NASHVILLE SKYLINE: What Shape Is Country Music In?

Stagecoach Festival, Hall of Fame Ceremony Focus on Country's Strengths

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

Events over the course of last weekend have gotten a lot of people thinking on the State of Country Music, at least people I’ve talked to this week. The Stagecoach festival in California and the Country Music Hall of Fame medallion ceremony in Nashville presented many of country’s best and brightest, as well as much of its heritage.

I was privileged to go to the medallion ceremony on Sunday night (May 6). Unfortunately, I was unable to attend Stagecoach and enjoy two days of country music in refreshing 108-degree desert heat because I needed to stay home and wash my hair in order to get dressed for the medallion thing.

The ceremony at the Hall of Fame was very much a joyful occasion, although it was mixed with tears. The genuine affection and respect that country artists show for each other and for the music is still very much present. The history and musical heritage that Hall of Fame inductees George Strait, Sonny James and Harold Bradley represented was vividly brought to life by a stellar lineup ranging from Reba McEntire to Vince Gill to Trace Adkins to George Jones to Porter Wagoner and many more. And it was all heartfelt and very much a family affair. And the music history that those artists represent is awe-inspiring.

Stagecoach had one of the most stellar country lineups ever and, with 60 acts or so, it dwarfed even the best Willie Fourth of July picnic. Consider this: the likes of Strait, Willie, Alan Jackson, Kenny Chesney, Brooks & Dunn, Miranda Lambert, Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs, Del McCoury, Earl Scruggs, Nickel Creek, Lucinda Williams, Neko Case and many more.

But it was organized just like the racks in record stores. (Remember those?) Country genres were segregated from each other by different stages on which the acts were presented. It was like Tower Records’ racks: mainstream country here, Americana and alt-country over there, bluegrass in the back and cowboy/Western off to the side. As Chris Willman pointed out in his blogs for Entertainment Weekly‘s PopWatch, country’s audiences are not entirely segregated by genres: “God bless the Stagecoach organizers for believing that different camps could not just put up with each other but indulge in some sort of collective embrace for a weekend. Segregated as Stagecoach felt, it also felt like an enormous potential force for good in the overall musical landscape.”

Many country fans, I have maintained for years (and Willman quoted me on this), do not self-segregate by musical genre. They are musically diverse, and obviously many, if not most, don’t limit themselves to just country music. Record labels and radio stations and retailers who persist in believing this myth are going to fall by the wayside, as indeed many have already. You sell music by giving people distinctive music that they may like and by making it easily available for sale. By those two standards, all three industries are failing today. Most new music is predictable and the music delivery systems are chaotic.

The New York Times‘ Kelefa Sanneh, who follows country music very credibly, observed, “Festivals like Stagecoach strive to be singular, but part of what’s interesting about them is how typical they are: Get 30,000 country fans together and you’ll get a rough sense of what country music is like these days. Sure, the old mountain music still has a following, but it’s not hard to see why so many listeners (and the stars who aim to please them) want to hear the electric guitars turned up loud. As Mr. Chesney put it, ‘I’ve been livin’ in fast forward/Hillbilly rock star, out of control.’ You can argue with just about every word in that couplet, but not ‘rock’ or ‘star.’”

The music has its superstars, but it still has its panoply of hardworking and creative artists who maintain a steady — and loyal — audience.

As I’ve discussed with friends and co-workers often recently, country still has the power. It still sells concert tickets. It will sell recorded music if it is the right music and if the customers know where and how the hell to buy it.

Time to tear down those genre walls.