So, I read Sturgill Simpson's rant. It's a complaint that's been raised millions of times before: how Nashville supports mainly 'country pop' while legends like Merle Haggard fall by the wayside, etc.
Here are my thoughts about this... hang on tight, this might be a bit unpopular...
Of course country radio supports mostly catchy mainstream country pop. And that's okay. I see the same phenomenon happens in all kinds of genres, and you always have outrage on the "artiste" side and silence on the "mainstream" side. Because no one really likes to defend that they prefer watching "Jurassic World" over "Moonrise Kingdom," or want to hear "Honey Bee" when they turn on country radio, not "Kern River Blues" (the Haggard single mentioned by Simpson).
In my opinion, I think it's a bit myopic (and elitist) to look down on the taste of the masses while claiming that only "your" music is real. Real music is whatever one wants to listen to, dance to, laugh to. And there is nothing wrong with songs even about a bunch of clichés, like drinking an ice cold beer while tailgaiting in a cornfield on a moonlit summer night.
If someone gets into their truck after a 10-hour shift, apparently they tend to prefer a catchy tune by Luke Bryan or Florida Georgia Line on their way home... . not a brooding song, Hank Williams style, over how hard life is. Just because you feel "your" music is the "better" music more in line with traditions, that doesn't mean country radio or Music Row should change. Everything is fine as it is. Some people like Tom Cruise, some people like Bill Murray. Some people like Blake Shelton, some people like Merle Haggard. The former just greatly outnumbers the latter today. That's nobody's fault... just people's tastes.
Maybe I'd be more sympathetic to the complaints if less-popular artists couldn't get their music "out there".. But nowadays there are tons of ways to enjoy non-mainstream music; just not via radio airplay, magazines, and the like. (Though, when I look at the country charts, there is diversity - even if it's not as pronounced as some people wish it were.)
If a singer doesn't fit the mold but releases fantastic stuff, we've seen that music executives are willing to take a chance. That Sturgill Simpson has the forum that he has is testament to that.
Now, about the core of Sturgill's rant... that Nashville pretends to revere Merle Haggard, but "wouldn’t call, play, or touch him. He felt forgotten and tossed aside..." That's more complicated. Did Nashville lose the right to associate itself with Merle, given that country music sound has changed so much over the last three decades? I think no... he's still one of the fathers of country music. And to a layperson, yesterday's "three chords and the truth" is not as different from today's as many try to make it out to be. "If you've got the Money Honey (I've Got the Time)" is not any deeper or more elaborate or artistic than today's catchy tunes.
So, in my opinion... you totally can give a "Merle Haggard" award to modern country artists, and I wouldn't see this as dishonest or hypocritical. I see it as a positive gesture, honoring the past where modern country music came from. Just because we don't turn back time and revert to those roots (typically), doesn't mean the roots aren't there.
And about Sturgill's complaint that there was a magazine cover shoot and then some other artist (ironically Chris Stapleton, who is very traditional himself) ended up on the cover instead... that's just silly. Editors make these kind of decisions all the time. I thought all this was about the music and authenticity, not publicity? Does the rant sound a bit vain to anyone else?
"Anyway, Merle passed away right after it came out."
The heart of the matter is: more "niche" country artist resent the popularity of the more mainstream acts. But an industry like Music Row is still mostly driven by popularity, and popularity is driven by all parts of the population, not just the small segment with distinguished and selective taste. Again, again, that's okay, in my opinion.
But of course we will continue to get these op-eds that basically tell millions of country music radio listeners: "You are the problem!" And then we (who like a lot of mainstream country) feel bad about ourselves, momentarily, but then turn on the radio and know... this is good, real music. Well, most of it. And some of it is shlock, but still funny or great for karaoke or whatever. Only few songs can die in a fire, like "Save a horse, ride a cowboy." (Though, that one is apparently a blast to line-dance to... so, on second thought, it also has all the right in the world to exist.)
Sorry Sturgill. If you stick to your plan to "Fuck this town, I'm moving" then go ahead... it will be a loss for Nashville, but your frustration is understandable, and there might be better environments out there to make and publish your kind of music than the epicenter of the country music industry.
But repaving Music Row tomorrow is not going to happen. The repaving happens all the time, gradually, already...