For listeners distressed about the state of modern country music, Kevin Fowler may have the antidote: his single “Sellout Song” humorously skewers a number of tropes easily spotted in the genre’s mainstream. Fowler conjures a fictional No. 1 hit, commanding listeners to “put your hands up in the air” before landing a rhetorical left hook: “The lyrics suck, hey, no one really cares.” Later he adds, “Don’t think too much about what the words mean/ Just focus on the backside of my skinny jeans.”
But this is not just a straightforward send-up of the twangy mash of pop and hip-hop that dominates country radio: “Sellout Song” benefits from a liberal dollop of empathy. “Why should he hold out?” Fowler asks of his hypothetical singer who throws aside scruples in the rush for profit. “He makes a hundred grand every time he rolls out.”
Speaking with Billboard on the phone from his ranch in Texas, Fowler is quick to point out that the song “is not making fun of artists.” “I’ve been that artist,” he adds. “It’s more just poking fun at the industry, and how it puts pressure on the artists to conform and do whatever’s trendy for the day.”
“Sellout Song” has become a success on Texas country radio, reaching No. 9 on the most recent Texas Regional Radio Report, which compiles data from 86 stations located in or near the state. This puts Fowler in an interesting position: since the track partially adopts the very sound it makes fun of, he’s laughing at a trend while benefiting from it. Similarly, the video for the track incorporates the tropes of modern country visuals – backwards hats, women showing lots of skin – even as it portrays them as frivolous. It may not have been his intention, but Fowler gets to have his cake and eat it too, inoculating himself against accusations of selling out by making fun of himself for selling out… while enjoying the sound and look of selling out.
The release of “Sellout Song” connects Fowler with a number of other singers making jokes at the expense of country’s mainstream. The most successful and effective track to protest the prevailing winds came from Maddie & Tae, who exploded behind the much-discussed “Girl In A Country Song.” Sturgill Simpson has also dabbled in this sort of protest – take “Life Ain’t Fair And The World Is Mean” – and though they earned significantly less media attention, Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen released the excellent “Standards” last year, in which they proclaimed, “I don’t have hits/ I’ve got standards/ Tell me how can I sell out?/ If I barely sell at all.” This track climbed to No. 1 on the Texas Regional chart.
Like Fowler, Rogers and Bowen are part of Texas’s Red Dirt scene, which exists somewhat apart from mainstream country. Acts with success on the Texas airwaves sometimes jump onto the mainstream Billboard Country Airplay chart – Aaron Watson made the leap in the latest ranking, joining Josh Abbot, who entered 15 weeks ago. (These singers mostly exist outside of the space the media recognizes as “alt-country” or “Americana” as well, despite the fact that many have a strong orientation towards roots music.) “We don’t have the luxury of major market radio playing our songs ten times a day [in Texas],” Fowler explains. “You really gotta have a song that people like.”
“It’s all fan-driven down here,” he continues, “and it’s all about coming to shows. It reminds me of the Grateful Dead – our fanbase will come to four, five, six shows a year. They don’t just come once a year when you’re playing the arena.”
Fowler, whose first full-length came out in 1997, knows the Nashville world as well: he released a pair of albums on Equity Music Group, an independent label founded by the singer Clint Black; after that organization folded, he put out Chippin’ Away on Colt Ford‘s Average Joes Entertainment label. Fowler sums up his time in Music City with the same jocular attitude he brings to “Sellout Song.” “I think I was a jinx,” he says. “If you wanted to go out of business, just sign Kevin Fowler. I was killing record labels right and left.”
He self-released the follow-up to Chippin’ Away, and he’ll do the same with his next album, Coming To A Honky Tonk Near You, which arrives this fall. But his dalliance with the mainstream left a mark. “Whether consciously or sub-consciously, you feel that pressure to do something that Nashville will embrace,” he notes. “There was a decade in there trying to write what radio will play.” That wasn’t the only concession he made – “the first thing the labels always did when I was on them is try and get you a trainer, get you a stylist, pretty you up a little bit.”
According to Fowler, this was a waste of time and money. “You can’t put lipstick on a pig,” he quips.
Fowler does not believe that Nashville’s current emphasis on conformity is anything new. “It’s always been that way,” he asserts. “The whole hat-act thing back in the ’90s; in the ’70s, everyone was playing with orchestras behind them.” But he does allow himself a scrap of nostalgia. “Can you imagine if Merle and Willie would have put on tight jeans? There was more courage back then. Now personality is kind of discouraged.”
Fowler encountered “Sellout Song” by chance – he happened to be playing an acoustic event where Zane Williams, another Texas singer/songwriter, performed the track. “It was hilarious,” Fowler remembers. “I was like, ‘are you gonna cut that?’ He was like, ‘no way.'” “If anyone can get by with cutting that it would be me,” Fowler says. “I’m kind of known for the tongue-in-cheek silliness, being a smart-ass.”
This is fully on display in the video for “Sellout Song,” in which the singer does his best to rap and dress up like a mainstream country star. (Williams also appears in the clip.) There’s a movie within a movie here: Fowler’s alter ego – aviators, tank top, hat cocked to one side – cavorts on screen with women in their underwear, as frustrated viewers take increasingly violent measures to destroy the television that’s airing the clip. In the end, the real Fowler, wearing a cowboy hat, shoots the TV, and it explodes.
“Sellout Song” is the last track on Coming To A Honky Tonk Near You, almost an afterthought – especially when compared with the rest of the record, which Fowler accurately describes as “old-school, down the middle of the road, beer drinking, hell raising, dancehall country music.” The other seven songs are heavy on pedal steel, fiddle, and cowboy references. The second single, “Moving On,” which arrives next month, offers a dose of hard-nosed country rock.
But the inclusion of “Sellout Song,” which is close to the material it lampoons, has caused confusion for some listeners. “A lot of people don’t get it,” Fowler admits. “Fans put stuff on Facebook like, ‘hey, can’t believe you sold out.'” He addresses those listeners: “It’s a joke! They assume that Kevin’s jumped ship. No – this is funny. People that listen, get it.”
For those who are concerned about the state of his wardrobe, he “returned all the clothes after the video shoot.”
For Fowler, this sort of anxiety is missing the point anyway. “You can’t whack the artists for it,” he says of the temptation to aim for that on-trend hit. “I’ve been there. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”