NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Is Country Music Going to Hell or What?

Let's Look at the Record

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

I was talking to someone the other day who was lamenting about how country music is going to hell, nothing sounds the same as it once did, there are all these pretty, young, new artists, and things just will never be the same as they were back in the day.

I disagreed. I think country music is pretty healthy and in fact has not changed that much at all. When country music does change, it’s a slow evolution — as in from Nashville pop to Outlaw country to Urban Cowboy and on to hat acts and on and on.

As one bolstering argument, consider the No. 1 hits from five years ago and 10 years ago. In 2002, the artists with No. 1 hits were Steve Holy, Jo Dee Messina, Tim McGraw, Brooks & Dunn, Martina McBride, Chris Cagle, Toby Keith, Alan Jackson, George Strait, Brad Paisley, Kenny Chesney, Darryl Worley, Diamond Rio, Tracy Byrd, Keith Urban and Rascal Flatts.

In 1997, the No. 1-charting artists were Keith, Strait, Chesney, Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, Kevin Sharp, Mark Chesnutt, Rick Trevino, Deana Carter, Reba McEntire, Trace Adkins, Clay Walker, Bryan White, Lonestar, Diamond Rio, Shania Twain, Michael Peterson, Garth Brooks — and McGraw and Faith Hill (a duet).

Even going back 15 years, to 1992, the list is still not a foreign directory. Here are the 1992 No. 1 artists: Jackson, McEntire, Strait, Brooks & Dunn, Chesnutt, Collin Raye, Tracy Lawrence, Doug Stone, Garth Brooks, John Anderson, Wynonna, Aaron Tippin, Sawyer Brown, Billy Ray Cyrus, Vince Gill, Randy Travis and Alabama.

Every one of those artists from five, 10 and 15 years ago is still around in some shape, even if they’re not No. 1-caliber anymore. Garth never truly goes away, and Shania will be back. Alabama retired and then issued some country gospel albums. Billy Ray will be back. The others are still viable country artists. So there is a demonstrated stability in audience preferences. Once they like an artist, they usually like them for life.

Adding valued newcomers such as Taylor Swift and Rodney Atkins to the stable only increases the worth of the country music genre as an evolving whole. So what’s to complain about?

Probably the profound change to the whole country music structure and the entire music landscape itself unsettles some people. Charts are not just album sales charts and radio play anymore. They’re also digital sales and video stream and online radio plays. The increasing loss of actual, physical record stores and even huge CD departments in the big box stores is disquieting to many. Broadband is heralding a revolution in music presentation and retailing and marketing. It also adds enormous new avenues of launching new artists.

Radio no longer means just AM and FM. It also entails satellite, online stations, HD and more. Mobile is — at least for now — the ultimate techie frontier. Getting everything on a cell phone is the new norm. Everything from e-mail to new music to your music library to broadband streams to news and much more.

But it all gets back to the same thing. Content. That’s what it’s all about. Everything else is just new ways to deliver — and charge for — that content. But content will always be king. And if your music content is good, or your news content or your entertainment content, you will always be able to find a place for it. Unfortunately, even if it’s junk, there’s such a need for content, there will always be a demand for junk, as well. So be it. But as for you and me, let’s us stick to the good stuff.