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From Eric Church to Jamey Johnson, 2012 found country music in a holding pattern and searching for role models

The 13th Annual Country Music Critics' Poll



Eric Church wasn't even born when Bruce Springsteen released his single "Born To Run" in 1975, and Church was only 7 when Springsteen released "Born in the U.S.A." in 1984. That didn't stop Church from mentioning both of those titles in his own song, "Springsteen," a nostalgic look back at a Carter/Reagan adolescence he never had and the singer who might have informed it. And that didn't stop the voters in the Scene's 13th annual Country Music Critics' Poll from naming "Springsteen" as 2012's best single, and Church as the year's best artist.

Church has confessed in interviews that the song is based on a romance he had as a youngster and on another, unidentified performer who supplied the soundtrack for that relationship. Church substituted his current hero, Bruce Springsteen, for the other singer, who had faded from favor as much as the girl. In other words, Church felt that he didn't have to accept the formative musical influence he was given — he wants to be able to choose his influence now, three albums into his career.

Church isn't the only major country star still casting around for a role model long after the modeling should have been done. Miranda Lambert, the poll's No. 1 female vocalist and the No. 2 best artist, seems to have her eye on Bonnie Raitt, while Jason Aldean, the No. 1 live act, seems to be moving toward Jon Bon Jovi and Carrie Underwood, the No. 3 female vocalist, toward Olivia Newton-John. Zac Brown, the No. 2 live act, is Jimmy Buffett with a beard and stocking cap, while Little Big Town (No. 1 group, No. 2 single, No. 5 album) seems to be the best of the Fleetwood Mac imitators, having nosed past Lady Antebellum and Sugarland. Taylor Swift seems to be trying on and discarding influences as if they were outfits on hangers in the dressing room at a Target.

Once upon a time, country music influences were inherited at childhood, not selected in adulthood. You grew up on Willie, Waylon, Merle, Dolly, George, Johnny and Hank, and even after you put your own little twist on that legacy, your influence was still obvious. The new generation of country artists pays lip service to that past, but it's obvious those legends aren't real influences anymore. What artist with commercial ambitions could afford to choose them? Just look at what happened to the artists who did.

Jamey Johnson released Living for a Song — a terrific, very personal tribute to Hank Cochran — and the critics voted it the No. 1 album of 2012. Dwight Yoakam did his Buck Owens-meets-Paul McCartney thing again, and the critics voted 3 Pears the year's No. 2 album. Kellie Pickler abandoned her previous country-pop compromises and made 100 proof, the updated Loretta Lynn record she's always wanted to make, and it was voted the No. 4 album. Alan Jackson sang as beautifully as George Jones on Thirty Miles West, voted the No. 8 album.

But here's the kicker: For all their critic-pleasing artistic achievement, not one of those four albums — all of them released by major labels — yielded a Top 20 country single. Radio shunned these albums as instinctively as the critics embraced them. In other words, if an ambitious young country artist wants to get played on country radio, his or her role model has to be an '80s rock star rather than a '70s country star. The choice of which rock star to emulate can reveal the artist's essential instincts.

Far better to choose Springsteen than Bon Jovi or Buffett. Far better to choose Raitt than Newton-John. Far better to choose Christine McVie (as Little Big Town has) or Lindsey Buckingham (The Band Perry) than Stevie Nicks (Sugarland and Lady Antebellum). No wonder the critics gravitated to Eric Church, voting him best male vocalist and best songwriter as well as artist of the year.

Chief, the Church album that contained this year's No. 1 and No. 32 singles ("Springsteen" and "Creepin' ") and last year's No. 7 and No. 24 singles ("Homeboy" and "Drink in My Hand"), was released on July 26, 2011, but finished behind Lambert's solo and trio projects in last year's album voting. Perhaps Chief grew on the poll's voters as Church continued to tour and release singles — or perhaps there weren't any new hit albums to give its songs much competition.

Neither Lambert nor her trio Pistol Annies released an album in 2012. Nor did Lambert's new protégé Kacey Musgraves, who was voted the best new act largely on the strength of one song, the poll's No. 3 single, "Merry Go 'Round." Johnson, the poll's big winner in 2008 and 2010, didn't release any original material in 2012. Brad Paisley, The Civil Wars, The Band Perry and Sunny Sweeney — who all did well in recent polls — didn't release a 2012 album at all. Only four of the poll's top 12 singles came from albums released in 2012.

It was as if mainstream country was stuck in a holding pattern in 2012, waiting for its most influential artists to release new albums of original material, waiting for those same artists to choose what kind of '80s rock they will be pursuing in this decade. Hoping that it will be Springsteen rather than Bon Jovi, lots of critics voted for Church in all the categories for which he was eligible.

But when those same critics were asked for comments on the year in country, few of them had anything to say about Church. The two short comments about him in the sidebar pretty much exhaust the punditry. By contrast, the multiple long comments about Swift are just a sampling of the voluminous opining about her. The critics may not be sure they like Swift the way they're sure they like Church; they gave her respectable but modest numbers in the poll: No. 6 album, No. 16 single, No. 5 female vocalist, No. 6 live act, No. 8 songwriter, No. 3 artist of the year. The critics may not even be sure she's really country, but they seem more fascinated by her than any other figure in the poll.

Swift seems as uninterested in '80s rock as she does in '70s country. Her remarkable lyrics are still obsessed with country's great theme — the challenges of romantic commitment — but her music seems to borrow from every slice of the pop spectrum except traditional country. Calling her a country artist at this point is not unlike calling Joni Mitchell a folk artist in 1977 when she was recording with members of Weather Report.

And yet the country industry can't afford to let Swift go, because her unworldly sales numbers are the main thing sustaining Music Row's reputation as a major force in the marketplace. And country fans can't let her go, because she employs verse-chorus-bridge craftsmanship with more ingenuity than almost anyone else in her generation. Her rootlessness, however, is worrisome. How will she resist the pressures of an industry focused only on next week's chart if she has no tradition to give her a backbone? That tradition might be Minneapolis funk, Seattle grunge or New York disco, but given her focus on romantic relationships, she probably would be best served by the country music she's nominally connected to.

Swift could look to Rodney Crowell, Marty Stuart and Dwight Yoakam, who combined smart songwriting and country chart success in the 1980s and who all placed new albums in this poll's Top 10. She could look to the line-walking Johnny Cash, who once again dominated the poll's reissues category with the No. 1 and No. 8 entries. She could look to the swampy country-blues of Tony Joe White and Bobby Charles, who highlighted the revelatory No. 2 reissue, Country Funk 1969-1975. She could look even further back to Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie, who also appeared in the poll's Top 10 reissues. She could look to Hank Cochran.

Cochran died in 2010, but that didn't prevent him from being voted the No. 3 best songwriter of 2012. And why not? What other songwriter generated 16 new recordings in 2012 as persuasive as the 16 Cochran tunes on Jamey Johnson's No. 1 reissues poll album, Living for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran? Johnson doesn't just resurrect the spirit of '70s country on the album; he invites many of that decade's best country artists — Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Bobby Bare, Kris Kristofferson and Emmylou Harris — to sing with him on the record.

But against all odds, Johnson dominates the proceedings, sounding more concerned about the troubled relationships in the songs than about the songs' venerable history. Those relationships are not much different from the relationships Swift is singing about.

The Results of the 13th Annual Country Music Critics' Poll
The Comments
Selected factoids from the 2012 Country Music Critics' Poll
The Passion of Miss DeMent

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