There’s an old Shel Silverstein song that you may or may not have heard called “Rough on the Livin’.” Back in the ’80s, it was recorded by the great Bobby Bare, and then again by Old Dogs, a country supergroup composed of Bare, along with Waylon Jennings, Mel Tillis and Jerry Reed.
If you haven’t heard it, it’s a critical look at how poorly the music industry can treat artists while they’re still with us, only to praise them as legends when they’re gone.
“The wife that they interviewed crying Is the same one who left him last fall And the record producer who called him a hero Is the one who wouldn’t answer his calls
The ladies they sit over coffee Braggin’ bout sharin’ his bed They didn’t want him around when he’s livin’ But he’s sure a good friend when he’s dead.”
This song has been going through my mind a lot lately – because it still rings just as true today as it did when it was released in 1980: Nashville is rough on the living, but it really speaks well of the dead.
One of the best examples is Hank Williams.The country music legend was initially rejected from the Grand Ole Opry, but once they realized how high his star was rising, they welcomed him with open arms. Yet, when Hank began to suffer from his alcohol abuse and he had outlived his usefulness to the Opry, they kicked him to the curb again – revoking his membership, an honor that to this day they still haven’t given back.
But if you walk backstage at the Ryman Auditorium, there’s an entire dressing room dedicated to Hank. His picture is on every wall. And if you turn on the Grand Ole Opry on Friday or Saturday nights, there’s a decent chance that you’ll hear somebody singing a Hank Williams song – or even see his son or grandson on the stage.
Nashville was rough on Hank when he was alive, but they really speak well of him now that he’s dead.
Another example that really got to me recently was the legendary Charley Pride. The first black superstar in country music, Charley had to find his way to superstardom at a time when his label felt like they had to hide his race from radio stations and listeners just to get his music played (despite having one of the best voices of his time). And it was at a time when he faced racial slurs and hostility from some of the same artists he would later collaborate with – once they realized just how great this guy was and how much he could benefit their own careers.
Charley Pride wasn’t even invited to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry until 1993 – after 30 number one hits and 22 years after he won Entertainer of the Year at the CMA Awards.
Yet, when he passed away last December, record labels, artists, and everybody else in Nashville were tripping over themselves to pay tribute to the legendary singer.
Nashville is rough on the living, but she really speaks well of the dead…
And if you’re wondering how those same people who were praising Charley Pride as a trailblazer after his death would have treated him when he was first getting his start as an artist, you may be able to get an idea by looking at Mickey Guyton.
We’ve said before here that Mickey Guyton may have one of the best voices in country music. And her songs are real – they’re personal to her, and they’re powerful.
Yet how many listeners had never even heard of Mickey Guyton until the release of her song “Black Like Me” in the wake of the riots over George Floyd’s murder last summer? Or until she called out the music industry to their face over their treatment of women artists with her powerful performance of “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” at last year’s Country Radio Seminar?
What does that say about Nashville when an artist as talented as Mickey has to call out the industry in order to be heard?
It says that Nashville is rough on the living…
But what really reminded me think of Shel Silverstein’s words last week was when I opened social media to see an embarrassing picture of a country music megastar (who I’m not even going to name) that had been posted by a Nashville “news” site – for no other reason than to embarrass them. They weren’t doing anything illegal, and they weren’t doing anything that would harm anybody else. So why even post the picture? Hell, why somebody would even TAKE the picture of this person was beyond me.
It’s the same reason that the media was quick to post stories about George Jones’ drunken antics back in the day, only to pay tribute to him after he was gone. Or the same reason that people were dying to see the footage of Randy Travis getting arrested when he was clearly going through a rough time in his personal life, only to pour out their sympathies just months later when he suffered a debilitating stroke.
But that’s the way it is in the music industry. It’s as true now as it was in 1980: Nashville is rough on the living. But she really speaks well of the dead…