NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Future of the Music Is Here Today

The rousing new Dixie Chicks song “Long Time Gone” serves up a potent reminder of a simmering split in country music that won’t go away. When Natalie Maines sings — bitingly — of modern country music, “They got Junior but they ain’t got Hank,” she suggests, one supposes, that modern country music may tolerate Hank Williams Jr. but has no room for the original. There is, bubbling under the surface in Nashville, a lingering family feud that threatens to rend the country genre in two. The public expressions of this are many: why won’t country radio play O Brother, Where Art Thou? Why couldn’t you get a banjo or fiddle on country radio till the Chicks came along? Why were Nashville record labels breaking their necks not too long ago to sign cute boy bands and nubile teenage chicks with pierced bellybuttons?

Fittingly, the Chicks presaged today’s acoustic renaissance which resulted in the multi-platinum success of O Brother. Perhaps more importantly, it was the Chicks’ spirit of personal independence, of musical adventurousness and a just plain don’t-give-a-damn attitude — missing too long in Nashville — that many fans welcomed. True country music fans really don’t like hearing Nashville record label presidents proclaim — as some have — that they personally hate most of what they hear on country radio but that they’re forced to record it because that’s what country radio wants. And country radio says they’re forced to play it because that’s what focus groups and advertisers say “key” country music listeners want.

This is a hot issue that’s been going on in country music for decades. Its public face is a pop-vs.-traditional pendulum that swings both ways, and it may never be fully resolved. The defiant Chicks brand of Huck Finn-light-out-for-the-territories spirit and play-music-my-way attitude, though, is creeping back these days in unpredictable ways.

For my money, the three most potent performances on the recent ACM awards show (re-airing Sunday, June 2, at 1 p.m. and 8 p.m. ET/PT on CMT) were not expected. Kid Rock and Hank Jr.’s unpredictable version of “The ‘F’ Word” was not welcomed by all (including one of our reviewers and a number of our readers), but it displayed country’s true renegade spirit as we haven’t seen since Waylon Jennings in his prime. And, hey, if Kid Rock feels a little bit country, he sure as hell is when compared to some of the simpering choir boys we find on some major labels these days.

Then, on the ACMs, Travis Tritt and Jerry Douglas joined forces for a formidable run through “Modern Day Bonnie and Clyde.” Tritt himself can very convincingly adopt Jennings’ swaggering onstage authority and confidence, unlike any other contemporary male singer. And Douglas has managed to make the Dobro the most menacing guitar sound since the days of Link Wray and his riot-inspiring song “Rumble.”

Kid Rock/Hank Jr. and Tritt/Douglas were both inspired pairings. Finally, since Trisha Yearwood is not a hot young babe eager to expose a cute bellybutton or a bouncy single (“If I can’t see my bellybutton, no one else can,” she once told me), I was surprised to see her with a showcase spot on the show. Her timeless display of elegance and class in lending a certain gravitas to Rebecca Lynn Howard ’s “I Don’t Paint Myself Into Corners” was very rewarding. And a classic case of younger songwriter finding validation by mature artist.

Much of country’s artistic success is due to this spirit of experimentation, to a willingness to try new things, to look to the past to find new ways of looking at today.

Two CDs that remain in heavy rotation in my player right now are Merle Haggard ’s The Peer Sessions and Pinmonkey’s debut album, Speak No Evil. Haggard is an ageless country troubadour who can still re-invent himself with every turn. In this case, he rediscovers some of country music’s classic, lesser-known songs and in doing so casually displays both the charm and the power of country songwriting.

The young Nashville group Pinmonkey achieves a very effective melding of that same tradition with original songs and a thoroughly modern musical approach. I was pleased to hear that, since this indie debut album came out in February, the group has been signed by the major Nashville label group RLG. I remain confident that RLG will let Pinmonkey do what they know how to do best on record.

I am always amazed that so many people who make a living in country music seem to have absolutely no memory. No memory of the glories — and the mistakes — that have come before. And no ability or vision to take those glories and mistakes and build on them. Past+present=future. That’s where the future of my country music certainly lies.

Nashville Skyline is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo