Your Take: Drugs or Jesus

Karlie Justus Marlowe | February 19th, 2011

On Monday, Brody included a roundup of country music’s Grammy winners, ranging from Diamond Rio and Patty Loveless to Patty Griffin and Marty Stuart. It was the winner for Country Album of the Year, however, that surprised many country music fans: The award, which included nominees Jamey Johnson, Miranda Lambert, Dierks Bentley, Lady Antebellum and Zac Brown Band, went to Lady Antebellum, perhaps the most pop-leaning of the five.

While some were upset, commenter Kyle thought the trio was a good representative for country music, and a “gateway drug” into the genre and its artists:

Eh, you could do a lot worse than Lady A

They’re not my favorites, but honestly, they’re good ambassadors for country music. They’re “hip” enough but unassuming, respect the craft of Nashville songwriting, and they at least have country themes to a lot of their songs.

They’re a good “gateway drug” for country music – they’re accessible, have a ‘country-lite’ sound and feel, and they at least have country themes to a lot of their songs.

Some of their crossover fans will look deeper into the genre and its history, and new country fans will be born. Honestly, I’d much prefer someone like them be the face of the industry than a “redneck rocker” like Aldean… which would create a whole different breed of next-generation fan.

The “gateway drug” theory has been thrown around quite a bit in the last few years, in regards to pop and rock-leaning artists who serve as an easy transition for pop and rock fans into the country music genre.

What are your views on the “gateway drug” theory? What characteristics does a “gateway drug” artist have? What artists do you think fit this description, and do you think they’ve successfully transitioned fans to other artists within country music? 

  1. Andrew
    February 19, 2011 at 8:18 am

    We’ve seen the gateway drug concept work in the ’90s with Garth and Shania, but I don’t see anyone in today’s crop who can do the same. Certainly not Lady A. While Garth and Shania mixed in a lot of rock and pop, they were still unmistakably country to the point that they sound like old school traditionalists compared to most of what gets released today.

  2. Marc
    February 19, 2011 at 8:37 am

    @Andrew not even… *gulp*.. Taylor?

  3. Jon
    February 19, 2011 at 9:00 am

    While Garth and Shania mixed in a lot of rock and pop, they were still unmistakably country…

    Not to a great many country fans of the time, who denounced them in exactly the same terms that some folks use with Swift today. (If you don’t want to believe me, ask Barry). Gateway artists pretty much by definition draw that kind of criticism in each generation.

  4. luckyoldsun
    February 19, 2011 at 9:17 am

    Garth was unmistakably country–to the point that if you played a Garth CD with a non-country fan who was unfamiliar with his music in your car, he’d probably tell you to turn that country/nasal c__p off. (Believe it or not, in NYC it was not hard at all to find people who wouldn’t recongize Garth’s music–They just knew he was the guy in the big hat.)

    In fact, Garth was accused of trying to make his voice sound MORE country than it “really” was on songs like “Two of a Kind,” playing UP the twang.

    Obviously, Garth played up the arena aspects on his later records, but they still had steel guitars and other unmistakable country features.

    I don’t think if you played Shania Twain for someone who was unfamiliar with her, that they would think that it was country music. Didn’t her record label send out country and non-country mixes of her records?

  5. Jon
    February 19, 2011 at 9:38 am

    Garth was unmistakably country–to the point that if you played a Garth CD with a non-country fan who was unfamiliar with his music in your car, he’d probably tell you to turn that country/nasal c__p off.

    So you don’t think he was a gateway artist? Besides, that’s thoroughly irrelevant to the point I was making, which was not that he was unmistakably country to non-country fans, but that lots and lots of country fans didn’t think he was unmistakably country. And like I said, that’s just a fact; in fact, there are lots of fans who still don’t think his music’s country.

  6. Razor X
    February 19, 2011 at 10:16 am

    I think the gateway drug theory was a valid one in the past, but not so much today because many crossover hits are achieved by remixing the records to tone down the country elements, and because casual fans are less likely to hear more traditional music if they tune into country radio.

  7. Barry Mazor
    February 19, 2011 at 10:32 am

    I’m sure gateway still happens occasionally, but it seems like it would involve the somewhat more country history-minded (or raised) artists, or at least, ones who will bring in an older song or an older generation artist in some convincing, enticing way–not the familiar, rote “I love Merle and Johnny Cash and Waylon” or “Hank and Patsy Cline” line with no apparent connection to any of that in what they’re doing.

    But you do have a large mainstream country audience that has come to the music on today’s mainstream country radio terms (like the commenter who recently explained here that she likes country EXCEPT when it twangs) , and, in such cases, it’s easier to see today’s pop country as a gateway to older pop!

    That “older pop” definition does evolve too, though. Even as an Eddy Arnold had obviously beard a lot of Bing Crosby. Ten years ago, it might have been said that a lot of bands sounded like they’d heard a lot of Eagles–and they had. Lady Antebellum has been compared to the Alan Parsons Project. Taylor Swift’s vocals owe something to the sound of Lilith Fair line-ups.
    And the look and sound of current country contenders like The Secret Sisters, The Janedear Girls and the Wreckers a couple of years ago owes something to late 90s

    Personally, one of the thongs I tend to write about are the connections between all of these things, and to American popular music in general, if back into country’s own depths most of all. I’m just made as one of those who think adding context to what you love can add appreciation to it–and maybe help make the potential gateway acts gateways to more good stuff from any era.

  8. Paul W Dennis
    February 19, 2011 at 11:11 am

    It always struck me that the Gateway is more likely to be an rock act with country sensibilities that allowed listeners to slide over the country music. As much as I dislike the Eagles, I have friends who tried out country music after listening to them. Others found their way over via the Grateful Dead (especially bluegrass fans), The Byrds, Poco, Creedence Clearwater Revival Pure Prairie League and Matthews Southern Comfort

  9. Thomas
    February 19, 2011 at 11:22 am

    …i’d be most careful, if some dude offered me some jesus.

  10. Barry Mazor
    February 19, 2011 at 11:26 am

    That WAS certainly true, Paul–in the era you’re describing, which is basically around 1968-’76. And I can assure you that the rock bands of the mid-90s to mid 00s had that effect on some people, too.

    But it’s dubious to me that what’s left of rock now is healthy enough to have much effect. On the other hand, the most recent roots rock spinoff semi-fad has been a soul revival, not so much country. It could be argued, a little weakly, but argued, that’ there’s been a sort of acoustic rock/old time country revival with acts like Justin T Earle, Old Crow Medicine Show, Pokey LaFarge, Hackensaw Boys—and their audiences were more likely to have been brought to them via rock than country.

  11. Ben Foster
    February 19, 2011 at 12:16 pm

    “I don’t think if you played Shania Twain for someone who was unfamiliar with her, that they would think that it was country music. Didn’t her record label send out country and non-country mixes of her records?”
    Shania had a diverse style – Some of her songs were very country; others not so much – so I think that would depend on which Shania songs you played. If you played any song from “The Woman In Me” (Like “Any Man of Mine” or “Whose Bed…”), I’m sure anyone would instantly recognize it as country music. But I’d be less likely to say that about “Come On Over.”

  12. Ben Foster
    February 19, 2011 at 12:24 pm

    Artists like Garth Brooks and LeAnn Rimes turned out to be effective gateway drugs for me. I’m not sure I would have taken a liking to more traditional country music had I not been introduced to the genre by more middle-of-road fare.

    But I think that’s partly because of the age I was at when I first heard it. As a child, I could never have had much a deep appreciation for the emotional depth and realism of traditional country music, but the country music of the 90s was a good introduction for me, and I was able to notice characteristics of the genre that I really enjoyed.

    I’m not sure if today’s country artists have a distinct enough country identity to serve as a gateway drug. I don’t think you can be a gateway drug just by making pop and calling it country. But where those genre lines are drawn is very subjective.

  13. Stormy
    February 19, 2011 at 12:28 pm

    Not to a great many country fans of the time, who denounced them in exactly the same terms that some folks use with Swift today. (If you don’t want to believe me, ask Barry). Gateway artists pretty much by definition draw that kind of criticism in each generation.

    I believe among those fans who denounced them were Waylon Jennings (Garth is to country want pantyhose are to *************) and George Jones (Shania Twain knows as much about country as Jo Blow from Kokomo).

  14. Stormy
    February 19, 2011 at 12:41 pm

    I have an easier time getting people to listen to non-mainstream artists than I do getting them to listen to mainstream artists. First of all, there is a general distrust of the mainstream in general and mainstream country specifically. Plus, a lot of fans of rock and pop know non-mainstream country artists. Neko Case was/is the lead singer for The New Pornographers. Kasey Chambers’ cds have featured guest vocals from Paul Kelly, The Living End and Bernard Fanning (Powderfinger). Carrie Rodriguez is currently working with the lead singer of Romanatica, Sarah Watkins with The Decemberists. This leads to a prior familiarity with the artists that leads to a level of trust that allows a fan to explore a genre they normally might not.

  15. Jon
    February 19, 2011 at 1:44 pm

    Seems like two different gateway functions are being addressed here – artists as gateways to the music’s past and artists who are gateways to the genre and, perhaps, mor “hardcore” artists within it. Very difficult to quantify either way, but there are a lot of folks who will tell you that they got interested in country, including more hardcore artists, through gateway artists.

  16. Vicki
    February 19, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    Carrie Underwood was a Gateway artist to Country but only because she was on American Idol (when it was more popular than it is today)and she was blonde, shy and cute. She’s half country and half pop. She has a mixed fanbase..those who want her to do more traditional country and love her for her Christian values, and those who tolerate the Christian values but love her because she’s pretty and a pop like singer. Also, she’s honest with her songs..she has never remixed anything including “Before He Cheats”.

  17. luckyoldsun
    February 19, 2011 at 5:55 pm

    In the late ’70s-early ’80s, you had country artists who actually crossed over–in the sense of being played on non-country radio. The hit music of Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Eddie Rabbit, Eddie Raven, Ronnie Milsap, Johnny Lee, T.G. Shepard, Sylvia, were part of the broad American landscape. Everyone was familiar with “The Gambler,” “Islands In The Stream,” “I Love A Rainy Night,” “Looking for Love,” “Stranger In My House,” etc. In fact, I was surprised when I learned that Sylvia was a country artist. I think I had always been under the impression that the woman who sang “Nobody,” was black.
    Garth Brooks was part of the New Traditionalist return to a more country sound and was an exclusively country artist.

  18. WAYNOE
    February 19, 2011 at 6:36 pm

    After all the gobbledygook and reasoning for trying to make their pick make sense, Lady A was still the least among them no matter how you dress it up, in my opinion of course.

  19. Lewis
    February 19, 2011 at 6:43 pm

    LuckyOldSun: There was a black pop singer named Sylvia who recorded “Pillow Talk” in 1973 who in fact was Sylvia Robinson from the late 1950’s duo Mickey and Sylvia (remember “Love Is Strange”?).

  20. Fizz
    February 19, 2011 at 10:57 pm

    So what makes a gateway drug, exactly? Is it an artist who tries to be everything to everybody like Lady Antebellum? Or is it somebody who’s just so damn popular you can’t turn on a TV, ride in a carpool, or eat in a diner with a jukebox without seeing or hearing them, like Garth Brooks or Shania? Or are there more than one type of gateway drug?

    I’m not a fan of Lady A, but I can see Kyle’s point: they have songs that are basically recycled soft-rock from the ’80’s, with and without some splashes of country instrumentation, and they have ‘Stars TOnight,” with that pretend-AC/DC riff.

    But at the same time, so many artists today don’t have much of an identity that one potential gateway drug is just about as good as any other.

    I can remember, from about early ’93, my mom and her sisters in the kitchen warbling along to Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Passionate Kisses” and “I Feel Lucky.” My aunts were already into country to some degree, but I think that may have been the first modern country song (i.e., one her dad hadn’t made her listen to as a kid) that I heard my mom really get into.

    I also remember Delbert mcClinton’s “Every Time I Roll The Dice” getting played on my local AOR station. I figured it must be the Stones, or maybe the London Quireboys, and couldn’t believe it when somebody told me it was a country singer.

  21. Fizz
    February 19, 2011 at 11:29 pm

    Forgot to point out that those two particular Carpenter songs didn’t sound particularly country to me at the time either.

  22. luckyoldsun
    February 19, 2011 at 11:36 pm

    Delbert McClinton probably owes at least half his commercial success to Don Imus. I first heard of Delbert back when Imus was playing “I’m With You.” I’ve bought most of his CD’s since then and Imus has played just about all of them. I don’t recall ever hearing Delbert played on the radio other than on Imus In The Morning.

  23. Ollie
    February 20, 2011 at 7:21 am

    A bit off the point but I just wanted to note that over time, some of the artists who have served as “an easy transition for pop and rock fans into the country music genre” are, in fact, country artists who have expanded their own sensibilities and artistic vision to songs that had previously been recorded in a “pop or rock” style. For example, hearing Willie Nelson’s album, Stardust, led me to explore his catalog and introduced me to the work of Waylon Jennings and Ray Price. Similarly, hearing the Earl Scruggs Revue cover some Dylan songs on Family Portrait led me to explore his catalog and introduced me to Bill Monroe’s music.

  24. J.R. Journey
    February 20, 2011 at 3:49 pm

    I agree with Razor that gateway artists are mostly in the past right now. When I started listening to country music, it was Garth Brooks, Reba, and the occasional Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, or Faith Hill song. But all of those artists – at least in the mid 90s – had common country roots to their albums. When I liked a single, I always bought the album, and even pop-country artists like Faith and Reba were putting some solid traditional-minded songs on their albums. That most fans are only hearing the radio singles these days probably plays a major role in crossover success not producing fans of traditional country music. They’re only hearing one side of the artists’ sound, and the best acts have a great many sides.

  25. bll
    February 20, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    I grew up listening to a huge variety of music, from Celtic to folk to military marching music. As a child Jim Reeves, Eddie Arnold, Don Williams and Glen Campbell would be played in with Perry Como, Guy Mitchell, and the Beatles. I like Garth Brooks’ music and consider him to be country; I have a lot of friends who didn’t like my Haggard, Jones, Nelson and Jennings records that I played, but would sit and listen to every word of every song of Garth’s cd’s. I would consider that a gateway, as many of them now like country music, and not the pop stuff being played now.

  26. Jeremy Dylan
    February 20, 2011 at 4:54 pm


  27. Fizz
    February 20, 2011 at 8:28 pm

    @Luckyoldsun: Yeah, it was kind of a weird little station. It was like they couldn’t make up their minds if they wanted to be your typical “Home Of Rock ‘n’ Roll” AOR station (although we already had one of those), or a ful-blown hard-rock station, or a bit of an alternative-rock station, and in the middle of it was ol’ Delbert, getting a few spins for a few weeks that summer.

  28. Mike Parker
    February 21, 2011 at 10:26 am

    I know a few people who say that they don’t like country-except for Garth Brooks. Not sure he was a gateway as much as a crossover entertainer.

    However, I’ve been to several local shows lately (SE Washington State) ranging from rock to punk to metal to country. Without fail, there is always a Johnny Cash or Hank Williams tune thrown into the mix. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen teenagers moshing to Ring of Fire. I think these artists are still the gateway drug, only when people get in and try to find the same thing they found appealing in those songs on the radio, they can’t. It’s not there.

  29. luckyoldsun
    February 21, 2011 at 10:51 am

    It’s funny, “Ring of Fire” became Cash’s biggest song very late in the game. For most of his career, “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk The Line,” “Hey Porter,” “Boy Named Sue” and “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and a couple of others were probably at the top of his canon.

    I remember reading an interview with the co-writer of “Ring of Fire,” Merle Kilgore near the end of his life in the 2000’s and he said that that song had gotten bigger in the last few years than it had ever been before. (Of course, Merle tried to license it for a Perparation H commercial, but Roseanne managed to block that.)

  30. Stormy
    February 21, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    Hmm, so then is it fair to say that Rick Rubin and Jack White are gateway drugs, but only as producers?

  31. Mike Parker
    February 21, 2011 at 12:53 pm

    Stormy… I think that might actually be a fair assessment. But I’m not sure it doesn’t have more to do with those singer’s images and penchant for darker themes.

  32. Kyle
    February 21, 2011 at 6:32 pm

    Here’s my argument: I believe most “would-be” country fans right now are put off not by the lack of great songs in the genre, but by a sort of knee-jerk reaction that prevents them from giving anything country or twangy a fair shake. I think a lot people have a kind of caricature-like idea of country music, and just assume it’s all the same corny, cliched, overly-stereotyped shtick that they won’t be able to relate in any meaningful way.

    I won’t even try to get into why this bias exists, but part of it is just what fringe listeners are exposed to… not everyone hears it growing up, or has family/friends to ease them into it. If your exposure to country music is just through media/pop culture, you’re going to hear Honky Tonk Badonkadonk from Trace Adkins, not I Can’t Outrun You or Between The Rainbows and Rain… you’re going to hear She’s Country and Save A Horse, not… well, something beside Jason Aldean and Big & Rich.

    This is where I think having Lady A is an “ambassador” isn’t the worst thing in the world. Need You Now is a well-written and accessible song, and while the production is pop and the phrasing isn’t exactly Chesnuttesque, its theme and lyrical style are very much in tune with what country is. Lady A themselves are enough of a normal-seeming, stylish group of young people that it’s not really a leap for non-country fans to identify with them; plus, they do write with all the big music row writers constantly and clearly take the craft of Nashville songwriting very seriously. They can be a bit bland, but they write very tight songs and don’t shy away from taking on country themes (if in a slightly pop-ish way…).

    So, long story short, I think Lady A might help make some crossovers fans recognize country music as an acceptable, relatable option, and that these type of new fans are more likely to find and appreciate the truly songs of the genre than ones that are just grabbed by the most recent novelty craze or redneck rock anthem. But who knows.

  33. Kyle
    February 21, 2011 at 6:33 pm

    (By the way, I’m not saying I think Lady A was the most deserving choice for all those awards – I don’t – just that having them as mainstream representatives might not be such a bad thing. Every time someone laughs when I mention country music and says something like “Yeah, I loved Honkytonk Badonkadonk, that stuff is hilarious!” a little part of me dies inside.)

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