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 →
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 →
January 2016 marks Michael Knox‘s 25th year working in the country music industry.
Knox is most noted for his production work with country superstar Jason Aldean. He celebrates 17 No. 1s, over 27 million singles and 12 million albums sold during his career. Knox’s production credits have also extended to Thomas Rhett, Trace Adkins, Kelly Clarkson, Ludacris, Luke Bryan, Eric Church, the hit TV series Nashville as well as the late, great Buddy Knox, who is also his father.
In 2011, Michael Knox was awarded the CMA Award for producer of Album of the Year, My Kinda Party (Aldean).
He has also earned three ACM Awards during his career, including two in 2012 for ACM Single Record of the Year and Vocal Event of the Year “Don’t You Wanna Stay” (Aldean/Kelly Clarkson) and one in 2013 for ACM Musical Event of the Year “The Only Way I Know” (Aldean/Bryan/Church).
Knox now serves as Vice President for peermusic Nashville while managing singer, songwriterMichael Tyler through his production/management company, Music Knox. He also serves on the ACM Board of Directors, CMA Board of Directors and GRAMMY® Special Committees.
Knox’s resume includes opening Nashville’s first song plugging company, Hit Pluggers, and leaving his stamp on more than 150 million records as Warner/Chappell’s VP responsible for writer and artist development (1992-2002).
MusicRow congratulates Knox on his impressive 25 years in the music industry and looks forward to reporting his continued successes.Read more →
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(L-R): Songwriter Chris Tompkins, Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard, Jason Aldean, FGL’s Brian Kelley, Songwriter Rodney Clawson. Photo: John Russell
Industry members had a unique opportunity Tuesday (Aug. 11) to celebrate Jason Aldean‘s back-to-back No. 1 songs with the artist and songwriters at Nashville’s City Winery.
The three consecutive No. 1 hits, “Burnin’ It Down,” “Just Gettin’ Started” and “Tonight Looks Good On You,” from Aldean’s platinum album, Old Boots, New Dirt, brought friends and family together for a one-of-a-kind progressive industry party, which moved throughout the venue celebrating each song.
Invited guests first joined Aldean in the large performance hall with songwriters Florida Georgia Line’s Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard, Chris Tompkins and Rodney Clawson to celebrate the album’s lead single “Burnin’ It Down.”
Celebrating Jason Aldean’s No. 1 hit “Burnin’ It Down.” (L-R): (Back row): BBR Music Group’s Jon Loba and Benny Brown, BMI’s Bradley Collins, producer Michael Knox, Big Loud Shirt’s Craig Wiseman and Matt Turner, Round Hill’s Mark Brown and ASCAP’s Mike Sistad. (Front row): songwriter Chris Tompkins, BMI songwriter Tyler Hubbard, BMI affiliate Jason Aldean, BMI songwriters Brian Kelley and Rodney Clawson.
“Burnin’ It Down”
BMI’s Bradley Collins welcomed the enthusiastic crowd with a shout out to Aldean’s producer Michael Knox, who is celebrating a birthday today (Aug. 13) amidst all his other accolades. ASCAP’s Mike Sistad joined in the celebration before bringing up Big Loud Shirt’s Craig Wiseman who was thrilled to be representing the writers proclaiming, “Today, we are stackin’ up some plaques!” Round Hill’s Mark Brown joined in the ceremony before Broken Bow’s Jon Loba shared his gratitude of everyone’s efforts and emphasizing the benefits of risk-taking. “That’s when great things can happen,” shared Loba, giving a thankful nod to BBR label head Benny Brown.
Avenue Bank’s Ron Cox, CRB’s RJ Curtis and CMA’s Brandi Simms and Brenden Oliver also made the rounds to each of the three celebrations expressing their congratulations to Aldean, the songwriters and supporting industry team members. Avenue Bank is a partner with the No. 1 celebrations, making a donation in the songwriters’ names to a charity they support.
Then it was time for the songwriters. Tompkins talked about “Burnin’ It Down” and admitted, “It’s a song I can listen to and enjoy as a listener.” Clawson addressed the other co-writers saying, “Thank you for helping me buy a house in Green Hills.” Kelley and Hubbard gave humbling thanks to Aldean saying, “You gave us the opportunity and we are grateful. It’s a dream come true.” Aldean admitted, “We were a little nervous to put this out. To me, the ones you take a risk on are the ones that pay off the biggest,” before reminding us it was this song that he built his tour around.
(L-R): Songwriter Chris DeStefano, Aldean, songwriters Ashley Gorley and Rhett Akins. Photo: John Russell
“Just Gettin’ Started”
Next up, the party moved to City Winery’s main dining room for accolades on “Just Gettin’ Started,” written by Chris DeStefano, Ashley Gorley, and Rhett Akins.
BMI’s Leslie Roberts greeted everyone sharing that Rhett “is a great mentor… and takes time for the up-and-comers.” She thanked Knox saying, “You have believed in Jason from the beginning.” ASCAP’s John Titta was next to honor DeStefano and Gorley before Sony/ATV’s Josh Van Valkenburg said, “Not one bit of it was luck.” Warner Chappell’s Ben Vaughn articulated what everyone was thinking, “This might be the coolest No. 1 party ever.”
Celebrating Jason Aldean’s No. 1 hit “Just Gettin’ Started.” (L-R): (Back row): BMI’s Leslie Roberts, Combustion Music’s Chris Farren, ASCAP’s John Titta and Sony/ATV’s Josh VanValkenburg. (Front row): songwriter Chris DeStefano, BMI affiliate Jason Aldean, songwriter Ashley Gorley, BMI songwriter Rhett Akins and producer Michael Knox.
Akins shared, “It’s an unbelievable text when you see that [Michael] Knox dug the song.” In a comical turn, Akins revealed he had stopped at Walmart to buy shampoo earlier that day but threw away the receipt before leaving the store. To make sure he wasn’t shoplifting, security stopped him at the door. Akins jokingly admitted it would have been funny to go from being arrested to attending the No. 1 party. The audience agreed.
Gorley was next to dote on Aldean, “What makes Jason great is that he knows who he is and he knows what he wants.” DeStefano added, “There are good days and there are good days. Nashville is, without question, the most amazing place in the world because of the community.” As a side note, both Van Valkenburg and Gorley served as best men at DeStefano’s wedding.
(L-R) Songwriters Ashley Gorley and Dallas Davidson, Aldean, and Songwriter Rhett Akins. Photo: John Russell
“Tonight Looks Good On You”
Closing out the evening in the upstairs loft, the festive crowd celebrated the chart-topping success of “Tonight Looks Good On You.” Written by Akins, Dallas Davidson and Gorley, it is Aldean’s 16th career No. 1.
BMI’s Jody Williams started the third round reminding us that Peach Picker Dallas Davidson’s first No. 1 was “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk.” Sony/ATV’s Tom Luteran squelched the giggling saying, “These three writers have 62 No. 1 songs combined. Adding Jason [Adlean] and Michael [Knox], you get to 95.”
Titta joked, “This is like Nashville’s version of Groundhog Day.” Combustion Music’s Chris Farren, who has been partners with Gorley for 15 years, added, “I’m inspired by him.” BBR’s Benny Brown, Lee Adams and Rick Shedd took the opportunity to present platinum plaques commemorating Aldean’s New Boots Old Dirt selling over a million copies.
Celebrating Jason Aldean’s No. 1 hit “Tonight Looks Good On You.” (L-R): Warner Chappell’s Ben Vaugh, ASCAP’s John Titta, BBR Music Group’s Benny Brown, SONY/ATV’s Tom Luteran, BMI songwriter Rhett Akins, Combustion Music’s Chris Farren, songwriter Ashley Gorley, BMI songwriter Dallas Davidson, BMI affiliate Jason Aldean producer Michael Knox and BMI’s Jody Williams.
Akins gave kudos to Aldean’s band, reminding everyone the band members actually play on his records so when fans come to a performance, it sounds just like his recordings. Akins also shared he first pitched the song to his son, Thomas Rhett who was interested in recording it. But soon after, Aldean claimed it for himself.
Davidson came to the mic saying, “Thank God for giving us the blessing to write songs,” before adding, “You don’t get a party for No. 2 so thanks to the promotion staff.” Gorley admitted, “There’s so many people that help get the song to No. 1 that we don’t even know and we are grateful.”
“What else can we say?” shared Aldean. “It’s cool to have a song like this to show a different side of you. We are working on a new record and I think some of the guys will have cuts on it too.”
Jody Williams concluded,“We have the greatest songwriting community in the world. It doesn’t happen anywhere else.”
With his staff, Producer Michael Knox celebrates three No. 1s for Jason Aldean, as well as a birthday this week. (L-R): Jennifer Crouch, Michael Tyler, Kim Wiggins, Rachel Farley, Shalacy Griffin, Knox and Craig Currier. Photo: C. McTyreRead more →