NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Where Are the New Hanks, Willies, Merles and Cashes?

Hank Jr.'s Line From CMT Music Awards Speech Inspires Speculation

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

Something Hank Williams Jr. said in his acceptance speech for the Johnny Cash Visionary Award at the CMT Music Awards has stuck with me. To paraphrase, he remarked that his daddy shaped and molded country music, Johnny Cash shaped and molded country music and Waylon Jennings shaped and molded country music. And that he himself was just a carpenter in a long line of carpenters.

I think he is dead-on right about the shapers and molders. I would add Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard to that list. After those names, it’s difficult to think of any other modern figure in country music who has single-handedly changed the music. (Bill Monroe did the same thing in developing bluegrass music). I’m not sure there will ever be any others. Which is a sad thing, but maybe an inevitable thing. The times have drastically changed.

For one thing, the music doesn’t lend itself to any kind of lasting influence anymore because of commercial forces. Institutional memory is fading. I guarantee you that the multinational conglomerates will mainly preserve only the music that sells immediately and that will sell across all platforms. Sony’s Legacy series laudably remains the major exception.

It may well not be possible in today’s marketplace environment to change country music as radically as the old shapers and molders did. Or for any new artist to be given enough development time to build a body of work and a lasting audience. Could anybody on today’s scene do it? It’s very possible, but I doubt they’ll ever be given the chance. Many of today’s artists are serious carpenters, as Hank Jr. says, but many of them are just tool-belt poseurs who show up at the worksite to pose and flex their muscles.

Hank Williams Sr., Cash, Jennings and Nelson worked mainly alone (although Hank had Fred Rose as mentor and co-writer) and created their art in spite of the music and record industries. They had no help. All of them, save Hank, fought with record labels all their lives, and Hank should have, but he arrived so early in the development of the country music industry that the label and publishing heads were able to make up the rules as they went.

The point being that they created a vibrant body of meaningful and long-lasting music because the creativity was in them and they were going to express it somehow, somewhere. They often faced indifference, if not outright hostility, in their efforts, but they persevered. Eventually the major labels marketed their work and reaped their profits. But I think any such rebels would ever get to that point again. Any genuine innovators are going to be working at home, online or on indie labels, and they’ll never reach a sufficient audience to achieve mass change in the genre or the audience.

Undoubtedly, the country audience is changing, as it inevitably does. Will Rascal Flatts fans be devoted lifelong Rascal Flatts fans just as Loretta Lynn fans have remained lifelong devoted Loretta Lynn fans? Maybe. I wonder. I also wonder how many young artists are in it for the long haul, as country artists used to be. Not many, I suspect.

As a recent example, we could consider Garth Brooks’ career. He had a tremendous impact on country music, but in retrospect, he did not significantly alter the music. He dramatically overhauled country music marketing, which is not the same thing. Ultimately, those marketing changes drastically affected country music, in that they placed almost total emphasis on marketing and image over musical content.

One thing Garth did do was to attract a lot of disaffected rock fans over to country, where many have stayed — finding the musical content that had been commercially sucked out of the music they had loved. Now, it appears that, increasingly, the remaining few rock artists are looking lovingly at the country world as their last sanctuary. Welcome, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, Jon Bon Jovi and anyone else who wants to come visit. You’re sounding as country as or more country than some of the new carpenters getting off the bus downtown every day.