As a wise man once said, “you can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.”
Twice this century, we’ve seen a promising trio with a career on the upswing get completely derailed by a single watershed moment. However, while the Dixie Chicks got blackballed from country music due to their comments regarding the Iraq War, the second of these groups (The Band Perry) just seemed to take a hard musical left straight into the dumpster, going from a classically-styled sountry band that was equal parts rootsy and edgy to…well, it’s hard to say what they ended up becoming, as they spent several years pinballing between different sounds (and looks) until they were completely unrecognizable (their last releases “The Good Life” and “NITE SWIM” fall somewhere between pop and EDM). In the blink of an eye, the group went from radio darlings to persona non grata within the genre, which led Nick to ask just what the heck happened.
After digging deeper, a surprising truth emerges: The tale of the Band Perry as a country band should never really have been told in the first place. It’s equal parts testament and indictment of how the Nashville establishment squeezes square pegs into round holes in the name of marketability (I’m starting to see similar arcs in the transition of Sara Evans and Matina McBride from neotraditional to pop-country artists). Through that lens, what almost felt like a deliberate attempt by Band Perry to sabotage their own career actually appears to be an attempt to take back creative control of their sound, regardless of its commercial viability or if people even liked it or not.
So how did this all come to pass? Let’s start from the beginning…
“You Need To Throw Away Everything Else That You’ve Done”
It turns out that the Band Perry was mixing genres long before it was considered cool: As producer Paul Worley mentioned in an interview for the book Behind the Boards: Nashville, the group was mixing roots rock, punk, and country influences into their sound before they recorded their debut album. However, once Worley heard Kimberly Perry’s song “If I Die Young” and decided that it was a monster hit in waiting, he declared that a back-to-basics country approach was the best way forward:
“This [‘If I Die Young’] is an important song. This song needs to be heard, and if you guys want to be a country band, you need to throw away everything else that you’ve done. Start with this, write forward, and if you want my help, I’d be glad to [help]. —Worley, as told to Jake Brown
It’s no surprise that Worley went with this sound and approach: He was also producing a similar group (Lady A) with a similar monster hit (“Need You Know”) around the same time. He mentions in the interview that the Lady A sound was more “lush and full,” while he took a more “minimalistic” approach to complement Kimberly Perry’s voice. The fact remains, however, that the sound that characterizes “If I Die Young,” and The Band Perry overall, is acoustic and classical, with the occasional hard edge on songs like “Miss You Being Gone” or “Double Heart.” (Even the attitude-laden songs like “You Lie” are grounded in classical instrumentation.) There’s certainly nothing there that qualifies as punk or roots rock.
Worley’s first impression of the song was spot-on: “If I Die Young” topped both Billboard’s Hot Country and Adult Contemporary charts, climbed to #14 on the Hot 100, and has now been certified seven times platinum by the RIAA. However, this was a double-edged sword for the Perrys: It burdened them with a heavy layer of expectations from fans and label suits alike, but it also gave them some clout to push their own agenda when necessary.
“We Are Quitting Music Unless We Go With This Song”
When you knock your debut out of the park, how the heck do you follow that up? For the Band Perry, the first move was to call…Rick Rubin?
“It was time to make a sophomore project. And to be honest, you’re scared. You hear all these stories about the sophomore slump. We called Rick and he had us out to Shangri-La where we played him everything we were working on for the second project. He said, ‘First of all, I would love to make this project with you. Second of all, you don’t have to be afraid. Don’t think about the radio. Don’t think about what you’ve done already. It’s your responsibility as artists to be yourself.'” —Kimberly Perry, as told to Chris Willman
So what did the result sound like? We don’t know: The higher-ups at Big Machine Records decided they didn’t like it, and the songs have never been released. (Given Rubin’s background in hip-hop production, however, it’s probably safe to assume the sound was closer to pop-country than the classical sound of The Band Perry.) Instead, we got Pioneer, an album that feels more like an iteration of the group’s sound rather than an evolution: The drums and electric guitars are turned up a notch or two and the arrangements are busier, giving the record a more-contemporary sound than its predecessor, but the traditional instruments are still there and given enough space to keep the change from feeling too drastic. (Still, after going back and listening to it, the jump from it to “Live Forever” isn’t as big as it felt in the moment.)
However, there were some noteworthy clashes on this record as well:
- Big Machine reportedly wasn’t thrilled with the choice of “Better Dig Two” as the lead single from Pioneer. The band held firm, however, with Kimberly Perry saying later that “It was like, we are quitting music unless we go with this song.” The song was shipped to radio, and the band’s decision was validated: “Better Dig Two” wound up topping the country charts and cracking the Top 30 on the Hot 100.
- The song “Chainsaw” was also a bit of a sticking point between Big Machine and The Band Perry, as the label saw it as a way to compete with the rising tide of Bro-Country (which, given that Florida Georgia Line was also on Big Machine’s roster, meant the label was essentially competing against itself) and the band didn’t think it fit them very well. Big Machine won this battle (and to be honest, at the time I thought the song was one of the better tracks on the album and fit the band just fine), but this decision was not validated: “Chainsaw” only made it to #10 as Pioneer‘s fourth single, and to hear The Band Perry tell it, it became the moment that they decided they needed to chart a new course for themselves.
“Chainsaw” ended up marking the end of The Band Perry’s run, as they haven’t made it back to the chart’s upper echelon since.
If You Want Something Done Right, Do It Yourself
The post-Pioneer era for The Band Perry had been turbulent, to say the least:
- The trio was finally allowed to stray from their classical sound and put on a full-court pop-country press with “Live Forever” in 2015, with a new album Heart + Beat to follow. However, the seemingly overnight shift from classic country to an unabashedly pop stance, complete with a marketing makeover that painted everything yellow and had the group proclaiming “we’re pop-tarts at heart” confused and put off a lot of listeners who had grown accustomed to the group’s original style.
The Band Perry learned the same lesson that Toby Keith had a decade earlier: When fans embrace you for one thing, they tend to let go when you start doing something else. The reaction to the song was lukewarm at best, it only reached #27 on Billboard’s airplay chart, and Heart + Beat was delayed and eventually shelved entirely. (Ten years from now, we’re going to have a treasure trove of “lost” songs from this group that eventually get dumped onto iTunes.)
- Once “Live Forever” faltered, the label instability that’s popped up in a number of these deep dives started to rear its head. (As Wide Open Country pointed out, labels are no more interested following an established act through a sound change than fans are.) The group parted ways with Big Machine early in 2016, and later that year announced a partnership with Interscope Records and UMG Nashville to allow them to keep a toe in both the country and pop waters. Heart + Beat was once again announced as the next album (complete with material left over from their Big Machine days), and “Comeback Kid” was announced as the next single, the group got a new beige makeover, and…the comeback sputtered when the single limped to #39 on the country airplay charts and never crossed over to other genres.
- The group formally pulled the plug on Heart + Beat in 2017 and instead announced Bad Imagination as their first official pop record. They got another makeover (this time with a punk aesthetic), shipped the first single “Stay In The Dark” to adult contemporary radio rather than country, and…it settled for a #23 peak on the AC chart.
A common theme through these years seems to be a growing frustration that no one in the musical establishment could understand or capture what the trio was looking for:
“The ‘Live Forevers’ of the world, even ‘Stay in the Dark,’ while we liked those songs, there were a host of other influences around them, whether it was producers, co-songwriters or, quite honestly, labels. Everybody sort of had a voice as to what those needed to sound like and where they needed to live in the world. And that was the other thing that kind of led us to going, ‘We’ve got to make sure that what we’re putting out is Kimberly, Reid and Neil.'”—Kimberly Perry, as told to Chris Willman
“We were getting a lot of people who interpreted what was said as ‘pop-rock,’ and that wasn’t it at all.” —Reid Perry, as told to Jonathan Bernstein
This feeling eventually led the band to exit the mainstream music business entirely: They stuck Bad Imagination on the shelf next to Heart + Beat, exited Interscope Records, and started their own independent label to self-release their new material. in 2018, they reunited with Rick Rubin to release their Coordinates EP, and they’ve released a few scattered singles since then, none of which impacted the radio.
So what happened to Kimberly, Neil, and Reid Perry? To quote Viantastic, they found “a liberation to creation from a box of frustration.” They got pidgeonholed stylistically by an early hit, got pushback when they tried to broaden their horizons, and eventually got sick and tired of playing the mainstream music game and walked away to do their own thing. I think the main issue is that what the group wanted to do and what the group ended up doing were so far apart that spanning the gap became impossible. While what the group is doing now is actually decent (“The Good Life” brings more raw, visceral anger to the table than even Gabby Barrett’s “I Hope”), it’s not going to appeal to most of the fans who fell in love with “If I Die Young,” and thus the group is stuck starting from scratch in their new life as an independent act.
The good news is that, at least in the sources I’ve found, the trio seems perfectly comfortable with the transition and where they are in their career (we’ll see if that’s still true in a few years…). Country fans may miss the group’s classic sound, but fans and labels only dictate the rules of the popularity game; they can’t force artists to play. The Band Perry has earned their freedom (not to mention enough money from their early success to enjoy their creative freedom without worrying about sustainability), so if they’re truly happy with where they are now, that’s all that matters.