Blake Shelton Blow-Up: What Is Country Music? (2013)
Originally published in the Feb. 25, 2013 issue of Country Weekly.
Blake Shelton has a certain flair for tongue-in-cheek, outrageous humor, as his fans and Twitter followers can attest. But fans of traditional country were calling for his head after some recent comments he made in an updated GAC Backstory special about his career. Blake, who’s actually a serious student of classic country, was remarking that change in country music was inevitable, a notion that would seem fairly innocuous and hardly disputable. “Country music has to evolve in order to survive,” Blake began in the GAC interview. Following that, he tried to use humor when describing those who resist such changes. That’s where it made some fans recoil.
“Nobody wants to listen to their grandpa’s music,” Blake said. “And I don’t care how many of these old farts around Nashville going, ‘My God, that ain’t country.’ Well, that’s because you don’t buy records anymore, jackass. The kids do, and they don’t want to buy the music you were buying.”
Except for the unfortunate use of terms such as “old farts” and “jackass,” Blake was squarely on target. Members of the younger generation, save for the history buffs and music students, are generally not interested in the music that came before them. They want new, fresh sounds that are more in tune with their own lives. That’s what Blake was trying to say, but the language overshadowed his point. And while the objects of Blake’s derision were closed-minded listeners, not older country music artists, several legendary stars nonetheless took to the media to express their displeasure at Blake’s comments.
Country Music Hall of Fame member Ray Price wrote on his Facebook page, “It’s a shame that I have [spent] 63 years in the business trying to introduce music to a larger audience and to make it easier for the younger artists who are coming behind me.” Ray went on to add, “This guy sounds like in his own mind that his head is so large no hat ever made will fit him.” Blake was alerted to Ray’s post and quickly apologized. “I hate that I upset him,” Blake tweeted, noting that Ray’s single “For the Good Times” was a progressive record for its time. “I could have worded it better (as always ha!) and I apologize to Mr. Price and any other heroes of mine that I may have offended.”
Blake, still hurting from the backlash, followed those tweets with additional messages. “Still sad that Ray thought I was talking about artists,” Blake wrote. “I was only referring to people who don’t like the new direction that country is going.” In another Twitter post, Blake said, “My love for Ray Price goes back to the first time I ever performed ‘Heartaches by the Number’ at Ken Lance Sports Arena in Ada, OK.” Ray has since accepted Blake’s apology, remarking that Blake is “a fine young man with a big future in country music.” Blake was still contrite, even after Ray’s forgiveness. “The whole thing is just personally devastating to me, though,” Blake tweeted. “I worship my heroes.”
There’s actually a touch of irony in Ray’s Facebook statement, as he was once scorned for being a bit ahead of his time and became the victim of narrow-minded attitudes himself. His recording of “Danny Boy” in 1967, done with full orchestration, was deemed “too pop” by many radio stations. “There were stations in Texas—my home state—that refused to play it,” Ray once recalled to Country Weekly.
A happy resolution did come about from the flap over Blake’s comments. As Country Weekly was the first to report, Blake and his wife Miranda Lambert were welcomed as guests of Ray’s show in Durant, Okla. Blake and Miranda met backstage with the country legend and posed for photos. Later, Ray brought Blake onstage and gave him a warm introduction to the audience.
The controversy helped revive a hot-button topic among country fans, which Blake accurately pointed out–that change, while inevitable, is not always greeted with amiable, open arms. And this conversation is nothing new. As you’ll see in this section, genre-busting styles of music throughout history, including “Countrypolitan” and the so-called “Outlaw” movement, met with their shares of controversy. Even today, artists like Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line are experimenting with hip-hop and dance sounds. You will hear elements of reggae influences in Sugarland and pop sensibilities in the sounds of Lady Antebellum, Carrie Underwood and others.
So what then is country? You can’t pigeonhole it into a single category anymore—and that’s probably a good thing for everyone. Here is a look at some of the major movements of the genre, including their key players, defining traits and, yep, the controversies they spawned.
So, now what? It’s difficult to properly define just what exactly country music is today—especially without offending anyone. Heck, just ask Blake. But the truth is that our beloved genre is constantly evolving, just as it did in the decades leading up to this age of rock, soul and hip-hop-influenced country. Ten years on, there will no doubt be another new offshoot, one that thrills some fans and tweaks others, who grumble and long for the days when their music was “real country.” For now, however, there’s not much to do but sit back and—as Sugarland once said—enjoy the ride.