(Straight From Nashville is a weekly column written by CMT.com managing editor Calvin Gilbert.)
In times of country music turmoil, you can always turn to the gospel according to Willie.
While a few signs have been signaling the possible decline of bro country, perspective can be found in a short chapter Willie Nelson wrote more than 40 years ago.
Brothers and sisters, please turn to the page with the lyrics of one of his more obscure songs, “Sad Songs and Waltzes,” where one of country music’s true apostles tells us about composing “a true song as real as my tears.”
He goes on to write:
“It’s a good thing that I’m not a star.
You don’t know how lucky you are.
Though my record may say it, no one will play it.
Sad songs and waltzes aren’t selling this year.”
And that says it all about today’s success of bro country … and the hat acts of the ‘90s, the Urban Cowboy era of the ‘70s and any other musical trends that ever existed in country music. At any given time, some things are going to sell, and others won’t.
Nelson wrote “Sad Songs and Waltzes” for 1973’s Shotgun Willie, his first album for Atlantic Records after RCA Records tried for years to mold him into a mainstream country act. The original version was written and released prior to his commercial breakthrough, although he updated the song for his 2006 album, Songbird, and yet again for December Day: Willie’s Stash Vol. 1, a project with his sister and bandmate Bobbie Nelson.
Up until his Red Headed Stranger album arrived in 1975, Nelson really wasn’t selling. But something happened once “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” started getting radio airplay. The pendulum swung, and people suddenly loved him.
The pendulum concept — that things swing back and forth every few years — is a familiar one to Nashville’s music industry veterans. When country hits start sounding “too pop” or “too rock” — or too whatever it is die-hard country fans don’t like — it has always swung back and finally rested somewhere closer to the musical center.
It’s sort of like the weather in Nashville. If you don’t like it, wait around a while. It’ll eventually change.
Once the bro country phase has run its course — and it will — there’s no guarantee the pendulum will swing back toward a more traditional sound. But the pendulum has a lot of weight and history behind it. Betting against it makes about as much sense as wagering on the future of gravity.