NASHVILLE SKYLINE: A New Generation of Country?

Singer-Songwriter Says Country Now Well Into Its Fifth Generation

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

I was having lunch the other day with my old friend James Talley, who is one of the best singer-songwriters to ever come out of Nashville, and something he said really made an impression on me.

We were discussing the state of country music in general and Talley said, “You know, I think we’re now living in the fifth generation of country music.”

I think he’s onto something. When country music first emerged as a recognizable and commercial art form, it of course was not called “country.” It was commonly thought of as folk music until the recording pioneer Ralph Peer in 1925 named a group that he was recording “The Hillbillies,” because that was how their leader, Al Perkins, described himself and his band members. So the term “hillbilly” stuck to the music. The first generation of country, as led by the first commercial stars Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter family, grew out of rural America.

The first generation of country music as a popular art form was the generation that started with the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers and extended through Hank Williams in the 1940s and early 1950s. The music reflected its simple beginnings and rural roots.

“The second generation reflected the more urban taste of people like my mother,” said Talley, “who grew up on a farm in Oklahoma and danced to Bob Wills at Cain’s Academy in Tulsa. Wills was the transitional figure who added sophistication to the early string band sound with three fiddles and horn sections. The second-generation audience was proud that they were now living in town or in the city, they had come through the Great Depression and now they had a good job in the post WW II society and were moving to the cities and were no longer following a plow. Country music moved more uptown with artists of that generation, like Jim Reeves, Patsy Cline and Ray Price. They represented the advent of what came to be called the ’Nashville Sound.’ It had lusher string and vocal arrangements. It was smooth, not corny, and it reflected the newfound urban post WW II success of its audience. The second generation era continued in many forms, but to me it sort of ended with the production style of Billy Sherrill as it gave way to the third generation.”

He identifies the third generation in the 1970s as his generation. “We rebelled against the strings and the producers’ control,” he said. “We wanted to make our music as we felt it should be made — as we felt it. We were the artists, and we wanted control of our music and our lives. The record companies’ job, as we saw it, was not to ’produce us’ and tell us how to say what we had to say … but to take what we had to say and sell that! Much like it was with the artists of the first generation, and we found kindred spirits in the artistic integrity of the first generation — ’Will the Circle Be Unbroken’! It was a return to the simplicity of the first generation.”

Talley’s generation brought steel guitars and fiddles and a traditional edge back to country. “That was what people like me, Steve Young, Doug Sahm, Jerry Jeff [Walker], Guy Clark, and Waylon and Willie were trying to do,” noted Talley. “It was also the generation of the songwriter. Even though Hank wrote most of his material and Lefty wrote a lot of his, the artist then was the focus; not the fact that he was a songwriter. We were also of the Vietnam generation. We were hippies; we questioned authority and the status quo. We wanted to make country music the same way the Beatles made pop music. We wanted albums without filler, with meaningful, well-written material.”

The industry changed drastically after the recession in the 1980s, ushering in what became the fourth generation. Economic changes caused mergers and shutdowns in the record industry. After the album Wanted: The Outlaws introduced Nashville to the platinum-selling era, commercial expectations were higher for artists and record labels alike. The audience was also changing.

“Most of us third generation folks could not get arrested at record labels at that time,” said Talley. “Willie and Waylon did survive, as they had strong enough footholds to weather the transition. Us third generation folks were too old. People like me had to find day jobs to feed our families. There was a new generation of listeners who had been raised on rock, and they wanted a rock sound.”

Another important shift occurred as a result of the changing economies and new sales expectations. Manufactured stars and assembly line songs and production came to dominate Nashville.

“In the early days of the first generation,” said Talley. “The labels went out in the field and sought out musicians that had a unique style and with something to say — Rodgers, the Carters, Bob Wills, Hank, Lefty Frizzell and the others. In the fourth generation of Garth Brooks, Brooks and Dunn, Alan Jackson and the rest, it was big business. The producers were making music based on marketing research and focus groups.”

The fifth generation represents the digital age, the age of satellite radio and home recording studios. Downloading music has brought a new singles-oriented era, just as it was when the recording industry began, long before albums were even conceived. Selling music one song at a time will cause further changes still not conceived of yet. iPods and ultimately cell phones will become repositories of music. Satellite radio has the potential to overcome commercial radio. It appears to be already forcing programming changes in mainstream radio.

In this new digital age, the music industry is struggling to understand, let alone harness, all of the changing technology. How many years did the record industry waste by not being able to figure out what to do about downloading?

“The labels are losing vast sums of money,” said Talley, “Independents are struggling. Distributors and retailers are going bankrupt. Piracy is rampant. Technology led the way and gave us the record business with the advent of the phonograph and radio in the 1930s. Now technology may be taking it away, for if artists and writers and recording companies cannot make a living from what they do, they will be forced to do something else. We still don’t know where we are. We are in uncharted territory.”

In the face of all that, country music itself is sounding good. I think country as a music genre has never offered more of a range of music and diversity. From bluegrass to hick-hop to country rock to string band music to honky-tonk to country pop to to Americana to roots country to Western swing, country contains many styles. Country music has been in state of evolution since its birth and will keep evolving. To paraphrase Chairman Mao, “Let a thousand musics bloom.”

P.S.: We have a winner for last week’s contest, in which you were asked to contribute a definition for the job title “director of media knowledge.” The winner is Matt Hilliard of Nashville. Here’s his definition: “A ’director of media knowledge’ is someone who regularly performs a self colonoscopy and gets paid for the results.”