(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Contrary to some published reports, the sky is not falling in the world of country music. The year 2003 is beginning to look in retrospect like God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world. As all right as it can possibly be given the doomsayers’ tales of rampant music filesharing ruining the industry, record piracy dooming us all, record label consolidations throwing musical geniuses out into the street, radio monopolies tearing down sacred traditions and uncaring greedheads running the industry into the ground.
I have heard different variations on this prophecy of gloom for decades now. And you know what? The sun always comes up tomorrow, and there’s always still a soundtrack to our lives. Music as an essential human need, like water, seeks its own level. It is not going away. Its delivery systems, though, change from year to year and from decade to decade. That said, here are some musical reasons from the year 2003 to be cheerful.
• Country music fans still buy CDs. Look at Toby Keith’s numbers for Shock’n Y’all — it went platinum in a wink. And consider the fact that — with Up! — Shania Twain becomes the only recording artist ever to sell more than 10 million copies of three albums in a row.
• Johnny Cash’s video of “Hurt” becomes, at least for me, the best justification ever for the existence of music videos. Director Mark Romanek put together the most moving, most graphic, most dynamic music video ever. And the reason it works is because its subject is a man who exemplified a music genre at its best. And, at its best, country music is complicated, difficult, violent, sentimental and often caught up in conflicting emotions. But it is at heart nothing but brutally and honestly human.
• Johnny Cash’s reading of the New Testament of the New King James Version was scheduled for a re-release on CD on Christmas Day 2003. Cash recorded this in 1991 on cassette and it’s now due for re-issue in a CD set, although I wasn’t able to get a review copy. Who better to read the Bible to you than Johnny Cash? This new version on CD comes from Nelson Bibles of Nashville and clocks in at 19 hours.
• Shania Twain’s duet with Alison Krauss & Union Station on Twain’s “Forever and For Always” at CMT’s Flameworthy 2003 Video Music Awards was an eye-opener for (former) skeptics of La Twain.
• The documentary movie The Life and Times of Jimmy Martin is at once a joyful and poignant look at the one and only “King of Bluegrass” and a reaffirmation of the wonders of acoustic music. The premiere in Nashville with Martin and first-time director George Goehl and emcee Tom T. Hall along with a number of bluegrass greats was a joyous night. The film will be out in DVD in January. Warning: a couple of critters were harmed in the making of this film. (Martin is an avowed coon hunter.)
• Not enough good things can be said about the definitive country album of the year. Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’: Songs of the Louvin Brothers has rejuvenated and validated the notion of an ongoing, linear country music tradition — rather than the usual commercial argument of traditional music versus modern sounds — in a way that nothing has since the O Brother, Where Art Thou? phenomenon did. Country music does not stop and start every year, as with the rollout of new cars — or with the rollout of new pop music stars and starlets.
• There’s an encouraging new breakthrough with young artists: Dierks Bentley, Joe Nichols, Josh Turner, Jimmy Wayne, Jeff Bates, Billy Currington and others emerge on the scene. But where are the women? Jennifer Hanson is the only female newcomer to scan on the radar.
• Some older dudes get another chance: Buddy Jewell, Craig Morgan, T. Graham Brown and others get the opportunity to prove yet again that country is about tradition and continuity.
• The Marty Stuart-Merle Haggard Electric Barnyard tour reminded audiences of what the authentic country music circuit was not so long ago.
• Rosanne Cash, one of the best artists in country music history, returned to Nashville and to country music audiences. Rosanne was the eloquent voice of the Carter-Cash family throughout its 2003 tragedies and her “September When It Comes” duet with her father is a musical highlight of the year. Its video (compiled from the Cash family scrapbooks for the presentation of the CMT Johnny Cash Memorial Tribute) is especially compelling. That video debuted on Christmas Eve.
• Randy Travis is a No. 1 artist again. Country music does not entirely throw its elders under the bus. Not that he’s really an elder.
• Nor is she: Reba McEntire is back. With new music.
• Three country albums ended up in the Top 10 of the Billboard 200 chart for the year 2003. Last year there was only one (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and there were none in 2001 and 2000. The three this year were Shania Twain’s Up! (at No. 3), the Dixie Chicks’ Home (No. 4) and Tim McGraw’s Tim McGraw and the Dancehall Doctors (No. 9).
• Grateful thanks and a fond farewell to some who made country music a better place to be: Felice Bryant, June Carter Cash, Johnny Cash, Dave Dudley, Slim Dusty, Don Gibson, Johnny Paycheck, Sam Phillips, Bob Pinson, Buddy Ray, Gary Stewart, Floyd Tillman, Speedy West, Roy Horton and Teddy Wilburn.