Country Goes Pop!


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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