Nate Rau, email@example.com 10:46 a.m. CST February 7, 2016
(Photo: Larry McCormack / THE TENNESSEAN)
What is country music? It’s a question that’s hung over Nashville for decades, hounding artists as diverse as Elvis Presley, John Denver, Taylor Swift and Sam Hunt.
Is country music defined by a certain sonic — banjo, upright bass, fiddle? Is it a state of mind that comes through in a song’s themes, entitling hick-hop king Colt Ford a rightful claim to be just as country as Hank Williams Jr.?
The debate has been reignited just as the Country Radio Seminar arrives in Nashville this week, bringing hundreds of powerful radio programmers together with Music Row executives and top artists.
An unlikely band — the blue-collar, road-warrior Texas outfit Green River Ordinance — is embroiled in a dispute with the music industry’s top trade publication, Billboard, over its omission from the magazine’s weekly country sales chart.
From a business perspective, industry validation, media recognition and marketing opportunities are at stake in the disagreement. At the same time, questions about how to define bands have put the genre at another tipping point that pits artists finding success on mainstream country radio against those finding traction with critics, on music blogs and with fans of the genre’s more traditional leanings.
“It was definitely important for their story and the legitimization of this band,” said Larry Murray, manager for Green River Ordinance and owner of the management firm Foolish Kings.
Since its inception 15 years ago, Green River Ordinance has created music that would seem to fit in several genres — folk, rock, pop and country. For the new album, “15,” frontman Josh Jenkins said the band didn’t set out to write a country record. But, the album’s first single, “Red Fire Night,” penned inside a cabin in McMinnville, Tenn., was inspired by a mandolin lick plucked out by Jamey Ice.
The album seems to be resonating with fans of country music. It debuted at No. 2 on the iTunes country chart. Murray pointed out “15” was categorized as country by digital and brick-and-mortar retailers. “Red Fire Night” was added to the prominent Wild Country playlist on Spotify and the Country House Party playlist by iHeartMedia.
On the radio side, the song debuted at No. 1 on the Texas Regional Radio Report and earned spins on some mainstream country stations. The video was added by CMT, and critics with country music publications gave the album favorable reviews. The band was even a featured performer at the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday night.
“Our approach has been let’s make a record like we’re never going to make another record,” Jenkins said. “And in that, just be fearless. And whatever it is, it is. Great art has that mentality.”
Album left off country chart
As the sales data came in last week, the band and Murray knew the album was going to place well on the charts. The charts’ sales data is compiled by Nielsen Music and then albums are ranked by chart managers with Billboard, which publishes them on Monday. On the eve of last week’s charts, the band was informed by the magazine that it would be categorized as folk and rock, but not country.
The news was not well received by the band or Murray, who had worked so hard to tell the story of Green River Ordinance as a country band. Earlier in its career, Green River Ordinance was signed to a major label and marketed as a rock band.
Billboard did not respond to requests for comment, but in emails between Murray and Billboard representatives that were shared with The Tennessean, country chart manager Jim Asker explained his decision, saying he heard the album as Triple A and rock.
“Right now we have decided to not flag this project country,” Asker said in his email to Murray. “That’s a (judgment) call on our part, but we put a lot of thought into that process. Also, just an FYI; I was a Country radio (program director) for many years. That experience helps me make these decisions.
"I feel sonically, and musically, that it’s more of a Triple A, Rock project."
John Marks, the global head of country music for Spotify, disagrees. Marks, who has carved out a reputation in the country music industry for identifying new talent, said he hears a country song when he listens to Green River Ordinance’s new single “Red Fire Night,” which has eclipsed 637,000 streams on Spotify.
“In this particular circumstance, it’s a bit of a puzzle to me,” Marks said. “You look at Green River Ordinance, it’s got all the elements of a country song. It’s got bonfires, it’s got drinking, it’s got a fiddle and a banjo. So for someone to say it’s not country makes very little sense to me on a personal level, on an experience level and certainly on a consumer level.”
David Macias, president and co-founder of label services company Thirty Tigers, said he found Asker to be earnest and thoughtful in considering whether to add surging country-rocker Jason Isbell to the country charts last year. Macias said it took an extended dialogue before Asker decided to add Isbell to the country chart, which Isbell topped with his album “Something More Than Free.”
The debate about what defines country is nothing new, notes Nashville country music writer and historian Robert Oermann.
“This goes back quite a ways,” said Oermann, who incidentally reviewed “15” as a country album for Music Row magazine. “It goes back to Olivia Newton-John and John Denver winning awards and traditionalists were very upset about it. There was even an alternative organization to the (Country Music Association) that formed.
“It was all about circling the wagons, and that’s even before countrypolitan. In a way that no other genre seems to do, country is always trying to define itself and stake out its territory.”
Mike Dungan, chairman and CEO for Universal Music Group Nashville, said the charts are valuable to record labels. For the “Top Country Albums” chart, the rankings are based strictly on actual sales numbers. In that sense, obviously a higher ranking is meaningful. But Dungan said the Billboard charts are important for other reasons.
“I don’t know that the fans care,” Dungan said. “Although it’s funny. When you hit that No. 1 spot, it gets picked up, and used and spread around in ways that you don’t get when you’re No. 2. I’m talking about little things like Entertainment Tonight and news magazines will tag it and say, ‘this is the No. 1 record in the country this week.’ And it’s a little mention. But if you’re (UMG artist) Luke Bryan and you’ve got your first No. 1, having that said in front of the mainstream media matters.”
“15” registered at No. 8 on Billboard’s rock chart and No. 1 on its folk chart. The album also would have been the No. 1 country debut album last week. Murray said the country-chart recognition could help the band with concert bookings, especially country music festivals.
On one hand, Jenkins, the band’s lead singer, said that considering how difficult it is to make a living as a professional musician, every bit of recognition and validation counts. But Jenkins, a songwriter signed to Smack Songs, one of Music Row’s top independent publishing companies, said the chart categorization matters for artistic reasons as well. He worried about aspiring artists feeling shut out by country music gatekeepers.
“Maren Morris, and Sam Hunt, and Chris Stapleton, they each excite me for the format, and all of them are different, but they’re all country music,” Jenkins said. “It’s important for artists coming up to create that fearless art that stretches the boundaries for the music we all love.”
Reach Nate Rau at 615-259-8094 and on Twitter @tnnaterau.