(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
The following happened on one day — Wednesday (Sept. 17) — in Nashville and in country music.
In the morning, the latest Nielsen SoundScan figures showed that Jessica Simpson’s country debut album topped the country album chart with sales of 65,000 copies last week.
In the evening, country music industry denizens flocked to the Musicians Hall of Fame for the ACM’s Nashville first awards gala. Meanwhile, just a few blocks uptown, country roots devotees trooped into the Ryman Auditorium for an all-star Americana jam hosted by Levon Helm.
And the day before, the country music industry announced plans for its first old folks home.
If country music is not displaying many schizophrenic aspects of its split personalities now, I don’t know that it ever will.
Country has lost its soul. It’s never been clearer that we’re now a marketing system for failed pop acts
— A widely circulated e-mail message sent shortly after the SoundScan figures became available.
Simpson’s sales may well reflect purchases by her former pop fans, because country fans aren’t buying much of anything else this week. Below Simpson’s 65K number, only four other country CDs sold as many as 10,000 copies. Only another 15 sold as many as 5,000. And, sadly, the bottom 16 sold less than 1,000 copies each.
It’s also interesting to look at the other Top 5 country albums. No. 2 is by Sugarland, a genuine country super act. No. 3 is a quick anthology of recent country hits, NOW That’s What I Call Country At No. 4 is a triple-platinum album by Taylor Swift, the inventor of teenage-girl country, which no one knew existed. And rounding out the Top 5 is a double-platinum disc from Carrie Underwood, a certified American Idol graduate now gone country. Five albums: five totally diverse backstories. And largely different audiences.
But is country music also the last refuge of failed pop acts? That’s hardly a new charge, but I don’t think any astute follower of country can convincingly argue otherwise these days. On the other hand, as far as any former pop act who proves worthy of country success and is welcomed by country audiences, there’s nothing wrong with that.
While the rush to embrace new, fresh young country faces continues apace, I think it’s a good thing for country to publicly acknowledge, finally, that its artists get old. And retire. And die. That’s life. The old folks home that’s underway is more formally known as the Crescendo at Westhaven. And it looks to be an upscale, comfortable swankienda in which to play out your last years. With the luxury of a pool and recording studio and performance space and so on. The only problem might be: Can you choose your final musical partners or be stuck with a neighbor you never wanted to share a tour bus or a stage with, let alone ride out your last minutes near?
The Academy of Country Music Honors ceremony at the Musicians’ Hall marked the first time that the ACM has invaded Music City for an awards presentation. The ACM is headquartered in Los Angeles, has its annual TV awards show in Las Vegas and now is looking for some Nashville love to present its off-air awards. Well, why not? God knows, there’s little enough country here now. And it was good to see under one roof, in such a rich, historical musical setting, artists ranging from Bill Anderson to the Oak Ridge Boys to Raul Malo and Martina McBride. And high-caliber musicians on the order of Jerry Douglas and Michael Rhodes, to mention only a couple.
The Americana Music Association, whose annual convention was kicked off by the Levon Helm jam, has consistently honored country’s rootsy wing while encouraging emerging young artists of all musical stripes. Helm is as country as they come. His last album, Dirt Farmer, won a Grammy folk award, but to these ears, it’s a stunning country work. And his concert invoked country music’s rootsiness in vivid ways that lesser artists couldn’t hope to bring about. The artist lineup for the night was truly impressive: Billy Bob Thornton’s own brand of outlaw country, Sheryl Crow’s unique vocal stylings, Buddy Miller’s other-worldly guitar work, John Hiatt’s fog-cutting vocals, Sam Bush’s virtuoso mandolin work, Delbert McClinton’s honky-tonk ferocity and, most of all, Helm’s own melancholy yet warm vocals. Not to mention his one-of-a-kind drumming style and mandolin mastery. Hearing Robert Plant sing Lead Belly, alongside the purity of Alison Krauss’ sweet bluegrass voice, is a rare and rewarding experience. A gem of a show.
All of those events: Not too many people were overlapping from one to the other. Common ground: Everyone involved has an interest at some level in country’s continued success. In thinking back through the music’s history, I am not sure that it’s never been schizoid in nature. Possible lesson to be gleaned from this day: In Rodney King’s words, can’t we all just get along?