The guitar is such an iconic logo for country music that when the Nashville Sounds AAA baseball team moved to a new stadium this year, designers made a point to incorporate a guitar-shaped scoreboard similar to one that became a talking point for the old venue.
But the guitar — and other instruments — ironically receive less spotlight in the music than they do at a Music City ballpark. The solo is under siege, and even the artists whose identities are tied to their in-concert musicianship — such as Brad Paisley, Keith Urban and Hunter Hayes — are required to pick their spots to step out on their recordings if they expect them to get played.
“On country radio, there’s a tendency to edit out the guitar solos to save time,” says Paisley.
It’s a difficult topic. On plenty of occasions, fans have observed after their first Paisley or Urban concert, “I didn’t know he was such a great guitar player.” The depth of their artistry isn’t fully experienced on many of the songs that reach the airwaves.
But shorter singles make it possible for stations to play more titles in the course of an hour, and the solo parts are where it’s the easiest to make an incision. So singles often go under the knife.
“The listeners’ attention spans are shorter and shorter, and if they start getting bored with whatever it is that we’re doing — whether it’s a musical riff, or something we’re saying , or too many commercials — it’s too easy for them to go somewhere else,” says consultant Joel Raab. “So it’s really about forward momentum on the radio station. Is that guitar part moving everything forward? If it is, great. If it’s not, then maybe it needs to be edited.”
Increasingly, that editing takes place before the songs ever make it to radio, a trend exemplified by several current singles with different sonic results. One minute, 47 seconds was dumped from the Brothers Osborne‘s “Stay a Little Longer” by piecing together the most melodic elements of John Osborne’s guitar finale, which still runs 55 seconds in the 3:48 single. Striking Matches‘ “Hanging On a Lie” trims a mere 15 seconds for the single, and it leaves intact a 16-second guitar breakdown that serves as a bridge. In Thompson Square‘s “Trans Am,” a recorded guitar solo was hacked out entirely before the song was ever turned in to the label, keeping it at 2:55. And with Brett Eldredge’s “Lose My Mind,” the writers chatted briefly about a solo section, but decided less was better and never put one in, holding it at 2:35.
“I think that 2:35 is the new 3:30,” says co-writer/co-producer Ross Copperman. “Under three minutes is country gold right now.”
While Lynyrd Skynyrd‘s “Free Bird” influenced many modern Nashville musicians, the 10-minute classic-rock opus never caught hold in country. The occasional single has ended with a lengthy jam — Merle Haggard‘s “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” and Alan Jackson‘s “I Don’t Even Know Your Name” both let the backing band swap solos for more than a minute — but they’re a clear exception. In fact, when Highway 101’s “(Do You Love Me) Just Say Yes” took more than 1:15 to fade in 1988, radio programmers asked for an edit. The request miffed at least one of the band’s associates, who figured if stations wanted to end it early, they could fade it themselves.
Radio did just that with Eric Church‘s “The Outsiders” in late 2013. The last minute of the single took a turn in texture, amping up the song’s hard-rock component. One programmer at the time expressed glee when his station lopped off that part of it, a move that came as no surprise to the Church camp.
“I think we half-way expected it,” producer Jay Joyce said then. “But it’s [“The Outsiders”], right? That ending’s as outside as you can get.”
Even if lengthy instrumental sections are being pared back, guitars, drums and keyboards are still important. They provide framework to showcase the voice and the melody, and finding new sounds has become a key factor in modern country hits.
“It’s still a 16-color crayon box,” says producer Dann Huff (Keith Urban, Maddie & Tae). “It used to be an eight-color crayon box; now it’s 16. That’s fair enough. So it makes you look at these instruments in different ways.”
Huff cites the Joyce-produced Little Big Town hit “Pontoon,” which uses a unique mashup of Jedd Hughes’ mandolin and a sample from an electronic keyboard, as an example. The electronically altered banjo in Blake Shelton‘s “Doin’ What She Likes” and the disco-ish bass on Luke Bryan‘s “That’s My Kind of Night” are other examples of instrumentation used to distinguish a record without dominating it.
Striking Matches’ breakdown section is, as it turns out, somewhat similar to the “Pretty Woman” arc. It wasn’t originally there when the duo wrote “Hanging On a Lie,” but it became something of a signature. The song isn’t as interesting without it, and it helps build the act’s identity.
“We’re players, and we’ll take every opportunity in a song to have a musical interlude or something interesting happen musically,” says Justin Davis.
With music being subjective, it’s tough to create a specific rule about when a solo is right for a song, though a couple seem to be in force. Raab suggests it’s better to have a solo section in the middle of a single than at the end, when the song “seems like it should be over.” Singer/guitarist Frankie Ballard says it comes down to the ultimate effect of the playing.
“It has to be appropriate for the song,” he says. “A great guitar solo isn’t about how long it is. Sometimes the greatest guitar work is done in a short amount of time. It just lifts the song.”
Thus, many of country’s best guitarists — Urban, Hayes, Paisley or Vince Gill — aren’t fully appreciated by their fans until they’ve been experienced live. That is, to Hayes’ way of thinking, an appropriate way to look at the guitar solo. The one that gets put on a record should be as singable as the rest of the song, while the stage is a better place to give the fan a more elaborate experience.
“I love a solo as much as anybody,” he says, “but you let those things happen live.”