'He Inspires All of Us': John Mayer Is In the Blood Of Country Music's Creative Community

John Mayer
Leah Puttkammer/Getty Images

John Mayer performs onstage at Bridgestone Arena on Aug. 8, 2019 in Nashville.

The circle remains unbroken, but it still makes room for squares.

Country music is forever incorporating outside influences into the genre, and of late, there's likely no outsider who's more present in the idiom's creative inner circle than John Mayer.

It's not as if a fan would randomly turn on a country radio station and believe that Music Row's body of work is a wonderland of Mayer knockoffs. But nearly two decades after the 2001 release of his debut album, Room for Squares, Mayer's melodic sensibility, his affinity for ever-changing styles, his lyrical twists and even some of his former sidemen have provided a template for a bundle of country's singer-songwriters.

"Half of the writes I go into, you know, we reference him," notes Adam Hambrick. "It's like, 'Man, that guitar thing you just played was kind of John Mayer-y — give me a little more of that.' That's just kind of what happens."

It's all part of the cycle in the ever-present tug of war between traditional country music and pop influence. The genre tends to imitate outside sources roughly 15 years after artists or trends reach their commercial peaks. It's why such pioneering rock-era acts as Chuck Berry and The Big Bopper were covered regularly in the late '60s and early '70s, why such mid-'70s arena-rock acts as KISS and Queen influenced the '90s stage presentation of Garth Brooks, why Guns N' Roses medleys found their way into Jason Aldean shows around 2005-2007 and why hip-hop phrasing became a significant part of country songwriting in the last decade.

"It's like that generation who heard The Beatles or Bruce Springsteen," says new Sony Music Nashville artist Joey Hendricks, whose July 24 signing announcement acknowledged his creative debt to Mayer. "It's just the modern version of that generational thing. Somebody created Continuum, and of course that's going to influence a lot of people."

The most visible signs are in mentions and collaborations. Mayer made perhaps his first connection to the genre in a 2004 CMT Crossroads episode with fellow singer-songwriter-guitarist Brad Paisley. Mayer later cut "Half of My Heart" with then-country-based artist Taylor Swift for his 2009 album Battle Studies, swapped songs and guitar licks with Keith Urban in a 2010 installment of CMT Crossroads, covered Dwight Yoakam's "Ain't That Lonely Yet" during a Country Music Hall of Fame benefit concert and brought out Chris Stapleton during a 2019 Nashville concert to play a song they had written the previous day. Along the way, Luke Combs' "One Number Away" gave Mayer a lyrical shoutout in 2017.

Additionally, several of Mayer's former collaborators have become significant contributors to the current Nashville sound. Multi-instrumentalist Clay Cook — who cowrote Mayer's first pop hit, 2002's "No Such Thing" — became a member of Zac Brown Band. Drummer Nir Z and bassist Dave LaBruyere, two of the musicians on "No Such Thing," have subsequently played on hits by Tyler Farr, Blake Shelton, Josh Turner and Dan + Shay. And drummer Aaron Sterling, who has played on three Mayer albums in the last decade, has provided studio assistance to hits by Maren Morris, Dierks Bentley and Runaway June.

"When you take up more of a 10,000-foot view of John Mayer, you realize that every faction of him has influenced all creators in some way, especially in Nashville," says Brothers Osborne guitarist John Osborne. "In Nashville, we're very musician-centric. We love the musician. And he is one of the best guitar players that has ever lived and continues to evolve and continues to push himself. He inspires all of us."

That evolutionary aspect of Mayer's career is particularly appreciated. From pop singer-songwriter to blue-eyed soul act to blues guitarist to Grateful Dead collaborator, he has repeatedly let different facets of his creative character shine while maintaining his central identity. Even supporters who were disappointed by such changes have often grown along with him.

"That's the true artist side of it, you know — being able to grow with them," observes Jordan Davis. "Like Room for Squares was such a big album for me that when you start seeing him dip into the trio and start doing kind of more of a bluesy rock thing and not as much lyric-driven, more guitar-heavy [music], I was just like, 'Man, I really hope he goes back to that.' But now, I've come to love even the trio. That growth is great."

Mayer provided a more specific level of influence on Lindsay Ell's debut LP, The Project. She cites Continuum as her favorite album, so producer Kristian Bush challenged her to rerecord that release in its entirety. In the process, she discovered an appreciation for the space and minimalism in Mayer's work.

"It wasn't until I really re-created my favorite record that I actually realized what was on it," she says. "There doesn't need to be a lot going on, but everything going on means a lot. It's like a B.B. King solo: There's not too many notes, but the notes that are there mean a lot."

One emotional note that rings through much of Mayer's material is sensitivity. That hasn't always been easy for country's male artists to reveal, though the current crop is better at showing vulnerability. Some of that may be a direct result of watching Mayer wear his heart on his sleeve.

"To the point right before cringiness, you know what I mean?" says Devin Dawson rhetorically. "It's not cringey, it's profound, but one level more of self-deprecation would become cringey. He walks that line really well."

Ultimately, Mayer's entrance into country's circle may not be apparent to the average listener. But that ends up being a tribute to his own creative efforts. In a 2009 VH1 Storytellers installment, he acknowledged the artists who came before him: "It's my failure to sound like my heroes that allowed me to sound like myself."

And that's why Mayer, as much as any other act from outside of country, is making such a significant impact. He was the freshest singer-songwriter who emerged in pop at a time when many of today's nontraditional country acts were first finding their musical legs.

"We're trying to be like John Mayer, but we never will," confesses Dawson. "We fail, and that's what allows us to sound like ourselves."

This article first appeared in the weekly Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to subscribe for free.

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