The Outlaw Country Music Journalists Showing Nashville Tough Love
Natalie Weiner and Marissa R. Moss are two of country music’s biggest fans and fiercest critics, which makes them a rare pair in the genre’s press circles. Nashville is notoriously sensitive to negative coverage, which can make it tough for music journalists to write critically. Local reporters risk losing their access if they don’t play by the rules, while national outlets tend to mock the genre’s proud insularity.
But country fans have a new option for thoughtful, toothsome, inclusive coverage: Don’t Rock the Inbox, Weiner and Moss’ brand-new newsletter on Substack, which aims to bring a fair and critical eye to a genre worthy of both.
Weiner, 29, and Moss, 39, have been freelance writers for years, but saw their options for publishing serious country music stories shrink during the pandemic. Most media outlets slashed their freelance budgets, and SB Nation, where Weiner was an on-staff sports writer, laid off much of its staff. After some lighthearted Twitter chatter about starting an email newsletter, they began to circle the idea more seriously: Not only would it guarantee them an outlet for their harder-to-sell story ideas, it would promise them creative control. And, perhaps most importantly, it would give country music the critical discourse it deserves. “We don’t have a burn-it-all-down mentality,” Weiner says. “I love country music. But sometimes, I know that it can be better.”
Before you began Don't Rock the Inbox, what made you sense a gap in the coverage of country music? Was it the assignments you were getting? The stories you saw online? What wasn’t sufficient?
Natalie Weiner: Outside of, say, Rolling Stone Country or the pieces that show up in Billboard or Pitchfork, there isn’t a lot of critical thinking when it comes to country music coverage these days. You kind of have these ... I don't want to say fluff pieces, but the outlets in Nashville are just very positive all the time. It’s this mentality of “Don't rock the boat, respect the symbiotic nature between publicist and writer,” and we’d gotten to talking about how there needed to be more critical eyes in country—a place to have free-form thought about the genre that didn't line up with any particular business goals or marketing strategies. We’d shared a few dumb tweets about it, but once the pandemic hit, the idea really began to form. I lost my job. Freelance budgets were quickly contracting, and suddenly the conversation became very real. It seemed like a good time to actually try this. We had stories we wanted to write and nowhere to sell them.
“The machine inside Nashville [has] so much control and power. It’s positive press or nothing. On the flip side, the national media is almost the reverse; big media outlets, especially those that don't focus on country music, are primarily interested in publishing negative stuff.” —Weiner
Your first couple issues have felt probing and brave. Was it a relief to have the freedom to write whatever you wanted? Had that been an issue before?
Marissa Moss: When I moved to Nashville, I immediately noticed how different the dynamic was between publicists and journalists. More writers had started doing double-duty as critics and feature writers, probably to pay the bills, but that meant that they were often worried about damaging their access so they weren’t going to say anything negative. That’s why I stopped doing reviews the past five years or so—it was muddying the waters too much for me. And I found that in the country music ecosystem, if you say something that is not appreciated, you can be served a denial of access, or a penalty. I wrote something negative about the Country Music Awards years ago and was banned from the CMA for six years after that. Because criticism just isn’t done as much in country music.
NW: The machine inside Nashville—publicists, management companies, labels, and so on—all have so much control and power. As a journalist, you have next to no leverage. It’s positive press or nothing. On the flip side, the national media is almost the reverse; big media outlets, especially those that don't focus on country music, are primarily interested in publishing negative stuff. There’s room in the middle for honest, enthusiastic coverage that doesn’t dumb country down. The fact is, some artists are good and others are just bad, you know? Engaging with the industry in a thoughtful way means considering everything—the huge stuff that goes to radio, the lesser-known indie acts. It's incredibly rare to get opportunities to do either at national outlets.
Luke Combs is a great example of someone who certainly deserves a mainstream, national feature at this point, purely because of his commercial impact if nothing else. But we couldn’t sell a Luke Combs profile anywhere. Vulture is just not going to do a Luke Combs profile. It’s not going to happen. There are reasons for that, I guess, but his career is interesting and his role in country music is worth considering. We thought that a newsletter would be a good place to explore those tensions and aspects of the industry that wouldn't necessarily draw in a broad national audience.
How did you decide on the format and frequency of your newsletter? The first issue was so robust. Will you sustain that? WIll you ramp up even further?
NW: We honestly just tried to figure out what was going to be manageable. What would we be able to consistently put out? For the first issue, we were excited and went all out. It may not always be that long. But we are pretty hellbent on always having critical essays and features on artists or people in the industry who may not otherwise get talked about. And personally, I was really attached to the idea of singles reviews, because that was one of my favorite things to do at magazines that was essentially cut over the years. I really wanted to bring that back.
MM: It also had to feel fun. If you can't get excited about the newsletter you’re writing, it almost defeats the purpose; it’s your voice, it’s coming from you, it should serve you in some way. Also, I did a lot of first-person writing in the first issue, which isn’t something that I get to do in my reporting or magazine work, really ever. So it was nice to exercise that muscle. And like Natalie said, we really built the newsletter around things we felt were missing from the larger conversation, whether it was personal essays, singles reviews, or stories on people who deserve coverage but, for whatever reason, aren’t getting it. How robust it is will probably fluctuate depending on how we’re vibing that day.
NW: That's really the guiding principle. We didn't design this to be a profitable thing. Of course we've thought about monetization, and that would be nice if it became a sustainable thing someday. But starting out, we both just wanted to make it not stressful. As we were plotting the first issue, we kept having anxiety flashes of like, “Oh god, are we going to get this done?” And then we’d realize that it really doesn't matter. It's just the two of us. And it’s for the audience, yes, but it’s also for us to be able to say the things we want to say.
Do you envision that it will always be written exclusively by you, or is there a plan to spread the work around among other writers?
NW: Currently we’re publishing bi-weekly, and we feel like we can handle that. If it ever wound up becoming a paid thing and we had a budget to pay other writers, and there was interest in ramping up to a weekly product, then yeah I think we could see ourselves including other voices. But for now it’s a pretty small operation.
MM: Yeah, if it turned into something else that we haven't envisioned quite yet, then sure. I think we would want other voices besides ours. But right now, the whole point is that it’s our voices. It’s hard to imagine a world in which this newsletter becomes our full-time job. I know people make that happen, but for us, right now, it's a side thing.
“There are certain artists who I love and that I'm glad the mainstream media is interested in But there are so many other artists who should also be in that space but haven't crossed over quite yet. And often it’s because they're not speaking out against Trump or their music isn’t quite as subversive.” —Moss
Were there any hurdles or unforeseen challenges to getting off the ground? How long did it kind of take you guys to put the first issue together?
MM: It came together fast. We both knew how to write on deadline, so that wasn’t an issue. And for me, once the ball started rolling, it felt really good to pour myself into something that I had full control over—while at the same time not being completely on my own. It’s nice to have a partner. Knowing that Natalie is there to help develop ideas and read over my work is a relief because I trust her to check me. I’m not just flapping around all by myself.
NW: Marissa was never in danger of flapping around. But to her point, that's probably the thing that slightly sets this newsletter apart: We're in this middle area between like a fully staffed operation and a personal, gut-spilling blog. And I think a huge reason we were able to pull this together and pass “Go” was because we had the security of knowing the other person was there with us. There was someone to be accountable to, someone to bounce ideas off of.
What do you hope the newsletter will do for country music and the business around it?
MM: Well, not only is there a “Don't rock the boat” philosophy in Nashville, but there's also a very specific type of country music that is covered outside of country music. There are certain artists who I love and that I'm glad the mainstream media is interested in—Kacey Musgraves, Margo Price, etc. But there are so many other artists who should also be in that space but haven't crossed over quite yet. And often it’s because they're not speaking out against Trump or their music isn’t quite as subversive. I feel like I've been pushing someone like Kip Moore to the national media for so long, and it never breaks through because he doesn't have those elements. But the fact is, his music is still really good. On the flipside, Natalie has always been a big advocate for Sam Hunt, and it's frustrating to only be able to sell his story outside of country music media. When you do, it always ends up being about something else––some anti-Trump or pro-weed angle instead of the songs. I hope the newsletter can bridge that gap.
Do you feel like national outlets can be anti-country music? In that they tend to focus on outlier artists who buck against tradition as opposed to born-and-raised Nashville singer/songwriters?
NW: Absolutely. There is this belief that the only way you can be a good country artist is if you're anti-country, and that becomes your selling point. It’s dismissive of country music, in a way, and that's ultimately really unhelpful because this is a massive industry. There’s a whole swath of people who are not served by the way that country is discussed in the national media. And both in and outside of the newsletter, I would like to make people understand how big and important country music is and has been to American popular culture. By dismissing it wholesale, you're keeping yourself from understanding so much about who we are. It’s crazy to me how people can get away with me saying, “I just I don't like country,’ or, ‘I don't just like radio country.” They’re dismissals. It's a big pet peeve of mine. I hope that people will see that it’s just like any other art form. There’s good stuff and there’s bad stuff and it’s all worth discussing.
“If no one is willing to say that like this current, like, Dustin Lynch song is actually really terrible, no one is going to believe you when you try to say anything positive.” —Weiner
Are there specific ways in which you hope that the newsletter advances your career?
MM: For me, it’s just nice to have a place where I can put thoughts that don't necessarily have to do with a book. These are smaller, more timely pieces that reflect the day-to-day discourse.
NW: I hope that it gets some degree of respect from a wide range of music fans, but I haven’t thought much beyond that yet. For now, it's just a cool feeling to have created something independently. There are so few things in country music journalism that are both respected and feared … that isn’t the exact right combination of words, but you get the gist. To me, the ideal for music journalism is having the authority to be critical while still having people be willing to engage with you and respect you. So that’s a goal.
How hard will it be to toe that line? Have you found yourself having to explain to people in Nashville the value of balanced, critical coverage?
MM: I haven't, but we needed very little access for our first issue, which was sort of the point. Editorial calendars and release cycles are not going to determine what we do.
NW: Not yet, but I’m not necessarily worried about blowback because I guess I believe that Nashville is increasingly progressive. I wrote a piece in the first issue about country music’s politics, and while there's certainly a segment of country media that would be appalled at the idea of something like that getting out, it's hard to imagine people totally writing us off. The optics of that would be self-evidently pretty bad. I know Marissa has dealt with actual blacklist scenarios, so maybe we’re in more danger than I realize! But neither of us are coming into this with a burn-it-all-down mentality. We just believe in the value of criticism.
Can you elaborate on that? Criticism is a vanishing art. Why is it so important?
NW: This is a really big question. For me, it's about engaging with music and the music industry in a way that's honest and genuinely wanting it to be good. It's not coming from a place feeling like it all needs to be destroyed and everything's bad. I love country music, but sometimes I know that it can be better, whether it’s from an inclusivity and diversity standpoint or on the song level. I believe that music criticism serves a purpose. Not so much to say this is good and this is bad, but to offer context and perspective about what's working and what's not. So few places that cover country music will ever say anything critical or even analytical, and that’s a disservice to fans. It perpetuates that outsider myth that “all country music is bad or the same,” because we continually dish out blanket praise or neutral coverage of everything. If no one is willing to say that like this current, like, Dustin Lynch song is actually really terrible, no one is going to believe you when you try to say anything positive.
MM: The problem with only saying positive things is that it buries the artists who are actually good. People outside Nashville write them off. Charlie Worsham is a good example of this. I’ve tried to pitch him to editors outside of country music media and he always gets dismissed. They shrug him off. But to me, he’s in such a different league than some of those guys at the top of the charts who make corporate, paint-by-numbers country songs. So it hurts artists like him in the end.
NW: There’s a part of me that hates the ranking mentality of music criticism. I think it's a little bit pointless. But in country music, there is a huge critical void. When a new Blake Shelton album drops, it's not like when a new Ariana Grande album drops. There is no critical conversation or cultural analysis. And that just makes it feel more mechanical and not like actual people are making it.
“If we can break this idea that country music is a dead end—a place for outliers to pop up and then explode somewhere else—I think we’d see different types of talent filling this space.” —Moss
To be honest, I've never really understood why Nashville makes such an effort to suppress critical discourse.
NW: I’ve always interpreted it as a response to this belief that country music is threatened, which is obviously a false flag—the industry is hugely successful. But there's a defensiveness, a general sense of “Everybody thinks we suck.” And the reaction to that belief is the feeling that you have to protect it.
MM: Definitely. So many artists get to a place where they feel like they have that album that could be their breakthrough outside of Nashville, and it feels like a ticket. Why is that? And when it doesn’t work, they’re like, Okay, so do I double down on jingoism? Do I try to go to Americana? You shouldn't have to think about your music that way. It’s true that, because of the way that Nashville is built, there is a lot of music that shouldn't be successful. There are people who are just not that talented outside of country music. But if we can break this idea that country music is a dead end—a place for outliers to pop up and then explode somewhere else—I think we’d see different types of talent filling this space.
Any moonshot hopes for the first year? Any artists you've always wanted to speak with or personal essays you’ve always wanted to publish?
NW: This sounds phony but we are actually taking it one day at a time. It’s been nice. With everything in the world being so relentlessly chaotic, we're trying to make it feel as low-lift as possible. And honestly, I'm just really excited about the single reviews. That was my moonshot. I just wanted a place to write about tracks in like a short-form way.
MM: We haven't really thought through a five-year plan. But especially in the pandemic, the amount of places to sell certain ideas has shrunk. If there's money for a freelance story, it's going to have to do with COVID-19 or the state of the live music industry. And that's all really important; if I were an editor, I would probably be doing the same thing. And while we do want those stories in the newsletter, we also want the stories that don't fit those templates.
NW: I do want to specifically articulate one other thing, which is how integral diversity and inclusion are to our dreams for this newsletter. We have a pretty progressive vision of what country music can be, and the idea is that the newsletter reflects it. I feel like we did a pretty good job of that with the first issue, but it has to be an ongoing thing, always. If we can do that, I will consider it a great success.