Trouble in Music City?
(From Y-107 FM Music News)
Alan Jackson will open the annual television show with a loud C-chord of protest.
ON TV Academy of Country Music Awards 8 tonight on CBS. Any country music fan will tell you that the two most unlikely troublemakers in Nashville are George Strait and Alan Jackson.
But at tonight's Academy of Country Music Awards, these two reserved Nashville superstars will open the annual television show with a loud C-chord of protest.
"Murder on Music Row" is a 4-minute, 23-second tune that is an indictment of the Nashville music industry, which many feel has sold out traditional country music --- the twangy, earthy, hard-drinkin', heart breakin' kind --- for the more lucrative and mainstream sounds of pop. (Music Row is the name given 16th Avenue South in Nashville, the street that for decades has been the heart of the country music scene.)
"As long as I can remember, the tension (between pop and traditionalism) has always been there, but I've never seen it quite as polarized as it is lately," says MCA producer Tony Brown, who oversaw the recording of "Murder on Music Row."
Steve Mitchell, program director of Atlanta country station Y-106.7, agrees. "Shania Twain has pushed the envelope, and it's caused a lot of people to miss the traditional sound."
Just mention that million-selling, belly-buttoned star's name to 22-year-old Justin Bell, a line-dancing country fan from Carnesville, and his black cowboy hat almost starts spinning. "I hate Shania Twain . . . There's country, then there's Shania. She's pop with a twang. Give us George (Jones). Give us Hank (Williams) --- that yee-haw stuff that everybody loves."
In the past five years, while Nashville-based artists such as Twain, Faith Hill, Martina McBride and Lonestar have found a pot of gold with crossover hits on Top 40 radio, other country music acts have dipped far below the gold-rush days of 1995, when Garth Brooks helped propel the genre to an all-time record $2 billion in sales.
But the backlash is in full swing: On Tuesday, Loretta Lynn was in Atlanta at a high-rise office complex across from Lenox Square filming a video. It features a man behind a desk telling her that she's got to change. "They say that I'm too country, the way I look and sound. They wanna make me over, just a little more uptown," goes the lyric. Lynn, who hasn't had a hit record in nearly 20 years, said afterward: "I never stopped being country."
With ratings as flat as a three-day-old glass of beer, Atlanta country radio station Y-106.7 --- which had been touting itself as the home of "young hit" country for years --- recently switched formats to play half new releases and half vintage hits from artists such as Jones and Dolly Parton.
Angry that artists over 40 were being virtually shut out from radio airplay, Johnny Cash's producer took out a full-page ad in Billboard displaying a vintage, 1960s photo of Cash flipping a finger into the camera. At the recent Country Radio Seminar in Nashville, hundreds crammed into a standing-room-only session billed "Too Country/Too Pop?", where one participant accused the panel of Music Row execs of "throwing us under the bus."
Meanwhile, Canadian Twain, who eschews the Nashville establishment to write and record songs with her rock producer/husband, Mutt Lang (Def Leppard), became the biggest-selling act in country music history. Ever.
Moby, the top-rated morning deejay on Atlanta country station Kicks 101.5, makes this observation: "Somewhere out in Coweta County every morning in a barn there's a guy milking a cow, listening to a transistor radio set up on a rafter, saying 'what the hell is that?'."
Though Twain and other Nashville-based acts who use the production tricks of rock music -- big drums, electric piano, adolescent themes about love -- have stoked the current fire, the controversy is nothing new. The man most consider the granddaddy of today's commercial country, Hank Williams, saw his tunes covered by pop acts of the day. Early television exposure prompted 1950s Nashville artists such as Eddy Arnold, Jim Reeves, Ray Price and Patsy Cline to toss out the rhinestones and adopt cocktail-wear. The country/rock movement of the 1970s led the Country Music Association to name granola-folkie John Denver its entertainer of the year in 1975 (Hardcore fans will remember that a peeved Charlie Rich burned the envelope after making that announcement on television.) Crystal Gayle and Kenny Rogers danced back and forth between country and pop charts in the early 1980s. Even the queen of dime-store country herself, Parton, has dabbled in both disco and pop. And let's not forget Garth Brooks, who drew millions of new fans to country music but donned a black wig and mascara to become a bizarre pop act known as Chris Gaines.
Why has the view out the farmhouse window so consistently been focused on the manicured lawns of suburban America? M-o-n-e-y. Joe Galante, the veteran head of RCA Records/Nashville, points to the country group Lonestar as a crossover example. "When you have a hit like "Amazed," it's double the money. Who in their right mind puts out a book or puts on a network TV show and just wants to appeal to one group of people? We try to sell as much as we can by keeping the integrity of the product. That's what a business does."
"But," says Y-106.7's Mitchell, "I think the record companies are starting to pick up on the backlash. Look at Shane Minor. This guy came out smoking. They said he was country, but he sure sounded pop. He just got dropped from his label."
Just as country music has always flirted with pop over the years, the pendulum has inevitably swung back to traditionalism. Just when an Olivia Newton-John or a Twain seem to be giving Nashville a mainstream makeover, along comes rough-around-the-edges traditionalists to preserve country music's accent. For every Patsy Cline, there's a Loretta Lynn. The same year Denver was the darling of Nashville, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson barreled in with their monster, anti-Nashville album, "Wanted: The Outlaws."
While Rogers was crooning duets with Lionel Ritchie, alternative country acts such as Dwight Yoakam, k.d. lang and Steve Earle were turning up the twang in west coast clubs. When country boy Randy Travis broke through with his lonesome whine in the 1980s, he opened the door for one of the biggest returns to traditionalism country has ever seen, led by tractor tapedeck acts such as Jackson, Strait and Travis Tritt.
Frustrated with Nashville's recent preoccupation with pop, Tritt recently took a two-year break from his career to reassess and renew. He switched record labels, signing with the Columbia division of Sony, and concentrated on writing tunes for a new album --- due out in October --- that he believes will speak to country's fan base.
"If you look back at the history of country music, it runs in 10-year cycles," he says. "We start out with boom-chicka-boom, nuts-and-bolts traditionalism. Then it starts building up and brings in a lot of influences that stray away from what country music is lyrically and musically. It makes it start sounding like a lot of different things. Then there's this big flushing, and it always goes back to the boom-chicka-boom, because that's the real stuff."
"When I started out in the '80s, all the guys I knew listened to country music. The first thing they did when they got off work was to hop in their truck and turn it up. It was part of their day-to-day lives. We've lost them to either classic rock or Rush Limbaugh. We've lost them, and in order to get them back we've got to start doing some gutsy stuff as well as the ballads that will hold onto the female audience."
Ironically, producer Tony Brown thinks some of the current rebellion is prompted by the success of female acts. Twain may not sound like Tammy Wynette, but her aggressive, in-your-face style has helped move women from the second tier as money-makers to the top.
"Right now, it's mainly the girls who are crossing over," Brown says. "And a lot of them, from an image standpoint, have a pop image. Almost any female country artist today dresses equally as fashionable as any pop artist..... I think it's kind of interesting that of the people raising their voices, it's mostly the men who used to dominate this industry."
Even Lynn said she thinks the country music community is making way too much of the controversy, particularly when it comes to criticizing artists such as Faith Hill. "People keep putting Faith down, but as far as I'm concerned, she can sing what she wants to."
Galante, who has steered RCA Records from the days of the Outlaws to Martina McBride, also thinks a bit of the fuss is overreaction. "I was just sitting here reading the trades, looking at the records going up the pop charts -- Limp Biskit, Kid Rock, Christina Aguilera. That's pop music. If you listen to these lyrics, they're not dealing with adult problems. It's very clear to those of us working in the business what is pop and what is country. Today's consumer didn't grow up on Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. You're not going to see someone getting on stage with wagon wheels like Porter Wagoner did because these people didn't grow up on farms. The heart and soul of what they grew up with is the same, they have the same problems. ... Country music is like a football field. On one side the goal post is Brad Paisely. On the other, you have Shania Twain. The choice is there."
Don Herron of the retro-country group BR5-49, believes "any time country music has been the strongest is when it's playing its twang right along with its pop. The hardcore guys have got to be in there too. Beer drinkin' ain't exactly politically correct anymore. Shootin' somebody doesn't really go over, and a program director gets scared to put that stuff on. But that's what life is. Turn on the news, and that's what you'll see -- stories about life. ... Hank (Williams) probably wouldn't even be around today."
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