NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Nobody Knows Nothing in Music Biz

Country Music Astounds Experts, Actually Sells CDs

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

The first rule in the music business should be this: “Nobody knows nothing.” Because they don’t. All the glib-talking, expensive consultants in the world can claim to tell you what people want to listen to. But nobody knows nothing. Except the listeners. And they don’t know it until they hear it.

In retrospect, in hindsight, everyone becomes a fortuneteller. A song like “Redneck Woman” being a big hit? Not too likely, said the record labels that had turned her down. Country music by a blunt-talking woman with an attitude and a backbone and some spunk? No longer possible, said the soothsayers during the song’s early launch. Then, when it took off like a raging prairie fire, all those same experts were solemnly declaring that “reality-based songs were long overdue in country,” the “era of the country-pop divas is over” and so on and so on.

Remember the “Lambada”? Of course not. It was a ridiculous dance that hucksters thought could be foisted on the gullible U.S. pop music audience. It was a hugely-hyped but short-lived media blip in this country. Basically it was nothing but dog humping to bad dance music. The American music audience voted, and they voted it out of existence. Nobody knows nothing — except for the listening audience.

Could country legends ever score again with young audiences? Impossible, said the demographic experts. Young people only want to listen to and look at beautiful young people, they declared. Now, consider such artists as Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson, who are acquiring new young audiences every day. At CMT’s recent Greatest Love Songs concert in Nashville, there were sustained and repeated standing ovations for Parton, Rogers and Randy Travis. And that was from an audience that spanned all demographics and appeared to be tilted fairly young.

It now looks as if sales of country CDs may be up as much as 20 percent this year. The RIAA and other doomsayers have long preached that illegal music downloading alone has been sabotaging the music industry. Attention music industry: Downloading was not the problem — bad or boring music was the problem.We do not see any RIAA press releases celebrating the current rise of country CD sales. It’s a cliché, but it bears repeating: If you give the people what they want, they will go out and buy it. How else did a country rookie like Gretchen Wilson go platinum right out of the chute? How else did Josh Gracin become the highest-debuting new male country artist in the 12-year history of Nielsen SoundScan this week with first-week sales of 57,000 copies of his first album?

And that reminds me: How could old roots and folk and old-timey and bluegrass songs ever possibly have connected with a young audience? In two words: “im-possible,” said the trendy trendwatchers who declared that “hillbilly” music could never appeal to hip young listeners. Witness the huge success of the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? and its many subsequent spinoffs. Nobody knows nothing.

Well, hey, I’m very guilty myself of the nobody knows nothing syndrome. I went to the first showcase in New York City for the group KISS many years ago. That was in the days when the Beatles, the Who and the Stones ruled the rock hierarchy, and no one else could possibly be hip. When these cartoon characters from KISS tottered out on their platform boots in their goofy outfits and spat blood and hit their lame power chords, I turned up my aristocratic rock nose. I went back to the Rolling Stone office and pronounced: “Not a chance in hell for these bozos to make it.”

So, what the hell do I know? Well, I’ve correctly predicted a few since then. Who do I like in country music right now? Not that my opinion matters to you, but there’s a roll call of good music by young artists these days. New women such as Gretchen Wilson, Julie Roberts and Mindy Smith are blazing their own trails with very credible first CDs. James Otto’s debut Days of Our Lives has been greatly overlooked. It rather reminds me of what a Bob Seger would sound like if he were totally country.

As of this moment, my leading candidate for album of the year has to be Joe Nichols’ new Revelation. It’s a disarmingly laidback song collection that brings to mind some of the best work by such artists as Merle Haggard and George Strait. Introspective, understated songs that are packed with powerful emotions and sung with great empathy. Listen to Nichols’ closer, the great Iris DeMent song “No Time to Cry.” Nichols demonstrates considerable cojones in daring to cover “No Time to Cry” after Merle Haggard virtually made it his own song. But he carries it off. Nichols has clearly hit his stride and found his groove with this confident, assured album.

People forget one verity about county music. Country music’s appeal has always been that it’s real music based on real stories about real life. Not fluffy, generic love songs about cotton candy emotions sung by emotionless, interchangeable singers. Make it real, and people will listen.