The conflict between traditions and progress in country music was stoked this past week.
Sturgill Simpson excoriated the Academy of Country Music and Music Row in Nashville on Monday, all in defense of Merle Haggard.
In a Facebook post, Simpson criticized the ACM for its new Merle Haggard Spirit Award, which ACM said was founded to honor artists who displayed the “uncompromising integrity and steadfastness of spirit embodied by the late Merle Haggard.”
The group, he said, was exploiting Haggard’s legend despite what Haggard thought of them and modern country music in general.
“If the ACM wants to actually celebrate the legacy and music of Merle Haggard,” he wrote, “they should drop all the formulaic cannon-fodder bull**** they’ve been pumping down rural America’s throat for the last 30 years along with all the high-school pageantry, meat-parade award-show bull**** and start dedicating their programs to more actual country music.”
Haggard, he said, “felt forgotten and tossed aside (by Nashville). I always got a sense that he wanted one last hit … one last proper victory lap of his own, and we all know deserved it. Yet it never came. And now he’s gone.”
Haggard, who died on April 6, the day of his 79th birthday, was a longtime critic of contemporary country music. In 2007, he told the Washington Post: “Radio doesn’t want substance. If a song actually had an opinion, that’s the first thing they’d throw in the trash.”
In a 2015 interview with Inforum.com, Haggard went even further: “I can’t tell what they’re doing. They’re talking about screwing on a pickup tailgate and things of that nature. I don’t find no substance. I don’t find anything you can whistle and nobody even attempts to write a melody. It’s more of that kids stuff.”
He wasn’t the first country legend to feel marginalized and forgotten by Music Row. Before his comeback in the 1990s, Johnny Cash lamented the rise of the prepackaged “hat acts” in tight blue jeans who had overrun country music and diluted many of its symbols and traditions.
The war of words has gone both ways. In 2013, Blake Shelton fired back. Speaking as “one of those people who gets to decide if (country music) moves forward and moves on,” Shelton blasted traditional country music fans and those he felt were too deeply rooted in the past.
“Country music has to evolve in order to survive,” he said. “Nobody wants to listen to their grandpa’s music. And I don’t care how many of these old farts around Nashville going ‘My God, that ain’t country.’ Well, that’s because you don’t buy records anymore, jackass. The kids do, and they don’t want to buy the music you were buying.”
Simpson’s point seems to have more to do with what has replaced traditional country. The siege of so-called bro’ country (brah’nky-tonk?) has turned much of what’s on country radio and the country charts into one long gust of redundant clichés and predictable rock-infused country fare. Haggard’s hyperbolic sex-on-a-tailgate dismissal isn’t far off the mark.
Yes, the ACM’s posthumous use of Haggard’s name for an award seems a bit exploitative and very little-too-late. But fans of the kinds of country music that isn’t on the radio have more opportunities than ever to discover artists making sincere and less formulaic music; artists like Sturgill Simpson.
On Nov. 1, Simpson will perform at the Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland, his third show in Kansas City since December 2014, when he sold out Knuckleheads. He returned in July 2015, drawing a large crowd to Crossroads KC. His show at the Midland, capacity 3,000, has been sold out for months.
Other bands and performers who can be considered country artists have had similar successes. Jason Isbell, formerly of the Drive-By Truckers, drew more than 1,500 fans to his show at the Uptown Theater in February 2015. Among his previous Kansas City performances was at Starlight Theatre, opening for two other well-known country artists who have little to do with Music Row: Willie Nelson and Alison Krauss & Union Station.
The Turnpike Troubadours are a red-dirt country band from Oklahoma on an independent label, Bossier City Records. Their past two records have cracked the Top 20 on the country charts; the more recent, “Turnpike Troubadours,” hit the charts at No. 3.
In July, the Troubadours headlined a show at the Uptown Theater, drawing a sell-out crowd of more than 2,000.
It’s pertinent to mention the Dixie Chicks, who haven’t been on the radio for 13 years, yet they sold out the Sprint Center on Tuesday. The Chicks are a different case: They were all over mainstream country radio until they were banished in 2003 for speaking out against a war. But Tuesday’s show proved there is a large audience out there hungering for country music that isn’t what’s on the radio anymore.
Haggard, too, got a career boost in the early 2000s, after he released two acclaimed albums with the label Anti-, a sibling to the punk/rock label Epitaph, and after his songs “Mama Tried” and “Big City” were featured in major films, including the Coen Brothers’ “Fargo.” Like Cash did after releasing a series of albums produced by Rick Rubin in the mid-1990s into the 2000s, Haggard attracted a crowd of younger fans who discovered his music without the help of mainstream country.
There are also vehicles other than ACM and country radio to promote and illuminate country artists who don’t fit the mainstream mold, like the American Music Association, whose most-recent chart is topped by the Avett Brothers, Mudcrutch (Tom Petty’s side project), Shawn Colvin & Steve Earle and Simpson.
Six of the artists in the AMA Top 10 album charts are women, by the way, a far cry from the mainstream country charts, where, on this week’s Hot Country Songs chart, only two artists are women. One of them is Miranda Lambert.
Tuesday night, at the 10th annual ACM Honors awards, Lambert accepted the first ACM Merle Haggard Spirit Award. “Merle’s one of my heroes,” said Lambert. “He’s the reason I write songs. He changed my life so much.”
Simpson later clarified: “(My) words were in no way directed at her. I know that Merle liked and respected her so it’s good to see there is at least some blue sky in all of this.”
Actually, there’s plenty of blue sky in all this for music fans. It’s all about figuring out what part of the horizon to look at. For many country music fans, the sky doesn’t start and stop on Music Row.