(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
You know, since everybody but me knows what’s wrong with country music these days, why don’t we talk today about what’s right with country music.
Based on several events in the past few days, I’m seeing plenty of things that are still right with country. Wednesday night’s concert presenting CMT’s 100 Greatest Songs of Country Music showed why a genre that was built on songs almost a century ago continues to thrive on songs. An enthusiastic audience knew most of the words and sang along. “God,” said a fan sitting next to me, “I love these songs!” Singing the Top 12 songs was a striking lineup of singers ranging from Ray Charles to Kenny Chesney, from George Jones to LeAnn Rimes, from Martina McBride to Glen Campbell, from Vince Gill to Marty Stuart, from Deana Carter & Sara Evans to Trace Adkins, from Chris Cagle to Kimberly Locke. Those artists represent a huge range in voices, backgrounds and musical styles but they share one bond: a love for a good country song.
Songs also have other values: a group of fans behind me was making bets over their cell phones on which songs would finish in the Top 5.
After the show, Lower Broadway was bustling and teeming with life at midnight, the honky-tonks packed with excited fans. There were middle-aged women aggressively strutting down lower Broadway in their “FUDC” tee shirts — and those initials do not stand for “Freedom, Unity, Dignity & Charity.”
The beginning of Fan Fair Thursday morning (June 5) saw fans lined up for blocks along Commerce and down Fifth Street to Broadway, waiting to get into the Convention Center to visit with stars and get their autographs and be photographed with them. No matter that the level of the artists who are taking part drops every year. The big stars feel they no longer need Fan Fair. Some day, when the cheering stops, they’ll need those fans again.
A couple of blocks away, another long line stretched up First Avenue, as fans waited to get into Kenny Chesney’s concert kicking off Fan Fair. One of country’s greatest strengths is that there is still room in the fans’ hearts and souls for a Kenny Chesney — who is a mainstream radio star — as well as room for a Ray Charles, who has been singing country songs for more than 40 years, but is no longer played on mainstream country radio.
Last weekend I went to see a couple of other refugees from mainstream radio. A concert by Merle Haggard and Marty Stuart in Oxford, Miss., was both a preview of a possible country future and a concise summing up of country’s strengths. Nashville’s WSM-AM disc jockey Eddie Stubbs, in opening the show, pointed out that there is life beyond mainstream country radio, noting, “There’s much more to country music than what you’re being force-fed on FM radio. The music you will hear today is music of substance and integrity.” The concert itself was a masterful display by two of country’s giants, two songwriters who are also consummate singers and who know how to charm and hold a crowd.
The next day, Haggard and Stuart gathered in Oxford with a number of other artists for a press conference at the home of one of America’s greatest novelists. “I want to thank William Faulkner for letting us play in his yard,” beamed Stuart under the towering oak trees in Faulkner’s front yard as he outlined the objectives of what they’re calling the Electric Barnyard tour. “We’re going back to the small towns, back to where country music started, back to the heart and soul of America,” he said of the tour, which will play a series of smaller towns, beginning July 6 in Sierra Vista, Ariz.
“We’re going back to remembering the forgotten ones,” Haggard added. Other artists on the tour represent a wide array of country music: bluegrass award winner Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, roots masters BR549, heritage country and gospel singer Connie Smith and the vintage music group Old Crow Medicine Show. This traveling troupe of musical originals can do much to remind audiences why country music was created and why it still exists.
In thinking back to that 100 Greatest concert, Ray Charles explained much of country’s appeal when he talked about the song that he performed on the show. He said that some people mistakenly have criticized Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors” for its earthiness. “Nobody’s coming out saying anything filthy,” he told CMT News. “You understand what I mean? You’ve got these people who are more purer than God and they say things like that but I don’t see anything that’s risque’ about that. It’s just saying the truth.”