NASHVILLE SKYLINE: I Hear America Singing

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

We live in interesting times musically. There is more bad music available than the founding fathers and the Constitution ever envisioned. On the other hand, there is wonderful music being created — it’s just not always made available commercially. But sometimes it is, providentially.

What were undoubtedly the two most adventurous popular CDs in the past year also turned out to be the biggest audience and critical breakthroughs to come since another musical darkhorse — the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack — broke expectations and went on to sell more than 6 million copies, without benefit of radio play.

Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me was a modest little offering from a promising young singer on a jazz label, and that was about all it seemed to be. That is, until people started paying attention to its sensuous attraction. Meanwhile, the Dixie Chicks surveyed their initial success, toted up their dollar figures, sued their record label and subsequently went off home to Texas to lick their wounds and to make a woodshed record with few expectations. They cut an acoustic album of music they liked — absent any record label supervision or adult surveillance. While Nashville CDs routinely rack up $1 million-plus recording fees, their Home CD reportedly came in at under $100,000.

Jones and the Chicks then proceeded to dominate the market. Critically as well as commercially. The best historical parallel I recall is in the early 1960s when 1962′s Flatt & Scruggs at Carnegie Hall and the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Time Out (released in 1959) were both selling well to the same audience. There was the same roots country and jazz crossover identification. I can certainly testify to the audience appeal because I was just a stupid kid at the time, but I bought both those on the same day, and I could hear something calling to me from both of those records. I could hear an honesty and sense a bedrock of music values.

And Flatt & Scruggs and Brubeck still hold up today and sound fresh and innovative to new audiences. I still meet young people who have those albums in their collections. There’s a good reason why. Jazz and bluegrass are the only two original forms of music developed in America, and those two albums are emphatic reasons why. To repeat a clich√©, you can hear America singing in that music.

And these days you can also hear America bitching. Jazz purists and bluegrass purists are disdaining both Jones and the Chicks. That’s why jazz purists and bluegrass purists may be lucky to sell 3,000 copies of a CD while Jones and the Chicks are clicking merrily along with seven-digit sales figures. Give the people what they want, and they will buy it.

There are naysayers already who are nipping at Jones for being too populist. They said the same thing about Brubeck. Too accessible, too populist, too middle class. In a word: too popular, or, really, too common. For me, that translates as too basic. The three songs that nail Jones’ album, for me at least, are three pop chestnuts that she wholly appropriates as her own: Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You” (long identified with the great Sarah Vaughan), Nashville songwriter John D. Loudermilk’s “Turn Me On” (which became a Nina Simone classic) and the Hank Williams standard “Cold, Cold Heart.” She turns the latter, especially, inside out, and rebuilds it as a fresh statement on the whole man-woman situation.

The Dixie Chicks’ album speaks for itself. I think they’re finally hitting their stride musically. The Chicks, oddly, are still critic-proof because most self-important music critics still don’t condescend to take country music that seriously. Which is, of course, the critics’ problem.

Both Jones’ and the Chicks’ CDs are being embraced by a demographic that’s been blown wide open: men and women, country and pop, boys and girls, ranging in age from 13 to 70. Which is not what music conglomerates know how to deal with. What the hell happened to females 25 to 49? Blown away. There’s no box to put these chicks in. And that sends a message to the Nashville mossbacks who persist in believing that country fans listen only to country music. Norah Jones is more country than certain country stars you or I could name right now.

What I perceive in the listening audience is a hunger for the real thing, regardless of labels or genres. Good, honest music — without the studio whine of ProTools artificiality — is something people aren’t offered much anymore. But, when they hear it, they know it. And, they embrace it and they buy it.