On the eve of country music's biggest night, the superstar bites the hand that feeds him -- again.
For a shy, humble fellow from Newnan, Ga., Alan Jackson just can’t stop flipping Nashville the bird. The bashful superstar has recently — unthinkably — become the music’s most outspoken outlaw.
He’d make Merle Haggard proud.
Jackson is up for song of the year honors Wednesday night at the annual Country Music Awards show, broadcast on CBS. That’s nothing new — Jackson’s arguably the most influential country singer of the ’90s, having astonishingly scored nearly 30 No. 1 singles (“Don’t Rock the Jukebox,” “Chattahoochee” and “Livin’ On Love” among others) and sold 30 million albums in the last decade.
What’s odd this year is the song he’s nominated for: “Murder on Music Row,” an unsubtle blast at the mushy heart of Nashville.
“Music Row” refers to the row of record labels clustered on Nashville’s famed 16th Avenue. Performed as a collaboration with fellow superstar George Strait, the song was never officially released as a single. It wasn’t promoted by either of the stars’ labels.
Yet “Murder on Music Row” was embraced by some radio programmers and fans as a renegade anthem. And now, amazingly, it may win the music’s top honor.
The song bluntly bemoans the state of today’s pop-soaked country music, increasingly dominated by crossover stars like Shania Twain:
For the steel guitar no longer cries and fiddles barely play
But drums and rock and roll guitars are mixed up in your face
Old Hank wouldn’t have a chance on today’s radio
Since they’ve committed murder down on Music Row
And now, as advance copies of Jackson’s upcoming November release, “When Somebody Loves You,” are being shipped, the buzz is growing over Jackson’s latest outrage: the CD’s closing track, written by Jackson, the mocking “Three Minute Positive Not Too Country Uptempo Love Song.”
It’s a little bit edge, but softer than spaghetti
Weak yet redundantly strong
It’s a three minute positive not too country uptempo love song
Says Jackson in a statement from his upcoming press kit: “You know, the [music] publishing companies or record labels or radio, they put all these boundaries on songwriters or artists and I think they really hold them back. And I know that’s just the commercial part of it all. But these are my thoughts on it.”
Country is a business that prides itself on politeness, respect and at least the fagade of family unity — and now Jackson has delivered his third sharp blow across the bridge of Nashville’s nose, each one more bruising than the previous.
The public taunts began exactly one year ago, at the 1999 CMA awards broadcast. Country legend George Jones — a Jackson hero — scored a comeback hit that year with the single “Choices.”
He was invited to perform the song on the prime time network telecast — but only in an abbreviated version. The headstrong singer stayed home instead.
Jackson took the CMA stage that night to sing his latest single. Halfway through it, he signaled to his band, which abruptly segued into Jones’ “Choices,” delivering the performance the Hall of Famer Jones was denied.
The very next month Jackson went into the studio to record “Murder on Music Row” with fellow traditionalist Strait. The single was as stinging an indictment as had ever been recorded about the music industry, let alone by multiplatinum singers at the peak of their popularity.
Nervous about falling sales numbers and weak radio ratings, country labels are increasingly looking to land crossover pop and adult-contemporary fans, and are more than willing to mask country music as pop.
A good example: Listen to country star Faith Hill’s recent No. 1, the Celine Dion-esque “Breathe,” with its grand wall of drums and strings, and try to detect a single country or western note.
Co-written by Larry Cordle and Larry Shell, “Murder on Music Row” debuted last year as the title track to an album Cordle released. Americana radio, that small but vocal home to alternative country and bluegrass, turned that version into a minor hit.
Then Jackson and Strait recorded it. The song appeared simply as an album track on Strait’s most recent greatest-hits collection. The record reached radio, where it received a love/hate reaction. “There was immediate polarization,” says Wade Jessen, who oversees Billboard’s country music chart.
Roughly half the nation’s country stations refused to touch it — but the others turned it into an event. Amazingly, the song, without the benefit of all-important label promotion, charted for 20 weeks on Billboard’s country chart, peaking at No. 38, the highest mark to date for a non-single.
If “Murder” scores the upset and actually wins the CMA’s song of the year award, look for some uncomfortable faces among the industry crowd.
If it loses, there’s still the soon-to-be-released “Three Minute Positive Not Too Country Uptempo Love Song” to remind them how Jackson feels.
Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush." More Eric Boehlert.
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