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Nashville Scene Survival Tactics

Country music panders to pop (again), but good music still thrives

By Bill Friskics-Warren

DECEMBER 28, 1998:  From Puff Daddy to Master P, hip-hop and urban music's biggest playas make no bones about why they want pop airplay for their artists It's about the Benjamins. On Music Row, though, hitmen still act as if making records is more about music than pushing product. But if that were the case, we wouldn't be seeing some of country's biggest stars--Garth, Shania, LeAnn--pandering to Top 40 radio. Contrary to what some might say, this isn't so much a case of the cream rising to the top as a simple matter of numbers.

Airplay, you see, means sales, and airplay in more formats means even more sales. Record companies are banking on country's pop appeal to help Music Row bounce back from the 4-percent drop in market-share it has suffered since '93--when country accounted for an unprecedented 18.7 percent of all records bought in the U.S.

Moments of pop ascendancy have occurred, of course, throughout country's history. Whenever audiences tire of twang, the music assumes a more uptown cast, only to swing back in a down-home direction as people hunger again for the whine of fiddle and steel guitar. This time, though, fans of hard-core country might not be able to count on the likes of Waylon and Willie, or Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam, to bring the music back home to its roots.

For one thing, country's audience has changed. Music Row now wallpapers the homes and offices of suburbanites who, like Garth and Trisha, grew up on the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, and KISS. Having courted--and won--this demographic, the industry can't afford to lose it by letting the music's pendulum swing back toward the honky-tonks. As more power is consolidated into fewer hands, record execs now have the means to make sure that it doesn't.

Which is why, in 1998, those of us hoping to satisfy our twang fix had to look outside Nashville, or at least outside the town's majors. Fortunately, there was a lot of good music out there, be it the honky-tonk of Heather Myles, Dwight Yoakam, Dale Watson, Paul Burch, or Junior Brown; the neo-countrypolitan sound of Mike Ireland & Holler; the bluegrass of Jerry Douglas and the Bad Livers; the music of Texas troubadours Willie Nelson and Lyle Lovett; or the old-timey but hardly antediluvian strains of Freakwater, Tom House, Gillian Welch, and the Freight Hoppers.

That said, '98 wasn't a total washout for Music Row. Allison Moorer released a breathtaking debut; Vince Gill made like a mountain soul singer again; BR5-49 made a studio album that tapped the looseness and energy of their live show; and Vern Gosdin, George Jones, Connie Smith, and Jim Lauderdale all released strong honky-tonk records. And while some held up better than others, Deana Carter, Alan Jackson, Karen Staley, George Strait, Pam Tillis, Suzy Bogguss, the Mavericks, Don Williams, Randy Scruggs, and the Wilkinsons all made commercial records that sounded as if these artists were putting out for no one but themselves.


1. Mike Ireland & Holler, Learning How to Live (Sub Pop) Born of Ireland's discovery that his wife and his best friend were sleeping together, this devastating song-cycle brings to mind the tortured romanticism of Ray Price and Johnny Bush. From start to finish, barbs of electric guitar hound Ireland like the sting of betrayal, while the throb of bass and drums echoes his heartache, and surging strings aggravate the catch in his ravaged tenor.


2. Allison Moorer, Alabama Song (MCA) Much more than the sum of her influences, which range from Merle Haggard and Tammy Wynette to Dusty Springfield and Bob Dylan, Moorer conveys a sense of herself--vulnerable, tough, complicated--that's as indelible as her flaming-red hair. Her humid contralto is the sound of longing itself.


3. Heather Myles, Highways & Honky-Tonks (Rounder) Myles' clear, throaty belt may be reminiscent of Jean Shepard, her hard-driving twang of Buck Owens, but she's no mere throwback. Rather than simply plundering the Bakersfield songbook, Myles plumbs the themes of cheating and heartache with the authority of someone who has lived them.


4. Willie Nelson, Teatro (Island) When Willie first recorded these anguished originals for Liberty 35 years ago, the label gussied them up with chipper background singers. Here, working with Emmylou Harris and producer Daniel Lanois (who uses a lighter hand than usual), he recasts them as an avant-country answer to The Latin Playboys.


5. Tom House, This White Man's Burden (Checkered Past) House's ballads and breakdowns take their cues from the likes of Charlie Poole and Uncle Dave Macon, pickers who approached music with much the same intuitive, freewheeling spirit as House does here. I bet those old-timers would have appreciated House's subversion of rhythm and language, especially the way he infuses the mountain ballad tradition with fevered ramblings la Bob Dylan and the Beats.


6. Freakwater, Springtime (Thrill Jockey) Despite its outwardly jocund title, this Louisville stringband's breathtaking fifth album abounds with the heartache and loss of its predecessors. As Catherine Irwin's wrenching originals and the group's aching harmonies attest, death doesn't give a shit if the dogwoods are in bloom.


7. Deana Carter, Everything's Gonna Be Alright (Capitol) With its nods to Tanya Tucker, Bobbie Gentry, Bill Withers, and "Wild Horses"-era Rolling Stones, Carter's latest comes across as an homage to '70s pop radio. And it's a good one--a record that never sounds retro or loses steam. If I were Sheryl Crow, I'd be watching my back.


8. Paul Burch & the WPA Ballclub, Wire to Wire (Checkered Past) Channeling Floyd Tillman, Roger Miller, and Basement Tapes-era Bob Dylan, Burch makes writing songs for the ages sound easy. He spins yarns and conveys a sense of place as vividly as fellow revivalist Gillian Welch.


9. BR5-49, Big Backyard Beat Show (Arista) Looser and more freewheeling than the group's full-length debut, this follow-up finds Nashville's favorite hillbilly band capturing the energy of their live act in the studio. Accounting for nine of the 14 tracks here, songwriters Chuck Mead and Gary Bennett prove they can hold their own with the likes of Buck Owens and Billy Joe Shaver.


10. Karen Staley, Fearless (Warner Bros.) Staley's first album in a decade is a minor revelation, a commercial country record with grit, smarts, and chops that never panders to Music Row's current crossover craze.


The next 10: Vern Gosdin, The Voice (BTM); Gillian Welch, Hell Among the Yearlings (Almo Sounds); Vince Gill, The Key (MCA); The Freight Hoppers, Waiting on the Gravy Train (Rounder); Lyle Lovett, Step Inside This House (Curb/MCA); Bad Livers, Industry and Thrift (Sugar Hill); Connie Smith, Connie Smith (Warner Bros.); Dwight Yoakam, A Long Way Home (Reprise); Jim Lauderdale, Whisper (BNA); Various Artists, The Pine Valley Cosmonauts Salute the Majesty of Bob Wills (Bloodshot).


Reissues: Various Artists, From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music (Warner Bros.); Dock Boggs, Country Blues (Revenant); Hank Williams, The Complete Hank Williams (Mercury); The Maddox Brothers & Rose, The Most Colorful Hillbilly Band in America (Bear Family); Roscoe Holcomb, The High Lonesome Sound (Smithsonian Folkways).


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