(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
So, are my Chicken Little friends, who say the sky is falling in terms of country music’s quality, correct? Do they have a valid argument? I think we should look at the record over several years and compare things before coming to a decision.
Let’s look back at, say, the last 20 years and compare emerging crops of young country artists. One handily identifiable guide is an examination of each year’s nominees and winner for the Country Music Association’s Horizon Award. The award is an especially useful guide in that it’s not limited only to radio chart and sales chart success, which can be ephemeral and misleading.
The Horizon honor goes to, in the CMA’s own words, “the artist, whether individual or a group of two or more, who has demonstrated the most significant creative growth and development in overall chart and sales activity, live performance professionalism and critical media recognition.” Horizon nominees and winners are not necessarily total rookies, and some are nominated for more than one year, but I think that it may well be the most valid yardstick for evaluating emerging quality year after year.
It is also eye-opening in some areas. Like in judging the long-range predictions by CMA voters. And by the artist names you see that no longer appear on country music charts. It may also prove, as the great screenwriter William Goldman once said about the movies, that “nobody knows anything.”
With the winners’ names bolded, let’s do a year-by-year run-through of the nominees:
• 1988: Highway 101, Patty Loveless, K.T. Oslin, Sweethearts of the Rodeo, Ricky Van Shelton
• 1989: Clint Black, Desert Rose Band, Loveless, Shenandoah, Keith Whitley
• 1990: Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Kentucky HeadHunters, Lorrie Morgan, Travis Tritt
• 1991: Mary Chapin Carpenter, Mark Chesnutt, Doug Stone, Pam Tillis, Travis Tritt
• 1992: Suzy Bogguss, Brooks & Dunn, Billy Dean, Pam Tillis, Trisha Yearwood
• 1993: Mark Chesnutt, Sammy Kershaw, Tracy Lawrence, John Michael Montgomery, Trisha Yearwood
• 1994: Faith Hill, Martina McBride, Tim McGraw, John Michael Montgomery, Lee Roy Parnell
• 1995: David Ball, John Berry, Faith Hill, Alison Krauss, Shania Twain
• 1996: Terri Clark, Wade Hayes, LeAnn Rimes, Shania Twain, Bryan White
• 1997: Trace Adkins, Deana Carter, Terri Clark, LeAnn Rimes, Lee Ann Womack
• 1998: Trace Adkins, Dixie Chicks, Jo Dee Messina, Michael Peterson, Womack
• 1999: Kenny Chesney, Sara Evans, Jo Dee Messina, the Wilkinsons, Chely Wright
• 2000: Sara Evans, Montgomery Gentry, Brad Paisley, SHeDAISY, Chely Wright
• 2001: Jessica Andrews, Nickel Creek, Jamie O’Neal, Keith Urban, Phil Vassar
• 2002: Carolyn Dawn Johnson, Nickel Creek, Rascal Flatts, Phil Vassar, Darryl Worley
• 2003: Gary Allan, Buddy Jewell, Joe Nichols, Blake Shelton, Darryl Worley
• 2004: Dierks Bentley, Big & Rich, Julie Roberts, Josh Turner, Gretchen Wilson
• 2005: Dierks Bentley, Big & Rich, Miranda Lambert, Julie Roberts, Sugarland
• 2006: Miranda Lambert, Little Big Town, Sugarland, Josh Turner, Carrie Underwood
• 2007: Jason Aldean, Rodney Atkins, Little Big Town, Kellie Pickler, Taylor Swift
So that’s 20 years of the up-and-coming and emerging. I’d say that, overall, the level of selections has been fairly uniform and the amount of lack of artist success is what could be expected in this kind of process. Although a few of these picks, especially in the nominations, are a bit haphazard. Often, when an artist is nominated on the strength of a debut album and a single or two, it’s all a big crapshoot. And, remember, when people like Alan Jackson and Shania Twain are passed over by names that are now footnotes to history … well, that happens.
There are omissions: Toby Keith is the most glaring, followed by Billy Ray Cyrus, Lonestar, Diamond Rio, Chris Cagle, Tracy Byrd and there are others. And career dynamics have much to do with who’s in and who’s out, and in which year. Kenny Chesney first started charting country records in 1993 but his career built slowly, so he wasn’t nominated until 1999.
You must remember that there have been eras in country music’s history when a lot of the music was easy listening pabulum. Remember the Nashville Sound years? The days of the Urban Cowboy sound? Those are not years I want to re-live. Country music’s so-called golden ages are few and far between. Not that we’re in one now, but it could be worse. Of course, it could always be better.