The *Other* Mainstream Nashville

It’s quite easy to lump all country music coming from Nashville together in one broad stroke. The industry puts out what it wants and sends it to radio for it to be consumed by the masses in a giant heap. A song slowly climbs up the charts, hits number one, and then makes way for the next song to replace it. That’s just how the industry works, for better or worse. It’s a Monday morning business, as Marty Stuart once called it.

Yet for those who feel a deeper connection to the music and look for added substance to country, far too many refuse to accept anything in the mainstream as “good.” This is a mistake and harmful to appreciating country music. Waylon and Willie were once mainstream after their outlaw movement took over Nashville. Alan Jackson and George Strait were once mainstream. I love listening to Whitey Morgan, Justin Townes Earle, and Jason Isbell. But I don’t just limit myself to Red Dirt, Americana, or Alt-Country. There’s an incredible scene bubbling under the surface of mainstream Nashville at the moment, and it would be wise for country music lovers to get behind it.

Nashville is not only just rife with musicians and artists trying to do things differently from the status quo; it’s filled with musicians and artists challenging the status quo in different ways with different sounds. Steve Moakler is an unlikely challenger to the status quo. He always had a folksy-coffee shop type of sound. I have a friend who knew Moakler in high school, and the last thing he expected was for Moakler to record a mainstream country album. He did the coffee shop circuit for a few years before coming to Nashville and writing several mainstream songs, including Dierks Bentley’s “Riser.” “Riser” gives you an example of Moakler’s lyrical leanings. Rich imagery mixed with clever analogies and metaphors define Moakler’s folksy beginnings and his ability to merge his own influences with mainstream country music. Moakler released his debut country effort Steel Town earlier this year, and the album was a personal and vivid piece of art. Scattered throughout the album are references to his hometown of Pittsburgh and staying true to one’s self when making music. The title track, “Wheels,” and “Suitcase” in particular really exemplify Moakler’s ability.

If there was still a songwriter circuit in Nashville today a-la Kristofferson, Guy Clark, and Rodney Crowell, that’s where an artist like Moakler would reside. It’s a good place to be. And it’s a good place to make an impact on the establishment. Songs are what matter the most in Nashville, and if Moakler is able to successfully parlay his songs to a wider audience, he may be able to slowly but surely change the stale, formulated songwriting process that unfortunately is much to common in Nashville at the moment.

If Steve Moakler resides on the songwriting end of the country music spectrum, The Cadillac Three reside on the other. Hard-rockers, leaning more toward Southern rock, The Cadillac Three proudly carry on the tradition of Hank Jr. and his rowdy friends. Composed of drummer Neil Mason, slide guitarist Kelby Ray, and lead guitarist/singer Jaren Johnston, The Cadillac Three are an electrifying live act. Their lyrics paint a poignant picture of the South with good times for all permeating most of their songs.

The Cadillac Three have an almost grunge-like sound mixed with traditional three chord rock and a little bit of country. No surprise considering Nirvana is one of their influences. It’s a great example of how it is okay for country artists to take from other genres as long as they make it their own. The problem arises when artists take other genres and fail to combine the sound with country. The Cadillac Three, however, fuse genres perfectly.

Somewhere in the middle of country rock ’n’ roll and songwriter lie Brothers Osborne, possibly the coolest and most influential act in mainstream country right now challenging the status quo. With songs like “Stay a Little Longer” featuring some impressive guitar work and “It Ain’t My Fault” featuring clever songwriting, Brothers Osborne is firmly planted in a position to move country music in a positive direction. If Eric Church is the godfather of modern mainstream acts who knows how to successfully challenge the mainstream while staying true to oneself, Brothers Osborne are the willing disciple.

Brothers Osborne are truly Nashville renegades in the most positive spirit of the word. Outspoken with their beliefs, in-your-face with their music, and genuine guys, Brothers Osborne are exactly the type of act that those who don’t necessarily listen to mainstream country can get behind. They’ve opened for Church, beaten Florida-Georgia Line to a couple of awards, and have done some serious work on the charts. I’d be willing to argue that if there is a country music revolution brewing on Music Row, Brothers Osborne are going to be one of the first acts to finally bust down that door.

Another prime candidate to be at the forefront of a mainstream revolution is Drake White, an artist who just oozes coolness. I’ll let his Twitter bio describe his sound: “ These guys are like if Joe Cocker joined The Band around a South Appalachian camp fire, he hooked up with Janis Joplin and they had a baby on the Ocoee River.” Yeah. That’s an apt and vivid description of Drake White and his band’s sound.

White has an intensely jam-band feeling to his music. a-la Zac Brown Band. But he really puts a serious country twist on the jam band sound. The closest comparison to White’s lyrics may actually be fellow troubadour Kacey Musgraves. He sings about small town America with witty observations but more optimistic themes. It’s a nice vibe he’s got going with deeply personal songs like “Makin’ Me Look Good Again” and “Livin’ the Dream.” Other songs like “Heartbeat” and “Story” really make his debut album (Spark) something really special in today’s Nashville. It’s an album from an artist who simply refuses to chase trends.

Perhaps refusing to chase trends is exactly the tonic that mainstream Nashville needs from all of its artists that truly care about the direction of the genre. If enough artists like The Cadillac Three, Drake White, Brothers Osborne, and Steve Moakler keep doing things their own way, others will follow. The catch, obviously, being that each of the aforementioned artists have experienced varying degrees of success on country radio. Brothers Osborne are right on the verge of being considered an established act at country radio while The Cadillac Three will most likely always be on the outs with airplay thanks to their more rocking sound. Moakler has the potential to really hit it big. His songs are just friendly enough to the country format to make an impact, and his affable personality that shines through in interviews could help make him a star.

The real case study for artists that reside in the mainstream but record their own style of country, however, will be Drake White. I briefly mentioned his debut album earlier in the piece, and it’s worth mentioning again. Spark is a personal, special album. Each and every song has a fine message or observation about life- in general or in White’s own. White absolutely refuses to chase trends, and this is apparent with his debut. Most debut albums in mainstream Nashville have a few concessions that are clearly about trying to get radio play. Listen to Spark though. No concessions are made. You get the feeling that this Drake White’s music and how he wants to play it from start to finish. Yet White has not done well on the charts. In an era where country music went right from bro-country to vanilla ballads that seem to sound all alike, Drake White is (along with Brothers Osborne, Moakler, Eric Church, Frankie Ballard, and just a few others) an exception. If White can get his label to really push his singles, he could really make an impact. Or, through touring and in the vein of Waylon and Willie in the 70s, Drake White could just take his music directly to the fans. After all, Eric Church was never warmly received by country radio and after getting kicked off Rascal Flatts’ tour at the beginning of his career, Church was relegated to playing rock clubs. Yet he has become not only one of the biggest draws in country music today but one of the few true “artists” in country. He did that through making a connection with the fans and drawing a bigger and bigger audience each show. That may have to be the approach Drake White takes.

There’s no doubting the talent and artistic ability of the artists I’ve mentioned in this piece. Yet the age-old question remains. Will country radio play them? Sometimes, an artist like Dwight Yoakam who was called too rock for country and too country for rock breaks through the barrier. Other times, country radio ignores artists like Jamey Johnson and Chris Stapleton despite their obvious successes with album sales. But there’s the point. Stapleton, Eric Church, Miranda Lambert, Brothers Osborne forced their way to being noticed. It can take longer in certain instances, but if an artist keeps kicking ass and recording the music that he or she wants to make, it simply cannot be ignored.

Make no mistake. Mainstream Nashville is ripe for a revolution. Waylon and Willie and the Outlaw Movement in the 1970s. Randy Travis, Ricky Skaggs, and Dwight Yoakam in the 1980s. George Strait and Alan Jackson recording “Murder on Music Row.” Revolutions are hard to predict. Sure, we can analyze why they happen after the fact. But if country music fans are willing right now to get behind mainstream artists recording the good stuff and not just stay in their Americana, Red Dirt, Alt-Country bubble, the genre will be better for it.