Hillbilly Bone: Looking for the Heart of Country in New Nashville

Country has produced a new crop of superstars and surpassed rock in terms of self-described American fans. We sent a country-loving Yankee to the CMAs, and Nashville couldn't care less.

|
Feb 15 2015, 3:33pm

Illustrations by Nick Gazin

The horse trainer wanted to see the country star. Seeing him was her thing. She'd wait at country festivals and awards ceremonies, wave to him, sing him lines from one of his songs. By this point, he recognized her. He knew her two friends too, a nanny and a nurse's aid, who were standing with her in the Nashville cold, next to the tent where they'd spent last night, zipped up to keep the drizzle out. They were close, but saw each other rarely. Tonight's Country Music Awards, which started at 7 at Bridgestone Arena across the street, were that kind of occasion.

"I've met Luke Bryan so many times," said Becca Harless. She's the nurse's aid. She lives in Pentwater, a town of about 900 in Michigan—a ten-hour drive without traffic, and traffic had been thick on 65.

"They'll come straight to you, if they know you well enough," said Curtis Clayton, the horse trainer. Clayton lives in Nashville, and at 30, she's the oldest of the three. "You kind of grow that friendship of, you know, 'I gotta go to the bathroom, can you watch my spot?'" she said.

"It rained last year and Keith Urban still came out and walked the whole red carpet with an umbrella," Harless said. "That just shows you what kind of guy he is."

Every genre has its hardcore fans, but country—the great American music of the domestic—may be special in the way it encourages the idea of fans and stars as family. The week before the CMAs, I'd been at the Gramercy Hotel for a press conference with Dierks Bentley, the CMA-nominated singer of "Drunk on a Plane." A promoter from Live Nation (full disclosure: VICE and Live Nation are set to launch a music site together later this year) sat to Dierks's left. "We are an inclusive community," he said, "country is, OK? We strive to be inclusive. By its very nature, rock and roll has always been exclusive. In country we have artists cheering for each other openly. Watch the awards show Wednesday night."

Since the purpose of the conference was to announce a new country festival in New York, all of the New York journalists in the Rose Bar were being stroked. When someone asked whether the New York country audience was large enough to support a festival, Dierks said, "The further north you go, the more hardcore country fans you get." You couldn't take a shred of it at face value. At the same time I felt convinced these men weren't lying. Dierks, genuinely or not, gave off a calm, modest aura in his flannel shirt and jeans. He is one of the biggest country stars in the world, but if he hadn't been sitting in front of us, it would have been easy to miss him in the crowd.

Still, there was something a little suspect about a bunch of coastal northerners being catered to by emissaries of the genre that gave us Merle Haggard's "Okie from Muskogee" and Blake Shelton's "Kiss My Country Ass." Even as an obsessive, longtime fan of pop country and its subgenres—I could tell you why the third verse was cut from Garth's version of "Thunder Rolls" and why it matters that Miranda gave Steve Earle a co-writing credit on "Kerosene"—I was nonetheless standing outside the Gramercy smoking ultra-lights and drinking Smartwater while trying to balance complimentary melon slices on a cocktail napkin. I was exactly the kind of person who should be kissing Blake Shelton's ass.

In "Hillbilly Bone," another Blake Shelton song, a man from New York visits Nashville on a business trip, does a little honky-tonking, and has a blast. Blake's conclusion is that

You ain't gotta be born out in the sticks
With an F-150 and a 30-06,
Or have a bubba in the family tree
To get on down with me...
We all got a hillbilly bone down deep inside.

Six days after the press conference, I flew south.

***

The CMAs used to broadcast from the Grand Ole Opry, but in 2006 they upgraded to the Bridgestone Arena. The change of venue coincided with the rise of the current generation of pop country stars: Miranda Lambert's first major-label album came out in 2005, Dierks went to #1 in 2006, and the following year Blake Shelton's Pure BS and Luke Bryan's debut both went to #2, while Brad Paisley went to #1. Since then, country's audience has grown at a steady 5% a year, while expanding demographically, becoming slightly more suburban, female, and affluent. In 2012, country surpassed rock in terms of self-described American fans.

On the crest of this wave is Taylor Swift. The most successful singer to come out of New Nashville, she has won Entertainer of the Year at the CMAs twice. Tonight she was up for female vocalist. But as Luke Bryan was tweeting photos of himself and his wife at the bar inside his tour bus, Swift was Instagramming autograph lines in Tokyo. It seemed premonitory: Nashville had finally made a star so huge she didn't need Nashville.

***

Leaving Clayton and her friends, I cut through the plaza toward Broadway, where I'd arranged to meet Lambert's pedal-steel guitarist, a young Brit named Spencer Cullum, at a honky-tonk. We took our beers upstairs to listen to the house band.

"It's a clusterfuck," Cullum said. "Steven Tyler's out there. The fuck's he doing? Something like the CMAs, I'm usually in the back, smoking my fake e-cigarette. Dierks Bentley? I mean that sort of music is almost like heavy metal. Everyone knows it. Either the majority of the public are really naive and will listen to anything publicized really well, or...I don't know. It's something like that."

The boom of pop country has put Cullum in an awkward spot. Playing for Miranda is an excellent gig, by almost any standards—good hotels, good music, good checks. But Miranda was one of the few artists who still used pedal steels, an instrument that sounded too "country" for much of the gooey, mid-tempo pop that New Nashville cranks out. If Miranda ever made like Taylor Swift, Cullum would be first out.

"Miranda's the golden goose," Cullum said. A pop country singer who could write real songs. "I feel sorry for her. She has to deal with so much crazy shit. They're just waiting for her to be pregnant." What kept her head on straight, he said, was that she'd spent her late teenage years playing bars and honky-tonks in Texas, before a lucky television appearance brought her to Nashville's attention. "She was on a [show], similar to an American Idol," Cullum said. "And she came in third."

***

Fifty feet away from the Bridgestone Arena, a dyed goat was preparing to audition for a talent contest. He had a blue snout and red ears, and he was lolling about the atrium of the Music City Center, his leash in the hand of a frosted blonde woman in her mid-40s. They were here to make it on America's Got Talent, whose top prize is a million dollars disbursed un-life-changingly over 40 years. Unlike American Idol, AGT hasn't produced winners you have heard of.

"[Winning America's Got Talent] would give me the opportunity to be a blessing to the kingdom of God," said a large man in red snakeskin boots and French cuffs. "To allow God to use me with the gift that he's given me, playing the soprano saxophone, to be a blessing to others around the world, spreading the gospel of Christ." When he asked where I worked, I said Harper's.

" Harper's—is that Oprah's?"

"Sorry?"

"You said Harpo's?"

" Harper's," I said.

"What city is that in?" he said.

"Does anyone in this room have a large can of hairspray?" someone said over the PA. "Large can of hairspray?"

Everyone at the AGT auditions was there to get seen, get signed. There were many ways to make it on TV without making it past the first round. An all-male a cappella group from Western Kentucky University sang for the cameras while waiting for their turn with the judge. Periodically someone in a blue staff t-shirt would ask everyone to scream.

"You want to be a country star when you grow up?" I asked a blond 16-year-old from Loudon, near Knoxville. His family sat next to him on a bench, his little sister shy and huge-eyed behind her mother. Kids at high school were telling him he'd never make it, he said. "I'd like to prove everybody wrong." Tonight he was rooting for Tim McGraw, but he also liked George Strait, Kenney Chesney, Jason Aldean.

A man who'd moved his family to Nashville and spent three weeks living in a tent told me to go to his website, where I could find a small portion of his song catalog. He was working on an original number called "This Flag Can't Be Bought."

"We're all separate acts," said two teenaged girls in white leotards, simultaneously. "I will dance. This one is our contortionist. Gracen will clog. Emma will do contemporary. And Hannah will do jazz." They liked Kenny Chesney and Luke Bryan and Keith Urban. "I want them all to win," said the contortionist. The mothers looked on expectantly.

A retired lawyer who'd driven 12 hours overnight from Kalamazoo, Michigan, planned to do a Frank Sinatra number; next to him in line was a 19-year-old with a lip piercing and a black beanie, who'd run away from home at 16 because his parents were abusing him. "All these talented people here are beautiful," he said. A woman holding a handwritten resume and last decade's headshot asked me to film her singing an original number, "I Wore Out My Cowgirl Boots Walking the Floors Over You." I turned on the camera on my iPhone. "Rolling," I said. When I turned to leave, she said, "Don't forget my name."

"We need everybody to take out their phones and take a selfie and tag it @NBCAgt," said a producer over the PA.

While I slipped among the contestants, other guys my age—also wearing Converse, also not from Nashville—filmed. Tomorrow they'd be in Richmond. I found a radio producer standing by the stairwell who told me his interns followed contestants from this first audition on. They were hoping someone here today would win it—then they'd air the whole story. Everyone loves a former underdog.

On my way out, I saw the woman with the goat.

"Nice goat," I said.

She took a second to see whether I was fucking with her or simply an idiot. "It's a poodle," she said.

I was at the Music City Center rather than the Bridgestone because the CMA media department—in fact, most of the country industry—had denied VICE's request for access. Miranda Lambert's reps hadn't replied to an interview request. The young stars Kacey Musgraves, Thomas Rhett, and Brett Eldredge weren't inclined. Martina McBride's rep told me that unfortunately Martina had a busy week of family commitments. When I begged her to reconsider, she wrote back, "I'm on a call. ... It's a looooong call."

The genre that Hank Williams said could be "explained in just one word: sincerity," didn't need its portrait taken by a northerner writing for a New York magazine, no matter how sincere my love was for this music.

At 6 PM, one hour from show time, men and women in suits and dresses were streaming out the doors of the Hilton, the nearest hotel to the Bridgestone, on their way to the ceremony. I was streaming against them, weaving through into the lobby, which was nearly empty. I took a seat in the bar. Next to me, a man in his 60s, wearing hiking boots and jeans, polished off a glass of orange juice. We watched Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood companionably, in silence.

During a commercial, he turned to me. "You know Little Richard lives here."

"Little Richard's dead," I said.

He flagged down a waiter. "When was the last time you saw Little Richard?"

"About two weeks ago," said the waiter.

The man shook his head in sadness. "They should have a fucking reception for him down here. But they won't. That's Nashville."

"I'm Jesse," I said.

"Dennis Morgan. I'm a songwriter."

Great, I thought. Another guy with a tent. The awards came back on, and I excused myself to piss and check my iPhone's Wikipedia app, which floored me: somehow I'd landed next to a hall-of-fame songwriter who'd had hits on serious people, almost all of whom I'd heard: Reba McEntire, George Strait, David Allan Coe, Garth Brooks. He was here watching the awards with his friend, a skinny guy in a cowboy hat, because by now the ceremony was so familiar it bored him.

When I came back, Loretta Lynn and Kacey Musgraves were duetting on "You're Lookin At Country."

"First CMA awards in years where they're playing some country," Morgan's friend offered.

"Hang on," said Morgan, "that'll end soon."

It did. Brad Paisley, the co-host, did a bit involving Laurence Fishburne's sitcom, whose timeslot the CMAs had infiltrated. "If any of you tuned into ABC tonight expecting to see the new show 'Blackish,' yeah, this ain't it." The camera showed white people laughing nervously. "In the meantime, I hope you're all enjoying 'Whitish,'" Paisley said. Country's dicey history with race was an odd enough place to begin an awards ceremony without a single black nominee. But by the time Ariana Grande was singing "Day Drinking" with the pop country quartet Little Big Town, all sense of congruity was gone.

"Day Drinking" is a glass-raiser with a marching-band backbeat, a bubbly summer song, but the band had employed twenty snare-drum players to stand between bars of red light and whack their drums with clear plastic sticks while someone played a Revolutionary-War melody on the flute. It was like a high-concept neo-fascist rally. Then Ariana Grande appeared in a tiny silver dress and silver heels.

"Haggard and Willie are starting a record this Sunday in Austin," Morgan said.

"That right?" said his friend.

"Yep... Austin," said Morgan.

Dierks took Video of the Year for "Drunk on a Plane." Luke won Entertainer, of course. Miranda took home trophy after trophy. This new crop of singers—the Luke Bryans and Dierks Bentleys—amused Morgan. "Chesney and Paisley have their own jets," he said. "I mean, the simple fact that we're saying that is funny. Country singers having jets."

The climax of the ceremony was the presentation of a lifetime achievement award to Vince Gill, a hit-maker and singer who'd hosted the CMAs for 12 years. Gill is Nashville royalty, so he was permitted to deliver his acceptance speech at length.

"I want to tell you all," he said, "I admire so much how you treat each other. Your generation of artistry, the camaraderie that you have—I really—I'm envious of it. I watch you all love each other and hi-five each other and hug each other. It's a beautiful thing to watch."

"Most cutthroat business in the world," said Morgan, smiling.

Back outside in the drizzle, I texted Cullum and asked if he could sneak me into the after party. When he didn't reply, I went to find the only other fans in my position, dedicated and true but without access. Curtis Clayton was packing up her tent. The three friends seemed despondent. Their sweatshirts were wet, and it was now very cold. "How'd it go?" I said.

"Keith didn't come out. He usually comes out," said Harless.

"Most of our people didn't come out," said Clayton.

"Luke didn't come out," said Sayers.

A few blocks from us, guests were arriving at the Hall of Fame Building. Young women sat behind a long table, checking names, and you could hear music, very faintly, pulsing through the window glass. Warm lighting shone through the drizzle. On the sidewalk, young guys in blazers and jeans, managers or songwriters, crushed their cigarettes out on the damp pavement and clipped up the steps after women in sequined slip dresses. Etched into the side of the building was Merle Haggard's famous line: "Country music is the dreams of the working man."

That weekend, when the weather had cleared, I drove my rental pickup back to the airport. A song by Brad Paisley was playing on the radio:

To the world
You may be just another girl
But to me
Baby you are the world
You think you're one of millions
But you're one in a million to me

It reminded me of an incident at the America's Got Talent auditions. Writing in my notebook at a table by the windows, I'd been approached by a man in his late 30s, with thinning hair and a high, sweet voice, who'd asked if he could borrow my phone charger. While he used it, I took out my recorder and interviewed him. He was a driver for Domino's in West Monroe, Louisiana. I asked him how advancing to the next round would affect him. "It would change my life. Just if, being something—it would be something that would make me feel proud of myself, so much." We talked for five minutes before his phone turned back on.

"Can I hear it?" he said. At first I didn't understand. Then I pressed play and handed him the recorder, which he held against his ear, his other hand a fist against his mouth. We were quiet for the full five minutes. When it was over, he said, "That was a good interview." Then he walked back to the holding area, to wait his turn.

Follow Jesse Barron on Twitter.

Thumbnail image via Flickr user Mark Runyon

Stories