New Mercury artist Easton Corbin, whose single ‘A Little More Country Than That’ is heading up the charts and whose debut album was released earlier this week, has been touted by some as the latest great hope for a revival of more traditionally rooted music on country radio. He has a pleasant voice and I like his general approach, but I think he is going to need stronger material if he is to fulfil the hype; these are heavy expectations on any young artist in his circumstances in any case.
The last person to bear that mantle, Ashton Shepherd, has been pretty quiet lately, after her first (and so far only) two singles both stalled around #20 in 2008. I still hope to hear more, and better, from Ashton, who is reportedly currently working on a new record, although I felt that her debut album showed promise more than a full achievement of her potential. Earlier in the decade similar hopes were placed on singers like Joe Nichols and Josh Turner, neither of whom has quite fulfilled their potential, although both are maintaining a chart presence. Jamey Johnson, another figurehead for non-pop country (although in his case a little more on the ‘Outlaw’ line of descent) had a really big hit with ‘In Color’, and sales of the acclaimed That Lonesome Song were unexpectedly good, but subsequent singles were a little too much for country radio. His new album is one which I am eagerly awaiting, but it remains to be seen whether it will have another mainstream hit to keep his profile high.
In some ways, the state of commercial country music is not unlike that of the mid 1980s. 25 years ago, pop-influenced sounds had largely ousted more traditional country music from the airwaves, with a sprinkling of more traditional artists to leaven the dough. The big stars of the day were mainly pop-influenced artists like the smoky voiced Earl Thomas Conley, Lee Greenwood, Gary Morris, and former pop group Exile. When a new Warner Brothers artist named Randy Travis released a classic almost-cheating song, ‘On the Other Hand’, in 1985, it was deemed far too country for country radio.
It wasn’t all bad news, though, with a handful of older stars still active; George Jones and Merle Haggard were still having #1 hit singles. Their closest equivalents today would be George Strait and this month’s Spotlight Artist Alan Jackson. Other traditionally-rooted artists were still getting played too, alongside the pop-country, although some had compromised their sound to stay competitive, most notable Dolly Parton, whose music was at its most pop at this date. Even someone like John Anderson who had emerged in 1980 as a hard country act had moved to a poppier sound by 1983. A handful of younger artists including Strait (then at the start of his career), Ricky Skaggs, and Reba McEntire were signs of things to come. Because what few would have predicted in, say, 1984, was the emergence of the neotraditional movement and the way it briefly dominated country music.
The rise to stardom of Randy Travis in 1986 was the real catalyst for that movement. He was certainly not the first – Strait and Skaggs had been around since the start of the decade, and Reba, whose early records were more pop-country had defiantly recorded a selection of older songs on her breakthrough My Kind Of Country album in 1984, and they were all highly successful. But they were exceptions.
Once radio had accepted his single ‘1982’, the now-classic ‘On The Other Hand’ was re-released, and went to #1. Randy’s album Storms Of Life was one of the first country albums to go platinum, thanks to a combination of high quality material, a classic country voice, and strong marketing across genres, and that commercial success encouraged Warners and other labels to sign more young but definitely country artists. Other young singers who had previously recorded more pop-country material, like Steve Wariner and Kathy Mattea, began to sound more traditional or rootsy.
The sea change of the late 80s in fact was not restricted to reviving traditional honky tonk style music; Mattea, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Nanci Griffith all brought folk-rooted music to the major labels. Even Dolly – her finger always on the pulse – abandoned her flirtation with pop and returned to very traditional sounding music with her acclaimed Trio collaboration with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt in 1987 and then asking Ricky Skaggs to produce her White Limozeen album in 1989. Those who had struggled to break through because they were “too country” , like Randy himself, and Keith Whitley, were finally accepted. Even 50-something Vern Gosdin, who had had some hits earlier in the decade, enjoyed a late flowering boom and his greatest period of sustained success in the last few years of the decade.
It is probably unrealistic to expect a similar transformation today. What I think would make a difference would be if one of the younger traditional artists were to start selling well – as well or better than the pop-inspired artists. The music business is just that – a business, and the bottom line has often been more important than artistic merit in Nashville. It is dispiriting to realise that if the genre as a whole is not selling as well as it used to, traditional country is on the whole selling even less. We can’t blame Nashville’s woes solely on the poor quality of many major labels’ output, tempting though that is. If someone is to break through like Randy Travis did, it would almost certainly have to be someone good looking as well as talented. Today youth and beauty are even more important than they were in the 80s, when videos were in their infancy as a marketing tool.
There certainly seem to be few signs of hope for those disenchanted by country radio’s latest lurch popwards. Taylor Swift’s sweep of recent awards shows and domination of the country charts is showing no signs of having run its course yet. The latest country awards nominations (the ACMs) show a predominance of pop-country artists with the melodic but not-very-country Lady Antebellum leading the charge. But the mid 80s were little more promising either. Maybe all we need is that one extraordinary talent to lead the way back.
Returning to Easton Corbin, he is certainly showing signs of appealing to country radio, which is encouraging, as (at last) is Chris Young, who has a great voice and all the right musical instincts but mediocre material. But is either of them a new Randy Travis who can cross over while not compromising? I’m not so sure. Vocally, Easton is being compared most to George Strait, and emulating his career would certainly be no bad thing. Strait’s long career has been remarkably consistent, while Travis’s star burned more brightly for a while before fading in commercial terms. But without that star, the history of country music would have been very different.
Do you think the current direction of country music could be reversed if the right artist came along, or have the changes been too fundamental?