With a name like Real Country, USA Network’s new reality singing competition seems is wading into some contentious territory as it seeks to differentiate between “real country” and, well, whatever the opposite of that is.
Premiering Tuesday, November 13th, at 10:00 p.m. ET, Real Country casts Shania Twain, Jake Owen and Travis Tritt as expert panelists and works mostly within the familiar structure employed by its TV talent-show predecessors — except that each week three new contestants are invited by the panelists themselves, and held up as examples of “real country” for fans and a celebrity guest to vote on. Each episode of the eight-part series finds the contestants performing a past country hit that ties in with a weekly theme. At one taping, the singers’ covered Lee Brice’s “I Drive Your Truck,” Jo Dee Messina’s “Heads Carolina, Tails California” and Merle Haggard’s “Workin’ Man Blues” under the theme of “All-American night.”
The premise of the show, which taped in Nashville this past August, is that the competition isn’t just about picking the genre’s next breakout artist. It also promises to celebrate “the rich traditions, songs and themes of country music” — code speak for jumping into the long-running fray over what, exactly, can lay claim to being called “country music.” But, overall, the show’s marquee names, who each represent very different wavelengths of the country spectrum, are not as hung up on the title as one might suspect.
“I don’t think what ‘real country’ is, is up for debate,” says Owen, who recently scored his latest Number One country single with the John Mellencamp homage “I Was Jack (You Were Diane).” “And quite frankly, I’m not a debater. I know I believe that country music has always been an open format so anyone can come along and tell their story in the most honest and truthful way.”
Twain, one of Real Country‘s executive producers, actually is looking for things that stand apart. “I’m looking for diversity, anybody who can sing their truth, who is a sincere artist who has a respect for the history of country music,” she tells Rolling Stone. “I don’t care if you started singing country when you were six, or yesterday. If you’re committed, I want to see what you can do.”
But Twain, who released her album Now in 2017, is also seizing the moment to make a stand against the lack of women being played on country radio. Of the 21 contestants on Real Country, nine are women, including some with devoted followings like Jaida Dreyer and Jamie Floyd.
“I’m trying to make a difference,” she says. “I’m very passionate and concerned about country music as far as the ratio of women on the radio compared to men. . . I’m worried about the upcoming girls who are gonna get discouraged and say, ‘You know what? There’s no room for us in Nashville.'”
Her frank advice to one hopeful contestant: “There are 10 guys in front of you, and to break in you have to have bigger balls than them.”
An interesting component of Real Country is that each of the panelists has been pegged as “not real country” in their own right: Twain has been lambasted as a too-sexy pop interloper; Owen was, he says, “the kid from Florida who used to have long hair and sing beachin’ songs”; and even Tritt was once seen by some as a Southern-rock artist.
“The fact is I brought in other elements of things that I loved,” he admits. “My first love was always straight-ahead country music, but I brought in other elements like Southern rock and blues that I absolutely loved, and at the time Nashville hated that — but the fans loved it.”
Of the three panelists, Tritt is the one most vocal about what he views as “real country.” A frequent advocate for the cause on social media, he says he joined the series to help deserving new artists get their music heard — and also “to bring back some of the focus on traditional country music that we grew up with.” Tritt says he can’t understand why he hears so many people talk about missing traditional country, yet doesn’t see anything being done to revive it commercially.
“I don’t blame the artists and I don’t blame the fans,” he says. “The fact is that the industry itself has always controlled what goes out there. But I think if everybody realizes there is a desire by a lot of people to hear this type of music and be a little bit more educated about it, I think it’ll be a great opportunity for everybody.”
Trace Adkins, one of Real Country‘s guest panelists, is a firm believer that trying to pin down country’s true definition is pointless. “It’s a waste of time, man,” he says, as the roar of the TV crowd rumbles in the distance, seeming to confirm his skepticism. “The fans decide what works and what doesn’t, and a lot of folks, they can find an audience for their music. Especially these days, given the crazy world of social media. You don’t have to go the old record-label route anymore.”
Back in front of the show’s cameras, Adkins weighed in with his vote — which accounts for 50 percent of determining the night’s eventual winner. That contestant gets $10,000 and a performance at next year’s Stagecoach Festival in California, and will advance to the season finale where they’ll compete for $100,000 and a gig at the Grand Ole Opry. But Adkins was cordial and careful in his remarks, finding it hard to even say for sure what makes him “real country.”
In the end, fans who tune in looking for some epic showdown between “real” country and “fake” country might be disappointed. Rather than argue over semantics or succumb to family-style infighting, Real Country simply showcases a crop of new “country” talent — whether it’s the country of yesterday, today or tomorrow.
“We all have respect for each other and we all have respect for classic country music,” Owen says. “But we also appreciate what’s coming. That’s the beauty of music in general — forget country music, forget any genre. It”s about getting excited about what we don’t know is next.”
“‘Real country’ is whatever it means to you,” Twain concedes. “I think it can be very generational, very cultural. I just believe that country music is a non-discriminatory genre, and it should stay that way. I feel that it’s closed up a little bit too much, and it’s time to reopen it.”