NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Brad Paisley and Other Good Non-Idol Music

Matraca Berg, Mandy Barnett Return With Strong New Albums

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

I’m already seeing some evidence of a media backlash against country music, stemming from resentment of John Rich‘s victory on Celebrity Apprentice, from suspicious wonderment at Blake Shelton‘s unexpected success as a mentor on The Voice and resentment about the seeming domination of country music on American Idol this season.

I should clarify that by saying that this Idol domination is Idol‘s warped concept of country music, that is. I’m still expecting the show producers to artfully strew some hay bales and wagon wheels around the stage. Because that’s what the regular TV audiences expect of the country hicks, I am reliably told by Left Coasters and Right Coasters. Interestingly, the Wikipedia entry for Idol points out that since the show began in 2002, seven of the 10 Idol winners, including its first five, have come from the South.

The fact that a great many people still rely on TV for their source of finding new music and seeing/hearing music in general is something I find perplexing. We may as well still be living in the 1950s, when Dick Clark’s American Bandstand ruled TV for teens and was a launching pad for new young talent. There wasn’t much else around. Now there are dozens of ways to access music. These days, TV music shows have become such a narrow tunnel for aspiring talent to navigate through, though, that it might as well as be called Mission: Impossible.

Idol, especially, has been an overwhelming influence in pop and country music. Overall, unfortunately, it has not had much of a lasting impact on either the country genre or country audience so far. It has not launched many lasting country stars. Carrie Underwood remains the only country music superstar to emerge from Idol. And that’s after 10 seasons of the show. Do you really expect either Scotty McCreery or Lauren Alaina to repeat Carrie’s success?

In a recent CMT.com interview, Brad Paisley addressed the issue of trying to break in as a new artist.

“How do you do it without winning some contest or impressing everyone on a reality show?” he said. “That’s the fast track now, you know, to make people aware of who you are. Or being some Internet sensation. As far as that goes, there’s still people doing it — putting out one song after another, finding their way to the top — but it’s a harder road than when I started.”

To his credit, Paisley continues to record actual, full albums — not EPs or singles — and he’s unapologetic about it. As he told CMT.com, “I love the album as an art form. I hope it stays around. … I think it will. The first thing somebody says to me when they hear the first single off of an album is, ‘I like that. I can’t wait to hear the rest of the record.’ So even though people are buying singles, and they’re selling fewer albums these days than they used to, somehow people want albums, I think.”

And Paisley continues to pursue unconventional avenues on albums, such as including an instrumental — in these days when most people surely have never heard of an instrumental track on an album. On his new CD, This Is Country Music, he enlists movie legend Clint Eastwood to whistle on an instrumental track for an imaginary western movie. The song is, appropriately, titled “Eastwood.” That is not an Idol moment, but it’s something that a fan of Eastwood’s great spaghetti western movies will savor.

Another thing I like is the fact that Paisley still does gospel numbers. That’s incredibly unhip, of course. But it’s still loved by many country devotees. Including this one. On the new CD, he sings the classic song “Life’s Railway to Heaven,” accompanied by Marty Stuart, Sheryl Crow and Carl Jackson.

Good for him.

Other people I love these days are artists who fully realize that superstardom will never be remotely near their grasp, but they continue to write and sing their music, anyway. Because that’s what they love.

There’s no better example right now than Matraca Berg and her new CD, The Dreaming Fields. It’s her first new recorded work in 14 years, and that gives you some idea of the frustration many singer-songwriters feel at seeking an outlet for their work.

I realize this is only the end of May, but I seriously think The Dreaming Fields has to be considered as a front-running nominee for album of the year. It is totally open, naked and vulnerable, but it is overwhelmingly accessible and inviting. It is country music the way you used to hear it. It is Matraca Berg laying her life and her heart and soul out there on the examining table for curious onlookers to probe and sift through and hold up to the light for a closer look.

She wrote her first No. 1 country song at age 18. “Faking Love” was a co-write with Bobby Braddock and was recorded by Karen Brooks and T.G. Sheppard. Then Berg began her recording country music career in the freshman class of the early 1990s with such classmates as Faith Hill, Martina McBride and Trisha Yearwood, who had a hit with Berg’s composition “Wrong Side of Memphis.” She signed with RCA as a solo recording artist in 1990 but was not cut out to be a mainstream country radio artist. The great songwriter Harlan Howard flatly told her that after she later signed with another label that eventually closed.

As recounted in an interview with Jesse Kornbluth, she said, “When my record company went out of business, I sat at Harlan Howard’s feet and drank. He put his hand on my head and said, ‘Kid, you’re not a country star. You need to make records like Lyle [Lovett] and Nanci [Griffith] — don’t try to do this stuff.’” So she has written many, many songs over the years, songs such as “Strawberry Wine,” co-written with Gary Harrison, and she puts out a great album once every 14 years. Or so it seems. This one was worth waiting for.

As ever, on Fields, Berg writes in a very visual, cinematic style, and her singing has become more expressive as it has matured. “Your Husband’s Cheating on Us” is a saucy delight. Songs such as “Oh Cumberland” and “South of Heaven” and “A Cold, Rainy Morning in London in June” sound like little self-contained movies. If you’ve never heard Berg, give her a listen. If you have any kind of discerning ears, you’re in for a real treat.

And I want to tell everyone who is a fan of traditional country music or is a fan of Patsy Cline or is a fan of Mandy Barnett (or all three) to consider Barnett’s new CD, Sweet Dreams, and her return to reprise her role as Patsy Cline. The musical Always … Patsy Cline will be presented at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium from June 17 to July 24. If you’re in Nashville then, I highly recommend it.

If you can make it there, you will not regret it. You will see an eerily accurate recreation of Patsy Cline and the evocation of an age of country music that is now forever gone.