(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
If you review the ebb and flow of country music over past decades, you will find the most memorable and lasting artists are those who were unconventional. The artists who were making music like no one else was, music that no one was asking for or demanding at the time. But when people heard it, they loved it and demanded more.
I’m referring to many recent examples: Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Waylon Jennings, Taylor Swift, the Dixie Chicks, Shania Twain, Garth Brooks, Willie Nelson‘s many incarnations, Eagles, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris and The Band. But beyond these artists who became genuine superstars, there are several who are remembered for their unique approach to music and for their distinctive sound, such as Townes Van Zandt, the Mavericks, the Tractors, the Kentucky Headhunters and, more recently, the Civil Wars.
When Dick Clark and Levon Helm recently died, one of the first things to become obvious was that — almost uniformly — Clark’s hosannas and tributes came from companies and industry executives. Helm’s came from the throats of music listeners and fellow musicians. Clark was a smart businessman who left no lasting musical legacy. Helm’s remarkable songs and performances will attract music lovers for generations. He was a true musical innovator. No one else was doing what he did or sounded like he did when he came along.
Not all such musical creators and innovators, unfortunately, have been able to maintain that level of music creativity. Or they personally could not stand up to the rigors and demands and strains of stardom and constant touring. Then there is always the dreaded second album syndrome. After working a lifetime on that splendid, breakthrough first album, can you crank out a sophomore follow-up in just a few months while constantly touring and doing interviews and being constantly in the public eye? Add to that the constant, intense and often pitiless scrutiny of social media. Being constantly in the public eye and facing unending media scrutiny have ruined many careers and lives.
I am amazed to this day at the extremely primitive touring conditions and situations of country music’s true pioneers. The early stars, such as the Carter Family, toured in a car. Flatt & Scruggs traveled in one car with all their instruments — including a stand-up bass strapped to the top of the car — until Martha White Flour finally bought them an early touring bus. Those buses had no bunks, only regular bus seats, and the whole band crew traveled in one vehicle.
When I first went on the road with Waylon Jennings, the whole band and crew traveled in an old converted school bus with low, narrow, hard bunks. Meals came from wherever you could get them. In those pre-Big Mac days, breakfast was often a Coke and a Snickers bar from a gas station. I remember traveling with Tanya Tucker and her band somewhere in Iowa when the bus broke down in the middle of vast cornfields. Everyone on that bus lived on ears of raw corn for a day and a night while we waited for a mechanic and then for the slow repairs.
Hotel rooms? Out of the question. First of all, many hotels still would not accept touring bands or musicians because of previous problems with lack of payment or destruction to the rooms. Secondly, touring musicians did not make enough money to cover decent hotels. Thirdly, tours were so haphazard, the artists had to keep traveling to make it to the next gig. I once mapped several artists’ tours, ranging from Roy Orbison to Hank Williams, that might start in Texas (traveling there from Nashville) and then to Colorado and then Oklahoma City, followed by Los Angeles. That was virtually touring by dartboard. Those were long drives, and that was before the interstate highway system.
It was probably the Oak Ridge Boys who had more than one touring bus, nicknamed Chocolate and Vanilla. Now, country tours may have a dozen buses and dozens of tractor-trailer trucks. Now, the stars of several groups each have their own bus. Artists are now welcome at the best hotels.
Were those really the good old days? The music endures and imbues the entire past with a rosy glow. The good old days were only good for the record labels and the powers behind the artists. I still find it amazing that — under grueling travel conditions and under onerous financial terms — many of them continued to write and record and perform such marvelous music. There weren’t just performing the hits. They continued to create.