November 19, 2009
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A lot has been written during the past week about The Night The Music Died. I read an excellent post in the past few days on Twang Nation about the state of modern country music. It speculated that country music icons like Hank Williams and Dolly Parton would not be able to find success in mainstream country today, and that if they wanted careers they would have to do so on the Americana side of the tracks. A similar sentiment is expressed in “Murder on Music Row”, which states that Hank Williams and Merle Haggard “wouldn’t stand a chance on today’s radio”, and it’s a topic that I’d like to examine a little further. I came up with a list of some of my favorites and tried to decide if they’d be able to find success in country music today:
1. Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, and Johnny Cash:
There is little doubt in my mind that Hank and Loretta would be labeled “too country” for country radio today, while Cash, whose music never fit neatly into any one category, had an independent streak that would probably get him into trouble today. He’d likely be kept off country radio for “political” reasons. I can definitely see all of these artists finding success in the Americana camp where they’d likely find cult followings, but would not have the impact that they found in the mainstream in days gone by.
2. George Jones and Merle Haggard
It’s hard to imagine country music without its greatest singer and its greatest songwriter; both have become the standard bearers for virtually all of the male artists that came after them. Despite their reputations as traditionalists, both of these men had very polished vocal styles. Jones in particular proved to be very adaptable with the changes in the musical landscape. His earliest recordings were clearly in the vein of Hank Williams, but it is his more countrypolitan-flavored work with Billy Sherrill for which he is best remembered. If they were starting out today, I think both Haggard and Jones could escape the “too country” label, but they’d have difficulty overcoming the fact that neither one had the classic good looks that have taken precedence over musical ability in recent years.
3. Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire
These two women have had similar career paths and have had success in a variety of different aspects of the entertainment industry. I can definitely see Dolly finding a success as a new mainstream artist today, thanks in no small part to her legendary good looks and sex appeal. Reba, while not possessing the same — assets — as Dolly, has demonstrated that, like Dolly, she’s willing to do release pop-oriented music in order to cater to the preferences of county radio. The only obstacle that I can see facing these two women is that both struggled for a number of years before becoming successful; in this day and age, it would be difficult to find major record labels that would release their albums and keep them on their rosters while they were waiting for their breakthroughs.
Who are some of your favorite legendary country artists, and how do you think they would fare today if they were just starting out?