NASHVILLE SKYLINE: State of Country Music: Going to Hell?

Time for Hand-Wringing? Or Time to Cowboy Up?

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

We’re inexorably moving toward two separate and perhaps not equal country music societies. And I don’t mean traditionalists vs. modernists or Americana vs. mainstream country radio. I mean a total, radical, separatist split.

In this scenario, one segment will be comprised of people who know at least something about country music and listen to it for the qualities that have always appealed to them about the music. That group includes the George Jones and Strait trad fans as well as NASCAR dudes and chicks and the it’s-five-o’clock-somewhere beer-and-margarita crowd. That whole divide itself used to be a serious split between the trads and the others. Now they’re all united together against the New Others. The other faction is the adolescent-mentally-if-not-also-physically Twitter-ADHD-short-attention-span fan who flits from one short-lived attractive new act to the next. Whether it’s labeled “country” or not labeled at all.

Those Twitter-ish fans have long been endemic to pop audiences. But they’re relatively new in their guise as country fans. It’s not a majority, by any means. But it’s growing.

Under their aegis, country music becomes totally a popularity contest. And not a lasting popularity contest, at that. One with a butterfly’s lifespan.

Guess which audience segment will have the most commercial impact. And that, after all, is the impact that will determine the future of the music.

Fan voting online and on awards shows already dramatically shows the results of this great divide. Music itself disappears as a factor in that equation. I’m not going to pass judgment about the recent ACM Awards show, but fan reactions online about the results show me there’s a huge shift that is well underway.

If you just look around the Web, you find fanatical Colt Ford fans over in this corner. Julianne Hough devotees back there, the Taylor Swift army rolling over all comers, Carrie Underwood’s fierce supporters marching bravely on, Kenny Chesney loyalists taking on all critics — and so on. And they’re all hunkered down, protecting their turf. That’s happened before, with fan clubs, but I don’t think it’s reached this extent — which has been made possible by the Internet.

The impact of all this may well be that it totally splinters whatever marketplace is left for the selling of the music into further separate and disconnected niches. Country’s different audiences in the past have always been connected and friendly with each other. I don’t see that happening in the immediate future.

Look at what’s left of the CD-buying country audience itself. Recent country music surveys show a lingering country devotion to buying CDs. But is it showing up on the charts? This week’s SoundScan report shows that no CDs released in 2009 have yet sold platinum. Pop or country. Zero. None.

And CD weekly sales figure continue to decline. Of the 75 albums on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart this week, only eight have reached platinum status — and some of those have been on the chart for more than a year.

Keith Urban’s new CD, Defying Gravity, just sold 171,000 copies in its first week — not good by traditional sales standards but good enough to top the Billboard 200 chart and to beat Prince’s new release. Perhaps more importantly, Urban’s release also sold 37,000 digital albums, indicative of a growing shift.

Part of the result of the uncertainty and upheaval in the entire music market is an encouragement of everyone in the world to become both music critic and forecaster of music trends. Roam around the Web. You’ll find more than you need in the way of instant experts pontificating on what Taylor Swift or Kid Rock or Miley Cyrus mean to civilization and its future. And more.

Even Newsweek. For God’s sake, Newsweek! Newsweek has an online rant out now about the supposed failing state of country music, headlined: “Murder on Music Row: Taylor Swift? Songs About Cute Little Kids? What Has Happened to Country?!”

That’s pure twaddle. There have always been songs about cute little kids. And cute dogs. The sippy cup songs of a few years ago were much worse, and country music survived those. This is a Newsweek writer who clearly doesn’t know country music. That always shows, pretty quickly.

Newsweek concluded by observing that we’re living in a “strange, alien land where there’s a country-awards show that honors pop-music teeny-boppers and a lot of the songs aren’t really country by even the stretchiest definition.”

Anyone can always find something to condemn about new country songs. I truly find some of the new songs absurd and shallow. But that’s really nothing new. And a blanket condemnation of younger acts is ridiculous. Younger acts reflect a large younger and very new segment of the country audience. Before Taylor Swift, there was no teenage girl country audience. And, of course, Swift is hardly a “pop-music teeny-bopper.” She’s one of the smartest, ablest singer-songwriters to ever work in country music.

And, as erratic as the ACM Awards show was, there were still flashes of genuine, heart-felt country music there, especially in performances by Jamey Johnson and Lee Ann Womack and Trace Adkins. Not enough, but … that’s nothing new about awards shows, either. Awards shows are, by nature, sloppy attempts to be all things to all people. Which is impossible.

Throughout the entire history of country music, there have been complaints that it’s not really country anymore, that the younger generation is ruining it, that the unwanteds/Outlaws/Urban Cowboys/New Traditionalists and so on were ruining country music for the true country fans. Bull. It has always changed, and it’s changing now, and it will continue to change. Will it be what you or I want in the future? Probably not. Is it worse now than, say, 10 years ago? Yes. Will it ever get better? Probably. One person can turn the music around, and you never know who that one person will be.

I was once personally — and severely — criticized by Johnny Cash himself in the pages of a Nashville newspaper for my championing of the Outlaw movement in country. This was when Cash was in a career lull and before he himself embraced the Outlaw movement and re-invented himself in his late career. Cash later apologized to me, and we remained friends, but that’s an indication of how high tempers can run on the subject.

The ’40s staunch traditionalists didn’t like how the ’50s interpreters of that tradition were supposedly ruining it. Then they all united against the heavily-pop new Nashville Sound. Its practitioners, in turn, railed against what came next. And those next people didn’t like the ones who came after them. And so on. The music is always, always, always going to hell, and yet somehow country music manages to scrape by. As long as audiences want it. And what if they now want Twitter music? Well, remember, audiences always get the music they deserve.