NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Articles of Faith

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

Poor Faith Hill . She just can’t please anybody these days. After a few pop hits, she puts out a pop-sounding album and takes to the pop diva TV circuit and what happens? The pop critics resoundingly scald her, telling her, “We’ve already got a Celine Dion.” And the country music critics roundly scold her for supposedly disowning country music, saying, “What happened to the Faith Hill we used to have?” Her new pop-ish single is dying a slow death on country radio. Meanwhile, pop audiences are not rushing to embrace it. What’s a girl to do?

Make up her mind, I guess. What’s it going to be? Country or pop? Being a little bit of each is not working so swell — unless your name happens to be Shania Twain , that is. But let’s not be too hasty there — the critics and the public haven’t yet heard Twain’s new album. So far, Twain’s successfully skating by with her new single.

LeAnn Rimes has so effectively burned her country bridges that rebuilding them seems beyond the realm of possibility. Her clumsy attempts at being all things to all people are sad to watch. Whoever’s advising her is doing Rimes no favors.

There are, of course, many historical precedents for this country-to-pop odyssey in country music. The most dramatic has been Dolly Parton ’s. After shedding her gingham dress image as Porter Wagoner ’s duet partner, Parton built a spectacular country music career based on her disarmingly honest songwriting, her irresistible personality, her gorgeous voice and her glamorous image. The latter three tempted her to the seductive lures of Hollywood and the pop music world. And she was successful — for a season or two. Then she saw herself becoming last year’s fashion.

Parton’s problem was that most of her country music audience felt thoroughly alienated from her. They didn’t want her back. And her pop crowd had grown bored and moved on to the next new thing. It’s taken Parton many years to come back to country music, and she’s had to come in via the back door, through bluegrass music.

The ideal for the truly ambitious country music svengalis has always been to take their pop superstar wannabes to pop stardom without giving up their safe, loyal country core audience. The problem has always been that the country core audience has a tendency to feel insulted when offered pop music from their heretofore beloved country artist. And guess what? They dump ’em. And there’s no guaranteed salvation waiting over on the pop side.

The pop audience is very fickle and trend-happy. It’s built on quicksand. The country audience — despite everything that’s been done to it and said about it — remains loyal, built on solid bedrock. Once an artist is a proven country commodity — well, that’s always been a lifetime pass and I don’t see it changing anytime soon. But the quandary remains for country artists who seek to venture beyond the occasional crossover success in the pop market.

Patsy Cline , who was another major country artist reaching pop stardom, died before it became a problem for her. No one has successfully jumped to pop while trying to remain country, at least in name. That’s the way the audiences seem to want it. Trisha Yearwood and the Dixie Chicks have successfully remained true country artists and accepted whatever pop success has come their way, without changing their music or their identities. Garth Brooks by and large drew pop audiences to country without changing his music (Chris Gaines being another story.) A lot of people are closely watching Lee Ann Womack ’s flirtations with pop. As they will scrutinize Tim McGraw ’s future endeavors.

I once asked Otis Williams of the Temptations what he thought about the Rolling Stones’ re-make of the Tempts’ great song “Just My Imagination.” Williams’ reply? “It’s exactly what you would expect the Rolling Stones to do to it,” he said. That said, why do what you’re not particularly suited to do? Why not be happy with what you can do exceedingly well? There are a lot of reasons why. And you’ve seen them in action, in all areas of life. In country music, it’s usually called “growing a career.” More often than not, it’s killing a career. There are deep reasons why country audiences love country music. Starting with reason number one: because it’s country music.