My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Too much too soon?

Arguably, the biggest star in country music today, at least in sheer commercial terms, is Taylor Swift. She controversially swept the board at last year’s CMA award ceremony, but has been overlooked in most categories this year. Her undeniable appeal to young girls has led to suggestions that as her fans grow up, they will outgrow Taylor, and that her current stratospheric career may not be sustained at the same level, while others have suggested that she may mature as a songwriter and actually expand her fan base. Fans laud her songwriting (even when they admit her vocal shortcomings), particularly given her youth, implying she will improve further as she gets older. Sales figures for her upcoming third album are likely to be scrutinised closely. A look back at other teenage country stars is not encouraging.

The most famous teenage country stars of the past are LeAnn Rimes and Tanya Tucker, both of whom became stars at the age of 13, but neither of them had an easy road to maintaining that success. Tanya’s teenage stardom fizzled out after she moved to a sexier image and pop material, and endured a few years in the wilderness before making her comeback in the mid 80s. The jury is still out on LeAnn; her initial hit with ‘Blue’ was very much in the vein of Patsy Cline, for whom the song had originally been intended, but since then she has seemed uncertain of her identity as an artist. One cannot help wondering if that was because her initial career path was influenced by her parents. Like Tanya, she chased the pop crossover market, with more success, but the pop world is a fickle one, and in 2005, she was back in country music with some accomplished pop-country. Her emotional comeback hit ‘Probably Wouldn’t Be This way’ was a very fine record, but overall I didn’t feel she had really developed as an artist as much as I would have hoped considering how phenomenal she was as a child. She was not able to sustain this second blast, and the recent unfavourable publicity relating to her private life is unlikely to help. Her upcoming covers album may be produced by Vince Gill, but what we’ve heard from it so far does not inspire. Unlike Taylor Swift, however, LeAnn and Tanya were not marketed to their peers, and neither wrote songs as teenagers. Rather, both were presented as girls with voices mature beyond their years, and Tanya in particular recorded very adult material right from the start.

Following the initial success of LeAnn Rimes, the late 90s saw other labels jumping on the bandwagon and signing big-voiced teenagers. The 15-year-old Lila McCann scored the biggest selling debut album of 1997 and a #3 hit in ‘I Wanna Fall In Love’. Hers was another flash in the pan, as she only had one more top 10 hit. Her bright pop-country records have not worn particularly well, and an attempt at a comeback as an adult in the mid 2000s met with general indifference. The very similar Jessica Andrews had an almost identical career trajectory: her first hit at 15, in 1999, a solitary #1 the following year, with radio interest subsequently diminishing, and a comeback attempt which soon fizzled out. These girls were initial beneficiaries and longterm casualties of the Nashville tendency to copy the latest trend. Both had good voices, but not very distinctive ones, and their youth made their vocal ability and longterm potential seem more impressive than perhaps it really was.

What impresses in a teenager does not necessarily translate into exceptional adult ability. Further, many of these young artists have not really developed a strong sense of themselves as an artist, tending to adopt the latest trend. The roots of their artistry often seem to run rather shallow, and there is usually (and inevitably) a lack of maturity. Wynonna was only a teenager when The Judds burst onto the scene, but it seems clear that although Wynonna’s voice provided the essence of their music, their musical direction was largely directed by Naomi. Looking at some of Wynonna’s later solo music, one wonders if left to her own devices, she would have picked country music as the market place for her undeniable talent.

Many young artists are signed to development deals which do not pan out, leaving them high and dry a year or two down the line. Examples of promising young artists chewed up by the system include Ashley Monroe, whose excellent Satisfied finally won a digital-only release last year after years on the shelf; she has now signed to the LA branch of Warner Brothers. Her friend the Australian Catherine Britt never saw her superb RCA album released in the US at all. Both girls were lucky to some degree in that their singles had made some critical waves, and they have been able to continue musical careers, even if mainstream country stardom has so far escaped them. A worse fate lies in wait for the many who sign to a major label, but never seem to release a thing. I remember some years back, there was some buzz surrounding a then-14 year old named Alexis who was signed to Warner Brothers and was supposedly very talented. If you’ve never heard of her, that’s because no records were ever released, and she was eventually dropped by the label. Might artists like this (particularly one who should still be in school) be better served if they waited to sign a record deal until they were ready to make a record? Not everyone who wants to become a star is going to succeed, and the excitement of apparently achieving that dream must surely derail thoughts of a backup plan.

Another of today’s superstars, Carrie Underwood, tried and failed to get a deal in Nashville as a 15-year-old, and in the long run that failure probably did her a favour, giving her a free run when she auditioned for American Idol. Fellow Idol alumna Kristy Lee Cook, who did sign to Arista at 17, saw no discernible benefit from this, only to have her second deal with the same label (post-Idol) fizzle out after a rush-released album and some rather half-hearted promotion.

But could this be such an artist’s only chance anyway? Billy Gilman’s career was one which could not wait on maturity because it was based on his unbroken child’s treble. A modest success as a 12-year-old has not translated into a career as an adult. Taylor Swift’s longterm career trajectory is as yet unclear, but so far her success has been built on her appeal to girls her own age and younger; delaying the onset of her career might have helped her hone her often derided performance skills, but she would have lost that USP – the insight into the emotional lives of high school age girls.

One of the artists we are spotlighting this month, Ashton Shepherd was signed to MCA at 20 with a songbook of material she had composed in her teens. In her case, her youth was balanced by the life experience which came with early marriage and motherhood. She was lucky in that her debut album was released within a year, with label boss Luke Lewis saying then that they had not delayed, in order to capture her raw talent before she got sucked into the system. However, that meant that while the album she released showed a great deal of promise, it was also evident that there was room for improvement.

It is mainly females who seem to be victims of this trend, with male singers rarely being spotted before they hit their 20s. One exception is Blaine Larsen, who emerged at just 18 with a mature voice and material which spanned the age appropriate (‘My High School’, and the teen suicide-themed ‘How Do You Get That Lonely’) and songs clearly designed for someone rather older (‘Teaching Me How To Love You’), which however well sung were not entirely convincingly from such a young man. He didn’t really click with radio and is currently going the indie route, with a new album expected this year. It is unclear whether he will have the chance of a comeback, or if his big chance as a teenager was his one and only chance at making it big.

Instrumental musical prodigies run counter to this to a degree. Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley and Marty Stuart were all playing bluegrass professionally as teenagers, but only became country stars in their own rights years later. Alison Krauss was recording in her teens but although she sang on her records, she was promoted mainly as a fiddle prodigy. Indeed, those early vocal efforts barely hint at the unique vocal talents she developed as an adult.

Sometime your first shot at success is the only chance you’ll ever get. The public’s first impression may well endure, and an artist whose juvenilia becomes the best-selling work of their career, may never achieve what might have been.

Do you think a young singer should take the first shot at realizing their dreams, or wait until they have honed their craft?

10 responses to “Too much too soon?

  1. Ben Foster September 23, 2010 at 9:05 am

    I really think it depends entirely on the individual case. Maybe Jessica Andrews and Lila McCann should have honed their craft before pursing country stardom, but LeAnn Rimes made her best and most memorable music as a teenager. I don’t think there’s a particular rule of thumb that applies in every case.

    I really can’t say whether or not Taylor Swift should have waited to pursue a record deal. On one hand, much of her appeal lies in the fact that she sings songs teenagers can relate to, and such songs would carry less meaning had she not been a teenager herself when she recorded them. But on the other hand, it would have given her more time to understand her voice better, and to hone in on her sweet spot as a vocalist.

    And I know people do tend to assume that Taylor’s fan base is primarily composed of teenage girls, but I can’t help doubting that theory, considering the scope of her success. If her fan base is mostly teenage girls, then teenage girls must wield a great deal of power and influence.

  2. Ken Johnson September 23, 2010 at 12:11 pm

    I think that you are all missing the point here.

    Country music at its core has always been about ADULT reality. Songs that speak to the fundamental issues of ADULT life have always been the bread and butter of the genre. The country music audience has always been a bit older and has outgrown the shallow themes and youthful fantasy of top 40. The grown-up topics that country music deals with such as heartbreak, loss, hard times, divorce, etc. are not themes that appeal to youngsters who only want to party, dance and fantasize about their next “dream date” or decide which body part they next want to tattoo or pierce. Most younger performers simply haven’t lived enough yet to sound believable singing about adult topics and themes.

    In the past younger country performers who achieved success did so by recording material that generally fit into the country paradigm. Country Hall Of Fame member Brenda Lee, whose career actually began in top 40, gained success with songs about topics that were way beyond her tender years. Listen carefully to “I’m Sorry,” “Fool #1,” or ‘Break It To Me Gently” and you may find it hard to believe that they were performed by a singer only in her mid-teens.

    Tanya Tucker’s early hits were not about a teenage lifestyle but were adult stories told from a younger person’s perspective. Her first two number one hits, “What’s Your Mama’s Name” and “Blood Red And Goin’ Down” were not songs about a carefree teenage lifestyle by any means

    John Wesley Ryles predates Tanya’s Nashville arrival by four years and recorded his first country hit at the age of 17. “Kay” told the story of a young man who had followed his girl to Music City so that she could pursue her singing career. He took a job driving cab where he witnessed the seedier side of life while losing his love to the “swinging music world.” No teenage stuff there.
    The song earned young John a top ten hit in early 1969.

    LeAnn Rimes always receives more credit for carrying the banner of traditional country music than reality supports. Her first hit “Blue” was certainly performed in a retro-country Patsy Cline style. For all of the publicity that “Blue” gained for LeAnn, the song climbed only to #10 on the Billboard singles survey. Due to the failure of many country stations to play “Blue” deeming it “too country,” follow up singles immediately shifted to a pop/country mode. LeAnn’s subsequent country hits “One Way Ticket,” “Unchained Melody,” and “The Light In Your Eyes” were mainstream late-90’s country fare. LeAnn received no acceptance by the pop audience until “How Do I Live.” However none of these songs can be considered as targeting the teenage market.

    The internet and social media has contributed immensely to Taylor Swift’s career but I wonder at what age her country fan base trails off. I don’t imagine male country fans or 30 or 40-something housewives are relating to the lyrics of her songs. If she evolves her music to adult themes perhaps she will endure unless the country audience has grown tired of her by that time and moves on to the next flavor of the week.

    The suits at the record labels in Nashville are not traditional country fans. They are watching the industry go bankrupt around them, so they’ll continue to throw stuff at the country audience praying that something sticks. The success of Taylor Swift coupled with the suits’ antagonistic view of what many of us consider “good country music” guarantees more clones of what we already have too much of already.

  3. Michael A. September 23, 2010 at 1:21 pm

    @Ben: Teenage girls DO wield a great deal of power and influence (see Twilight or Justin Bieber or any number of teen idols from David Cassidy to New Kids on the Block to the Backstreet Boys). I think part of Taylor Swift’s problem is that she was SO huge and omnipresent. You couldn’t escape her and that’s lead to some pretty fierce backlash. Part of the blame probably lies with her record label. She sold six million copies of Fearless, which probably pleased Big Machine, but it might have come at the expense of her long term career potential. As much as fans love to build something up, they just as much love to tear it down and make room for, as Vince Gill would say, the next big thing. I do think that Speak Now is going to underperform and she likely won’t be a major force beyond this album. Of course, I could be wrong.

    @Ken: Even AS a teen I loved to listen to the adult lyrics and mature themes in country music.

    • Ken Johnson September 24, 2010 at 1:49 pm

      Re: Even AS a teen I loved to listen to the adult lyrics and mature themes in country music.

      Michael A:

      As a teenager I too loved to hear the adult themes in country music. I often felt like I was eavesdropping on an adult conversation that I wasn’t really supposed to hear. However I was one of just a small handful of teens in my high school who had any love or appreciation for country music outside of the “crossover” type songs or acts. Yes, there are a few of us out there…..but we are definitely in the minority.

  4. Pingback: Johnny Cash ‘Vehemently Opposed’ Iraq War; Justin Townes Earle is Embarrassed to be From Nashville; Robert Plant Outsells Jamey Johnson | American Twang

  5. Razor X September 23, 2010 at 9:01 pm

    Show business is not easy for anybody, don’t mind a young person. One only needs to look at teen sensations like Tanya Tucker and more recently, Lindsay Lohan, to see how horribly wrong things can go. I wouldn’t want any child of mine to get into show business before they reached adulthood.

  6. Kathy Goss September 24, 2010 at 3:42 am

    Show business isn’t an easy business. I think Tanya Tucker has shown, if you really want to make a success of it, it can be done. She had problems along the way, but she managed to overcome them and go on to be a superstar. These young singers can learn alot from her. She is an icon.

  7. musica September 24, 2010 at 4:24 am

    good point….

  8. Ben Foster September 26, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    Ken is definitely right that country music has traditionally been adult’s music. But since I am in my late teens, I do tend to picture myself in the situations described in country songs, and it does still resonate with me, though likely not to the extent as it would with someone older. That said, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to have country music expand to include teenage concerns as well (Though since Taylor’s upbringing was quite different from mine, she really hasn’t written anything that I can relate to myself). At the very least, I don’t think it will be a threat to the traditional themes of country music – I’m sure the drinking and cheating songs will ALWAYS be around no matter how big Taylor Swift gets to be.

  9. Josh September 27, 2010 at 5:09 pm

    Taylor Swift seems very mature to me, unlike the likes of Britney Spears. This girl has a unique (and not taught) level of maturity.

    I think she definitely has a very good career on her hands. Just needs to keep up with her music writing skills, and not follow any negative paths.

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