Last week, Live Nation announced its lineup for the 2016 Country Megaticket series at the Darien Lake Performing Arts Center. The same day, the esteemed Nashville Scene published the results of its 16th annual Country Music Critics’ Poll, in which 82 voting journalists offered a strong consensus on what they see as the best of the best in contemporary country.
You would think there would be some overlap between the critical consensus offered by the Nashville Scene’s CMCP and the Country Megaticket, which will present seven shows at Darien Lake between June and October.
You would be wrong, though. Of the roughly 20 artists, both headliners and openers, who will appear as part of the Megaticket this year, none of them placed in the upper echelons of the Critics’ Poll.
Of course, as the old saw goes, critics don’t pay for their albums, so who cares what they think?
It’s about what the average listener digs, not what some scribe is busy falling in love with. And country pop sells, so therefore, country pop is good.
There’s logic in such an argument. There’s also abundant intellectual laziness.
In fact, it’s impossible to view the chasm between this year’s Critics’ Poll results and the summer menu on offer at Darien Lake as anything other than proof of a raging dichotomy at the heart of today’s country music.
Locally, we can see this argument made flesh in the contrast between what we’ll call the Sportsmen’s Tavern country crew, and the folks who will gobble up tickets for, and gobble down tall boys during, the Darien Lake shows.
The Sportsmen’s crew – defined as listeners who dig roots music and gritty country, and frequently populate the revered music club – falls in line with the Nashville Scene results. A loose, informal poll I’ve conducted with patrons of the club over the past several years suggests that they like their country raw, rootsy, gruff, authentic, real and sans pyrotechnics of the literal and figurative variety. To them, the fact that 82 of the most widely read critics in the country placed Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell at the top of their poll is a no-brainer.
The Megaticket crowd quite likely knows who Stapleton is – he performed with Justin Timberlake at the televised 2015 CMAs in November, after all – but Isbell probably wouldn’t be on their radar. The former Drive-By Trucker has released two of the finest country albums of the past 25 years in the form of 2013’s “Southeastern” and 2015’s “Something More Than Free,” and has achieved massive crossover appeal – mostly with rock and roots music fans – without particularly bothering the mainstream.
Isbell, like Stapleton, is more concerned with bringing a singer-songwriter’s ethic back to country music than with the sort of “Bro Country” propagated by the likes of Florida Georgia Line (Aug. 26, Darien Lake) and Jason Aldean (Sept. 22, Darien Lake), both of whom grab surface elements from rock, hip-hop and electronic music, and then add cowboy hats.
The Country Music Critics’ Poll also threw some shine toward Cam, Little Big Town, the Mavericks, Kacey Musgraves, Eric Church (who played First Niagara Center in 2015 and is one of the rare artists popular with both hard-liner critics and mainstream country fans), Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, spreading its love across several generations of roots music musicians and songwriters in the process. Including the likes of the soulful Cam and the sultry Musgraves - both young, and relative newcomers – alongside veterans like the Mavericks, Nelson and Dylan suggests a continuity between the traditional and the contemporary that is sorely missing from the pop-country discourse, which would like us all to believe that country music started with Garth Brooks, and that it should be played in arenas, not roadhouses.
What’s remarkable about all of this is the fact that artists like Stapleton and Isbell are not exactly toiling in obscurity, appealing solely to folks who find Toby Keith’s good ol’ boy persona abhorrent and still haven’t swallowed the Kool Aid regarding Darius “Hootie & the Blowfish” Rucker’s metamorphosis from frat-pop nerd to country superstar. (How did that happen?) Isbell’s “Something More Than Free” made it to No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Music chart, albeit briefly; Stapleton hit the peak of that same chart, and ended up taking home three Country Music Association Awards.
Both of these artists did so without any help from mainstream country radio. It felt like they’d managed to sneak past the bouncer at the door, in the process, putting the lie to the oft-repeated suggestion that mainstream country radio decides who succeeds, and who remains a cult artist with a day job.
Could it be that the hegemonic corporate behemoth that is country radio was failing to serve the interests of everyone who might be interested in country music? The success of Stapleton and Isbell in 2015 suggests so. That’s radical. And nothing relating to country music has felt particularly radical for a good long time.