Point: Personal Lives Are What Make Country Music Unique
Anger over the Lindsay Ell radio station debacle in Sacramento is justified, but misguided. Canceling her show was heavy-handed, petty, sexist and backwards, but the singer’s personal life does and should matter.
This idea that an artist should be judged only by their songs is dull and unrealistic. The music as notes on page and sounds from the speakers are our facts and figures. Analytics matter, but no artist or fan will put what they see and hear above what’s felt in the heart.
It’s those emotions that are at the core of country music. Joy, sorrow, love, heartbreak and even don’t give-a-damn inflate flat concepts. We relate because their stories fit our lives. Uninspired stories don’t even make the bin at a truck stop! We deserve to know where the music comes from.
Is “Die a Happy Man” one of the best songs of the decade if we don’t know Thomas Rhett wrote it about wife Lauren? Imagine Luke Bryan wasn’t singing about his late siblings during “Drink a Beer.” Do we care?
Does Taylor Swift even have a career if there wasn’t constant wonder about who inspired her many breakup songs? Nothing is more disappointing than hearing that a great love song was only written because the writers were trying to write a great love song that day. It takes away from the experience.
Country music is the people’s genre because we believe the “they” are just like us, and that construct requires a certain amount of detail to be successful. Watching Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert share a song was so riveting because when they took a stage to sing “Home” or "You're the Reason God Made Oklahoma" it was undeniably honest. Take away those looks, those touches and the embraces and what you're left with is just analytics.
Early in Lady Antebellum’s career there was a great “are they or aren’t they?” mystery surrounding Charles Kelley and Hillary Scott. They played into it onstage, acting out every love song with compelling passion and desire reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac. As it turns out they weren’t, but by this time they had “Need You Now” to carry them forward.
The best example is Tim McGraw and Faith Hill who flaunt their love in fabulous fashion nearly every night on the Soul2Soul Tour. It’s borderline voyeurism, but who is turning away? “That’s my wife” McGraw will say, pointing at Hill as he gives her a come hither look. “I want what they have!” is the only possible response.
Of course there’s a line, and the smart artist does what they need to in order to protect themselves. Rhett and his wife have boundaries (believe it or not), and McGraw and Hill never share what goes on inside their home. Carrie Underwood offers photos and stories of her son and husband, but rarely shows Isaiah's face. Other stars are much more private, or seem to feel a need to hide a relationship in order to maintain an image. That's confusing and in the long term damaging, but that's best left for another Point/Counterpoint. Our point today? What we think of an artist affects what we think of the music.
Ell told the Tennessean that she's been told she'd have an easier path in country music if she broke up with Bobby Bones, the unsaid accusation being that radio stations competing with the radio deejay’s employer (iHeartRadio) were refusing to play her single on account of their romance. It’s silly, but not without precedent. In fact, iHeartRadio was slow to embrace recent songs by Reba McEntire, Martina McBride and Ronnie Dunn on account of their projects being released on Nash Icon records, partially owned by Cumulus, iHeartRadio’s No. 1 competitor. Is what happened to Ell really any different?
Can a great song overcome? Well, we’ll see. “Waiting on You” is great, and there’s little chance Ell will detail who or what inspired her aching vocal performance. It’d be better if she could, but if you think this one station’s actions were foolish, wait until you see what happens when someone labels a song 'the Bobby Bones song.' Personal lives matter, but that's not all that matters.
The Boot and Taste of Country’s collaborative Point/Counterpoint series features staff members from the two sites debating topics of interest within country music once per month. Check back on July 20 for another installment.
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