American Songwriter Editor’s Note, September/October 2015
Jason Isbell turned heads in the music industry when his album Something More Than Free catapulted to the top of the Billboard country charts in June. When the news broke, left of center singer-songwriter Todd Snider – who served as the officiant of Isbell’s wedding ceremony – took to Facebook and declared “the war was over” and that Jason Isbell “saved country music.” No one could continue to complain any more, he said, that independent artists couldn’t compete with their radio-friendly cousins on a commercial level. “That’s the thing Nashville wouldn’t let everybody do,” Snider wrote. “Well, somebody did it and nobody stopped him. Without changing his music, and without changing his clothing, Jason Isbell did it.”
The battle between Americana and Wal-Mart radio country has been raging ever since the rise of alt-country in the mid-’90s, playing out like a micro-level NPR versus Fox News culture war. They represent two different aesthetics and serve two different markets. But within the last year, traditionally-minded country artists (Chris Stapleton, Kacey Musgraves, Ashley Monroe) have begun making serious waves within the established Nashville machine.
Much of this likely has to do with the backlash against “bro-country” as the reigning style of country radio. Jay Rosen of New York Magazine coined the term “bro-country” in 2013 to describe the Florida Georgia Line song “Cruise.” Since then, this subgenre of country music devoted to tailgates, beer, and scantily-clad girls has become the favorite punching bag of country music preservationists. (In many ways, these tirades have grown more tiresome than “bro-country” itself.) And songwriters on Music Row seem who can’t operate in the bro vein have experienced a crisis of faith with respect to their craft.
But bro-country has sold, and country music in Nashville has always been a business first. Chet Atkins used to joke that the “Nashville sound,” a slicker, pop-friendly production style that developed in the late ’50s and replaced the more rough-and-ready honky-tonk, was the sound of money jingling in his pocket.
Our cover artist Chris Stapleton is the perfect example of a Music Row artist who has found critical and commercial success while remaining faithful to his artistic vision. He came to Nashville with quite literally just a dream and is now regarded as one of the best writers and singers in town. Stapleton got signed to a publishing deal shortly after showing up in Music City and then started a bluegrass group called The SteelDrivers that still continues without him to this day. After leaving The SteelDrivers, he started the Jompson Brothers, a rowdy Southern rock outfit in the vein of ZZ Top.
Stapleton once told me that he doesn’t like to mix genres when he’s writing. If it’s bluegrass, he keeps it bluegrass. If it’s Southern rock, Southern rock. His new album Traveller is old-school country, but without sounding self-consciously retro, and peaked at No. 2 on the country Billboard charts. It’s a veritable banger, and he’s even earned shout-outs from Justin Timberlake. It’s just amazing that it took so long for such a singular talent to finally get his due as a solo artist in his own right.
Another ascendant songwriter featured in these pages is John Moreland, whose latest album High On Tulsa Heat has generated a steady amount of buzz among Nashville’s songwriting community. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard other Music City songwriters rave about this Oklahoma rambler, and this is a town that often succumbs to a kind of “I’ve heard it all before” weltschmerz. One songwriting friend, who caught his show earlier this summer at the 5 Spot in East Nashville, said it was the first time in a long time he can remember hearing an artist who kept him stock-still, rapt in awe, for the entirety of the show. With artists like Moreland and Stapleton in our midst, the future definitely looks good.