Surely awards should be more than a process of
Norman Warwick & Peter Pearson start the debate
When our Americana correspondent, Peter Pearson, wrote in his All Points Forward column (PASS IT ON 34 Sunday 7th January 2024) he made the point that as we have lost so many of our ´original´ band of Americana´ artists since that term was first coined, the demographics surrounding of the genre have been massively changed.
Peter cited an example of an American survey that suggested, in concerned tones that the average age in the audience at a recent Americana gig, ´seemed to be´ in that author´s age- bracket of 67 years old. The gig was by Molly Tuttle (left) who was 26 at the time playing to an audience that was predominantly of the baby boomer generation. Molly Tuttle is a great and exciting emerging artist playing to an audience of mostly grandparents, might raise significant questions regarding the sustainability and growth of this style of music. Does it suggest that the artist´s contemporaries aren’t buying tickets to these concerts?
In the country, rock and contemporary pop regions there is plenty of younger market demand for Tayklor Swift as she genre-hops her way around the world. Taylor Swift sells tickets.
The survey from which Peter was taking his information suggested that a reduced media exposure of the music genre, coupled with the wholesale closure of venues where the artists used to appear.
Peter stated that ´Whilst (the survey´s9 observations were of the American music scene they mirrored many of HIS own thoughts about the UK.
When I attended the 32 year old Sarah Jarosz’s gig in October at Band on the Wall in Manchester a few weeks ago´, Peter recalled, I was expecting to be one of the oldest people in the audience. I was not. They were all of a similar age to me´!
Prior to that gig my post covid gigs had been to see longstanding favourites such as Beth Neilsen Chapman and Gretchen Peters at Manchester’s Royal College of Music. I noted but was not surprised that the audience was mostly my age and I reflected that the last time I had seen Beth had been in the much larger capacity Bridgewater Hall and that Gretchen Peters was announcing that this was to be her last UK tour. One of the reasons she gave for this was that CD sales had dried up. People no longer bought them for home or in the car´.
There was no shortage of merchandise on display at the Sarah Jarosz gig but this was an artist who was on the up within the American genre and seeking to build an audience and music catalogue. Artists like Beth and Gretchen were looking to wind down.
When Norman and I were attending gigs in the ´nineties we would typically have something to attend nearly every other week, especially early Autumn and Spring. Now I can count the number of gigs I have attended in the last year on the fingers of one hand. I am now finding that some of my favourites are turning up in some peculiar venues. Lucinda Williams (right) last appeared in Manchester at a standing only concert at the Ritz Ballroom. Not a venue likely to attract her traditional aging audience.
She is scheduled to appear in early Spring at the Holmfirth Picturedrome in Last of the Summer Wine country. I have been there on a ramble to see Norah Batty’s dwelling but never to see a gig. I do believe, though, that artists such as the British folkie, Kate Rusby, often appear there.
Of the American born in the USA artists, Steve Earle swerved Manchester on his last visit in favour of Buxton Opera House. He now tours both in the States and abroad without a band. Tom Russell’s scheduled visit to Bury Met last summer was cancelled due to a long term health condition for which he had been advised to rest. Amazingly he played the London gig three days later but has no plans to return.
Mary Gauthier appears in Biddulph in April at the same Church I went to see the lower profile Thomm Jutz and Eric Brace.
I suspect many of the longstanding promoters of these artists can no longer make it a viable proposition. Relatively small audiences and declining income from CD sales coupled with higher fixed costs have raised the break-even threshold.
In the US there has developed a market for House Concerts where artists perform for a small audience in the home of a benefactor or fan with space to spare.
Grateful Fred in Southport has put on a number of such concerts in a specially designed extension to his house but his more recent events have been at the Bijou Cinema in Southport town centre.
Steve Henderson, aka Mr Kite, has been a longstanding promoter of Americana gigs in the Greater Manchester and surrounding areas but it seems that he has now given it up. His website says no further promotions planned.
Promotions of roots music in this area seem now to have consolidated under the Manchester Music City Banner with maybe some pooling of risk but also perhaps more risk averse in the current climate.
The days of relatively small audiences in intimate venues bolstered by CD sales and an artists wish to build an audience has virtually dried up.
Not only are the age demographics of artists and audiences of Americana music becoming confusing and slightly disturbing, but also, too, there is cuase for question regarding the the current status of The USA Country Music Awards, as Geoffrey Himes pointed out in a recent edition of Past On-Line magazine.
In his article, Himes suggested that ´Like the film world’s Oscars, the Country Music Awards is an industry-sponsored event that’s not always a reliable guide to the year’s best work. But also like the Oscars, it’s not merely a confirmation of box-office champs. It’s an uneasy mix of quality and sales, and that’s what makes it so fascinating. Because that’s what we want: we want our best artists to find a large audience.
He proposed Chris Stapleton as example. Like Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell, Stapleton is a gifted, rough-around-the-edges singer-songwriter who regularly plants his albums near the top of the Billboard country charts. Unlike Childers and Isbell, however, Stapleton plays the country radio game and has had enough hit singles to win 16 CMA trophies out of 34 nominations.
Stapleton´s latest award is for Best Male Vocalist, his seventh victory in nine years in that category. That makes sense, for his gruff baritone is one of the most distinctive voices in a genre full of sound-alikes. He echoes the classic country voices of Willie Nelson, George Jones and Merle Haggard, Stapleton’s voice is, nevertheless, immediately identifiable and unfailingly personal.
Geoffrey Himes opined that Chris is not a great lyricist (the words to those great songs by his bluegrass band the Steeldrivers were written by bandmate Mike Henderson), but it doesn’t matter. The standard-issue romantic situations that dominate his new album Higher (released two days after the November 8 CMA Awards) come alive because that voice can bring out the depth of feeling that the words only hint at. Savvy Nashville super-producer Dave Cobb sets the stage for the singing to do what the words can’t.
His recent #1 single, “White Horse,” for example, warns a lover not to expect a fantasy cowboy hero, because he’s “not there yet.” In that “yet,” however, one can hear the struggle between want-to and not-able-to that gives the song its drama. Another track, “Think I’m in Love with You,” is the familiar confession of a guy who realizes too late that he’s in love with a woman. What redeems this version of the scenario is the sound of genuine surprise and panic in Stapleton’s voice, as if the epiphany has just occurred.
Stapleton is popular, but not as popular as the genre’s two biggest stars right now. Morgan Wallen and Luke Combs not only top the country field but also join Taylor Swift, SZA and Drake in Billboard’s ranking of the five best-selling artists of 2023.
Of Combs, who won this year’s CMA Award for best single (a likable remake of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car”), the journalist suggests that ´he has been marketed as a kind of Stapleton Lite, a teddy bear compared to the former Steeldriver’s grizzly bear.
The two men share shaggy, rotund physiques, raspy voices and blue-collar personas. But Combs’ latest album, Gettin’ Old, is as underwhelming as Stapleton’s is impressive. Combs’ songs are as formulaic as titles such as “The Beer, the Band and the Barstool,” “My Song Will Never Die” and “Love You Anyway” imply. His singing is overstated, his rhymes lazy and his sentimental prescriptions unconvincing.
Morgan Wallen (left) is a more complicated matter, according to Himes, one of several forensic writers contributing to Paste.
He was initially dropped by his label after getting caught up on tape shouting a racial slur and wprsening with a stilted apology.
´But´, says Himes, ´like the politically incorrect Toby Keith, Wallen is genuinely talented—more so than even Keith. Wallen, who had three CMA nominations this year and no wins, has perfected a unique, laidback vocal style—part Don Williams drollery and part Snoop Dogg drawl—that disarms a listener and lures one into whatever story he’s telling. And those stories are compelling, for their Everyman protagonists confess their frustrated loves and thwarted ambitions so realistically that no hype is needed.
On his previous album, Dangerous: The Double Album, Wallen transformed Isbell’s “Cover Me Up” from the plea of a tortured artist into the plea of the neighborhood sad sack. Wallen’s new album, One Thing at a Time, offers 13 originals in a similar mode, but there are 23 other songs as well, and this two-disc extravaganza wears out its welcome in a way its predecessor didn’t. But when Wallen connects with a song—such as one of the seven top-10 country singles from the album, four of them co-written by Wallen, another a duet with Eric Church and another the double-platinum maybe-break-up song, “Last Night”—he commands your attention without seeming to even try.
Regular readers of Sidetracks And Detours, Pass It On will know that we ran a couple of features Zach Bryan towards the back of 2023.. Hewas nominated for the CMA’s New Artist award this year with his unconventional fourth album, Zach Bryan, which begins with a Woody Guthrie-like spoken-word poem, followed by a Springsteen-ish rocker. With those two tracks, he establishes the persona of a word-drunk, road-wandering, iconoclastic romantic, a country outlaw for a new century. Bryan has a modest tenor, but he spits out syllables so crisply—a rush of words punctuated by strategic pauses—that you can absorb every image, every aphorism.
Mr. Himes referred to “I Remember Everything,” written and sung with Kacey Musgraves, saying that Zach demonstrates his photographic memory while recounting a youthful romance on the poor side of town. That devotion to detail—the ugly as well as the alluring—allows the listener to accompany Bryan on his travels from Montana to “a place they still put sugar in their iced tea.” That latter line comes from “Hey Driver,” a hitchhiking ballad sung with War & Treaty and convincing in its assertion that any corner of any highway is a good place to wrestle old demons and/or new lovers.
Lainey Wilson was the big winner of this year’s CMAs, sweeping four awards, including the two biggest: Entertainer and Album of the year. ´
´She’s pleasant enough´, the journalist conceded, ´but far more interesting is her friend Ashley McBryde, who had three nominations and no wins.
photo 5 McBryde’s 2022 project, Lindeville, had a great back story: six friends holed up in a rural cabin to invent a fictional small town and write songs about its residents. But her new release, The Devil I Know, is a better record, the best mainstream-country album of the year.
When she lists on “The Coldest Beer in Town” all the sweet-talking lies she once believed—love lasts forever, lovers stick around, and a cold beer makes everything better—it’s unclear if she’s complaining about ex-boyfriends or country radio. She even gets mad at herself on “I Learned To Lie.” But she never sounds defeated; with each lesson learned, she’s wearier but wiser, determined to press on, even if it’s with “The Devil I Know.” Producer Jay Joyce avoids the loud-all-the-time trap of most country singles, and the music shifts from intimate to rocking and back again as McBryde’s moods change.
The tattooed, short, stocky McBryde is the exception to the skinny-model look of most female country singers, and her tart, punchy vocals are an exception to their American Idol sound. She doesn’t have to overdo the vocals, because her songwriting is so good: smart turns of phrase on the dilemma of young women who want both career success and true love and find both elusive in the tall office buildings and low dives of Nashville.´
Mr. Himes is my favourite writer on my favourite topics. He has a clearly defined voice of his own, and his articles would recognisable to me if I didn´t see his name below the Headline, or his occasional moniker of The Old Curmudgeon. I think that nom-de-plume allows him to adopt a certain attitude in his writing that enables him to draw readers into a debate he feels needs to be held.
On this occasion I feel the debate is about what criteria is applied by those who judge the winners of CMA awards.
How, we might wonder, do we judge quality against quantity, and ensure that the whole awards scene is not dragged into simply meeting the demands of the industry?
No doubt this a question which we will chat more about in Sidetracks And Detours and PASS IT ON throughout 2024