(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
As this year in country music unfolds, it’s beginning to resemble a cycle from years past.
Sales are up, audience excitement is up, new artists are breaking, and — perhaps more importantly — the newer artists of the past couple of years are demonstrating signs of longevity. The fact that rookies are going gold and platinum is a sure sign of a resuscitated heartbeat.
Rock and pop audiences are being drawn to country artists, just as they were in Garth Brooks’ emerging era in 1989 and 1990. He pretty much amounted to the new Crosby, Stills & Nash surrogate for a rock and pop world that had become flaccid and flabby. Garth broke through because of performance flash and musical substance, which are two properties that have become increasingly rare in pop and rock (well, and in country, too). I’ve seen studies that suggest that the core country CD-buying audience hovers at about 4 million, and that anytime anyone sells more than 4 million, the pop and rock audience is the deciding factor. Garth and Shania Twain, of course, both shattered that mark. But I don’t realistically see another Garth or Shania in today’s country music mix — yet.
Meanwhile, though, it’s obvious that Gretchen Wilson and especially Big & Rich are reaching out and appealing to listeners outside the traditional country listener base.
The case can be made that country music is now mainstream American music. You don’t think so? Tell me what else is. If it weren’t for the recent success of such artists as Velvet Revolver and Avril Lavigne, rock today would be moribund. And pop is fine, if you’re a Britney Spears fan. Country has been traditionally situated musically to be able to appeal to pop and rock fans, especially those who are seeking some reality and grit in their music.
The dichotomy between country and the other is graphically illustrated in a frank new documentary about Hank Williams III. Hank III, or Shelton as he is known, comes with a blueblood country heritage with which he’s sometimes uncomfortable. The result, as depicted in the 30-minute documentary Hank Williams III: Third Generation Outlaw is a sort of musical schizophrenia that finds him bouncing from punker to trad stylist. As he points out, the two are not all that far apart. He travels and plays as two distinct entities: Hank 3 and the Damn Band play trad country (“hillbilly” he calls it) and Assjack plays punk. He’s the one, he says, who “put the dick back in Dixie and the c**t back in country.” As a result of contractual difficulties between Williams and the filmmaker, Luke Littell, the film is available only from him at thirdgenerationoutlaw.com.
The lasting appeal of country music is that it remains a big tent, remarkably housing a wide range of styles and stylists, from the major subgenre bluegrass to country punk to alt.country to Americana to Tejano to western swing to cowboy music to the stubbornly independent Texas music.
The problem has been its delivery system, which largely remains mainstream country radio. Satellite radio is changing that, along with country on TV.
Gary Allan has summed up the frustration many artists feel about the narrow programming on mainstream radio. In a recent interview with the Duluth [Minn.] News-Tribune, he said, “Country’s changed because of monsters like Clear Channel who bought up all the stations and sliced them up into formats. Our demographic is now the soccer mom. Willie, Waylon, they didn’t give a (expletive) about soccer moms, and I don’t either.”