Merrian-Webster defines “Authentic” as:
true to one's own personality, spirit, or character
It’s a word that has been discussed heavily in country music as of late, something that has caught the attention of many. Sometimes in music and the arts, we lazily take in what is given to us, failing to ever question the source. It’s a very thing I, myself have been guilty of because it can be difficult to see through the blurred lines of fact and fiction. In the current country music landscape, it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate what is real and what is essentially manufactured because of the current trends in independent music. The big machines of Nashville have realized that so many indie artists are rising in popularity because of the connections with fans, their personalities, and their commitment to producing authentic country music. While changing times do encourage evolution in nearly all styles of art, the root of a genre like country music, should remain. I had the chance to talk at length with traditional country artist, James Carothers, from everything to getting his start in Nashville, to the current outlook of today’s digital world.
In a time where independent artist are gaining rapidly in popularity, it can be just as difficult to separate yourself from fellow indies as it is from mainstream offerings. That also means that having someone influential take an interest in your music, can be the difference of having a hobby versus a career. James Carothers released an album back in 2014 titled Honky Tonk Land that makes for an excellent debut piece. Like many people, Carothers had to work his full time job as a lab tech and keep his music as a side gig. For some, music will always stay as a side gig, but while talking to James, it was clear he would never be satisfied with that. It also doesn’t hurt when your music gets the nod from the widow of country music legend, George Jones.
A staple in Nashville is the George Jones Museum, which was started in 2015 by his widow, Nancy Jones. Like any place in the legendary music city, live music is imperative and Carothers headed over to audition for a gig. Little did he know, he was auditioning for Nancy and would go on to be a regular house act for the venue.
“I got there and she was like ‘hey what do you do?’ And I said ‘I’m here to sing, I heard you are looking to hire some singers.’
She said ‘Well, what do you sing?’ And I said ‘I sing old country ma’am.”
Nancy replies, ‘Well don’t depress me with that old country.’
“Well I’ll sing it real well.” and when Nancy introduces herself as George Jones wife, Carothers nearly falls over. Talk about a first interview!
Fast forward two years later, and James still has his gig at the museum and was even included when Nancy Jones sold the museum to Possum Holdings LLC in 2016.
As James and I talked, we discussed our love of real country music and even his first attempts during his early years in high school of starting a band. He laughed, recalling his early rock days, something he quickly realized would not be his path to a music career.
“I love rock and roll, even some hard rock, but I could never do it as well as I wanted. I could never sound as good as Axl Rose or Kirk Hammett, or any of the guitar gods playing guitar. It would kind of sound like a hillbilly trying to play rock.” (he says with a laugh)
“My dad had always played county and wrote songs, and I always enjoyed it…. So I started to play country and it just felt natural. All the songs that I knew were artists that my family would listen to, like Alan Jackson, George Strait, and also others like Hank JR, Willie and Waylon. It just felt more doable and I always enjoyed the stories - either funnier or more sad than other genres. To me, they were just more entertaining and as a result, I’ve always been a traditionalist.”
And it doesn’t take more than a few seconds to hear Carothers’ commitment to true country music when you fire up his 2017 release, Relapse. From cover to cover, it is an album that features an impressive range of songs, including two notable covers: Choices (George Jones) and I’ve Always Been Crazy (Waylon Jennings). If you factor in James’ throwback baritone voice, then you realize just how effective the whole experience is. It’s notably fresh while maintaining that undeniable throw back sound, which has been making a comeback among traditionalists. The album was even recorded digitally and then transferred to tape to add that level of character and grittiness you’ll hear throughout.
I knew heading into our chat, I wanted to ask James’ take on music being authentic and how it affects the consumer. I recall reading on Facebook, artist Andrew Pope commenting on how people need to be careful going forward about the realness of emerging groups. Saving Country Music has also unearthed the details of the popular band, Midland and has since caused a huge outbreak and kickback.
James agreed and likened bands who have questionable roots to finding out Hulk Hogan didn’t win all those matches. It’s a punch in the gut and ruins the experience in a way because things aren’t what they seem. As an independent artist, James, like many others, are all fighting for their space in this digital age and being REAL, is important to them. We all know that performers are working to entertain and provide distractions from everyday life. Sure, sometimes things are highlighted due to being part of the brand, but the basis of it all should be founded on truths.
It’s the steadfast appreciation for helping true country music survive, that I admire about artists like Carothers. He’s someone that also puts his money where his mouth is, and went to see Cody Jinks, Ward Davis, and Sunny Sweeney at the Ryman a couple weeks back.
“It really was an amazing experience. A lot of the people who were at George Jones earlier, were at the show later that night. It was just a really neat community and they are all on the same page that we are. Everyone was happy to be together and seemed to really enjoy themselves. The music just felt more honest, and of course artists work angles that they cultivate because it’s entertainment, but it just felt real.” (referring to all the performers' sets)
It’s easy to talk the big talk for press conferences, but the true country supporters are the ones that get out and help other artist by attending their shows or even posting about them. (I’m looking at you Blake Shelton…SMH) As many of us know, the Jinks movement is insane and he commented on how people who attended were so passionate about the music. I witnessed that very thing when I went to Cody Jinks, Paul Cauthen, and Sunny Sweeney back in July. There’s a grassroots movement occurring that is unlocking the doors for artists that make true country music… and that’s an incredible thing we can thank technology for.
We discussed the digital world we live in and I was curious about his thoughts on Spotify and streaming services. Like myself, he acknowledged the financial issues surrounding the payout (or lack there of) for the artist and writers. However, he mentioned how the independent artist has been gaining ground because of streaming and technology.
“I’m just honored that people want to listen to me. It’s a double edged sword, but it seems like the indie artists are benefiting more than it’s hurting them. If it wasn’t for that, then no one would no who the heck you are. You don’t get the mailbox money that you used to get back in the 90’s, but you can set-up a YouTube channel in your garage and play your guitar. And become a millionaire,” he adds with a laugh.
Technology is and will continue to rapidly change - whether we like it or not. It’s our ability to adapt and find ways of reaching new fans that can provide continued exposure in an already crowded arena. Album sales continue to drop, but merch, house shows, and tickets are still ways of generating money. I’ve said it before, I buy more merch and attend shows, than I do music because I don’t use CD’s. Artists like James understand that, and his point is that you can either push back on it, or just embrace that our world is changing. Facebook live sessions are becoming so commonplace because it’s a great way to interact with fans on a personal level. We live in a digitally connected world, and it’s important for artists to use the resources available to their advantage.
I’m really impressed with James Carothers and thoroughly enjoyed talking with him. I think he has a bright future ahead of him in this industry, especially with the support he has received thus far. Take his music for a spin on Spotify and check out the video for Back To Hank and get ready to climb aboard the train before it leaves the station.
Just a Massachusetts guy supporting Texas and other independent country/Americana artists.
Check out my spotify for good tunes!