Not Dead. Different.

Molly and I recently attended a networking event at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, and we got to speak to about ten different folks from the music industry. Some were involved with record labels, some were involved on the promotional side, but the message we received was clear. I’m paraphrasing, but it was along the lines of this; “blues is dying. Do something else.”

That’s an ironic statement to hear at an event sponsored by the Blues Foundation, but it’s also a worry in the minds of many artists, from more than one genre. I hear lots of stories about diminishing interest, shrinking crowds,and it doesn’t paint the most optimistic picture. But what those industry folks were saying is actually this; if you readjust the frame a little bit, you get a whole new perspective. A much brighter one.

I think it’s true that a lot of individual branches from the tree of American music are struggling, particularly the traditional forms of blues, bluegrass, jazz, gospel, and folk. But here’s the interesting thing; when you put them all together, into what I like to call roots music? Roots music is THRIVING. 

From my perspective, we’re living in a post-genre world. Folks that love music are no longer interested in just one thing, and they want to hear all of your influences and abilities. The first place I ever sang was my great grandma’s church, I grew up playing bluegrass, got into blues as a teenager, and then worked my way back through folk music. It makes all the sense in the world to combine my influences, but when I started touring, I thought I had to choose just ONE branch. That kind of thinking is born from a long gone era of A&R executives and corporate radio.

Justin Timberlake just released a new song from his upcoming album, “Man of the Woods.” It features Chris Stapleton, one of my favorite genre-bending blues/country/bluegrass/soul singers. When asked about the record, JT had this to say.

“It sounds more like where I’ve come from than any other music I’ve ever made… It’s Southern American music. But I want to make it sound modern – at least that’s the idea right now…

I think where I grew up in America has a lot of influence – Growing up in Tennessee— very central of the country — Memphis is known as the birthplace of rock & roll, but also the home of the blues, but Nashville’s right down the street so there’s a lot of country music.”

Sounds like a roots record to me. All of those concerns about diminishing interest? Not an issue for Chris Stapleton, or Jason Isbell, or Gary Clark Jr, or Sarah Jarosz, or Punch Brothers, or Shovels and Rope, or…fill in the blank.

This is good news. Chances are, you don’t just love ONE style of music. Why limit your audience and your own creativity to just one tiny space? The important thing as an artist is that your music has to sound like YOU. Be creative, passionate, and open to change, and you’ll find an audience.

About Brian Keith Wallen

Singer-songwriter and guitarist from Indiana. Proud dog dad.
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2 Responses to Not Dead. Different.

  1. Just keep in mind that the music “industry” types have been wrong on the direction of music for going on 20 years. JT has been a success precisely because he refused to be stuck in a slot that the industry pegged him in. If you and Molly just do the music you love, then you guys will continue to thrive.

  2. Joe & Mandy Sitler says:

    “That kind of thinking is born from a long gone era of A&R executives and corporate radio.” The sad legacy of commercial radio will be the strangulation of artistic freedom for all genres. You have the opportunity to forge a life playing what you want and reaching audiences like never before. Sounds pretty exciting to me. Corporate shills will get negative when they see you don’t want what they’re selling, so they tell you how hard it is…but if you selectively filter what you hear and chose your confidants wisely, you will remain the BK Wallen we admire. Kudos on another fine week at the IBC.

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