Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Pop Goes the Country

Country is once again in danger of losing its identity

By Michael McCall

DECEMBER 28, 1999:  At the beginning of the '90s, a chubby, hiccup-voiced advertising major in a cowboy hat emerged from the Nashville conveyor belt and ended up selling more than 90 million country records in less than 10 years. Then, toward the end of the decade, an attractive, navel-flashing Canadian sold 30 million country albums in the course of three years. A decade ago, those numbers would have sounded like a pipe-dream. Even the most positive of Music Row boosters would have been called delusional if they'd predicted that a couple of country newcomers could sell at such astronomical levels. But on the heels of such success, why is Music Row in such disorder and turmoil these days?

For good reason, actually. Despite the massive sales of Garth Brooks and Shania Twain--as well as the recent commercial gains of Dixie Chicks and Faith Hill--commercial country music is currently divided into a dangerous caste system. A small handful of big-name acts reap enormous profits while the majority of artists struggle ever more desperately in the face of plummeting album and ticket sales.

In a sense, Music Row is facing an exaggerated version of what it went through in the late '70s and early '80s. At that time, commercial country was divided into distinct camps: While the bulk of country performers sold at best maybe 300,000 albums each, the pop-crossover acts found their album sales leaping to a half-million or a million. In those days, the core country audience was a small but committed bunch; to accumulate more sales, an artist had no choice but to reach beyond that market. That meant either scoring a huge hit like "Elvira" or "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue," or it meant reaching the rock audience, as Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams Jr., and Alabama managed to do.

Because of those market truths, Nashville record executives encouraged some acts to change their musical arrangements to appeal more to adult pop fans or youthful rock fans. It worked for some, but ultimately the industry began to alienate its core audience by striving too hard to attract non-country record buyers--not to mention that many of these crossover attempts were awkward and at times downright awful.

These days, the goal is much the same, even if the means are somewhat different: Most Music Row executives, it seems, are encouraging their artists to travel down the path being paved by Twain, Hill, and the Dixie Chicks. So far, the result has been a load of clean-cut young adults--and an increasing number of teens--trying to find a way to dance in the most wholesome manner possible. From Martina McBride to Ty Herndon, from Chely Wright to Keith Urban, country singers are putting on shiny clothes and trying to act as if life is as peppy as an aerobics class, and as breezy as a day spent frolicking in the park. This trend has mostly resulted in loads of inane but upbeat pop-country fluff. And with a few notable exceptions, the music is largely being ignored by young fans while angering and alienating the country faithful.

Meanwhile, country radio listenership is plummeting. So are the average sales for mid-level, bread-and-butter country artists who aren't getting their records played on contemporary-hits radio stations or getting their videos aired on VH1. In other words, country's core audience is bailing. And without those listeners, Nashville is left trying to feed wholesome-but-sexy acts to the pop machine. That's not a healthy place to be.

However, 1999 did offer some positive signs. Alan Jackson and LeAnn Rimes both generated sales with albums built largely around covers of older, traditional country songs--suggesting that there is an audience hungry for such music. Moreover, in this year's most promising artistic trend, artists both old and new have looked to traditional mountain music for inspiration. There was a rush of bluegrass-related albums, and each one served as a reminder of how vital and powerful such music can sound when created with passion and character.

Despite Music Row's problems, plenty of good country albums exist for those willing to look beyond the narrow formulas of country radio. Here's a list of my favorites from 1999:

1. Marty Stuart, The Pilgrim (MCA) Boldly stepping away from commercial country music, Stuart uses various older country forms (bluegrass, honky-tonk, Southern rock, gospel) to tell a story about tragedy and redemption. He casts other voices perfectly, using Johnny Cash, George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley, and Pam Tillis to add drama to the story. But in the end, it's the strength of the individual songs that gives the collection its power.

2. Dolly Parton, The Grass Is Blue (Sugar Hill) A collection of rave-ups and folk ballads that captures the soaring glory and violent underpinnings of mountain music, Parton's best album in 20 years fully exploits the willful expressiveness of her sweet, pinched mountain chirp. It also gives her a chance to show how truly brilliant she can be as a conceptualist and an arranger: Transforming songs by Billy Joel, Johnny Cash, and '70s redneck rockers Blackfoot into potent acoustic tunes, she demonstrates that the innate musical strengths she flashed as a young woman remain intact.

3. Shaver, Electric Shaver (New West) After two acoustic albums of personal absolution and prayerful reflection, Billy Joe Shaver and his guitar-playing son Eddy return breathing holy fire and stomping out provocative country-rock songs that advocate love, faith, and the dignity of the dispossessed.

4. Dixie Chicks, Fly (Monument) Most new country stars become calculating market manipulators. But the three women who make up the Dixie Chicks prove they're different, using success as leverage to take artistic chances. In doing so, they've pried open the future of country music.

5. Tie: Merle Haggard, For the Record (BNA)/Kris Kristofferson, The Austin Sessions (Atlantic) Two heroic figures of country music's past redo their best-known songs. Though markedly different in style, their shared artistic temperament--honest, reflective, tough, defiant--displays the kind of character and commitment missing from today's country music.

6. Alison Krauss, Forget About It (Rounder) In an era when the sound of popular music reflects the louder and faster pace of life, Alison Krauss takes a radical step by creating an album of delicate, subtly stated acoustic songs ripe with mournful, reflective feeling.

7. Mandy Barnett, I've Got a Right to Cry (Sire) Barnett's burnished vocal tone and full-throated range get the room they need on this elegant country album, which pairs lushly orchestrated ballads with finger-snapping swing tunes.

8. Bruce Robison, Long Way Home From Anywhere (Lucky Dog) Instead of writing songs about outlaws or rebels, Bruce Robison portrays everyday people who struggle quietly with their desperation. In doing so, his carefully rendered, emotionally powerful songs depart from standard Texas country fare in all the right ways.

9. Kevin Welch, Beneath My Wheels (Dead Reckoning) Musically, Welch's new album mines the mystical textures of Delta rhythms, gospel harmonies, and lustful electric guitar. Lyrically, he examines both the light and dark side of a man struggling with his desires to experience life to the utmost.

10. June Carter Cash, Press On (Small Hairy Dog/Risk) An amazingly powerful and raw document, June Carter Cash's first album in 25 years is a striking collection of Carter Family originals, mountain spirituals, and stream-of-consciousness tales. Though primitively recorded, it contains more heart and honesty than anything on country radio this year.

The Next 10

  • Jim Lauderdale & Ralph Stanley, I Feel Like Singing Today (Rebel)
  • Del McCoury Band, The Family (Skaggs Family Records)
  • Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band, The Mountain (E-Squared)
  • Ricky Skaggs, Ancient Tones (Skaggs Family Records)
  • Buddy Miller, Cruel Moon (HighTone)
  • Carol Ponder, Pretty Bird (Cove Struck)
  • Alan Jackson, Under the Influence (Arista)
  • Chris Wall, Tainted Angel (Cold Spring)
  • Kelly Willis, What I Deserve (Rykodisc)
  • Derailers, Full Western Dress (Sire)

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