Caught in the Middle
Country music is once again enjoying some pop success, but can it cash in without losing its identity?
By Michael McCall
JUNE 21, 1999: A few weeks ago, as the series finale of the TV sitcom Mad About You reached its climactic ending, a well-crafted pop song rose from the soundtrack. The tune started with a reflective, melancholy tone, then built to a chorus brimming with optimism. That chorus--"You give me love"--rang out repeatedly, conveyed with rapturous delight by a sweet, soaring female voice.
Since the song wasn't a familiar radio hit, it no doubt left millions of viewers wondering who the performer was. Many were likely surprised to find out that it was a country singer, Faith Hill. Written by Matraca Berg, Harry Stinson, and Jim Photoglo, and performed with convincing compassion by Hill, "You Give Me Love" proved to be a wonderful choice: Driven by ringing guitars and a buoyant melody, the song's uplifting message acknowledges that life can be difficult, but enduring love can provide comfort and encouragement in the darkness.
In a way, the sitcom's musical choice also offers a telling lesson about country music today. Mad About You was about a yuppie couple in Manhattan--an independent filmmaker and a publicist struggling to juggle career goals and personal lives. That's probably about as far from the stereotypical country audience as you can get; after all, just a decade ago, such a couple would more likely have been listening to African high-life music or a Bulgarian women's choir.
But as the Nashville music industry struggles to find its identity in the aftermath of Garth Brooks and Shania Twain, Hill offers the clearest example of what works. She and husband Tim McGraw, along with Trisha Yearwood, have been about the only true products of the Nashville system to navigate their careers successfully from pre-Shania to post-Shania. Nearly every other million-selling artist from the early- to mid-'90s has seen sales slip in the last few years.
Hill, in particular, has taken the energy and attitude of Twain's music while balancing it with the best aspects of what Nashville has to sell: a wholesome, attractive image; well-crafted tunes; and a sense of belief in the world, in other people, and in family.
True, the sound isn't particularly country, not in the traditional sense. But it's different from anything coming out of Los Angeles and New York. Right now, Nashville's best hope at maintaining, or regaining, the attention it had in the mid-'90s is to provide the kind of music the producers of Mad About You wanted but couldn't find elsewhere. They wanted a pop song with heart and depth, a catchy song that connected with people. They wanted the kind of song that writers like Matraca Berg, Beth Neilsen Chapman, Annie Roboff, Gretchen Peters, Kim Richey, and others regularly provide to Music Row performers.
Already, it's becoming clear that country forfeited part of what it gained in recent years because it lost its heart. In the early '90s, the music of Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, Trisha Yearwood, and others started out strong but then slipped into bombast and silliness. It wasn't the increasing influence of pop music that made Nashville lose its character--it was the emphasis of catchiness over catharsis.
Right now, though, Nashville is making better music than it did three or four years ago. The line-dance ditties have been ditched, as have the superficial rural signifiers about trucks and boots. But will listeners and record buyers return to country music? This much is certain: It will take more breakthroughs like Hill's "This Kiss" for that to happen. The music is there: Up-and-coming performers like Chely Wright, Julie Reeves, Brad Paisley, Claudia Church, and James Prosser have offered commendable new albums, while vets like Mark Chesnutt, Tim McGraw, John Michael Montgomery, and Kenny Chesney are investing their records with an attention to quality that wasn't there a few years ago. Even more promising is the quick success of a kick-ass act like Montgomery Gentry, who are even more commendable for combining brains and brawn.
But the current focus on pop-country doesn't mean that traditional country should be left behind. There will always be a niche market for people craving solid country songs, be they steel-driven ballads, engaging shuffles, or good-time swing tunes. And judging from this year's record releases, traditional country is as strong as it has ever been in the '90s, thanks to onetime radio favorites like Marty Stuart and Ricky Skaggs, longtime champions like Asleep at the Wheel and Rosie Flores, and regional favorites like Chris Wall and Dirk Powell.
In fact, it seems like traditionalism has the potential to flourish right now: Judging from the pop charts, listeners are turned on by rhythm these days, and traditional country music is packed with sprightly, engaging tempos. Unfortunately, Music Row seems anchored to robotic arena-rock rhythms--it's as if every country producer heard Journey, Bon Jovi, and Boston, and thought, "Now, that's how drums should sound!" But the world isn't as white or as rigid as the click-track beats rolling off Music Row suggest.
But even at its blandest, country music continues to stand apart, if only because it maintains its own niche in the marketplace--its own television channels, its own talk shows, its own magazines, its own awards shows. Along with that, country still places an emphasis on wholesomeness and on family that separates it from the rest of the pop world. Rock and pop currently thrive on eccentrics, deviants, and teen heartthrobs; modern country, on the other hand, markets stability, reliability, and earthiness.
At this point, though, even with Music Row purposely trying to focus on quality material, the best country music is still coming from renegades and restless spirits, artists who flourish partly because they're free of the formulaic Nashville music system. For the most part, these are the artists who've released my 10 favorite country albums during the first half of 1999:
1. Shaver, Electric Shaver (New West) After two acoustic albums of personal absolution and prayerful reflection, Billy Joe Shaver and his guitar-playing son Eddy come out breathing holy fire. The new songs advocate love, faith, and the dignity of the dispossessed while blasting the lazy SOBs who think they deserve something they haven't worked to receive. This father-and-son team's passion and poetry will likely make believers out of anyone within earshot.
2. Marty Stuart, The Pilgrim (MCA) Over the course of a theme album about betrayal, death, love, and renewal, Stuart exploits all of his loves and talents--bluegrass, honky-tonk, country rock--to explore the heights and depths of the human experience.
3. Kevin Welch, Beneath My Wheels (Dead Reckoning) Welch further develops his persona as a cosmic road mystic, a country Carlos Castenada of sorts, by pushing his songs deeper into philosophical examination. He has become an expert at exploring the natural tension between freedom and comfort, and between movement and home, and it always sounds as if his questions and conclusions come from deep experience. The album officially comes out June 22.
4. Mandy Barnett, I've Got a Right to Cry (Sire) Pairing lushly orchestrated ballads with finger-snapping swing tunes, Barnett's second album allows her to come across as a classic torch singer who has more in common with Patsy Cline and Patti Page than with Twain or Hill. Not everyone could rise to the occasion, but Barnett, with her burnished vocal tone and full-throated range, grabs her moment and expresses herself with subtlety and immense style.
5. June Carter Cash, Press On (Small Hairy Dog/Risk) An amazingly powerful and raw document, June Carter Cash's first album in 25 years finds the country music matriarch presenting deeply felt renditions of Carter Family originals, mountain spirituals, and stream-of-consciousness tales. Though primitively recorded, it has more heart and truth than anything country radio will play this year.
6. Del McCoury Band, The Family (Ceili) Bluegrass music is currently enjoying a creative and commercial resurgence, and leading the charge is the Del McCoury Band. Explosive on up-tempo tunes and emotionally charged on ballads, the group arranges each song into a distinctly powerful statement without over-polishing the raw soul of good mountain music.
7. Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band, The Mountain (E-Squared) This brash singer-songwriter has flaunted his ability at a variety of musical styles before, and his latest album proves that he can be as substantial at doctrinaire mountain music as he is at roots rock, modern country, and unfettered folk. Backed by the best bluegrass group around, Earle uses string instruments to conjure an elemental form of movement, yearning, and danger as he takes on everything from murder ballads to acoustic blues to tender love songs.
8. Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, Ancient Tones (Skaggs Family) Who says you can't go home again? Onetime bluegrass wonder Ricky Skaggs has hiked back into the deepest recesses of the mountains and set up musical camp. Judging from the potency of the work, it sure sounds like that's where he belongs.
9. Various Artists, Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons (Almo Sounds) A second, and better planned, tribute to the late country-rock pioneer, who showed his peers in the '60s and '70s the dramatic richness of traditional country music. The new tribute features expected highlights by obvious Parsons torchbearers like Lucinda Williams (who duets with David Crosby), Steve Earle (who trades lines with Chris Hillman), and Whiskeytown. But it also presents several surprises, including Beck's sincere duet with Emmylou Harris on "Sin City," The Pretenders' achingly beautiful version of "She," and The Mavericks' torchy treatment of "Hot Burrito #1." Overall, the tribute underscores Parsons' value as a songwriter, and it suggests that country-rock remains a fertile field, despite all the plowing that's been done.
10. Chris Wall, Tainted Angel (Cold Spring) When Nashville producers put cowboy hats on apple-cheeked young singers, they're trying to bestow the kind of authenticity that Chris Wall comes by naturally. He is the real deal, as he proves on his fifth solo album, which enlivens barroom honky-tonk with a dash of brawny Southern rock.
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