Brandy Clark has just completed her latest turn in a songwriter’s showcase at Nashville’s Bluebird Café and, for just a second, the room is silent as held breath. Then an ovation sweeps through like a small explosion, an exhalation of pent-up expectations and hopes and “Oh my God, did you hear that?”
I don’t remember for certain which number Clark had just sung—honestly, it might have been any of the songs off her amazing debut album, 12 Stories, released Oct. 22—but I think it was “What Will Keep Me out Heaven.” In that breathtaking piano-and-pedal-steel ballad, Clark plays a woman hesitating before an elevator, torn: The man waiting for her upstairs is married to a woman she doesn’t know and doesn’t wish to hurt—but then again she’s come to realize that she’s married to a stranger herself; that’s why she’s here. The lyric leaves her right there, too, undecided, weighing promise and regret—though the tremble and ache in Clark’s voice leaves little doubt she’s headed upstairs.
Clark was joined at the Bluebird that evening by a trio of good friends and fellow songwriters: Trevor Rosen, Josh Osborne, and, seated directly across from Clark for the Sept. 21 in-the-round-performance, Shane McAnally, who’s been on quite a songwriting roll lately. Partnering with several others—Clark, Rosen, Osborne, or the likeminded Kasey Musgraves, often as not—McAnally has co-written hits for Kenny Chesney, Lady Antebellum, Jake Owen, Miranda Lambert, The Band Perry, and Luke Bryan, and has seen dozens more of his songs recorded by Nashville types ranging from Lee Ann Womack to Uncle Cracker, Tim McGraw to Kelly Clarkson to Florida Georgia Line. He is the most successful songwriter Nashville has seen in a generation.
As the applause for Clark shrinks to excited murmurs, McAnally nods in his friend’s direction and says, “That girl’s gonna save this town.”
It was an offhand comment, but, considering the source, it was nearly as jaw-dropping as the performance that inspired it. After all, by the measures that matter most to the Nashville music establishment, Shane McAnally is this town. How can he possibly believe it needs saving?
Concerns about the soul of Nashville or of country music—not the same entities, by any means, but in this case close enough—are hardly new. Choose nearly any period of country you like—Nashville Sound, Urban Cowboy, Garth and Shania’s “Hot New Country,” take your pick—and you’ll find plenty of folks who, upon listening to the latest mainstream version of the genre, declared it in figurative danger of going to hell. But previously these complaints have come from musicians specializing in some sub-style or other that was just then being shut out by country radio—or from the fans who preferred those out-of-fashion sounds—rather than from someone like McAnally, whose work is in heavy commercial rotation, albeit in recordings by other singers.
So what’s the complaint, then? For the past several weeks, the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs Chart has been a hard-rocking number with verses that are rapped as much as sung, a hoedown throw-down in which a hyper-macho singer seduces a tanned hottie while drinking a beer and driving his pickup truck down to the river in the moonlight. The record is “That’s My Kind of Night,” by country heartthrob Luke Bryan. But set the action in the afternoon instead, and switch out “beer” for “Southern [Comfort],” and the very same description works for “Cruise,” the Florida Georgia Line hit that topped the same chart for most of this past spring and summer. As it would, with minimal edits, for Blake Shelton’s “The Boys ’Round Here” and Randy Houser’s “How Country Feels” and too-many-to-count other radio hits, big and small, across the past half-decade.
Admittedly, there’s been more to country radio during these last several years than these party-hearty hits. But the songs have dominated playlists to such an extent that it has certainly felt like the format had turned into one never-ending-beer-keg-dirt-road-good-time-I’m-country-truck song. That dominance, to the seeming extinction of almost any other emotion or subject, is the complaint.