Horns of plenty: the Canadian Brass blends harmony and humor

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Horns of plenty The Canadian Brass blends harmony and humor

They are almost certainly the only internationally renowned classical ensemble to have posed for an album cover in flashy sunglasses. And when the Canadian Brass performs ballet music, its five members leap about the stage. Such antics have earned them some backhanded compliments – one critic described them as “the Harlem Globetrotters of brass ensembles.” As the Toronto-based quintet approaches its 20th anniversary next month, the group is striving for more respect. For its most recent recordings and its current tour, the group has teamed up with the principal brass players of the New York Philharmonic and Boston Symphony orchestras to play works by Ludwig van Beethoven and Venetian Renaissance composers. But in concert, members of the Brass still preface numbers with lighthearted patter. It is a way of reaching out to people who find classical music intimidating – or those who equate brass instruments with marching bands. Indeed, the group’s tuba player, Charles (Chuck) Daellenbach, describes the five musicians as “missionaries of brass.”

The group has attained a level of commercial success that some pop stars would envy. Last month, an estimated 65 million television viewers watched them play the Canadian and American anthems with U.S. trumpeter Doc Severinsen at the start of major league baseball’s all-star game in Anaheim, Calif. And on Aug. 18, the musicians will perform another sold-out “triple-brass” concert with their New York and Boston colleagues at the prestigious Tanglewood summer music festival in western Massachusetts. According to one music industry executive who has worked closely with the group, the ensemble earns more than $2 million a year, before expenses, through concerts and sales of more than 20 albums. When the musicians first came together, the repertoire of music written for brass ensembles was small. But the group has proven that it can dazzle crowds and even critics with everything from Johann Sebastian Bach fugues to George Gershwin show tunes.

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Daellenbach and trombonist Eugene (Gene) Watts, the American-born founders and only remaining original members of the group, are the ones most likely to step up to the microphone and crack a few jokes. Watts, who had put himself through college by leading a Dixieland band, came to Toronto to become the principal trombonist of the Toronto Symphony. There, he met Daellenbach, a graduate of the University of Rochester’s renowned Eastman School of Music who had accepted a music teaching position at the University of Toronto. The other members of the ensemble also have strong ties to the United States. The lone Canadian-born member, Fred Mills, originally from Guelph, Ont., was the principal trumpet player of the Houston Symphony Orchestra early in his career. He and the other trumpeter, Ronald Romm – who was a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic by the age of 18 – have been with the group from the early 1970s. French-horn player David Ohanian performed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 11 years before becoming the Brass’s newest member in 1986.

In the early years, most of the Brass’s performances were children’s concerts in southern Ontario schools. A breakthrough came in 1977 when the quintet became the first Western chamber group to tour mainland China. Two years later, they appeared at New York City’s Carnegie Hall. Since then, they have also had considerable recording success. Their 1987 Dixieland album, Basin Street, remained for 42 weeks on the crossover chart – the top-selling albums in a pop vein by classical musicians – of the U.S. music industry’s Billboard magazine and sold an impressive 120,000 copies. Last year, defying all conventional wisdom, the group recorded the first complete brass transcription of Bach’s demanding Art of the Fugue, usually performed on solo organ. The album received rave reviews in Europe and North America – and sold 40,000 copies.

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With more than 150 concerts a year and many long days in the recording studio, the Brass’s schedule is hectic. Their latest release, on CBS, is a triple-brass collection of Venetian Renaissance music titled Gabrieli/Monteverdi: Antiphonal Music. As a result of a bidding war, their next recording will bear the Philips label. Expected by December, it will feature triple-brass versions of Beethoven orchestral works, including the Fifth Symphony. Members of the Brass point out that the classical community has traditionally frowned upon the adaptation of musical compositions to instruments for which they were not originally composed. “But we have proven that audiences want this,” said Daellenbach. “You’re viewing a great masterpiece from another angle, and it has its own validity.” Another project in the works is an album of Kurt Weill music. Beyond that is anyone’s guess. “My nephew is into rap music and he is convinced he could write something for us,” said Daellenbach. For the group that has won over millions of listeners, success is a theme with seemingly unlimited variations.

PHOTO : Canadian Brass (from left) Ohanian, Mills, Daellenbach, Romm, Watts: reaching out

>>> View more: Songs of the sirens

Songs of the sirens

Abstract:

The Lilith Fair, a women’s rock-music festival named after Adam’s first wife, sold out its first four shows. Concert promoters, mostly middle-aged men, initially were opposed to the idea of a women’s music festival because they did not think it would feature enough diversity.

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They read tarot cards on the grass in the afternoon sun and danced under the moon to the sounds of Tracy Chapman. And before they left the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, Calif., a number of women-faced with lengthy lineups at the ladies’ rooms-took matters into their own hands and simply went into the men’s. Welcome to Lilith Fair, an event organized and headlined by Canada’s Sarah McLachlan, that is changing the nature of summer rock festivals. Dubbed everything from “Chickapalooza” to “Estrofest,” Lilith Fair offers a kinder, gentler alternative to the aggressive mosh-pit scenes of male-dominated events like H.O.R.D.E. and Lollapalooza. At the Shoreline ear- lier this month, the sold-out crowd of 22,000-four girls to every boy-enjoyed eight hours of music by 10 female acts that ranged in styles from jazz and blues to alternative rock and pop-folk. Whether it was the precise folky lyrics of Suzanne Vega’s Luka, the emotive, soaring vocals of Paula Cole’s Me or the funky acoustic pop of Jewel’s Who Will Save Your Soul, Lilith showcased thoughtful, introspective songs. Later, when Chapman sang her anthem, Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution, it seemed to underscore Lilith’s social significance. Said Vega: “I feel like I’m taking part in something historic, something that’s never really been done before.”

In fact, Lilith Fair continues a tradition that began in the 1970s with women’s music festivals featuring the likes of folksingers Holly Near and Ron- nie Gilbert. But those events were small, even quaint, by comparison-socially conscious, Birkenstocked gatherings that had little commercial impact within the music industry. By contrast, Lilith Fair-named after Adam’s rebellious first wife-is an economic force to be reckoned with. The first four dates of its 35-city North American tour are sold out, in 10,000- to 22,000-seat venues, making Lilith already this summer’s biggest ticket. By the time the all-woman tour rolls into Canada next month (playing Toronto on Aug. 15 to 16, Montreal on Aug. 17, Calgary on Aug. 22, and winding up in McLachlan’s home town of Vancouver on Aug. 24), a rotating roster of 51 acts will have given nearly half a million concert-goers an antidote to the angry messages of testosterone-fuelled rock.

Ironically, it was the raging, emotional blasts of Alanis Morissette that paved the way for Lilith’s more hopeful brand of fem-pop. Ever since Morisset- te’s Jagged Little Pill album hit sales of 15 million copies, the music industry has begun waking up to the commercial potential of singers like Jewel, Cole and McLachlan. Still, Terry McBride, McLachlan’s Vancouver-based manager and a partner in Lilith, remembers encountering resistance to the idea of an all-woman tour when he began booking venues last September. “Most con- cert promoters are guys in their 40s and 50s,” says McBride, “and some didn’t think an all-woman tour offered enough diversity.” According to Vega, who was around during pop music’s earlier flirtation with female musicians in the 1980s, the same attitude prevails at many radio stations. “A lot of program- mers are older men who think of women as a ‘type’ of music,” she says. “They don’t see that women play many different styles.”

That diversity comes through loud and clear in Lilith’s lineup, especially on the smaller, secondary stages that feature up-and-coming talent. McLachlan and McBride also show a commitment to Canadian artists. Montreal’s Lhasa, an expatriate American of Mexican extraction, may well be Lilith’s most exotic addition, blending Hispanic, gypsy and Parisian cafe music like a globe-hopping Edith Piaf. Meanwhile, Dayna Manning of Stratford, Ont., only 18 and still in braces, has a spirited, confident debut album of modern folk, Volume 1, out on EMI. Mudgirl, led by Vancouver singer Kim Bingham, leavens crunching guitars and slamming drums with a sunny, buoyant chorus on songs like the rocking This Day. And Tara MacLean, also of Vancouver, sings rich, moody ballads for the same record label, Nettwerk, that has fostered McLachlan.

But Lilith’s most singular new Canadian talent is Vancouver’s Kinnie Starr. Combining hip-hop beats, choppy rhythm guitar and provocative rap, Starr wowed the crowd at the Shoreline with a solo set. Relaxing backstage after her per- formance, Starr was enthusiastic about Lilith’s feminine focus. “It’s nice to be around other female players to see what they’re doing, what equipment they use and just to talk,” she said. “When I go into a recording studio and it’s only men, I feel intimidated. Here, I feel totally safe and confident.”

That sense of community is exactly what McLachlan had in mind when she con- ceived Lilith Fair last summer, with a successful trial tour of four cities. At the same time, with corporate sponsors who donated money to charities rang- ing from an AIDS organization to a rape and incest hotline, Lilith is making a highly visible statement about its organizers’ social concerns. But McLachlan does not see her baby remaining a girls-only club for long, and says she wants to broaden it in future to include male singer-songwriters. “There are a lot of great men out there like [Toronto musician] Ron Sexsmith, who maybe aren’t getting all the recognition they deserve,” she says. “I’d like to bring them into the fold and spread it around.”

>>> View more: Rainforest World Music Festival 2011

Rainforest World Music Festival 2011

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A to Z: From Algerian Oud Dudes and Accordions to Zithers and Zydekats

In an age when cell phones are common around the world and the connectivity of social media is growing like wild fire (Facebook, for example, has more than 750 million international members), ideas and music are circulating at an unprecedented rate. In this climate, the purity of musical styles is less defined and a world music festival such as the annual Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) in Borneo presents traditional music of many lands often tinged with influences of other genres, instruments, and sounds of the 21st century. Perhaps this is not surprising on an equatorial island in Asia, where remote longhouses have solar panels and the indigenous sape lute is now heard through amplifiers.

Certain themes emerged at the RWMF that cut across continents. Lost and found languages, instruments, and patterns of thinking were among them. Musicians from different continents spoke about singing in (saving) their languages, which were previously banned such as group members from Startijenn (meaning “energy”) in Brittany, France, whose parents fought for the language of Breton rather than the more dominant, national language of French.

Conversely, in Louisiana, kids were punished for speaking Cajun French rather than English in school. Vivacious violinist Lisa Haley, who is clearly proud of her 140-year-old tradition, and sings in the French Cajun dialect with her Zydekats band spoke of “Cajun music being banished to the garage. Because it was practically forbidden when I was in high school, I played it out of spite.”

At the festival there were also multi-lingual groups like the electrifying bhangra band, Kissmet, who rock out, singing in Punjabi, Hindi, Sanskrit, and English, which makes sense since they grew up hearing Gospel church music in the same neighborhood in England along with Hindu devotional songs and prayers from the Mosque. This blender mix of languages and sounds was a normal, daily occurrence for this group composed of three talented Indian Sikh brothers–who have never been to India–along with members from other lands. Ron Singh said his Dad liked North Indian music, while his Mom preferred Elvis.

Ora Barlow, a Maori woman from New Zealand spoke of over 200 indigenous Maori instruments, which were lost when Christian missionaries discouraged their usage and then of a recent revival of some, including bullroarers and ocarinas associated with ancient myths of their people and land. Sandy Scofield, a First Nations Canadian musician referred to North America as Turtle Island, reminding us the lyrics of the traditional songs and pattern of thinking emphasize respecting the ancient ways, and honoring the elders, community, and sense of place. Along with her trio Iskwew, (meaning “woman” in Cree) they sang only social songs in public, reserving the ceremonial repertoire for actual rituals in their native land.

“The voice is one of the oldest, most ancient sounds used in struggles, resistance, and healing,” explained Ora of the Pacific Curls band, whose members span across continents. Song lyrics are a window into culture, and this was clear at the festival whether singing about the Maori moth and flute goddess or a tune titled, “Paper In Your Shoe.” Lisa Haley explained there were three reasons for this: to cover up a hole in your shoe, to store money rather than in a bank, and to write down someone’s phone number at a dance. The Sisters In Song, We Are Strong vocal workshop was a chance to share these common bonds between outstanding and powerful women performers. It also affirmed that workshops are the very heart of the festival.

The intersection of music and repression was another theme, which emerged as musicians from Iran, Australia, and Ireland each addressed this topic. The hearty Irish balladeer James Riley (who sings about coalminers poor working conditions) from Paddy Keenan’s band said: “We were not allowed to play Irish music in the 1600s and in the 1700s we fought to keep our music, which is an oral tradition passed from person to person sitting around the table.” David Martin of the eclectic Australian band Kamerunga added that some of their songs speak of pain, suffering, and freedom.

The soulful Senegal griot, Malike Pathe Sow commented how difficult it is to separate political and artistic freedom, adding, “It is the role of the artist to tell the people what is really going on.” And the poignant vocalist Mamak Khadem reminded us women in Iran don’t have the freedom to perform as she does, since she now lives in the United States. Victor Valdes, the charismatic Mexican harpist who has performed for royalty, suggested if musicians ruled the world, there would be harmony.

Each group included some indigenous instrument in this world music festival, yet most ensembles reflected a contemporary approach, call it fusion, or as the musician Zurab Gagnidze from the Republic of Georgia in the band The Shinn (meaning “coming home”) explained, he heard his grandmother sing Georgian folk music when he was three years old and as a young man listened to the Beatles, whose sound went through the Iron Curtain. He said, “We mix our music with flamenco and jazz and so on. If something is good, we want to integrate it into our music. It is a peace-making music.”

But all the workshops were not peaceful. At the Euro Exchange session, after hearing some music from Lapland, one of the Polish musicians from the Warsaw Village Band skillfully held forth on a 140-stringed hammered dulcimer and then eyed members of the Finnish band, Frigg (who play “Nordgrass”) and said,” The Swedes took everything from us when they occupied Poland; now they play polkas.” But Alina Jarvela, who had characterized, her own instrument, the violin as “pretty boring,” shot back quickly, “We are not Swedes; we are from Finland.”

We did hear polkas from Poland, Finland, Brittany, and the US along with other dance forms from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Italy, Ireland, Kenya, Scotland, and Senegal. The audience went with the groove, regardless if it was merengue, mariachi, a beat box or a Baroque gavotte. Dance provided an international cultural union transcending other barriers.

The Rainforest World Music Festival happens every July in the large state of Sarawak, East Malaysia on the island of Borneo. The festival was founded 14- years ago by Canadian musician Randy Raine-Reusch, who still works as the Artistic Director today. Collaborating with hard-working locals from Sarawak, he has crafted a truly outstanding festival. Many of the returning audience members who make the annual pilgrimage have come to trust the artistic direction of the festival believing, even if you have not heard of many of the groups, you can expect an outstanding program on each night’s concert and an inventive interplay at the workshops.

Musicians from over 20 countries perform in three days of evening concerts alternating on two outdoor stages at the edge of the rainforest while the afternoons are reserved for more intimate thematic workshops in a variety of venues scattered around the inviting Sarawak Cultural Village site at the foot of Mount Santubong.

This appealing cultural village is set around a lake; it’s easy to walk from one longhouse to another although the property spans 17-acres with trails through the rainforest. The village, which is a living museum spotlighting seven of the 27 distinct ethnic groups living in the area–through architecture, crafts, cuisine, music, and dance–is well worth a visit any time of year. It’s a place to experience the daily cultural performance in their theater, try a Penan blowpipe, listen to the local sape lute (played below a lovely tree-of-life mural) at the longhouse of the Orang Ulu (a collective term for people of the highlands), watch weaving in the Iban house or learn about sky burials near the carved totem pole and taste the sweet sago delicacies outside the Melanau tall house.

The Sarawak Cultural Village has received awards acknowledging the preservation of music, dance and culture. General Manager, Jane Lian Labang added: “We want to strike a balance between a dynamic culture for tourists as well as instilling cultural pride of the people of Sarawak.”

During the 2011 RWMF, the centrally located lake offered a welcome surprise. An ensemble of women from the South Pacific archipelago of Vanuatu, wearing leaves they had collected and sewn together, played water music. This was not Handel’s Water Music, but a semi-circle of a half-dozen women standing waist-deep in the lake as they “played” the water as their instrument. The Leweton Women’s Water Music group sliced, diced, slapped, sloshed, pushed, cupped, and gathered the water, creating a myriad of rhythms and timbres inspired by the sounds of nature: waves, dolphins alongside a boat, thunder, and a rain shower. The audience, myself included, was mesmerized.

This elemental performance was indeed a traditional music passed down from their grandparents without interference from the 21st century. The women had never left their country before this trip and each day was filled with something new. Among the long list of firsts for them, Cecelia Lolonun mentioned riding an escalator at the airport, seeing an orangutan, and hearing a piano.

While listening to the Leweton Women’s Water Music was a personal highlight of the festival for me, there were other musical moments that also held great resonance. One workshop featured modal music with musicians from Iran, Tunisia, Algeria, and Bulgaria. Particularly entrancing was the solo by Balkan wind player Theodosii Spassov, who combined traditional kaval playing (splitting the air column while holding the instrument at an oblique angle) along with circular breathing and contemporary techniques offering different tone colors (occasionally using a trumpet embouchure) and sometimes adding multi-phonics, simultaneously singing and playing in a virtuosic display, while seemingly channeling Eric Dolphy. He literally blew me away.

At the end of this workshop was a playful improvisation: the kaval player interacted with the Tunisian oud player Jean-Pierre Smadj (pronounced “smudge”), who seemed to smudge his samples, performing on his Apple laptop laced with humor. He gently swayed back and forth, putting body and soul into his “ax” while creating interesting layers with pops and clicks along with the Algerian oud master Mehdi Haddab, the other oud dude from DuOud, who at times sounded like Jimi Hendrix. Their sounds mixed with the arresting vocals of Persian musician Mamak Khadem, doubling on the daff frame drum (associated with dervishes).

The biggest challenges of the festival for me were selecting which of the workshops to attend (since three were held simultaneously) and listening to interfering audio issues at workshops where the interactions between musicians from different groups often created tasty new sounds. In spite of these concerns and the three days of travel to get there, I plan to return.

Dato Rashid Khan, C.E.O. of the Sarawak Tourism Board says: “Please come and see the nature, culture, and adventure that we have to offer you.” I hope to do just that, exploring the natural wonders in the Malaysian state of Sarawak as well as a festival leaving both body and soul sated. After all, where else can you discover such diversity coupled with high-quality musicianship from around the globe featuring Masters of the Sape from Borneo, water music from Vanuatu, impressive finger-picking from Colorado’s Blue Canyon Boys playing tunes like “No Worries in My Pocket” and “The Jalapeno Flashback?”

The Rainforest World Music Festival is a place to soak in the joyous music and dance from groups like Kenge Kenge from Kenya, and the truly electrifying bhangra band Kissmet, asking the audience to “scream from their hearts”. Hope to see you at the 15th anniversary celebration in the rainforest next summer, where the range of music is only rivaled by the biodiversity of nature.

For More Information

The Rainforest World Music Festival–www.rwmf.net

The Sarawak Tourism Board–www.sarawaktourism.com

The Malaysian Tourism Board–www.tourism.gov.my

Borneo Adventure–www.borneoadventure.com

Damai Beach Resort–www.damaibeachresort.com

Iris Brooks is a writer specializing in cultural and travel-related topics. She and photographer Jon H. Davis are a photojournalism team for Northern Lights Studio

Country Goes Pop!

Abstract:

The entrance of country music into mainstream culture is examined, focusing on crossover bands that span the differences between country and popular music. Topics include the mixing of rock and roll and country melodies, and the adoption of contemporary expressions and word usage for lyrics.

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While the country-music industry has been unable to launch enough new stars, some of its hottest acts are playing the glitz-and-glam world of pop for all it’s worth.

On the surface, the country-music industry looks like it has never been more prosperous or its performers more popular. The hottest acts are all over the place:

*the breakthrough trio Dixie Chicks plays Lilith Fair, the tour circuit featuring musical divas from diverse genres;

*hit-maker Alan Jackson performs at a concert in Brazil, where a bilingual version of his I’ll Go On Loving You is climbing the charts;

*at glitzy, music-award ceremonies, Faith Hill wins more trophies than she can carry;

*Kenny Chesney has a music video for his six-week chart-topper How Forever Feels that is raunchy enough for MTV;

*two of this year’s top three touring musical acts (the George Strait Country Music Festival and Shania Twain, following only the ageless Rolling Stones) are both considered country, depending, of course, on who you talk to; and

*there are even rumors of the omnipresent Garth Brooks, country’s perennial megaseller, cutting an uncharacteristic pop-rock album, In the Life of Chris Gaines–a move that would probably put him over the hundred-million-album sales mark.

Along with unprecendented radio, television, and film exposure, international touring and record sales of country artists are at all- time highs. Yet despite the appearance of industrywide success, overall record sales have depended on just a relative handful of key artists, whose Top Ten hits have dominated this year’s country and, frequently, pop charts: Twain (Come On Over and The Woman in Me, each of which has sold well over 10 million albums), Dixie Chicks (Wide Open Spaces), Hill (Faith), and Jo Dee Messina (I’m Alright). “Living legends” like George Jones (Cold Hard Truth) and Kenny Rogers (She Rides Wild Horses) produced hit albums, while Tim McGraw (A Place in the Sun) is being touted as the Second Coming of Brooks, who, with some ninety-five million albums sold, continues to sell from a formidable list of proven hits.

Yet even as Twain and Brooks sell millions of albums, there’s trouble on the home front in Nashville. There is not enough gradual development of the new acts launched in Music City each year, and everyone’s paying for it. Some labels are disappearing, and the survivors are downsizing staffs and cutting off songwriter stipends, alienating traditionalist fans in the process.

‘Disposable Acts’

“The newer acts are disposable like pop acts and have a life of two years,” says Barry McCloud, Nashville-based author and musicologist. “This is possibly a sign of the times, or the fact that radio does not give the necessary support, and the acts, in many cases, do not have a firm fan base.”

“The people at the helm of the record companies have no idea of what has gone before. They look at current trends only,” insists McCloud, who has been observing the country-music scene for over thirty years. “People like Garth, George Strait, Brooks & Dunn, and Reba McEntire are selling in large numbers. In country music, there have always been about twelve acts that sell in big numbers.”

The solution? “Nashville needs a system that will train people,” explains McCloud, pointing out that instead of signing a crop of thirty-plus acts each year, record companies “need to look back to the past and utilize the farm-system approach” in developing new acts. “In the past, all the major labels had ‘cadet’ labels that released initial singles,” he recalls.

The problem of a limited “star system” in Nashville recording circles may have its roots, ironically, in the unbridled optimism that struck the industry with the arrival of the talented “Class of 1989” (Brooks, Jackson, Clint Black, Travis Tritt, Mary Chapin-Carpenter). Country- album sales almost tripled over the next five years, increasing from $724 million in 1990 to almost $2.1 billion in 1995. Yet after reaching record heights in that year, country-album sales sagged, increasing by only 2.7 percent by last year. (The gain was largely due to one artist: Brooks, who accounted for 20 percent of the nearly 73 million albums sold, according to SoundScan, which tracks sales.)

As a result of sales leveling off, major labels have fired a number of executives, and Nashville’s leading song publisher halved its Nashville roster last October, citing declining royalties. Meanwhile, mergers are costing more jobs in the area. Some see a parallel to the mid-1980s, when the country-music industry almost self-destructed following the boom started by the 1980 movie Urban Cowboy.

However, Nashville may just be a victim of its own meteoric success. As the coffers filled up, the big labels built expensive office buildings, gave employees raises, and hired more people. Now those companies are desperate to cut costs, and small labels like Rising Tide, Magnatone, Almos Sounds, Imprint, Decca, Tower, Challenge, and Favor have sadly all closed their doors in the past couple years.

And it’s not only the new acts who are suffering. Diehard fans of traditional country music are complaining about being sold out by money-hungry acts who are ignoring their musical roots and crossing over into the arena of mainstream pop music.

“We turn to a country radio station and hear noncountry music that’s being called country, and the industry tries to pawn it off as country,” says a disgruntled fan, “Sbickta,” in opinion forums on the Internet edition of Nashville Digest. “But real, traditional fans know that this isn’t country. Believe me, I heard songs on ‘pop’ stations in the seventies and eighties that sounded just like today’s so-called country music.

“So-called country music of today is bland, boring, pop music that has fiddle and steel added to try and fool listeners into believing it is country. Fans of real country music know better!” declares Sbickta. “As for Faith Hill … and others like her … the industry people make these folks what they are today. The fans don’t have much of a say in the matter anymore.”

Musicologist McCloud concurs: “The major country acts, in some cases, have eroded the ‘real country’ content, while others like George Strait and Alan Jackson have appealed to the public who are largely not being catered to by country radio.

“This is not just the record companies. This also applies in large part to publicists and definitely radio stations. So many stations that now play country were not so long ago formatted as rock or pop stations,” adds McCloud.

Some fans take it one step further. “No one is singing country music anymore. But no one in power cares because there’s more money to be made in pop music,” laments “Vagabon” on the Internet forum. “I have stopped discussing music with people because I’m so tired of hearing ‘I love country music–I have every Garth and Shania album!’ ”

McCloud takes a more philosophical approach. “The media love to pigeonhole musical styles rather than say there is good and bad music. What may be called country because it emanates from Nashville may be called rock if it comes from Seattle,” he says.

One such singer who may be hard to pin down musically is Mark Wills, winner of this year’s Top New Male Vocalist at the 34th annual Academy of Country Music (ACM) Awards. Hailing from Blue Ridge, Georgia, Wills, 27, epitomizes the new generation of Nashville artists: eager to make music as well as a name, but keeping well in touch with the musical influences that continue to shape country’s sound.

“I think that country is basically Everyman’s music and so, essentially, is what we call pop. I think that pop is recognizing the great music that is out there, whether it be country or any other genre,” says Wills, who had three No. 1 singles in a row on the country charts–I Do (Cherish You), Don’t Laugh at Me, and Wish You Were Here.

Wills’ musical roots are a mix of traditional and country. “I can definitely see myself writing pop songs. I grew up listening to Journey and Bon Jovi at the same time I was listening to Steve Wariner and George Jones,” he says, adding that one of the singles from his current album, I Do (Cherish You), was written by Keith Stegall and Dan Hill and recorded by the pop group 98 Degrees, so he is familiar with the great songs that can cross genres.

“I’m definitely paying attention to the quality of songs that I record, and I am sponging up as much knowledge as I can from the great songwriters whom I’m fortunate enough to work with,” says Wills. Meanwhile, for Wills, performance is everything. “I really love the chemistry our band has when we’re playing a show. I love to do a Journey tune and the band totally rocks! I really like to throw in a little rock in my show for fun.”

Wills’ well-received intermingling of rock and country may be a window to today’s state of music. Notes McCloud: “Looking back and comparing acts from the eighties who were thought to be too pop, such as Holly Dunn, Lee Greenwood, and even the Eagles, they now sound downright country next to some of today’s crop of acts.

“Some of the songs recorded now are cliche-ridden and would have been consigned to the waste bin instead of trying to achieve higher levels,” he reflects. “It would seem that, not only in country but in all forms of communication, successive generations rise to their own level of mediocrity.”

Intelligence Insulted

“It’s not a problem for artists to branch out and try different formats and to try and make some extra money for themselves,” insists Vagabon. “But it’s a big problem when the radio stations insist on playing these ‘pop’ songs and passing them off as ‘country’ on a continual basis, thereby insulting the intelligence of their listenership by passing off a fake product and not giving us fans what we really want.”

McCloud attributes a large part of the problem to radio as well. “There are over twenty-five hundred stations playing country today [more than twice as many as adult contemporary], yet barely one hundred fifty form the singles charts,” notes McCloud. “We are now in the electronic age, and it should be mandatory for all radio stations to submit their play lists. At the moment, we have a 6 percent sampling to determine who will be our future stars. Would we elect our officials that way?”

McCloud characterizes radio stations as getting bored with acts quickly and rarely playing anything before 1989. “There is a phenomenon that I have called ‘The curse of the third single.’ If radio continues to support an act’s third single, then there is a chance that the act will survive,” insists McCloud, who stresses the stations have singles “released by the consultants, not the labels or the artists.”

Despite the importance of station play in furthering careers, there is no substitute for the real thing: live performance. “Entertainers are important to the continuation of country music. Standing in front of an audience like a stuffed dummy no longer cuts it,” says McCloud. “Remember, we are competing for the same bucks that buy tickets for Michael Jackson, Madonna, and the Rolling Stones.”

If there’s any country artist who is not a “stuffed dummy,” it’s Jo Dee Messina, a self-described “high-energy person” who was acclaimed Best New Female Vocalist at this year’s ACM awards. Viewing herself as a “traditional country artist,” Messina, 28, speaks excitedly about the down time in between shows. “Just walking around is a gig. I don’t even recognize the success, even when somebody recognizes me and says, ‘Can I have your autograph?’ ” jokes the vibrant, pull-no-punches redhead, whose openness belies the fact that she is the first woman in country music to ever have three consecutive multiple-weeks No. 1’s in a row: Stand Beside Me, Bye, Bye, and I’m Alright.

Messina cites Dottie West, Reba McEntire, Dolly Parton, Bonnie Raitt, and the Judds as those who have helped shape her sound and style, but it was her trying to break into the industry that fine-tuned her hunger to succeed. “I think I did learn a lot from the early setbacks I had, but they were painful as hell,” she reveals. “I’m not going to say they were good things–feeling like people would forget you [after two initial hits: Heads Carolina, Tails California and We’re Not in Kansas Anymore]. But I’m all right–my fans showed me they remembered me, and radio was there for us, which blew me away.”

As for her message, the Nashville-based artist takes the traditional bent: “I only know what they tell me–that I sing a lot about their lives. Their lives and our lives happen to be the same. I’ve had a lot of people say that my songs are empowering in nature. It’s an honor to hear them say that.” Loyal fans or not, “paying your dues,” she insists, “never ends, but I don’t mind working that hard.” Messina, like Wills, is representative of that small but hopefully not dying group of talented new artists who have bided their time and perfected their craft, yet haven’t lost sight of how tenuous success can be.

Despite the increasingly rare individual success stories, McCloud passes mixed reviews on the current state of country. “The Dixie Chicks are trying to be themselves. What a breath of fresh air they are– retro-country–going back to where they were,” he says, noting that some alternative country is a “definite effort to reclaim the heritage, much as Willie Nelson did when he started to play in Austin.”

“I once said that heavy metal would be called country and it is already evident: Shania Twain and Faith Hill just happen to record in Nashville,” McCloud quickly adds. “Country music has always been a sponge, soaking up influences from all over and wherever. The problem nowadays is that there are too many influences–and not all of them good. Does country become the jack of all trades and the master of none?”

On this the jury is still out. But when the smoke clears after all the industry layoffs, country music soundtracks, cameo TV appearances, and pop-marketed songs, one would do well to bet that the diehard traditional fans will have their way. For after all, tradition is what country music is all about.

Stephen Henkin is an Arts editor at The World & I.

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