Populous Magazine 11: Another Country

From the archive: Issue 11, 2014

While traditional country musicians may only sell within the US , younger singers – led by Taylor Swift – are bringing the uniquely American genre to the world. John Lewis finds out how country music is going global.

Taylor Swift is only 23 years old and, already, she earns close to US$40 million a year in the US alone. She may not be the world’s topselling artist in terms of album sales, downloads and streaming royalties but where she blasts all other rivals off the stage is with concert revenue stream. According to Billboard magazine, she earned $30 million in 2013 thanks to her sell-out Red Tour. And with a new album due for October 2014, her star looks set to rise even higher.

Second on Billboard’s rich list of music stars is another country superstar, Kenny Chesney, with total earnings of $32 million.

Other high-earning stars from the same genre include Luke Bryan ($22m), Jason Aldean ($17m), George Strait ($16m) and Blake Shelton ($10m). Country music might be a fringe concern in most areas of the world – its releases tucked away alongside the classical, jazz and blues albums – but, in the USA, this genre is absolutely massive, the de facto pop music for huge swathes of the white, blue-collar population.

  • Taylor Swift in full country mode back in 2013.

Country & western music used to be dismissed as something that appealed only to an ageing, impoverished, largely male demographic, limited to a few southern and Midwestern states. However, statistics seem to defy such stereotypes.

A 2011 survey conducted by CMA market research found that country fans are younger, richer, more educated and more tech-savvy than ever.

Half of all Americans earning more than $100,000 a year are country fans. Most country fans are aged between 35 and 44, and around half are women.

Country music has been a major genre for more than 60 years, but it hasn’t always travelled well outside of its American heartland.

In the 1960s and 1970s the old kings and queens of country – Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Jim Reeves, Slim Whitman, George Jones – had big hits in Europe, Japan and Australia, and could be guaranteed to sell out arenas from Manchester to Melbourne, from Trondheim to Tokyo. Kenny Rogers can still headline huge arenas anywhere on earth, while Dolly Parton was the unlikely star of 2014’s Glastonbury, playing to a crowd of around 100,000 at the UK’s most famous countercultural festival, and watched by millions more on live TV.

A survey found that country fans are younger, richer, more educated and more tech-savvy than ever.
Half of all Americans earning more than $100,000 a year are country fans.

“What all the great country stars have always understood is that country music is about telling stories,” says Kris Kristofferson.

“It’s about connecting with universal emotions. That’s why it appeals to people all over the world.”

Country singers used to wear their big, broken hearts on their sleeves, and their songs were a litany of jilted love. The standard joke was that, if you played a country song backwards, your dog would come back to life, you’d get your job back, and your wife would fall in love with you again.

But then country music changed. In the past few decades Nashville has become home to a slick, industrialised brand of pop music, one where the twangy guitars and story-telling lyrics survived, but where the desolate soundscapes, the fiddles, the pedal steel guitars, and the killer harmonies all but disappeared. In the last couple of decades, even the lyrical content has started to change.

Nowadays, even that heartache has vanished from the music. If you listen to the beered-up, truck-loving ‘bro-country’ of Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line or Blake Shelton, whatever way round you play them, you learn pretty much the same story: pick-up trucks are great; drinkin’ and partyin’ are fun; chicks are hot; America is great; and anyone who says otherwise sucks.

“Country music used to be universal,” says Steve Earle, one of the more politicised country singers who emerged in the 1970s. “But a lot of the new music that comes out of Nashville is about American exceptionalism. It stresses the difference between America and the rest of the world. That’s why it doesn’t export so well.”

This exceptionalism didn’t matter to Nashville, because ‘bro-country’ and its other latter-day variants still sold by the pick-up truckload on home turf. A band from Ohio called Rascal Flatts can sell five million albums to the US market in a year – outselling even the biggest rock/pop artists in the world such as Coldplay or The Killers – and still walk naked through the streets of any European city safe in the knowledge that no one would recognise them. In the past decade Toby Keith has sold 40 million albums, aided by gung-ho Tea Party anthems such as Truck Drivin’ Man, The Taliban Song, and The Angry American, yet he doesn’t get anywhere near the Top 100 in any country outside North America.

  • Luke Bryan in concert.

Some of the more clued-up country stars are starting to address this transatlantic divide. Country rock’s Eric Church – whose music sounds closer to heavy rock than to country – has been assiduously courting the European market. So have The Cadillac Three (marketed as ‘the Nashville Nirvana’), classy country-pop trio Lady Antebellum, and Arkansas singer-songwriter Joe Nichols, who’ve all toured everywhere from Japan to Croatia. Brad Paisley, a shrewd, old-school country star who has collaborated with the likes of Alison Krauss, Don Henley and even LL Cool J, is starting to cross over to mainstream radio stations in Europe. Garth Brooks, a negligible presence outside of North America, caused a major political scandal in 2014 when local residents forced him to cancel a five-night sold-out run at Dublin’s 80,000-capacity Croke Park stadium.

That means close to one tenth of the Irish population were going to see him.

Country’s most obvious recent success story is Taylor Swift, who certainly emerged from the Nashville machine. Although, sonically, her music bears only the most tangential relationship to country music, worldwide smashes like I Knew You Were Trouble and We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together show she’s not afraid to wear her heart on her sleeve. “She does what the best country music does,” says Kristofferson, who has played live with Swift. “She tells stories in song. She’s got that country vibe.”

“What all the great country stars have always understood is that country music is about telling stories.”

Kris Kristofferson / Country musician

The acclaimed ABC television drama series Nashville certainly taps into that vibe. It extrapolates those storytelling lyrics into a fullyfledged soap opera, complete with Dallas-style tales of love, betrayal, political intrigue and family feuds. It also, rather cleverly, represents the different, competing strains of country music.

Rayna James, played by Connie Britton, is the last of the old-school country & western stars, loosely modelled on Bonnie Raitt or Reba McEntire.

Juliette Barnes, played by Hayden Panettiere, is the young pop-country starlet, pitched somewhere between Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood.

Running alongside the trad and modern battle are Scarlett O’Connor (played by Clare Bowen) and her musical partner Gunnar Scott (Sam Palladio), who represent alt-country artists like Neko Case or The Civil Wars.

It shows that country music is something both very American but utterly universal. Its very navel-gazing parochialism is what makes it universal. Whatever your musical tastes, Nashville has something for you.

  • Taylor Swift earns $30 million a year in concert revenue alone.

BY A COUNTRY MILE

Pop-country artist Taylor Swift leads the pack when it comes to total earnings. In 2013 she put away an impressive US$39.7 million, more than any other music artist in the USA. In fact, as you see, country singers fare very well on the list of the top money-makers in music.

Populous-designed venues such as London’s O2 Arena, Houston’s NRG Stadium and Taiwan’s Taipei Arena all hosted Taylor Swift’s recent record-breaking world tour.

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