Life is full of surprises, and sometimes, so is pop music. In recent weeks, it’s recovered its long-dormant ability to shock, or at least catch us off guard with the unlikely hit, or the unexpected comeback.
Several months ago, I never dreamed I would ever ask the question that is the title of this article. It had been more than twenty-five years since Lionel Richie’s commercial heyday, and on the charts, he had been succeeded by younger romantic leads in pop and R&B many times over (Babyface, Usher, Ne-Yo, among others).
Then came one of those surprise developments seldom seen in pop anymore: On Billboard magazine’s Top 200 album chart for the week following the March 26 release of Tuskegee, Richie’s first studio album since 2009’s Just Go (which didn’t make the US Top 20 and failed to go gold), he debuted at No. 2 with first-week sales of 199,000 copies, right behind Madonna’s latest, MDNA.
On November 9, Nashville celebrated itself (again!) with the Country Music Association (CMA) Awards. For the fourth consecutive year, the event was hosted by Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley, but the masters of ceremonies weren’t the only thing that gave me that old deja vu feeling. Hadn’t these accolades already been handed out just a few months ago?
Wait, those were the Country Music Television (CMT) Music Awards in June. And before that, there were the Academy of Country Music Awards. And, just in case that’s not enough Music City honors for you, there are the 2nd annual American Country Awards coming up on December 5.
Pop and R&B are just as self-congratulatory, offering the MTV Video Music Awards, the MTV Europe Music Awards, the Billboard Awards, the American Music Awards, the Teen Choice Awards, the BET Awards, the BET Hip Hop Awards, the NAACP Image Awards and the Soul Train Music Awards.
Then, of course, there are the GRAMMYs, which following so many other back-slapping fests, have been losing their lustre for years now”though that’s hardly the only reason. Winning one used to be the musical equivalent of snagging an Oscar, but now its just more clutter for the awards shelf.
In a few weeks (November 30, to be exact), the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences will announce the nominees for the 2012 GRAMMY Awards (to be held on February 12). Doesn’t it already feel like we’ve been there and done that over and over and over already this year? Am I the only one who doesn’t doubt that we’re in for another repeat of The Adele Show, with a very special appearance by Lady Gaga. Good as it is, like Christmas, I only need to sit through it once a year.
Although the married couple, Rory Lee Feek and his wife Joey Martin Feek, came to prominence on a reality television show”CMT’s Can You Duet”they are the real deal as far as country life and values are concerned. Not that the two don’t have bona fide music chops, such as Rory’s songwriting credits for a host of hitmakers including Blake Shelton.
“We kind of look at our careers a little differently [than some other artists],” said Joey. “What we do is unique and we’re not afraid to step out of the box. Our faith is ultra important to us.”
One way the duo is setting its own course is to record and tour behind their new Christmas recording A Farmhouse Christmas, the third album of their career. Although some artists wouldn’t consider releasing such a niche album so early in their career, Joey & Rory didn’t hesitate .
“Christmas is Rory’s favorite holiday. What gets him in the spirit are classics like [a holiday movie featuring the television family] The Waltons and [songs by] Nat King Cole,” said Joey.”People record the same songs over and over and there’s nothing unique. How often can you sing ‘Jingle Bells?’ Rory being the songwriter that he is and bieng so talented and loving holiday and music, he has always wanted to record a Christmas record. When I asked him what would make it different he said ‘Well, we will write solely for this project.'”
The couple are proud that they have recorded an album that is full of what Joey calls “new standards for the holiday.” Besides the new songs such as “Let it Snow (Somewhere Else), which Rory co-wrote in Key West, FL, the duo recorded songs that aren’t traditionally associated with the holiday including Merle Haggard‘s “If We Make It Through December.” A few traditional Christmas songs like “Away in a Manger” are also included.
Joey and Rory, whose honors include the 2010 Academy of Country Music award for Top New Vocal Duo, have planned a special tour behind the album when it kicks off November 25th in Joey’s home state of Indiana.
The stage will be set up like the living room of the couple’s 1870s farm house in Tennessee and the duo will mix their personal stories in with the music they play.
“I feel like we’re trying to bring elements of fun and orneriness and seriousness and heartfelt love into it,” said Joey of the tour and music. “Even though our [personal] faith is ultra important to us, we all have to be reminded of what Christmas is [beyond the] hustle and bustle and stress. It’s about much more than that.”
For album information and tour dates, check the duo’s Web site.
If video killed the radio star in the 1980s, television is still hammering the nails into its coffin three decades later. Yes, radio still has its place in the selling of pop music, but nothing says, “Prepare to scale new chart heights,” like a plum spot on a popular TV show. I’m old enough to remember when General Hospital turned Christopher Cross‘s “Think of Laura” from just another song on a flop sophomore album into a Top 10 single in 1984 and Days of Our Lives made a 1986 hit out of Gloria Loring and Carl Anderson‘s “Friends and Lovers.” But recently, television has been sending singers and songs up the charts like never before.
Radio didn’t make Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Adam Lambert and Susan Boyle stars. Had it not been for their small-screen exposure on American Idol and Britain’s Got Talent, “Since You’ve Been Gone,” “Before He Cheats” and millions of Glamazons never may have been thrust onto the world, and Blackburn, West Lothian, Scotland (Boyle’s hometown), certainly wouldn’t be on the map!
Which TV show is the most effective hit/star-maker? This past TV season, it would have been a toss up between Idol and Glee. Idol may have taken a season off (No. 9) from creating a new superstar, but it relaunched an old one while spawning and boosting a number of hits in its 10th round. Idol judge Jennifer Lopez probably owes her musical comeback to her gig and the airing of the “On the Floor” video on the March 3 results show. The following week, the single soared into the Top 10, becoming Lopez’s first hit in four years. And everybody loves wacky uncle Steven Tyler, but would “(It) Feels So Good,” his first-ever solo single, have debuted at No. 35 on Billboard’s Hot 100 had the video not premiered May 12 on Idol? (If only the show had had so much chart influence for non-contestants during the Paul Abdul years!)
Katy Perry, too, has benefited from Idol. Her “E.T.” single rebounded to No. 1 after she and Kanye West performed it in a pre-taped results show segment. And then there’s Adele, who may owe her US stardom to a lucky performing slot on the October 2008 Saturday Night Live episode in which Sarah Palin made an appearance and blasted the ratings into the stratosphere. “Rolling in the Deep” was doing just fine before Haley Reinhart took it on in Top 7 week. She landed in the bottom three, but Adele zoomed from No. 10 to No. 2 en route to No. 1.
Soon after, Jared Leto’s band 30 Second to Mars found itself on the Hot 100 at No. 99 the week after James Durbin performed its song “Closer to the Edge” (not to be confused with the Robert Palmer song by the same name!). In recent weeks, Beyoncé has taken to TV (Idol, the Billboard Music Awards) to turn her dead-on-arrival “Run the World (Girls)” single around (as a result, it jumped from No. 75 to No. 50), but by the time the Idol finale rolled around on May 25, she’d moved on to new material: a ballad called “1 + 1.”
Getting back to Adele, she got a further boost a few weeks after her Idol exposure when “Deep” was featured on Glee, and I’m pretty certain that Cee Lo Green‘s “F**k You” owes its second or third wind on the charts to Gwyneth Paltrow and her rendition of the song during her first appearance on Glee last November. Of course, Glee has done more for its own cast”who now have had more entries on the Hot 100 than any act ever and have produced eight Top 10 albums and three Top 10 EPs”than it has for any of the artists they’ve covered. But perhaps no after-shock of the Glee treatment was more unexpected this past TV season than the one following the May 3 episode devoted to Fleetwood Mac‘s landmark Rumours LP. The nearly 35-year-old album re-entered Billboard’s Top 200 album chart way up at No. 11, selling nearly 30,000 copies, 1,951 per cent more than it had the previous week. Matthew “Mr. Schuester” Morrison’s self-titled album debuted at No. 24 one week later, but he might have been better off making it a Glee soundtrack.
The Bevery Hills 90210 spin-off 90210 may not have the ratings to kickstart hits the way Idol and Glee do, but by blending the latest greatest hits (which last season included “Rolling in the Deep” before it was a big hit) with music from more obscure artists, it’s done more for buzz-bin bands (including Australia’s the Temper Trap, Angus & Julia Stone and Boy & Bear) than any TV entity since the days of MTV’s 120 Minutes.
Award shows, though not as dependable as all of the above, can occasionally be good for launching a chart success. Florence and the Machine‘s Lungs album and “Dog Days Are Over” single became hits after a performance on the MTV Video Music Awards last September, and major GRAMMY wins are always good for a one-week bump in sales. More recently, country hunk Blake Shelton became a pop star when his “Honey Bee” single landed on the Hot 100 at No. 13, after the singer debuted it on the April 3 Academy of Country Music Awards telecast, becoming the highest debut for a male country artist since the Garth Brooks/Chris Gaines 1999 song “Lost in You” (not to be confused with Rod Stewart‘s ’80s hit!) entered at No. 5. Shelton is now a judge on The Voice, so look for him to reap more benefits from TV, along with his fellow judges, Christina Aguilera (who could use a J. Lo-style comeback of her own), Maroon 5’s Adam Levine and Cee Lo Green, whose post-GRAMMYs chart momentum for “F**k You” lasted months.
Good Morning America also has gotten into the hit-making act this year. I’m not sure that morning news and talk shows influence album sales in any significant way, but Chris Brown‘s temper tantrum after his interview with Robin Roberts and the ensuing publicity surely had something to do with helping him earn his first No. 1 album with F.A.M.E., which was released the day of his GMA visit.
Will radio ever go out of style? Probably not completely. But these days, stars are born (and reborn) not there, but on TV.
Think of Sugarland‘s album The Incredible Machine as something akin to The Little Engine That Could.
The title of the classic children’s story seems perfectly suited to describe Sugarland’s latest full-length recording. Even though it was released last October, the album continues to gather fans, awards and national exposure for the duo of Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush. The two are consistently juggling sold-out arena concerts and high-profile appearances, such as the performance with Rihanna at last month’s Academy of Country Music Awards show televised from Las Vegas.
“That album was just a lot of fun to write and record and play,” said Nettles, noting the songs on it stretch the boundaries of country music by weaving pop, rock and soul throughout. “Mostly, we had a lot of fun writing this album. When the music is there, that just shows up in the recording and concerts.”
Although the GRAMMY Award-winning artists have been red-hot for years”their 2004 debut album Twice the Speed of Life went multi-platinum”there wassomething that just set them into another musical level when The Incredible Machine was released.
Bush said that in Nashville, where writers and performers are often thought of as two very distinct groups, he and Nettles have been welcomed into both camps.
“It’s been incredible to be welcomed as songwriters as well as artists,” he said. “This whole album is an example of what happens with the two of us.”
Bush is referring to the synergy he has with Nettles. On this project, they mixed and matched their musical influences”think Chrissy Hynde, Peter Gabriel, Blondie, and other ’80s icons”to develop the sound for this latest batch of songs.
The duo were so excited about the process that they produced and posted a documentary dubbed “Living Liner Notes” that shows them writing and recording.
“There’s always a mystery behind a record,” said Bush. “We had this new idea called ‘Living Liner Notes’ because we both like liner notes so much”we were those kind of kids. We wanted to share the process with the fans. So rather than just seeing a name”so and so was the engineer and so and so was the drummer, well here they are. Watch them work.”
Bush said one of his favorite clips is of the process to develop the song “Find the Beat Again.”
“We walk you through the whole thing,” he said. “Here you’re watching us write it. Then you’re watching us record it. It really shows how these songs developed.”
“We tried to make our weaknesses our strengths,” said Nettles. “For example, the guitar. I love the way Kristian plays guitar when I sing. I love his choices, I love the way he fits his choices in and around my singing. We have been doing it together long enough now that there’s a really nice volley and a really nice way it dances together. I said to him ‘Why don’t you just play it? Why are we getting a guitar player?’ That’s one example of how we work together. That’s one reason each song feels so organic and fits perfectly.”
Something tells us this Machine will keep gathering steam for a long time to come.
Sugarland is on tour. For concert information, Living Liner Notes, and other news, go to their Web site.
Colt Ford is living proof that good things happen in threes.
No sooner was he grabbing kudos for his nomination on the April 3rd broadcast of the Academy of Country Music Awards show in Las Vegas, than he was lauded for co-writing Jason Aldean‘s red-hot hit “Dirt Road Anthem.” On May 3rd, Ford released a new album Every Chance I Get, that gives him plenty of chances to show off his musical range and build his ever-increasing fan base.
“I had this guy in $300 jeans telling me I’m not country,” said ACM nominee Ford with a laugh. “I said ‘Really?’ I guess you think of country a bit different than I do.'”
Those that think Ford’s “country rap” style isn’t genuine should talk to Hank Williams Jr., who invited Ford on his Rowdy Friends Tour along with Charlie Daniels, Tim McGraw, Jason Aldean, Eric Church and the many other artists who work with Ford when they get the chance.
Take Aldean, a good friend of Ford’s. Although Colt had recorded “Dirt Road Anthem,” he was enthused when Aldean followed suit, putting his own spin on the song.
“Jason is one of those guys who can relate to the song. He’s authentic and he made the song sound just like him…That’s just great,” said Ford, noting that he and Aldean both grew up as small town country boys. “He’s one of my close friends. Of course when we talk, we don’t talk [business]. We talk football, fishing, trucks, all those things we both like.”
One of those things, though, may well be country music legend George Jones, who gets a special call out in “Dirt Road Anthem.” “When you think about driving down the road swerving and smoking, you just think of George Jones,” said Ford likely speaking for most country music fans. “It just made sense.”
It also made sense for Ford”who loves the variety of sounds in country music”to invite his friends to join him on the latest record. He spent plenty of time writing songs that would match up well with his guests.
Consider the song “Twisted,” which is all about a small town boy struggling with mixed emotions as he plans to go to a big city university and try to be a football star. So many of the references about sweet tea and other points of small town life would be lost to many, but for guest artist, small town guy and football fan Tim McGraw, they arguably resonated.
“That’s probably one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written,” said Ford. “I want to tell kids that it’s cool to be a country kid. You can be cool and sure of yourself without your pants hanging down. I think that’s why a lot of parents can relate to it.
“The thing is, I believe in God, family, friends and hard work. I can’t not be who I am.”
Country fans are glad of that!
Check out the track listing and featured guests on Ford’s new album:
1. “Country Thang” featuring Eric Church
2. “Work It Out” featuring Luke Bryan
3. “Waste Some Time” featuring Nappy Roots and Nic Cowan
4.”‘Do It With My Eyes Closed” featuring Josh Thompson
5. “This Is Our Song” featuring Danny Boone of Rehab
6. “Titty’s Beer” featuring Trent Tomlinson
7. “She Wants to Ride in Trucks” featuring Craig Morgan
8. “Pipe the Sunshine In” featuring Tyler Farr
9. “Every Chance I Get”
10. “What I Call Home” featuring JB & The Moonshine Band
11. “Overworked & Underpaid” featuring Charlie Daniels
12. “Skirts & Boots” featuring Frankie Ballard
13. “Twisted” featuring Tim McGraw
Find out more about Colt Ford’s new record, tour and other news on his Web site.