Do Danny Gokey's best days lie ahead in the fields of country music? The American Idol finalist's first album comes out today and, as many predicted toward the end of season 8, it's being geared toward the country market... even though little of the content of My Best Days would strike the average Idol viewer as particularly un-pop-like.
Gokey just had a big Nashville coming-out at the annual Country Radio Seminar industry confab in Music City. Right after his performance for hundreds of radio programmers at a luncheon sponsored by Sony Nashville, I pulled him aside for an interview. Video and text excerpts from our chat follow...
The boldest statement Gokey made to me was this: "If it does cross over (from country to pop), it'd be great. But I always want to be called a country singer the rest of my life."
Those are the kinds of words that country radio programmers want to hear, certainly, because they want artists who are committed to the format and genre and not just making a quick attempt at country carpetbagging. But they're also the kind of words that are made to be eaten. I remember interviewing Jessica Simpson in Nashville in late 2008, and she told me then that she had made the move into country for good. But radio ultimately rejected most of her singles, and the album didn't do so swell, so I have to doubt whether she'll keep banging her head against country radio's door for her next 10 projects or simply break that vow.
You might say the comparison to be made for Gokey is with fellow country Idol alumni Carrie Underwood and Kellie Pickler, not Simpson, and maybe it is. But Underwood's and Pickler's country personas were more quickly established on Idol than Gokey's, who admits that it was a process that brought him to the genre. In a sense, even though this is his recording debut, his Idol persona was pop enough that he is still sort of a mainstream artist crossing over to country... and then, potentially, crossing back over to pop.
Q: Obviously you kind of specialize in emotional material. You've got the rowdier songs on the new album, but you're always going to be known for a certain kind of emotive quality. Is country the only place you're allowed to do that now and get away with it?
GOKEY: In country you can do anything you want, and that's what makes the format unique. You know, you can talk about spiritual things, which is my foundation. Part of country music is rock, blues, and then the gospel. I think about Zac Brown and "Chicken Fried." (sings) "Cold beer on a Friday night…" You can talk about anything you want, and the people relate, because it's real people gravitating to real messages in the song, whether it's love, whether it's spiritual, whether it's just fun. You know, "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy"—I mean, seriously, you can talk about that! In some parts of town, that's what people talk about. And I love that.
Q: So, are you going to have any tractor songs?
GOKEY: No. It's not me. I'm coming from a different standpoint and sing songs from my own standpoint. I wasn't born on a farm. I was raised in the city. And I'm gonna come from the perspective of the charitable side of me. I love songs that are really entertaining. I'm gonna come with the songs that are really up-tempo, fast-paced, and a whole lot of aggressive singing. Then, like you said, I specialize in raw-emotional, and also inspirational. That's me.
Q: In terms of country artists coming out of Idol, there was great groundwork laid with Carrie and Kellie, but those are artists who, arguably, it was clear what they were on the show. It wasn't always clear you should do this. Of course everybody remembers Randy Travis telling you you should do country. Was there a moment where it crystallized?
GOKEY: I'm not gonna say it was clear for me the whole time. I would like to sway that and make it look all better. But I was a guy who just was surrounded by gospel music, and I knew I didn't want to do that anymore. So Idol became a crash course. And I respected that they had us try out different genres each night, because that's the reason that they do it, because they see: where do you fit? And before Randy Travis was on, I covered Lee Ann Womack's "I Hope You Dance." And when he came on, I did Carrie Underwood's song. Because country was very large and very influential for me when I was young. My dad was a big fan. But he wasn't just a fan of country, he was a fan of Motown, too. I was submerged in music. But I always went back. You know, the Idol week where they let us pick any song we wanted to pick, I picked Rascal Flatts' "What Hurts the Most." It's just something that I always connected to. And finally coming out of that, I was like, "I like talking about real stories and real things, and my life is a story." I said, "This is where I want to be. This is where I fit. I like it here."
I guess for me, the question was, would they accept me? As an artist, you always question that. Because you become vulnerable. But when Randy Travis said that comment, I was blown away. Because I knew I was soulful. I don't hide it. And he said, "Listen, they will love you, and the amount of passion and soul you bring, they would embrace you." And I said, Wow, that just made me feel good. Okay, if he says I can do it, I know I can do it, then. Because he's lived this thing for the last, what, 20 years, 30 years—I mean, he's been around a long time.
Q: It feels like the album is really split between two moods: half of it that's really inspirational stuff, and half of it that's slightly rowdy, grab-life-by-the-lapels kind of music. You've got the contrast between the relatively raucous "Like That's a Bad Thing" and "Life on Ya" and then the "My Best Days Are Still Ahead of Me" and "I Still Believe" kind of songs. Did you feel it was important not to fall into any one stereotype and to have it represent a balance between those two sides of you?
GOKEY: See, I think there's more than just two sides, if you're asking about the album. There's the raw emotion, which is "I Don't Want to Say Goodbye." There's the love song, which is "Crazy Not To." There's definitely the spiritual side, as far as "I Still Believe." And you know, the charitable side of me coming out in "It's Only." "My Best Days are Ahead of Me" is definitely inspirational. The rowdy songs are "Gotta Get Away" and, like you said,"Like That's a Bad Thing," which is all about: You know, I'm gonna live life the way I want to live life. There's definitely a lot of different moods on it.
Q: Because people associate Idol with pop, there's a certain sense in which coming from there, you're sort of a pop singer crossing over to country. Will you be a country singer crossing back over to pop, in the way Carrie has done?
GOKEY: You know, I don't know. It's yet to see what's about to be done. I'm gonna make music that I love, and that's my whole objective. A broader audience you can reach is a great plus. I mean, who wouldn't want to influence more people with their music? With Carrie, what she's done is, she's opened up this huge audience that's been able to relate to her music, and that shows the strength of country music, that it's very versatile. If this does cross over, it'd be great. But I always want to be called a country singer the rest of my life. Because I love what it stands for.
Before our talk, Gokey had been on the stage at Nashville's convention center, opening for Alan Jackson at Sony Nashville's luncheon, and he clearly knew this was his best shot at winning over country radio en masse. Gokey had two missions, between songs: to convince the radio folks of his dedication to the format, and to remind them that the real-life experiences and emotions that made him a fan favorite (and third-place finisher) on Idol were poured directly into these songs, even though he didn't write them himself.
"My father brought home a Wynonna Judd CD when I was real young and I just loved the soul that she brought. So growing up with country was a huge influence on my life. But I have to say this. When I signed up to be country and Joe Galante talked to me and he started telling me about a radio tour, I got completely nervous. I had no idea what to expect. But I want to say this. It has been such an honor and privilege..."
And then, just as breathlessly, even as his band was cued to hurry up and start the final song intro, he attempted scaling the full breadth of life and death and despondency and renewal—in 45 seconds or less!—while conventioneers were finishing their desserts.
"Maybe you saw my journey on American Idol. You saw my experience, a huge tragedy—one month before I tried out for the show, I lost my wife... American Idol was simply this. For most people, it's a show that's entertaining. But for me it was a second chance. It was a second chance at life, because I couldn't stand my life. I hated living every day. I didn't want to live any longer. So going on American Idol brought this huge hope.
"My first song, 'My Best Days Are Ahead of Me'... I picked that song because I wanted to say, listen, I'm excited about life again... And little did I know, until after we recorded it and we put it on the radio, that that song was actually written by a man who lost his wife."
How is the country world responding? Brian Mansfield, who is USA Today's country critic and their Idol columnist, wrote: "My Best Days continues in the vein of the three earlier albums from the four top finishers of Season 8, in that it plays exceptionally well to the strengths of the performers and the expectations their existing fans have for them. Whether it will be enough to win Danny large numbers of new fans remains to be seen."
Country website Roughstock.com wrote: "Recording under the RCA imprint, Danny actually has chosen to record songs that straddle the CCM and country lines, and while many of the songs have tasty melodies, it is the lyrics that draw the listener in. While the CCM-ish production from Mark Bright might be a cause for concern among traditionalist or even country-pop fans, it's not as if this is unexpected from the widower who was inspired to try out for Idol as a tribute to his departed wife Sophia. On My Best Days it sure feels like Danny Gokey has gotten himself a strong set of songs that find him in strong voice. Yes, this record straddles the line between CCM and contemporary country music but that doesn't make it a bad record. In fact, it's what makes My Best Days a good record and the exact record I expected him to make after watching him do so well on Idol."
On the radio front, "My Best Days Are Ahead of Me" moves up from No. 40 to No. 34 on trade magazine Country Aircheck's chart this week—a healthy bump for a newcomer, but no guarantor of top 10 success just yet. Gokey is "ready for the country," to quote Waylon Jennings. Is country ready for him? The verdict is still ahead of him.
- country music
- Carrie Underwood