Haters Gonna Hate: The Incredible Danger of Knowing What You Know

Holly Gleason | December 5th, 2012


It happens every week. Every Wednesday, when I post my variation of “Gone Fishing” on my Facebook page, announcing I am M-I-A because I will be facedown in ABC’s primetime drama, Nashville, the comments start piling up. About how the writing sucks, the plot blows, but especially, how dreadful the music is. I laugh. I’m not watching the show for pleasure, though it is a delicious romp through the wages of the overindulged and cowering. No, I write the weekly “Nashville Insider” column for The Hollywood Reporter, which can be read online at www.hollywoodreporter.com.

My mission: to game check the veracity of various aspects of the now 22-episode series as someone who’s toiled inside the Music Row machine, who’s been a rock critic regularly featured in Rolling Stone and The Los Angeles Times, who knows the impact of various career arcs. I look at the snarking, and I laugh. Because conventional wisdom (“Nashville sucks”) and the knowing “how” the record business works (without ever really being in those meetings) is an arrogance tempered by ignorance that makes you flat wrong. It’s just that simple. And man, like the recent election, people sure can howl without real grounding.

Since Engine 145 seems to be a place of thinking things through a little deeper, this is the perfect forum to sort the seeds’n’stems of Nashville. Look at the reality, consider the fact there might be some things that evade view. After all, if people could see the reality, the vertigo would pull them over.

Here’s the bad news: all the music people whine about. Culled, curated and even recorded by… wait for it… T-Bone Burnett, the high Buddha of roots music who builds temples to Leon Russell, Gregg Allman, Willie Nelson, Elvis Costello, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, not to mention igniting the whole thing with the BoDeans, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Los Lobos’ How Will the Wolf Survive; Buddy Miller, the Obi Wan Kenobi of Emmylou Harris, Robert Plant’s Band of Joy, Solomon Burke, Steve Earle, Patty Griffin and Richard Thompson. We can bench press the chronically credible names until Ryan Adams develops “guns,” but why? You know what those names mean. While Burnett has helmed the soundtracks for Oscar-winners O Brother, Where Art Thou?,  Walk the Line and Crazy Heart, the towering Texan has never – seemingly – pulled a punch when the songs were on the line. Especially when the visibility is up.

Burnett knows – and it’s his reputation on the lie. Not to mention, he happens to love the show’s creator/writer/producer and eventual director Callie Khouri, who is an Oscar winner herself. The Thelma & Louise originator’s weekly TV show is about capturing the real conflicts of mainstream country music, the creative undertow that is never seen beyond the 6-1-5 and the quality of music being made that there is no home for. Living here from 1978 to 1982, Khouri existed in the renegade swirl of the creative community. Seeing the two sides of Nashville, she seeks to capture the frustrations, illuminate the diminishing reality of fame and the power games that undermine what people hear.

Music is a weapon in their battle. Even Nashville’s glistening pop stuff has a deeper core. The actors may not be world class vocalists, but the players are the best roots musicians Miller, Burnett and their ilk work with. And anyone who’d call Kris Kristofferson or even Jason Aldean golden-throated, well, let’s get real. It’s the way the songs come across. For Miller and the rest, the notion is get the best writers, many Music Row survivors, and take the songs that could feed the pop machine that is industrial radio – remember that delivery system is just one more bump on a multinational corporation – a better cut of percolating euphoria. Don’t be naïve, but work with reality. Unless you can buy it all and start over, you have to change from within. T-Bone Burnett understands co-opting the system, overthrowing from within. So does his lovely wife… and Buddy Miller… and…

Obviously, sex sells. Obviously, with the money currently on the line, sex trumps much, but no hot piece of bottom – a la Juliette Barnes – could use her labial charms to arrive at superstardom. Certainly Mindy McCready used her tart appeal to get endless chances, but even she hit a limit. Juliette ain’t Taylor Swift, who’s all business; the boys just parsley on her strip steak. Or Carrie Underwood, whose sanitized-for-your-protection uber-Barbie crotch shots and thrusting vocalese should come with the paper strip that used to cover Holiday Inn toilets.

But Rayna James? A fading class act who built her success on music, she’s staring down the barrel of 40, fighting to not be cast aside by her label and working to maintain musical thrust. If you don’t think that’s – in varying degrees – Faith Hill, Martina McBride, Sara Evans or Shania Twain, who’s gone to Vegas, then you’re not paying attention. All those glossy, flossy happy housewife superstars are going the way of Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Pam Tillis. Fresh is easier to sell. It doesn’t require thought, creativity or quality, Grab the lightning, ride the momentum, pretend like you’re making it happen.

As someone who’s looked at a lot of artists to assess what makes them matter, it’s not a skill set applied often. The marketing is too fast, not considered enough – and once the momentum stalls, they bludgeon with fame because they don’t understand connecting the music. And then it’s over.

Just ask Rayna Jaymes. Fighting to survive with an unholy alliance with the hot girl of the moment who’s facedown in her own P.R. crisis and worse reputation. But Jaymes is smart enough to lean into the music: enlisting a rock producer and trusting her ability to write her way back.

These Nashville songs that people bitch about, especially the ones teed up with emotional charge by where they’re placed in the shows, are resonating. If country radio won’t play them, just look at iTunes, where they’re dominating on a weekly basis. If people aren’t buying the stuff country radio plays, two weeks ago, Nashville had 6 of the Top 10 downloads. Look beyond what you’re sure you see, what you think you know. You might find Buddy Miller, half the Civil Wars, T-Bone Burnett…  a bunch of Music Row rejecters, hunkered down, knowing Hank done it this way.

  1. Saving Country Music
    December 5, 2012 at 2:12 pm

    Great piece! I totally agree.

  2. J.R. Journey
    December 5, 2012 at 4:39 pm

    You speak of a ‘changing of the guard’ I wouldn’t mind seeing.

    I really enjoyed reading this too. Thanks.

  3. Rick
    December 5, 2012 at 10:18 pm

    Fine writing as usual Holly. I’ve liked most of the music on the show except for the Avery character’s songs, not surprising since I’ve never cared for alt. country. I especially like the Scarlett and Gunnar duets and Deacon’s songs. Kudo’s to T-Bone for keeping the music interesting.

    I love all the music business insider plot angles and career struggles and just wish they made a bigger share of the script. The political intrigue is too “Dallas” and Juliette’s follies are too “TMZ”, but apart from that I think the show is very entertaining. Will Scarlett and Gunnar become the new “Luke and Laura”? Hmm…

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