Today is a big day for you; you’re being inducted into the Grand Ole Opry. And I, like many of your fans, am so proud of you and happy to hear this accomplishment play out over the radio tonight. But also, I, like many of your critics, am a little sad about it.
When I heard news of your invitation to join the Opry, I was really excited. I jumped online and started looking at tickets almost immediately. But I couldn’t purchase them. Something seemed to be holding me back. I thought about it back and forth – was it finances? Was it distance? Was it not wanting to be out late on a Tuesday night to see your short part in a long show? Or was it something else?
I’ve been a fan of yours since the beginning, when my family saw you play a free show in Hillsboro, Ohio. Not one to fall for the “hat and boots charm” that I thought was all part of an act, I was surprised to find myself genuinely drawn in by your performance, your quirks and your nerdy stories behind the songs that most of the audience didn’t care to listen to. It didn’t take long for me to find ways to see you almost every month. Whether you were at a county fair in Ohio, or opening for Keith Urban, or playing the Opry or CMA Fest, or part of a Writers’ Night in Nashville – I was there. And we met almost a dozen times, I think. I used to doubt whether you remembered me; now I know for a fact you won’t. Because sure enough, your star rose, and more people started showing up, and if anyone wanted a chance to meet you, they were going to have to pay. I was one in a sea of millions, and it just wasn’t worth it.
The more shows I saw, the more familiar I became with all of your songs, your covers, even the narrative interludes between album cuts. And I realized this: you were just putting on a show. Maybe you knew that people weren’t listening to all the stories you tried to tell, so you just boiled it down to “Where my angels at?”. But you said that every time, like clockwork. And I longed for the days when each experience felt genuine, when I had time to joke around at the Meet and Greet about joining your crew in exchange for a bicep chug. We can’t all stay the same – and I’m glad that things are going better for you – but for me, it’s just not what it was. You’re just not who you were.
While it would be one thing if it was just the shows getting repetitive, there’s something even more alarming that has caused me to back off in recent years. Each of your albums has possessed some of the most beautiful “true country” songs I’ve ever heard. And I know that you’re proud of them – otherwise they wouldn’t be there by your hand. But every time it comes time to release a single, whether it’s your choice or your label’s or your manager’s, we don’t get to hear those songs. And you, your brand, your shows, become ever more about sex, about parties, about drinking, about beats and rhythms and tight t-shirts. And I know there’s a really talented, genuine person underneath all that – someone who truly has the capacity to embody what the Grand Ole Opry desires when it brings a new voice into its folds.
But you’re not giving us that. You’re not giving Country Music that. And maybe that’s why you’re not getting the award nominations and the prime headlining gigs – because deep down, we all know what you’re capable of, and we know that we’re not getting it.
Over the last couple of days, my mom has been trying to help me get some last-minute tickets to your induction at the Opry. All of my waiting and indecision had left very few options. But she believed with all her heart that if anyone deserved or would appreciate being there at your induction, after all the shows, the encounters, the merchandise sales and the first-thing-in-the-morning trips to Target to buy each album on Street Day, it would be me. Well, me and your parents and your team and everyone who’s gotten you where you are today.
And alas, she was not able to get those tickets, because as I’ve said your star has risen and those tickets were likely bought by the kind of fans who haven’t questioned the legitimacy of songs like “Good Girl” and “Seein’ Red”. As I sit here writing this just hours before you take the stage tonight, I can understand why you’ve chosen to go the road most traveled. I understand the general populous of fans wants songs to dance to, to sing wildly along to. But I also know in my heart that “Cowboys & Angels” is still the song most of them crave, it’s the song that will stick around the longest, and it’s the song that will always remind me of the artist you deserve to be. It’s the song I’m listening to right now as I craft this letter.
Dustin, I hope that gaining membership into the Grand Ole Opry is all you ever dreamed. I hope it tugs at your heart and lets you know that the Institution of Country Music still has faith in you to be a savior of sorts to this genre. But I just know that, when you get back to your roots and do what’s true to that other side of you, the tide will turn. And maybe you’ll really last beyond a few #1 songs that quickly slide back down the charts once they’ve reached their intended destination. I’m still holding out hope for you. I hope that you are too.
Even though I can’t be there, I’ll still be listening tonight, cheering you on alongside the guy I probably wouldn’t have found without your music’s influence. (Because “She Wants a Cowboy” was GOLD. It should’ve been a single. Just saying.) I wouldn’t have this life that makes me challenge you if it wasn’t for you.
So Best of Luck. I Mean It.
– From a True Fan