NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Is Country Music Eating Its Young?

How Many New Young Taylors Can There Be?

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

You know, this has probably been the thinnest music summer I can recall since maybe 1997 or so. Strong songs and albums are as rare as 75-degree temperature days. And there’s been a lame competition to capture the even lamer title of “summer anthem” song, and I’m sure you’ve heard all of the contenders.

Consider summer songs themselves. They’ve been traditional songs of joy. Summer songs by artists and groups such as the Beach Boys were authentically fresh and original and inspiring. Those songs instilled your life with an infectious joy.

There is something particularly loathsome these days about summer song campaigns, about carefully-plotted and industry-crafted and audience-researched songs that purport to be happy summer songs, patched together purely for commercial reasons.

But that same approach may apply also to the recent trend to target young audiences by focusing on signing and recording young, attractive women and even girls, as well as young, attractive duos and trios and quartets of young, attractive males and females. After Taylor Swift taught Nashville that a young — mostly female — country music audience actually existed, there’s been an almost door-to-door search for the Next Young Thing.

One growing current success that intrigues me is the fledgling group The Band Perry, and that leads to an interesting question. When a very new group gambles with releasing a death ballad as only its second single, instead of a perky summer song, are they totally clueless — or do they know something? In this case, I think they knew something.

As many in Nashville have noticed, The Band Perry were discovered and are guided by Bob Doyle, who is also Garth Brooks’ longtime manager. Remember when, early in his career, Brooks did exactly the same thing? His death ballad was “If Tomorrow Never Comes.” It was only his second single release, and it became his first No. 1 hit, in 1989.

The Band Perry’s “If I Die Young” has clicked with the country audience. It’s working well on country radio as a song and equally well as a video on CMT. Why is it succeeding? It’s a very well-written, substantial song, for one thing. The performance is solid. Kimberly Perry’s lead vocal is winsome and appealing. The video is almost surreal, in an existential sort of way. And it’s not just another I’m-so-country or beer-babes-bikinis summer-fun video. It doesn’t pander to its audience. And it’s allowing the group some elbow room in the crowd of new, young acts.

But the large elephant in the country room that’s really not being seriously discussed these days is the gigantic barracuda tank where all of the young Taylor-wannabees and Lady A-group-wannabees are in development. See any male candidates? Not many. Why not? Well, most of them have gone out of fashion, what with all the success of Taylor and Carrie Underwood and Lady A.

How many young and photogenic solo females and male-female groups and female groups have you seen being promoted recently? You know the answer. A whole lot. But if they don’t get the radio play and they don’t get the online buzz, then they’re soon tossed onto the trash heap. Radio has only so many slots for new songs, and it’s a crowded house. These days, singles seem to take forever to climb the chart. Lee Brice’s “Love Like Crazy” has just climbed to No. 5 on the Billboard country singles chart, and it has taken 51 weeks for that song to get there. That’s the most extreme current example, but you see what I mean about limited room for newcomers. In 1988, there were 48 No. 1 country songs. In 2008, there were only 20.

Last I heard, it still costs around a million dollars to fully launch a new artist and promote a debut single to country radio. How many of those can the labels afford to support anymore?

How many young blond women singers will the public identify with? How many peppy, fresh-scrubbed young groups will the country audience even tolerate, much less adopt? How long can you be a fresh face and a new voice if you’re not attracting an audience?

And there have been a lot of fresh faces out there lately, all chasing the Taylor-Lady A dream.

And then, of course, there’s also the steadily increasing stream of American Idol finalists looking for work in country music, since it seems to be the best option these days.

So why would a record company risk investing any serious money into developing a new act that isn’t pretty much a clone of what was a recent proven success? You know the answer. Nothing succeeds like success.

I think it’s obvious that anytime something has become hugely successful, it was successful for a reason. It filled a need or a desire. There was a reason for it. It was not just an artificial construct. Think: the Beatles.

By the time any entity succeeds, any attempts at trying to copy it, just to copy it, are doomed to be largely ineffectual. And desperate.

Have you seen a successful Taylor II or Lady A II? Or a Beatles II?