NASHVILLE SKYLINE: 2004 Saw a Radical Country Music Surgery

Gretchen Wilson, Muzik Mafia and Loretta Lynn Led a Musical Insurrection

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

Country music periodically undergoes an involuntary medical procedure to have a cob removed from a certain part of its anatomy. 2004 was obviously one of those years in which a cobectomy was called for.

The attending physicians were Gretchen Wilson and Big & Rich, assisted by a strong cast of interested parties, most notably one Loretta Lynn. Wilson’s “Redneck Woman” and “Here for the Party” and her unapologetic, full-bore country shows reminded the world of just how fresh and forceful country music can be when it’s unleashed. Big & Rich were a strong reminder that country can and often does have no boundaries. And Lynn brought home the lesson that musical genius knows no age and recognizes no limits.

Overall, this was a year marked by a pretty good balance for country musical releases. And it doesn’t hurt that country CD sales are significantly up — as happens when you give the people what they want, as opposed to what you think they want. And it doesn’t hurt — in the musical cycles that ebb and wane — that when other music genres are weak, country usually profits from audiences looking for something real. Who do you want if you’re a fan of real music: Ashlee Simpson or Gretchen Wilson?

In 2004, Kenny Chesney was finally rewarded for more than a decade of toiling tirelessly in the country music that he loves. Tim McGraw put together an album of such high musical quality that it’s difficult to realize that this is the same guy who recorded “Indian Outlaw.” Darryl Worley shot down his naysayers with an undeniable album of solid songs. Keith Urban started attaining his superstardom. Toby Keith nailed his down. Alan Jackson proudly marches on as the idealistic Gary Cooper of country music. Alison Krauss continues as a leading music light. Julie Roberts leads a brilliant crop of young women singers. Joe Nichols and Josh Turner are only two of many strong new male voices. Shania is still the unstoppable Shania, God love her for it. Country music’s pantheon, for better or for worse, actually is a roundup of people who should be soap opera stars.

There were some stellar reissues and tributes this year that are reminders of country music’s rich heritage. Some of the most significant and lasting tribute albums were devoted to the maverick Johnny Paycheck, songwriter Stephen Foster and the Carter Family. Especially rewarding reissues include The Essential Rodney Crowell, George Strait’s 50 Number Ones and George Jones’ 50 Years of Hits.

Satellite radio is a hulking presence just over the horizon, and it’s fixing to make serious inroads in country music programming and listenership. Make no mistake: It’s the wolf at radio’s door. When XM or Sirius receivers become factory options in new Ford F150s as well as in midrange SUVs — as will happen — then, look out!

One of country music’s staunchest friends retired this year. Longtime BMI president and CEO Frances Preston was a Nashville pioneer and a pillar of integrity for an industry that sought such a leader. She will be greatly missed.

Another Nashville icon has retired. Warner Bros. Records Nashville’s Jim Ed Norman stepped down after many years and many hits. He was a wizard at string arrangements, and he always got a laugh at every dais when he introduced himself as the only country record executive with three first names. He was also a straight shooter in an industry that needs them.

Right now, Chely Wright is being — rightly — pilloried because of unethical attempts by her “street team” to pitch themselves as war wives in calling radio stations and requesting airplay of her war single. What they did is totally wrong, but can someone explain to me why that’s so much worse than record labels going beyond their own usual street team radio request calls and graduating to actually buying spins on radio to push a single up the charts?

The music is ever-healing, though. At least for me. Last weekend, I saw one of the best Christmas concerts ever. Ricky Skaggs and his Kentucky Thunder band and the Whites and special guests at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville delivered a spectacular evening of music that absolutely sparkled. Country and bluegrass music have always had a special place for Christmas songs and Skaggs, and his wonderful troupe presented a joyous musical celebration. I’m thankful that country music is still capable of performances and music and artists of that high caliber. Merry Christmas.