Texas country has long been a tough realm of music to pin down with a nice, tidy definition. Unlike rock or hip-hop, it can be hard to know which song is a Texas country song, or simply a country song from an artist from Texas. Granger Smith (a.k.a. Earl Dibbles Jr.) recently spoke with TheBoot.com, and in the midst of an otherwise inoffensive interview, he reignited the long-running regional discussion and seemingly flamed his old stomping grounds.
“I’m very, very, very blessed to have had the Texas music scene as a testing ground. I had singles — on-the-radio singles — I had a radio tour a couple times…[We] had been running in the minor leagues; that’s really what it is.”
Taken in the context of the entire interview, it's a bit of a stretch to view Smith's comments too harshly. In the interview, he speaks positively about his early days in the Texas country scene, so it might be as simple as Smith misspeaking a bit and choosing the wrong analogy in the moment. On the other hand, there's no getting around the fact that in baseball, the minor leagues are designed for players who aren't ready for the majors and may never have what it takes to get there, which isn't a positive, or accurate, way to assess the many successful careers the Texas country scene has fostered for decades now. And no one wants to be seen as a stepping-stone, or, as Smith says, a "testing ground." Smith hasn’t, as of this writing, responded to the numerous tweets and posts resulting from his ill-advised sports analogy.
The most notable response came in the form of a seemingly good-natured tweet from Wade Bowen. Last Friday night, Bowen tweeted “Love my life! Cheers to the minor leagues!! @earldibblesjr @grangersmith” along with a clip of the offending quote. Bowen has also not made any further comments regarding this matter, so we’re not sure if Bowen was truly offended by Smith’s comment or not. Tuesday, in a lengthy interview with Saving Country Music, Bowen said he and Smith had cleared the air, calling Smith's comments a "poor choice of words from a good, decent guy."
Regardless of how either Smith or Bowen meant their statements, they both seem to have been simple and honest remarks. If Texas country was nothing more than an initial step for Smith on his way to national mainstream success, then he's at least being honest about that. And that’s why there’s nothing to see here, folks. There’s no feud, no beef. Let’s go back to focusing on whether Kanye needs to be prosecuted for illegal recordings even though Taylor may be a bit of a snake.
The most incendiary aspects of this pseudo-feud have come from fans of the two singers via social media, and Smith’s drummer, Dusty Saxon. In a rambling, self-satisfying manner, Saxon suggests Bowen should apologize to ambitious artists for some sort of perceived attempt at shaming said artists for having professional goals that extend beyond the borders of Texas. His employing such a lengthy manifesto in response to Bowen’s brief tweet is alarming in its overkill. While Saxton’s note is certainly misguided, his loyalty to Smith is admirable.
There are a lot of simple, logistical realities that should make it hard for people to hate on Smith or Bowen here. If Smith’s definition of playing ball in the major leagues is having a massive national commercial presence with a big radio hit and getting to tour with Florida Georgia Line, then there’s seemingly nothing wrong with that from an objective perspective. Though subjectively, “Backroad Song,” his recent chart-topper, is a paint-by-numbers nursery rhyme, and his latest single, “If the Boot Fits,” is perhaps even more grossly formulaic, that doesn't seem to be the point for Smith and his team, for better or worse. It's not that Smith has ever been a grizzled roots-rocker, but his older material wasn't nearly as slick as the new stuff unapologetically is. Regardless, these songs have helped propel Smith to the level he has long openly coveted.
When Remington, Smith’s current album, was released earlier this year, he was refreshingly open with his enjoyment in marketing his music as a consumer product. Such clinical speak is understandably divisive, but he owns that part of his gameplay. Had Smith gone on a press tour comparing himself to Townes Van Zandt as a troubled poetic troubadour with only a desire to exorcise his inner demons through song, sales totals be damned, then it would be reasonable to hate on him for looking to create an empire built on bro-country fluff, parody videos and redneck-themed energy drinks. But in Smith’s case, there’s really no need to hate the player, or his particular game, as he’s long stopped playing the one many ardent Texas country fans adore.
The reason Bowen’s tweet was the perfect response to Smith’s comments is that Bowen is a big-league star, no matter where his home is or where his fan base largely resides. Bowen’s catalog of music is unassailable, and he can pack some of the largest rooms in Texas, as well as draw respectable crowds across the country. He’s a rightfully respected veteran who is releasing some of the most interesting music in the country format anywhere, and he’s doing so under his own rules and as his own boss. While each artistic outlook is vastly different, both artists are making the exact kind of music they want to make in order to be the kind of success each wants to be respectively.
Bowen had a short-lived dalliance with a major label, and some Smith-loving social-media snipers suggest such a bullet point paints Bowen in a hypocritical light. But it doesn’t really, because, again, Bowen’s short, sweet tweet was, taken literally, a statement of pride, not of hateful jealousy. Bowen should be given serious credit for including Smith’s Twitter handle (and that of Dibbles as well) in the tweet. He could’ve sub-tweeted or could’ve responded cryptically, but he put it all out there in an honest way. That Bowen, as skilled a songwriter as country music has today, is excellent at getting a truthful point across with great word efficiency shouldn’t come as a shock.
Many of the most commercially successful artists identified with the Texas country scene are absolutely playing in the major leagues under anyone’s definition. Aaron Watson has a No. 1 album, tours the country to packed rooms and has a display in the Country Music Hall of Fame right now. Cody Johnson and Josh Abbott can sell massive amounts of songs and draw legitimate crowds well outside of Texas as they travel in the finest coaches available. Bowen, along with Randy Rogers Band and the Departed, are nationally adored artists who have lived the major-label life, and are now thriving as independent artists with freedom and fan bases most current Top 40 acts would surely find enviable. In music, there aren't clearly defined leagues, let alone absolute definitions of what success is and is not, and that's a good thing ultimately.
If an artist or someone with a large financial stake in the success of the Texas country scene wants to take offense at Smith’s comment, that’s certainly understandable; he was clearly aiming his remarks at the industry side of things. But it smacks of insecurity when fans get too bothered over something Smith says. Surely the loudest Smith-bashers over the past few days aren’t tweeting while wearing a “Yee Yee” tank top.
For those who are unable to recite a verse from any of Smith’s tunes, there’s no reason to start caring what comes out of his mouth now. While his comments could have been better chosen, it’s also misguided for hardcore Texas country fans to see that quote as anything but a guy playing a glossy mainstream game many in Texas claim to despise.