Blake Shelton has a mission: keep traditional country music alive. It’s a controversial topic in country music, given the evolution of the genre in the past 15 years. But Shelton knows exactly which side he falls on. Thanks to his platform as a coach on The Voice, he is able to mentor and promote a more traditional country sound with his performers. And it’s a result that’s paying off.
Country music has undergone a significant evolution in the past decade-and-a-half. The twangy steel guitars, fiddles, and acoustic vocals are mostly gone. As rock and pop began to creep into the genre, the traditional sound began to fade. This began in the 1980s and 1990s. Garth Brooks certainly gave a rock flair to his music, while Shania Twain was one of the first true crossovers. But even their music still retained some of the earlier sounds. But as artists like Taylor Swift and Luke Bryan entered the scene, they all but eliminated traditional country.
However, there are some artists who want country to still sound country. Certainly some of the big artists of those same decades, such as Reba McEntire, Alan Jackson, and George Strait. And even now, we see a resurgence of popularity in artists who want to ground country music in its roots. Chris Stapleton and Miranda Lambert are two great examples. Another is Blake Shelton.
Blake Shelton does have a bit of a bubble-gum feel to his music. Most of his tunes are catchy and without much depth (he certainly doesn’t have the gut-wrenching lyrics of Stapleton or Lambert). But it does retain a traditional sound and embrace country themes (“I’ll Name The Dogs“, for example). Shelton wants to keep it that way. So to that end, he is also methodically promoting country singers on The Voice.
Shelton’s formula clearly works for him. Not only has he had more wins than any other coach (six), but his winners were mainly country singers. Of course, this isn’t hugely surprising given the demographics.
As The Tennessean reported, “Shelton’s success with country music on “The Voice” is a no-brainer for anyone who watches television and follows the genre, said Paul Telegdy, president, alternative and reality group for NBC Entertainment. He explained the formula was clear in the early days of “American Idol” — America’s heartland watches television and loves country music. Add in Shelton’s likability and sex appeal and he said the winning recipe was “hiding in plain sight.”
But it seems more than that. Because those heartland watchers also like the more evolved and highly-produced country music. They are listening to Swift, Bryan, LBT, and Twain (whose new album is anything but country). So what is it?
Keeping It Country
Arguably, it is the fact that these viewers are open to Blake Shelton and through him are discovering country music that had faded from public memory.
Shelton’s winners have pulled deep into the archives of country music. He has utilized iconic country, such as Johnny Cash. But as The Tennessean also noted, Team Shelton won votes with “Pam Tillis’ “Maybe It Was Memphis,” and followed up with Jo Dee Messina’s “Heads Carolina, Tails California,” The Judds’ “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Ole Days)” and Patty Loveless’ “Timber, I’m Falling in Love.”
Those were huge hits 2-3 decades ago, but many modern listeners would not know them.
Shelton seems to have his hand on the pulse of what listeners want– even if they don’t know it’s what they want. It’s interesting to think how much of country would be changed if more big-name country artists pulled back to a more traditional sound. It seems possible that the trend is already starting. Luke Bryan’s latest album, What Makes You Country, was decidedly more traditional overall. But when you consider that Sam Hunt’s Body Like A Back Road (a song whose only country element is the title) dominated the country charts last year, it also seems unlikely.
Utilizing The Voice
In Season 12 of The Voice, an average of 12.8 million viewers each week tuned in to watch. That’s a number twice the population of Tennessee. If Shelton continues his methodology in this new season, he will again have multimillions of fans to convert to more traditional country. And that is his goal.
“If I can have one little blip on the radar of keeping country music in the mainstream, then nothing could make me more proud,” Shelton said during a taping break. “There’s been a lot that’s happened in country music, and it’s had a lot of impact for decades and decades. It’s great to be a part of the reminder and the tradition of that.”
Country music will no doubt remain mainstream. Both Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan scored huge with their latest album releases. And with the significant amount of pop-country crossover (if not all out blend), there are more listeners to tune in. This is especially true now that music is streamed. Not being tied to specific radio stations, people can create playlists or streaming that is much more blended and incorporates many different genres.
But whether or not country music that is country music can remain mainstream is another question. Yes, Shelton produced quite a few winners. But none of them have gone on to significant commercial success. No one from The Voice has achieved the fame of Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood. And even though Shelton certainly seems to prefer more traditional country, he also recognizes the evolution. It will take continued efforts from him and other big-name stars to change the direction.
It is noteworthy that Blake Shelton isn’t the only one concerned about the state of country music. Several years ago, Brad Paisley complained about it in his song “Too Country.” Alan Jackson and George Strait made the point in “Murder on Music Row.” And Garth Brooks has vocalized his concerns. But again, whether or not these protests do much to change the direction remains to be seen.
One point that does need to be made is the role of the listeners. Music consumers seem to be victim to what record labels produce, but this is not actually the case. Just like in any other product in a capitalist society, dollars are voices. If listeners want a more traditional country sound, then they need to reward that with sales, not complaints.
Whether or not Shelton’s approach will do much to change the state of country music, it is certainly one that is achieving his end of winning on his reality TV show. We expect that he will not change his playbook in this new season. At the very least, that means more viewers exposed to the classic sounds of country music, which is banjo and fiddle to our ears.
What do you think?