Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Showing Improvement

Country starts heading in the right direction

By Michael McCall

JUNE 22, 1998:  The shift has begun. Ever so slowly, Nashville is moving mainstream country music back toward better songs and stronger performances. Line-dance fever has burned itself out, so we've finally seen an end to the incessant parade of obvious guitar hooks and boringly insistent beats. The novelty song--a bucktoothed cousin to the line dance--also appears to have left the building. When their jokes started drawing more grimaces than guffaws, Music Row writers stopped trying to find cloyingly cute ways of calling upon country-music archetypes.

In short, country music is no longer riding atop any commercial trend; it has taken stock and returned to fundamentals. Suddenly, stars and newcomers alike are recording songs with mature messages--whether serious or fun, lyrics show more nerve and more cleverness these days. As a result, the overall tone of country music has improved, both on record and on radio.

Already, the year has seen a few disappointments. Randy Travis, Pam Tillis, Big House, and Terri Clark attempted to change musical directions but headed down artistic dead ends. And the music industry has been forced to contend with its biggest seller, Garth Brooks, whose megalomaniacal business practices have had destructive effects on his labelmates and everyone else in the industry.

But, for the most part, many of the artists who've issued records thus far in 1998 are digging deeper for material and aiming for a higher level of quality in both songwriting and musical arrangements. This holds true for high-profile veteran stars, among them George Strait, Brooks & Dunn, Reba McEntire, Faith Hill, Dwight Yoakam, and John Michael Montgomery. And it holds up as well for mid-level artists such as The Mavericks, Tracy Byrd, Steve Wariner, Gary Allan, Jo Dee Messina, Suzy Bogguss, Daryle Singletary, Wade Hayes, and Rhett Akins.

Even more important, 1998 has seen more promising debuts than usual. Chris Knight, Shane Stockton, The Lynns, The Kinleys, and Melodie Crittenden have all put out strong collections that reveal gumption and vision, while interesting but flawed introductions by the Thompson Brothers, Bruce Robison, and the Dixie Chicks suggest that these artists have the stuff to make an impact, if given a chance to develop.

Of course, this evolution comes as a reaction to falling sales. But does the trend toward more mature music mean that Nashville is no longer chasing a younger audience? In fact, the opposite may be true. A friend of mine in her early 20s recently became a country music fan, thanks to what may be the year's most perceptive song, Kenny Chesney's "That's Why I'm Here." My friend, who's currently putting her life back together with the help of a 12-step program, connected deeply with the song, which tells of a man taking his own first step toward recovery. But before she heard Chesney, this young daughter of the Deep South ignored country music. Now she tunes in daily.

Her change in musical taste flies against a modern Music Row precept: In the '90s, country music wrongly equated youth appeal with silliness and shallowness, and it lost some of its listeners precisely because it tried to appeal to the lowest common denominator. To think young people don't connect with serious lyrics isn't true. From Nirvana to Rage Against the Machine to Matchbox 20, from Tori Amos to Jewel to Fiona Apple, artists who speak of personal difficulties, troublesome truths, and complex emotions draw young listeners by the millions. There's nothing wrong with a fun song, so long as it doesn't condescend to its audience. But it's flat-out wrong to think that serious songs don't attract young listeners and record buyers.

Along these same lines, the question of integrity in country music too often gets reduced to an argument over the virtues of traditional sounds versus contemporary sounds. It shouldn't. Trisha Yearwood, Hal Ketchum, and The Mavericks don't need to record two-steps or honky-tonk tearjerkers to create compelling country music. They score by sounding fresh and by connecting with worthy material, whether it's a Latin-tinged dance song, a straight-ahead rocker, or a lush, adult ballad. As Keith Harling's lackluster debut proves, leaning on traditional country doesn't automatically give an artist credibility. But when the country tradition is mined with ingenuity, as Gary Allan and Shane Stockton have done, the music remains in touch with its roots while also relating to the present.

To continue an annual Scene feature in conjunction with Fan Fair, we've compiled our top 10 country albums released before June 15. Never before have so many albums competed for space on the list as this year.

1. The Mavericks, Trampoline (MCA) Nashville's hippest band reinvents itself again, this time transforming lean, cool twang into a newly impassioned form of horn-driven, string-laden pop. From luxuriant ballads to Mancini-style melodies, from a Dixieland romp to an all-out gospel stomper, Trampoline makes a successful leap in whatever direction it heads. Along the way, it captures the glorious sonic splendor and riotous fun of classic productions by Phil Spector and Berry Gordy.

2. Mike Ireland and Holler, Learning How to Live (Sub Pop) Unlike most new country artists, Mike Ireland doesn't lack artistic ambition. Taking on everything from Bakersfield honky-tonk to lush, '60s-styled country pop, Ireland has practically encompassed the whole of Dwight Yoakam's career in one album. His songs, most of them self-penned, succeed in transforming one man's heartbreak into a universal human experience.

3. Chris Knight, Chris Knight (Decca) A rural Kentuckian who makes country music with a natural grit, Knight writes moving songs about farmers and working stiffs, a good portion of whom make mistakes that resonate throughout their lives. His acoustic songs are as tough as they are tender, and his country-rockers barrel down the rarely traveled dirt roads of an angry man's soul.

4. Dwight Yoakam, Long Way Home (Reprise) A traditionalist once again, Yoakam goes back to his roots on Long Way Home. After growing increasingly abstract and experimental through the '90s, the Kentucky native returns to the barrooms and revisits the mountains, drawing on the same influences that informed his '80s work. With songs that take a downbeat view of love, Yoakam still masters this sound better than nearly any of his contemporaries.

5. Bobby Hicks, Fiddle Patch (Rounder) Hicks' bow work for Bill Monroe in the '50s ranks among the best fiddle ever recorded, and for the last 17 years, he's been the only constant member of the Ricky Skaggs Band. As his third solo album proves, Hicks is more than an outstanding sideman. Rather than compile an album showcasing instrumental chops, Hicks sets up a thoroughly entertaining survey of bluegrass, swing, and traditional waltzes packed with personality and wonderful arrangements.

6. The Fly-Rite Boys, Big Sandy Presents the Fly-Rite Boys (HighTone) Though Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys have long presented finger-snapping tunes with a light heart, this instrumental collection shows just how fantastic the five band members sound when left on their own. Jumping with perfectly timed jive through boogie-woogie, swing, and blues-tinged barroom tunes, the group presents a thoroughly entertaining revue of timeless American musical styles.

7. Ralph Stanley and Friends, Clinch Mountain Country (Rebel) Too often, duet albums such as this one fail, largely because the musicians involved act too polite and deferential. But Stanley, a 71-year-old patriarch of traditional mountain music, challenges his famous guests (Bob Dylan, Vince Gill, and Dwight Yoakam among them) to match him as he soars into his driving, starkly primitive style of bluegrass.

8. Gary Allan, It Would Be You (Decca) Gary Allan follows his promising 1996 debut with a surprisingly confident effort that shines like no other sophomore effort has in recent years. Seamlessly bridging country traditions with modern sounds, and singing in a distinctive, expressive voice, the Californian proves the equal of George Strait and Alan Jackson. Sly and sincere in just the right measure, It Would Be You deftly moves from honky-tonk to swing to poignant balladry. It deserves to be placed on a shelf alongside Jackson's Who I Am, Strait's Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind, and Randy Travis' Storms of Life.

9. Shane Stockton, Stories I Could Tell (Decca) Shane Stockton contradicts many of modern country's current conventions--thank God. For one thing, he writes all of his songs without any help from Nashville pros. And what solid songs they are: Stockton's lyrics are bold rather than sensitive and plainspoken rather than dramatic. In addition, he displays a fine sense of how to update honky-tonk and swing traditions, and he owns a distinctive voice that lucidly exploits the strengths of his lyrics. Taken all together, Stockton's assets make for an audacious debut with strong commercial possibilities.

10. Blue Highway, Midnight Storm (Rebel) Using metaphors from nature to probe eternal issues of life, Blue Highway manages to bring a fresh perspective while traveling down that ol' bluegrass road. The album features several of the genre's hottest young instrumentalists, and it's a powerful work that should appeal to audiences beyond the bluegrass faithful.

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