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Country Hit Maker John Marks

Inside the music industry. The business of hits, new artists, what’s played, what’s not, with country programmer John Marks.

Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard of the band Florida Georgia Line embrace SiriusXM country music programmer John Marks, who helped propel their group to national prominence. (SiriusXM)

Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard of the band Florida Georgia Line embrace SiriusXM country music programmer John Marks, who helped propel their group to national prominence. (SiriusXM)

These are interesting times in country music.  It’s huge.  And it’s having a quiet identity crisis.  All at the same time.  So-called “bro-country” songs about party guys drinking beer and gals dancing in their daisy dukes are all over the airwaves.  Top of the charts.  And right in with them comes the song of lament — “I Don’t Hear Merle Haggard Anymore” – longing for old-time country.  And female country artists?  Hard times.  Country hit-maker John Marks sees it all.  Has helped make it.  Sometimes would like to break it.  He’s with us.  This hour On Point:  inside country music.

– Tom Ashbrook

Guests

John Marks, senior director of country programming for SiriusXM. (@sxmthehighway)

Jewly Hight, Nashville-based music critic. Author of “Right By Her Roots: Americana Women and Their Songs.” (@RightByHerRoots)

Josh Jenkins, frontman for the band Green River Ordinance. (@gro)

From Tom’s Reading List

The Wall Street Journal: Satellite Radio Shakes Up Country Star System – “Despite an audience that is minuscule compared with FM radio stations in big markets, the Highway wields disproportionate influence on sales of records and concert tickets, say label executives, particularly for new and emerging artists from outside the major-label system, a group terrestrial country stations tend to avoid.”

Billboard: Inside the Ears of SiriusXM Country Programmer John Marks — “When country record label execs tell the tales of how their songs became hits, two words are nearly always part of the story: John Marks. SiriusXM’s senior director of country programming is not only thought to have some of the best ears in the business, he’s also willing — even eager — to take chances on new music on the channel for which he handles day-today programming, The Highway. And that music doesn’t always have to come from the usual sources.”

NPR: How A Hip-Hop Remix Helped Make ‘Cruise’ The Year’s Biggest Country Hit – “If you listen, even fleetingly, to commercial country music, you’ve heard the song “Cruise.” It set a record this year for most weeks at No. 1 on the country charts — in history. “Cruise” is also the second-most-downloaded country song of all time, and it’s expected to top that list soon. It’s by Florida Georgia Line, two young men who’ve become country superstars in less than a year.”

Playlist From John Mark’s New Nashville Sound

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  • GarretWoodward

    As a music journalist and music lover, “modern country” music is pop music. Jimmie Rodgers is rolling over in his grave. With that said though, what was “real country” back in the days of Webb Pierce, Hank Williams and Kitty Wells was considered “pop music” at that time. So, we have a conundrum there, one would suppose. I mean, give me the honky-tonk sounds of post-World War II country any day, but it is what it is today.

    P.S. Kacey Musgraves is the new voice of country bringing it back to the “real deal.”

    • art525

      I agree with you on all counts. And yes kacey Musgraves is one of the very few who is doing something interesting.

  • New_Clear_Waste

    Is John Marks one of the people responsible for the homogeneity of country music? Nowadays it all conforms to a tired, predictable format. I call it Walmart Muzak.

    • J.e. Williamson

      Thank goodness that Rick Rubin saw the beauty of Johnny Cash’s voice and style on the American Recording albums. Used new material and allowed Johnny Cash to make it his own. There was no effort to morph him into a pop music icon. Proof that people like John Marks have no clue as to what country music is and should be.

      • Ray in VT

        What did you think of Cash covering Hurt and other rock songs? I quite like both versions, and it surprises my country listening nieces and nephews that I listen to Cash, considering that they mostly think of me as a rock/punk/metal fan.

  • Billsville House

    If you look at the Spotify playlist you’ll see Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark and Sturgill Simpson. There’s still hope!

  • Ray in VT

    The older I get the more appreciation I have for some of the older country music, but I find that I don’t have much taste for a lot of what may be called “bro country”. I don’t like drinking or partying, so I can’t relate there, and I find that there is too much idealization of rural life (it’s older I know, but Country Boys and Girls Getting Down on the Farm really irks me). I also find that I don’t really need to know how much the person singing the song, or at least the “voice” through which the song is sung, loves Jesus.

    • art525

      Yeah, there’s a whole lot of empty strutting macho going on in this new stuff. Really stupid.

      • Ray in VT

        I used to dislike 1980s and early 1990s country for certain reasons. I dislike much of the new country for other, overlapping or related reasons.

    • 1Brett1

      My daddy may have taught me how to drive a tractor/pick-up truck (and to take pride in our family farm when all the lawyers and the bankers tried to take it away) — and momma always made the best apple pies — but when I learned what it means to honor those brave Americans protecting our freedoms in Iraq, Jesus taught me how to let Him guide me and make Him my personal savior…

      I wake up COUNTRY ever’day, and if living COUNTRY is wrong, then all them fast-talkin’ politicians in the big city jus’ tain’t right! …Somethin’ and somethin’, and, oh: NASCAR

      • Ray in VT

        Way to be a proud and true real ‘Merican. You go and git are done. That’s something, right?

        • 1Brett1

          Oh, you Yankee librulzzz…it’s “git’er done!”!

          If bein’ ‘Merican meens I don’t think it ain’t too much trouble askin’ them Mex’cuns down ta th’ Burger King ta speek English when they ask me wut kinda sam’ich I wont, then, yassur, I’mma ‘Merican!

  • GarretWoodward

    Hip-hop and rock musicians are hooking into Nashville because the iron is hot in that genre. Country is where people are still buying records and singles. Where else do you get sold-out arena tours? If you can hook into Nashville and mainstream country, you can run to the bank…

  • HonestDebate1

    Country music honors the craft of songwriting better than all other genres in my opinion.

  • Ray in VT

    Among most of the country fans whom I know I see little interest in bluegrass, fiddling or the use of the fiddle as an instrument in the genre, and that also seems like something of a break from some of the older country music, where that instrument, I think, got more use and respect.

    • J.e. Williamson

      You have to look for “roots” music or “Americana” or just bluegrass for those instruments anymore.

      • Ray in VT

        I also like Old World folk music for some of that sort of instrumentation, and there is a band that I like called Flogging Molly that blends punk with traditional Irish music in a way that I like.

  • art525

    All the examples sampled here are cut from the same cloth. You could do a medley of all of it and it would just sound like one long (very boring) song. It is very like hip hop in that it is just hitting the same notes (excuse the musical metaphor) over and over. Nothing new, nothing interesting and lots of posturing. Boring boring boring.

    • Ray in VT

      I remember when I told my wife that there was a song called Honky Tonk Badonkadonk she asked me if I was joking.

    • J.e. Williamson

      “very like hip hop” My point exactly. How does a station that calls itself a country station even play this music?

      • Ray in VT

        I guess that it depends upon what the listeners of the stations are willing to classify as country. I know some people who say that rock ended in 1979 and nothing after that is really rock. So much of it seems somewhat subjective and based upon individual tastes.

  • http://www.fibrowitch.net Jan Dumas

    Is this really a story that is worth so much of On Points time today? Really wish it would end soon and you would go back to the real reporting I listen to NPR to get. This guy should be on Entertainment Tonight not NPR.

    • Mare Tomaski

      I think this was a GREAT show. Being a musician, song writer and a woman with interest in what is happening to music I loved it, and sent the link to many friends who also thought it was a great show. Constantly harping on the bad news around the world can get quite tiring…really now. Tom Ashbrook can interview any one on any topic and it is wonderful. Many thanks Tom always a pleasure to listen to your show and this one was really interesting and I loved it.
      ps: I agree with most al of the callers who lament what is happening to country music in Nashville. This systemic formula Nashville is beating to death, is really getting old and there are a lot of people who feel this way.

  • John_Hamilton

    I’ll try again. You might want to ask the guest(s) if modern Country is anything more than bar band rock ‘n roll with a twang. Or, is there anything out now that is this good: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OOKaircCiGI

    • J.e. Williamson

      Bar rock and roll has more of a connection to roots music and Americana than this music does.

      • John_Hamilton

        True. I haven’t been in a bar in a while. We hold on to certain opinions. This was my take on Toby Keith when he was making all his noise in the Bush era. Though I thought he was a maximum j*rk, I kind of liked his sound, realized it was just basic rock ‘n roll.

        I suppose the newer Country doesn’t have much of a comparison to anything. Every once in a while I tune into a Country station on FM, and it’s just the most boring stuff, tedious sameness, gratuitously twangy, forgettable.

        Country author Bill Malone has a show on a local station once a week, and he refuses to play any newer Country, including stuff from the Billy Ray Cyrus era. He does play the Dixie Chicks, though, and Vince Gill, Ricky Scaggs, some others. I don’t listen to it as much as I used to. You won’t hear anything of this quality today: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMSWAUAKJn0&feature=kp

  • J.e. Williamson

    How do some of the songs played even get classified as country and not rock or hip-hop?

  • Mark Faughn

    It seems to me that there are two issues affecting county music. First, country music began as “old time-y” music. By definition, the new country is not old time-y. Secondly, it seems that the new country music is just rock music with twang. Does this reveal more of a failure in rock music stations not serving its audience?

  • Mare Tomaski

    I agree Coco!

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