Last week Daily Beast columnist Bryan Curtis published "Gwyneth Paltrow and the Rise of Carpetbagger Country," exploring and lamenting the recent surge of middleweight and/or legacy rock and pop stars into country music. His case, in a nutshell:
Darius Rucker, formerly of the rock band Hootie & The Blowfish, has recorded four No. 1 country hits. The rap/nu metal entrepreneur Kid Rock reinvented himself as a country star. Jewel has gone country, perhaps sensing her hardscrabble youth was wasted on folk rock. Jessica Simpson’s last stab at a career was at a country career. The Eagles, Jon Bon Jovi, and Robert Plant have all scored recent country hits. The nichiest of genres has become as welcoming as a Wal-Mart, especially for sagging artists in search of a payday. Country is now a refuge for the unwanted of the music industry.
The piece is definitely snarky and there are some minor errors that bespeak Curtis's outsider status (Robert Plant did not earn any country radio hits for example), but there's a lot of truth behind it. Starting it seems to me in the early 2000s, the CMA went out of its way like never before to invite or encourage celebrity mediocrities like Lance Bass and Brett Michaels onto its awards show and its music festival stages, merely to up their Q factor, while paring back time devoted to Hall of Famers or the country music tradition. While country music (CMA Country we're talking about, not Americana or the larger country music genre) has earned some positive national press covering the rise of legit artists like Brad Paisley and, yes, Taylor Swift, it's also good for Nashville to get smacked every now and then by cultural critics tasked with taking the big picture view and objectively comparing country radio to the best music out there.
If the legacy artists being coaxed into or welcomed into CMA Country were historically great, like Elvis Costello or Robert Plant (who've been active and welcomed on the Americana side), this would be a brighter picture. And if the CMA were fulfilling its mission by lobbying for radio and TV space for modern-day country torch-bearers like Justin Townes Earle, Old Crow Medicine Show, Buddy Miller, etc. then they'd probably not have to endure acidic commentary from East Coast elites or the "Country My Ass" jokes from, well, regular folks who used to love what they heard on country radio.