Near the end of her living-room-intimate headlining show at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium on Wednesday night, Cam delivered a defiant soliloquy on country music in 2018, relaying how some question if the increasingly homogenized genre has lost its edge.
“I don’t think country music got soft. I don’t think country music got square,” Cam said. “It’s the people running country music right now that are fucking soft and square.”
It was a crystal-clear indictment of those who call the shots at both record labels and country radio — the ones who hold great sway over an artist’s commercial success. While Cam has had a few minor mainstream wins, namely with 2015’s Mediabase Number 1 “Burning House,” the California singer-songwriter has been unable to build on that momentum. Her follow-up “Mayday” faltered and the superlative “Diane,” one of last year’s all-around best songs, failed to break the Top 40. All of this likely figured into her exit this summer from Sony Music Nashville to Sony’s RCA Records in New York.
But onstage at country music’s most hallowed venue, where Cam performed on and around a couch (a wink at the psychology career she left behind in favor of music), she dispelled any notion that she’s leaving country. Instead, she worked to shore up and redefine the genre, highlighting its rich history of lyricism through her songs “My Mistake” and “Country Ain’t Never Been Pretty,” as well as its accessible nature via her own innate charisma. Throughout the performance she told personal, self-deprecating anecdotes (including one about how her former label once sent her a “diet book” for Christmas), acknowledged her parents and husband in the balcony, and delighted with a litany of spontaneous swear words, proving country performances needn’t be puritan.
She also welcomed a series of guests that highlighted the polar ends of her musical influences. The Indigo Girls’ Emily Saliers appeared to duet on the poignant “Come on Home,” while Colbie Caillat emerged later for a poppy run-through of her hit “Bubbly.”
But it was the evening’s final cameo by Eric Church that best exemplified the template that Cam seems to now be following, one of committed defiance and a do-it-your-damn-self attitude.
“I need a preacher out here,” Cam said after her “soft and square” speech, beckoning Church from the wings. Together, they performed his “Country Music Jesus,” the 2011 Chief cut about a messiah coming to save the format.
Odds are when he wrote it, he probably didn’t expect he’d be singing about a woman.