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Nashville Scene The Young and the Restless

Music Row banks on youthful talent--but can't quite figure out what to do with it

By Michael McCall

APRIL 10, 2000:  The front lines of country music's new youth brigade have hit the stores. Perhaps predictably, Music Row is reacting to its steadily sliding sales figures by trying to capture a corner of the teen market with new releases by a series of unproven, school-age performers.

MCA Records made the first volley earlier this year with the release of 17-year-old Alecia Elliott's I'm Diggin' It, and RCA recently followed with 20-year-old Jennifer Day's debut, The Fun of Your Love. Meanwhile, Lyric Street is set to release a young male trio, Rascal Flatts; RCA is preparing to release albums by a group, Girlfriendz, and another young female, Coley McCabe; and MCA has transformed the powerful, mountain-grown voice of 20-year-old Rebecca Lynn Howard into that of a pop-country suburbanite. Ironically enough, these acts may actually be pushing the older end of the age curve In June, Sony Music will issue the country debut of 11-year-old Billy Gilman.

Not only is Music Row mortgaging the future of country music on untested teen talent, it's also making what may be a fatal mistake: All of the young bandwagon jumpers are following the exact same musical direction. Apparently, Nashville record labels equate young record buyers with bubbly, mindless music, and that may prove to be a huge market miscalculation. After all, pop labels have already saturated the record bins with dozens of Britney and Backstreet wannabes. Who are you going to bank on: a gray-haired producer from Alabama named Robert Byrne whose largest success came 15 years ago with the Forester Sisters, or an urban-music mover-and-shaker who's broken artists like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Boyz II Men?

Meanwhile, country music is failing to capitalize on the huge market of buyers--yes, even young ones--looking for alternatives to the pop-dance teen groups. After all, teens also drove the sales of acts like Alanis Morissette, Jewel, and Sarah McLachlan. Why hasn't Music Row picked up on the fact that pop labels have stopped issuing music by substantive singer-songwriters? Nashville's biggest recent success, Dixie Chicks, got over on musical depth as well as image. Shouldn't that be the trend for Music Row to chase?

That's not to say that Elliott, Day, and their peers aren't talented. They own impressive voices and are comfortable, engaging performers; for now, though, they're focusing on brightly melodic, lightly rhythmic tunes that value energy and effervescence over substance and emotion. Call them Baptist Britneys or Christina's country cousins--their music is a sort of Middle-American pop lite that whitewashes the sexual suggestiveness but keeps all the airy frothiness.

Elliott, an Alabama native who's been pursuing a Nashville record deal since her preteen days, has made a slightly better record than Day. Her voice is huskier and displays more shades of expression, and at least a few of her songs--"Every Heart," "Ain't No Ordinary Love," "Some Say I'm Running"--rank with recent hits by Faith Hill and Martina McBride. But the title song, "I'm Diggin' It," and the ridiculous "You Wanna What?" position Elliott as the silly, superficial younger sister of Shania Twain.

Day's The Fun of Your Love, produced by Robert Byrne, is about as deep as its title suggests. She has an appealing voice and a cute-as-a-button presence, but whatever personality she owns is diluted by material as flimsy as the two-sizes-too-small blouses she squeezes into for her publicity photos. Even though the Florida native is 20 years old and married, her songs are all about little-girl crushes. The title tune includes such philosophical stunners as "You draw the line/I'll pay the fine/That's the sign of a good love!" Elsewhere, she pines for the beau of a girlfriend because "he's like Romeo meets Mr. Nice," while on another song she threatens to tear up her calendar because she has no plans beyond spending time with her new guy.

Fortunately, outside of Nashville, some new teen acts prove that not all young performers are as shallow as Music Row would have us believe. For example, California-based Nickel Creek is a teen-driven quartet that prefers to dazzle with instrumental virtuosity rather than dance steps or skin-baring outfits. Having performed together for several years, the band features 19-year-old mandolin wizard Chris Thile, 18-year-old fiddler and singer Sara Watkins, and her brother, 23-year-old guitarist Sean Watkins. Scott Thile, Chris' father, plays acoustic bass.

Nickel Creek makes ambitious acoustic music that fuses bluegrass, jazz, pop, and folk influences with impressive, if uneven, results. For the band's debut, they smartly collaborated with producer Alison Krauss, who knows something about being a creatively ambitious young string musician. Under her guidance, the quartet concentrates on ensemble play that balances flashy playing with tight musical arrangements.

The band's primary weakness is Thile's singing: He's an incredible mandolinist, but his voice lacks the character to overcome its thin tone. Sara Watkins comes off better, with sweet, expressive vocals that work especially well on one of the album's few covers, Sinead Lohan's "Out of the Woods."

Nickel Creek won't receive the kind of exposure necessary to sell in the millions, but it's a good bet that these musicians will continue to make records and perform concerts for decades ahead. They're banking on substance rather than superficiality; for that reason, they'll be gaining fans who will follow them long after today's pop trends have become as meaningful as last year's sports scores.

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