It’s the fastest-growing music in America. It’s a three-billion-dollar-plus industry. Cable stations devoted to it reach sixty-two million homes. And yet, says one passionate follower of country music past and present, its story is over.
November 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 7
Though today’s country-music industry would loudly dissent, it makes sense to consider the generation of George Jones, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings the last great infusion of country-music creativity, the last wave of artists to truly enrich the music. In the wake of Nelson’s huge success, country descended in the early eighties, the awful Kenny Rogers years, to an almost insufferable blandness, the emblem of its pasteurization Dolly Parton, with her eager passage from fresh-voiced singer-songwriter to Top 40 hack. In retrospect it sometimes seems that the only late seventies-early eighties star to resist sweetening her music, Vegas style, was Gram Parsons’s old singing partner Emmylou Harris.
Following her lead, a flock of younger singers grew curious about Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, and Merle Haggard. The East Kentucky native Ricky Skaggs, born in 1954, apprenticed with Ralph Stanley’s bluegrass Clinch Mountain Boys, joined Emmylou’s Hot Band, and went on his own in 1980, riding an electrified, bluegrass-influenced sound to big record sales. Skaggs’s music was given a name: New Traditionalism. Dwight Yoakam, the most talented country singer to emerge in the eighties, was also born in East Kentucky but fell in love with Buck Owens’s California honky-tonk. In the late seventies Yoakam was rejected by Nashville as uncommercial. After heading to California, he played his loud, snarling blend of honky-tonk and rock ’n’ roll in Los Angeles bars, hooked up with the brilliant guitarist and producer Pete Anderson, and made in 1986 what remains his best album, Guitars, Cadillacs Etc. Etc.
Ricky Skaggs’s selection as the Country Music Association’s 1985 Entertainer of the Year signified New Traditionalism’s commercial acceptance. Of course, it also meant Harris’s, Skaggs’s, and Yoakam’s music would be fed into Nashville’s conveyor belt, and indeed, before long dozens of imitators were capturing the trimmings (fiddles, acoustic guitars, sparse arrangements) but not the heart of New Traditionalism. Clint Black and Randy Travis, almost always classified as New Traditionalists, are competent performers, but they lack Emmylou Harris’s passion or Dwight Yoakam’s bite. Vapid newcomers like Alan Jackson are marketed now as traditionalists, demonstrating once again the ease with which Nashville’s producers and studio musicians can depersonalize a fresh style. Meanwhile, a genuine traditionalist like the talented young Marty Brown probably has little future in Nashville. Record executives, one insider told me, are embarrassed by Brown’s old-fashioned music. “He disgusts them. They won’t even have lunch with him.”
The latest strain to emerge, “Contemporary Country,” or country-pop, is country music’s most thorough self-evisceration yet. Whether genuinely self-expressive (Rosanne Cash, Wynonna Judd) or blandly commercial (Garth Brooks, whose No Fences and Ropin’ the Wind are, at more than ten and nine million respectively, country’s all-time best-selling albums), Contemporary Country represents country music’s problematic future.
Problematic future? Nashville’s accountants would hoot. From 1985 to 1993 country-music record sales almost quadrupled, from nearly $440 million to $1.75 billion. Country’s share of the recorded-music market jumped from 10 percent in 1985 to 17.5 percent in 1993. Though rock is still the nation’s most popular music, country is the fastest-growing. Country radio is America’s favorite format, with twenty-five hundred stations playing full-time. A relatively new medium, country-music cable TV, reaches sixty-two million homes; most Americans can flick on country TV (live music, MTV-style videos, talk shows) at any time.
An amazing commercial triumph, indeed—and with it go the last shreds of the rich heritage we have traced.
For Contemporary Country symbolizes, along with Kmart and McDonald’s, the end of regionalism in American life. Popular music, just as much a commercial product as groceries, is no longer marketed locally but by a few huge corporations: Sony, Time-Warner, MCA, BMG. A teenager in Shreveport flicks on the radio. He gets not the “Louisiana Hayride”—the “Hayride” went off the air in 1971—but Madonna’s latest hit. Frightened of losing the teen-agers’ dollars, executives in Nashville concoct music sounding more and more like Madonna, less and less like George Jones. “Why is country music so big these days?” the singer Marty Stuart asked rhetorically in a 1992 New York Times story. “It’s the reason Long John Silver sells more fish than the catfish house on the edge of town—they’ve succeeded in making fish taste not so much like fish.”
Nor is the new fish very nourishing. As no less an authority than Willie Nelson complained about country radio, in an unpublished 1992 interview with a Time correspondent: “They are not playing the people I like to hear. So I don’t listen. Public radio does it now.”
Intended to go down easy now, country music sounds like nothing so much as what used to be called soft rock. Indeed, if the soft rockers James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, and the Eagles were new artists today, they would without a doubt be called “country” and marketed by the record labels’ Nashville branches.