(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
I was listening to some fairly new music from a respected artist, whom I’ll call “Artist X” here, when I began having a nagging feeling about what I was hearing. There was something missing both in the songs and in the vocal delivery. But it was hard to put my finger on it. Then I started to get it. What I was hearing was a large lack of confidence, with an even larger dose of anxiety under the surface. Artist X no longer has the mojo.
It’s been obvious for some time that the entire music industry has been in the grip of a massive anxiety attack, and now we can noticeably discern it in the music itself.
So, do you know anyone who’s involved in country music — or in all of music, for that matter — who’s not bedeviled, if not brought low, by frequent anxiety attacks? (Totally apart from the free-floating anxiety linked to the general U.S. and world economy and the perilous world situation and the dire future of the environment and food and perpetual war … and every damned thing else that’s gone all wrong.) Aside from that, though, do you feel tinges of anxiety and sleepless nights about the present state of and the future of country music?
I am still haunted by the memory of my friend David Skepner, a prominent country music stalwart as well as a staunch patriot, who died of a heart attack while waiting in line to fill up his car with gasoline on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001. The 9/11 attacks that morning had spurred what was later termed “panic buying” at gas stations — prices jumped to more than $4 a gallon in some areas — and I remain convinced that David’s heart ran out due to anxiety and rage at what was happening to his country with those attacks and to the uncertainty that lay ahead. He had always been worried about the state of country music, but that was something he at least had some control over.
These days, that is no longer so much the case. Forces beyond Nashville’s control determine the destinies of people in country music and have for several years. What is alarming now is that those very outside forces seem to no longer have any rhyme or reason to what they are doing and what they can do. Or any sense of control at all.
It’s not just the dread of losing one’s livelihood. It’s also about losing one of the underpinnings of one’s life — that your music, which you love and is such a huge part of your life and your being, may just go away one day. Whoosh! In the blink of an eye. That’s an extreme view, of course, but one that is not entirely outside the realm of possibility.
Fear does strange things to people. And it’s by no means confined to Artist X. I know and have talked to artists whose spells of anxiety have robbed them of their self-confidence, which in turn eliminates being able to write and perform the music that’s naturally inside them. Instead, they’re so worried, they feel they have to write and cut music that is not really who they are just to try to sell. Listeners can sense it when they hear timid music, music that is trying too hard to pander to listeners and that therefore has no real identity. You can hear confidence in music and you notice when it’s not there. I can hear that kind of change in artists’ music, even artists I don’t know.
When is the last time you heard genuine joy in a song? I mean real, spontaneous joy, not a manufactured and carefully crafted simulation of joy. When is the last time you heard a song that spoke to you on a spiritual level, on a primal level, on a true-one-to-one level?
It’s becoming, unfortunately, easy to spot aspiring young artists whose lack of confidence will probably be a fatal career flaw. How do you cure it? Good question. One that expensive shrinks often deal with. How to instill confidence in someone who inherently believes that his or her work will have little or no value? If you believe in yourself and in the worth of what you create, then your listeners and readers and viewers will, too. If you don’t, they won’t.
And obviously this is not just affecting artists. It’s songwriters and song pluggers and producers and anyone else who’s involved in music as a career. Nashville, of all the music centers, has maintained some sense of stability. Country music at least retains a stable core base and a sense of identity and mission and audience. Still, that stability is not as stable as it used to be and it may never be again.
So what can we as individuals do? I try to follow the advice of my high school Latin teacher, who I have increasingly realized was a very wise woman. “Just tend to your own garden,” she would say. “If we all do that, things cannot help but get better.”
She obviously meant not just your own home vegetable garden. But you knew that.
And there are marketplace examples — such as George Strait and Alan Jackson and their contemporaries — who have been doing it for years. Taylor Swift is tending to her garden and has an audience and is selling albums and tickets as a result. So is Sugarland. And Kid Rock. And a few others. They know what their garden is. And they tend to it.