To sell out or not to sell out: Good, bad and really ugly (country/folk edition)
This may be the worst article I’ve ever written. Not “worst” as in of poor quality – there are dozens of contenders there – but “worst” as in least amount of regard for people’s feelings. I don’t enjoy being cruel or mean-spirited (the time when I reviewed a heaping pile of garbage that I shall not name here notwithstanding) but I am very passionate about music. I’ve started one or two arguments in a record store and finished a few as well, almost exclusively sans fisticuffs except for this one time when I punched my roommate for saying that NEU! sounded like lame Eurotrash. The point is I only hit him in the arm and there is nothing sadder to me than a good artist going to shit.
Often, a tanking career coincides with the dreaded term, “selling out.” Conversely and because I have hard time being predominantly negative, there are occasions when artists break their own mold and become great, some remaining indie despite opportunities to go commercial and some artists who take big record deals but continue to make music on their own terms. With a landscape dotted by bands who will disappear tomorrow – believe me, they will – it’s interesting to take a look at artists who’ve been around for a while, glance at the trajectory of their careers, and see what selling out (or not selling out) has done for them.
The Good – Non-Sellouts
Better than good and respected by music purists everywhere, Shelby Lynne is the antithesis of selling out. Lynne’s career could’ve gone one of two ways when she reached the pinnacle of her commercial success in the early 2000s. She could have stayed on the Nashville path (she won a Grammy for “Best New Artist” in 2001 for I Am Shelby Lynne despite having been around for more than a decade), waited for her turn on the assembly line, churned out a few hits which she did not write herself, and then wait to be shelved like the other former Nashville it-girls who made their millions. Instead, she left Nashville in her dust and became one of the best and most under-appreciated singer-songwriters in music. Lynne blends country, folk, and Americana to the will of her sultry and accomplished voice, penning heart-wrenching tunes that simply work. Lynne has been prolific in recent years and has yet to put out a bad album. Her most recent, I Can’t Imagine, proves that Lynne continues to get better, sharper, and more emotionally raw. In terms of commercial country, Lynne herself said it best when she told Rolling Stone in May: “I have dreadful memories from my early Nashville days of record producers telling me to sing a song over and over and over. So, before the fucking record came out, I hated the song. I don’t sing the songs any more than one or two times. If I ain’t got it then, then fuck it, I ain’t puttin’ it on there. I will not be told what to do. I will not be told what to sing, unless I really, really, really trust. In Nashville, they didn’t really give a fuck whether I trusted them or not. It was like, ‘Here, sing this.’ Those times are way gone.” And that is how it’s done.
Isbell is the other kind of good – he’s weathered his growing popularity in a different but equally laudable way than Shelby Lynne. Isbell hasn’t exactly thrown up his middle finger at the big fish, but his music has gotten simpler and better despite a continually rising star. He started strong, signing on to tour in support of Southern Rock Opera alongside
Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley of the Drive By Truckers when he was only 22 years old. Isbell wrote and played on the Truckers’ best albums: Decoration Day and The Dirty South. Leaving DBT after six years, Isbell teetered on the brink of mediocrity with two slightly above average albums – Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit and Here We Rest – with his band (the 400 Unit) before kicking in some teeth with Southeastern in 2013. Clean and sober after an intervention, Isbell showed fans how special early 2000s DBT really was with him in the band, as his playing and lyrics were strong as ever in his new solo efforts. Southeastern was a tough act to follow and follow it he did with 2015’s Something More Than Free, an album that has received near universal acclaim (fuck you, Pitchfork).
If there is such a thing as indie, non-sellout royalty, Neko Case would be the empress. She began her career playing with local punk groups in Vancouver, delved into country, toured with her traveling band (Neko Case and Her Boyfriends), sang for the New Pornographers, and toured as a solo act. Case has discovered the secret to keeping it pure: she puts up with zero bullshit. Like Shelby Lynne, Case makes the music she wants to make (whatever genre that ends up being) and does not hesitate to call people out when they try to label her like she did when Playboy referred to her as a woman in music rather than a musician. Case typically plays smaller venues but also appears at festivals and has played Austin City Limits. Though her albums don’t necessarily achieve mass commercial appeal (doubtful that Case cares), she’s long been a critical favorite, as her solo studio albums – Blacklisted, The Tigers Have Spoken, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, Middle Cyclone, and the mouthful The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You – have all received overwhelmingly positive reviews. Like the two aforementioned artists, it’s clear that Case cares deeply about the art she produces. For example, despite a small turnout for her set the now more pop-centric Coachella earlier this year, Case seemed visibly agitated when a few technical mishaps occurred (she still managed to sound fantastic). When not on tour, Case lives the life of an artist on a Vermont farm with a “barn full of pianos.” It just so happens that she’s pretty goddamn funny too.
The Bad – Sold Out
Once upon a time, Grace Potter & The Nocturnals were just an indie band from Vermont that played festivals and rocked hard and late into the night. Potter herself was (and still is) musical dynamite; her voice can reach the moon, her energy on stage never flags, and she can play a very loud guitar. Should you rag on an artist for “selling out?” A lot of artists sell out eventually and, honestly, that’s OK because seeing good bands achieve success is something to be celebrated. But when an artist sells out as completely as Grace Potter has, it’s just plain bad. Her shows were once filled with jam-band types, reefer smoke, and the sounds of loud, bluesy rock. Nowadays you’re far more likely to encounter that douchey little investment banker you saw crapping up your favorite local restaurant, on a weekend getaway with his fresh-off-the-Anne Taylor Loft-assembly-line wife at a Grace Potter show than you are to see anything resembling a rock crowd. Potter has gone “big rock.” Guitar Center Sessions, get your Sex Pistols t-shirt at Hot Topic, Nickelback “big.” So big, in fact, that her music has become over-produced pop nonsense. Her most recent effort, a solo album entitled Midnight (which USA Today picked as it’s “album of the week” if that tells you anything), is commercial garbage and you cannot fault The Nocturnals (they played on it) so much as you should fault Eric Valentine, the chode responsible for producing heinous commercial trash-rock like Good Charlotte, Smash Mouth, and Taking Back Sunday. Bad album notwithstanding, Potter sold out long before this Hollywood Boulevard tourist trap of a record hit shelves: she cut a fucking record with Kenny Chesney in 2010 called (I’m not making this up) “You and Tequila.” The music nerd in all of us now needs a court-appointed social worker to help us adjust.
The Ugly – Sold Out to Satan (But Not in a Cool Way)
In 2005, Shooter Jennings released, easily, one of the better country records of the last
decade. His backing band, The .357’s, was anchored by one of the best up-and-coming guitar players I’ve had the privilege of hearing live: Leroy Powell. Leroy’s name may or may not sound familiar to you, but he shone on Put the “O” Back in Country as well as Electric Rodeo. His playing was a terrific fusion of classic rock, southern rock, and blues. Heavy but melodic, Powell should have been destined for indie success when he left The .357’s after 2007’s The Wolf. As a live solo artist Powell was an excellent act to see but, sadly, he sold out in the worst way imaginable. Bad enough that he’s put out shit album after shit album (I’d rather be in a multi-car collision than listen to The Overlords of the Cosmic Revelation ever again). Powell starred on a fucking reality television show called Crazy Hearts: Nashville. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s basically The Hills with cowboy hats and stupid shirts. Moreover, the show’s music is precisely the type of shit that The .357’s laid waste to: commercial, radio-friendly, garbage country music better suited to trash like The Voice than gracing the shelves of any record store.
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