Are You Ready For Extreme Country?

by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming

It took a while, but Music Row finally found the thing that would give Country its edge back and make the format hip with 18-to-34-year-olds for the first time in a decade. And the answer was . . .

Smut!

Okay, not quite smut. We got a little bit of Joe Don Rooney’s butt in a Rascal Flatts video here, a “hell yeah” from Montgomery Gentry or Gretchen Wilson there, the word “Jackass” in Brad Paisley’s “Celebrity,” a “crap” in Trace Adkins’ “Rough And Ready,” and Amy Dalley’s “Men Don’t Change” and the double-entendre t-shirt slogan of Big & Rich’s “Save A Horse (Ride A Cowboy).”

It’s not, by any means, Top 40 or R&B where Petey Pablo, in “Freek-A-Leek,” proposes a three-way because there are certain acts that he’s “not drunk enough” to perform himself, then goes on to list in detail the things he is willing to do. It’s not even Hot AC, where listeners have been used to hearing the “F-word” bleeped, but still obvious from context, since Staind’s “It’s Been Awhile.”

But it’s enough edgy content that some programmers were a little on edge themselves at this year’s Country Radio Seminar-at least until Wilson’s “Redneck Women” broke both the dry spell for women at No. 1 and for artists who could sell in bulk without pop airplay. Country didn’t own much in the late ‘90s, but it did have “family friendly’ on lock. Now, Christian AC has become a factor in more markets, while mainstream AC markets “family friendly” itself.

You could perhaps see this coming. By 2001, extreme content was already becoming a regular presence on pop radio. Nelly’s “Ride Wit Me” and its barely obscured complaint about “the same motherf***ers asking me for dough” had shown surprising strength with adults. By contrast, Country was at its most sedate. I remember a six month stretch in late 2000-early 2001 where there were only two records with tempo and texture on country radio: Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl” and Aaron Tippin’s “Kiss This.”

“Goodbye Earl” gave Country radio a marketable controversy and some stations a genuine hit, but it was hardly a consensus record. “Kiss This,” however, did achieve PD consensus and became a template of sorts as Country tried to start courting men again: songs that were uptempo and a little edgy, but female friendly at the core.

Over the next three years, we saw enough male artists emerge and enough tempo and attitude to prompt articles about a backlash against female artists or AC-leaning product. But the music itself wasn’t that radical-even Toby Keith’s “boot up your ass” line in “Courtesy Of the Red White and Blue” was easy for most to defend in context. The shock value of hearing rock and roll references in country music had worn off a decade ago. And the lyrics weren’t much less formulaic than what had preceded them -there were still a lot of songs about loosening up, not working so hard, and the value of hometowns and real folks. They were just more uptempo.

Track through the new Big & Rich album or Wilson’s “Here For The Party” and you’ll still hear plenty of songs that fit the above description. Both are essentially pro-social. Wilson’s album has a gospel song. They both still have the careful calculation of a lot of recent product. Then again, “Any Man Of Mine,” the sonic boom record of 1995, had plenty of calculation, too.

And the new crop of product has enough edge to distinguish it as something truly different to listeners who grew up with a certain amount of edgy content. Even a “hell” or two appears to be resonating with this decade’s 24-year-old the same way that the glut of Rolling Stones and Madonna references did for younger listeners during the last boom. (Come to think of it, both “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” and the live version of “Friends In Low Places” had some cussin’ of their own. So maybe edgy language has been a reliable boundary smasher going back to not just the early ‘90s but the Urban Cowboy era as well.)

It took a while, but Music Row finally found the thing that would give Country its edge back and make the format hip with 18-to-34-year-olds for the first time in a decade. And the answer was . . .Smut!

So how exactly should Country radio deal with edgy content, particularly with other family-friendly alternatives now available and listeners for whom the word “hell” is actually an issue? Top 40 has already learned that lesson for you and it’s “don’t extrapolate.” Top 40 PDs took Nelly and Staind as a sign that nothing really fazed adult listeners anymore and made the mistake of then delivering extreme lyrics in bulk. With plenty of less-edgy songs about loosening up, not working so hard, and the wisdom of common folks still available, Country radio is in no danger of following one bleeped song with another, just yet. But all those Gretchen clones are probably just going into the studio now.

And for those owners who are still lucky enough to have two Country stations, the time to really differentiate them may finally have come. Three years ago, even if you were determined to heed the call of “male Country,” the product wasn’t there unless you threw on a bunch of oldies, thus losing the “younger and edgier” factor. Now, there is clearly enough music for an envelope-pushing Country hits station and enough demonstrated demand for somebody else to be the gold-based upper-demo station that won’t embarrass you in front of your kids.

Edginess by itself is never a long-term substitute for A&R. In the early days of the mid-‘90s Modern Rock revolution, we saw one hit after another where a song title had shock value enough to get a song on the radio. Calling a song “You Suck” or “If You Don’t Love Me I’ll Kill Myself” is a pretty good way to get a song to the top of a PD’s listening stack, but as the Murmurs and Pete Droge can tell you, it’s not a long-term career builder.

The good news is it’s great to see Country radio with a pulse again. The real work, however, is still starting. Country in the late ‘70s had its own attention getting titles (“Take This Job And Shove It,” “Out Of My Head And Back In My Bed”), but it was lyrically adult in ways that went beyond language. Country in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s borrowed its texture from rock ‘n’ roll, but it also had quality songwriters who went beyond formula. And if you think that Rodney Crowell, Mary Chapin Carpenter, or Desert Rose Band weren’t as important to the Country boom as Garth and Trisha, well, we saw what happened when that type of songwriting dried up by the mid-‘90s.

So the product Country radio has now needs to be viewed as the jumping off point. Having the tempo and the edge back is great. But it won’t be a point of differentiation forever. What would be radical on Country radio are songs about something other than loosening up, not working so hard, and the wisdom of common folks. And if it’s in a package that feels contemporary to a 24-year-old, that’s great, too.

Sean Ross is Edison Media Research’s VP of Music & Programming and the former editor-in-chief of Airplay Monitor, Billboard Magazine’s radio programming publication. The opinions expressed here are his own and can be found on the edisonresearch.com Web site every week. Sean can be reached at 908.707.4707 or SRoss@edisonresearch.com.