Country music’s cruel new dictator

I had an epiphany last week when I was filling out the latest “Highway Patrol” survey from Sirius/XM’s The Highway where you have to listen to a bunch of songs and offer comments on them. Much like the old Sesame Street song, “One of these things is not like the other,” one tune in particular stood out like a sore thumb (for the wrong reasons) against the rest: Miranda Lambert’s “Heart Like Mine.”

It wasn’t the lyrical content or Lambert’s vocal that caught me off guard but the production values of the track. Upon the release of her Revolution album in 2009, The 9513, did an eye-opening article on album entitled “Everything Louder Than Everything Else.” In the article author Chris Neal says, “This album is too damn loud. I knew immediately that what should have been one of the best albums of the year had been ruthlessly defaced, and that the Loudness War had well and truly come to Nashville at last.”

Neal goes on to say, “Here’s a difference between “volume” and “loudness.” The former you can control with the knob or button on your stereo/radio/computer/iPod/Victrola/whatever. The latter is decided upon before you ever buy the music. “Loudness” is the built-in volume of each element of each track, levels that are usually determined in the mixing or mastering stage of music production. The more “loudness” is applied to a track, the less it has in the way of dynamics—the quiet parts of a song become just as loud as the noisy parts. When “Maintain the Pain” slams into its chorus, for instance, the dramatic impact is lessened because the “quiet” intro isn’t really quiet at all.”

Hearing “Heart Like Mine” mixed in with other current singles and recent hits were to be bombarded by a wall of noise I wasn’t expecting. The intensity doesn’t ruin my enjoyment of the song, but it brings into question the need to add that extra element to the track and album.

Lambert doesn’t need extra volume to bring her music to life and thankfully, the whole album isn’t affected by noise. One listen to “The House That Built Me” and you’ll hear everything modern country should aspire to be.

The shock of “Heart Like Mine” got me thinking about the role production plays in modern country music. Why are some songs over produced while others are under produced and when do people strike the perfect balance and get it right?

A trend I’ve noticed is to make songs thicker and fuller sounding than they should be. Two good examples are Chris Young’s “Voices” and James Wesley’s “Real.” When I heard “Voices” for the first time after “Getting You Home” and “The Man I Want To Be,” I noticed it retained more of the Nashville machine then Young’s previous two singles. Where those were straight ahead country, “Voices” seemed to attack you, like the instruments were being potted in at full-throttle and thus making the song more produced than it should’ve been. Luckily, Young has a voice that can cut through tick production and he was able to rise above the obvious shortcomings. So much so, the song recently hit number one.

As for Wesley’s “Real,” the song is just too loud. I was listening to the song today and it has no innocence. The production is mashed together making the song seem inauthentic. Plus, Wesley has to struggle to be heard.

Another place I noticed production taking over was on Lady Antebellum’s Need You Now tour with David Nail. When I go to a concert, I want to be able to hear the artists and not have them drowned out blaring acoustics. Nail’s set was so piercing that I couldn’t understand a word he was singing nor could I distinguish between any of his songs. He made a very poor impression on me and I didn’t come away a fan. His set was a prime example of negative exposure.

During Lady A’s set, the back-to-back playing of “Stars Tonight” and “Love This Pain” was way too much noise to handle. I really enjoy both those songs on the album, but they were too amped up and bled into each other so much you couldn’t wait for Lady A to launch into one of their ballads.

Of course the exceeding loudness of concerts is nothing new, heck it’s been going on forever. But that doesn’t make it necessary. What’s new is the increasing thickness of country records and it needs to stop. The quietness of the music is something to treasure, not erase.

A debate I’ve seen recently is the production values of Shania Twain and Carrie Underwood. Reviewers have often stated that Underwood’s “Last Name,” “Cowboy Casanova,” and “Undo It” is direct descendants of Twain in her heyday. They go on to suggest Underwood could actually learn a thing or two from Twain – that less is more.

I have to agree. I was listening to both Underwood’s “Cowboy Casanova” and Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like A Woman” back-t0-back recently and noticed something – while both have a distinct driving drum beat, Twain’s song isn’t nearly as thick as Underwood’s. In other words, Underwood’s music is a fuller and more bombastic version of what Twain was pioneering over a decade ago.

But why has country music evolved into this new rock sound? I wrote about this two months ago in my progress report post – the rise of stadium concerts has led to an expansion of what it means to be called country. And to expand is to lose all of the intimacy that makes country music distinctive.

Luckily, there are still plenty of examples of where production doesn’t get hinder a great song.  A case in point is Joey + Rory’s latest single, “That’s Important To Me.” When I first heard the song it was so restrained that it took me aback. Where was the bombardment of reverberation? But then I remembered something – all great country records sounded like this, simple-minded lyrics and melodies that didn’t fight to be heard. Listen to any of the Judds big hits and you’ll see this in action. Production wise, Joey + Rory’s song brings to mind the Judds’ classic “Grandpa (Tell Me Bout The Good Ole Days).”

While you’re at it, listen to Joey + Rory’s song. “That’s Important To Me” is more than just country music done well – it’s a prime example of simplicity conveying heart and soul. Everyone can learn something here.

Another instance where quietness enhances beauty is Zac Brown Band’s “Colder Weather.” In between the couplet “At a truck stop diner just outside of Lincoln/The night’s as black as the coffee he was drinking,” you can hear the faint moan of an organ echoing the whipping winds of icy winter days. Keith Stegall was smart to give the production room to breathe because without those two very distinct moments of instrumentation, the song wouldn’t have been so chill inducing.

Those songs have me longing for the day when many of today’s superstars used to sing a straightforward country music. On “Two People Fell In Love” and “Wrapped Around,” Brad Paisley was able to kick butt while retaining simplicity. There wasn’t any of that muscular heaviness that has spoiled his recent work. While a dose of bulk is fine every now and then, to include it on every song is overload.

Another artist in need of minimalism is Blake Shelton. His career has evolved because he plays closely by the rules of Nashville. As a result, the quality of his music has paid dearly. Putting aside the atrociousness of “Kiss My Country Ass,” Shelton has lost all of what he does best – singing real country music.

I’m really enjoying his latest single, “Who Are You When I’m Not Looking,” because it represents the kind of tune Shelton excels with.  I’m not much into party music he’s been putting out lately and never really have been.  I also find his new beer drinking frat boy image very off-putting.

Now I know what everyone’s thinking – how on earth do you have a discussion of modern country without bringing in Jason Aldean? Honestly, you can’t. But unlike Paisley and Shelton, his music didn’t evolve to its current sound – he came out of the gate with “Hicktown” and hasn’t looked back.

My problem with Aldean is that he isn’t honoring the genre. His duet with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay,” is arguably the hottest single at country radio right now, but it’s pop/rock power ballad and should be labeled as such. Also, Kelly is a fantastic vocalist, and I don’t want to take anything away from her, but she wasn’t born to sing country music. It’s no wonder top 40 radio can’t get enough – that’s where “Stay” has always belonged from the beginning.

Aldean seems to have a hold on the genre unlike many of his contemporaries. Thompson Square’s “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not” follows his trademark sound very closely, and surprise, is gaining airplay. With My Kinda Party recently hitting #1, it looks like Aldean’s rock inspired sound is the new normal. That wouldn’t be a bad thing but his sound isn’t worth embracing – by anyone, let alone him.

On the contrary, there is one country rocker I actually like – Eric Church. With two albums under his belt, he’s proven that you can amp up your sound while also keeping it country at its core. The production on his songs isn’t overly heavy and his music is just cool. I love “Smoke A Little Smoke” because it calls attention to itself for all the right reasons – it may be loud, but it’s also unlike anything on country radio right now. It commands your attention for all the right reasons. “Smoke” (and Church) is country rock done very well.

As Church and others make clear, country songs don’t need to be descendents of pysdo-rock to gain attention. The loudness of “Heart Like Mine” made it stand out from the others in the survey – for all the wrong reasons. The song, which is doing very well, doesn’t need an extra oomph to be heard – the lyrical content stands on its own. What it and most modern country need is to be toned down so listeners can hear the songs as intended. Wouldn’t that be nice for a change?


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