As 2017 draws to a close, who in the Nashville community had the biggest impact on Music City so far? Variety teamed up with BuzzAngle Music to analyze the teams that support the top 20 most consumed country artists (ranked by project units, which factors album sales, song sales, on-demand audio and video streams, radio airplay and Shazam tags, from January 1 through Aug. 31, 2017), with special attention given to CMT’s Artist of the Year honorees: Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Chris Stapleton and Keith Urban.
The 2017 Music City Impact Report recognizes the managers, agents, publishers, songwriters, producers, publicists, attorneys and label executives — like Universal Music Group’s Mike Dungan, pictured above with Kacey Musgraves — who played pivotal roles in the year’s biggest country success stories. See a gallery of the honorees hereand survey BuzzAngle’s country artist ranking below.
Artist Ranking by Project (Country)
Source: BuzzAngle Music, Total consumption by project from Jan. 1 2017 through Aug. 31 2017Read more →
When a Belgian astronomer first floated the idea in 1927 that the universe started from a single atom, he established a concept that resonates in country music today.
His hypothesis — later dubbed “the big bang theory” — suggests that a single atom split into more atoms, and those atoms began to be shaped — and reshaped — by the environments in which they moved.
The Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, Tenn., is currently celebrating the 90th anniversary of the big bang of country music. That designation, originally given by author-music historian Nolan Porterfield, recognizes a series of recordings as the equivalent of the universe’s original atom: the starting place of country as a serious commercial venture.
Those records were produced by Victor A&R executive Ralph S. Peer, who set up a temporary studio in a hat warehouse on State Street in Bristol to attract regional talent in the Southeast. Ironically conducted the same year that the big bang theory was constructed, the sessions yielded 76 tracks from 19 artists over 12 days, beginning with Ernest Stoneman on July 25. Those sessions would also produce the first commercial recordings of seminal acts The Carter Family (on Aug. 1) andJimmie Rodgers (Aug. 4), whose influences are still subtly at work today.
As the genre moved farther from those Bristol dates, culture and technology significantly altered the music. Today’s country sounds vastly different from Rodgers’ and the Carters’, though the foundations of their work still resonate in the sound and artistic constructs of Florida Georgia Line, Carrie Underwood and Jason Aldean, whose producer, Michael Knox, is appropriately a vp for the Nashville office of peermusic, the publishing company Peer founded.
“What happened in Bristol is, if you will, a perfect convergence of advances in technology and changes in music,” says peermusic chair/CEO Ralph Peer II.
New developments in recording and playback equipment at the time changed what a listener could perceive from a recording. Instead of the tinny sounds that emanated from the earliest devices, accurate nuances could be detected in both the human voice and the background instruments. It’s part of the reason that Maybelle Carter’s guitar approach, which combined rhythm and melody, became a bedrock style for the genre.
“The Carter lick is something that countless artists today still rely on as the guitar technique,” says Peer. “She’s the one who started it all, and that wouldn’t have happened unless this new technology could’ve recorded and picked up the guitar in the way it did.”
Though advanced, the Western Electric recording device used at those sessions was still limited. Electricity was not always reliable, so the machines were run by a pulley system powered by weights. The weights allowed a single recording to last merely three-and-a-half minutes at a time, forcing artists to cut entire verses from lengthy story songs and setting a rough standard that remains for song length to this day.
“That’s the beginning of that verse/chorus/verse/chorus framework that we still use,” says Birthplace of Country Music Museum director/head curator Dr. Jessica Turner.
Additionally, the use of a repeating chorus mimicked the songwriting format of Tin Pan Alley. Thus, country was already adapting pop music’s style to move its own sound forward and setting up a battle that exists today: the struggle between progressive country and traditionalists.
“Country music is not what it used to be — and it never was,” says Barry Mazor, who authored Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America’s Original Roots Music Hero Changed the Pop Sounds of a Century and Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music.
As the genre moved further from the big bang, the advent of technology has informed that constant push and pull. Ernest Tubb helped pioneer the adaptation of the electric guitar, Garth Brooks and Reba McEntire became early proponents of headset mics that provided hands-free mobility onstage, and continued studio advances gave artists and producers options in the manipulation and perfection of sound that were not available in 1927.
“The instrumentation and the music for this genre is still piano and guitar,” says Lomax Global Music president John Lomax III, whose grandfather John Lomaxwas a folk music archivist who conducted a series of roots-music field recordings for the Library of Congress. (Lomax III just released an a cappella collection of old songs, Folk, performed by his father, John A. Lomax Jr.) “But we have a whole new class of machine instruments. That’s changed.”
The state of the U.S. population was in flux in 1927. The Roaring ’20s were the first decade in which more Americans lived in urban centers than on farms, and country music — often called “old-fashioned music” in that era — connected to a nostalgia for simpler times. Thus, the thematic building blocks for the genre — including family, faith, love, hard work and hard times — were set in place.
The automobile, the airplane and even radio were new products that were changing the way Americans lived. One song from that era — The Carolina Tar Heels’ “Peg and Awl,” which is included in a new five-disc box, American Epic, drawn from a documentary on 1920s field recordings — finds a shoemaker fearful that a machine will take over his job. It’s a topic that still holds sway as country offers blue-collar themes at a time when robots are the latest technological threat to employment.
“The best country music — not all of it, but the best country music — speaks to the facts of people’s lives,” says Mazor. “The change in the technology that changes your life — sometimes for the better, sometimes [it’s] scary — is always there, so you find those connections in the old songs.”
In addition to the technology involved in making records and in the culture at large, changes in the playback devices have altered the kinds of experiences that listeners expect from country. When Rodgers and the Carters made those first recordings, few rural consumers even owned a radio. For those who did, listening was a communal event for families, sometimes entire neighborhoods, and it’s easy to envision them taking in some songs in the same way as they would a sermon.
With the advent of car radios, commuters began to listen to country and other genres in isolation on the way to work. Programmers have increasingly sought upbeat themes — the antithesis of much early country — to satisfy listeners as they travel to and from a job they may despise. Even beyond radio, people listen increasingly alone, says Lomax, “on their computer or cellphone with some app, and they’re not gathered around together. There are more ways to hear it.”
The most sweeping change that was instituted at Bristol revolved around the significance and compensation of the artist. Previous country sessions were usually instrumentals by nondescript musicians who were merely giving the public songs to dance to at home. They were paid a one-time fee and no more. Peer wanted artists who created their own material, and he compensated them with a smaller upfront payment, but also offered them royalties.
The power of the dollar influenced those sessions. A newspaper story that ran in the midst of the Bristol sessions indicated that Stoneman had made a then-hefty $3,600 the previous year. As a result, Peer attracted some performers who saw recording as a means to wealth. Still others saw it simply as a way to make a difference, or at least leave a legacy.
“A lot of people who came to Bristol were just thinking, ‘Let’s go make a record. Then people will remember us,’ ” notes Turner. “I think that carries over now.”
But the savviest acts created an identity — now commonly referred to as a brand — that generated its own interest. Rodgers, says Mazor, was Saturday-night country, while the Carters were the Sunday-morning version.
“The fact that they were recording new material rather than traditional material made the audience interested in what the next recording was going to be,” says Peer II.
That paradigm also operates today. “You don’t associate Miranda Lambert, Toby Keith and Brad Paisley with the same kind of songs,” says Mazor. “You have stars doing songs that represent a certain feel, and we come back to them again and again.”
Ultimately, Aldean shows the connection between the big bang of 1927 and the modern artist of 2017 quite nicely. His adaptation of rock power chords within country, beginning with his debut single, “Hicktown,” is the contemporary equivalent of Rodgers and the Carters borrowing Tin Pan Alley’s pop-song structure for their records. He has established a highly individual brand with distinct enunciations and a blue-collar dress code. And with 80 percent of the American population now clustered in urban areas, his embrace of small-town values in such songs as “Fly Over States,” “They Don’t Know” and “Big Green Tractor” hints at the same sort of nostalgia for simplicity that the audience felt 90 years ago. Even “Tattoos on This Town” speaks to the musical motivation Turner noted: the desire to leave a legacy.
Detractors scowl in 2017 that such progressive voices as Aldean, Sam Hunt or Thomas Rhett don’t sound like country music. But even traditionalists like Chris Young, William Michael Morgan and Jon Pardi don’t sound like the traditional voices from previous eras.
That’s one of the precepts of the big bang. The farther that Father Time moves from the 1927 Bristol sessions, the more technological and cultural innovations influence the genre’s direction. But below the surface, the star system, the compensation system, the song structure and the core themes of the music endure.
“Things were set in motion at Bristol, which is why Nolan Porterfield called it the big bang,” says Mazor. “The concepts were solid, and those concepts still work.”Read more →
Jason Aldean’s live sets burst with energy as anthems (“Dirt Road Anthem”), rockers (“She’s Country”), and stompers (“Just Gettin’ Started”) boom, but for the third single off 2016’s They Don’t Know, his seventh studio LP, the 40-year-old is slowing things down with the open-hearted “Any Ol’ Barstool.”
Know‘s first two singles each found themselves atop of the Billboard Country Airplay chart and this Jack Daniels-laced song is on its way having just cracked the Top 10. Today, EW is thrilled to premiere its understated accompanying video. Directed by frequent collaborator Shaun Silva and with a plot that sees a relationship through its final breath, Aldean said his goal for the clip was to match the straightforwardness of the tune. “For a lot of our videos, we’ve got me and the band and a lot going on, but this song is simple and I wanted to keep the video that way as well,” he tells EW.
Below, we catch up with the Georgia native about launching another massive tour, finally winning Entertainer of the Year, and what’s in his secret sauce for picking singles.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So far, off They Don’t Know, you’ve put “Lights Come On” and “A Little More Summertime” forward as singles — and both have gone to No. 1 on the country airplay charts — why did you want “Any Ol’ Barstool” to go next? Jason Aldean: Its cool to put out the big up-tempo [songs] and rockers and have some fun, but it’s also important to show that other side of what I do and let people know that I am still a country singer and I love singing those traditional songs.
You’ve had 14 No. 1 songs in your career. What’s your process for picking which tunes you send to radio? It’s the songs that I find myself going back and listening to over and over. Some days I might be in a certain type of mood and a song will hit me in one way today but not the same way tomorrow. [I want] the ones that get stuck in my head.
In the last decade you’ve had 20-plus Top 10 hits. Has it become hard to make sure everyone in your live audience gets to hear their favorite Aldean song? We’ve finally gotten to a point where we’re taking songs that were hits out of the show, which I never thought we would do. We used to play songs twice during shows because we didn’t have enough songs! [Laughs]
Is touring still your favorite part of every summer? I love going in and making records but the touring side of it is really always [what] I’ve enjoyed the most; getting on stage every night and entertaining people, that’s why I got started with this in the first place at 14-years-old. And as long as people care enough to want to come see us, I plan to tour and play shows. I know one day they maybe won’t care so much. But as long as people are coming out and still care about what we’re doing, I’m going to be out there.
You won Entertainer of the Year for the first time at the 2016 ACM Awards and you’re nominated for the same trophy at this year’s ceremony. What does it mean for you to see your name up there? I’ve built my career largely on touring and Entertainer of the Year was a personal goal that I set for myself a long time ago. I watched all my idols get up and win that away over the years. So winning that…it really was one of the highlights of my career. When it’s all said and done, that will stand out from my career. And it probably means more to me now, later in my career, winning those things and being nominated. When you’ve been in the business for 10-plus years and you’re still getting recognition, it means a lot.
See “Any Ol’ Barstool” below. A full list of dates and ticketing information for Aldean’s 2017 tour is available on his website. The 52nd Academy of Country Music Awards will broadcast live from Las Vegas on April 2 at 8p.m. EST on CBS.
Read at EW.comRead more →
Producer Michael Knox has appointed Donny Walker as Vice President of Strategic Partnerships for his production/management company Music Knox, LLC.
In his new role, Walker will develop unique promotional partnerships in key radio and touring markets nationally for Music Knox and its roster. Walker will work alongside Senior Vice President Shalacy Griffin, who oversees the company’s day-to-day operations, which includes Reviver Records recording artist Michael Tyler. Tyler’s debut album 317 is available March 17, 2017 and he is currently on the “Ones to Watch” tour with labelmates LOCASH.
“I’ve known and respected Donny for a long time. He brings a lot of experience to the table and we are excited to add him to the Music Knox team” says Music Knox President/CEO Michael Knox.
“I’ve always felt that my skill set could help with artist management so joining Michael Knox’s team will be an exciting new path for me both professionally and personally” Walker said. “This is an incredible opportunity; from the first time I saw Michael Tyler perform, it was obvious that he is an extremely talented artist and songwriter.”
Walker recently exited his role as Senior Director of Syndicated Radio for Westwood One where he spent 12 years managing the affiliate sales effort for many award winning nationally syndicated radio shows including Country Countdown USA with Lon Helton, CMT Radio Live with Cody Alan, American Country Countdown with Kix Brooks and The Lia Show. In addition, he was responsible for overseeing the affiliate sales of the Cumulus NASH syndicated product line including Nash Nights Live with Shawn Parr, The Blair Garner Show, Country Gold with Terri Clark and Ty, Kelly and Chuck Mornings.
Walker started his radio career at Billboard Magazine working in the chart department and then joined BDS to launch their first real-time radio-monitoring product Radio Track.
Michael Knox is most noted for his production work with Jason Aldean, as well as production credits for Thomas Rhett (“It Goes Like This”), Trace Adkins (“Just Fishin’” and This Ain’t No Love Song”), Kelly Clarkson‘s collaboration with Aldean (“Don’t You Wanna Stay”), Ludacris‘ collaboration with Aldean (“Dirt Road Anthem”), Luke Bryan & Eric Church‘s collaboration with Aldean (“The Only Way I Know”), Montgomery Gentry (“Where I Come From”), Josh Thompson (“Beer On The Table” and “Way Out Here”) and Frankie Ballard (“Tell Me You Get Lonely” and “A Buncha Girls”) among others.
Michael Knox also serves as Vice President for peermusic Group in Nashville. Under the creative purview of Knox, peermusic Nashville has built itself into one of Nashville’s top independent publishing companies. In 2013 they enjoyed the ASCAP Song of the Year “How Country Feels” (Randy Houser) and in 2016 SESAC honored peermusic with Country Song of the Year “Somewhere On A Beach” (Dierks Bentley).Read more →