Are Country Stars Still Cool?

Merle Haggard’s Visit to CMT Artists of the Year Show Prompts Some Observations

(Straight From Nashville is a weekly column written by CMT.com managing editor Calvin Gilbert.)

Have you ever felt the entire energy of a room immediately change when someone walked through the door?

That was apparently the case while Merle Haggard was in the house during Tuesday night’s (Dec. 2) CMT Artists of the Year special in Nashville. As usual, I watched the show as God intended — on the TV set in my office.

However, the CMT.com reporter who witnessed the show at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center said Miranda Lambert, Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line were just a few of the celebrities who couldn’t resist the allure of Haggard’s charisma.

Yes, he’s a genuine legend — a Country Music Hall of Fame member who has written and recorded some of the most memorable songs in American history. But above all, Haggard is undeniably cool.

The “cool factor” was evident in 2007 when Haggard, Willie Nelson and Ray Price toured to support their Last of the Breed album. All three of them, in their own way, are cool. And they’ve been that way all along.

“You want to know what’s wrong with country music today?” one of my friends said recently.

Before I had time to even think about it, he responded, “None of the artists are cool anymore.”

I’m not sure about the validity of that statement, but it does provide an interesting concept to ponder. What makes an artist cool? And how many contemporary artists have those qualities that make some people bigger than life?

A lot of it is generational, of course. Beauty — or coolness — is in the eye of the beholder, and those opinions are formed largely from our life experiences. And, yes, it’s easy to say that stars such as Haggard have become more intriguing over the course of many years.

However, have you ever looked at one of those photos of Haggard from when he was just starting to have hits in mid-‘60s? I’m not sure he was considered one of the cool guys during the time he served in San Quentin Prison, but he had the look and charisma from the beginning of his career on Capitol Records. So did Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and others.

Maybe part of it is that artists used to dress like stars. Fancy suits and footwear were once the norm onstage. These days, country stars spend a lot of money on stylists and fashion consultants who help them who choose the right vintage T-shirt and well-worn jeans to make it look like they just rolled out of the tour bus.

But the cool factor goes far beyond fashion and good looks. Some people are just born that way, and it’s astounding to see how other artists react to them. Two prime examples I can recall are the late Chris LeDoux and Johnny Cash.

In the early ‘90s, I was working for a Nashville public relations agency and happened to be accompanying a client to the annual Country Radio Seminar. The industry event is a time for radio programmers and personalities to schmooze with artists and label execs. And you know those promos you hear on your radio stations where an artist says something like, “This is John Smith. And you’re listening to …”? A lot of those are recorded during a CRS event known as the artist taping session.

Arriving at the taping session with the client, the holding area was filled with artists of all career levels who were waiting to go to the booths to read the liners for the radio stations. This was during an era where most male country artists were under the impression you were required to wear crisply-starched Wrangler jeans and a cowboy hat.

And everything was business as usual until LeDoux walked in. As a commercial country artist, his only Top 10 hit came in 1992 with “Whatcha Gonna Do With a Cowboy.” (Having Garth Brooks cite him as a major musical influence and singing on the track didn’t hurt matters.)

However, LeDoux was, above all, a real cowboy who years before had won the world bareback riding championship at the National Finals Rodeo. When he walked into the room wearing his well-worn jeans and a cowboy hat, the other artists were immediately looking at him, and I swear he made most of them feel like cowboy imposters.

During that same era, I was also backstage at a country radio awards show at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville. I don’t even remember the specifics of the show except that the backstage area was once again filled with some of the biggest stars of country music at the time.

Again, it was a typical music industry gathering until the door opened and Cash walked in. There was no entourage and no grand entrance. He did absolutely nothing to call attention to himself. He was just there, and yet the whole vibe suddenly changed.

Cash had that sort of presence every time I ever saw him, including in 2002 when he and June Carter Cash made a surprise appearance at the first annual Americana Music Awards show in Nashville. In ill health and moving slowly, Cash was 70 years old and, as it turned out, would die almost exactly one year later. Still, he was the coolest guy in the room that night, and everybody knew it.

As far as the legends, forget about who’s gonna fill their shoes or boots. It’s probably not going to happen anytime soon, but it will be interesting to see who among the new crop of country artists will be remembered as having that indescribable quality that sets them apart from everyone else.

Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.