A Complicated Symbiosis

How the Fan Impacts the Song and Song Impacts the Fan

Performing songwriters can’t help but be influenced by the nature of their personal relationships. For most, their songs reflect their lived experiences, giving fans a window into highly personal aspects of their lives. And as a songwriter’s notoriety grows, exposure to fans who believe they know the writer personally through the music must have some impact on the way they express their experiences. Paging Taylor Swift.

It’s possible that in a genre dedicated to a trio of chords and true storytelling —  where authenticity matters, regardless of how the word is defined — the impact of this perceived relationship is stronger in country music than in other musical traditions. 

An authentic storytelling experience only enhances the experience for a fan — making them believe fully in the illusionary relationship they’ve developed with the artist. It’s visceral and it’s what brought me to Oklahoma City in the middle of winter. 

On a frigid January night, Even Felker stood before the thousands packing the Paycom Center, thanking us for our support of Turnpike Troubadours. 

“This one is for you all,” he earnestly shouted as he hit the downbeat of the much-discussed song “Brought Me.” The crowd sang along, with an affection all its own. 

In a late 2023 NPR “World Cafe” interview, Felker noted that “Brought Me” started as an exploration of the loves of his life — most notably the love of his daughter. The first stanza and few lines of the chorus outline feelings most parents instinctively understand. 

Well I have loved you for so long

I have no memory of falling

So long now

It feels that we have never been apart

Oh now, it still beats steady

This heart I handed you for free

Should you ever need a thing

It won’t be hard to find me

The song alludes to other relationships with lovers and, then, of course, the fans. This nuanced song — with just a few explicit lines dedicated to the fanbase —  can be interpreted in several ways, not simply as a thank you. 

In the episode about “Okie from Muskogee” during season one of “Cocaine and Rhinestones,” Tyler Mahan Coe shrewdly explained that, “every songwriter knows what you meant to write in a song does not matter…[it’s] what people hear that determines the meaning.”

If a listener felt hurt or entitled to something more from Turnpike in the wake of their 2019 hiatus, perhaps that person would see this as an apology and nod to this listener’s steadfast devotion to the band. Yet, a more direct, honest reading of the lyrics finds an exploration of a grateful man who has the chance to move forward thanks in part to the love he received and the love he now can provide. 

Bonnie Montgomery, a classically trained opera singer now straddling the line between Outlaw country, Southern rock and folk music, explained that her writing often explores her personal experiences but loves when people listen to her songs and hear something she didn’t write about. “It turns into something that is something else.”

Her most recent album, “River,” explores universal experiences of love, loss and family from her own life, which allow fans to see themselves in the songs, further driving the illusion of familiarity. 

Silveradas’ Mike Harmeier has a more practical view of the fan impact. 

“When we were doing the dance hall thing, I was definitely affected by the fan thing, because I had to get people to dance, I had to play the right songs,” he said during an interview on his tour bus back when the band went by Mike and the Moonpies. “And that totally influenced what the band became. We started as a cover band and I wrote things that kinda fit in with that, and started sneaking them in.”

The band has always been “a pretty fan-oriented thing,” Harmeier said, though he tends to keep a lower profile now that the band has reached a certain level of fame, partly because “some people are nuts.” However, it took a long time for the band to reach this level, and Harmeirer believes the prolonged process helped him build trust with his now loyal fanbase.

“I know my fans and I know —  or at least I think I know — what they want to hear out of us,” he said. “So [delivering for them] crosses my mind every damn time I write, and I’ll throw something away if I don’t think it will connect with this group. And it’s always in the back of my mind that this is all going to crash and burn.”

He was particularly concerned about missing the mark with his critically acclaimed 2019 album “Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold,” recorded at Abbey Road Studios with the London Symphony Orchestra and something he described as “a significant departure in style” from the band’s earlier recordings. 

“My first thought was my dad isn’t going to like it. So I was really concerned about that before that record came out, that it was going to be too off base of what we normally did. But that didn’t happen to be the case — which gives me more leeway to do what we want to do now.”

This acceptance allowed Harmeirer to bring what he calls a “fuck-it-ness” to his recordings. He told me his next album — which incorporates a range of influences, including allusions to Wilco’s style, his favorite band, and alternative songwriting approaches — will be a more significant departure than the symphonic aspects of “Cheap Silver.” If he reaches his goal, Harmeier said this album will be an acceptance of who he is as a person and who he wants to be as an artist. 

“I’m getting older, and there are fewer records to make,” said Harmeier. “And I still haven’t gotten the one I’ve wanted. So I’m more aggressively chasing those things down without the worry of it landing with fans.” 

This vulgar laissez-faire mindset may have played a role in the band’s name change. 

Willi Carlise, a folk singer seemingly transported from another age, sees the artistic aspect of this industry a bit differently. Delivering for fans diminishes the value of the art presented in song — or any other medium, according to the flannel-clad picker.  “When I approach an artist, it’s to be given the vision that they have of the world. Artists need to take more risks, not fewer. Audiences too.”

“I’m truly not motivated to copy other artists people like, or by the hellacious pitching from place to place that pop culture and cultural disposability creates in audiences,” he explained. “That said, when an audience has an expectation, it’s a tool, something to be played with. It’d be a shame to ignore it.”

But he also understands the importance of the fan to the business aspects of the music industry. 

“When we see what people like, we’re likely to create things like that,” he admits. “Find me an artist who doesn’t enjoy praise, and I’ll show you a starving artist.”

As the exposure and venues grow, for some, the needs of the road, schedule and production overpower the deeper sentiments to deliver the perfect product — for the fan or themselves. 2024 Ameripolitian Award Outlaw Female of the Year nominee Taylor Hunnicutt said that the increased demands on her time over the past year have been a “blessing.” 

“It lets me be more of an artist instead of being terrified to cross over the lines. Now, I’m confident in what I’m doing and the sound we have cultivated. I’m not as timid.”

Staying true to her perspective will likely reinforce the feelings of connection with her fans.

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