The music distribution website CDBaby, where I sometimes go to get hold of more obscure independent artists, has a “sounds like” search function, where you can enter the name of a famous artist you already like, and find music by someone who supposedly sounds similar (at least according to that artist’s publicity). While this more often applies to general style than to real “soundalikes”, I’ve been thinking lately about the latter – when a new artist is more than just reminiscent of an established act.
Virtually every review to date of newcomer Easton Corbin has commented on his obvious debt to George Strait, although personally I would say he owes almost as much to Alan Jackson, and isn’t really a copycat of either. General awareness of this similarity does not seem to be hampering his career momentum – if anything it gives him some instant credibility in setting him apart from the pop-inspired hordes on country radio.
Many successful artists in the past have been compared to stars of the past – when Sammy Kershaw emerged in the early 90s his vocal similarity to George Jones was noted, and part of the significance of country music’s respect for its roots is that the influence of stars of the past has always been acknowledged. Listen to Randy Travis, and you can hear the effect of years listening to Merle Haggard, Merle owed much to Lefty Frizzell and Jimmie Rodgers, and so on, but each of these artists was also able to develop their own spin on a common base. There is a fine line between being part of a tradition, and influenced by your predecessors’ vocal stylings, and coming across as a mere carbon copy. George Jones started out his career copying his childhood idol Roy Acuff, to the extent that his first producer Pappy Daily once asked him,
‘George, I’ve heard you sing like Roy Acuff, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell. I just want to know one thing: Can you sing like George Jones?’
As it turned out, he certainly could, but had he not been able to develop his own distinctive voice, he would not now be regarded as the greatest country singer of all time. But with the rapid pace of country music careers today, and the industry’s fascination with very young performers, there is not always time for a young singer to develop his or her own style before being judged and found wanting.
This year’s country contender on American Ido is a 17-year-old who sounds quite remarkably like Josh Turner – not only that, young North Carolinian Scotty McCreery auditioned with Turner’s hit ‘Your Man’, repeated it during the lengthy televised selection process, and also sang Josh’s classic ‘Long Black Train’. Turner himself used his website to admit to being flattered by the choice. I understand that he branched out and sang a John Michael Montgomery song last night – I haven’t heard it yet, so I don’t know whether he achieved triumph or disaster or something in between. If he survives this week’s first vote, I think he has a voice which will be worth tuning in for, although perhaps not a fully polished style – unsurprising given his youth. But as a potential star in the real world, I wonder if he’s not a bit too similar to Turner for his own good. Would he be able to make his own music distinctive enough to get played in its own right, should he make it far enough on the show to guarantee a major label record deal? That seems all the more of an issue as the Idol franchise has now cut its longstanding ties with Sony, and first dibs on any stars created by this season will go to the Universal Music Group – parent of Josh Turner’s label MCA.
Do you think a new artist is harmed or helped by sounding like an old favorite?