In Country Music, 30 Is the New 20
Only in country music can a new artist begin his career at age 38. In fact, many of country's biggest stars are past or pushing 40 years old. A few are nearing (gulp) 50!
We "gulp" in jest, of course. There's no rule that states a great song can only come from singers with no signs of gray, but ageism — or exaggerated claims of ageism — exists at every turn. Fans howl each time Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Dwight Yoakam or some other star of yesterday releases a single that bounces from radio playlists like it was made of rubber. Is it because they're old?
In country music, there's clear evidence you can begin your career at an advanced age, at least in comparison to other genres. At the beginning of the week, we calculated the average age of all artists inside the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 chart and came up with this number: 27.3 years old. In the case of bands, we used the age of the most visible member, i.e. Adam Levine (age 36) for Maroon 5, etc. ...
I felt like I was letting my family down. Everybody else around me is like, ‘He’s not going to go into the ministry, he’s playing in a band!? He’s playing bars, and beer joints?’
Now look at the Country Airplay Top 40 for March 21, 2015. The average age of the artists making today's new music is 35.2 years. That's an eight year difference! Nine artists are older than 40, while just two are younger than 25. The senior member of the group is Reba McEntire, who at 59 (until March 28) was literally making music before every artist on that pop radio chart was born.
There isn't another format that relies on new music that can claim to be more age-friendly. To be fair, there aren't many other formats that rely on new music, and certainly none as big as country. Rock radio relies on decades-old hits. Adult contemporary (AC) radio feels more like pop in terms of average artist age. They may round out playlists with older hits from the last 10 or 20 years, but country does. too (George Strait, Garth Brooks)
Relatively speaking, country is more age-friendly in 2015. And it's a good thing, too, because it often takes an artist a long time to put it all together.
What separates Taylor Swift or current babyface Kelsea Ballerini from someone like Old Dominion, a group of mid-30s singer-songwriters that are just now signing their first record deal? As easy as it is to cry ageism, the answer may be simpler, and harder to quantify. Plus it requires some personal accountability.
To make it in country music you need talent, a little luck and confidence in your skills. That last part — the confidence — is difficult to come by if your closest friends and family members are beating you down. Subtly or overtly, skepticism is a dream killer.
Here's one country superstar on how he felt upon finally deciding to break the chains of expectation: "I felt like I was letting my family down. Everybody else around me is like, 'He's not going to go into the ministry, he's playing in a band!? He's playing bars, and beer joints?'"
In a few short lines this singer sums up what any artist striving to be first in his or her family is up against, especially if the family is steeped in tradition and conservative ideology.
I don’t think anyone understood what I was trying to do … I don’t know how they felt about it, it was never really discussed and I guess it was never really talked about.
First can be worst. There are obstacles an artist like Kip Moore faces that Thomas Rhett doesn't. Rhett insists his famous father (Rhett Akins) did nothing to to clear his path to stardom and there's no reason not to believe him. Still, seeing it's possible makes it possible. Self-doubt is the first obstacle — one that's easier to clear when those closest to you know your dream can become reality.
"I think that they thought initially I was sowing some wild oats," Moore told Taste of Country of his parents' initial reaction to his chosen profession. "I don't think they took what I was doing seriously."
The "I'm to Blame" singer's family is musical — sisters play piano and sing, brother is a really good guitar player — but nobody thought of music as a career. It was fantasy, like hitting the game-winning home run or sinking a buzzer beater to win the NBA championship.
"I was kind of wondering if anyone knew," he says of his own training. "I was kind of undercover doing all of it. I was writing lyrics, playing guitar and no one knew it."
Josh Thompson remembers something similar. Even after he moved from Wisconsin to Nashville, it was as if he was one bad day away from getting the "Get a real job" speech.
"I mean, they expect you to be … you’re there for six months and it’s like, 'How come you don’t have a record deal yet? How come you don’t have any songs cut yet?'" The 37-year-old was into his 30s before releasing "Beer on the Table" as his debut single. That came four years after leaving the family concrete business to chase his dream. Four years, he tells ToC, and a lot of doubt.
"So then slowly they’re like, 'Maybe you should just come home and get back to work.'”
Thanks Mom ... Thanks Dad.
We're often led to believe the sons of professional athletes become professional athletes because of the training afforded, since the future ballplayer could walk and run. Or maybe it's in the genes?
The same logic is applied to celebrity careers like acting and music, but really the answer could lie in watching a loved one do exactly what you want to do. Doctors seem to raise more doctors. Writers raise more writers. Perhaps mill workers beget mill workers? We embrace what we know and shy away from the unknown. Unless we don't. Then it just takes extra time.
Ronnie Dunn can speak to that.
Dunn was 38 years old when Brooks & Dunn released their debut album in 1991 (Kix Brooks was 36). Usher and Kanye West (age 36 and 37 respectively) are the only two artists on the pop chart close to that age, and both have been around for over a decade. Dunn's last charting single came in 2012, when he was just south of 60.
In his family, Dunn was first to "stray from the fold."
"It alienated me in a lot of ways," he told Taste of Country. "I felt weird about going to family reunions and things, a big Southern family, and they're all about that. It was a ... it ended up kind of scarring that relationship, and I hate that."
Dunn is the oldest of 16 grandkids, so family was and still is important to him. Later in life, cousins, aunts and uncles started to return to the fold, but the early isolation came with a price.
"You walk a plank, you separate yourself from the crowd — people going, 'You're trying to do what?! Trying to make it at music business? Nobody does that! What are the chances of that? Go back to school, you're crazy!'"
There are examples to contradict this idea that it takes longer when you're first. Swift blossomed at age 15. Parton was barely 20 when her first single cracked the radio charts. Conversely, Shania Twain was closer to 30, and Alan Jackson 31. Country music is unique in that it allows for that.
"I think where I came from, it was kind of a foreign thing," Moore says of the music business. "I don't think anyone understood what I was trying to do ... I don't know how they felt about it, it was never really discussed and I guess it was never really talked about."
"I definitely ... that's probably why I stayed quiet. There's that vulnerable side of putting yourself out there and you don't want to be — you want to be taken seriously — and you don't know if you're going to be taken seriously. I kept everything to myself."
When his first single "Mary Was the Marrying Kind" dropped in 2011, Moore — now 34 — was 31. A late bloomer by pop standards, but a young man by country music standards.
Dunn dropped his first solo single in 1983. "It's Written All Over Your Face" didn't go anywhere. Years later he'd write "Thou Shalt Not" for his Peace, Love and Country Music album. It's a song that tells this story. His story. Yep, it was Dunn who lamented letting his family down by listing all the "thou shalt nots."
"It's like, oh God. That's kind of the story of it all, you know? You live with all the thou shalt nots and end up going, 'Well, I'm just going to play the guitar and surf through it, and let the world settle out, I'm not going to be there on the council once it all goes down.'"
It took him 20 years to pen that song. Coming to terms with external pressure and expectations takes time, more than many other radio formats are willing to allow for. Learning to toss those expectations into the fire pit takes even longer.