NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Musical Apocalypse?

Or Rebirth? Forecasted End of CD Era Raises Questions

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

You know, in all the sky-is-falling dire warnings about the end of the music business as we know it, one key point seems to be overlooked. We’re talking about the end of the music business as we know it. Not about the music itself as we know it. No one seems too concerned about that anymore. When did it all become about marketing?

Remember: Wax cylinders went away, vinyl records went away, 8-track tapes went away, reel-to-reel tapes went away, early Quad sound went away, cassette tapes went away … and now CDs are going away (sometime after Christmas 2007 is the latest forecast). Change happens. It’s how you adapt to the new that matters. The music industry and the recording labels mostly lag behind the changes, which is their problem. The music delivery system is one thing. The music itself is totally another matter.

No matter how music is presented as a commercial entity — which it always will be — one thing remains central. What will determine the future of country music is not CD sales or download sales or radio’s success or satellite radio’s success or the record labels’ survival or any of that. The future of country music will be decided by the authenticity of the music itself. It will live and flourish with authenticity. It will wither and die without it.

And, fortunately, authenticity cannot be faked in music. You either hear it or you don’t. It’s there or it’s not. Hank Williams defined it this way: “When a hillbilly sings a crazy song, he feels crazy. When he sings ‘I Laid My Mother Away,’ he sees her a-laying right there in the coffin.”

Anyone with a true love of the music and the slightest bit of musical sophistication can tell within a few bars of a song whether it’s genuine or not. Was this a forced tale of a domestic drama concocted by four factory songwriters in a short Music Row cubicle writing session and then recorded by a glitzy Pro Tools-assisted singer that the label hopes will become an instant star? You can tell by listening. All the marketing in the world will not sustain a fake career. At least not in country music, thank God. The fans are more sophisticated than anyone is willing to give them credit for being.

Music makes for not just a hit or two. In country music, at least, it still makes a career.

The new double CD The Essential Ray Price is a case in point. These recordings span the years 1950 to 1980 and reflect Price’s evolving style over the years. He went from straight-ahead Hank Williams 1950s honky-tonk to Bob Wills-inspired shuffles to a smoother cosmopolitan sound. And, throughout those musical transitions, he attracted fans and critics alike — to the point where his latest musical change would actually inspire fistfights at his shows between advocates of his old music versus his new music. But, throughout it all, he maintained his musical integrity. He was loyal to the music. Of course, Price is still performing today and — remarkably — is as strong-voiced as ever. He still has his staunch fans. He has maintained his musical authenticity. And that’s a big reason why he’s in the Country Music Hall of Fame today.

And it also explains why he’s not on country radio. But that’s neither here nor there. Country radio is its own island. We need to take care of the music.

The great thing is, I continue to hear authenticity in the voices and in the songwriting of new and young artists as well as in artists who continue to evolve musically. I hear it in new music from Blake Shelton, I hear it in Gretchen Wilson, in Miranda Lambert, in Dierks Bentley, in Pam Tillis, in Little Big Town, in Jason Aldean, in John Anderson, in many others. As young as Taylor Swift may be, her songwriting and her singing show that she totally gets it.

The music is there. Somebody needs to figure out a lasting and affordable way to get it from artist to listener without a bunch of people with their hands out in between totally screwing everything up. But that’s the history of the music business. Maybe this time someone will get it right.