(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
What do we call those years, the zero years between 2000 and 2010? The “Oughts”? The “O years”? The “Naughts”?
Well, pretty soon we can just call them “gone.” And thank goodness for that. But, for all the miseries and mess of the last 10 years, there have been some memorable musical moments.
The decade began with country’s reigning superstar Garth Brooks announcing his retirement in Nashville and a young girl named Taylor Swift celebrating her 10th birthday at home in Pennsylvania and thinking music career thoughts. The decade now ends with Garth coming out of retirement to play Las Vegas and Taylor riding high over the entire music world.
In between, there have been many good and bad moments in the world of country music. And the music shifted and changed over the years, as it has done throughout its history.
The entire music industry began a seismic shift that continues. CD sales began to perceptively slump in 2001, and the decline worsened every year and continues in a virtual nosedive. For years, the industry could not get a grasp on the perceived replacement — digital downloads — and is now finally getting a foothold, after a reality check and a solid kick in the ass from Apple when it launched iTunes. The other major development is the rapid rise in video streaming which will greatly affect all aspects of music. Vevo, a new music video service developed by Google and the Universal Music Group, will be closely scrutinized.
Taylor Swift’s conquest of the entire known musical world before the age of 20 is just breathtaking and quite unprecedented. There’s no need to list her achievements. Her simple secret was something the industry didn’t even imagine: a teenage girl writing about her world for her peer group of teenage girls going through the same experiences. The quote of the decade: After the infamous MTV Video Music Awards show, when CNBC’s John Harwood asked President Obama, “Why would he [Kanye West] do that?” Obama replied, “Because he’s a jackass.” No one jacks with Taylor.
Reality TV programming hit the world of music and impacted country music significantly with the sudden availability of pretested and presold musical celebrities. No more developing an artist for years and years till they build an audience. You could just pick one off the shelf. The audiences didn’t accept all of them, but when they did, you had a genuine keeper. Carrie Underwood came from American Idol with some dynamic songs, a dynamite stage delivery and loads of charisma, and country audiences took to her immediately. Billboard just named her Some Hearts the country album of the decade.
When Johnny Cash died in 2003, a large piece of history died with him. He carried a heavy share of country’s heritage with him. Traditional country music lost its giant and its symbol around the world with Johnny’s passing. His beloved wife, singer-songwriter June Carter Cash, died less than four months before he did. When his majestic house on the shores of Old Hickory Lake later burned to the ground in a fast and all-consuming fire that sent pillars of smoke swirling skyward, it was as if the musical gods had transported all of Johnny’s treasured belongings to be with him.
Kenny Chesney. He was first signed to Capricorn Records years ago when that rock label moved to Nashville, but Chesney initially didn’t click with radio or with audiences. But Capricorn owner Phil Walden believed in him and shopped him to all the Nashville country record labels. They unanimously passed on him. Finally, RCA gave him a tryout. Guess what? He became a sex symbol and country music’s only proven stadium show headliner of the decade. He has earned it, big-time. Study the lesson.
9/11: Alan Jackson’s reaction to the overwhelming tragedy of 9/11 was to sit down and compose a well-thought-out, measured and extremely compassionate yet realistic commentary on what the event meant on a human scale. He debuted “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” at the CMA Awards telecast not long afterward, and there was not a dry eye in the house. People nationwide gravitated to the song as their beacon of healing.
9/11: Toby Keith took an immediate different tack to the events of 9/11. He seemed angry and vindictive and eager to lash out at an enemy — although there was not yet an identifiable one. “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” captured the frustrations and fury of an America that had been now attacked on her own soil for the first time since 1941’s similar aerial sneak attack on the Naval base at Pearl Harbor.
9/11: The Dixie Chicks’ 9/11 experience was far different. They were playing a show in London just 10 days before the Iraqi invasion in 2003 when lead singer Natalie Maines uttered her now-famous words, “We don’t want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.” That effectively ended their country music career. Country radio overreacted and dumped them and even held public rallies to destroy their records. The Chicks later sort of apologized and then recanted and then waffled, not helping their cause. Maines and Toby Keith went on to a war of words, none of it now memorable. The Chicks’ recording and single release of Bruce Robison’s “Travelin’ Soldier,” an eloquent anti-war song, unfortunately died in its tracks.
Rascal Flatts became a superstar country group seemingly out of nowhere. They came from Ohio and Oklahoma and eventually ended up recording for a new Disney-affiliated Nashville record label (Lyric Street) that was actually created to launch the superstar hopes for a new all-sister trio, SHeDAISY. The latter group has struggled commercially, while Flatts became supersonic with record sales and concert ticket sales going through the roof.
Garth Brooks took country sales and popularity into the stratosphere of multi-platinum sales. He ruled the ’90s. He was the first country artist to debut at the top of the all-genre album sales chart, and he continued to knock down and demolish sales records just willy-nilly. First country artist to stage a huge concert in New York City’s Central Park? Guess who. First artist to bypass a record label and negotiate an exclusive sales deal with Wal-Mart’s enormous commercial clout? Guess who. Now Garth is testing the waters again in Las Vegas with his trial run at the Wynn Las Vegas’ Encore Theater.