Op-Ed: Country Music May Be for Everyone, But AJ McLean Should Know Cred Has to Be Earned
AJ McLean says that his kind of country is omnivorous and unafraid of breaking down borders and challenging genre stereotypes. “I used to get teased by my buddies that I was in my truck with the rims on it and I was bumping Enya,” the singer joked during a recent interview with The Boot. “I just love music. This is my life. I kind of wanted to pull on every inspiration, musically and sonically, that’s inside me. A little bit of this and a little bit of that -- that’s what turns into my country sound.”
The pop star and member of the monolithic boy band the Backstreet Boys released the first taste of that country sound on Tuesday (June 5), with his new single, “Back Porch Bottle Service,” and celebrated by taking to the stage in the backyard of White Avenue Studio in Nashville to showcase a small bit of the new music from his forthcoming country album.
“I hope you like 'Country AJ', because he’s gonna stick around for a while,” he told the crowd during his performance -- and judging by the screams from the audience, McLean’s fans were perfectly okay with that. The show included a song called “Night Vision,” a rowdy crowdpleaser called “Boots On” and, of course, “Back Porch Bottle Service.” McLean says he chose the latter as his lead-off country single in order to start the project with a fun-loving summer anthem.
“It’s kind of tongue in cheek, you know?” he explains. “But at the same time, I was asking for a feel-good summer [song] that you can bump in your car, kick back with a nice cold brew and have fun with your lady.”
If it sounds like he's describing a Florida Georgia Line single, there's good reason for that: McLean's first venture into country music began when BSB collaborated with the superstar duo on "God, Your Mama and Me," a song that quickly soared to the top of the country charts. After continuing to appear together on the road during FGL's Smooth Tour and on an episode of CMT Crossroads, McLean says that his experiences with the country duo helped inspire him to begin work on a country project of his own.
"I talked to [Brian Kelley] about it first. I was like, 'Dude, I think I'm going to take a stab at this,'" McLean recalls. "It's all been happening so organically. Nothing's been forced."
McLean's version of country opens up so many boundaries and breaks down so many walls that listeners are left with an amorphous piece of music that is only country because he says it is.
McLean is far from the first artist with an established career in another genre to make a move into country music. Jessica Simpson, Aaron Lewis of Staind and John Mayer have all "gone country" at one time or another. Way back in 1944, crooner Bing Crosby brought country to the attention of mainstream audiences with "Pistol Packin' Mama." Of course, there's Darius Rucker, whose leap into the genre following his career with Hootie & the Blowfish in the 1990s is perhaps the greatest example of a country crossover success.
McLean's version of country, however -- a catch-all collection of influences from a wide roster of musical styles, so eclectic that the songs are hardly recognizable as country tracks -- opens up so many boundaries and breaks down so many walls that listeners are left with an amorphous piece of music that is only country because he says it is. Expansion of the genre walks a fine line; FGL themselves have been at the forefront of the push to open up country tropes and allow for rap breakdowns and cross-genre cameos. However, FGL -- despite a sizable faction of country fans who don't consider the duo "real country" -- broaden the genre from the inside.
"I'm coming in to disrupt country," McLean told Billboard on the 2018 ACM Awards red carpet in April. "I wanna come in and shake things up ... I think just not being afraid to push the limits on production, push the limits on the vocal. Chris Stapleton is one of the most soulful, inspirational singers of this generation. And yet radio may sometimes not play all his stuff because it's so soulful, and country wants to be country. That's kind of me with my soulful voice, and really wanting to go in there and push that envelope."
While it's true that success in country radio has eluded Stapleton, especially in comparison to his recognition at awards shows and with fans, a major difference between Stapleton and McLean is their respective relationships to the country canon. "Tennessee Whiskey," a David Allan Coe cover that Stapleton included on his debut studio album, Traveller, combines the classic country song with a nod to Stapleton's soul background via the opening riffs of Etta James' "I'd Rather Go Blind," the two iconic hits interwoven with such intricate nuance that Stapleton's knowledge and love of both genres is self-explanatory.
McLean's list of country influences, however, doesn't inspire much confidence in his knowledge of the format: "I'm a big Dolly Parton fan. Big, big fan," he says. "One of the first country concerts I ever saw was Garth Brooks at the Orlando, [Fla.], arena, when he was flying around. This was before [the Backstreet Boys] flew for the Millennium Tour, and I was just blown away. I was like, 'This is not what I expected from a country concert! He's just flying around playing the guitar?!'"
While Parton and Brooks are two fantastic country legends to be a fans of, McLean's focus on Brooks' celebrity -- and the sheer size of his shows -- misses the point. As a veteran of the pop industry and a member of one of the most successful boy bands on Earth, it may be natural and prudent for McLean to approach music that way, and to be excited by how country music is shifting and opening up to different elements. However, perhaps the thing that most makes country country is a respect for the history of the music, no matter where that music may turn in the future. Even though FGL might have their sights set on a different style, they can still do an Alabama tune.
The point of reverence for the genre isn't to be stodgy and academic; it isn't to keep anyone out; and it isn't to keep country music from changing. The point is to uphold what makes the genre uniquely itself: the people who spend years busking on street corners and playing in dive bars to get to where they are, and the context for why venues such as the Ryman and the Grand Ole Opry -- and their most memorable performances -- are so special. While many country performers expand out of the format, much of country's prized authenticity and storytelling comes from a knowledge of how that format works.
The point of reverence for country music isn't to be stodgy and academic, keep anyone out or keep country music from changing. It's to uphold what makes the genre uniquely itself.
"Country music tells stories. That's what I love so much about [it]," McLean explains. "I wanna tell my story. I wanna talk about my kids. I wanna talk about my amazing wife, who puts up with me daily, and just share my life experiences and hopefully bring happiness and joy to people through my music."
While it may be country's calling card, the genre doesn't have a monopoly on good storytelling -- pop star Adele has made a career out of it, for example -- and, likewise, twang does not automatically equate to authenticity. While "Back Porch Bottle Service" may hit all the right notes in the manufacturing of a summertime hit, lyrics such as "Comin' in hot with them cutoffs / Make me think I should be cut off / And I've only had two, maybe three / Might as well be 12 when you're kissin' on me" feel generic, and the lyrical concept of a night in with the right person being the best kind of night out is far from innovative.
"For me and my wife, our typical 'night out' is on the couch playing Mario or Mario Kart, or we watch Friends. Or we'll go in the backyard and watch the sunset. That, to me, is a great Friday night," McLean goes on to say. Even small details like that could have made the song that much more lyrically vivid. As it is, though, "Back Porch Bottle Service," doesn't particularly "shake country up;" instead, it follows faithfully in the footsteps of Sam Hunt's "House Party." The expansion of country's boundaries isn't supposed to allow McLean to record a song that takes influence from so many different styles that it settles awkwardly into a genre-less middle ground; it's supposed to allow him to tell his authentic story, even if that story is about living in LA and being in a boy band, instead of living in the South and working on a farm.
By virtue of his passion alone -- while looking out into the intimate crowd at the end of his performance of his new music, McLean admitted he was holding back tears -- country music may welcome McLean to a seat at the table, and rightfully so. His story, his 25 years of experience in music and his connection to his fans leave him with much to offer the genre. Hopefully, however, he will enter his country career with respect and reverence for the format, and take the time to sit down, listen and learn about the genre he seeks to disrupt. Who knows? Country may even need AJ McLean's story, once he figures out what that is. One thing's for certain, though: "Back Porch Bottle Service" ain't it.