Mark Chesnutt – “Things To Do In Wichita”

Juli Thanki | January 12th, 2009

Mark Chesnutt - Things To Do In WichitaSongwriters: Jimmy Ritchey and Bob Regan.

Mark Chesnutt’s latest, “Things To Do In Wichita,” follows in the footsteps of countless country artists who, through song, provide detailed lists of The Activities They Do In Futile Attempts to Ignore Heartbreak.

Unfortunately, Chesnutt’s list of activities (“Read USA Today front to back/Kill most of the morning doing that/Then take that lonely walk back to the room/Watch reruns on and off all afternoon“) is as boring to listen to as the activities themselves would be to participate in. The lyrics don’t even share the darkly humorous absurdity of the Statler Brothers’ classic “Flowers On The Wall,” which finds the group “Playing solitaire ’til dawn with a deck of fifty-one/Smoking cigarettes and watching Captain Kangaroo.

“Things To Do In Wichita” is instantly forgettable, and while it may be an accurate representation of things to do in Wichita (evidently, there’s not much), there’s nothing here that makes the lyrics anything other than chatter, so generically uninteresting that Chesnutt could be singing the TV Guide listings to equal effect.

Lyrics aside, the song is beautifully arranged. Crying pedal steel accents twangy guitars without overshadowing Chesnutt’s smooth baritone, and it should, by all accounts, have at least some presence at country radio; the chorus is extremely catchy and is certain to worm its way into the hearts of those homesick for 1990s neotraditionalism. In fact, it’s exactly the type of song that would have been successful fifteen years ago–in spite of its lyrical shortcomings–thanks to Chesnutt’s simply lovely voice.

Lofton Creek is set to continue pursing support for the song into the first part of 09, despite the fact that it is already deep into is country radio gestation period. Unfortunately, its inability to chart at all (let’s not forget that even Chesnutt’s ill-advised cover of “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” charted) suggests that for the majority of modern listeners, neotraditionalism—and traditional traditionalism, for that matter—are things of the past.

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  1. Razor X
    January 12, 2009 at 10:24 am

    “Unfortunately, its inability to chart at all … suggests that for the majority of modern listeners, neotraditionalism—and traditional traditionalism, for that matter—are things of the past.”

    CORRECTION: For the majority of modern RADIO PROGRAMMERS, not listeners, traditionalism is a thing of the past. Don’t blame the listeners for the sins of the radio programmers.

  2. Juli
    January 12, 2009 at 10:48 am

    I can’t imagine why a fan of traditional country would listen to commercial radio these days…unless your local station is a lot better than mine. Unfortunately, SOMEBODY has to be listening to New Country, or else programmers wouldn’t keep programming the same Carrie/Kenny/Keith stuff, and their concerts wouldn’t be selling out while genuine country artists like Miss Leslie are working their tails off trying to cultivate larger fanbases.

    Until folks are calling their local stations and requesting songs by Porter Wagoner, Loretta Lynn, or Bob Wills, I’ll continue to blame the commercial country listener. And the programmers. And the artists.

  3. Matt C.
    January 12, 2009 at 11:15 am

    This is what I wrote in my album review, and it pretty much sums up how I feel about this song:

    While album-opener “Things to Do in Wichita” swings for the “Too Cold at Home” fences, it’s too unintentionally hilarious to carry the same weight: “wake up make my way down to the lobby / get a bite to eat and a cup or two of coffee / read USA Today front to back / kill most of the morning doin’ that” pretty much accurately describes “things to do in Wichita” whether or not your woman just left you.

  4. Sam G.
    January 12, 2009 at 11:32 am

    I’ve driven through Wichita. I think Mark’s pretty much covered everything there is to do there, short of waiting for the tornado sirens to go off.

    This isn’t normally the kind of song I’d like, but Mark does a good job of selling the point of the song (he’s stuck in a podunk town with nothing to do because he’s screwed up things at home). I think overall, it’s a decent enough song, but it won’t get a lot of airplay in Wichita.

  5. Andrew
    January 12, 2009 at 11:57 am

    While the lyrics on this song aren’t terribly good, I really like the arrangement, and I’ll confess it’s one of my favorite songs off the album.

    Too bad most program directors are going to continue to ignore Mark.

  6. Leeann Ward
    January 12, 2009 at 12:12 pm

    When I first heard this song, I didn’t like it much either. However, I’ve since found the second verse to be more interesting than the first. Like you said, though, the arrangement and his vocals are very good.

  7. Razor X
    January 12, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    Juli, we can call radio stations and request Porter, Dolly, Loretta and Bob Wills until we’re blue in the face and it isn’t going to make a bit of difference. In fact, most country DJs these days probably don’t even know who Porter Wagoner or Bob Wills were. The only thing to do with mainstream country radio is turn it off.

  8. Jim Malec
    January 12, 2009 at 12:27 pm

    Juli’s point is not that radio would play those artists–her point is that those artists aren’t even associated with the format in the minds of the format’s listeners.

  9. Razor X
    January 12, 2009 at 1:21 pm

    “Juli’s point is not that radio would play those artists–her point is that those artists aren’t even associated with the format in the minds of the format’s listeners.”

    That’s very true, but the listeners haven’t been exposed to those artists. I think that is more the fault of the radio programmers than the listeners.

  10. JD
    January 12, 2009 at 1:25 pm

    I agree with just about everything in the review. I still rank the Rollin’ with the Flow CD as one of my 2008 favorites. I can ignore some of these less-than-stellar lyrics but I can’t ignore the other cr*p being played on today’s airwaves.

    Hey, I’m a dinosaur.

  11. Jim Malec
    January 12, 2009 at 1:28 pm

    I don’t think the average 24 year old female can relate to anything about Porter Wagoner or his music. It’s something you have to grow in to, because it isn’t a cultural touchstone.

  12. Razor X
    January 12, 2009 at 1:54 pm

    I couldn’t relate to it as a 10-year-old Yankee boy when I started listening to country music. But I still liked it.

  13. Rick
    January 12, 2009 at 5:26 pm

    Juli said “I can’t imagine why a fan of traditional country would listen to commercial radio these days…unless your local station is a lot better than mine. Unfortunately, SOMEBODY has to be listening to New Country, or else programmers wouldn’t keep programming the same Carrie/Kenny/Keith stuff, and their concerts wouldn’t be selling out while genuine country artists like Miss Leslie are working their tails off trying to cultivate larger fan bases.”

    Juli, I quit listening to LA’s only mainstream country radio station last year when the preponderance of Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift, Keith Urban, and Rascal Flatts songs made me want to puke every time I tuned in. As for “AirHead Country” radio listeners GAC has been airing concert footage from the 2008 Fan Fair and crowd shots from the big stadium shows reveal primarily a female audience ranging in age from about 16-35.

    Since mainstream country radio has intentionally driven away former listeners who prefer traditional and neo-traditional country music, there isn’t much reason left to play this stuff. Miss Leslie Sloan, Amber Digby, and Kimberly Murray all fall in the traditional country chasm that exists between the Top 40 mainstream country and edgy Americana formats. These gals don’t even get any radio respect in their home state of Texas! Crikey, mate!

  14. Hollerin' Ben
    January 12, 2009 at 6:36 pm

    “Until folks are calling their local stations and requesting songs by Porter Wagoner, Loretta Lynn, or Bob Wills, I’ll continue to blame the commercial country listener. And the programmers. And the artists.”

    The idea that what’s played on commercial mainstream radio is what the people want – by virtue of the fact that it’s what is being played – assumes that “the people” have the ability to dictate radio programming by calling in/changing the station/etc.

    It’s not as if they play Rascall Flatts right next to Amber Digby right next to Jimmy Wayne right next to Mike Stinson and then let the audience call and email to decide what to keep playing. The average radio listener has no access to anything other than what is being played on the radio in the first place.

    Mainstream Country Music is a top down phenomenon right now. Aside from Texas, there are no serious regional markets in which talent can prove it’s appeal outside of the Major corporate label/major market corporate radio/Viacom owned CMT and GAC complex that decides what the Top 40 is going to look like.

    The “adult-contemporary-ization” of country music wasn’t an organic process, and neither was it accidental. It was an “out with the old” “in with the new” process, and the suppression of legitimate country music as “too country” was as essential to the process as the multi-million dollar advertising budgets to re-brand 70’s soft rock or 90’s acoustic pop or whatever the latest fad is – and sung with a southern accent of course – as “country music”.

    Blaming the country music listener for not calling in and requesting music that is 40+ years old – or that they would have had to read blogs/niche magazines/be heavily involved in the independent music scene to be familiar with – is crazy

    Girls age 16-35 potentially would be over-the-moon for Amber Digby, Eleven Hundred Springs, Mike Stinson, Justin Townes Earle, David Serby, Brennen Leigh, Jesse Dayton, and a host of other artists who play actual country music, – before you doubt it, remember that girls in that demo loved Elvis, Hank Williams, The Rolling Stones, Johnny Cash, etc etc back in the day – but we have no way of knowing because they don’t get exposed to it.

  15. Razor X
    January 12, 2009 at 8:00 pm

    @Ben — nail, meet head.

    “It’s not as if they play Rascall Flatts right next to Amber Digby right next to Jimmy Wayne right next to Mike Stinson and then let the audience call and email to decide what to keep playing.”

    And therein lies the difference between today’s country radio and the country radio of the 1980s. We didn’t have a country radio station in my area until I was 12 years old. Prior to that, the country crossover artists that got played on AC/pop radio — Kenny Rogers, Crystal Gayle, Glen Campbell, Anne Murray — were my gateway to country music. Then along came “Urban Cowboy” and Barbara Mandrell’s variety show which introduced me to a lot of country artists. By the time we got a country radio station, I was lapping it all up.

    I always liked the sound of the fiddle and steel, but I’ll admit getting used to the more nasal, twangy voices took some time. But I was able to acquire a taste for artists like Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and Ricky Skaggs because they got plenty of airplay alongside the more pop-oriented artists. And that’s exactly what’s NOT happening today. The people who come to country via Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift, and Rascal Flatts never get an opportunity to hear country music that isn’t diluted by pop. And that’s a real shame.

  16. Billy
    January 12, 2009 at 8:09 pm

    I’m starting to think that splitting the genre could be the best idea.

  17. Juli
    January 12, 2009 at 9:30 pm

    But the female 16-35 demographic is very tuned in to the whole Myspace/social networking world. So to be passive and let CMT or radio spoonfeed you whatever music the focus groups deemed marketable to whatever your specific demographic may be when there are literally thousands of artist to be heard right at your fingertips is just plain laziness or apathy on the part of the listener.

    Back when I was 17 or so, I was really into George Strait, but didn’t know so much about traditional country. I saw an interview where Strait said he loved Merle Haggard’s Bob Wills tribute record; I found the record at a local shop, soon I was deep into the works of Haggard, then Wills, and the rest is history.

    True, I was–though to a far lesser extent than my current self–a music geek, and perhaps I’m a bit of a Pollyanna when it comes to such things, but if your average radio listener or CMT watcher can’t exert the tiniest bit of effort to be curious and explore the genre, whether through listening to new stuff (often for free) on the internet, going to the occasional local concert, or just plain talking to people, then that’s just being ignorant and/or complacent. And those people deserve to listen to “Bob That Head” for all eternity.

    Indeed, the potential is there for young, pop-country listeners to develop a love for Amber Digby, JTE, or numerous other traditional/trad-influenced artists. The unfortunate thing is that most of these listeners can’t be bothered to seek them out or just plain turn Top 40 off, and the radio/CMT overlords will never play that deviates from the popcountry norm. So listeners remain like the prisoners in Plato’s cave unless they should somehow manage to free themselves and see the difference between shadow(Pop Country) and reality (Trad. Country). At least that’s what I vaguely recall happening in the cave parable…it’s been a while since my Philosophy 101 days.

    And I think this is where I’ll call it a night, because the comparison of country radio to Plato is perhaps the very definition of overthinking things.

  18. Razor X
    January 12, 2009 at 10:37 pm

    ” So to be passive and let CMT or radio spoonfeed you whatever music the focus groups deemed marketable to whatever your specific demographic may be when there are literally thousands of artist to be heard right at your fingertips is just plain laziness or apathy on the part of the listener.”

    That’s a good point. On the other hand, it can be argued that fans shouldn’t have to work so hard to find decent music. Navigating through all the thousands of MySpace pages and finding the pearls amongst the oysters can be overwhelming, especially if you don’t know what you’re looking for in the first place. In the past, it was possible to come across plenty of decent music while being passive.

    I have to say, though, that I found a lot gems myself when I looked past what radio was playing even 20 years ago. I learned about Bob Wills the same way you did — through Merle’s tribute album, through George Strait’s cover of “Right Or Wrong” and through Waylon’s “Bob Wills is Still The King”. I first heard of Patsy Cline when Barbara Mandrell did a tribute to her on her variety show. The next time I heard the name was when I read Loretta’s book “Coal Miner’s Daughter”. I decided to investigate a little further and saved my allowance until I had enough to buy Patsy’s Greatest Hits on cassette. I was instantly hooked and have been a fan ever since.

  19. Hollerin' Ben
    January 12, 2009 at 11:48 pm

    I couldn’t disagree with you more Juli.

    “So to be passive and let CMT or radio spoonfeed you whatever music the focus groups deemed marketable to whatever your specific demographic may be when there are literally thousands of artist to be heard right at your fingertips is just plain laziness or apathy on the part of the listener.”

    Laziness? Look, music is super important to us and how many of us build “calling radio stations and requesting songs we think represent the best of country music” into our schedule?

    I agree that if all of the country music fans in America made the elevation of quality roots based country music a priority in their life, that the music on the radio would improve, but that’s obviously not going to happen because while we country bloggers are heavily invested in country music, the average person has a million other things to worry about and they assume that the people in charge of country music aren’t abusing the public trust by ignoring all artists of quality.

    So what your argument boils down to “the default situation of corporations purposefully pushing sacharine and non-artistic music as lifestyle marketing is acceptable so long as the people en masse have the option of finding music that has been excluded from the public airwaves and petitioning the corporations to play that music”

    I think that the default situation sucks. Radio right now is very cognizant of not existing to deliver music to it’s listeners, but rather existing to deliver it’s listeners to advertisers. The best way they’ve found to do this is to “brand” the listeners of each kind of music. The best music to push is the music that will simultaneously project the right kinds of things to advertisers about the branded listenership of each kind of music while being generally appealing and non-offensive enough so that the listenership doesn’t change the channel.

    by demanding that the people find artists on myspace, organize calling/email campaigns in order to get favored artists airplay, and organize boycotts of stations that do not play quality music – or else they deserve the crap music they get – you are essentially arguing for the end of quality American music.

    I, on the other hand, would like to see the American tradition of creating excellent music to continue.

  20. Matt B.
    January 13, 2009 at 1:40 am

    Ben, although we may disagree from time to time (OK, most of the time), I wholeheartedly agree with your post above. Good work, sir.

  21. Dan Milliken
    January 13, 2009 at 1:50 am

    “So listeners remain like the prisoners in Plato’s cave unless they should somehow manage to free themselves and see the difference between shadow(Pop Country) and reality (Trad. Country).”

    I hear what you’re saying here, but I disagree with what I perceive (perhaps incorrectly) to be an implication that pop country is inherently inferior to traditional country all the time. I love Justin Townes Earle’s record and would go through the roof if a bunch of kids got into it and put their Rascal Flatts albums to rest, but I certainly don’t think all pop country poses some kind of malevolent threat to anyone’s musical taste, even if most of the stuff that gets played on the radio nowadays is worse than ever. Some artists, like Trisha Yearwood and Keith Urban, put out pop-country with little to no tradition involved that is nonetheless creative, gripping and/or smartly written (in my opinion). Many of the genre’s most memorable and well-regarded singles were pop-country to some extent, as well: “He’ll Have to Go,” “Galveston,” “Seven Year Ache,” “Always On My Mind.”

  22. Dan Milliken
    January 13, 2009 at 2:13 am

    Also, if I may propose a theory – I think traditional country music just inherently attracts a typically older (or at least more mature, whether in body or mind) audience. Seems like a lot of people grow up liking other genres of music but gradually shift toward country (especially traditional stuff) as they grow older.

    I have my ideas about why that might be – traditional country isn’t as “charged” as most of the poppier stuff, even when it’s uptempo, so it doesn’t provide the sort of big, dramatic energy releases I think kids (with their hormones a-blazin’ and whatnot) look for in their music. On the other hand, poppier music certainly does provide that kind of release – the mere ability to sing along to a catchy, dramatic song can have a profound emotional impact on someone that age. I mean, a lot of Rascal Flatts songs are nothing but drama – how else can you explain it?

    Conversely, I think as people mature, they learn to appreciate subtexts and sophisticated writing and other grown-up things that traditional country (even at its silliest) has in spades. Lacking hormonal rushes (I know I sound silly here, but still), they become less interested in hearing things magnified by the drama of pop and more interested in hearing simple truths reported to them the way country, especially traditional country, does. (Although as I said above, I think a lot of pop-country is just as simple and truthful. The musical differences don’t necessarily make anything less meaningful).

    So my point here is just sort of a “kids will be kids” kind of thing. You can call it laziness, but I think it’s just a natural stage of development when you’ve got lots of different music options at your disposal – kids are going to pick what impacts them the most immediately, and that’s almost always pop-leaning music. I’m pretty young myself, and my fondness for the traditional country sound has grown leaps and bounds over the last few years. Much of that has come from my own efforts to learn more about what all’s out there, but I wasn’t interested in making that sort of effort until I literally seemed to grow out of wanting to hear just popular artists all the time.

  23. Hollerin' Ben
    January 13, 2009 at 2:43 am

    “I have my ideas about why that might be – traditional country isn’t as “charged” as most of the poppier stuff, even when it’s uptempo, so it doesn’t provide the sort of big, dramatic energy releases I think kids (with their hormones a-blazin’ and whatnot) look for in their music.”

    it depends how wide a net you cast with the “traditional country” moniker. If you allow that to include Rockabilly then you have super crazy high charged music, and on the other end of the spectrum, sweeping honky-tonk ballads have more than enough drama for a superficial emotional release.

    But I don’t think that country music’s comparitive “low-energy” or “subtlety” is the culprit here (in fact, even though I see where you’re coming from, I don’t think that traditional country music’s “energy output” is truly lower than that of it’s overblown, retarded cousin, modern pop-country)

    If I had to guess I think that the perception of teenage aversion to traditional country music has more to do with your last statement

    “I wasn’t interested in making that sort of effort until I literally seemed to grow out of wanting to hear just popular artists all the time.

    emphasis mine

    I think time has proven that teenagers like what’s perceived to be popular, and that’s the long and short of it. Look at the insane variety of music that has been popular amongst teens in the past 40 years, everything from folk rock to faux-satanic, overblown hard rock to stripped-down purposefully aethetically ugly punk rock to hip hop to synth based new wave pop to dissonant semi-nihilistic “alternative” to bubblegum dance pop to wailing “emo” electronic pop rock to so on and so forth.

    The only constant was that each kind of music was in style, it was what everyone was listening to.

    I agree that, at it’s core, country music is music for real people, and teenagers are hardly real people most of the time, but like any other kind of music, when it comes to teenagers – if you build it, they will come.

  24. Jim Malec
    January 13, 2009 at 8:01 am

    This is a great discussion.

    I just really don’t buy the exposure argument. Because I don’t think the mass audience necessarily looks for the same things we look for, defines “good” music the same way we define it, or listens to music for the same reasons we listen to it. Over and over again I have watched as outstanding mainstream singles from outstanding mainstream artists underperform on the charts, while their shallow, hooky counterparts rise quickly in prominence. It’s not a rare occurrence.

    Why do blockbusters do better than arthouse flicks? Aren’t arthouse flicks “better”? Does Burn After Reading make millions of dollars less than The Mummy 3 because it opens in 500 fewer theaters? All things being equal, would BAR, the far superior movie, do better?

    Why do high-quality, unique TV shows get canceled to make room for the seventh spin-off of CSI, CSI: Nebraska?

    There are many reasons why Carrie Underwood sells millions of records and Amber Digby doesn’t, but “access” or “exposure” is only a small one. Underwood mirrors her audience–in look, in intelligence level, in background, in values. She is suburban America in 2008. She’s the sorority girl. Amber Digby mirrors a part of the audience, too, but it’s the audience that she lacks access to, not the other way around. Fans of splinter country or traditional country are far less homogeneous than the disengaged listeners of country radio, and that makes marketing those types of music far more difficult.

    You can slap an Underwood record on the air and millions of consumers will consume it because it has little nuance or subtext. It’s a McDonald’s hamburger. It’s a Harlequin romance novel.

  25. Razor X
    January 13, 2009 at 8:21 am

    “Amber Digby mirrors a part of the audience, too, but it’s the audience that she lacks access to, not the other way around. Fans of splinter country or traditional country are far less homogeneous than the disengaged listeners of country radio, and that makes marketing those types of music far more difficult.”

    Whether Amber lacks access to the audience or vice versa, it all comes back to the same culprit: mainstream radio. Granted, even if radio were willing to give her a chance, it’s unlikely that she’d ever pull in Underwood-level sales and airplay figures. But if radio were playing Amber’s type of music at least some of the time, more of us would be listening to it and have the opportunity to discover her.

    I guess this is what happens whenever anything is marketed to appeal to the masses; it gets diluted and becomes bland. I liked country radio a lot better before it became a big money-making business.

  26. nm
    January 13, 2009 at 10:41 am

    Among the other questions to consider (audience age, pop/traditional instrumentation/arrangements, radio control, etc.) don’t forget the question of theme. When I was a kid, rock and pop songs were mostly about meeting this incredible person (or being sad about being dumped by this incredible person) while country songs were just as likely to be about figuring out whether to stay married. The country audience was expected to be older, to be ready to deal with emotional complexity, to have experience with a husband who got drunk and hit on other women or a wife who cheated, with the problem that divorce was different than moving your locker to a different high school hallway. There has been quite a blurring of this distinction in the past decades, though. Pop embraces a lot more ambiguity than it used to, while country has drawn a large new teenaged and extended-adolescent audience that just wants to have fun, and has artists who are glad to oblige.

    So maybe the questions of who gets played on radio or how people who don’t listen to radio find new musical forms have to take that into consideration as well as thinking about the sound.

  27. Rick
    January 13, 2009 at 11:47 am

    I think that one of the many reasons Top 40 country radio has little current interest in traditional country is the co-existence of “Classic Country” stations in many markets. With the “Classic” stations catering to the older fans of real country the Top 40 programmers are free to target the young female audience members who prefer the shallow pop-rock stuff. What is truly sad about this situation is most “Classic Country” stations live purely in the past and won’t even consider playing new music from non-established artists with a traditional sound, such as Amber Digby or Miss Leslie. The odds of these gals kicking down the doors at Top 40 stations is nil, but the fact so called “classic country” stations won’t play them either is just pathetic. Newer traditional artists, like Elizabeth Cook, Sunny Sweeney, and The Wrights are lucky to wind up garnering airplay on Americana format or Sirius/XM stations, but that is small consolation. Big sales volumes come from exposure to a mass audience via terrestial radio stations people can easily access on radios in their homes or vehicles. Anything else is just peanuts in comparison.

    The Garthization and Shaniazation of country radio in the 90’s, combined with station ownership deregulation by the Clinton administration, set up the groundwork for today’s Top 40 environment. Mainstream country became a huge money commercial enterprise and when Clear Channel and other media group holders were given government clearance to acquire large numbers of radio stations, they swooped in. Many programmers with no background in or taste for country music were placed in charge of Top 40 country stations or even groups of them by corporate management. This helped foster a top-down movement towards the pop-rock artists these programmers felt more comfortable with as many associated “twang” with hicks, hillbillies and hayseeds. This gave rise to the movement of mainstream country away from rural themes to the “burbs” where the corporate programmer city slickers felt more at home. Both Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift epitomize how far this has gone, and I don’t see any going back.

    What has happened to Top 40 mainstream country music reminds me of the rock music realm back in the 1970’s. In the late 60’s and early 70’s Los Angeles was home to a couple of “Album Oriented” FM stations where the DJ’s actually picked the songs they played based upon artistic merit. The playlists were broad and eclectic while still possessing mass market appeal. In the mid 70’s the era of “Corporate Rock” was born and the creativity and variety seemed to dry up leading to such things as the disco movement as an alternative. Top 40 country radio today has become “Corporate Country” with music used as a narrowly defined branded product to attract and maintain a certain target market demographic audience. Those of us who value artistic integrity and love great music above all else don’t fit the profile and therefore don’t matter to those in charge of the system….

  28. Hollerin' Ben
    January 13, 2009 at 2:25 pm

    Jim,

    you say that

    “Underwood mirrors her audience–in look, in intelligence level, in background, in values. She is suburban America in 2008. She’s the sorority girl. Amber Digby mirrors a part of the audience, too, but it’s the audience that she lacks access to, not the other way around”

    Does Amber Digby have purple skin? Did she not go to high school? Do we know that she’s never set foot in a cul-de-sac? Other than how the music sounds (which I’ll get to in a second) how does Underwood mirror modern Americans women ages 16-35 in a way that we know Digby doesn’t?

    Now if we’re talking about how the music sounds, then absolutely – Carrie sounds like what’s popular, but now we’re back to exposure. Carrie and Amber are roughly the same age, and they are both cutting records at the same time, there is nothing more “current” about one or the other, aside from the fact that currently one has access to radio playlists (exposure) and one does not.

    “Fans of splinter country or traditional country are far less homogeneous than the disengaged listeners of country radio, and that makes marketing those types of music far more difficult.”

    much like the “Underwood is listened to by a wide swath of people, ergo she must be typical while Amber Digby must be from the ends of the earth and must have never set eyes on a nintendo” argument, this one takes a look at the state of things (fans of traditional country are few and far between at this point) and assumes that this is the end of result of some organic process, that fans of country music are few and far between because only a certain kind of person can be a fan of country music and not that many of them exist.

    but that’s baloney (pardon my french), the reason fans of traditional country are few and far between is because traditional country has been suppressed on the public airwaves and so only hardcore music fans are going to be fans at all. But let’s not forget, everyone loves Willie Nelson. Everyone loves Johnny Cash. Everyone loves Patsy Cline. Hee-Haw was on the air for like a million years. Ray Charles had a huge hit record with country music.

    I’d argue that Amber Digby’s music – like any substantive, quality country music – would potentially connect with the audience (given they had the right expectations) in a far more meaningful way than Underwood’s music does. Because despite what television commercials would have us believe, normal, everyday, average, suburban Americans are constantly struggling with the things that real country addresses. Losing the one you love, losing your pride, existential angst, one’s relationship to the divine, etc.

    It’s only in bud light commercials, sitcoms, and commercial country music that people are fundamentally fine and boring, and that every anxiety about life, death, and the meaning of it all can be soothed away by a piece of cliched advice from a country music singer/corporate spokesperson.

  29. Jim Malec
    January 13, 2009 at 2:37 pm

    “Does Amber Digby have purple skin? Did she not go to high school? Do we know that she’s never set foot in a cul-de-sac? Other than how the music sounds (which I’ll get to in a second) how does Underwood mirror modern Americans women ages 16-35 in a way that we know Digby doesn’t?”

    Because Digby is smarter and more creative than Underwood. I’m being crass here, but there’s the truth. Underwood’s music is meant to be consumed by people who don’t want to think about their music. Digby’s isn’t. I’m sure Carrie is a very complicated person in her own way, and I’m certainly not saying that she’s stupid. But there is a difference in the mindset of a twenty-something, American Idol-winning sorority girl and a twenty-something neo-honky tonker who grew up bathed in the blood of traditional country music. And they don’t speak to the same group. I can’t imagine Amber Digby singing at a DeltaDeltaDelta event any more than I can imagine Carrie Underwood singing at an Americana festival. And that’s only partially because of their music.

    Sorority girls are concerned with kissing lots of boys and flying out to Vegas for misadventures (as detailed by Underwood); you’re not going to find the same themes in Digby’s music.

    Go back to my previous example–why do people prefer to flock to mind-numbing blockbusters when smart, witty, edgy films are two seconds away?

  30. Charles Murphy
    January 13, 2009 at 3:12 pm

    The bottom line for this song is…IT IS BORING!! Just like the rest of this record. Lofton Creek somehow got a mild hit off the title cut off this record (Top 25) and have tried to milk it with this being the 3rd single. Now…I will say the song, “The Whiskey’s Fine,” was at least a fun song, but didn’t do anything either. If that one, being the strongest on the CD, didn’t do anything at all, I can’t imagine any other song creating a buzz of any kind. Put a fork in this one guys….It’s done.

  31. Hollerin' Ben
    January 13, 2009 at 3:22 pm

    tsk tsk tsk Jim Malec – you dirty elitist you.

    your argument ignores the historical popularity of incredibly awesome country music among all of “not as smart” and “not as creative” people out there. Heck it ignores the current popularity of Johnny Cash.

    You are doing what marketers and corporations and now country songwriters are guilty of – you pigeonhole people into stereotypes based on trivial lifestyle choices and purchasing patterns.

    dude, even if we’re dealing with sorority girls – who I’m sure make up a small segment of women ages 16-35 – it’s laughable on it’s face to look at that huge and disparate group of women and say “all they care about is kissing lots of boys and misadventures in vegas”. I mean, they couldn’t possibly care about things like broadening their life experience via their studies – so I’m sure none of them are literature, or poetry, or history, or philosophy majors right? And they couldn’t possibly care about making meaningful connections with their significant other and being understood – just kissing lots of boys. and we all know that misadventures in Vegas (which,as someone on the West Coast, I’ve had a few) is mutually exclusive from liking awesome country music, after all drinking gambliing, dancing, and a “wide aray of city lights” what’s that got to do with honky-tonk music?

    not too mention all of the other women ages 16-35 who aren’t sorority girls. What’s the divorce rate for that age group these days? How many of them are single mothers who wanted to go to college and “chase their dreams” but it never seemed to work out and now they work as an admin answering the telephone and live in an apartment and go out to a local dive bar once a month with the same people they have hung out with since highschool?

    how many of them aren’t married and don’t have kids but have been bouncing between menial jobs and relationships that never seem to work out and the focus of their life from the ages of 18 to 27 has pretty much been getting hammered 3 nights a week and smoking a lot of weed?

    and how many of them are J.C. Penny catalogue people for whom life is no big deal, everything is good, and Carrie Underwood is as much depth as they could possibly compute?

    I’m thinking the real people with actual concerns and anxieties outnumber the J.C. Penny’s people.

    to the movie example – Burn After Reading was in movie theaters right? It made like, millions of dollars? What about No Country for Old Men? That made millions of dollars as well right?

    Country Music has never been “all awesome, all the time”, The Mummy 3 equivalent (Sammy Davis sings country music!) has always been around, but much like modern American cinema, the public had access to quality pieces that existed just to be quality pieces (let’s say “The Wrestler”). Now, whereas “The Wrestler” is in select theaters and widening how many theaters it’s available in and will make millions of dollars and will win awards and will impact the public consciousness, Amber Digby and all the other rad country music that exists to be rad country music is not on the radio.

    people will see and listen to what is out there. It’s up to the gatekeepers to make sure that what’s out there is quality. Corporations bought all the gatekeepers so they could skim dough off the tolls.

    There aren’t any less of “the kind of peolpe who make the jukebox play”, and maybe I can’t change your mind, but I don’t think the large majority of ever sorority girls, let along young women in general, are concerned with nothing deeper than kissing lots of boys and misadventures in vegas.

    but the public is willing to accept music that insults it’s intelligence and personhood. so long as there isn’t a better alternative handy.

  32. Chris N.
    January 13, 2009 at 3:28 pm

    So I like to imagine I’m a pretty smart guy, and thinking about music takes up a great deal of my time. So why did I like Carrie Underwood’s record much more than I liked Amber Digby’s record? What’s wrong with me, doctors?

  33. Matt B.
    January 13, 2009 at 3:36 pm

    Chris, I guess you (and I for that matter) just are ‘boring’ people ‘willing to accept music that insults its intelligence and personhood.’

  34. Hollerin' Ben
    January 13, 2009 at 4:01 pm

    Chris,

    well, since the wedding is already off, and since you asked, I’ll take a gander.

    I’d guess that what’s ailing you is either…

    A) you don’t look to country music to help you make sense of your feelings, to soothe your existential angst, or to commiserate with you in your moments of shame, desperation, disappointment, or failure. because you are such a smarty-pants you rely on literature, film, indie music, and/or something else to fill that category in your life.

    B) as a critic you listen to so much music that you place disproportionate value on the craft of creating music that is completely successful at being superficially moving pop music.

    C) unlike us mavericky country music bloggers who do it for the love of the game, you are so heavily invested in the status quo that you are blinded to the fundamental flaws in mainstream country music and have to believe that it is, to one degree or another, worthwhile.

    or….

    D) the more boys you meet, the more you love your dog.

  35. Razor X
    January 13, 2009 at 4:24 pm

    Jim’s analogy comparing traditional country to the arthouse film is a flawed one because country music was never meant to appeal to a highbrow audience. It’s not a matter of Amber’s music being better than Carrie’s (although it certainly is, IMO). The problem is that there has been an attempt by radio programmers to redefine what country music is. Twenty or thirty years ago, Amber would have been played on country stations and Carrie would have been played on mainstream Top 40 stations. Country as a radio format has been hijacked by those who think it ought to be what Top 40 was twenty or thirty years ago.

  36. Occasional Hope
    January 13, 2009 at 4:27 pm

    Personally I strongly dislike Carnival Ride with its vacuous lyrics, beat-you-over-the-head over production, and oversinging verging on screaming), and really like Amber’s three CDs, but I think it’s perfectly possible for someone to like Carrie Underwood’s music; and it’s perfectly possible to dislike Amber Digby’s. So why not tell US why you do, in your case, Chris and Matt?

  37. Chris N.
    January 13, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    @Hope: Amber’s album just kinda made me shrug — it’s fine, but I felt like I’d heard it all before a long time ago. What’s the point, if not to push things forward at least a little?

    @Ben: It’s not A, it’s sure as hell not C and D is insulting to the deep and abiding friendship I share with my dog. B I am probably guilty of — one thing I’ve learned to appreciate since putting down stakes in Nashville is the simple joy of a punchy, ear-tickling production job.

    In this matter, as with most of the other infinitely swirling arguments that go on around here, I’ll defer to the great Duke Ellington: “If it sounds good, it is good.”

  38. Occasional Hope
    January 13, 2009 at 5:49 pm

    That’s a reasonable response. FWIW it took me a while to really appreciate Amber, but I do now. I think the execution is so good that I can forgive any lack of groundbreakingness; I think being ground breaking can be over rated anyway (g).

    And what is it that you like about Carrie’s music? Presumably not just the production?

  39. Matt B.
    January 13, 2009 at 6:20 pm

    @ Hope,

    I would fall in line with Chris w/r/t the ‘tickling production’ but I still do love a sparse recording too.

    Carrie’s music isn’t going to change the world (though I’d argue that 99% of the music in the world won’t either).

    As for Amber’s stuff, It’s just not my thing at this current juncture, not that it’s bad at all…

  40. Matt B.
    January 13, 2009 at 6:23 pm

    I should add to my above thought… “Carrie’s music isn’t going to change the world but it’s executed well and comes off much, much more authentic than say Jessica Simpson or even most of Kellie Pickler’s recordings. So for that, I like it.

    I also approach this stuff like I do a mindless comedy. Since I was trained to dissect films down to a micro-level and get caught up in ‘errors’ it’s good to have mindlessness sometimes so I don’t HAVE to think. After all, if I’m listening to something I don’t always want to dissect it down to the last note or lyric everytime I hear it.

  41. Razor X
    January 13, 2009 at 7:39 pm

    “Carrie’s music isn’t going to change the world but it’s executed well and comes off much, much more authentic than say Jessica Simpson or even most of Kellie Pickler’s recordings.”

    Talk about being damned by faint praise!!

  42. Razor X
    January 13, 2009 at 7:46 pm

    “@Hope: Amber’s album just kinda made me shrug — it’s fine, but I felt like I’d heard it all before a long time ago. What’s the point, if not to push things forward at least a little?”

    I think Amber’s music is very good, but I can’t disagree with your assessment. I wish she’d include some original material instead of just covering old songs. I already have a lot of those songs by Loretta, Tammy, and Connie. If Amber would release something new, in the same vein as those old classics, I’d be very happy.

  43. Rick
    January 13, 2009 at 8:52 pm

    Amber Digby’s music fills a void in those of us that love a traditional honky tonk style sound and want to hear it from an active young artist we may actually get to see in concert. Amber, Miss Leslie, and Kimberly Murray are all producing top quality traditional country music that compares favorably to Top female country artists from the 50’s and 60’s. Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, and Connie Smith will not be around forever, so its comforting to know we have a new generation of dedicated artists who will carry on the traditional styles we value. Sure we’d love to hear Amber sing some great new songs, but Cindy Walker and Harlan Howard are gone so who’s going to write them? To those of us that love historical forms of country music the artists like Amber Digby appeal to us for what they represent as well as their actual musical output. I’ll admit this gives me “rose colored glasses” in how I perceive the music.

    As for Chris N.’s reaction to Amber’s music, I consider it completely predictable. Anyone who works in the mainstream country music business and is inundated with Top 40 modern/young country music day in and day out will be brainwashed by the catchy/hooky elements of AirHead Country. Through clearing one’s mental palate, by not listening to any current music for a few days straight, a proper perspective can be regained! Of course spending that time immersed in classic and traditional country music hastens the process immensely! (lol)

  44. Jim Malec
    January 14, 2009 at 8:42 am

    If you like Carrie Underwood, you’re obviously not a smart person who likes to think about his or her music.

    Obviously I meant that, right?

    Except, no, I obviously didn’t.

    I’m talking about generalities. And that’s not a case of being elitist, it’s a case of being realistic. (Although I am definitely an elitist.) There are similarities to be found among large samples of any consumer base, certain things that generally prove to be true.

    You can say I’m mimicking country radio by boxing people into stereotypes–maybe I am. But there’s a big difference between high information voters and low information voters–and it’s NOT that LIV’s lack access to news and information–it’s that they don’t want to take the time or put forth the effort to think about that news or that information. You can convert one to the other, but it’s not easy.

    A lot of you are acting like there’s some big conspiracy to keep traditional country or Americana off the airwaves–there isn’t. It comes down to dollars. What music has broad mass appeal? What music will better resonate with a wide audience? I guarantee you, if “Rattlin’ Bones” or “She Left Me For Jesus” tested great and the audience responded strongly, radio would be playing it.

    But I invite you to do the testing. Find 10 mainstream country fans and go play them Rattlin’ Bones. Then come back and tell me how many dig it. Tell me how many Kellie Pickler fans like Sleepless Nights. Tell me how many Bucky Covington fans like Trouble in Mind. There are miles upon miles of distance between these two audiences, and we’re not even close to bridging the gap.

    That kind of music just is not in line with the needs and desires of mainstream country culture at this point, and there’s no switch to flip to make it better. You have to grow support for the splinters. You have to grow an audience, and as the audience is growing, you have to begin to merge it with the mainstream if you ever want the two to overlap.

    The splinters are crucial to the survival of the format, and I do think we have to do a better job of introducing them to the audience. But that’s not just about exposure, and the idea that slapping a Tradicana record on the air is going to build audience is just a weak argument. It won’t work.

    Of course there will be exceptions and outliers and points more than a couple of standard deviations from the norm. But that’s my whole point–Underwood’s music is unconcerned with those. If outliers “get” her music, that’s great–but it’s not her core audience.

    Despite Ben’s (and other’s) persistence, I maintain that smart, edgy music is harder to sell than music which is easily accessible. And, maybe, if you increase the exposure for that smart music–maybe–you increase the audience. But not by enough to change the dynamics of game.

  45. Zach
    January 14, 2009 at 9:06 am

    Don’t know what all this mumbo-jamblin hooplah is about, but this song sucks. There is nothing to do in Wichita. Trying to spin this into a love song is ridiculous.

  46. Dan Milliken
    January 14, 2009 at 9:50 am

    I’m with Jim on this. I certainly don’t think anyone is actively trying to wipe traditional music off the public map, and honestly I suspect that a huge number of people who work in the business or at radio aren’t even really educated enough to make the distinction – to them, if there’s a Southern accent involved, it’s country, why the fuss?

    That said, I do guess that there is still a largely untapped market for traditional country, especially among somewhat older folks, and I wonder whether the evidence of such wouldn’t show up in the sales figures if Randy Travis, for example, got half as much media coverage as Taylor Swift.

    I think Americana appeals more to a slightly younger crowd (by that I mean under 40, though that’s just speculation on my part) which is more tech-savvy and media-saturated and thus more willing and able to seek out the music that interests them. So I don’t think it’s necessarily being robbed of too much of a potential audience; I think it’s always going to be somewhat limited commercially speaking, though I’d love to be proven wrong. I do think it deserves to have its exposure boosted in the media, especially on avenues like CMT (which doesn’t play nearly enough videos anymore to benefit anyone hoping to market music in that way), simply because that might accelerate the rate at which such artists get their music heard and maybe win some number of new fans.

  47. Razor X
    January 14, 2009 at 10:28 am

    “A lot of you are acting like there’s some big conspiracy to keep traditional country or Americana off the airwaves–there isn’t.
    While I generally don’t buy into conspiracy theories, I definitely think there was a consipracy to push traditional country off the airwaves. How else to you explain all the veteran artists who disappeared from country radio virtually overnight, all around the same time?

    “It comes down to dollars. What music has broad mass appeal? What music will better resonate with a wide audience? I guarantee you, if “Rattlin’ Bones” or “She Left Me For Jesus” tested great and the audience responded strongly, radio would be playing it.”

    The music that will resonate with a wide audience is the music that is being marketed to a mass audience. Do you really think that radio stations are test-marketing “Rattlin’ Bones” and “She Left Me For Jesus”? Do you think they even know that they exist?

    “That kind of music just is not in line with the needs and desires of mainstream country culture at this point, and there’s no switch to flip to make it better. You have to grow support for the splinters. You have to grow an audience, and as the audience is growing, you have to begin to merge it with the mainstream if you ever want the two to overlap.”

    What your argument fails to acknowledge is that at one time, not so very long ago, the splinters WERE, by and large, the mainstream. Country radio decided to ditch its audience in search of a different demographic. And that is why there is such a huge gap between people who listen to Kellie Pickler and people who listen to Patty Loveless.

    I agree that a lot of the Americana stuff isn’t going to resonate with the masses, but it was never meant to. But the traditional country music that once was considered mainstream, but has been pushed aside, WOULD resonate, as it always has done until recent times. There is a huge hunger for real country music — probably not so much among the younger crowd who hasn’t been exposed to it, but I firmly believe that artists like Randy Travis and Patty Loveless could be commercially viable again if they were allowed to compete with the newer acts for slots on radio playlists.

  48. Chris N.
    January 14, 2009 at 10:46 am

    Ehh, radio will be irrelevant soon enough. Then we’ll have to find something else to argue about.

  49. Matt B.
    January 14, 2009 at 10:54 am

    Razor,

    Sadly, for you and other traditional country fans, that hunger you speak of isn’t going to give country radio stations the advertising dollars you think they will. Randy Travis is still on a major label. Shouldn’t he be getting a promotional push that being on such labels afford? Yes and While they may not have done that, the label did try. If anyone’s to blame in this endless blame game, it’s the four or five corporations that ‘control’ virtually all radio stations (and I realize that by living in Nashville, the stations here aren’t in this conversation thus I do hear ‘traditional’ artists on them).

  50. Country Music Lover
    January 14, 2009 at 11:56 am

    Rick brings up something I’ve talked about, many times. The writers such as the Harlan Howards, Cindy Walkers, Glenn Suttons, and Wayne Kemps (just to name a few), are pretty much extinct. There are some good written tunes, but not like those previously mentioned could hammer out….hit by hit. It’s the same for the singers. Great vocalists who are able to deliver a real country song. They are FEW and FAR between.

    Which leads me to the contemporary traditional artists out there today. There is no one out there, providing good, solid material to record. Most of them go the route of recording their own material. There are artists out there today that can write and record a complete album, full of their original tunes, but in my opinion, it doesn’t make for a good project. There may be 3 or 4 well written songs, that include a good melody and chord structure, but that’s usually all you get.

    Look back at your favorite old country albums. Those artists that were writing their own songs (i.e. George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Johnny Bush, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, etc.). How many of those albums were all songs, written by the recording artist? I dare to say to little to none. They were the perfect blend of originals by the recording artist, as well covers (Incidentally, some of my favorite old recordings are covers. For example, Johnny Paycheck recorded “Just Between You and Me”, and it’s a much better cut, vocally and instrumentally thank Charlie Pride’s.) and songs by other writers.

    Actually, this is something I discussed, while talking to Amber Digby about her new CD, when I saw her in Fort Worth, a few months back. I brought up the fact regarding the lack of originals (I’m looking at my Amber Digby collection, right now, and see that she’s had originals…written by others…on her 2 previous projects). She was very proud of the new cd, stating that she felt that she was singing better than ever, but knew that probably her biggest critique was going to be the lack of original material. She was ok with that. She told me that she was presented with alot of original material, but that she wasn’t sold on any of the songs. She told me that she wasn’t going to put original material on a cd, just for the sake of having some original material. So she did attempt to look for original material for her latest cd, but I guess she felt it was lacking.

    She did tell me that, since recording her latest, that she’s written some originals. Some of her own compositions, some co-written with Justin Trevino. She told me she’s “…workin’ on gaining confidence with the songwriting and with performing and recording her own material…”.

    So, it sounds like there’ll be some songs penned by Amber, included on future projects. She’s, already, arguably the best contemporary female country singer. She still pretty young, and it’ll be interesting to see how she develops, further, as an artist.

    I do think it’s going to interesting to see what happens next in Nashville. The formula they’ve been using, obviously, in not working. It’d be nice to have another traditional movement in that town, similar to what happened in the 80s, and see and hear artists such as Amber Digby on CMT and top 40 country radio. But until then, I’m glad I have XM radio.

  51. PaulaW
    January 18, 2009 at 9:23 pm

    Well, I just now got a chance to listen to this, and I really (really!!) like it. Of course, I like Mark Chesnutt in general, but I do like this song. I didnt read any of the review or comments before listening, (I’ve discovered that helps me form MY opinion rather than looking for the things pointed out in the review). After listening and reading the review and comments, I find that I am in pretty much complete agreement with everything RazorX has said, and totally 100% disagree with this reveiw (except the part where she said she liked the musical end of it).

    So, excuse me while I go listen to this a couple dozen more times.

  52. Bogie
    January 26, 2009 at 7:29 pm

    Come on people. This is great music. I know it’s difficult to recognize. Let any top radio act perform this song. They can’t pull it off. Who’s gona do it. Chesney? Are you kidding? Toby? Keith Urban? I saw Mark do a version of Hank Jrs’ Blues Man many years ago in Beaumont. NOBODY does “Blues Man” Like Mark. George Strait could pull off “Wichita” But that’s it. Mark is one of the greatest country voices of all time. Granted, his song selections have been questionable, but the voice is undeniable. Buy the CD/Turn off the radio.

  53. Stormy
    January 26, 2009 at 9:16 pm

    Who limits themselves to top radio acts?

  54. Charles Murphy
    February 3, 2009 at 12:35 am

    Bogie….While I do agree that Mark Chesnutt is one of the greatest singers in recent history, he is clearly stuck in the past with his song and stylistic choices. With these choices he has made on the record and the last album of covers, he shows no growth or coming into what is a new age of country music…whether us as listeners like it or not. The last real Chesnutt songs to me was the Savin’ The Honky Tonk CD. Gonna have to stop listening with that one and put this one up to collect dust.

  55. Charles Murphy
    February 18, 2009 at 9:42 am

    Well…we won’t have to worry about hearing this boring ass song unless you actually bought the CD cause this song tanked at radio.

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