"Can't they just shut up?"
That's the question many country music fans proffer when musicians publicly express opinions that dare venture outside of benign Q&A quicksand and into the murky waters of relevant social issues.
Country consumers from both sides of the political aisle can get riled up in these instances. It's not just the left-wingers griping about Toby Keith's need to fill the asses of terrorists with red, white and blue boots, nor is it only the right-wingers who still are unable to forgive Natalie Maines for Bush-bashing on foreign soil.
Recently, a specific sect of fans felt their tighty-whities twist when a prominent contemporary artist went rogue while discussing his musical offerings in a manner that offended them. Sticks and stones still break bones, but name-calling has evidently gained a great deal of destructive power.
A slight storm of controversy has surrounded television personality -- sorry, I mean, country artist -- Blake Shelton since the December airing of an episode of cable network GAC-TV's Backstory devoted to the "Ol' Red" and "Sure Be Cool If You Did" singer.
During the show, when asked about the changing landscape of country music over its history, Shelton willingly proclaimed, "Country music has to evolve in order to survive. Nobody wants to listen to their grandpa's music.
"And I don't care how many of these old farts around Nashville going, 'My God, that ain't country!' added Shelton. "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."
Personally, as a fan of a great deal of the country artists my parents and grandparents enjoyed (many choice, vintage vinyl LPs reside in my collection as a result of my grandmother's passing them down to me), I tend to bristle a tad myself at Shelton's massive blanket of condescension.
But it doesn't take an economics professor or a pedigreed musical historian to see the general truth in Shelton's remarks, abrasive as they were. It wasn't that long ago that Kenny Rogers and Crystal Gayle were "ruining real country music" with their overly shiny and velvety songs, after all. The debate over what is and isn't "real country" is futile, and serves to narrow the wonderfully large scope that country music should count as an asset.
In predictable fashion, just as allegedly patriotic radio stations did when they used steamrollers to destroy Dixie Chicks albums a decade ago, random groups are popping out of the woodwork to rail against Shelton. Oddly enough, it's happening months after he made those comments and subsequently apologized, and he has even received the support and forgiveness of a number of country legends such as Merle Haggard.
Now, in a desperate attempt to get some unearned shine, this past Friday Bob Everheart of the National Traditional Country Music Association announced the manner in which his organization will, finally, let Shelton have it good. On April 17, a multi-organizational march is scheduled to take place in Nashville to have Shelton's membership in the Grand Ole Opry revoked.
Good luck with all of that. One of the many ways this tantrum is comical is that the Opry has recently awarded membership to modern country artists few would consider "traditional" in any sense. Keith Urban, Darius Rucker (a.k.a. Hootie), Carrie Underwood and Rascal Flatts are some of the newest members of the Opry. Surely, each of these mod-members can belt out "For the Good Times," but none of them scream "Old-School Glory," either.
And it's not as though Shelton has ever been a sawdust-covered champion of traditional country music. While he has displayed a great deal of knowledge and appreciation of the artists who have come before him during interviews and live shows, his recent ascent to superstardom has as much to do with irreverent tweeting, his marriage to Miranda Lambert and spinning chairs around with Cee Lo as much as his poppy, cliché-stricken radio hits of the past couple of years.
If Dwight Yoakam, still the king of country cool, had made this type of statement, then sure, there's an issue to be dissected, if only to a point. If the timelessly talented Patty Loveless claimed to a reporter that Doc Watson didn't know Bluegrass from Black metal, then again, let the fans of the offended genre get all sorts of (more or less rightfully) indignant. Such a reaction would be justifiable within this framework, because the fight would be against someone who's long been on the side of the group being attacked, theoretically.
The folks upset over Shelton's words might as well begin to lose sleep over the NRA continuing its financial partnership with NASCAR, which has also come under ignorant scrutiny as of late.
Each scenario matches up philosophically. Each scenario makes sense financially, regardless of what may wish were the case. If his oft-insipid songs weren't evidence enough, Shelton has made no bones about his desire to produce a marketable product for the masses.
Free speech, indeed, is a two-way street. Life and the discussion of myriad topics would be boring if we had only Steve Earle's leftist rants to absorb without a helping of Hank Williams Jr.'s going off the deep end in the other direction.
The current prince of Texas honky-tonks, Dale Watson, wrote a hilarious song, "Old Fart (A Song for Blake Shelton)," as a response. The legendary Ray Price famously made Shelton look at the scoreboard, where his grand legacy easily towers over Mr. Lambert's current place in country-music history.
Both were creative and sharp with their retaliation against Shelton. The two Texas greats didn't spend months figuring out how this poor excuse for a controversy could benefit them. The announcement of an April protest from Everheart and his band of old farts is not only tardy, but lame in its approach to connect itself with a story that's bigger than his group could ever hope to be.
I get it. No one likes being called names or being made fun of. No one likes being marginalized due to the type of music they enjoy the most. But given that members and proponents of any sort of Traditional Country Music association haven't likely spent years decorating their walls with Blake Shelton Fathead posters, any complaint from them is hollow at best, desperate at worst.
Certainly, in a way, the strategy of Everheart has worked. Columns such as this, and probably a few others, will pop up and give his group a bit of attention, so good for them in that regard. They'll piss off enough people to garner some reactions, just as Shelton pissed them off to begin with.
With that stated, had Shelton not said what he said -- if he had just "shut up" when pointing to the jackasses, then a lot of old farts out there wouldn't be receiving the attention they're getting now.
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Blake Shelton plays the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo Friday, March 15.