By Sean Ross of @RossOnRadio

When Dustin Lynch’s “Seein’ Red” pushed Thomas Rhett’s “Star of the Show” out of No. 1 last week, it pretty well encapsulated everything that’s going on with Country radio at the moment.

Thirty weeks ago, “Seein’ Red” and another Rhett single, “Vacation,” were climbing the charts together. “Vacation” was a last-single-from-the-old project single that sounded like a mash-up of “Feel Good Inc.” by Gorillaz and “Get The Party Started” by Pink. It was bound to provoke Country radio program directors, and it did.

“Seein’ Red,” with its opening power-chords, had same of the same sonic aggression as “Vacation,” but its “right amount of wrong” seemed a little better calculated—just far enough outside what PDs were willing to accept. And yet, for a few weeks, as “Vacation” was stalling out, the spin gains on “Seein’ Red” slowed down as well.

Rhett quickly did what Country superstars have always done after their momentary pop provocations. He gave Country the single it wanted from a burgeoning core artist. And yet, “Star of the Show” isn’t without its pop flourishes. There are moments where it seems to be channeling Extreme’s “More Than Words.” There are also moments that recall other key records in the ongoing country/pop debate—Uncle Kracker’s “Follow Me” (a pop hit, but Country at its core, and by an artist who finally had Country hits years later) and Charlie Rich’s “Rolling with the Flow” (indisputable as Country now but considered a crossover bid when new 40 years ago).

“Star of the Show” was No. 1 in about four months. “Seeing Red” nudged it out of No. 1 after a more typical seven-month climb. So which is the real sound of Country radio?

Here’s another one to consider. “Stay in the Dark” by the Band Perry is a midtempo record that opens with traditional Country instrumentation. Only the subsequent electronic echo marks it as the band’s first “official” pop single. Keith Urban & Carrie Underwood’s “The Fighter” is a throwback to the late ‘70s/early ‘80s intersection of disco and “yacht rock.” It has already been a pop chart hit in Australia.

“Stay In The Dark,” which is not that different from Band Perry’s Country hits, has, thus far, received one broadcast spin at Country radio. To put that in perspective, because of morning show airplay, it has actually received two Alternative spins. “The Fighter,” which is being worked to Country, has bounded to about No. 50 in two weeks and is up by about 450 spins over last week, according to Mediabase.

Then, earlier this week, KAJA (KJ97) San Antonio, Texas, PD Travis Moon threw out this question on Facebook.  “Anyone else done with warmed over, poor man’s Top 40 music on Country?” One of the format’s great music people, Moon has always been aggressive in finding the songs he wants on an album or an indie label single. So if he’s fed up with the state of the available music, that says something.

There was no shortage of agreement in the Facebook comments, except maybe on the timing. “Been done with it about three years.” “I was done with it four years ago.” “Only for 15 years now.” “Has it not been this way for about 15 years!” (stated emphatically, as the punctuation suggests, not as a question).

But Moon was careful not to specify which songs he was characterizing as “warmed over, poor man’s Top 40 music” even when a commenter immediately asked. A few of his commenters did. One cited “The Fighter.” One went for the soulful stylings of Sam Hunt—the center of the “not country” maelstrom. There was a complaint that Country wouldn’t acknowledge Sturgill Simpson. There was a complaint that country was being asked to acknowledge Sturgill Simpson.

There were also plenty of commenters who noted that the “what is Country” debate is eternal. I can confirm that the greatest provocations over the years came from artists whose Country status is not in question now. Dolly Parton used the peak of her hitmaking years to take forays into soft popfunkdisco and Eurythmics-style synth-pop. And the Parton/Kenny Rogers smash “Islands in the Stream” was almost a rewrite of the song the Bee Gees gave Dionne Warwick six months earlier.

Country followed Parton into some of her poppier forays. On a few others, it wasn’t even asked. None threaten her “iconically Country” status now. You can ask whether Parton could have had an even bigger, more consistent chart career without the experimentation. Then again, even her signature, “Jolene,” is a classic in part because it took its pulse from the bongo-propelled Doobie Brothers’ “Long Train’ Runnin’” a year or so earlier.

Last year, as Country radio began to founder in some markets, even those historically friendly to the format, some PDs were expecting a move toward more traditional country sounds. The key evidence was William Michael Morgan’s “I Met A Girl.” But that was a song that any tailgate country artist could have had a hit with; only Morgan’s vocal timbre made it “traditional.” When Morgan truly channeled George Strait on the follow up, “Missing,” Country radio balked.

Country’s vicissitudes always return us to its other perennial discussions—the (glacial) pace at which most hit songs develop and the (rapid) turnover in the top slot. Ten days ago, “Star of the Show” was No. 1. Now it’s No. 7. There’s no official panel on pop vs. country scheduled for next week’s Country Radio Seminar, but the annual session on the speed of the charts is indeed on the docket.

I’ve long felt that the real issue for Country radio was active records vs. passive ones. PDs in all formats sometimes misuse the word “reactionary” when they’re trying to describe a song as “reactive.” The issue is that much more confused because there are a handful of stations that do well by finding their own hits and looking for reactive records, and plenty of others that do well by being cautiously programmed and, essentially, alternate universe AC stations.

The records that have made Country the happiest over the last decade or so are often the ones that mix both traditional and pop elements to the point where debate is futile. The compromise has often been rockin’ texture and rural lifestyle lyrics. Sometimes the results are reactive and generally agreed to be good for the format—“International Harvester,” “Country Girl (Shake It for Me).” Sometimes the formula has been to neutralize both elements. For the most part, tailgate country gave us midtempo neutral hits of the sort that Country has always defaulted to. If some of those songs had a slightly hip-hop pulse, well, so did “If I Ever Lose My Faith In You” by Sting.

So to this long-running debate, I would like to attempt to add the following:

  • When Country descends into a format doldrums, there is usually an overabundance of neutral midtempo records.
  • Because these neutral midtempo records often have an AC feel, even when there are traditional elements, too, the culprit is often defined as “pop.”
  • In that atmosphere, anything that is truly pop leaning in any way becomes a provocation. But it’s also hard for the “fusion of everything” songs that drive the format forward to emerge.
  • And sometimes, what PDs reach for in their absence, is even more midtempo neutrality.