Country's civil war: Nashville vs. Texas
Musically, the divide between Nashville and Texas widens every year. Opinions run strong on which is better, more pleasing to the ear, and, of course, truer to the country music spirit and tradition. However, what used to be more about subjectivity and personal musical taste is now more about philosophy and ideals. These contrasting set of values are easy to identify, but to understand them you have to first look back at the events that led us here.
Nashville and Texas have shared a lot of common ground over the years. From Ernest Tubb and Lefty Frizzell up to the Georges, (Jones and Strait) a lot of Texas artists were happy to partner up with Nashville. But famously a few were not.
Willie Nelson packed his bags and left Nashville for Austin in 1972. That move, and the success that followed paved the way for Waylon Jennings to renegotiate his RCA contract and take more control over his records. Lonesome, On'ry, and Mean and Honky Tonk Heroes were both released in 1973 and the pair of albums launched Waylon's career to the next level. The success of Willie and Waylon instilled an independent spirit to the air of Texas music that still exists today. And that is the major difference between the two.
In truth, it may be unfair to brand Nashville as mainstream and Texas as some obscure off chute of the genre. Nashville has plenty of independent record labels and studios as does Austin, so what we are really contrasting here is corporate driven music versus the independent performers and smaller labels.
At the heart of these contrasting ideals is artistic control.
In the corporate world of mainstream country, the record execs call the shots. One hit spawns dozens of clones with the majority of hits written or co-written, by the song publishing companies that shape the Nashville landscape. Top artists write very little of their own material and are dependent on radio play to drive sales and fill arenas.
Take top-selling performers like Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan for example. Aldean's 2014 effort Old Boots, New Dirt was the only country album to go platinum last year. Aldean is not listed as a writer or contributor on a single track, while Bryan is merely listed as a co-writer on two of the 13 tracks from his 2013 platinum album Crash My Party. However, two songwriters, Dallas Davidson and Ashley Gorley appear 12 times on the two albums combined 27 tracks. With only a handful of songwriters penning so many of the top mainstream performer's songs, it is inevitable that so much of the music not only sounds the same musically, but also covers the same ground lyrically.
In comparison, Granger Smith's self-produced album Dirt Road Driveway which gave is Texas Music Chart's most played single of 2014, "If Money Didn't Matter" was the top selling album at Lone Star Music for 2014. Smith wrote every track but one.
Nashville is also heavily reliant upon studio musicians when recording whereas Texas artists often prefer their regular band for recording purposes. The combination of being emotionally attached to what they are singing and playing with the same band they hit the road with gives many Texas recording a raw energy often missing from their more polished mainstream counterparts.
The song "Angry All The Time" highlights emotion versus polish. Written by Bruce Robison but also recorded by Tim McGraw. Here are both versions.
And Tim McGraw's version:
Texas Country is driven by live performances and a fan base that is intimately familiar with their favorite artists. Many of the Texas acts tour 200 or more dates a year with at least half of these dates within the Lone Star State. This gives fans an opportunity to go out and listen to their favorites several times a year. This is perhaps the biggest factor that instills such loyalty to the Texas scene's fan base. The average mainstream fan is lucky to catch their favorite performer once a year live.
Artistic approach and accessibility are not the only dividers. It is perhaps ironic that what started as an outlaw movement is now the last bastion of tradition. Texas artists such as Aaron Watson are keeping the Honky Tonk sound alive ...
... while Doug Moreland is keeping things swinging down Lone Star way.
Zac Wilkerson is bringing some country soul ...
... and people like Kyle Park are bringing a pure Texas sound to the world.
Yes, the Texas scene is diverse and varied, but somehow it manages to remain closer to the traditions of old, than mainstream's pop-infused world.
Mainstream pundits say the market drives change. And sales numbers, radio airplay, and overall exposure certainly give credence to that argument. As the divide continues to grow between the new and the old we country fans will be forced to ask ourselves just how bright and shiny can it become, before the light blinds us and we can no longer see where we have been, or where we are headed?