There is a catch-22 that artists face when it comes to the material that they write and perform. Does an artist write about their struggles as they have experienced them or do they try to pander to the audience by writing what they think they want the audience to hear. I have been critical of artists who take the latter approach, and one is reminded here of the hypocrisy of Tim McGraw recording and releasing a song like “Back When” which laments hip hop in country while simultaneously having a top ten duet with a rap artist in Nelly in “Over And Over.” Yet at the same time it can be a real problem trying to wrestle with the struggles of an artist, especially since at times what we get is a rather naval gazing picture of the struggle of an artist as a young man or a young woman.
This is not to say that musical artists do not struggle. When we look at Christine McVie’s “Temporary One,” for example, we get a sense of the struggle of an artist on the road to keep her marriage going despite being on tour for years at a time. This is a real struggle and something that plays well with an audience. Similarly, when we look at the songs of Walker Hayes, we get a sense of the real vulnerability of the artist, his hustling, his insecurity, the help he received from others, and that too is something that is relatable and easy enough to appreciate. In both cases, and other artists like these, one gets a sense of their real struggles as human beings trapped in a difficult situation. We get this sense from Nik Kershaw’s “Somebody Loves You” and “Wouldn’t It Be Good,” which tackle two different sorts of struggles that the artist faced, both of them real and highly personal in their telling.
Sometimes, though, we get something like “Circles Around This Town.” Now, I must admit that I actually like this song. It feels honest, the artist detailing her hustle and her struggle to become better known in the face of so much competition that had so many more compelling subjects to write about concerning relationship drama. At the same time, though, the song really lacks the sort of high stakes that one would hope for. The artist neglects her collaborative work, her big hit “The Bones,” her work with John Mayer, and her pop turn with “The Middle.” Instead she focuses on a couple of songs she wrote about driving and a church that caught on with country radio audiences who might not be as familiar with her pop music, and might not relish that Maren Morris made it big in large part by seeking to appeal to pop and adult contemporary (and AAA) audiences rather than merely country audiences.
This is not inherently a bad thing. Many country artists have sought to broaden their appeal beyond the ghettos of country music. At times there has been a cautious and unsteady embrace of both country and mainstream audiences simultaneously in cases like Shania Twain, Dolly Parton, and Faith Hill. At times, country has been a refuge after mainstream success was over, as was the case with Exile, Dan Seals, Jewel, and Darius Rucker. At times, though, the pull between the mainstream and country audiences has been particular stressful on an artist, in cases like LeAnn Rimes and Taylor Swift, so much so that the country audience has ended up alienated by the pop maneuvering that has been done. Will Maren Morris be able to handle the pressures? It remains to be seen.