and] labels began to self-correct by adding more substance back into a format that was once rich with substance and lyrical connection,” says WBEE Rochester, N.Y., operations manager Bob Barnett. “It’s been a welcome change. I don’t know how many times music director/assistant PD Billy Kidd and I have compared notes on songs in our music discussions and wished for a good old country love song, or a values-driven song, or maybe even a real-life, real-world song as we poured through the latest pile of cloned ‘Let’s get drunk under the moonlight on the bed of my pickup down the old dirt road’ and ‘Slide on over here blue-eyed girl in a white tank top’ songs.”

KSON San Diego operations manager/PD Kevin Callahan is also seeing “fewer tailgate, ‘hey, girl’ titles, more real love songs and more of the serious titles,” something he thinks is “based on the mood of the country.”

While they may be welcome, weightier songs come with their own challenges. Raab says, “Heavier songs have a shorter shelf life. Once you’ve heard it a number of times, that may be enough,” he explains, meaning that those songs “might not go to gold after their life as a current and recurrent.” He also has concerns that “the audience has struggled with songs that are too preachy.”

Barnett says such songs “typically take longer to develop, especially for stations still doing call-out [research]. We need to have patience and allow songs to make a connection with the listener.” He also cautions that “too many slow, depressing songs will make us really sluggish heading into the summer season. So, while I value substance over disposable ditties, creating a balanced playlist and policing music logs is critical to make it work.” Grantin agrees: “We need balance. I can’t lean too far in a dark, deep theme [direction] or too far with slow ballads.”

KMPS Seattle PD Kenny Jay thinks there aren’t necessarily more heavy-themed country songs right now, but rather that the quality of such songs has improved recently. But he cautions that “because of their impact, a lot of these kinds of songs don’t see a thousand spins as a current, so timing is critical to achieve maximum impact for the station.”

On the plus side, when these real-life story songs do find fans who relate to them and have had a similar experience to one expressed in the lyrics, Callahan says, there is “a higher payoff” in passion, and “that’s what country music is all about.”