Arguably, the biggest star in country music today, at least in sheer commercial terms, is Taylor Swift. She controversially swept the board at last year’s CMA award ceremony, but has been overlooked in most categories this year. Her undeniable appeal to young girls has led to suggestions that as her fans grow up, they will outgrow Taylor, and that her current stratospheric career may not be sustained at the same level, while others have suggested that she may mature as a songwriter and actually expand her fan base. Fans laud her songwriting (even when they admit her vocal shortcomings), particularly given her youth, implying she will improve further as she gets older. Sales figures for her upcoming third album are likely to be scrutinised closely. A look back at other teenage country stars is not encouraging.
The most famous teenage country stars of the past are LeAnn Rimes and Tanya Tucker, both of whom became stars at the age of 13, but neither of them had an easy road to maintaining that success. Tanya’s teenage stardom fizzled out after she moved to a sexier image and pop material, and endured a few years in the wilderness before making her comeback in the mid 80s. The jury is still out on LeAnn; her initial hit with ‘Blue’ was very much in the vein of Patsy Cline, for whom the song had originally been intended, but since then she has seemed uncertain of her identity as an artist. One cannot help wondering if that was because her initial career path was influenced by her parents. Like Tanya, she chased the pop crossover market, with more success, but the pop world is a fickle one, and in 2005, she was back in country music with some accomplished pop-country. Her emotional comeback hit ‘Probably Wouldn’t Be This way’ was a very fine record, but overall I didn’t feel she had really developed as an artist as much as I would have hoped considering how phenomenal she was as a child. She was not able to sustain this second blast, and the recent unfavourable publicity relating to her private life is unlikely to help. Her upcoming covers album may be produced by Vince Gill, but what we’ve heard from it so far does not inspire. Unlike Taylor Swift, however, LeAnn and Tanya were not marketed to their peers, and neither wrote songs as teenagers. Rather, both were presented as girls with voices mature beyond their years, and Tanya in particular recorded very adult material right from the start.
Following the initial success of LeAnn Rimes, the late 90s saw other labels jumping on the bandwagon and signing big-voiced teenagers. The 15-year-old Lila McCann scored the biggest selling debut album of 1997 and a #3 hit in ‘I Wanna Fall In Love’. Hers was another flash in the pan, as she only had one more top 10 hit. Her bright pop-country records have not worn particularly well, and an attempt at a comeback as an adult in the mid 2000s met with general indifference. The very similar Jessica Andrews had an almost identical career trajectory: her first hit at 15, in 1999, a solitary #1 the following year, with radio interest subsequently diminishing, and a comeback attempt which soon fizzled out. These girls were initial beneficiaries and longterm casualties of the Nashville tendency to copy the latest trend. Both had good voices, but not very distinctive ones, and their youth made their vocal ability and longterm potential seem more impressive than perhaps it really was.
What impresses in a teenager does not necessarily translate into exceptional adult ability. Further, many of these young artists have not really developed a strong sense of themselves as an artist, tending to adopt the latest trend. The roots of their artistry often seem to run rather shallow, and there is usually (and inevitably) a lack of maturity. Wynonna was only a teenager when The Judds burst onto the scene, but it seems clear that although Wynonna’s voice provided the essence of their music, their musical direction was largely directed by Naomi. Looking at some of Wynonna’s later solo music, one wonders if left to her own devices, she would have picked country music as the market place for her undeniable talent.
Many young artists are signed to development deals which do not pan out, leaving them high and dry a year or two down the line. Examples of promising young artists chewed up by the system include Ashley Monroe, whose excellent Satisfied finally won a digital-only release last year after years on the shelf; she has now signed to the LA branch of Warner Brothers. Her friend the Australian Catherine Britt never saw her superb RCA album released in the US at all. Both girls were lucky to some degree in that their singles had made some critical waves, and they have been able to continue musical careers, even if mainstream country stardom has so far escaped them. A worse fate lies in wait for the many who sign to a major label, but never seem to release a thing. I remember some years back, there was some buzz surrounding a then-14 year old named Alexis who was signed to Warner Brothers and was supposedly very talented. If you’ve never heard of her, that’s because no records were ever released, and she was eventually dropped by the label. Might artists like this (particularly one who should still be in school) be better served if they waited to sign a record deal until they were ready to make a record? Not everyone who wants to become a star is going to succeed, and the excitement of apparently achieving that dream must surely derail thoughts of a backup plan.
Another of today’s superstars, Carrie Underwood, tried and failed to get a deal in Nashville as a 15-year-old, and in the long run that failure probably did her a favour, giving her a free run when she auditioned for American Idol. Fellow Idol alumna Kristy Lee Cook, who did sign to Arista at 17, saw no discernible benefit from this, only to have her second deal with the same label (post-Idol) fizzle out after a rush-released album and some rather half-hearted promotion.
But could this be such an artist’s only chance anyway? Billy Gilman’s career was one which could not wait on maturity because it was based on his unbroken child’s treble. A modest success as a 12-year-old has not translated into a career as an adult. Taylor Swift’s longterm career trajectory is as yet unclear, but so far her success has been built on her appeal to girls her own age and younger; delaying the onset of her career might have helped her hone her often derided performance skills, but she would have lost that USP – the insight into the emotional lives of high school age girls.
One of the artists we are spotlighting this month, Ashton Shepherd was signed to MCA at 20 with a songbook of material she had composed in her teens. In her case, her youth was balanced by the life experience which came with early marriage and motherhood. She was lucky in that her debut album was released within a year, with label boss Luke Lewis saying then that they had not delayed, in order to capture her raw talent before she got sucked into the system. However, that meant that while the album she released showed a great deal of promise, it was also evident that there was room for improvement.
It is mainly females who seem to be victims of this trend, with male singers rarely being spotted before they hit their 20s. One exception is Blaine Larsen, who emerged at just 18 with a mature voice and material which spanned the age appropriate (‘My High School’, and the teen suicide-themed ‘How Do You Get That Lonely’) and songs clearly designed for someone rather older (‘Teaching Me How To Love You’), which however well sung were not entirely convincingly from such a young man. He didn’t really click with radio and is currently going the indie route, with a new album expected this year. It is unclear whether he will have the chance of a comeback, or if his big chance as a teenager was his one and only chance at making it big.
Instrumental musical prodigies run counter to this to a degree. Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley and Marty Stuart were all playing bluegrass professionally as teenagers, but only became country stars in their own rights years later. Alison Krauss was recording in her teens but although she sang on her records, she was promoted mainly as a fiddle prodigy. Indeed, those early vocal efforts barely hint at the unique vocal talents she developed as an adult.
Sometime your first shot at success is the only chance you’ll ever get. The public’s first impression may well endure, and an artist whose juvenilia becomes the best-selling work of their career, may never achieve what might have been.
Do you think a young singer should take the first shot at realizing their dreams, or wait until they have honed their craft?