In Part One, I introduce Scott and Big Machine, whose teenage superstar Taylor Swift impressed with her first few releases. In Part Two, she goes supernova.
Track 3 A Call To Max
For her next trick, Taylor Swift moved into the pop charts properly with songs that were more production driven. This was down to Scott, who felt that the album was like a country producer doing a pop song, which it was. Rather than Nathan Chapman at the desk doing his award-winning thing, Red needed that Max Martin feel from tracks like I Kissed A Girl. At Taylor’s instruction, he rang up Max himself and helped Taylor follow her muse. ‘I got you, let’s go,’ he told the Canadian Music Week interview. ‘The first rule of Taylor Club is: Don’t talk about Taylor Club,’ Scott said, shutting down a question about any of the subjects of her songs.
We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together was Taylor’s biggest UK hit since Love Story, which got to number four in 2009. Better still for Big Machine, who had already turned six Taylor Swift songs into top ten hits, it was Taylor’s first Hot 100 number one. She had broken into Lady Gaga’s stratosphere and it was time for Big Machine to expand their portfolio.
Scott and Big Machine helped Garth Brooks debut at number one with the song More Than A Memory, from his Greatest Hits – the phrase ‘game recognises game’ springs to mind – but Garth had his own streaming service on his mind and that was his only collaboration. Before they also went independent, The Mavericks put out two albums on Big Machine: Big Time (2013) and Mono (2015). The former features the lovely Back In Your Arms Again.
The big signing of the 2010s was Tim McGraw, who had finally extricated himself from his Curb Records deal and released Two Lanes of Freedom in 2013. At the time, Taylor was still (just) a country artist and she sang the hook ‘I can’t live without you baby’ on the Tim McGraw hit Highway Don’t Care, which featured a guitar solo from Keith Urban, himself an artist who had one foot in the pop market thanks to appearing in celebrity magazines with his wife ‘Nic’, Nicole Kidman. Taylor’s love life is well documented in such magazines and on record, and I am sure Scott encouraged this.
Interestingly, We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together was number one on the day country radio charts separated from the Hot Country chart. Thus there could be a sales number one and an airplay number one, and any plays on pop radio would count to a country song’s Hot Country position. This is why Cruise, Meant To Be and Burnin It Down all had long runs on that chart, whereas several songs could climb to the top on radio.
In 2011, Trigger at Saving Country Music first called Scott ‘the Country Music Antichrist’. He explained himself in a piece from June 2012. Scott had bent country to his will, diluting the ‘purity of genre terms’. How dare he call pop act Taylor and faux-outlaw Justin Moore country acts? When Taylor won the CMA Entertainer of the Year in 2009, he raised the white flag.
‘If the prototypical Music Row executive can be visualized as the gray-haired man with a steak-and-potatoes gut spilling out of his navy suit, then Borchetta is the in-shape, sleek guy in a tight-fitting black spandex shirt taking office Yoga breaks and ordering in sushi.
‘As the traditional labels in Nashville have been lethargic in their attempt to keep up with trends, Borchetta has been running circles around them, pilfering their talent rosters and penning historic deals that will re-shape the music industry for years to come.’
Aware of his reputation, Scott told American Public Radio in 2012 that he was ‘just the current one in a long line of being considered trying to kill country music…Our entire goal,’ he added, ‘is to make something that moves you.
‘If you don’t want to call it country, I don’t care. That doesn’t matter to me,’ is a perfectly sensible thing to say when you spent the first two decades of your life in California, where you learned about plugging records.
Always ahead of the curve, Scott signed a deal with the radio organisation Clear Channel (now iHeartMedia) which ‘will earn performance rights for his artists when they are played on the radio’. This was useful when Cruise was about to explode into the biggest country song of the decade so far. He also worked with the great Irving Azoff in a management company, which proves the depth of his connections in the industry.
As Taylor leapt across to pop with her album 1989, Scott needed to fill the gap on country radio where songs like Shake It Off, Blank Space and Bad Blood (all number one smashes on the Hot 100) couldn’t land. Of course Taylor’s country audience followed her to the pop charts but there needed to be young country singers who were inspired by the superstar who, according to journalist Chet Flippo, had brought this entirely new audience into the genre. Scott would counter that Jessica Andrews did something similar with Who I Am and, with other female artists falling off the rails, Taylor slid into the gap in the market with her acoustic pop.
In 2014, Brantley Gilbert brought his cutprice Aldean style into the charts with songs like Bottoms Up, from his second album Just As I Am. It also featured the song Small Town Throwdown, a rotten collaboration with labelmates Thomas Rhett, son of songwriter and co-writer of that song Rhett Akins, and Justin Moore, whose shtick was that he wore a cowboy hat.
Between the three of them, they kept Big Machine on the radio. Indeed, TR started his run of solo number ones with Get Me Some Of That, one of the many tunes where the protagonist complimented a girl in a bar. The first line of his hit Make Me Wanna from 2015 had the line ‘FM on the radio’ and a video of him grooving around in various outfits, while Crash and Burn took more inspiration from Sam Cooke’s Chain Gang than from tunes by any country act.
The song was co-written by Chris Stapleton, who would explode into national consciousness in the same year. Chris also wrote the pop-rock tune Keep On Lovin You by Big Machine signing Steel Magnolia, a number four hit in 2009. The duo had won CMT series Can You Duet but fizzled out due to personal problems.
TR’s Die A Happy Man, a shameless rewrite of Ed Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud, ruled the opening three months of 2016, and I liked T-Shirt, a fun tune which namechecked Guns N’ Roses in the chorus. It wasn’t country in the slightest – nor was much of the album Tangled Up, from whence these songs came – but it still went to country radio because it was Scott Borchetta Country.
Lori McKenna gifted Tim McGraw (and Scott) the song Humble and Kind, which won awards and was turned into a picture book. I wonder if Scott was eyeing the moves of Dan + Shay, who had their first hits in 2015 under the auspices of manager Scooter Braun, closely. Shay Mooney co-wrote I Like The Sound of That, for Big Machine act Rascal Flatts, a song which namechecked Justin Timberlake in the first verse and had a middle eight with the line ‘turn your radio on’.
Justin Moore, meanwhile, took Lettin the Night Roll to the top which, as with Jack Ingram’s hit from 2005, had our hero driving a car. The lyric was about sunsets and girls looking ‘so damn good climbing up in my Chevy’ in a very contemporary style that filled radio slots in between commercials and helped shift concert tickets. His other number ones include Somebody Else Will and recent smash We Didn’t Have Much, the latter with more traditional country production and instrumentation as befits the current trend. Scott produced his last album Late Nights and Longnecks, which featured the singles The Ones That Didn’t Make It Back Home and Why We Drink.
Like TR and Brantley, Justin’s music is released by Valory Music, which was opened because Scott didn’t want 20 acts on one label, especially if they were all being pushed to country radio. The name is an alternative spelling of Valerie, the given forename of June Carter Cash, which inspired Scott.
You can listen to the show at Mixcloud here.