The 1990s have been a remarkable place to be in country music. After a lull in the mid-’80s, a new breed of artist, born at the end of the baby boom and musically raised by The Beatles and Aerosmith as much as Haggard and Jones, emerged to transform Nashville’s most famous format. Huge hits from diverse acts like Vince Gill, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Suzy Bogguss, Doug Stone, Joe Diffie and Travis Tritt triggered unprecedented album and concert sales. The number of country radio stations and dance clubs reached an all-time high as Garth Brooks and others made it cool again to be country. It was indeed a Nashville Renaissance.
As the fireworks faded and the music settled comfortably into the decade, Music City, however, became complacent and even a little lazy, content to churn out slick artists and music in order to woo the marketplace. Now, as we look toward a new age, Nashville struggles with the hangover left by country’s biggest party and attempts to re-define itself.
In 1985 country music was suffering from the fallout of the John Travolta movie, Urban Cowboy. The outlaw movement of the ’70s had run its course. Barely kept alive by artists like George Strait, Alabama and Reba McEntire, country music needed a shot in the arm. Then in 1986, out of North Carolina came Randy Travis, intent on bringing back fiddles and steel guitars to the pop-laden music, and a transformation began. Travis was joined by other “new traditionalist” artists like Ricky Skaggs, Kathy Mattea, Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle, Ricky Van Shelton and Patty Loveless, all of whom made music to appeal to the sensibilities of regular Americans.
American pop and rock music was also changing. Tired of hair metal bands and arena rock, consumers were bringing rap and grunge into the mainstream consciousness. For some, these “new” forms of music were creative expressions, but others were alienated and found themselves looking for a new music they could relate to. They found their answer in country.
In 1989 Jo Walker-Meador was at the helm of the Country Music Association where she had spent nearly 33 years. A country music lover who was an integral part of the development of the Country Music Hall of Fame and championed anti-piracy legislation, Walker-Meador helped rally the then-smaller music community to arms.
“We thought, ‘we need to get busy, we’ve gotten too complacent here, and we’ve got to do something to help our music,'” she recalls. “There was a real spirit of working together toward making a change in the music and in the songs.”
Diversity became the order of the day. Talented singer/songwriters like Vince Gill, Clint Black and Garth Brooks were signed to labels and released their albums to a waiting public. The hits started happening. Black’s two-stepping “Killin’ Time,” Brooks’ ballad, “If Tomorrow Never Comes” and Gill’s heartbroken plea, “When I Call Your Name,” burned up the radio charts. Television networks like TNN and CMT provided an outlet for the newest promotional medium, the music video, and artists were able to gain exposure much faster than they had before. People liked the new Nashville sound because there really was something for everybody. The hard-driving sounds of Travis Tritt harmoniously co-existed with Vince Gill’s sweet tenor and Mary Chapin Carpenter’s folk-tinged songs. There was no denying the traditional country of Alan Jackson and Joe Diffie, and Clint Black and Garth Brooks early on were making records reminiscent of their own idols, George Jones, Merle Haggard and George Strait.
“I was really excited about how doors were opening to individualistic types of material,” says Suzy Bogguss, who scored with hits like “Outbound Plane,” “Someday Soon” and “Letting Go.” “There was so much variety. Gosh, look at Travis Tritt versus Alan Jackson! Everybody was very unique, with their own vibe going on and their own influences from the past. So many of us were singer/songwriters, very focused on the idea of strong lyrics. I think that was a strength for us, that we were trying to speak to people without being too heavy. It was communication.”
Tritt, a Georgian who came into his own with songs like “Country Club,” “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin'” and “Help Me Hold On,” agrees.
“People were looking for an alternative to same-sounding pop,” he notes. “Overnight sensations just disappeared after one or two singles. Don Henley (of The Eagles) told me at the time that ‘country is doing so well now because country is where melody and lyric have come to live.’ I couldn’t agree with that more. It seems that when people get tired of one thing because it loses its originality or ability to reach out and touch somebody, they will leave.”
Sure enough, Nashville’s explosion became an implosion. Heady with its unprecedented success, the industry began to release less substantive music that focused more on the hit factor than the songs. Nashville began to trip over itself in an attempt to capitalize on the younger market of music buyers, whose wallets were outstretched with more disposable income than ever before. The shift in focus from the artistic to the financial began to crack the industry, and by 1995 the fallout had begun. Although there was still much to be proud of, with the jaw-dropping success of artists like Garth Brooks, Faith Hill, the Dixie Chicks and Shania Twain, other viable-but-less-lucrative artists began to be squeezed out.
“I call it ‘the dirty underwear theory,'” muses Joe Diffie, who has long graced the airwaves with songs like “Ships That Don’t Come In” and “Honky-Tonk Attitude.” “You have an artist who sells five, 10 million records, so now the industry is interested in finding the next artist who’ll come up with a particular song or look and sell 10 million records, and whether they last or not doesn’t matter. I think it can be a little shortsighted to not stick with an artist through a growing period and let them stretch their wings.”
Tritt agrees. “It seems that the industry isn’t as interested in investing in careers. They seem to prefer overnight sensations — ‘This is hot right now so let’s get more of it.’ The thing I loved about the early ’90s was that all of us were different and distinctive. We had very definite styles, and our record labels took time to go past just the first album.” (Interestingly, Tritt’s former label, Warner Bros., just released Claudia Church and James Prosser from their roster, after each cut only a single album.)
Obviously most responsible for bringing country to a new mainstream level is Garth Brooks. The Oklahoma-born singer has re-created country music, taking it literally to new heights and places it has never been before. While it was his music that initially caught the fancy of the masses, it certainly has been his ability to engage and keep a new kind of fan, one who had never been a country fan before. Other artists noticed.
“He has an incredible gift for getting in front of people, a charisma,” says Bogguss. “He illuminated the music that all of us were making. How many times did country music end up on the cover of Time and Newsweek before he did? It’s just amazing.”
Diffie adds, “He has an innate sense of what to do and how to do it. He’s brought a lot of people to country who before would never have even glanced at the country section of the record store, people who stop and say ‘Well, who’s this, I might try one of these.'”
“There’s no denying that the guy has had tremendous impact on not just country, but music in general,” says Tritt. “His success has also trickled down to some of the rest of us. For those of us who came out after him and around him, we’re trying to do some of the same things Garth has tried to do from the beginning, and that is to say to the world, ‘Hey, this is not your grandfather’s country music. We can still hold on to our traditional values and roots, but we can also take you to a place where maybe country music has never gone.’ We were all out there to say, ‘Hey, you people who say you don’t like country music, try country music again for the first time.’
“Actually, the thing that Garth influenced me most on was in how he started spending money on big light shows and lasers that we like to use to make the live show big enough to compete with Kiss and Aerosmith. As soon as I won the Horizon Award from the CMA (in 1991), and I saw how that brought people to my shows for the first time, I immediately followed Garth and went out and invested a lot of money in the stage show. I thought, ‘You know, if Garth is going to set this pace, if anybody is going to follow that pace, it should be me.’ I felt that way because I believe in doing the same thing Garth does on-stage, putting on a show and entertaining people.”
The artists who came out in the first part of the decade have made a lasting impact on the newcomers of the end of the ’90s. As country music tries to re-find its way after losing its musical footing, the climate is different now. While a number of debuting artists in 1989 and 1990 found themselves at the top of the charts, in 1999 only one act was able to garner similar success — Brad Paisley. Currently enjoying the No. 1 status of his single, “He Didn’t Have to Be,” Paisley was strongly influenced by his immediate predecessors.
“Country music was cultivated in living rooms and live radio, and it was the music of the people,” Paisley asserts. “The best thing about the early ’90s is that it won a lot of new people over. The problem is that it took it upon itself to try and change into pop music, in an attempt to rival pop music. To me, [Garth’s] No Fences was the perfectly-executed country album. Alan Jackson has always been country, as was [Clint Black’s] Killin’ Time. Interestingly, those albums were also the artists’ best-sellers, if I’m not mistaken. I don’t think it was a coincidence; it’s the fact that the music they were making then was very, very real. To me, that’s a bigger challenge than always changing your musical style and doing all these other things. To me, the challenge is staying with country music and being creative with it, because there’s still a lot of room to grow.”
Having such an impact on younger artists is a rewarding feeling for those from the early part of the decade.
“It’s very nice to ride a wave of success,” admits Tritt. “It’s exceptionally nice to know that you had a little something to do with creating that wave. For awhile I really felt I was part of a very magical experience. We can all look back with a lot of pride.”
Meanwhile, with theories abounding as to country’s current artistic and commercial problems and grim rumors projecting the continued decline of the music into the millennium, it’s worth noting that not everybody is preparing for the demise of country music. Neither veteran Walker-Meador nor newcomer Paisley are very concerned.
“The music has always been cyclical, but it has never gone down below what it was before the last peak,” observes Walker-Meador. “It will just climb and sort of plateau, but after a year or two it will rebound. It’s not uncommon for it to fall off after a few years, but it never goes down below as it was when it started the rise.”
Paisley adds, “Country music fans haven’t all died in the last two years, they’re still around. People still want to hear country music. We (the industry) do our best, historically, when we are ourselves.”