Blake Shelton is suddenly in hot water—as in not just boiling or steaming but scarring, scalding water—with country music traditionalists. A comment he made on a GAC special has come back to haunt him, as he seemed to be suggesting that folks who are partial to classic country are "old farts" and "jackasses" who should stop complaining, get out of the way, and make way for the new guard.
There's something strangely ironic here. Shelton established himself early on in his career as a neo-traditionalist, himself. So how'd he come to suddenly be pilloried as the enemy of classic country?
The risible quote in question comes from a GAC Backstory special on Shelton that aired in December. Toward the end of the show, he declared: "If I am Male Vocalist of the Year, that must mean that I’m one of those people now that gets to decide if it moves forward and if it moves on..." (The interview was apparently taped before Shelton won an even higher plaudit, Entertainer of the Year, at November's CMA Awards.) "Country music has to evolve in order to survive. Nobody wants to listen to their grandpa’s music. And I don’t care how many of these old farts around Nashville (are) going, 'My God, that ain’t country!' Well. that’s because you don’t buy records anymore, jackass! The kids do, and they don’t want to buy the music that you were buying."
Cue the torches and pitchforks.
One country music legend, Ray Price, took to his Facebook page to excoriate the younger singer. Wrote Price: "It’s a shame that I have spend 63 years in this business trying to introduce music to a larger audience and to make it easier for the younger artists who are coming behind me. Every now and then some young artist will record a rock and roll type song, have a hit first time out with kids only. This is why you see stars come with a few hits only and then just fade away believing they are God’s answer to the world. This guy sounds like in his own mind that his head is so large no hat ever made will fit him. Stupidity Reigns Supreme!!!!!!! Ray Price (CHIEF “OLD FART” & JACKASS”) ” P.S. YOU SHOULD BE SO LUCKY AS US OLD-TIMERS. CHECK BACK IN 63 YEARS (THE YEAR 2075) AND LET US KNOW HOW YOUR NAME AND YOUR MUSIC WILL BE REMEMBERED."
Given that Shelton reveres Price, and has to know that a lot of other legendary old-timers he respects are thinking the same thoughts, this couldn't be a good day to be Blake.
Sure enough, Thursday afternoon, Shelton took to his Twitter account to respond. "Whoa!!! I heard I offended one of my all time favorite artists Ray Price by my statement 'Nobody wants to listen to their grandpa's music'," he wrote. "And probably some other things from that same interview on GAC Backstory.. I hate that I upset him.. The truth is my statement was and STILL is about how we as the new generation of country artists have to keep re-inventing country music to keep it popular. Just EXACTLY the way Mr. Price did along his journey as a mainstream country artist. Pushing the boundaries with his records. 'For The Good Times' is a perfect example with the introduction of a bigger orchestrated sound in country music. It was new and awesome!!! I absolutely have no doubt I could have worded it better (as always ha!) and I apologize to Mr. Price and any other heroes of mine that it may offended. I meant every word I said. Country music is my life and its future AND past is important to me. I'll put my love and respect and knowledge about it up against anybody out there... ANYBODY..."
Surely Shelton will be called to go beyond his Twitter apologia and attempt to put further nuance and spin on his artless GAC declaration. But those of us who know his heart can only be struck by the bizarre irony of this conflict when Shelton has a greater appreciation of traditional country music than at least 95 percent of his contemporaries.
Shelton is an old hand at throwing classic country covers into his set, particularly when he's performing at industry jams. Here's a reprise of what we wrote in this space when he hosted an after-party at Las Vegas' House of Blues three years ago:
"His love for vintage country—or semi-vintage country—lends itself well to a jam situation. 'If the thought has crossed your mind tonight, "I wish he would stop playing old songs," if that thought has crossed your mind one time tonight, you can kiss my ass!' Shelton bellowed early in the epic proceedings. That was around the time he covered 'I Love a Rainy Night'; later in the evening, he'd get to Jerry Reed's 'Eastbound and Down' (the Smokey and the Bandit theme) as well as vintage Conway Twitty. He dueted with Nan Kelly—'not just a GAC host, she's a bad-ass singer!'—on the Kenny/Dolly chestnut 'Islands in the Stream.'"
On another occasion, we saw Shelton duet with wife Miranda Lambert on "If I Said You Had a Beautiful Body, Would You Hold It Against Me?" Granted, these aren't Stanley Brothers covers, but they do suggest that Shelton is the last guy who believes that any country that existed prior to 2006 should be scrubbed from the public airwaves.
When Shelton was asked recently for his six favorite songs to cover, the list reflected his trademark combination of classicism and cheekiness: the Bellamy Brothers' "Redneck Girl," Jerry Reed's "She Got the Gold Mine and I Got the Shaft," Kenny and Dolly's "Islands in the Stream," Rupert Holmes' "Pina Colada Song," Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl," and the Divinyls' "I Touch Myself." This would not be, say, Marty Stuart's same list, but at least its humor and history beats the straight-up Petty and Springsteen covers that every other young hunk feels obligated to squeeze into his live act.
As Chuck Eddy once wrote in a 2008 Billboard profile, "He’s the obsessive sort of traditional country fanatic who’ll 'spend $300 a week at Ernest Tubb Record Shop' when he’s in Nashville, and where [Miranda] Lambert swears by Ashlee Simpson, Shelton would usually rather listen to John Conlee."
The irony—or, detractors would say, hypocrisy and betrayal—becomes more apparent when you consider some of the defenses of classic country that Shelton actually put on record earlier in his career.
When Bobby Braddock was given the Icon trophy at Nashville's BMI Awards in 2011, Shelton got the evening's most enthusiastic standing ovation for singing Braddock's "Same Old Song," which includes lyrics like: "Now I love country music/And I guess I always will/But these days, when I turn on the radio/It's just not the same thrill/I like a song that gives me chill bumps/Now and then there's some that still do/But I'm fed up with the same old vanilla/Hey how about you.../Hey there Mr. Songwriter/Come and visit in my home/Then tell me about life being perfect/And love that goes on and on and on..."
Shelton and Braddock also co-wrote "Last Country Song," about the demise of an old roadhouse, which has the bridge: "Will we play 'Swingin'' or 'He Stopped Loving Her Today'/It's really sad to see it end this way." And "Hillbilly Bone" name-checks one of Shelton's stated heroes, Conway Twitty, who put on the first concert he ever saw, at age 6, as well as a show with Loretta Lynn he says he skipped his high-school-senior trip to attend.
Of course, a lot of these neo-traditionalist songs and sentiments were recorded early in Shelton's career, when he was still working with writer-producer Braddock. Some might argue that Blake has abandoned those early principles and become a backslider in going for mainstream stardom, and that his GAC comments bely that he's a Judas to the music he once held dear. More likely, it's a case of Shelton not carefully considering the words about to come out of his mouth. There's a (cough) first time for everything, right?
Of course, Shelton has stepped into the oldest ongoing controversy in all of 20th and 21st century music. However graceless his remarks might have seemed, he's right about country's need to evolve, even if he's wrong about kids' desire to listen to their forebears' music. He made this gaffe in an industry that likes to pay lip service to honoring the past, even if there's little adherence to tradition when the rubber meets the road. After all, we're talking about a genre in which Brantley Gilbert had a massive hit with "Country Must Be Country Wide," a song that maintains that "in every state, there's a station playin' Cash, Hank, Willie, and Waylon"—a baldfaced lie when it comes to radio, even forgetting the irony of how little the tune resembles any of the artists being name-checked.
But in country, the old heroes are at least held up, if not actually ever played, which is why Shelton finds himself suddenly bathing in mycetracin right now.