Country Music

Fanning the Flames About Leon Bridges and Rodeo Houston at Saving County Music

According to Kyle Coroneos, Austin is dead as a country music capital. Of course, Austin might disagree.
According to Kyle Coroneos, Austin is dead as a country music capital. Of course, Austin might disagree. Photo by Christi Vest

Leave it to Kyle Coroneos to get accused of being a racist for coming to the defense of an African-American musician.

Coroneos, who hails from the Dallas area and lives in Austin, operates a website called Saving Country Music, where he regularly flambés big-name bros like Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line while championing rootsier artists like Jason Isbell and The Turnpike Troubadours. Anyway, when Rodeo Houston booked Fort Worth native Leon Bridges to headline their Black Heritage Day, the announcement drew considerable scorn on social media from African-American music fans who’d never heard of the bluesy guitarist or felt he didn’t properly represent their culture.

“If, in fact, Leon Bridges is not a household name, that’s not on Leon Bridges or the Houston Rodeo—that’s on those respective households,” Coroneos, who goes by the pen name “Trigger,” wrote in response. “The outcry over the 2018 Houston Rodeo lineup can’t be that only two out of the 20 performers are from Texas, or that only two of the 20 performers are women. It has to center around the one thing the Houston Rodeo got right, which was booking Leon Bridges.”

Had Coroneos stopped there, nobody would have spilled their beers. But Coroneos never stops there. “The people complaining on Facebook don’t care if it’s a Texas native playing Black Heritage Day, or have any desire to potentially discover something new,” Coroneos continued. “They want Nicki Minaj to take the Houston Rodeo stage in a body suit and rub up against a pole for 90 minutes while she lip-syncs, because that’s what they’re familiar with.”

This riff attracted considerable criticism from the likes of former Houston Press music editor John Nova Lomax. “Many African-American fans saw Coroneos’ comments as uninformed, if not downright racist,” Lomax wrote in Texas Monthly, concluding that Bridges' "performance will likely be another draw for white fans to a concert lineup already dominated by white artists."

Coroneos fired back, as he always does, expressing some regret for his Minaj comment while explaining his overarching motivation for the screed like so: “I was miffed because finally we got a bona fide Texan on the lineup, and he was the name receiving the most fervent backlash.” It’s also worth noting that, weeks before this scrum, Coroneos devoted an entire column to praising several black roots artists, including Rhiannon Giddens and Valerie June. To this end, Coroneos has consistently used his platform to chastise country radio for not playing more female artists.

Whereas blogging was once viewed as the future of journalism, very few bloggers managed to make a living off it. But Coroners has (barely) for the better part of a decade, working out of his small house and driving a ’98 Toyota. At a time when electro-poppers like Bebe Rexha are breaking country chart records and Sam Hunt’s peddling hick-hop to country radio, the genre’s purists would argue that Coroneos’ feisty voice is needed now more than ever.

The Press recently spoke to the 40-year-old by phone and, predictably, he had a lot to get off his chest. Here is a slightly condensed and lightly edited transcript of our conversation:

HP: If you and the likes of the Turnpike Troubadours are saving country music, what acts or media outlets are ruining it?

KC: As far as the acts go—Sam Hunt, FGL, Walker Hayes. But, for example, Florida Georgia Line, there’s very little country to it, but at the same time they speak to a country mentality—same with Luke Bryan—going out and having parties in cornfields and drinking beer on the tailgate. That stuff isn’t enriching at all, and it gets really old, but there are elements of it that are country.

But when you’re dealing with Sam Hunt and Walker Hayes, you’re really talking about the absolute antithesis of what country music is and supposed to be. It’s almost to destroy what that term has meant to many people for 70 years. If there’s anybody destroying it, that’s who I’d put it on—the Sam Hunts and Walker Hayes, who both share the same producer in Shane McAnally.

Producers have so much sway these days. Sam Hunt and Walker Hayes are just vessels being used by the industry to assert a type of country music that they think is going to be lucrative to them. That’s the job of the industry. But it’s also the job of fans and artists to push back against that—what trend-chasing can result in long-term. That’s what we’ve seen with rock music: the evisceration of the format. Country music has always been about paying homage to the past.

Right now, there are two trends in country music coverage: to get very political or celebrity lifestyle branding-type coverage—who’s having a baby, who got engaged, who got married, who went where on vacation. Nobody’s even talking about the music anymore. The music is the excuse. People want to follow these people as celebrities. The criticism that’s needed is just nonexistent.

HP: How much interaction have you had with some of the individuals you’ve called out as being horrible, either privately or publicly?

KC: I did a pretty rough dissertation on Walker Hayes, and named Shane McAnally by name. And he posted something on Instagram screenshotting something I’d said with a little scribble saying, “You mad, bro?” There have been quite a few of these instances.

In 2013, Blake Shelton, when talking to GAC, was talking about winning the male vocalist of the year award and how that gave him latitude to describe what country music could be. He called out traditional country fans and artists as old farts and jackasses and argued that country music had evolved. I wrote an article about it and it went so incredibly viral that Blake Shelton had to apologize. And, specifically, Ray Price got involved. He read my article, became incensed and ripped into Blake Shelton pretty bad. That was really the spark. Dale Watson wrote a song about it, which stimulated him to start his Ameripolitan Awards.

Midland, the guy Mark [Wystrach], said if he ever saw me in person, he’d find out how country I really am. I don’t have a problem with Midland—I actually like Midland’s music and that it’s coming from the mainstream. With them, the issue that I took was they were trying to sell themselves as this truly authentic country band when, in reality, they weren’t. They talked about how they’d been through this hardscrabble life when you go back and look and say, wait a second, the bass player has gotten two VMA Awards and lives on a million-dollar house on 14 acres. If you can’t pay your bills, perhaps you should downsize to a quarter-million-dollar house.

Luke Bryan, at one point, he sort of said country music outlaws were about cocaine and stuff like that, when outlaws are actually about fighting against the music industry. I wrote about that and he was forced to apologize to the families of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.

And with Eric Church, I wrote about a country music Messiah. Eric Church read this article, apparently, and wrote a song called “Country Music Jesus.” Since then, Eric Church has been one of the few in the mainstream to actually listen to these kind of criticisms and try and address them in his music.

HP: If you had to pick the worst song in country music history, what would it be?

KC: The worst song would have to be "You Broke Up With Me" by Walker Hayes. It’s easy to point to FGL’s “Cruise,” which really created bro-country, or Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem,” which was the first mainstream country-rap song to go #1. But even with those songs, there are country elements to them. Walker Hayes, it’s just the opposite of country. There’s nothing fulfilling about it. It’s just terrible writing. Ten years ago, people would have taken it as parody.

HP: Conversely, what’s a mainstream artist or song really typifies what you think country music should be, and why?

KC: One is “I Met a Girl” by William Michael Morgan, which was actually co-written by Sam Hunt. Shane McAnally was involved, too. That’s a great song. Another great song is “She Ain’t In It” by John Pardi. That’s another great, traditional country song. When these songs are given the opportunity, they can really succeed. Another great one is “Humble & Kind” by Lori McKenna, which was cut by Tim McGraw.

HP: What’s the worst trend to befall country music since the turn of the 21st century?

KC: The underlying root of the problem with country music is replacing stories with lists—beer, trucks, tailgate, lake, party—and instead of using melody to create resonance, using rhythm. What that parallels is the onslaught of hip-hop and EDM influences in country music. That’s sort of the formation of the mono-genre, where all of the music sounds the same. You go and listen to the hip-hop station, you’ll hear somebody rapping over an electronic beat, and if you to a country station, you’ll hear someone rapping over an electronic beat. They’re just in this monotone, rhythmic pentameter. I’ve got nothing against using rhythm, but what made country music unique was the melody, the stories, three chords and the truth.

HP: I read your recent piece about Carrie Underwood, where you expressed that your opinion of her had improved over the years. Are there other acts you once hated who, for whatever reason, you’ve warmed up to?

KC: Eric Church would be one, I guess. I’ve always respected Carrie Underwood, though. It’s easy to say that all pop-country sucks. That’s not necessarily true, so it’s doubly important that we champion the good stuff. Miranda Lambert is another one who’s come around in the last couple of years. When she first started out, she was very well-received by traditionalists and cutting their material. Then she kind of went away from that. With The Weight of These Wings, people talk about that being an Americana record, but I think it’s a country record.

HP: After moisturizing his arms in front of a New York Times reporter, Luke Bryan recently expressed that he’d love to grab coffee with Sturgill Simpson. If you had the opportunity to have coffee with Luke Bryan or vodka-Red Bulls with Florida Georgia Line, what would you say to them?

KC: I think a lot of people would think I hate these people, and I don’t. There was an old Looney Tunes cartoon, it was like the sheep dog was trying to defend the sheep from Wylie Coyote. At the end of the cartoon, they both walked up to a time clock and stamped it and said, ‘Alright, see you later!’ Like, our shift is over, we’re just gonna be civil with each other. These people are probably good people, especially Luke Bryan. He’s done a lot of stuff for charity and he’s taken in family members. His family’s had a lot of hardship. He’s also probably somewhat of a goober—he bought two kangaroos for his wife for Christmas. So I’d probably try and pick their brain. I have a lot of respect for the success that they’ve been able to create. That’s not easy, even for someone who looks at the trends and say they’re going to do that. Even if you do that, the chances are less than one percent for success.

"I think a lot of people would think I hate these people, and I don’t. "

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But if they asked, and it was appropriate, I’d ask them why they don’t release some of their better songs as singles or respect the roots of country music more—that the point is not only to entertain in the here and now, but carry the lineage of southern and western agrarian people into the future. Also, bad music results in bad people and bad habits—disrespecting women—with lyrics like “Slide on over the bench seat, girl.” Think about what you’re saying and how that’s received by your fans.

HP: How much of a living do you eke out via Saving Country Music?

KC: It’s definitely ekey. It’s a one-man operation. The economic model where people could make a living off these types of blogs ceased to exist in 2015. (He says it peaked in 2010.) Facebook supplanted Google as the main driver of traffic, so you had to have a massive Facebook following. The other thing was the proliferation of ad blockers. As a default, they were going on people’s phones, so that just eviscerated the ability to generate revenue from views. And Google just ceased to care—you could no longer generate 100,000 unique views in a month and make a living off that.

Fast forward two years later, I don’t know anybody else who’s doing this full-time who’s a one-man operation in country music. I’m not in it for the money, but the site does make money because I get a lot of traffic. For a one-man operation, my traffic and engagement is through the roof. I really value other people’s opinions, and have created one of the most robust comment cultures on the internet. My social media footprint isn’t huge, but the engagement I get is off the charts. I’m able to turn that into enough cash to live in a 750-square-foot house and drive a ’98 Toyota.

HP: What do you see as the defining differences between “country” music and Americana? Is Americana its own genre or is it a farm system for country, where the up-and-comers get their start and the older artists go to die?

KC: Americana is much more diverse; Americana is roots. The biggest difference is that Americana, its main focus is sustaining roots in music, where the main focus in country music is to make money. Now, Jason Isbell, he’s running a business. Even when he’s posting pictures of his little kid on Instagram, there’s an economic equation of how he’s presenting himself to the public. If you’re not making money, you’re not going to be able to keep doing what you’re doing.

But Americana’s focus is music and making enough money to keep it going, whereas country is, “Let’s make money.” Obviously, there are people in both spheres who are exceptions to that rule. I run a website called Saving Country Music, so I have a deep investment in the term ‘country,’ so it means something to me. That’s why I also bristle at the idea that genre doesn’t matter. But Americana gives people an alternative so they don’t have to go and deal with the ills of Music Row.

When Garth Brooks lip-synced, he said, “Hey, man, everyone does it.”

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Mainstream country music is an all-or-nothing proposition. Either you’re on the bus with an entire road crew selling out large venues with singles on the radio, or you aren’t. There’s no other economic model, Chris Stapleton notwithstanding. Americana has created an industry where you’re fine as long as you’re roots—bluegrass, blues, country. You’re never going to hear a drum machine at the Americana Awards. When Garth Brooks lip-synced, he said, “Hey, man, everyone does it.” And, to a certain degree, he’s right. But I can only imagine if Margo Price and Jason Isbell showed up with a tape and handed it to the sound guy and said, “I’m gonna lip-sync up there.” It would never happen.

HP: You live in Austin, which I and others once thought of as the epicenter of the Americana genre. Now it seems as though Nashville—or at least East Nashville—is the epicenter of Americana, and perhaps music in general. Why do you think this shift has occurred?

KC: No doubt the epicenter of Americana is Nashville. Austin is dead. There is very little hope for the artists who are here. The vast majority has to do with socioeconomics and urban planning and gentrification. East Austin and East Nashville are eerily similar, but in Austin it’s been so dramatic that you just don’t have the environment to foster creativity. To foster creativity, you need affordable housing, good venues and support from the local population. What’s happened in Austin is you can’t afford to live here. If you have to work two jobs just to pay your rent, you’re not going to be writing as many songs, you’re not going to be spending that money on extra studio time.

Austin has a lot of great musicians, but they’re mercenary musicians. Everybody has to pay in five separate bands to make a living, so nothing is able to coagulate and go national. Another reason is the media is very focused in Nashville—Americana Music Association, Rolling Stone Country, American Songwriter. Unfortunately, Austin just doesn’t have that media infrastructure.
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Mike Seely
Contact: Mike Seely