Why Country Rules the Airwaves: Chronicling the Genre’s Continuing Moment

Jeffrey Marlow Wired.com 3/29/15

The brief walk from dressing room 9 to the stage of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry takes about 20 seconds, but passes decades of country music’s most prized heritage. There’s the photo of Dolly Parton with Paul McCartney, next to the piano Richard Nixon played and just down the hall from the “duets” room inspired by Johnny and June. On this autumn evening, you might bump into bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart, or the Riders in the Sky, decked out in Stetsons and fringed western shirts. It’s a walk down memory lane here in country music’s home church, a study in nostalgia and past glory.

But the spunky, kinetic Hunter Hayes brings a new energy to the scene, and as he takes the stage at 9 PM, a gaggle of young fans – perhaps oblivious to the musical history infusing this space, perhaps not – reflexively unsheathe their iPhones. Hayes’s performance is in many ways emblematic of country’s new wave, a movement that has seen the genre rise to a new level of national popularity while attempting to navigate the tension between a rapidly changing demographic – of performers, songwriters, and fans – and a longstanding embrace of tradition.

It wasn’t inevitable that country music would thrive in the globalized world of perpetual Facebook updates, a world whose frenetic pace can be felt in electronica, or whose nouveau riche aspirations are extolled in hip-hop. In fact, the co-occurrence of spiraling technological advances and the continued rise of the country genre – which traditionally has valued more off-the-grid sensibilities – seems almost paradoxical. In what is an increasingly impressive balancing act, the country music industry has straddled the line between tradition and novelty, avoiding Luddite instincts while preserving the social structure and sense of comfort that has resonated in the heartland for decades.

To understand the industry’s challenging bargain with technology – a force that can spread the genre further than ever and exert the cultural pressure to leave it behind – I spent a fast-paced Nashville night with some of the city’s most influential talents.

But first, there was a more immediate problem: some sign-wielding teenage girls were standing in the middle of the road

Opryland Drive takes the talent from the Briley Parkway to the backstage entrance to the Opry, and some of Hayes’ superfans have set up shop to get a glimpse of their idol. Bedazzled signs profess their love, and some sort of choreographed welcome dance is taking shape. But once it becomes clear there is no Hunter Hayes in this rented Impala, we gain entrance to the parking lot.

An hour before show time, the Opry’s Marketing Director Dan Rogers guides my photographer Connor and I around the backstage area – part museum, part living room – while tracing the institution’s history. To Rogers, technological developments have always been a part of the show that began in the early 1920s and helped launch Nashville toward its title of “Music City.” “This all started when AM radio was a new technology, and the Opry really embraced that,” he explains, as guitars and wardrobe racks glide by. As an early adopter of AM radio methods, the Opry helped bolster and legitimize the technology. Indeed, the novelty of delivering live music to millions of living rooms kick-started the show’s popularity, and Rogers maintains that the show remains an early adopter of marketing and distribution platforms. “We certainly embrace today’s technology”, he says, “with our own Youtube channel, iphone app, and satellite radio station.” Of course, the in spirit of tradition that defines the industry, the show can also still be heard on 650 AM, WSM.

The live production itself, which for much of the year takes place several times per week, is a well-oiled machine. As the curtain rises, sound engineer King Williams gets to work in the monastic control room at the back of the auditorium. He spins knobs and slides dials with practiced finesse, following pre-determined cues from the performers to spotlight the steel guitar here, the banjo there. With 80 sound inputs coming from the stage to his ears, Williams determines what the in-house speakers will amplify and, by extension, what the audience will hear. The output takes into account the sonic idiosyncrasies of the cavernous concert hall, which may not be ideal for a car stereo or a living room. A separate control room mixes and distributes sound for the radio and streaming broadcasts.

The whole set-up is the inverse of the typical “gold-plated” approach – show business’ instinct to reveal only the shiniest, flashiest features regardless of (or perhaps because of) the talent behind the act. Instead, Williams manipulates top-of-the-line equipment in a hermetically sealed back room while the audience watches the action taking place on a flimsy facsimile red barn stage. The artifice isn’t needed to convince you that you’re watching a world-class concert; it’s there to convince you of the opposite, that you’ve just happened across a jam session at your local barn.

Outside the well-appointed dressing rooms, I put the question of Nashville’s recent rise to Rogers. His response is surprisingly specific. “The summer of 2010,” he says with conviction, “is what did it.” In the throes of historic flooding – an iron bar four feet off the floor marks the high water mark backstage – “the city really came together.” From May to September that year, Rogers and the rest of the Opry production team took the show on the road, moving around town with the iconic mic stands and a show-must-go-on vaudevillian air. The relentless waters damaged millions of dollars’ worth of equipment and music-oriented infrastructure, and the crisis precipitated a soul-searching re-evaluation of the industry’s purpose. In Rogers’ estimation, a focus on wholesome, community-oriented material and a scale back of internecine squabbling struck a chord not only within the regional flood-ravaged community, but also nationwide, as the recession hit a fever pitch. “When things came back online, it was the spark that launched this town on its current rise, I think. A real phoenix rising from the ashes sort of thing.”

Several years later, Nashville is a city transformed. Connor and I geared up for our concert-laden night with some single origin espresso at a café in hipsterville East Nashville, a neighborhood previously considered unsavory. Forbes declared the Nashville area as the 6th most promising city for job development, Google recently announced its intention to bring its high-speed fiber-optic network to the city, and Outside Magazine has praised its bike lanes and trail system.

The prevailing strains of country music have also continued to evolve in the years since the flood: the “bro country” trend has taken off (complete with the requisite backlash), while tendrils reach laterally into hip-hop (Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” collaboration with Nelly) and pop (Taylor Swift, Sam Hunt). Even “traditional” country sounds a lot different from Garth Brooks and George Strait, as younger artists like Hayes flavor twang-free, crossover-ready melodies with instruments like the mandolin, banjo, and pedal steel.

Nonetheless, Hayes, for one, still identifies as a country artist. “Absolutely. Country is home to me,” he says, shortly before his performance. (The standard Opry show includes a handful of artists; Hayes is headlining this evening with a four-song set.) Commercial radio wouldn’t disagree, but the 24 year-old’s 21st century life, with his Facebook, tumblr, and Instagram posts, is a far cry from the ranch-owning Lyle Lovett. The tools of the wildly popular modern country trade are unmistakably Millennial. Hayes did all of the songwriting for his breakthrough album on his smartphone, and of his most recent release, “Storyline”, he recalls that “half of the record was done on the bus, it’s mind-boggling that we can do that.”

The relentlessness of modern stardom is a selective trait – if you couldn’t handle it, you wouldn’t be asked to – but Hayes acknowledges the trade-offs. “It changes the way your life is lived,” he says, “in relationships, in keeping in touch with the world – you feel things so much more dramatically because they happen at such a fast pace

As Hayes bounces and bops to the outro of his encore, Connor and I peel out of the Opry parking lot, the GPS set for the Bluebird Café. This unassuming venue occupies several hundred square feet in a suburban strip mall; its “locals-in-the-know” charm was blown up when the ABC show “Nashville” made it a centerpiece of its dramatic machinations. Tonight, several local songwriters are performing the hits they’ve penned.

It’s packed; my chair is millimeters from Shane McAnally, who gets through “American Kids”, one of Kenny Chesney’s latest hits, despite a nudge as I reposition to let a waitress past. It’s an intimate family atmosphere, with the witty repartee and knowing barbs of friends who can crack a joke while writing a song about a marriage gone terribly wrong. The quartet takes turns, referring to their famous benefactors on a first name basis: “This is my latest for Miranda [Lambert],” says Natalie Hemby before jumping into “Priscilla”; “Jake [Owen] ended up recording this one,” says Jimmy Robbins of “Beachin’”.

These 30-somethings are the real tastemakers – it’s their words, informed by their lifestyles, that are heard by the tens of millions listening to country radio or watching YouTube videos. For Hemby, modern tools of the trade have made the creative process smoother, if not radically different. “It’s much easier to write – even simple things like using a thesaurus or dictionary online – or getting a rough sense of a melody you’re writing,” she says. It’s also easier to see where your incipient song fits into the larger sonic landscape, by cross-referencing past song titles or chord progressions; doing these sorts of checks on the front end, before resources have been poured into the production, will likely become increasingly important in the wake of the “Blurred Lines” ruling. Luke Laird, another decorated songwriter who’s worked with the industry’s top talents, finds that user-friendly tools have degraded technological barriers and allowed him to fulfill several links in the production chain. With a few programs on his computer, Laird can mix and edit a demo, something that might have taken several people with distinct skill sets a decade ago. “It gives me more control of the demo,” he says, “so I can tailor it to certain artists or managers I might have in mind for the song.”

Despite the improved efficiency of the writing process, there are artistic downsides to the proliferation of technology and the globalized marketing it facilitates. “Sometimes it makes untalented people suddenly talented,” Hemby explains. “It takes away the natural gift that some people have and puts them in competition with people who maybe really aren’t that great. Autotune has come a long way, even I can’t always tell.” Laird finds that the commercial prioritization of mass-appeal hits has sanitized the airwaves and purged the industry of personality, a concern that has been echoed by other onlookers. “When we pitch material to A&R people,” he says, “they want hit songs, songs that will be on the radio; 90 or 95% of the time they want up-tempo songs, which are often less serious. It sucks because as a songwriter, it’s not usually what you would consider your best song.”

One glimmer of hope has been Kacey Musgraves, the Grammy winner who filled a witty, progressive album with songs that got radio play, even if they weren’t stadium-rocking showstoppers. “She’s been successful without having massive hits,” says Laird, who co-wrote many of the songs, “and it really shows that there are a lot of audiences out there, and there will always be a market for good, well-crafted songs.”

*
In the car leaving the Bluebird, one of Hemby’s most recent hits, “Automatic” (that’s right, for Miranda), comes on the radio. The song traffics in nostalgia more explicitly than most; its chorus makes a case for doing things the old fashioned way, and devoting time and focus to the things that really matter:

Hey, whatever happened to waitin’ your turn
Doing it all by hand,
‘Cause when everything is handed to you
It’s only worth as much as the time put in
It all just seemed so good the way we had it
Back before everything became automatic

“That song came out of conversations about how easy a lot of things are these days,” Hemby recalls, “but the payoff is so much sweeter when you have to do things by hand, the hard way.”

So what can explain country music’s rising popularity in a time when all cultural indicators seem to point away from relaxing rural life and toward life-hacking efficiency? Technology has certainly eased and broadened the means of distribution, from the Opry’s livestream to artists’ Twitter accounts and songwriters’ editing software. And while it has permeated lives and changed the pace of the industry, it hasn’t fundamentally changed the message. “It’s about the stories,” Hayes explains, “and to me it’s even more than that, it’s a direct conversation even more than it’s a story.” Viewed through this lens, country is a shape-shifting genre free from form-based constraints. Hayes’ suggestion is a generous one – many country “stories” have the intellectual heft of a Bud Light commercial – but you’re likely to find deeper narratives in country than in other genres. “We all strive to write those timeless songs that don’t have anything stamped in there that dates it.”

And it’s the stories, as well as the sense of nostalgia, simplicity, and direct experience with the forces in our lives, that seem to be striking a cultural chord. The genre offers something to hold on to, an anchor in an always-on, 24-hour-news-cycle world. “It’s just harder and harder to focus with so much happening all the time,” Hemby reflects “but there’s got to be a pause button. And that’s what this music is about – taking a breath.”

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