Brent Ryan

Is Texas Just a Mini-Nashville?

Posted on May 22, 2018 in music, Music Business, Musical Inspiration, Opinions

During my studio time this past weekend I was small-talking with my studio drummer, Tommy Cook about the nature of the music industry.  Tommy, like me, strives for innovation, relevance, and passion for his craft. Tommy and I aren’t wired to be motivated by dollar signs. I’ve always been that way. For some reason, the quest for financial success just doesn’t spark enough passion within me to keep me moving. I have to find something deeper. Don’t think I’m trying to sound saintly. This characteristic has its pros and its cons!  And I’m realistic about it as well. I realize that if I don’t get the bills paid, then I have to begin finding ways to make a living outside of music. And since I am also wired to come alive when I’m doing music full-time, trust me when I say I don’t want  to have to pursue other income streams at the sacrifice of a music career.

My conversation with Tommy evolved into a slight critique of the Texas music business. We Texans are arrogant about everything Texas, and this is certainly true of our music scene as well.  My music tends to ride the wave of the genre often tagged as “Texas Country”. It certainly has been a lively genre full of diverse sounds ranging from Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, to Robert Earl Keen and Pat Green, up to a pool of current artists that exist in the Texas Country/Red Dirt scene.  It might surprise you to hear that I don’t listen to a whole lot of modern Texas Country. I do listen some. But one thing I do regularly is investigate the current scene to see what is out there worth discovering. I’ll spin a Texas Country playlist on Spotify and take note of sounds that I enjoy.  And I can honestly say, that I enjoy listening to Texas Country and Red Dirt infinitely more than the sounds of mainstream country music.  It seems to possess overall better songwriting, better instrumentation, and a truer country sound that is not dominated by the influence of pop and hip-hop (note: I have nothing against these genres either, but typically I don’t enjoy their invasion of the country sound).

But I make this observation to you. There are A LOT of bands in the Texas Country scene. And I honestly think that it isn’t that difficult to rise to the upper echelon in that category.  I say that because, in the short time that I have been involved in this music career, I have seen a handful of artists who were barely above my level of success suddenly get swept away into the big name Red Dirt festivals, and rocking the stages of some of Texas Countries most famous stages, such as John T Floores or Gruene Hall.  And while the music in the Red Dirt scene sounds different, and in my opinion better, than the mainstream country genre, I think an honest look at the industry helps me to better guide my own personal goals and perspectives.

If, hypothetically, I were trying to fill the bill for a weekend long Red Dirt festival here in my hometown, I could quickly produce the names of 20 bands that would attract a crowd of people who enjoy this music.  Easily.  I’m not going to mention any band names in this post because I don’t want to accidentally give you the impression that I’m criticizing these bands. But, most of the bands would sound very similar stylistically.  Most of them are about the same level of success. Most of them have about the same number of “hits” on the Texas Country charts (whatever the heck those are).  Most of them are playing the same venues, the same festivals, and being represented on the same Spotify playlists.  Also, most of them have a notable career that began somewhere within the past five years.  And I speculate that most of them will be replaced by new bands that also fit these descriptions within five years from now.

It seems to be a strange law of the universe that things that are made quickly tend to fade quickly.  In workouts, quick muscle boosts also result in quick muscle losses. In dieting, quick weight losses soon result in quick weight gains. And in music, quick rises to the top tend to result in quick falls to the bottom.  While financially frustrating, there might be some value in building the long slow fan-base foundation that keeps the success strong against the challenges that are sure to come.  For me, if a well-known music manager knocked on my door (nobody does that) tomorrow and promised to make me a “big name in the Texas Country scene”, I would ask myself these questions: What is the value of being a big name in Texas Country? Does being a big name necessarily mean financial comfort? Is the fulfillment of that promise going to keep me relevant in the music industry for decades to come?  These are worthy questions to ask. Just because I get a great spot at the Larry Joe Taylor Festival on the main stage doesn’t mean that my music will mean anything in twenty years, or that anybody is going to care about the songs I write ten years later when I’m not cool anymore.

My point is this- there is a machine that moves within the music that we love here in Texas that is not much different than the machine in Nashville. More beloved perhaps. Less sold-out (I’m not talking about tickets) perhaps.  But mostly the same.  Promises of big success are always waiting in any industry where hopes and dreams drive the efforts of the craftsmen.  But if my goal in playing music is to play the LJT, then what happens once that goal is achieved?

Maybe I see things this way because I came into this music world later in life than most. I have a little bit of adult wisdom developed beyond the cravings of fame and glory.  But for me, my personal fulfillment comes through the relationships with the people who care about me and the music I create.  I could spend $5,000 on a top-notch radio campaign and get my music on the Texas Country Charts. Trust me, I’ve already had the offers, and I have no doubt that they would achieve their promises. But why not keep the $5,000 and put it towards creating better music?  Relationships with your fans mean lifelong record sales. It also means a fulfilling music career where you feel like you’re making a difference.

When tempted with the fast-track of Texas Country success, I remind myself that the slow trudge of building a true grassroots following might be the way of keeping a long, sincere, heart-felt music career in my life.  I have no clue whether you will ever see me on the mainstage at LJT. But I guarantee you I’d love to see you at my show this next weekend sitting on that little patio and listening to my songs. I hope you introduce yourself. I hope you ask where I’m performing next. I hope you keep in touch.  These are the things I hope for.