2015: The Year of the Underdog
Maybe we should have seen it coming. It was definitely time — it's been at least a half-decade since country's biggest groundbreakers were not familiar names. Newcomers of all shapes, sizes, genders and backgrounds hacked through a nasty jungle of naysayers and doubters to blaze a path for anyone with talent, a relentless work ethic and thick skin to follow. Underdogs dominated in 2015.
At year’s end the following five artists were included inside the Billboard Airplay Top 50: Kelsea Ballerini ("Dibs"), LoCash ("I Love This Life"), Chris Janson ("Power of Positive Drinking"), Cam ("Burning House") and Chris Stapleton ("Nobody to Blame"). Last January, if you had to rank them 1 to 5 based on how likely each was to be a part of this year-end column (5 being very likely, 1 not so much), it probably would have looked like this:
Kelsea Ballerini: 1
Chris Janson: Who?
Chris Stapleton: 2
The system wasn’t rewarding talent missing marketing money, and artists on unproven, independent record labels seemed forever guaranteed a spot at the kids' table. Female artists were struggling mightily, and in fact they continued to struggle until this spring, when fans of “Love Me Like You Mean It” discovered Ballerini’s song inside the Top 20 and began to whisper “What if?”
Anyone who says they predicted Ballerini and Cam’s success in 2015 is being dishonest. Well, almost anyone. The folks at Spotify saw swelling interest in Cam before her debut single was released, but even they would not have called for a Grammy nomination.
Some said 2014 would be the Year of the Woman after attention to the lack of new females on the radio began to build in 2013. It didn’t happen, and there was not a female artist that seemed to be on the brink of stardom as the calendar flipped. Ballerini was an unknown, and part of Black River Entertainment, a label with a single Top 20 record to its credit (Craig Morgan’s “Wake Up Lovin’ You"). By her own admission, ToC's December cover girl says expectations were low for the song. She'd have been happy with a Top 30 finish at radio.
Cam was still calling herself Cam Ochs professionally as the year began. In March she released her first single. “My Mistake” found critical acclaim but was disappointing commercially. And then, #Saladgate happened.
Keith Hill’s comments that women should only make up a small percentage of songs on the radio fueled a movement that had been slowly building for over a year. Suddenly national media’s focus was on sexism in country music, whether it was founded or not. Hill maintains that his insensitive remarks were not a prescription for the future, but a real response to today. That message was lost. All fans, artists and radio programmers heard from outsiders was “There needs to be more women on the radio,” something Taste of Country had been messaging for well over a year.
Radio deejay Bobby Bones' support for females and especially Cam helped spark this revolution. An underdog himself, Bones jumpstarted the careers of several like him in 2015. Chris Janson is forever in debt to his wife for urging him to record “Buy Me a Boat” and send it to iTunes and a few powerful friends. He’s also in debt to Bones for playing it on the largest country radio signal in America. Before the weekend ended, the unsigned artist had raced up the iTunes sales charts, setting off a frantic nine-month ride to Christmas.
Suddenly, record labels were interested. Media outlets were calling. Concert tickets were selling. Janson — a somewhat reluctant artist prior to the success of “Buy Me a Boat” — would not have bet on himself last January, because he’d tried the radio game before and lost badly. His story brings everything great about the world we live in together. Great music played on the radio can go viral in a social media world. Five years ago, this could not have happened. The infrastructure was not in place for someone like Janson to succeed so suddenly. As he thanked God and opened gifts with his family on Christmas, one imagines him finally realizing everything that happened since March.
Of the five artists listed, Stapleton’s success may have been most predictable. In April Taste of Country surveyed country artists at the ACM Awards, asking questions like “Who is the funniest person in country music?” (Blake Shelton) and “Which country artist would make the best president?” (Garth Brooks). We also asked “Who is the top vocalist in country music?”
Stapleton was the overwhelming winner. Remember, this was at the ACM Awards in April, two months before the groundbreaking Traveller album was released and six months prior to his three CMA wins. Still, when the title track was released to radio, it was DOA. The song didn’t crack the Billboard Airplay chart, and there didn’t seem to be any intention of trying another. Some wondered if Stapleton, like Ashley Monroe and Alison Krauss, was “too good for radio.”
Had the CMA Awards been fan-voted, Stapleton would not have been nominated. But since voters are music industry members and media, he found himself in good company on Nov. 4. Still, one win seemed like a longshot. Three seemed as likely as Holly Holm knocking Ronda Rousey out cold. In fairness to Stapleton, he didn’t give up on himself. When asked if he’d pledge to shave his beard if he took all three, the singer wisely declined.
Talent won. Those who’d been screaming that it’s all about image and marketing money enjoyed satisfied silence as the bearded crooner walked up to collect each award nervously. He may have had one of the best CMA performances of all time, but he also turned in three of the worst CMA acceptance speeches, but who can blame him? Given our format’s history, would you have prepared?
It's fitting that LoCash and Janson enjoyed their greatest success during the same year. The underdogs are good friends and frequent co-writers. This may not be coincidence, however. Ballerini and Stapleton proved an old truth about the country music business: Good friends are second in importance to a good song, and it's a close call.
LoCash faced a different set of obstacles, and one could argue they are the greatest underdog story of 2015. Preston Brust and Chris Lucas are two of the friendliest, hardest working men in country music. Since 2010 they’ve been on a seemingly endless radio tour, with only a Top 40 single to show for it. Still, they sweat positivity, telling Taste of Country in April that “I Love This Life” was going to be their biggest song to date.
Skepticism can be forgiven in the case of LoCash. Reviver Records opened one year ago, and in the radio world, a label typically needs five years or more to build trust with programmers (see Black River Entertainment) because so many open and close every year. It’s also a New Jersey-based label. Ask Jessica Simpson how much Music City loves outsiders.
The group also seemed on the verge of falling into a dangerous category of country artist: those radio gets used to not playing. It happened to Katie Armiger, and to a lesser extent, James Otto. A single lands on a programmer’s desk and it’s dismissed because the previous six haven’t worked. Those who took chances in the past haven’t been rewarded. Why take another chance?
“I Love This Life” is inside the Top 10 and climbing, making the song a bona fide hit. It’s also a steady seller and the group’s most anticipated song when they play live, which they do relentlessly. That may be the word to best describe Brust and Lucas: relentless.
They’re relentlessly positive, relentlessly hardworking and relentless self-promoters in the most charming way imaginable. Spend five minutes with either man and you’ll become a fan. In fact, that may describe why LoCash, Cam, Ballerini, Janson and Stapleton scored hits in 2015 — people like them. People were cheering for them. In the absence of something fresh in country music, the industry turned to their friends.
Taste of Country will soon unveil our Top 10 Artists to Watch in 2016, and it's likely the year will include another Cam or Chris Janson. Streaming and social media are just beginning to make a significant impact on our format, one that still relies heavily on CD sales. Radio still may be king, but the king is getting kind of old. It's easier now than ever for newcomers to rush the palace.
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