Ka-ching With Twang – Scott Borchetta Country, Part Three

In the first two parts, I introduced Scott and the talent he pushed on Big Machine, including Thomas Rhett and Taylor Swift. In the third part, I talk about the variety of acts signed to the group’s labels, including some Legacy Acts…

Track 5 All Things To All People

Because of all these blokes, it seemed almost calculated that a response record of sorts would become a talked-about discussion point at the end of 2014. Girl in a Country Song was released by Maddie & Tae, who signed onto the Dot Records imprint of Big Machine. The song namechecked various trends spotted by Grady Smith and published in a famous viral video; he noticed that country stars called girls ‘girl’, drove to the nearest riverbank and told the objects of their affection to ‘slide’ over in their ‘cut-off jeans’. Unfortunately label politics meant that it took many years for the girls to follow up their first album, by which time they were both married. They now have a home on Mercury Nashville, alongside Chris Stapleton.

The Shires were also signed to the imprint and Scott showed them off in a 2017 BBC documentary on the rise of country music. Country2Country had begun in the early 2010s and, year on year, had attracted more fans to Greenwich, me included. Big Machine had a booth in the Town Square offering grip’n’grins with acts, goodie bags and competitions, and it is no coincidence that a Big Machine act has been on the main stage every year. Tim McGraw and Brantley Gilbert showed up in 2013, Rascal Flatts in 2014, Brantley in 2015 and both Maddie & Tae and Thomas Rhett in 2016.

Also on the main stage in 2015, right in the middle of Peak Bro Country, were Kip Moore, Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line. At the time FGL were on a joint deal with Republic and Big Machine which also had The Band Perry, Martina McBride and Sunny Sweeney on its roster, but were fully on the latter for their third album Dig Your Roots. It included a collaboration with the Backstreet Boys (God, Your Mama, And Me) and the groups would also appear on a CMT Crossroads show together. Cruise remains one of the songs of the century so far, and I don’t know how much money it made for Scott Borchetta. The duo kept releasing music to diminishing returns; in 2021, Tyler Hubbard is preparing a solo career and in 2020 teamed up with Tim McGraw for Undivided, a plea for universal brotherhood which they performed on a telecast to celebrate the inauguration of President Joe Biden.

Scott Borchetta’s politics are not something we really know, but it is interesting that Aaron Lewis, formerly of the band Staind, is signed to Big Machine. ‘I believe in the First Amendment. My job has never been to tell my artists what to sing and write about,’ Scott wrote in a letter published, humorously, by Bob Lefsetz, the man Taylor Swift wrote Mean about. ‘To just “cancel” Aaron is ridiculous,’ wrote Scott, because ‘Aaron’s message is speaking to millions of people…Be loud and be heard.’ Incredibly, the song Am I The Only One hit number one with no radio promotion.

Aaron is one of many rock acts affiliated to Big Machine. The Cadillac Three are led by Music Row songwriter Jaren Johnston and put out bluesy-rock albums which connect with live audiences. Tucker Beathard’s song Rock On is a ballad full of regret that did well at radio; Tucker’s dad Casey is another fine Music Row writer. Steven Tyler of Aerosmith put out an album on Dot Records in 2016 featuring the powercharged Red White and You (‘Bang bang baby like the fourth of July’); Jaren was one of the songwriters on that project.

Track 6 Icons

New wave band Cheap Trick also signed to Big Machine on a three-album deal between 2016 and 2017, though they returned to BMG for their recent release. Scott was pictured with Motley Crue in a publicity photo around the time he was mentoring contestants on American Idol. The Cheap Trick signing seemed to be part of the Borchetta strategy, signing up legacy brands to the label and looking after them in their twilight years. Wanda Jackson’s last album Encore was put out by Big Machine in collaboration with Blackheart, the label belonging to album producer Joan Jett.

Talking of legacy acts, Reba McEntire headlined C2C 2017 to promote her album Sing It Now, listed as Christian Country/ Gospel. Reba has aged out of country radio, which is really unkind to women over the age of 40, and spent many months in Las Vegas playing Fancy and other smashes. Reba was on MCA in the 1990s when Scott was there, but she told him that she was ‘done’ when he approached her in the 2010s. Scott managed to convince her to be the star artist on Nash ICON, which also housed Hank Williams Jr and Ronnie Dunn and was backed by another major organisation, Cumulus, who are key players in country music media. ‘Let’s play a new Reba next to an old Reba’ was his pitch for a new radio station (still on air as 95.5 NASH ICON), which led to a deal for new Reba tunes. 2019’s album Stronger Than The Truth was led by the single Freedom.

In the meantime, when it comes to new acts, Brett Young became the label’s token beefcake. His albums of adult contemporary country songs are precision targeted at women in the 25-54 demographic. Songs like Sleep Without You, Mercy and Like I Love You all dealt with masculine vulnerability. There is a Christmas EP on the way which follows an ordinary EP.

UK country fans will swoon to such songs at C2C 2022, where Brett returns having first visited in 2018 as part of a bill which included Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, who themselves put out an album of adult contemporary country songs precision targeted at women in the 25-54 demographic. One of them, The Rest Of Our Life, was written by Ed Sheeran.

At C2C 2018 were Sugarland, the duo who brought out their record on Big Machine which featured Taylor Swift collaboration Babe, and Midland, the fake country band featuring Fearne Cotton’s former flatmate and a guy who directed the video to John Mayer’s Last Train Home. Danielle Bradbery, who signed after success on The Voice, played the smaller stage. A deal with La’Porshe Renae, runner-up on American Idol, went nowhere, while The Voice winner Craig Wayne Boyd has been more successful making children (he has five of them) than as a recording artist, with his one hit My Baby’s Got a Smile on Her Face dropping off the charts entirely as a one-week wonder.

Brett’s ballad Here Tonight was written with Charles Kelley from Lady A, who played C2C 2019 as Big Machine artists and are about to release their second album on the label, titled What A Song Can Do. Notably the trio held a press conference at the event with members of country media where they spoke about being on the label, ‘a fresh new start for us’ and having lots of freedom in writing what they want to write according to Dave. Charles added: ‘They were supportive and encouraging for us to take our time and be a bit more honest.’ It didn’t hurt their status that Champagne Night, the song they worked on as part of NBC’s Songland show, did so well that it climbed all the way to number one on the Country Airplay chart, with the pandemic changing the promotion of their album Ocean.

(As a footnote, which is why this paragraph is in brackets, Scott brought a music show to Canadian TV called The Launch in 2018. A top artist like Shania Twain, Bryan Adams or Ryan Tedder would mentor a set of young acts who would all be given a pre-written song. Only one of the 12 songs was a hit on the Canadian charts.)

You can listen to a radio version of this piece here.

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