Steven Tyler: walking this way into country music

Former Aerosmith frontman joins other rock stars who’ve realised country is one of the few areas of the music industry still thriving, and want a piece of the action

Forty years ago, had you told Steven Tyler that in order to stay relevant he eventually would need to “go country”, it’s likely the famed Aerosmith frontman would have attempted to strangle you with one of his multicolored scarves.

Not anymore. Tyler recently moved to Nashville to work on what would become his first solo record. We’re All Somebody From Somewhere, released last month, is the product of a team of collaborators – producers, songwriters, a label (Big Machine) also home to Tim McGraw and Rascal Flatts – who are helping relaunch Tyler as a modern country newcomer deserving of a place on the charts alongside Dierks Bentley and Jason Aldean. Why? Because that’s where the fans are.

Country music is presenting new opportunities to artists who once enjoyed non-stop airplay on rock radio playlists but who now have fewer outlets since the format eroded. Besides Tyler, Don Henley, Sheryl Crow, Sammy Hagar, Uncle Kracker, Kid Rock and Aaron Lewis of Staind have all rebooted their fanbase. Darius Rucker of Hootie and the Blowfish launched an entirely new career by turning to Nashville. Within the city lie the publishing houses, major labels and studios that work with collective precision to create and market hits.

The county music industry is an insular world which understands its market like a science: by contrast general pop music has no geographic base and therefore is more prone to interruptions in sound, message and cultural quirks. In Nashville, traditions are set from years past. As other genres have splintered into relying on niche platforms such as satellite radio and podcasts, mainstream country music has remained reliably consistent.

One reason is down to the city itself. It is an industry town that has done very well in protecting its No 1 asset. The promotional machinery – the CMA Music Festival, CMT, multiple television awards shows throughout the year, the Grand Ole Opry and, of course, terrestrial radio (AM or FM stations) – is built to create and market stars as well as keep their careers humming for years to come.

As one of the most recognizable voices in rock, Tyler doesn’t need respect. But he does need to be heard, which for an artist nearing 70 can be difficult. (He’s 68.) Baby boomers, those aged 52 to 70 in 2016, no longer represent the demographic that advertisers want to reach via terrestrial radio, which has forced many older artists to settle for reaching their fans through alternative media or online. There exists a yawning gap for rock formats on the dial, now controlled largely by three companies: Cumulus Media, CBS Radio and iHeartMedia, the former Clear Channel. Pop, EDM and hip-hop continue to be viewed as the cutting edge and the population surge in Latinos over recent years has resulted in far more stations catering to them, creating more competition for airwaves’ ad dollars.

Room for one more on the bandwagon? Tyler on the Tonight Show.
Room for one more on the bandwagon? Tyler on the Tonight Show. Photograph: NBC/Getty Images

So to get on the radio often means jumping the fence to country. The numbers make sense: terrestrial radio still remains the number one way people discover new music, according to a 2014 report by research and polling firm Edison Research. Thirty-five percent of US listeners rely on the radio for new music, giving it the edge over streaming services such as Spotify and satellite radio giant Sirius XM. Among listeners aged 12-24, that percentage nearly doubles to 65%, making it a second choice only to YouTube.

But older listeners have discovered country music and are sticking with it. A 2015 report by Nielsen discovered that country is the second-most preferred radio format among listeners aged 25-54 (contemporary pop is first). The same goes for millennial-aged listeners. Overall, terrestrial radio loyalists, regardless of age, prefer country music as their third choice, preceded by news/talk and contemporary pop. Classic rock is a distant seventh.

So when Tyler wants the challenge of making a solo record, he is also challenging his fans who tend to be loyal only to the hits. Classic rock radio, the only rock-oriented radio format in the Nielsen top 10, has conditioned them that way, making it difficult for marquee artists to get new music on the air because they’re forced to compete with their old songs.

But country radio adores new songs. If anything, the format is criticized for its short attention span because of its churning demand for fresh faces and hit songs that catch fire with audiences.

To make the leap to country, Tyler signed with the Big Machine Label Group, the company best known for breaking Taylor Swift. From the start the company put him on the rounds of country music awards shows and he was spotted hanging out at the Bluebird Cafe, the incubator for Nashville songwriters. The connection also helped place his music in areas where he would find a friendly audience, such as events produced by the Professional Bull Riders where a song off Tyler’s new album is now aired in arenas before the main attraction and in advertising campaigns.

The credits for the new album are lined with familiar names in modern Nashville. Co-producers T Bone Burnett, Dann Huff and Marti Fredericksen are all veterans from the rock and pop worlds who have crossed over to country while co-producer Jaren Johnston has co-written hits for Tim McGraw and Keith Urban. Providing co-writes with Tyler are also a group of current hitmakers: Hillary Lindsey (Carrie Underwood), Rhett Akins (Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan), Brad and Brett Warren (Tim McGraw, Toby Keith), Chris DeStefano (Jason Aldean, Miranda Lambert) and Alyssa Bonagura, a 28-year-old singer-songwriter whose 2012 ukulele hit I Make My Own Sunshine was first popularized on a Lowe’s commercial that year.

Tyler covers that song and doesn’t change a great deal – the ukulele and handclaps suggest he too wants a piece of the feel-good vibe that permeates much of modern country radio. In fact, much of the album is faithful to that calculation. The acoustic ballads Love Is Your Name and It Ain’t Easy are refreshing new turns for the singer, and for songs with rougher edges like My Own Worst Enemy (“I could play Seagram’s for all the whiskey/And for the tipsy that’s still here on my breath”), Tyler’s vocal rasp suggests a life experience that younger singers are forced to fake.

The album fails when it sounds too greased for chart jockeying. The Good, The Bad, The Ugly & Me is the worst of generic southern rock and Sweet Louisiana sounds nothing like it ever came from that state musically – and no, adding a few seconds of accordion before the bridge won’t do it.

But maybe the dumbest song Tyler has ever recorded in his 46-year career is Red, White and You, a song that sums up the glaring problem with the plug-and-play of Nashville songwriting. Here are all the cliches — name-checking a southern state (Georgia), southern food (sweet potato pie), a classic rocker (Tom Petty), a summer holiday (Fourth of July), an awkward sexual euphemism (“bang, bang baby like the Fourth of July!”), girls in cut-off jeans, jingoistic patriotism and, of course, trucks. Always the trucks. In a different context, this is satire.

You can imagine the committee that put Red, White and You together rubbing their hands in anticipation of a summertime smash. Especially with Tyler committing to sing the wink-wink lyric about him “free-falling into your yum-yum”.

Except summer is almost over and the song has already fallen off the charts. Which brings us to a big lesson all classic rock icons need to learn when they blindly go all-in for modern country: Nashville may be the pipeline to the people, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t benefit from a great big flushing now and then.


Mark Guarino

The GuardianTramp

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