My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Looking for the saviour of country music (again)

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?

8 responses to “Looking for the saviour of country music (again)

  1. Pingback: McGraw and Jackson Added to CMA Music Fest; Country’s Bad Rap; Industry Veteran Jim Halsey Releases New Book | The 9513

  2. Razor X March 4, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    It’s going to be extremely difficult for another Randy Travis to break through, since radio stations are so consolidated these days. Back in the 80s, no one had a monopoly on country radio, which it made it much easier for new acts to get played on some stations, at least.

    Randy also didn’t have to face any unrealistic sales expectations. Expectations were so low for his first album, he and his producer Kyle Lehning were hoping to sell 50,000 to 60,000 copies so that Warner Bros. would give them a shot at making another album. Since that time, Nashville has gotten used to multi-platinum level sales. Even though most artists aren’t producing million-sellers anymore, it’s going to be very difficult for anyone who doesn’t at least sell gold to be given another chance. Even established stars are having difficulty getting their labels to release new albums.

  3. Tom March 4, 2010 at 3:24 pm

    …the right artist is here already. it’s taylor swift. she’s leading the way and the fans are following. among the talented more traditional young faces there isn’t one with similar superstar-appeal, not by a long way. like it or not but she’s the “real deal” for the time being.

    the good news is, however, that artists like miranda lambert, ashton shepherd, jamey johnson, chris young and perhaps easton corbin have the potential to bring fresh blood into the group of more traditional artists that are still played regularly on today’s country radio. but nothing more, i’m afraid.

    if radio cared to improve the mix that is played it wouldn’t sound bad at all. there’s a lot of people out there, who are more talented than kenny chesney and more interesting than carrie underwood.

  4. CMW March 4, 2010 at 4:00 pm

    A very astute article, Hope. I expect to see the pendulum swing more toward the traditional side over time, but know that any such changes will probably be pretty moderate. I don’t expect another Randy Travis because Randy wasn’t another Merle, who wasn’t another Lefty. The train’s moving forward, and whatever traditional artists gain traction will be traditional compared to the other stuff happening now. I’m looking for incremental improvements rather than one big seismic shift.

    • Razor X March 4, 2010 at 9:08 pm

      I’m looking for a big seismic shift. I don’t expect to get it; after nearly 15 years of waiting, my hopes have grown dimmer, but that is what country music really needs.

      whatever traditional artists gain traction will be traditional compared to the other stuff happening now.

      Good point, but even though Randy Travis wasn’t another Haggard, he was just as traditional as Haggard; he wasn’t just traditional in relation to the pop-oriented acts of the day.

  5. Wade March 5, 2010 at 9:14 am

    It will happen……just need the right artist, and more importantly the right song. Jamey Johnson broke through a bit, but the rest of his cd was full of great songs, but not radio hits. You need a country artist, with traditional sounds, that is radio friendly…certainly within the realm of possibility

  6. Adrian March 27, 2010 at 3:02 am

    No matter what forum you read, no matter what website you visit, there is a ground swell of opinion echoing this very sentiment. Are there enough of us feeling the same way to change things? I don’t know. Are we in a demographic that the labels care about anymore? I’d certainly like to think so.

    For me, the saviour last time we found ourselves in this label-induced rut ( late 80’s ) was Dwight Yoakam. For me, his first 3 albums were fundamental in wresting back “real” country music. Having said that, he cut his teeth playing a lot of “alternate” gigs – even in some punk palaces – and garned a wide ranging fan base in the process.

    Time has proven him to be one of the great country artists / songwriters, and I just don’t see anyone with the same depth or talent riding to our rescue at present. Sure, there are some good voices around, but some of their material has all the depth of a toddler’s paddling pool.

  7. Corinne October 11, 2010 at 3:04 pm

    I really wish that country would come back that it would sound really country. I am kinda of how country been sounding lately with too much rock in the country. They need too come back the sound of country. With the sounds of country. Like George Strait and George Jones Randy Travis. Ones like. Not ones like Kenny Chesney and Garth Brooks. There not country too me

    Corinne

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