NASHVILLE SKYLINE: News Flash: Country Music Pretty Good

If you look at country music across the board these days, artistically it’s in terrific shape. I realize that’s not a popular view right now. Country in many ways has become so fragmented that different wings of the family despise each other.

Still, take a look:

Even though a lot of sappy, greeting-card music is still being pumped out of the Music Row factories, there’s just as much that’s good. We have artists as disparate as Steve Earle and Toby Keith stirring passions at different ends of the political spectrum. Superstars are being created again. Despite the industry’s best efforts over the years to get rid of such old war horses as Willie Nelson , Johnny Cash , Merle Haggard , Earl Scruggs , Kenny Rogers , George Jones and Dolly Parton (more a fine, forever young filly than war horse there), they keep attracting new, young audiences. Despite (or because of) the major record labels’ shrinking artist rosters, a crop of healthy indie labels is springing up, allowing more voices to be heard — and in a commercial environment where they don’t have to sell platinum to be successful. A 75-year-old-trouper like Ralph Stanley finally gets his hosannas while still alive. Bluegrass seems permanently re-energized. We have a progressive young group like Pinmonkey managing to dent the charts and actually get radio play. We have a vibrant alt.country or Americana scene — or whatever the hell they call it these days — with talents as strikingly diverse as Gillian Welch and Alejandro Escovedo and Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison and Heather Myles and Buddy & Julie Miller. Texas music is strong and proud again, which is something that hasn’t happened since the heady Willie and Waylon days of the early and mid-1970s. Country audiences have on the whole rejected country boy bands and country Britney Spears wannabes.

So, there should be some room for rejoicing.

Commercially, though, country music is not in such great shape. Although it looks as if the total sales figures may rebound this year, that may be just a temporary measure. Last year was the worst for country album sales since SoundScan began keeping those numbers in 1992. Total country album sales in 2001 were about 34,847,000. In 1992, the number was 54,394,300. The closest that sales have edged close to 1992′s high was in 1995, when the total hit 50,415,000. In 1992, the sales leader was Garth Brooks . In 1995, it was Shania Twain. There haven’t been years like that since.

Still, this year, country is selling again in spite of the absences of Garth, the Dixie Chicks , Shania and Faith Hill .

One reason why is that country is getting artists — and music — with identities again. Toby Keith, Alan Jackson , Kenny Chesney and O Brother, Where Art Thou? have taken up some of the slack left the last couple of years by the absence of Garth, Shania, the Chicks and Faith. Promising new vocal presences such as Blake Shelton , Darryl Worley and Joe Nichols are showing evidence of a strong second line of artists emerging. Heavenly voices such as Allison Moorer and Sonya Isaacs that used to be chased off from Nashville are now being encouraged. There’s a third line of good young artists in the wings, such as Brad Martin, Kevin Denney and Elizabeth Cook.

Does the world really need a new Shania Twain album? We’ll find out this fall. If Shania and the Chicks and Faith and Tim McGraw ‘s new albums sell true to form in the fourth quarter of this year, then country may return to its salad days at retail. Can that last? If I knew that, I would be sitting in Luke Lewis’ chair at Universal Music.

Label convergence and compression has resulted not only in the loss of artists from the bigger labels, it’s also caused the disappearance of talented and knowledgeable record label chiefs. Bruce Hinton, who’s leaving the helm of MCA Nashville, is one of the last of the true music men at the head of labels (there’s also been one such woman in Nashville: Evelyn Shriver). Much as I respect Luke Lewis, who is adding MCA Nashville to his triumvirate of Universal labels — the other two being Mercury Nashville and Lost Highway — I don’t think it’s realistic to expect one person to run three major labels. Which probably means it won’t be three major labels for very long.

Country radio itself is going to face its day of reckoning in the coming years, as the effects of massive consolidation become real, in terms of artists’ careers and — just as importantly — in the nationwide pool of knowledgeable people to run those stations. Some of the biggest radio consortiums need to prove they’re not just houses of cards.

Still, when you consider country music’s history and some of the awful periods that it’s been through (more on those another time), it is sounding pretty damned good these days.

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo)