A Helluva Disappearing Act: What Happened To Frankie Ballard?

Image from Twitter

Musicians are often lumped into two buckets: Those who make it big, and those who don’t make it at all. However, there’s a third group that sits in between these extremes: The artists that get a taste of success and draw the spotlight for a brief moment, but can’t sustain the momentum and watch the light quickly fade from their careers. Bittersweet as it may be, however, that brief moment can leave an lasting impression on the people who hear it, leaving them scratching their head as to why things didn’t. These are the stories of the one-hit wonders.

…Well, in truth Frankie Ballard falls into a fourth bucket: He’s more of a one-album wonder, as his 2014 album Sunshine & Whiskey spawned three #1 singles in the mid-2010s. When the album cycle flipped to 2016’s El Rio, Ballard’s fortunes flipped with it, and he quickly disappeared from the airwaves. However, something about Ballard’s departure has left many people scratching their heads over the years: The man still appears to be on his original record label, and he has still maintained a robust touring schedule over the years (or at least as much of such a schedule that the coronavirus pandemic will permit)…but he hasn’t bothered to release a new radio single since 2017’s “You’ll Accomp’ny Me.” (Side note: When the subject of your deep dive fell from grace within the lifespan of your blog, it really makes you feel old.) It’s a strange move that has left a lot of readers here wondering what happened:

(It took me over a year to get back to this comment, but I finally did it!)

Joe’s mentioning of Josh Turner feels prescient here, because the more I dug into this story the more I was reminded of Turner’s standoff with MCA that we explored in our original deep-dive. While quotations and other hard evidence is hard to find on the matter (like Jessica Andrews, Ballard remains active on social media, but he’s been extremely tight-lipped about his musical situation) after going through Ballard’s radio singles the sense I get is that Sunshine & Whiskey was an experiment, an attempt by Warner Bros. to try sticking a square peg in a round hole just to see how it fits. Ballard, however, has styled himself as a very different artist than the generic Metro-Bro singer that appeared on Sunshine & Whiskey, and when he tried leaning into his preferred style on El Rio, both the radio and the label seemed to lose interest in him. This left him stuck in country music purgatory, where he still seems to reside today.

The Rise

Ballard signed with Warner Bros. subsidiary Reprise Records in 2010, and released a couple of forgettable singles and an unremarkable self-titled debut album over the next two years. “Tell Me You Get Lonely” is a fairly standard lost-love song and isn’t much to write home about, but “A Buncha Girls,” with it rock-guitar-dominated sound (albeit more of a classic and softer sound than some of the stuff that would follow) and a heavy focus on girls and partying in the lyrics, were a preview of the trend that would end up dominating much of the decade. Florida Georgia Line would drop “Cruise” in 2012, Jody Rosen would write his famous article a year later, and the Bro-Country trend was off and running.

At the movement began to gain steam, Warner Bros. started scouring its roster for a suitable candidate to push in that direction. The obvious candidate at the time was Blake Shelton, who was in the early stages of his #1 single streak at the time, and thus his material took a hard turn towards the beer-truck-girl-drum machine formula (it kinda-sorta started during the end of the Red River Blue era, but really kicked in on Based On A True Story… and the insufferably-repetitive “Boys ‘Round Here”). While hindsight may have validated the move (as aggravating as I find his output now, he became one of the faces of Bro-Country and eventually one of the most successful artists of the decade), Shelton had already been in the business for roughly a decade, and didn’t have that new-artist smell that an act like Florida Georgia Line did. The label wanted a fresh new face that it could break in as a Bro-Country hitmaker, and they settled on Ballard.

Sunshine & Whiskey produced three singles, and it’s striking how much his sound changed between his first and second albums. The classic-rock guitar sound that he’s become known for was turned down (at least for the first two singles) in favor of electronic beats, token banjos, and a generally-slick feel, and the subject matter was dumbed down to a third-grade reading level and became very buzzword-heavy: Six-packs and longnecks, Jack Daniels, gas, KC lights, summer beaches, driving, making out, driving while making out, alcohol of every stripe, old-school name drops (it’s telling, however, that the artists mentioned is Tom Petty rather than George Strait or Hank Williams Jr.), and a generally-carefree party-hardy approach to life. In short, it was exactly what everyone else was playing at the time, and it all found similar success: “A Helluva Life,” “Sunshine & Whiskey,” and “Young & Crazy” all found their way to the top of the Billboard country charts.

Ballard played the part of a good soldier for Warner Bros. (and still seems to be doing so; I haven’t found any articles where he’s been openly critical of the label and/or Sunshine & Whiskey), but he seemed to want to make a different kind of music than what was being pushed on him, and he didn’t seem keen on Nashville’s atmosphere, constantly citing the “distractions” involved:

“I’ve done a lot of recording in Nashville and I get easily distracted…I’m in there and we’re doing our thing, and somebody stops by like ‘How’s it going? Can I bring you guys some sandwiches?’ It’s like ‘No, you’re breaking up our mojo.'”

Ballard, as told to Chris Parton, June 2016

“I’ve done a lot of recording in Nashville and other places, but I really wanted to get out and away and try to focus and eliminate some distractions that come from recording in Nashville…just in an effort to make the music better.”

Ballard, as told to Gayle Thompson, April 2016

“I live here, and there are wonderful studios here. After all, it is Music City, USA. But when you try to work in a place that you live in, sometimes there can be too much going on outside of the door that you’re trying to work in to avoid it. People stop by, or you need to go run and do something. I didn’t like being distracted in the studio, and I’ve felt that way numerous times in Nashville. Maybe I’m not able to focus as I should, and it always seems that people are in a hurry. You’re only 20 minutes from your house. I just really wanted to eliminate that and focus ourselves — the band, myself and everybody — to put us in a situation where all we have to do is make music.”

Ballard, as told to Chuck Dauphin, November 2015

As Bro-Country gave way to the even-slicker Metropolitan sound in the mid 2010s, Ballard struck out on his own path both figuratively and literally, recording the album in the El Paso, Texas area instead of in Nashville. The resulting album El Rio was a stark divergence from the Nashville assembly line, with a fair bit of homage paid to classic rock (the third single was actually a Bob Seger cover, which I didn’t realize at the time I wrote the review). Heck, even the album cover with Ballard’s “combed back hair and leather jacket” served as a nice throwback:

Image from Wikipedia

The leadoff single “It All Started With A Beer” may have been a bit more soundalike and radio-friendly than the rest of the album, but later singles brought his retro rock-edged guitar back to the forefront, resulting in a sound that fell somewhere between Petty and Eric Church. The lyrics tried to connect on a deeper level as well: Even with “It All Started With A Beer,” the romantic encounter was meant to be long-lasting instead of ephemeral, and the feelings involved were more deeper and more durable. In other words, it was a record that oozed individuality, the sort of disc that could make an artist like Ballard stand out from the crowd, catch listeners’ ears, and use a specific sound to draw them in. I may not have been terribly moved by the singles, but hey, at least the guy was trying.

The Fall

Unfortunately, “unique” and “different” don’t always equate to “successful”: El Rio was a commercial disaster, with the leadoff single peaking at #15, “Cigarette” and “You’ll Accomp’ny Me” failing to go beyond #50 on Billboard’s airplay chart, and sales that chart watcher Chris Owen described as “embarrassing.” Ballard may have described the album as “Frankie Ballard, but it’s better,” but apparently no one agreed with him, and his retro stylings just didn’t resonate with the radio. Of course, artists run into this sort of roadblock all the time: An album just doesn’t generate any hype, and everyone involved has to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and figure out a way to do better the next time.

…Except that this time, there wasn’t a next time: “You’ll Accomp’ny Me” is Ballard’s last official single release to date, a nearly five-year drought that has completely destroyed whatever momentum and buzz Ballard had going for him. His label status is…well, it’s hard to say: I can’t find anything that says Ballard has left the Warner Bros. stable, but he’s no longer listed on Warner Music Nashville’s artist page either (in comparison, Devin Dawson’s still there, and he hasn’t released a new single since 2018). In fact, Ballard hasn’t generated much copy at all over the last half-decade: Like Andrews, much of his recent news has been personal (his marriage in 2017, his first child in 2020), and while there have been rumors and rumblings about an eventual fourth album (He’s writing with Kristian Bush! He’s working on a gospel project!), nothing has actually materialized despite the fact that he’s apparently been working new material into his live shows. What the heck is going on?

At this point it’s pure speculation, but my guess right now is that Ballard’s getting the Josh Turner treatment.

My deep dive header image from 2016.

Turner went five years between his Punching Bag and Deep South albums as he and the label feuded over exactly what the album should be: The label wanted something trendy and hip (read: Bro-Country), and Turner wanted something that was more traditional. The resulting delay pretty much destroyed Turner’s mainstream career, but in the end he got the creative control he wanted (and amazingly he’s still with MCA to this day), and has released both a gospel album and an album of classic country cover songs in recent years.

My guess is that Ballard is in a similar spot: He may be stuck under contract with Warner Bros., but the label is looking for something they think they can sell before they start making a comeback marketing push, and Ballard simply wants to do his own thing outside the Nashville machine, regardless of its commercial viability. If both sides are willing and able to try waiting out the other party, we end up with dry spells like this one, where no news is made and no songs are heard.

Conclusions

So what happened to Frankie Ballard? At this point, we only have half an answer: He served as a guinea pig for Warner Bros. Bro-Country experiment, found some radio success as a result, and then tried to do something different and immediately faded into obscurity. He’s never emerged from that obscurity, however, and while my theory is that he and Warner Bros. are still trying to figure out a way forward that’s palatable to both sides, the truth is that we really have no idea what’s going on.

The good news is that if my theory is true, then as bad as Ballard’s current situation may be, Turner’s outcome gives Ballard fans a reason to be optimistic. Turner may never be relevant in the mainstream conversation again, but he’s still putting out new music and making both himself his fans happy. Hopefully Ballard gets the chance to do the same thing soon, whether it be with classic rock, gospel, or something else.

Warner Bros. was awfully quick to use someone else’s Bro-Country template for Ballard, so if they’re really still trying to figure out what to do with him, get MCA on the phone and get their Josh Turner playbook, because there are still quite a few people out there who enjoyed Ballard’s work and would love to hear more from him. At the end of the day, everyone involved here is in the business or making and selling music, and with so many avenues open beyond traditional albums for getting music to the people that want it (EPs, digital downloads, streaming services), there has got to be a way to get Ballard back into the spotlight at a price point that works for everyone.

Maybe we don’t know what happened to Frankie Ballard, but I think we all know what should happen to him, and the sooner he gets to record new content and share it with the world, the happier and better off everyone will be.

One-Hit Wonderings: What Happened To Canaan Smith?

Image From Forbes

Musicians are often lumped into two buckets: Those who make it big, and those who don’t make it at all. However, there’s a third group that sits in between these extremes: The artists that get a taste of success and draw the spotlight for a brief moment, but can’t sustain the momentum and watch the light quickly fade from their careers. Bittersweet as it may be, however, that brief moment can leave an lasting impression on the people who hear it, leaving them scratching their head as to why things didn’t. These are the stories of the one-hit wonders.

Today’s installment of One-Hit Wonderings is brought to you by RAID: Shadow Legends Sam Wilson, who points out that while these artists may leave an impression on their audience, it’s not always a good one:

Canaan Smith’s claim to fame is “Love You Like That,” a generic Bro-Country pick-up line that was released in 2014 but needed an entire year to reach #1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart. The song is so formulaic and soundalike that it’s a wonder it made any impact on the charts at all, and whatever lightning Smith caught in a bottle leaked out after the follow-up single “Hole In The Bottle” stalled at #23. Smith quickly disappeared from the radio (so much so that there’s been no trace of him on the Korner until now) and has only recently re-emerged from exile with a new album on a new label. So what caused Smith to flare up and fizzle out so fast?

After looking through Smith’s story, there appear to be some surprising similarities between Smith’s experience and Ty England’s Nashville stint fifteen years earlier. Mercury Nashville attempted to shove a square peg into a trendy round hole, and while the experiment worked just long enough to get a #1 song, the experience bothered Smith enough that when the roof finally caved in, he simply walked away and started making music the way he wanted it, regardless of its commercial potential.

The Ride

England had Garth Brooks in his corner, and Smith had a similar arrangement with someone who was almost as powerful at the time: Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley, better known as Florida Georgia Line. The three men were friends from their days at Belmont University, and Smith and Hubbard co-wrote the song “Black Tears” for FGL’s self-released EP back like 2010 (Jason Aldean would later record the song for his 2012 album Night Train). While Hubbard and Kelley may not have had a direct hand in Smith’s signing to Mercury Nashville, they certainly had an impact on the label’s vision for Smith, as “Cruise” would drop in 2012 and kick off the Bro-Country movement that would plague the genre for the next few years.

Bro-Country would kick off the careers of a number of artists (Thomas Rhett, Cole Swindell, Chase Rice, Brantley Gilbert, Brett Eldredge, etc.) and supercharge the careers of others (Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, Blake Shelton), and after Smith’s more-conventional debut single “We Got Us” crashed and burned at #44, Mercury pivoted to try to capitalize on the surging trend. “Love You Like That” checks all the boxes for the sound that defined the era: A deliberate tempo, heavy electric guitars, a token banjo, a serious tone that feels too dark to be romantic, an alcohol-marinated nighttime ride, references to both Tom Petty and “Fishin’ In The Dark,” continuously using the word “girl,” drawing the city/country dividing line…the list goes on and on. (The notable omissions are truck references and an in-your-face drum machine.)

The ploy worked long enough to earn Smith and his team a #1 song and an eventual album release in Bronco, but it failed to establish an identity for Smith beyond “just another faceless young white male singer off of Nashville’s assembly line.” It left him vulnerable to another shakeup in the genre’s sound, and by the time “Love You Like That” reached #1 in 2015, one particular artist was doing a lot of shaking.

Image from People

A quick look at the Billboard county #1s in 2015 shows that the year was dominated by two men: Luke Bryan (who had already pivoted to a slicker sound with “Kick The Dust Up” and “Strip It Down”) and Sam Hunt, who exploded onto the scene with “Take Your Time” and “House Party.” (In truth, the seeds for this trend has been planted the previous year with Hunt’s “Leave The Night On” and especially Aldean’s “Burnin’ It Down.”) This was the start of the Metropolitan movement, and country artists were once again faced with an “adapt or die” moment. Unfortunately for Smith, Bronco was built for the Bro-Country era, and without any real star power or name recognition, he would never again find traction on the airwaves. After some failed attempts to adapt and adopt the new sound (“Like You That Way,” “This Night Back”), Smith and Mercury parted ways in 2018.

So What Happened?

Much like Brooks did for England, FGL stepped in to fill the void left by Mercury, signing Smith to their own label Round Here Labels as their flagship artist. 2020 saw the release of a new single “Colder Than You,” and the difference between major label Smith and kinda-sorta indie label Smith was jarring:

Instead of a Bro-country purveyor with a “clean-shaven face and fitted leather jackets,” we got a slow, 6/8 track from a guy who looked like River Dave‘s next-door neighbor…and honestly, I think I like the change (“Colder Than You” is at least better than Thanos’s attempt at the same wordplay). So what led Smith down this path?

While Smith has been careful not to throw too much shade at his former employer while talking about his album (he calls them “a really, really great label…and a building full of people I love and felt loved by”), there’s a constant theme that comes up when discussing his new album High Country Sound:

“I just felt like I think I wanna take back a little bit of this ownership of my career, and just maybe hit reset for a second…Get back to why I moved to town in the first place, for great songs, and to do stuff without worrying too much about where we wanted to land.”

Smith, as told to Gayle Thompson, October 2019

“It’s me fully embracing, kind of, who I am, where I came from, you know, and not trying to be anything.”

Smith, as told to Amy Poulter, July 2020

“This whole album felt like a chance to make something that I truly wanted, which was extremely liberating…I really focused on having fun with it, and I didn’t feel pressure from anyone to do anything in particular—it all came from a place of my own personal love for these songs. Taking control and kind of steering the project in the way I wanted just made the outcome that much more special, and I couldn’t be prouder of it.”

Smith, as told to LB Cantrell, March 2021

“It was just a digging deep and reaching inside kind of thing to find that sound that best reflects me and not just a sound that we think is cool or is going to work or going to compete…I had 100% complete freedom from start to finish.”

Smith, as told to Annie Reuter, April 2021

The key here appears to be control: Smith grew unhappy with being a small cog in a major-label machine and with getting pushed in a certain direction, and wanted to reclaim his own narrative and make the music that he wanted to make, regardless of the public reception. On High Country Sound, he did exactly that, co-writing every track on the disc and self-producing most of them (he co-produced the rest with Hubbard and Kelley).

As an album, High Country Sound feels a bit scattershot to me, and includes some tracks that seem fairly radio-friendly and are occasionally even ripped straight from the Bro-Country playbook. It suggests that it wasn’t the kind of music Smith was making at Mercury that bothered him, but rather the lack of input or creative control over the career. Whatever he’s doing now, he’s doing it of his own volition, and sometimes that means more than earning success or validation. As someone who’s mashed together some seriously strange topics on this blog over the years, I can respect that.

However, despite Round Here’s partnership with AWAL, the label doesn’t seem to have the radio muscle of the major Nashville players (and in truth, the label seems to be focused primarily on metrics like streaming and download numbers), so barring a viral hit on the order of “Fancy Like,” we’ve probably heard the last of Canaan Smith on mainstream radio. However, Smith seems to be fairly content in his current position, and sometimes that’s all that matters. No matter what, he’ll always be a man with a #1 song, even if the rest of the world would rather forget it.

One-Hit Wonderings: What Happened To Ty England?

Musicians are often lumped into two buckets: Those who make it big, and those who don’t make it at all. However, there’s a third group that sits in between these extremes: The artists that get a taste of success and draw the spotlight for a brief moment, but can’t sustain the momentum and watch the light quickly fade from their careers. Bittersweet as it may be, however, that brief moment can leave an lasting impression on the people who hear it, leaving them scratching their head as to why things didn’t. These are the stories of the one-hit wonders.

In our first installment of what will hopefully be a recurring series, we examine the career of Ty England, a supporting character in the GBCU (Garth Brooks Cinematic Universe) that struggled when they tried to step in a leading role themselves. England only managed to put a single song into the Top Twenty when his 1995 debut “Should’ve Asked Her Faster” made it to #3, but the song must have left a serious impression on people, because this exact same article has been written twice within the last three years, including one by country chart insider Chris Owen! When a song makes that kind of an impact, it begs the question: Why wasn’t England’s success sustainable?

In examining England’s career, many of the same factors that we’ve seen in previous deep dives (notably timing and label machinations) are present here, but the biggest factors at play are luck and personality: It took a huge break to get England into the music business in the first place (one that he could never seem to replicate), and one he got a taste of the business end of the business, he didn’t seem all that enthused in being a part of the system.

The Dream

Ty England is the ultimate “right place, right time” individual: A few weeks after arriving on the campus on Oklahoma State University, he was introduced to a fellow student (and eventual roommate) that shared his musical obsession. England’s devotion to music over grades, however, eventually led him to leave campus and finish his degree via night classes, but his friend declared that if his career ever went anywhere, he would bring England along for the ride. Pacts like this are made, broken, and forgotten all the time, but this time was different: England’s OSU acquaintance wound up being the Garth Brooks (who, as of this writing, is still putting singles on the country charts) and he made good on his word:

“The day Garth signed his record deal at Capitol…he called my house. He told me he wanted me to move to Nashville and be a part of his band. I hesitated and said, `Man, give me a week to think about this. It’s a pretty scary thing.’ And then I went into work that next morning and told my boss that I would be leaving to move to Nashville. So it took me about 24 hours to come to that decision.”

England, as told to FuseVisual, March 2015

Say what you want about Garth Brooks, but the man is fiercely loyal to his friends (so much so that volunteered to donate part of his liver to Chris LeDoux when LeDoux required a transplant), and Brooks was both a friend and a superfan of Ty England, at one point calling him “probably the most talented person I had ever been around.” It was this connection to arguably the biggest star in country music history that eventually earned England his own shot at radio success.

England played in Brooks’s band for seven years, but Brooks continued to talk him up as a potential country star, and encouraged England to embark on a solo career on his own. England would eventually sign a solo record deal with RCA in 1995, and when “Should’ve Asked Her Faster” caught the public’s ear, he seems to be poised for country stardom.

The Reality

However, as a not-so-wise man is fond of saying, country music will give a debut #1 to just about anyone (yes, I know “Should’ve Asked Her Faster” only made it to #3 on Billboard and #4 on R&R, but the point still stands that it was a radio hit), and subsequent singles could never recapture the magic. Neither “Smoke In Her Eyes” nor “Redneck Son” could even crack the Top 40, the big leadoff single for his sophomore disc “Irresistible Girl” peaked at #22, and by 1997 England’s country career was basically a wrap.

So what happened? First, let’s consider the usual suspects:

  • Label Issues: England’s tenure at RCA was defined by micromanagement, with both the label and producer imposing their own artistic vision on the artist. England was less than thrilled with the process:

“We made several mistakes at RCA, number one being we chose songs by committee…We were exclusively trying to pick songs that we thought radio would play. And [producer] Garth Fundis didn’t know me for who I really was. He knew me for who I had been in Garth’s [Brooks] band.”

England, as told to Lisa Young, June 2003

“England said the folks at RCA weren’t too welcoming of his suggestions, so he was reluctant to suggest tunes to Brooks.”

Diane Samms Rush, Orlando Sentinel, January 2001

England also cited the political side of the business as a problem during his RCA tenure:

“I never wanted to look at (music) as a business because I enjoy playing so much. But it’s as much a business as the New York Stock Exchange…It’s very political, and you have to have two or three guys watching your back all the time.”

England, as told to Ben Scott, June 1999

It’s worth noting that RCA was going through a bit of a transition at the time, with Joe Galante (a man known for cutthroat business acumen and unafraid to ruffle feathers and bruise feelings) returning after a disappointing stint at the label’s main corporate headquarters. England, however, admitted that he wasn’t always the easiest person to work with either:

“I didn’t have as much tact as I should have had…I made some demands from RCA that I shouldn’t have. [Brooks] called his own shots. I had never seen it done another way. I learned I’m not boss hog at the record label.”

England, as reported by Edward Morris, January 2004

The frustrating experience and limited success led England to rejoin Brooks at Capitol Nashville in 1999, where he had both a sympathetic producer (Brooks) and CEO (Pat Quigley) that would give England the freedom to make the kind of album he wanted. So he did, and then

“Two weeks before that album came out, the president of the label was fired, and the walls came tumbling down…When a new person comes in, he always has new ideas and new plans, and I wasn’t in those plans.”

England, as told to John Wooley, December 2004

The album wound up flopping hard (none of the singles even cracked the top 50), once again that even the best of albums is just a plastic disc with a picture without some marketing muscle behind it.

  • Timing: If Marvel is playing the “What If?” game with its cinematic universe, we can do the same thing here. Suppose that Quigley never leaves Capitol, and that Brooks and England put together an album for the ages. (Truthfully, Highways & Dance Halls is a decent album as it is, and Brooks’s influence is palpable in the tracks—you could just imagine Brooks singing these songs himself, and he eventually did. However, England’s rendition of “Travelin’ Soldier” is pretty weak compared to The Chicks’ version.) Would the album have done well? I have my doubts:
Image from Amazon

By the turn of the millennium, country music was dominated by a pop-country movement headlined by artists like Shania Twain and Faith Hill, and the neotraditional sound that had defined early/mid-1990s was fading from the scene. (For all of Garth Brooks’s star power, it’s worth noting that even he was starting to lose his grip on the genre by this point, and he would announce his retirement just one year after Highways & Dance Halls was released.) England’s sound in both his RCA and Capitol tenures was firmly planted in a more-traditional style, and it wasn’t simply wasn’t in vogue at this point. This album could have made some noise in 1990, but by 2000 the musical world had moved on, which makes me think that whatever window England might have had for stardom had already closed.

The Reasoning

So if timing and label issues were clear factors in England’s decline, why did I single out luck and personality earlier? The luck factor is easy enough to explain: Much like Lee Ann Womack, England simply missed his moment by a good ten years or so to make his mark in Nashville, and when did he take his shot, circumstances beyond his control never seem to work out in his favor.

But exactly how does personality fit into this equation? Much like Chris Cagle, after going through England’s statements I get the sense that the man simply wanted to make music on his own terms, and was uncomfortable in the role that a musical career demanded.

The biggest example of this is England’s attempt at “anti-networking.” There’s an old saying that “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” and as the guy standing beside one of the biggest musical stars on the planet for seven years, England may well have been one of the best-connected people in country music. Being the loyal person that he is, Brooks was more than willing to offer a helping hand or ten to England to aid his rise to the top, and given Brooks’s power at the time, he probably could have opened a lot of eyes and doors for his former sideman. England, however, didn’t want to be labeled as the guy who found fame just by riding Brooks’s coattails:

“I mean, when I left Garth and went on my own, I felt I would earn more respect by totally severing all of my ties to Garth. Now, I could have opened every show he did. I could have done duets with him on my albums. He offered those opportunities to me. Garth wanted to help me. But I turned down all of his offers.”

England, as told to FuseVisual, March 2015

“I felt I needed to get away from Garth so I could earn credit and wings on my own.”

England, as told to Lisa Young, June 2003

England eventually came to terms with his role as Garth Brooks’s understudy when he joined Capitol Records, but even then he made a point of declaring “I’m not saying that I’m going to use Garth for everything I can to get where I’m going.” England wanted his success to be his own doing, which is a laudable sentiment, but perhaps not ideal for someone looking to break through in a dog-eat-dog town like Nashville.

The duplicity of musical insiders seemed to bother England a lot as well: In addition to the politics quote from earlier, he explicitly references character when talking about his post-Capitol plans, saying that he was thinking about starting an Oklahoma-based label because “people here have a heart that’s right for country-music talent…They’re down-to-earth. They’re honest. They’re friendly.” (He also applauded Quigley back in the day for making Capitol “a lot more family-oriented,” which is a supremely weird compliment to give a record executive.) England thought of himself a purely a musician, and wanted to surround himself with people he could trust so he didn’t have to worry about their motives or schemes. Again, this is a great idea in theory, but it’s also a pipe dream in an industry that promises untold fame and fortune for those who rise above their peers.

Finally, while England claimed to be obsessed with music, after his RCA tenure he seemed to lose his taste for a formal musical career:

“In all honesty, I had done a lot of soul searching and looked through newspapers for jobs…I did everything to try to figure out what I was going to do with my life. I have never found anything that I care about the way I do music. When Garth called, my immediate response was, ’I want to try it again.'”

England explaining his actions after exiting RCA, as told to Lisa Young, June 2003

“This is the beginning or the end of my musical journey.”

England on his Highways & Dance Halls album, as told to Diane Samms Rush, January 2001

“I’ve got an album sitting in my back pocket, but I don’t want to sign with a record label and just be one of the guys on the label…I want somebody who’s willing to jump on the bandwagon with me.”

England after leaving Capitol, as told to John Wooley, December 2004

Basically, the dude was done with Nashville by 1997, and it took the perfect offer from an old friend to bring him back for a second go-round. (England would eventually release a fourth album Alive And Well And Livin’ The Dream in 2007, but whether that was the album in his back pocket is unclear.)

The Verdict

So what made Ty England a one-hit wonder? It appears that his career was a case of “be careful what you wish for”: He had a vision of what his career and his music would be like, and he got a rude awakening when a) his record label didn’t follow his roadmap, and b) he discovered his sound was out of step with the public’s tastes. Still, for one shining moment he was on top of the world (if not quite on top of the charts) with a catchy little Western swing number that still resonates listeners over twenty-five years after its release, and while the song would occasionally wear on him for being the only one people remembered, I would argue that it beats the alternative of not being remembered at all.

1000 Post Special: What Happened To Kyle Akers?

Willie Nelson was right: It is funny how time slips away, isn’t it?

A few weeks ago, I noticed that the blog was closing in on the 1000-post mark, a major milestone for a blog whose future has been in doubt on multiple occasions over the last few years. The realization inspired me to check the site’s total view count (WordPress’s new UI doesn’t display the total like it used to), and I was even more surprised to find that Kyle’s Korner had crossed the 250,000 view mark (in fact, at the time I wrote we were just short of 261,000). I know that spam bots and other automated web crawlers generate a lot of traffic, but still: A quarter of a million views?! The number caught me a bit off guard, and it made me reflect on everything that had transpired since my eulogy for José Fernández was posted all those years ago.

Since its founding in 2016, Kyle’s Korner has survived three jobs across three states, the rise and fall of Bro-Country, the release of the Nintendo Switch, the suicide of a close friend, the Trump administration, an attempted coup, a nationwide reckoning on race, and a global pandemic. (To say that this is not the world I thought we’d be living in when I started the blog is the understatement of the millennium.) Posts have gotten longer, monthly readership has grown from the tens to the tens of thousands, the sport and gaming topics I thought I would be talking about have taken a backseat to song reviews and artist deep dives, and Thanos has turned Luke Bryan into “the other Luke” in country music. All of these developments give rise to a simple question: How?

Since deep dives have become the biggest draw on the site, it seemed like putting together one for Post #1000 would suit the occasion, and it turns out that both Zack Kephart and Jmaster824 had the same question that I did:

So today, we’re booting up old laptops, logging onto old accounts, and diggin’ up bones a long-forgotten hard drive from the Sudikoff courtyard (I had to move it anyway, the department is moving to another building this fall) to answer a few questions:

  • How did we get here?
  • Why are we still here?
  • Have we learned any lessons that might be useful for posterity?

In a nutshell, the journey to Kyle’s Korner is one of perseverance and self-discovery, a long quest to find a place in this world in which the eventual decision was “F*** it, I’ll just make my own place.” By going back through the story, perhaps we can unearth some nuggets of wisdom that will help you on your own path through life.

Act I: The New England Patriot (2004-2006)

The original header image for ‘The New England Patriot’ (the template added the title automatically, but not the tagline).

My first blog was a product of mixing the political climate of the early 2000s with a heaping helping of dumb luck:

  • In 2002, President George W. Bush and his cronies began agitating for military operations against Iraq, claiming that then-dictator Saddam Hussein posed a threat because he possessed weapons of mass destruction. Subsequent U.N. inspections turned up no evidence of such weapons, but the administration kept claiming that they were there and needed to be dealt with, and Bush eventually led a “coalition of the willing” into Iraq in 2003. The resulting quagmire dominated American politics (and country music) for the next few years, and in the end no WMDs were ever found.

I ran with a pretty liberal crew at the time (Editor’s note: He still does), and while we weren’t Bush’s biggest fans to begin with, his insistence on invading Iraq despite having an extremely flimsy case for doing so really made us mad, and a few of them responded by founding a blog called “Satire Is Dead,” where they ranted about and mocked the antics of the Bush administration (think Seth Meyers’s “A Closer Look” series, but in blog form and nowhere near as funny). I wasn’t a founding member of the site, but they looked like they having fun and I had a few choice words I wanted to share, so when they asked me to be a contributing author, I said yes.

  • A few months later, I was contacted by a friend who was doing some IT work as part of his college work-study program. His boss had tasked him with setting up a blog on a development server in order to test out some website monitoring tools, but he didn’t have any content to generate the traffic he needed to monitor. He knew that I had some blogging experience through SID, so he made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: I could take control of the blog, customize the look, feel, and branding, and write whatever random junk I wanted, and he would analyze the traffic and take care of all the messy backend stuff. (Looking back, I’m surprised he wasn’t more worried about getting fired for this…) Being super bored at my own position, I agreed, and we sealed the deal over coffee the next day.

“The New England Patriot” published their first post on December 3, 2004, discussing President Bush’s nomination of Bernard Kerik to lead the Department of Homeland Security. (The name was a play on the NFL’s New England Patriots, who were just starting to dominate the league under Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. To this day, I wonder how many confused football fans showed up at the blog just looking for NFL news.) For the next two years, I would spend most of my day reading the news online, writing up and publishing a post about something if it irritated or amused me enough, and sending it over to Satire Is Dead if the humor was biting enough (at least until that blog disintegrated as people left to pursue other projects). There was no set post schedule, no hard limit on topic choices (if I wanted to rant about Rafael Palmeiro’s steroid use or the uselessness of college rankings, I did), and no assumption of readership—in fact, given how little engagement the blog got, for most of its tenure I figured I was just shouting into the void. (All my sysadmin partner would ever tell me is that he had to keep messing with his firewall to block all the spam commenters.)

So if no one was listening, why did I keep talking? On one hand, there were definitely elements of ego and boredom involved: I thought I had something that was worth saying, and I had nothing better to do than to say it. There was probably an element of “What harm could it do?” as well, especially if no one was actually reading the posts (although today the fantasy of cyberspace/reality separation has been thoroughly dispelled).

However, upon further review I think the biggest driver behind The New England Patriot was that the blog allowed me to talk about the things I wanted to talk about, nothing more and nothing less. At the time, I was operating in a tech-centered bubble where most people preferred to talk about things like graph theory and runtime analysis, and the blog was the digital equivalent of screaming into a pillow, letting me ramble on about whatever on my mind even if no one was actually listening.

What I discovered later, however, was that people were actually listening:

  • Late in 2005, I got an excited email from one of my Satire Is Dead colleagues saying that one of my posts has been quoted in the Express, a newspaper distributed in the D.C. area:

While I really wish the paper had used a better quote than that throwaway line, it was amazing to think that I had crossed over into an old-school publication. Still, D.C. lives and breathes politics, so it’s not surprising that even an obscure blog like ours would pop up on their radar. What about local attention?

  • In 2006, when Vermont Daily Briefing (a blog that still exists, although it’s no longer politically-focused) reported on the vandalizing of the PoliticsVT blog, I asked my sysadmin partner if there was anything he could do to help. He in turn reached out to VDB’s founder with some ideas about recovering the data, and they mentioned in their response that they knew about us and had been checking in on The New England Patriot for some time! The revelation absolutely blew my mind: I had following VDB for a while, but never imagined that the reverse might have been true.
  • The reaction became even more local in the wake of the campus conservative publication The Dartmouth Review using a grossly offensive characterization of Native Americans in their paper in late 2006, leading a number of campus and community members to rally in support of Native Americans and proclaim, as I reported on the blog, “that Dartmouth cannot and will not stand for such outright bigotry and bullshit.” My writeup of the event quickly became the most commented-on post at the site, finally driving the point home that yes, people were paying attention to my words.

So naturally, less than a week after I finally realized I had an audience and some momentum…my server admin decided to leave his job and join a startup company, and thus had to decommission his servers. Just like that, the reign of The New England Patriot came to an unceremonious end.

However, I learned a valuable lesson for my days on the political beat, albeit one I could have picked up much more quickly just by watching Kevin Costner: “If you build it, [they] will come.” If you stand on a digital street corner and shout long enough, eventually people will stop and listen, and the more you post, the more you hone your craft and figure out just what you’re trying to say. These were important lessons that I applied in my return to blogging a decade later.

Act II: Green Akers (2011-2016)

The cover image for Mortal Kombat: Equestria.

So what did I do in my hiatus from the blogosphere? For a while, I didn’t do much at all, because I was wrestling with a bigger question: What do I want to be when I grow up? The answer eluded me, so with no better options I continued walking the technological path I was on, finishing school and eventually moving into academic research. However, the more time I spent in the field, the more frustrating and less fulfilling I found it, and I began to wonder if a career in tech was really what I wanted.

It goes without saying that I was playing a lot of video games at the time (this was the heyday of the Nintendo Wii and DS, after all), and making video games with the reason I’d gotten into programming in the first place. As time went on, however, I realized that it wasn’t the technology aspect of the games that fascinated me, but the storytelling, and how games like RPGs had strong narratives and complex characters that came together to form deep and engaging tales. To heck with this computer stuff, I thought, I’m going to be…a writer!

Unfortunately, there were two problems with this goal:

  • Writing is a notoriously poor-paying profession for most of it practitioners, and I kind of like to eat, pay rent, and buy Nintendo games.
  • I am the most unoriginal person in the world. Put me in an existing world and I can riff off of it endlessly; tell me to develop my own world from scratch, and I’ll stare at a blank page for months.

The solution to both problems was to enter the realm of fan fiction, letting me use existing universes to practice while also settling the question of whether this was a profession or a hobby (trying to make money off of other peoples’ copyrights isn’t a good idea, so the second option was definitely the safest!). I spent the next year or so working on projects featuring different franchises (most of which will forever remain unfinished and unpublished), but my work suddenly entered the public domain when Lauren Faust brought the fourth generation of My Little Pony to life.

Scene from “Swarm Of The Century” (Image from Fandom.com)

I was hooked by the way the show subverted the classic tropes of princess-oriented cartoons and worked in a bunch of real-world messiness to hilarious effect, and apparently so were a lot of other people, as ‘bronies’ seemed to take over the Internet in the early 2010s. As the community grew, a rich corpus of fan stories (some good, others kind of cringey) began to accumulate, and after much deliberation, I decided to toss my hat into the ring, if only to see if what I was producing on my own was any good.

If you ask me “Where did your first story idea come from?”, I honestly have no idea. A random thought just popped into my head one day: “Hey, I bet no one’s ever tried to combine My Little Pony and Mortal Kombat before!” There was probably a good reason for that, as the franchises were pretty much polar opposites of one another (M-rated gore and violence vs. kid-friendly problem-solving with just the right amount of action), and trying to smash the two together and turn the whole mess into a slapstick comedy was even more bewildering. (I also didn’t know a whole heck of a lot about the MK franchise – I worked more off of the 1995 movie than the actual games.) In other words, it probably shouldn’t have been the first story I published.

Nevertheless, that’s exactly what I did, publishing Mortal Kombat: Equestria at the tail end of 2011 under the name “Green Akers” (it seemed like a witty play on words at the time). The earlier chapters are a bit rough and hard to revisit now (that Trollestia trope was overdone a year before I used it) and the moderators at Equestria Daily never thought much of the tale, but the story wound up being fairly well-received, which just emboldened me to go even wilder with the humor and pop-culture references in later chapters. (Re-reading it now, I even found some Brad Paisley and Jerry Reed references that I tossed in.)

Okay, but what does all this have to do with Kyle’s Korner?

Well, besides the fact that MKE and subsequent stories got me back into the writing game, I definitely learned a few things from the fanfiction experience:

  • When I first started writing MKE, I had no plan besides “Ponies fight through tournament.” I had no idea how each battle would go, how the universes would actually interact, or how the story would eventually end, so I basically spent the next three years figuring things out on the fly. Up until this point, I had a bad habit of dropping projects before I finished them, and this story got dangerously close to that point several times over its lifespan. Ultimately, however, I decided that come what may, I was going to stop leaving things half-finished and see MKE through to completion, which I finally did late in 2014. That dogged stick-to-itiveness I developed has come in really handy when running Kyle’s Korner, which has been on shaky ground more than a few times during its run.
  • Country music and Nintendo are a strange pairing, but it’s way less strange than putting Mortal Kombat and My Little Pony (and later MLP and Splatoon) together. The experience taught me that unconventional combinations can still work if they’re executed well, and gave me more confidence in my decision to let my current blog be more scattershot with its subject matter.
  • This act also introduced me to the darker side of the Internet, as some MK fans (and one in particular) were not happy with the irreverence I treated that franchise with, and they weren’t shy about telling me what they would do to me in response. After a few encounters like those, having someone call you a moron over a 5/10 song review just doesn’t have the same sting.

I wrote more and better stories during and after the MKE era (Grounded is probably my favorite of the bunch), but it was MKE that kicked off this new era of prose, and since the story is celebrating its 10th (!) anniversary this year, I figured it was a good time to once again thank it for its service.

Act III: Kyle’s Korner (2016-Present)

The original header for the blog (I still use it for the ‘About’ page).

I can’t say exactly what caused me to fall away from the MLP fandom. I will say that the episodes got more predictable as time went on, and it got harder and harder to watch characters put themselves in obviously-bad positions and then slowly watch the train wrecks unfold. I gave the show up for good halfway through 2015, and though I tried to give my work a shot in the arm by mixing in my new favorite franchise Splatoon, it’s really hard to make your work canon when you don’t know what canon is.

Life was changing in other ways as well: Most notably, my Ph.D. advisor finally got tired of having me around, and the school declared me to be ‘Dr. Kyle’ and told me to GTFO. I’d had it up to here with academia and research by then, so I set off on a cross-country journey to join the corporate world and finally make some real money.

How did that go? I’ll let 2019 Kyle explain:

I always knew that 2016 Kyle was in a dark place, but I’ve only recently realized just how dark that place was, not to mention how long he’d been stuck there. He had sold his soul to be a faceless cog in a corporate machine, and was now aimlessly adrift deep in the heart of Texas with a bleak future of monotony and isolation ahead of him. Sure, he had more space than he knew what to do with and he was eating all the frozen Walmart chicken that money could buy, but his was an existence without purpose, and his only reason for living was to sit around and watch himself die…

2017 Kyle didn’t fare much better, as said corporate machine decided that his group was expendable and gave him the axe that summer. While they ultimately did me a favor by cutting me loose, in doing so they unleashed a period of great anxiety and uncertainty, which only grew with each passing week of unanswered applications and unsuccessful interviews. It was pretty clear that the world wanted nothing to do with this poor slob anymore, and I’d be lying if I said there weren’t moments when I wondered if the clock on my personal scoreboard had ticked down to zero.

“State of the Blog Address: Rollin’ With The Flow,” September 25. 2019

So yeah, it was not fun. It’s only been five years since I left Texas, but it feels like fifty, and that was before 2020 took another twenty years to pass by itself.

As 2019 Kyle put it, Kyle’s Korner was “a boondoggle that was meant to kill time while waiting for the Grim Reaper to show up, as well as a place to use those writing skills I’d spent years sharpening on research papers and My Little Pony fanfiction.” As I mentioned, however, writing skills weren’t the only contribution of my earlier projects:

  • From the beginning, I told myself not to get caught up in the numbers, such as post views or likes. My stint as The New England Patriot taught me that eventually people would stop and see what was going on, and if they didn’t, that was fine too—I was writing for me this time, not for anyone else.
  • My only rule for post topics was that there were no other rules: I was going to talk about whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. The original tagline included music, gaming, and sports, and while the last of these has mostly been abandoned, early posts discussed Madison Bumgarner, Buck Showalter, and NASCAR alongside Justin Moore (my first official review) and Super Mario Maker. Only politics were deemed off-limits originally (I figured I’d already served my time in that realm), and even that restriction crumbled in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Over time, the blog kind of found its own niche in country music, but I still detour into the realm of game reviews, Pokémon Nuzlocke challenges and Splatoon 2 gear guides when I feel like it, and I don’t plan on stopping soon (Side note: Look for a Bravely Default II review soon!). In short, I went in without a plan or a point, confident that things would work out just as they did with Mortal Kombat: Equestria.

I gave this a 6/10 back in the day. If I’m honest, it’s probably a 4 if I reviewed it today, given how much Moore’s pushy attitude irritates me now.

So what am I still doing here three states and nearly five years after that José Fernández eulogy? Part of it is that I’m actually kind of proud of what I’ve put together here, and I want to see how long I can keep the momentum going. The blog’s reach seems to grow by leaps and bounds every year, and it really exploded in the second half of 2020, to the point where we’ve now exceeded 10,000 views for the last five months and are on pace to make it six in May. Certain features, such as the weekly chart Pulse updates I stole from Josh Schott and the occasional deep dives I do into the careers of older country stars, have really taken off, and my Toby Keith deep dive has blown up to the point where it’s nearly four times as popular as everything else here, and for that matter everything else I’ve ever written. For perspective:

However, the biggest reason I’m still here is that I’ve given myself the freedom to make this blog whatever I heck I want to. There’s no central thread of politics or ponies; if I ever wanted to get back in the fanfiction game or go off on a wild tangent about cooking or educational pedagogy, I can do it here. I’m the big cheese here in this cyber castle, and if I don’t think the grass is green enough, I’ll add whatever I think counts as Miracle Gro until I’m satisfied.

That said, I’ll admit that I’ve been tempted by other mediums beyond the printed word over the years, and have thought about branching out into other spheres. For example, I had a short-lived “Kyle Vs.” series on YouTube back in 2017—do I follow in Grady Smith’s footsteps and try to reboot that channel, or maybe spin up a channel on Twitch and start streaming some Nintendo classics? I’m not really in a position to do that sort of thing right now, but I’m not getting any younger either, so we’ll see if my attitude changes as 2022 approaches…Regardless, I think I’m in a good spot now, and I have the flexibility to keep this a good spot into the future, so don’t expect to get rid of me anytime soon.

A group photo of the blog’s editorial team.

Conclusions

In my expert opinion, Kyle Akers is a deeply disturbed individual who has spent much of his life trying to figure out what he wants to do with said life. The answer, to quote Terri Clark, is “I Wanna Do It All”; no one topic, industry, or cinematic universe seems to contain or satisfy him. He is doomed to wander this world forever, aimlessly bouncing from topic to topic and trying futilely to weave them all into a single, coherent narrative. Kyle’s Korner is nothing more than the chronicle of this pitiful journey, an attempt to inject meaning into what is ultimately a useless existence. No one cares that it is here, and no one will miss Mr. Akers when he is gone.

—The Honorable Dr. K. G. Akers, Esquire

Good grief Doc, did you have to be so negative with that statement? While I’ll admit that the Kyle of 2004, 2011, and 2016 would probably agree 100% with the good doctor’s drivel, 2021 Kyle sees the journey a bit differently. The story of my writing “career” is ultimately one of learning, growing, and eventually informing (and maybe even inspiring) others along the way. Whether it was a fictitious trip through the Trottingham jail, a guide to using the Tenta Brella effectively, a treatise on why should add Mickey Guyton to your playlist (and remove Michael Ray), or even my weekly Pulse reminders to wear a mask and keep your distance from others, I hope readers were able to take something positive away from my ramblings, and what they lacked in coherence they made up for in usefulness.

So let’s wrap this up with this goal in mind: If you’re still reading, what should you take away from this story?

  • If you’ve ever wanted to start a blog, YouTube channel, or any other creative project, don’t be afraid to do just do it. Sure, your first few projects might be rough and hard to revisit later, and people may ignore you at first, but just stick with it. The more you do it, you’ll better you’ll get at it, and the more people will stop and take notice.
  • When deciding what to focus on, make passion a priority over experience. Seriously, if I wrote about things that I’m a formal “subject matter expert” on, I’d be writing manuals on computer network protocols and intrusion detection systems, topics so dry and dense that even Twilight Sparkle wouldn’t bother reading about them. When I started reviewing songs, my only qualifications were decades of listening to the radio and owning Randy Travis’s entire discography, but when you’re driven to take on a subject, you go the extra mile to figure out how you think you should do it, and you learn from your mistakes along the way. Don’t worry about being an expert right from the start; if you do something often enough, you’ll become an expert along the way.
  • That said, don’t box yourself in by picking a specific focus if you don’t want to. I’ve made some seriously weird pairings work over the years, so if you want to talk about things that don’t seem to go together, go for it! There’s always at least one common thread between your topics, and it’s you and your enthusiasm for them.
  • Above everything, do whatever makes you happy. There’s no “right” way to do any of this stuff; we all mostly make it up as we go along. Critics and doubters will always pop up and say you’re doing something wrong, but if you’re happy with your work, that’s really all that matters.

Nothing lasts forever, and I can’t say for sure how long I’ll be hanging out at Kyle’s Korner. My only hope is that when I’m done here, those who passed this way will say one thing about me:

Acknowledgements

I can’t end this post without thanking the following folks for their support, encouragement, and inspiration over the years:

Special thanks to Josh Schott of Country Perspective for letting me take over the Pulse of Mainstream Country Music feature that he started. Good luck in the next chapter of your professional career!

An extra-special thank you to Zackary Kephart of The Musical Divide and Country Universe for being the blog’s biggest booster (not to mention the author of one of the most-popular posts on the site!). Those first six years are only the beginning—you’ve got a bright future ahead of you, and I’m excited to see it unfold. (Note to the reader: If you haven’t read Zack’s series on the history of modern country music, what are you waiting for? Stop reading this right now and go check it out!)

Finally, an overdue shoutout to my old New England Patriot sysadmin partner (I’m still worried he’ll get in trouble for letting me use that server!). You’ve served as my sounding board and therapist for almost twenty years now, and have done more for me than you’ll ever realize. From the hard rock bottom of what’s left of my heart, thank you.

They Had Their Moments: What Happened to Emerson Drive?

Image from YouTube

Bands are a common feature of most musical genres: A group of people get together, decide they sound passable, choose the weirdest possible name, and voila! A new act has arrived on the scene, even if that scene is just a garage or a local corner bar. Country music, however, is an exception: While groups have certainly left their mark on the genre (The Carter Family, The Statler Brothers, The Oak Ridge Boys, Alabama, etc.), the landscape is by and large dominated by individuals, with standout singers backed by anonymous players. (Case in point: Only five out of the top fifty singles on the May 3rd Mediabase chart are led by duos or groups, with a sixth featuring a duo in…well, a featured role.) In recent years, groups tend to emerge via Nashville’s time-honored tradition of copying whatever is successful in the moment (witness all the bands that were signed after Alabama began dominating in the 1980s). Very few of them leave the legacy of an Alabama or Rascal Flatts, but they usually drop at least one track that resonates with listeners and stays with them long after the track has left the charts. One such band is the Canadian group Emerson Drive, whose brief rise and rapid fall left folks like Antoinette asking “What happened?”

The crazy thing about Emerson Drive is that if you’re north of the border, the group hasn’t really gone that far: The group has maintained a strong presence on the Canadian charts over the last decade, earning a Top Ten hit as recently as 2018. They’ve all but disappeared from American radio, however, which begs the question: The group had some big hits during the 2000s (most notably their 2007 #1 “Moments”) so why couldn’t they turn their momentum into something more sustainable? The truth is that we’ve identified a number of factors that are crucial to long-term success in country music, and none of them were working in Emerson Drive’s favor during their foray in the States.

Part I: The Origin Story

Emerson Drive was formed in the mid-90s under the name “12 Gauge,” and didn’t start making noise at a national level until 1997 with Until You Walk The Tracks, which spawned a pair of tracks that found their way into the lower regions of Billboard’s Canadian airplay chart (the best-performing of these songs only made it to #36). Despite their meager track record, the group decide to move to Nashville in 1999 looking for their big break. This choice seems like an odd one to me: If you were struggling to succeed in the Canadian market, why would you try your luck in a tougher and more-crowded market in the U.S.? (Then again, given how many American country singles cross over onto the Canadian charts, perhaps they were already competing with them anyway.)

As crazy as the move may have seemed, however, the band’s timing was perfect: Bands were seeing somewhat of a renaissance across the musical landscape, and while there were some country acts reaping the benefits (most notably Lonestar and The Chicks), the groups that Emerson Drive owes the biggest thanks too had nothing to do with country music:

Image From Vulture

Pop music around the turn of the millennium was dominated by the rise of boy bands, and the two biggest ones were NSYNC and The Backstreet Boys. The names may only pop up today as part of Justin Timberlake’s origin story (anyone heard from Nick Carter lately?), but they were all the rage when Emerson Drive reached Nashville: The Backstreet Boys would drop “I Want I That Way” in 1999, and NSYNC would respond with “Bye Bye Bye” and “It’s Gonna Be Me” a year later. Country music is forever trying to worm its way into the realm of pop, and when Lonestar’s “Amazed” exploded and showed what could be accomplished with a group that was nearly a decade old by that point, major labels began dreaming about what they could do with a boy band of their very own.

Another fortuituos development was the rise of several newer labels that were hungry to make their name in Guitar Town, and finding a countrified boy-band would be just the way to do it. Lyric Street Records (founded in 1997) took their shot in 1999 by Rascal Flatts (SHeDAISY also joined Lyric Street that year), and DreamWorks Nashville (also founded in 1997) decided to make their own bet on the idea, signing Emerson Drive in 2000 and framing them as a hip, youthful group, as seen in their promotional material and videos:

The experiment worked, at least for an album: The group’s first two singles, “I Should Be Sleeping” and “Fall Into Me,” both cracked the Top 5 on Billboard’s U.S. airplay chart and reached the fabled Top 40 on the Hot 100. The band was off and running, or so it seemed.

Part II: Everything’s Changed

Yes, I know the title is actually a Lonestar song, but consistency and support are the major factors that can play into a band’s long-term viability, and the short version of this post is that Emerson Drive had exactly zero of either when it mattered.

Let’s travel back in time to 2002 for a moment: At that point, both Rascal Flatts and Emerson Drive had roughly equal standing. RF had just released the leadoff single for their sophomore album (“These Days,” the group’s first Billboard airplay #1), but it was only their fifth single in total, and Emerson Drive was going toe-to-toe with them in the battle for genre supremacy. When we look at the fundamentals of each group, however, there were some very striking differences, and likely led to the divergence between the two groups in subsequent years:

  • Label Support: Lyric Street would eventually fold in 2010, but for the bulk of the prior decade the Disney-owned label was firmly in Rascal Flatts’s corner, and even came up with some cross-promotional gimmicks that led to one of the trio’s biggest hits (“Life Is A Highway”). DreamWorks, however, was a different story: As Toby Keith found out the hard way, the label suffered from financial struggles, and wound up dropping Emerson Drive in 2004 before closing for good a year later. The group quickly found a new home with Midas Records (founded in 2005), but the label wound up closing its country division in 2008, leaving the group in an awkward position where the rights to their 2008 album Believe were split between Midas (they owned it) and Valory Music Group (they were responsible for promoting it). By the time Rascal Flatts signed with Big Machine in 2010, Emerson Drive was already on its fourth label, signing with Open Road Recordings that same year. (Or maybe the count is five? The Boot reports that the group actually started their own label in 2010.) All these changes meant that Emerson Drive simply wasn’t able to establish a consistent presence in the U.S., despite its radio success.
  • Band Members: Rascal Flatts is Gary LeVox, Jay DeMarcus, and Joe Don Rooney; it always has been, and it likely always will be. Emerson Drive, on the other hand, has been in flux since the moment it was formed: Several members had already left before the group moved to Nashville, and two more members were added before they joined DreamWorks. Between 2002 and 2003, three more members had to be replaced, and tragedy struck in 2007 when bass player Patrick Bourque left the group and committed suicide soon afterwards. While the band has never had to replace their lead vocalist (Brad Mates has been there since the beginning), so much turnover is bound to have an impact on group chemistry and consistency, and with many of the changes happening in the years following hit songs, it’s fair to wonder if it was impacting the group’s performance.
  • Producer Support: There was also a bit more turnover in the booth with Emerson Drive as well, as the band had a different set of producers for each album from 2002 to 2012 (and occasionally changed the production team entirely). In contrast, Rascal Flatts made a single transition from Mark Bright and Marty Williams to Dan Huff, with the band itself serving as a co-producer for much of that time. Different producers mean different visions for the group’s sound, which further pushed the notion that you never really knew what you would get from an Emerson Drive album.

All the chaos surrounding the band (did we mention they also switched management groups in 2009?) makes their success with “Moments” look even more impressive. “Moments” is a classic second-chance hit, where an act that was thought to be washed up or past their prime explodes back onto the scene with a emotional story song that tugs at the heart strings (think David Ball’s “Riding With Private Malone” in 2001, or Randy Travis’s “Three Wooden Crosses” a year later). The song, which depicted a chance encounter in which a homeless man convinces the narrator not to take their own life, became one of the most-played songs of 2007 and made Emerson Drive the first Canadian group to top Billboard’s American country charts (and also earned the group a few nominations on the genre’s awards circuit).

Unfortunately, the story was the same as it was early in the decade: The group was simply unable to build on their success, and they quickly faded into American history. Canadian history, however, was a different story:

United StatesCanada
Top Ten Songs, 2005-20151 (“Moments”)17
Top 20 Songs, 2005-2015220

It turns out that going to the United States was just the thing the group needed to jump-start their career back home: Starting with the last few singles from their sophomore album What If?, Emerson Drive started reaching the upper echelons of the Canadian charts with regularity, even as the group floundered stateside. (It’s possible that content requirements for Canadian radio gave the group an advantage up north, but it doesn’t appear that all of Emerson Drive’s singles meet the guidelines for being “Canadian songs” – for example, “Moments” was written by American songwriters and was likely not recorded in Canada. Later discs, however, contained more self-written material, so those may have qualified.)

Part III: End Of “The Road”

By the 2010s, Emerson Drive’s career was essentially finished in America, but they had developed a nice niche north of the border that seemed pretty sustainable. While the group remains active today, one final factor contributed to a massive cutback in the group’s schedule: Life. Another band member left the group in 2013 to spend more time with their family, and Mates himself acknowledged that the band was home life was playing a bigger role in the band’s decisions these days:

“Well, we were lucky enough when we first started out of high school we were 17 -18 year olds. From that point up till our late 20’s nobody was married and nobody had any kids. That’s a pretty huge aspect to be able to travel that many days out of the year without feeling the family pull and finding the balance…Now for me personally I have a couple kids and I am married. We do about 30-35 shows a year so it’s a pretty big change. I am not going to lie to you, I love this time of my life where I am able to be home and spend time with my kids. Dad still has a cool job that he loves, and that he gets to go out and play for a few months a year.”

Mates, as told to Corey (no last name given) at SoundCheck, likely sometime in 2015

Heck, the band’s own official website acknowledges the band’s shift in priorities, with another quote from Mates saying “We are at a place where we know what we want and have a balance between our personal lives and our life on the road. We get the best of both worlds.”

Basically, Emerson Drive isn’t around here anymore because they don’t need to be around here anymore. At this point in their professional career, they have their dream job: They can tour for a few months closer to home, and they get to be around their family for the rest of the year. They’re still kinda-sorta active as a group (their last official single listed on Wikipedia is from 2019), and that’s good enough for them. (If only we could all find that sort of peace in our working lives…)

Conclusions

Emerson Drive was a band in the right place at the right time: They got to Nashville at a time when the industry was actively looking for folks like them, and they parlayed the chance into several successful singles. That break, however, was pretty much the only one they would get in America, as constant churn behind the scenes kept them from turning their good fortune into anything more long-lasting. It did, however, make enough noise back in Canada to allow them to put together a respectable chart history, and when they were eventually confronted with the choice of music vs. family, they discovered they could have both.

Could Emerson Drive have been bigger had they been a bit more consistent and had better label backing? Probably, but like the characters in their signature hit, they had their moments, and twenty years after “I Should Be Sleeping” hit the airwaves, it seems they had enough of them to reach a relatively comfortable spot in life today. It can be interesting to ponder what might have been, but if you’re content with what actually is, you can leave the looking back to folks like me, and focus on enjoying the here and now.

Whole Lotta Gone (But Not Forgotten): What Happened To Joe Diffie?

Image from Rolling Stone

On March 29, 2020, Joe Diffie became one of the first high-profile Americans to die from COVID-19, a dark foreshadowing of the death and devastation that was to befall the nation. Diffie’s mainstream career had essentially been over for fifteen years by this point, and by the numbers, it wasn’t the sort of run that would put rank among the A-list stars of the 90s neotraditional era (his five No. 1 hits pale in comparison to artists such as Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, George Strait, or Brooks & Dunn). Yet over time, Diffie’s legacy has consistently punched above its weight class, earning him name-drops in songs like Chris Young’s “Raised On Country”  and even an entire song centered around his discography (Jason Aldean’s “1994,” whose video included a whole bunch of contemporary stars singing along). His songs resonated with a lot of fans from the era as well, and in the wake of his death, Nick asked about what had pushed Diffie off the mainstream radar:

When considering Diffie’s career, there are really two questions we need to address:

  • Why did it end prematurely?
  • Why, despite the answer to question #1, has his legacy endured as well as it has?

After sifting through the evidence, the answer to both questions might actually be the same. There’s a reason Aldean’s song is called “1994”: Diffie achieved surprising crossover success in the mid 90s, and while it may have pigeonholed him as an unsustainable novelty act, it also seared his biggest hits in the minds of those who heard him, leading to the  surprising staying power of his memory.

The Rise

Just as Chase Rice can likely thank the Bro-Country stars and sounds of the 2010s for the fact that he has a career at all, Diffie owes his big break to the neotraditional movement that swept through country music in the late 80s and early 90s. Diffie parlayed his prowess as a songwriter and demo singer into a deal with Epic Records in 1990, and his debut album A Thousand Winding Roads exploded out of the gate, producing two #1 and two #2 Billboard country hits (in fact, “Home” became the first debut single from a country artist to top the Billboard, Radio & Records, and Gavin Report charts).

While Diffie would prove himself over time to be an incredibly flexible artist, he felt that “a more hard-core sound best represents him,” and that’s primarily what we get from A Thousand Winding Roads and 1992’s Regular Joe. His singles were generally standard classic country fare, and while “If The Devil Danced (In Empty Pockets)” was my first encounter with Diffie and will always be my favorite of his songs, he seemed to be the most powerful delivering emotional ballads such as “Home,” “Is It Cold In Here,” and especially “Ships That Don’t Come In” (which might have done better than #5 had it not included the word “bitch” in the second verse). Even in a throwback era, Diffie seemed to stand out for his “George Jones-schooled thoroughness” and his “convincingly traditional” style, and it was a perfect fit for the genre at the time.

It’s also worth noting that Diffie had an exceptional ear for picking songs with hit potential, and he wasn’t afraid to share his own songs with other artists, which in turn made others more willing to give him good material. Back when I was researching my Chris Cagle deep dive, I found a quote that I didn’t wind up using in the final draft:

“Craig Wiseman actually said this to me one time…I said, ’Hey man, give me a hit.’ And he goes, ’Why? You write them and put them out yourself.’ He said, ’Why am I going to give you a song you might not release? I need to make money.’ It made sense.” Cagle, as told to Edward Morris, 2008

In contrast, AllMusic credits Diffie’s breakthrough to writing Holly Dunn’s “There Goes My Heart Again,” and during his career his songs were covered from everyone from Tim McGraw to Jo Dee Messina to Conway Twitty to Keith Palmer (who?). Not being stingy with his songs meant a potentially-larger pool of songs to draw from for your own work, and Diffie used this to his advantage (of the four songs we’ll be discussing shortly, none of them were written by Diffie).

Overall, Diffie was in the right place at the right time to break through, and he had both the chops and material to stick the landing.

The Peak

As the early 90s progressed, artists such as Garth Brooks, Brooks & Dunn, and Travis Tritt starting cranking up the guitars and drums to mimic the “outlaw” movement and add a bit more punch to their tracks, and Diffie responded in kind, releasing Honky Tonk Attitude in 1993 and sending out the title track as the leadoff single. If this song had been released twenty years later, it likely would have been labeled Bro-Country with its focus on beer, babes, and nihilistic partying (which is probably why both Young and Aldean name-dropped the track in their later releases). Still, both this track and its successor “Prop Me Up Beside The Jukebox (If I Die)” featured a classic barroom vibe that kept them anchored to the traditional side of the genre (side note: When I die, I want the latter track played at my funeral. Everyone picks Vince Gill’s “Go Rest High On That Mountain”; I want something different, darn it). However, it was the third single from Honky Tonk Attitude that began Diffie’s embedding into the national consciousness.

“John Deere Green” might well be the most corny, silly, and stereotypical country love song in existence, telling the story of Billy Bob painting a “John Deere green” heart on a water tower to proclaim his love for his sweetheart Charlene. It was undeniably catchy, however, and while it only made it to #5 on Billboard’s country airplay chart, its more important ranking was reaching #69 on the Hot 100. In the early/mid 1990s, country music was a rare sight on the Billboard’s overall chart (this changed in the late 90s, but we’ll get to that in a moment), so reaching these sorts of heights with a country song was a monumental accomplishment, and meant that a lot of people were being exposed to the song.

Diffie would end up putting four tracks on the Hot 100 over the next two years:

Song Peak Position
“John Deere Green” #69
“Third Rock From The Sun” #84
“Pickup Man” #60
“So Help Me Girl” #84

Of these, it was “Pickup Man” that would become his biggest/signature hit, spending four weeks atop the Hot Country Songs chart in addition to its Hot 100 placement.

Despite the acclaim Diffie received for his early work, it was the success of these four songs that made Honky Tonk Attitude and its 1994 successor Third Rock From The Sun his only platinum albums, and made ’93-’95 the undisputed peak of Diffie’s popularity.

While these tracks clearly resonated with listeners, they may also have helped prematurely shorten his mainstream career. In looking through writings about Diffie’s career, the word that keeps popping up is novelty: Songs like “John Deere Green” and “Pickup Man” were humorous tracks that leaned on rural stereotypes to get a laugh, and they branded Diffie as an accidental comedian who songs were silly rather than serious. “Third Rock From The Sun” falls into this category as well, although its humor was more absurdist than silly. In other words, he ended up falling into the same trap that would ensnare Toby Keith a decade later: His novelty material made him “the funny guy” in the minds of many listeners, a role that he would struggle to fill in the following years.

“So Help Me Girl” is the major outlier here, but it’s also the last of the four to reach the chart, and likely rode the wave of popularity from his previous offerings. The next two singles from Third Rock From The Sun (the too-dumb-to-be-funny “I’m In Love With A Capital ‘U'” and the return-to-serious-form “Road Not Taken”) didn’t make the same impact, marking the beginning of Diffie’s slide into irrelevance.

The Fall

The title of Diffie’s next album (1995’s Life’s So Funny) feels like a blatant attempt to lean into his newfound comedic persona, but after its leadoff single “Bigger Than The Beatles” reaching #1 on the Hot Country Songs chart, Diffie’s next five singles from Life’s So Funny and 1997’s Twice Upon A Time) failed to even crack the Top 20. His late 90s and early 2000s work would still occasionally reach the chart’s upper echelon (he managed to score four Top Tens between 1998 and 2001), but for the most part he was done as a major force in the genre.

So what happened? Two things stand out:

  • Diffie’s “novelty” material was nowhere near as good as it was before. Songs like “C-O-U-N-T-R-Y” and “This Is Your Brain” weren’t terribly sharp or witty (the former wouldn’t feel out of place on a Florida Georgia Line album), and their chart performance suffered as a result. More-traditional material still worked on occasion, but songs such as “Whole Lotta Gone” and “The Quittin’ Kind” just weren’t what people wanted from Diffie, and these struggled as well. As someone who leaned out outside material for his album, Diffie cited a dearth of such material as a problem in 1999:

“To me, I feel like we have so many entertainers that we have gotten away from good songs. There are great songs out there. See, when I started there were like 80 artists signed to major labels. Now, it’s about 300. And there are only so many songs. We’re sellin’ the sizzle right now.”  Diffie, as told to Tom Netherland, June 1999

  • The more important factor in my mind, however, might be something we pointed out in our Alabama deep dive:

Image from NPR

“[Alabama] finally started to show some weakness in the late 90s, however, as country music started to shift away from the neotraditional sound to something more unapologetically pop and slick…The late 1990s were absolutely owned by Shania Twain, who exploded onto the scene in 1995 with a sound and a swagger that made her a worldwide phenomenon. Though she received the usual criticism that her style was “destroying” country music…her exceptional combination of talent and attitude drove  a legion of fans into stadiums and record stores…”

Diffie could be many things, but pop-country was not one of them (although he tried his darnedest with the slightly-over-the-top “A Night To Remember”). However, he wasn’t necessarily opposed to pop’s presence in the genre, saying “In my tastes, yes we have [gone too far towards pop]…(However) I think it is a good thing in that a lot of listeners have come along with the popularity.” Like it or not, however, the shift in tastes was a net negative for Diffie, and left him without a go-to style to rebuild his audience.

After parting ways with Epic/Monument in 2001, Diffie attempted a last-gasp comeback effort with 2004’s Tougher Than Nails on Broken Bow Records, but after the title track only reached #19 and the follow-up crashed and burned at #50, Diffie’s mainstream career was effectively history. He moved on to touring, passion projects and generally doing whatever he wanted, such as a bluegrass album that he’d wanted to do for at least a decade prior and an unexpected country-rap collaboration with D-Thrash (ugh, listen at your own risk). He remained fairly active going into 2020, even releasing a few official singles in 2018 (they’re a bit hard to find, but “Quit You” is available on YouTube here), but mostly he was known as one of the few 90s artists who inspired shoutouts from current artists.

Conclusion

Back in 2001, Sony sales and marketing VP Mike Kraski described Diffie’s career thusly:

“There have been some trips and stumbles along the way in terms of decision-making with Joe Diffie, particularly in song selection and the creative process. He inadvertently was turned into a novelty singer, of all things. What he really is, is one of the finest singers and voices this genre has ever been blessed with.”

Kraski will get no argument from me about that last sentence, but with an extra twenty years of hindsight, I wouldn’t call the decisions that were made “trips and stumbles” at all. Without songs like “John Deere Green” and “Pickup Man,” you wouldn’t see Diffie getting the love that he did from contemporary artists in the 2010s, and you likely wouldn’t find many country fans who would remember him at all. Sure, the novelty tunes probably cost him a shot as a longer mainstream career, but the truth is that the genre was turning away from his classic style anyway, and those novelty songs are now the #1 reason Diffie’s legacy remains as strong as it is in 2021. As great as “If The Devil Danced (In Empty Pockets)” and “Ships That Don’t Come In” were, there’s a reason Rolling Stone listed “Pickup Man” in its obituary headlineit’s as much a part of Diffie’s brand as his old mullet/mustache combo was. The song is synonymous with his memory, and people still love him for it.

Rest in peace, sir. Wherever you are, I hope you’re propped up beside a jukebox somewhere. Rest assured that your hits will be inside the jukeboxes around these parts for many years to come.

My Love Goes On And On (But My Career Does Not): What Happened To Chris Cagle?

Image from Wikipedia

The allure of stardom is pretty easy to explain: Adoring fans, bottomless bank accounts, widespread name recognition, the ability to cross any velvet rope and push any agenda you want…to the average powerless person, it sounds like a pretty sweet deal. Sure, there are costs involvedyou lose your privacy, your obligations get in the way of family time, every joker with an opinion (or, say, a blog) seems to be taking potshots at you—but with all that fame and fortune, surely the benefits far outweigh the risks, right?

The truth is that it’s a very personal calculation, and one that is frequently reevaluated as time goes on. After all, what goes up must eventually come down, and once that benefit-to-risk ratio starts falling and your lowest moments are amplified and broadcast across the country, an artist faces a tough decision about just how hard they want to push to recapture their previous momentum. It works the other way as well: “Retirements” are rarely as final as they seem, with athletes, musicians, and actors often returning after a break for just one more season/album/movie.

This brings us to our subject for today’s deep dive: Chris Cagle, an artist who had a brief run of success during the early and mid 2000s before falling off the mainstream radar. While his career was not a spectacular ones by the numbers (he had only one #1 and just five singles that cracked the Top Ten), he left enough of an impression to leave folks wondering where he went, including Antoinette in the blog’s first Twitter deep dive request:

In looking into Cagle’s departure from country music, it seems that his disappearance falls somewhere between the exits of Rodney Atkins and former NASCAR driver Carl Edwards: After a promising start, Cagle’s momentum was blunted by a series of unfortunate events (including some nasty unforced errors) that turned up the scrutiny on a man who was never really seemed comfortable with the glare of the spotlight, and when he finally had his fill, he walked away and never looked back.

Part 1: The Rise

Stylistically, Cagle presented himself as a modernized, slightly-toned-down version of Travis Tritt when he debuted in 2000 with Play It Loud. While it wasn’t an overnight success (the first and last single failed to make the Top Ten, and his eventual #1 “I Breathe In, I Breathe Out” was a bonus track added to the disc after Cagle was moved from Virgin Nashville to Capitol Records), it earned a gold certification and positioned him as a solid second-tier artist within the genre, a title that was solidified by his self-titled follow-up album in 2003 (which eventually went gold itself).

Like Tritt, Cagle’s music could have a serious edge when it wanted to (see: “My Love Goes On And On,” “Rock The Boat,” and the Bro-country template “Country By The Grace Of God”), but he could also credibly cover weightier topics (“The Safe Side,” “Who Needs The Whiskey”), and he found the most success with heartfelt love ballads like “What A Beautiful Day” and his only No. 1 “I Breathe In, I Breathe Out.” From the outside, Cagle’s stock appeared to be rising, and he was all but assured of a solid career in the industry. However, there were some notable quotes that popped up in later interviews that hinted at his eventual discontent:

“It may sound selfish, but the bottom line is that I’ve got to be the one who says, ‘I love this music. I want to sing this for the next 15 years, God willing.’ I’m not going to go ask anybody else…Yes, I do make the music for the fans. Yes, I hope they buy it. But if I can’t sell it, if I don’t enjoy it, if I can’t hear it and want to sing it over and over, forget about it.” Cagle, as told to Edward Morris, 2008

Creative control meant a lot to Cagle, and he got it surprisingly early: While he wasn’t Clint Black, he did write or co-write his first eight singles, and also served as a co-producer on Play It Loud, Chris Cagle, and 2005’s Anywhere But Here. When this control waned later in the decade, so did Cagle’s job satisfaction.

“[I am] one of the most insecure people in the world…I think I became a singer because of insecurity, because you want attention and you want approval.” Cagle, as told to Gayle Thompson, 2008

In their article “10 Things Insecure People Do That Slowly Destroy Their Lives,” Allison Renner puts “they live in fear in judgment” right at the top of their list. This means that any slings and arrows tossed in their direction hurt that much more, as they indicate that a) the person is being judged, and b) they have been found lacking. This wasn’t an issue in the beginning of Cagle’s career, but as the tenor of his coverage turned over time, it wore him down quickly.

“The studio is very boring…[It’s] a monotonous, redundant place. But it has to be. You’ve got to take the time to piece together a platform and a foundation that’s sturdy enough for you to stand on for a year and a half or two years…It’s taking 36 to 42 weeks for even a B-level act to get to the top of the charts. I’m not complaining. That’s just the way it is.” Cagle, as told to Edward Morris, 2008

Actually, complaining is exactly what he’s doing here: He doesn’t really like being in the studio, and he’s not a fan of how the chart escalator has slowed considerably in recent decades. These are pretty fundamental pieces of the Nashville music business, so if you don’t like them, there isn’t a whole lot to like besides touring.

Altogether, these gripes aren’t going to amount to much when the good times are rolling, as they were for the first few years of Cagle’s career. As 2004 dawned, things began to change.

Part 2: The Fall

The mid to late 2000s were not kind to Chris Cagle in any way, shape, or form, and while some of this was his fault, some of it was also out of his control:

  • In 2004, Cagle was diagnosed with “a polyp, a lesion, a cyst and a granuloma on his vocal cords,” which knocked him off the road for three months as he rested his voice.
  • In 2005, Cagle released his third album Anywhere But Here, which turned out to be anything but successful: It failed to earn a gold certification, and none of the three singles cracked the Top Ten (in fact, the latter two didn’t make the top forty). Personally, I was super irritated by this album, but for a completely tangential reason: Capitol stuck some irritating Copy Control protection software on the disc, limiting the ability to rip the tracks as MP3 files.
  • Later that year, Cagle celebrated the birth of his first child with his then-girlfriend, only to discover that the child wasn’t actually his. Cagle later described the incident as “humiliating” and said that the matter led him to develop an alcohol and weight problem.
  • 2007 appeared to be a rebound year for Cagle, as his single “What Kinda Gone” found traction on the radio and eventually made it to #3 on Billboard’s airplay chart. While putting together the album to support the single, however, Cagle lost some of the control that he had previously: Scott Hendricks came in as a co-producer, and he told Cagle that his songs weren’t good enough to make the cut (he would end up with zero cuts on the record). This article also mentions “Hendricks also brought a different approach to recording,” as opposed to the more free-form approach Cagle had used in the past.
  • Unfortunately, the good vibes of 2007 didn’t last: In December Cagle was booked for assault after a belligerent fan’s autograph requests escalated to the point where Cagle punched her boyfriend.
  • 2008 wound up being no better: In February, while promoting his newest, Hendricks-influenced album My Life’s Been A Country Song, Cagle mentioned that “I’ve got a girlfriend now who’s a great girl.” Unfortunately, three months later he and his then-girlfriend were arrested for domestic assault after a drunken altercation in which “she hit him in the head with an umbrella and…he hit her with her own purse.”
  • My Life’s Been A Country Song debuted strong, but its momentum dried up quickly: “No Love Songs” couldn’t crack the top fifty (and given Cagle’s awkward half-spoken delivery, it’s not hard to hear why), and “Never Ever Gone” didn’t make the chart at all. The combination of bad publicity and poor numbers finally exhausted the patience of Capitol Nashville, and by the end of the year Cagle was off the roster.

Put it all together, and Cagle found himself on the business end of the business for several years, and by 2008 he was already ready to call it a career:

“[In 2005] I just came off of a frickin’ [situation] with a girl having a baby…I told everybody I was going to be a father, and I find out a week later that the baby’s not mine. I didn’t want to be visible. Who would? I was at the ranch hearing DJs making fun of me on the radio. It was humiliating…No matter what you’ve done in the past, no matter how good or grand you were as an entertainer or as the life of the party or whatever, the moment s**t goes wrong, some [people] swim up to the blood like sharks and kick you while you’re bleeding…I didn’t want to be in the media. I wanted it to go away…I didn’t want to be in this business anymore.” Cagle, as told to Edward Morris, 2008 (and this was before the release of My Life’s Been A Country Song)

“I really thought that I was done [with music], and I was okay with it. I was not a happy individual. The business of this thing just didn’t work out the way I thought it would. Just being onstage and having fun cannot be enough. I was super, super angry in my career. I just got to a place where I thought. you know what … it ain’t worth it, man. The guy that I’ve become and the person who I was, I just wasn’t happy with him. I was embarrassed to look in the mirror. I thought, you know what, nothing in this world is worth your moral compass, so I quit.” Cagle, as told to Alanna Conway, 2011

So that was that: With his popularity waning, his reputation in tatters, and an inability to do things the way he wanted, Cagle retreated from the spotlight, sure that he would never return.

Part 3: The End

By this point, Cagle was overdue for some good luck, and he finally got some: He built a ranch an Oklahoma, got married in 2010, and had two baby girls of his own (his wife also had a daughter from a previous relationship. Away from the media pressure cooker, Cagle began to rediscover what he enjoyed about making music, and began to wonder if he should jump back on the mainstream hamster wheel:

“I definitely missed it. I did probably 20 or 30 shows a year after that. Just being able to do what I had done — in spite of some things — to make it and take what little talent I have and go as far as I did, I was proud of it. At the same time, I wondered what would have happened if I had a big corporate machine pushing this thing.” Cagle, as told to Alanna Conway, 2011

When the Bigger Picture Music Group approached him about making a record, Cagle jumped at the chance. This time, he co-produced the album with Keith Stegall (he was “blown away by the experience”), and co-wrote five of the tracks (including one eventual single). The result was Back In The Saddle, and…honestly, I wasn’t thrilled with the tracks I heard. The Bro-Country influence on the record was palpable: The leadoff single “Got My Country On” was the sort of trendy party track making bank at the time, and the production on that and “Let There Be Cowgirls” made it sound more like a Brantley Gilbert album than Chris Cagle disc.

Unfortunately, the good vibes Cagle was feeling dissipated quickly:

  • “Got My Country On” and “Let There Be Cowgirls” were only minor hits that didn’t crack the Top Ten, and the final single “Dance Baby Dance” (by far the best of the three) crashed and burned at #44.
  • Cagle’s return to the spotlight meant another opportunity for the general public to rehash his mid-2000s embarrassments, and Cagle didn’t help matters when he got busted for DUI in 2013.
  • Finally, Bigger Picture ended up closing its doors in 2014, leaving Cagle without the label muscle needed to get his music onto the airwaves.

In other words, it was the same old frustrating story for Cagle: Too little radio success, too much gossip fodder, and too little time with his new family. Finally, in November of 2015, Cagle decided that he’d had enough, and he officially announced his retirement.

Two interesting things to note about Cagle’s departure:

Cagle was retired once again, but this time, like Edwards after the 2016 season, he meant it. After scouring the Internet, the only thing I can find about Cagle recently is a one-show return to headline Guthrie’s River Ruckus Festival in 2019. The announcement mentions a new album and a live DVD of the performance, but neither appear to be publicly available. He appears to have no official website besides a Facebook account, and his official Twitter account hasn’t posted anything in almost two years. In others, “GONE gone” is the kind of gone we’re talking about here.

Conclusions

As much as I love Chris Cagle’s early work, after going through his career, I get the distinct feeling that he just wasn’t meant to be a major country superstar. He didn’t really seem to enjoy the whole process, and while things were good enough in the early going to mask these issues, it was all downhill from the moment his dirty laundry starting hitting the papers, and he eventually lost control of both the music and the narrative of his career.

It’s really too bad, because I consider Cagle to be pretty solid as both a singer and a songwriter, and I sympathize with his frustration at the inability of the world to move past his transgressions. To his credit, he acknowledged his own role in these incidents and took responsibility for them:

“After all that stuff, I can’t blame anybody because I put myself in that situation, but I didn’t handle the situation well enough. I was in all those situations. It doesn’t just happen … they’re not just accidents. I had to take responsibility for that, but at the same time, I was so angry at life and so angry at the fight I had every day with Capitol Records. I was fed up. I wanted to be happy.” Cagle, as told to Alanna Conway, 2011

Honestly, I get the sense that he’s found that happiness now as a husband, father, and ex-country singer. My guess is that in time, Cagle will get his wish: It will be the music we remember, and nothing else.

Walkin’ Away: What Happened To Diamond Rio?

Image From Sounds Like Nashville

People talk about the late 1980s and 1990s in country music for a lot of reasons, but one of the more interesting aspects of the era is the proliferation of bands in a genre that traditionally featured solo artists. Spurred on by the success of Alabama, Music Row started scouring the country for the next big country band. The result was that the neotraditional sound was pushed by a large number of groups: My Alabama deep dive lists “Highway 101, Restless Heart, Sawyer Brown…Shenandoah…The Kentucky Headhunters, The Mavericks, Little Texas, Diamond Rio, Confederate Railroad, and eventually Lonestar and The Dixie Chicks,” just to name a few. (We could also bring up Ricochet, Blackhawk, Yankee Grey, SHeDAISY, etc.) While none of them reached the heights or achieved the longevity of Alabama, they were generally able to carve out successful niches of their own. If I had to pick out two of these acts who earned the most plaudits in a post-Alabama world, it would be Lonestar (who we covered back in December) and Diamond Rio, whose fadeout in the mid 2000s left Sam wondering what had happened:

Admittedly, my initial thought about this deep dive was that there wouldn’t be much to say: Diamond Rio had arrived on the scene a few years before Lonestar, and Lonestar’s massive success around the turn of the millennium had likely just shoved Diamond Rio (and everyone else) off to the side. This theory, however, was quickly disproved:

  • Lonestar didn’t actually last that much longer than Diamond Rio: Lonestar’s last #1 (“Mr. Mom”) came in 2004, while Diamond Rio’s last one (“I Believe”) came in 2002.
  • As demonstrated by “I Believe,” “You’re Gone,” and especially “One More Day,” Diamond Rio could play the “big emotional ballad” card just as well as Lonestar could.

Diamond Rio also differed from Lonestar in one major category: Lineup stability. While Lonestar’s tenure was defined by the addition and loss of key players, Diamond Rio has had the same lineup since before Taylor Swift was born (their newest member, Dana Williams, joined the band in early 1989). The personnel behind the booth were not quite as static, but the producer transitions were surprisingly gradual and smooth:

  • Diamond Rio, Close To The Edge: Tim DuBois and Monty Powell
  • Love A Little Stronger: DuBois, Powell, and Mike Clute
  • IV: DuBois, Powell, Clute, and Diamond Rio
  • Ever Since: Clute and Diamond Rio (although it appears “I Made It” is credited only to Clute and DR guitarist Jimmy Olander)

So if Lonestar and individual egos didn’t break up this band, what finally knocked this group off of their pedestal? After sifting through the data, the story that emerges is surprisingly similar to that of The Band Perry: The group broke through with a distinct and consistent sound, and when they decided they wanted to do something different, the label and the radio didn’t play along, and the group eventually traded its career for creative freedom.

The Rise

Much like The Band Perry, Diamond Rio hit the ground running with its debut single “Meet In The Middle,” which reached #1 on Billboard’s airplay chart (a feat that would take six years for the group to duplicate) and remains arguably their signature song. The song still holds up today, but what’s most striking in how the group’s sound broke from genre orthodoxy at the time: In the middle of the fiddle-and-steel neotraditional movement, Diamond Rio’s production eschewed both instruments in favor of Gene Johnson’s mandolin, Dan Truman’s keyboard, and Olander’s memorable “Taxicaster” electric guitar, not to mention the incredible harmony vocals of Johnson, Williams, and lead singer Marty Roe. (Brian Prout rounds out the group on the drums.) They also broke from tradition in a less-noticeable (but more-surprising) way, one I’d never noticed until I began researching this piece: In a genre marinated in alcohol, the group never released a drinking song as a single. (In contrast, Lonestar’s debut single was “Tequila Talkin’.”)

While Diamond Rio rarely reached the peak of the charts during the 1990s, the group was a consistent presence in the Top Ten during this time, and never wavered from their classic sound…until 1998’s Unbelievable, where “You’re Gone” previewed the piano-driven power ballad sound that was about to launch Lonestar into the stratosphere, and “I Know How The River Feels” added a string section to the group’s usual lineup. This was the first album without DuBois and Powell in the booth, so perhaps this was the first shot being fired in the battle over creative freedom that was about to erupt.

The Fall

The first real sign of trouble appeared with Diamond Rio’s sixth studio album, which was supposed to be released in 2000 and named after its leadoff single “Stuff.” The song was a lighthearted critique of America’s consumer culture and our tendency to order and hoard things we don’t need (given its references to online shopping, the song feels a bit ahead of its time today, given that Amazon was not that far removed from its bookstore roots at the time), but the radio never warmed to it, and it wound up peaking at #36 and pushing the album release back nearly a year. The project was saved, however, when the album’s second single “One More Day” exploded to become the group’s third #1 county single, hit #6 on the Adult Contemporary chart, and even cracked the Top Thirty on the Hot 100. (“Meet In The Middle” might be the group’s signature song, but “One More Day” is probably their biggest hit.) However, the song benefited from its similarity to Lonestar’s popular sound (and capitalized on the waves of emotional nostalgia that followed the death of Dale Earnhardt and then 9/11), and neither of the album’s other singles were able to build on that momentum (“Sweet Summer” made it to #18 on the country charts, and “That’s Just That” didn’t even crack the Top Forty). Looking back, I’d have to call the disc a major disappointment.

What I wouldn’t call the disc, however, is a major departure from the group’s classic sound: The three non-hit singles stuck pretty close to the group’s tried-and-true sonic formula, and even “One More Day” was more of a rearrangement of existing pieces than a mix of new ones (it’s more paino-driven, but the mandolin and electric guitar are still prominent herein fact, I’d call it less of a deviation from DR’s old sound than “You’re Gone” was). The message the radio and public sent was clear: The old formula wasn’t going to fly anymore, so Diamond Rio needed to adapt or perish.

Here’s where things get interesting: Neither the band nor their label (Arista Nashville) appeared to dispute the fact that something had to change, but the sticking point seems to have been what that change should ultimately be. For their eighth album, Diamond Rio was looking to do something really ambitious, but they couldn’t seem to make the numbers add up. Calvin Gilbert’s CMT article from the time contains a lot of quotes to that effect:

“A lot of songs we get pitched sound like Diamond Rio. Usually, that’s the type of songs we don’t want to hear. When we’re doing a record, we’re looking to reinvent the wheel and not do what we’ve done before.”  Williams

“On every record we do, we’re continually looking for something that’s going to turn some heads and make us stretch as players.”  Prout

“We hadn’t totally come up with the concept, but we were toying around with the idea of a double album — doing one traditional disc, along with a more contemporary piece. That just didn’t seem to work out. Actually, we were having trouble figuring out the [financial] numbers in the publishing.”  Olander

“Unfortunately, country music has blinders on as far as what’s acceptable — and what isn’t…I know there are a lot of business aspects that dictate that you can only have 10 or 13 songs on a CD. We ended up cutting 15 songs for this album.”  Prout

However, if we examine the tracks that wound up making the cut for Completely, “numbers” and “business aspects” seem to be code for “hop on the popular trend,” which was defined by Lonestar’s success at the time. There are indeed some off-the-wall tracks on this album: “Something Cool” has an old-school swing feel, “The Box” is choppier and features Roe blasting through some rapid-fire lyrics, and “Rural Philharmonic” is…well, just imagine what happens when you mash together a bluegrass band and a symphony orchestra. On balance, this is a pretty decent album with plenty of the usual DR magic. However, the single choices are extremely telling: “Beautiful Mess” has a dark, slick, buttoned-down feel, “I Believe” is an emotional ballad in the same vein as “One More Day” and Lonestar’s “Amazed,” and “Wrinkles” and “We All Fall Down” are the sort of sticky-sweet, family-friendly tracks that fit neatly next to tracks like Lonestar’s “My Front Porch Looking In” and “Mr. Mom.” Arista clearly wanted to cash in on Lonestar’s success, and while the ploy half-worked (“Beautiful Mess” and “I Believe” both reached #1 and peaked relatively high on the Hot 100), the latter two singles followed the same pattern as One More Day, with “Wrinkles” stopping at #16 and “We All Fall Down” crashing and burning at #45.

Diamond Rio’s answer to all this was to double down on its search for a new sound, bringing up the same talking points as before:

“We’re going to have some things that we haven’t done in the past, and things you’ll expect out of Diamond Rio. We’ve got a couple of surprises…”   Williams, as told to Brian Dugger, August 2004

“I think to a certain extent we were no longer the flavor of the day … But we were always trying to evolve. We didn’t want to do another ‘Meet in the Middle’…Usually when you have a hit, you get pitched songs that sound just like the hit you just had. I always tell songwriters, ‘Play me something you love that has no shot of getting recorded.'”  —Olander, as told to Randy Cordova, May 2014

This time, the evolution led to “Can’t You Tell,” which Cordova labeled a “horn-driven Latin-country hybrid” nearly a decade later (an apt description given the background horn stabs, percussion choices, and unexpected tone from Olander and Truman’s instruments in particular). The track petered out at #43, and the feel-good follow-up ballad “One Believer” (which was not nearly as sonically ambitious) only outperformed it by one spot. Label issues became a problem at this point as well:

  • Some behind-the scenes restructuring as Arista was folded into RCA brought our old friend “label instability” into the conversation.
  • The group that Arista/RCA aimed to emulate (Lonestar) was essentially pushed off the airwaves by Rascal Flatts, which likely convinced the label that propping up an aging group like Diamond Rio was a losing bet.

Put it all together, and Diamond Rio’s exit from RCA in 2006 didn’t come as much of a surprise. The biggest shocker of all, however, was what happened next.

The Journey

At this point, this is how the story usually goes: The aging artist goes through a rough label breakup, but then joins forces with another label looking to cash in on the artist’s existing fanbase, and brings out a comeback single that takes the world by storm (at least temporarily). We’ve seen this play out recently with several high-profile artists such as Tim McGraw, Carrie Underwood, and Jake Owen, and Diamond Rio was in position to make such a move in 2006.

So they did just that, signing to country music powerhouse…wait, they signed with Word Records?

Instead of trying to extend their mainstream legacy, Diamond Rio pivoted to completing, as Johnson put it in 2015, “several projects that were on our bucket list,” including a Christmas album in 2007 and a gospel album in 2009. Similar to Randy Travis’s pivot to Christian music, 2009’s The Reason earned the group a number of Dove awards, but Olander would later call the project “not the best version of Diamond Rio.” The group went the independent route next, spending the next six years trying to construct the perfect country and western song album:

“Instead of cutting the album in a two-week period, or two-month period, we’d cut a few songs every year…What that allowed us to do is be very selective about what we cut and to take the time to live with these songs, making the proper edits and decisions.”  —Truman, as told to Gayle Thompson, September 2015

The resulting album I Made It is…well, it’s so scattershot that it’s hard to describe, although you can still hear some of the classic Diamond Rio sound in its tracks. Without any major-label muscle behind it, the album didn’t move the needle in Nashville and never even sniffed the radio, but I got the distinct sense that it didn’t matter to Diamond Rio: They had made the album they wanted, and they seemed completely at peace with their decision not to take another shot at mainstream glory.

Conclusions

So what happened to Diamond Rio? On one hand, it’s the same thing that eventually happens to every act: Your style falls out of favor with the masses, and the industry puts you out to pasture. On the other hand, however, this group took this process in stride like no group I’ve ever seen, choosing to chase their own sound and do things their way instead of raging against the dying of the light. It’s as if the group decided by 2000 that they were playing with house money, and when their original shtick stopped working, they decided to challenge themselves to see what they were capable of, and just let the radio chips fall where they may. Their mainstream career may not have ended on their terms, but they accepted the outcome with unusual serenity and just kind of went about their business, checking boxes on their wish list instead of adding more hits to their discography. They’re doing what they want to do, and in some respects, there’s no greater measure of success.

If Our Career Dies Young: What Happened To The Band Perry?

Image from Distractify

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.

Conclusions

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.

Not-So-Big Time: What Happened To Trace Adkins?

Image from WFMJ

The musical legacy of Trace Adkins is, in a word, complicated. Over the course of his career, he has demonstrated great talent, questionable decision-making, a rough-luck streak that rivals Randy Travis, and oftentimes all three at the same time. When he was on, however, there were few better in the business (heck, he put a song on my 2017 best-of list over twenty years after his career started), and there’s no question he left an impression in the minds of country fans of the 90s and 2000s, which led Kory to ask what had become of the not-so-gentle giant:

I’ve personally always blamed Toby Keith for the destruction of Adkins’s career, but you could also make an equally-compelling case that Keith saved Adkins from a lifetime of irrelevance. If you claimed that the fall of Adkins’s career was self-inflicted, you wouldn’t get much of an argument either: Genre-benders like “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” and bizarre novelty tunes like “Brown Chicken Brown Cow” stick out like sore thumbs in his discography, and his longstanding battle with alcoholism and the turbulence it caused in his personal and professional life can make his whole story read like a country song itself. In the end, maybe the question shouldn’t be “What happened to Trace Adkins?”, but “How the heck is Trace Adkins still here?”

From a musical standpoint, Adkins’s career can be broken into three phases:

Phase One: The Conventional Country Singer (1996 – 2000)

A lot had happened to Adkins by the time he signed with Capitol Records in the mid 1990s: A bulldozer accident, a severed finger, and most notably being shot through the heart by his second wife in 1994 during an argument over his drinking. On the surface, unlike many of the careers we’ve dug into, there was no label instability here: Adkins was a fixture on the Capitol roster until the label went “broke” in 2010. Within the label, however, change was a constant companion: The label went through three presidents from 1996 to 2001, and Adkins worked with three different producers (Scott Hendricks, Trey Bruce, Dan Huff) over his first four albums. Despite this, however, Adkins’s singles over this period had a relatively consistent sound that fell neatly in line with the neotraditional movement.

However, as we’ve discussed before, the late 1990s were a transitional period from the late 80s/early 90s neotraditional sound a poppier sound headlined by acts like Shania Twain and Faith Hill. Although Adkins’s debut album Dreamin’ Out Loud was relatively successful (it produced three top five hits, including the #1 “(This Ain’t) No Thinkin’ Thing,” and his debut single “There’s A Girl In Texas” remains one of his most recognizable songs despite only reaching #20), he crashed back down to earth soon after takeoff, producing only a single top-ten hit (“The Rest Of Mine”) in the remainder of the decade. Looking back, it could be argued that Adkins did not do enough to distinguish himself from the pack: He did not, for example, make much use of his voice’s incredible range, and his releases were heavily skewed towards ballads and stuck to the standard lovin’ and leavin’ themes of the era. Regardless of the whys, Adkins was keenly aware that what he was doing wasn’t working:

“When a reporter referred to Adkins’ ‘success’ as a recording artist, he quickly dismissed the characterization. ‘Thank you for having that perception that I’ve had all this success,’ he said with a grimace. ‘I appreciate that.'”  ⁠—Edward Morris, CMT, July 2001

(Actually, you can see a similar deep in Keith’s output around the same time before he switched from Mercury to Dreamworks.) However, Keith would soon find success as a swaggering, confrontational macho man, and Adkins and Capitol took notice.

Phase Two: The Dangerous Man (2001 – 2009)

2001’s Chrome was the first sign that a change was in the air: The first two singles were standard Adkins ballads (“I’m Tryin'” and “Help Me Understand,” with the former reaching #6), but the third (the title track) was very different: The guitars were meatier, the percussion included some synthetic elements, Adkins leaned more on his low-end growl, and the writing’s focus on hot women and tricked-out rides would have felt right at home a decade later in the Bro-Country era. (As Adkins himself explained on his Greatest Hits Collection, Volume 1 enhanced CD, “Don’t look for the deeper meaning behind ‘Chrome’; there’s not one there.”) The song didn’t find any more success than the other singles (it would up at #10), but it served as the canary in the coal mine for what was coming next.

Some other statements from that e-CD interview hinted at the artist’s new direction as well. For one thing, Adkins declared that “I’m not a G artist. PG-13, leaning hard towards R.” This was total baloney: Adkins was practically the definition of a “safe,” G-rated artist, with only “(This Ain’t) No Thinkin’ Thing,” “I Left Something Turned On At Home,” and “Chrome” even remotely approaching sexual content (and they’re demure compared to some of the Bro-Country garbage we got in the 2010s). He also said that he was “a sucker for a good double-entendre,” despite “I Left Something Turned On At Home” being his only single that fit that description. Statements like this were aspirational rather than historical, and Adkins would quickly show that he was ready to walk the walk to back them up.

“Hey baby, wanna see my big…hat?” (Image from Amazon)

Adkins’s next three albums (Comin’ On Strong, Songs About Me, Dangerous Man) are best described as a boiling mass of swagger and sexuality, recasting the singer as a macho man with simple pleasures and blunt opinions. It’s not hard to see where Adkins’s inspiration came from: Toby Keith had struck gold with “How Do You Like Me Now?” in 2000, and spent the next half-decade on top of the genre with his abrasive, in-your-face attitude. Adkins’s ripped off Keith’s blunt machismo (“Rough & Ready,” “Songs About Me”), sprinkled in a dash of Keith’s pandering patriotism (“Arlington”), and then put his own twist on the style by incorporating an overt sexuality that would often cross into objectification and even misogyny: “Hot Mama,” “Ladies Love Country Boys,” and perhaps the biggest hit of Adkins’s career:

In hindsight, “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” was a warning shot indicating what was to befall country music in the 2010s: The slicker, more-synthetic production, the vocal effects and audio jump-cuts, the reduction of a female character to his physical appearance (particularly her posterior), the endless remixes, and on and on and on. The song was denied a #1 on the country charts thanks to Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus, Take The Wheel” (perhaps the antithesis of Adkins’s song, and possible proof that there is a god after all), but it crossed over to become Adkins’s best showing on the Hot 100, topping out at #30. If there was ever a reason Adkins’s legacy in country music is so spotty, it is this song: It’s the first thing that pops into peoples’ minds when they think of Adkins, and it forever made him persona non grata among the genre purists.

Despite the vitriol that Adkins received then (and even now) for his switch, you can’t argue with the results: By becoming Toby Keith with an added dose of sexuality, Adkins finally had a brand that was both recognizable and profitable. Comin’ On Strong and Songs About Me became his first platinum albums since Dreamin’ Out Loud, and he rebounded from his late-90s malaise to become a consistent presence in the top half of the country charts. However, he was still unable to break into the top tier of the genre, earning only a pair of #1 singles in the 2000s and never truly  escaping from Keith’s shadow. He still had a weakness for off-the-wall novelty tunes like “Swing” and “Marry For Money,” and towards the end of the decade he began to slide back into the mid-tier doldrums that he had found himself in during the late 1990s, a slide that culminated in his eventual exit from Capitol.

Some other concerning factors appeared during this time as well:

  • This was the decade where Adkins’s alcoholism started to spill into his public life. A 2001 DUI led to his first stint in rehab, and while the issue did not arise again during the 2000s, it’s hard to believe it didn’t color some of the decisions that were made, especially Adkins’s departure from Capitol.
  • The end of the decade saw Adkins start to branch out from music and use his newfound notoriety to open doors in other fields. He published an autobiography in 2007, and he started working more in film and television, most memorably as a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice. This continued into the next decade, suggesting that Adkins’s focus had begun to shift from music.

In the end, the 2000s were a profitable decade for Trace Adkins, but by 2009 he was basically in the same position he was in 1999. This time, there would be no rebound.

Phase Three: The Collapse (2010 – 2016)

The 2010s would not be a kind decade to Adkins:

  • He departed Capitol for Show-Dog Nashville in 2010, recording three albums for the label but only scoring one top ten (“Just Fishin’,” which topped out at #6). The era is most remembered for the dumb-as-a-rock “Brown Chicken Brown Cow,” which only made it to #39 and forever stained Adkins’s legacy in the eyes of those who hadn’t forgiven him for his 2000s audacity.

Something else happened here, something that’s a bit harder to explain: As Bro-Country started taking over the airwaves and “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” started sounding less like an exception and more like a rule, the public suddenly decided they wanted to hear the old Adkins rather than the current one. His most successful songs after 2006 were “You’re Going To Miss This” and “Just Fishin'”, the sort of thoughtful, traditional material that Adkins was more associated with in the 1990s. Rather than rejecting an artist outright due to age as is custom in Nashville, it seemed that the fifty-something Adkins had been deemed unsuitable for the Bro-Country movement, and pushed into an elder statesman role that he wasn’t fully ready to accept.

Adkins’s alcohol issues coincide with a three-year between 2013’s Love Will… and 2016’s Something’s Going On, and by the time Adkins returned to the scene, nothing was going on: He has yet to crack the Top 40 since 2011’s “Million Dollar View.”

Conclusions

So what happened to Trace Adkins? I think the finger can be pointed in a lot of different directions: The muscular, Toby Keith style of country was starting to wane by the late 2000s, neither country purists nor Bro-Country fans were terribly eager to embrace Adkins, label instability started to rear its head, poor song selection painted him as someone who couldn’t be taken seriously, and the ongoing battle with alcoholism left him in a vulnerable state and unable to properly respond to everything that was swirling around him.

“Watered Down” showed that Adkins is still capable of making musical magic, and Blake Shelton and HARDY have shown that he’s still in moderate demand as a collaborator. Adkins reminds me a lot of Marty Stuart in that despite getting limited chart recognition in his prime (only three #1 singles overall), he had an outsized impact on country music, and he’ll be remembered (for better or worse) long after he’s faded from the public consciousness. His career was an exciting and heartbreaking journey, and while the bad times stick out the most today, I hope people remember the good times too.