Cam
Cam
Photo by Dennis Leupold

Sam Smith Opener Cam on Dolly Parton and Carving Out a Lane in Country Music

Most fans headed out to see Sam Smith at the American Airlines Arena this weekend are likely unfamiliar with curly-haired, country-singing opening act Cam, but they probably know at least one of her songs by heart. Camaron Ochs, better known by her stage name, cowrote the penultimate track "Palace" on Smith's latest album, The Thrill of It All.

The pairing of these artists might appear odd without knowledge of their past collaboration, but genres are fickle in 2018. Though they're played on different stations and placed on separate streaming playlists, both artists are musical traditionalists with an affinity for contemporary pop. Smith has taken brooding balladry and soaring gospel choirs back to the top of the pop charts. Cam's songs harken back to rootsier eras of the country genre, when kegger anthems took a backseat to artful storytelling.

The pairing falls in line with a growing trend of crossing genre lines among pop and country stars. Harry Styles, formerly of One Direction, is on tour with pop country rabble-rouser Kacey Musgraves as his opening act. All this as "The Middle," Maren Morris' collaboration with Zedd, and pop star Bebe Rexha's "Meant to Be," with Florida Georgia Line, have been staples on pop radio this year. Cam says this genre flexibility is not a coincidence or purely the result of tastemakers and programmers chasing trends. With limited distribution avenues for their music, she says, women in country music must carve out their own lanes for success.

"For the females of country music — and I hate saying that — but I get told to my face all the time that it will be very hard to get my music on the radio because I'm a woman," says Cam. There's a blueprint, she says, for how to replicate and "reverse engineer" radio hits based on what has come before, but "they only know how to do the guy thing; probably also because there's, you know, zero women at the top of any of these decision-making positions."

During her opening sets at Smith's concerts, it's become clear to Cam that audiences, unlike radio programmers, are immune to distinctions of genre and gender. "I'll come out and I'll sing a great note and they'll all just cheer, 'cause they're just excited as human beings. At one point in the set I ask people, 'Are there any country music fans out there?' and they all just scream... Even if you do think that there are certain lines, they very much overlap. People just enjoy so many kinds of music, so it hasn't looked like separate audiences to me at all."

Cam's latest single, "Diane," pays homage to one of country music's most prolific trailblazing songwriters, Dolly Parton, whose own adaptability is evidenced in the way Whitney Houston was able to craft a number one pop hit out of Parton's mournful country ballad "I Will Always Love You." "Diane" has been called a response to "Jolene," and though that was not Cam's intention at the outset, the Parton classic emerged as inspiration during the early stages of the songwriting process.

"We wrote that first opening chorus and then I was like, 'Oh I know what this is! This is the response to 'Jolene,' 40-plus years later,' and I loved that... I realized the way Dolly sets that whole thing up... speaking to a woman that could be taking her husband, saying, 'Please,' speaking very calmly — I get goosebumps just thinking about it... It shouldn't be revolutionary, but it is revolutionary... I wanted that so much for 'Diane.' I'm really thankful that a song like 'Jolene' existed so I could make sure that... what I was writing could have that too."

Cam. 8 p.m. Saturday, July 14, at American Airlines Arena, 601 Biscayne Blvd, Miami; 786-777-1000; aaarena.com. Tickets cost $31 to $121 via ticketmaster.com.

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