Back in 2003, just as American Idol was hitting a fever pitch, someone decided that country music needed its own version of the show and launched a similar program entitled Nashville Star. While I'm not a big country fan, I found the program far more interesting and a touch less formulaic, allowing and even encouraging the artists to write their own material.
While I wasn't overly impressed with the outcome, one young lady in particular did grab my attention. Although she finished third in the overall outcome, I couldn't help but feel that the show (unsurprisingly) missed its real star. I also held out hope that she's be able to parlay the exposure into a more credible career than winning a television contest might render.
When Miranda Lambert's debut disc, Kerosene, arrived in late 2005, I was quick to pick it up and see if the label had watered down her delivery. Gratefully, that wasn't the case and Lambert's fiery attitude and lively demeanor translated incredibly well to her major label debut.
Now, seven years past that televised talent search, the young lady that was passed over has become one of the hottest young talents in country music, releasing three platinum albums, touring relentlessly and now headlining her own tour after garnering a previously unheard of nine nominations in this year's CMA awards and winning the Best Female Vocalist category in both the CMA and ACM awards this year.
It's not just Lambert's voice that has taken her to the top of the country echelon, however. Yes, her voice is engaging, but her songwriting abilities, undeniable stage presence and palpable independent attitude have created an undeniable connection between Lambert and her fans. Now headlining her own tour, sponsored by CMT on Tour, Lambert is finally getting the credit she deserves and truly establishing herself as a top-tier artist in the world of country music.
For Lambert and special guest artist, Eric Church, however, country music isn't just a label or marketing angle. Both artists have stood their ground and established themselves as leaders of a new movement of country music -- beyond simply cowboy hats, a southern drawl and a marketing image, they stand at the forefront of what I consider the "new breed" of country music.
While Lambert was unavailable to discuss the tour as she had just returned from a string of dates overseas, Church was quite accommodating in discussing the tour and the state of country music as he heads out on tour with Lambert.
"Miranda Lambert is someone I've wanted to tour with for a long time," Church said. "I kind of feel like she's the female version of what I do in country music. We both make records and both fight for our segment of what we do. She's stuck to her guns and the market has come around a little slower for her, but I think we've both built fan bases that are unique and loyal."
While discussing the tour with Church, we both agreed that there seems to be a paradigm shift going on in country music right now. Sure, there will always be the formulaic acts that Nashville continues to crank out, but we're currently seeing a shift back to singer songwriters who write from the heart and make a real connection with their fans.
For his part, Church was incredibly candid and said, "I see four people holding down a part of the genre right now: Zac Brown, Miranda Lambert, Jamey Johnson and myself. Everyone is doing their own thing and it's something unique. I don't even think we all necessarily share the same fans -- it's really four different fan bases, but it hasn't gone the way the industry is used to."
While discussing what has shifted, Church cited a true authenticity for the artists that are really establishing themselves right now. "What's really back in country, I believe, is authenticity and credibility," he said.
As a result, country music is also seeing a shift in demographics. While Church said, "Country music used to be squarely pointed at the soccer mom demographic," that idea has shifted over the past few years as the rising young artists aren't being painted into a commercial or formulaic corner. As a result, Church has seen a return of young males to the country audience, connecting with a music and message they can identify with.
That's where the authenticity and credibility come into play. When Church launched his major label career in 2006 with the debut disc, Sinners Like Me, it didn't really fit with what commercial country was doing. When he finally quit trying to fit in and stood up for what he was doing and believed in, he admits it was a bump in the road that slowed his career path, but it also helped him focus.
In the end, however, Church said, "We really found our fan base. It was tough and it was rough for a time and we played 270 dates in a year, but now I know who I am and what I'm doing."
After headlining his own shows, including a Jagermeister-sponsored country tour that stopped at Cain's Ballroom earlier this year, Church is completing the touring cycle for his 2009 release, Carolina, with an extended run sharing the stage with Lambert. It's a great fit as the two seem kindred spirits, even if they don't sound alike. Both are fiercely independent and writing the records they want to make, not just adhering to a sound or formula and they are now being rewarded for staying true to themselves.
But be careful not to lump them into the "outlaw country" sub-genre, because although they do draw a little of that audience, they fit squarely in a different camp. Sure, there's a little attitude in each of their songwriting styles, but that's just them taking a stand and being true to themselves.
If anything, Lambert and Church are standing at the forefront of the current shift that has seen country take on a new life, new demographic and a fresh attitude. In the process, a new audience is being won over -- part of which is squarely country in its background, and another part of which identifies more with the authentic songwriting that is coming out of the movement.
In reflecting on that, Church admitted that perhaps that's the difference in what is going on in this segment of country music at the moment.
"Artists are making their own records, not just writing hits. There are people with hits, but they aren't moving the needle as far as ticket sales go," he said. "Meanwhile, I've barely had a top ten hit, but my audience is growing and we're doing really well."
Don't be mistaken, it's because of that authenticity that Church mentioned that artists like himself, Lambert and the whole next generation of "New Breed" country artists are making a major impact on the country music landscape -- both in record sales and concert attendance. And it's because they stick to their guns and don't back down that they've earned the credibility with their audiences to continue down the path they've started.
This Thursday night, Oct. 21, Miranda Lambert and Eric Church bring the CMT sponsored Revolution tour to the SpiritBank Event Center and introduce an even larger audience to what's really authentic and genuine in the current crop of country artists. For true Country fans, this is the tour to keep an eye on this year.
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