My Kind of Country

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

Growing older gracefully

Reba McEntire’s latest single, the loud and over-produced ‘Turn On The Radio’, has her firmly following the latest trends. We often bemoan the youth mania which has overtaken country radio in recent years and made it hard for an older artist to get radio play. Reba definitely defied the odds when she made her successful comeback last year well into her fifties, but it’s a shame that she felt she needed to follow the template cut out by today’s young pop-country stars in order to compete with them. Obviously it worked for Reba, who achieved her 24th #1 single with ‘Consider Me Gone’, but personally I preferred the lyrically mature follow-up single, ‘I Keep On Loving You’, where Reba played her age.

No career lasts forever, and only a handful of Reba’s contemporaries can still hope for radio play: George Strait, Alan Jackson, the about-to-retire Brooks & Dunn, are all seeing success in their 50s, but most of their contemporaries, however talented or however bright their star was in earlier years, now struggle to compete with attractive young faces in an increasingly image-conscious era. Female singers in particular struggle to get radio play once they hit their forties, even if, like Reba and Sara Evans, they try to record radio friendly material. Lee Ann Womack is trying to balance radio-friendly material with quality, with some success. Yet the perception than country music is more open to older artists is at the root of the influx of artists from other genres.

Some artists who are no longer selling as well as they did in their heyday have responded by embracing the greater artistic freedom which comes with an independent label and lower expectations, and taken unexpected new routes. Patty Loveless produced her masterpiece Sleepless Nights and last year’s bluegrass project Mountain Soul II, and Kathy Mattea released the acclaimed concept album Coal. Emmylou Harris ventured into Americana territory and gained much critical acclaim. Others turn to religious music. Many stars have done so at the height of their careers (most recently Alan Jackson with his labor of love Precious Memories), and it is even more common to include a religious track on a mainstream album. Others have waited until their star has begun to fade. Randy Travis, once the biggest star in country, released five religious records in six years in the 2000s, and gained a new following in Christian music, although he has since returned to secular music.

Taking the long view, though, country music has historically been kinder to older artists than the youth fixated pop world. Buck Owens’ first retirement, at around 50, was thought premature by fans, and he staged a successful minor comeback a decade later thanks in part to his admirer Dwight Yoakam. Vern Gosdin didn’t have his first solo hit until his 40s and had his greatest success in his 50s in the late 1980s, although his is an extreme example. Our current Spotlight Artist George Jones had his biggest hit, ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’, in his late 40s, and was still charting, at least occasionally, at 70. Other veterans like Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, both now in their 70s, may be missing from radio playlists, but their new recordings are greeted with the respect they deserve. Gene Watson – never as big a star as he should have been – is still making great music and released my favourite album of 2009.

Bluegrass and country legend Charlie Louvin, survivor of the Louvin Brothers, is still recording in his 80s, despite recently diagnosed serious illness. In an interesting example of generational impact in country music his new project, released later this month, is apparently a tribute to the late Gram Parsons, including several rerecordings of old Louvin Brothers classics which inspired country-rock pioneer Parsons. Another 80-something, Ray Price, continues to record and tour.

In non-televised segments, the iconic Opry still relies heavily on veterans, many of whom have been members since the 50s or 60s. Sometimes the respect paid to country veterans seems a little like lip service, with legends lauded but not actually played (particularly when inductions to the Hall of Fame were dropped from the televised segment of the CMA awards show), or when a name check in a country song comes across more as name dropping without showing that artist’s influence. But the fact that most younger artists at least see themselves as fitting into a long tradition is one of the ways in which country music distinguishes itself compared with other forms of popular music.

Other stars (Bill Anderson, for instance, and George Jones’ onetime duet partner Melba Montgomery) step back from the limelight as performers but are still successful songwriters. Even those who retire from music as a career may continue to play and sing, although few can hope to beat old-time banjo player and singer Wade Mainer, who was recording into his 80s and is currently aged 103.

Artists from other genres fare less well in comparison. A recent case in point is Welsh pop icon Tom Jones (who had a number of country hits himself but whose work has spanned many genres over the years) who has just turned 70. His upcoming Praise and Blame is a blues-gospel religious album (the musicians including Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings), which has reportedly upset at least one senior executive at his record label who wanted something more commercial rather than “hymns”. Apparently Jones has referred to this as his ‘Johnny Cash’ album, no doubt a reference to Cash’s Rick Rubin produced ‘American’ recordings which saw him have a late career resurgence which showcased the gravitas which had increased with age and made a virtue of his advancing years.

Do you think it is possible for country stars to remain relevant to younger audiences as they get older, or is that increasingly a myth?

6 responses to “Growing older gracefully

  1. Pingback: Growing older gracefully « My Kind Of Country | Mark Guerrero Music

  2. Paul W Dennis July 8, 2010 at 1:19 pm

    I think for the less photogenic, such as Gene Watson, that it is not possible to maintain appeal for the increasingly youth-oriented market . A male performer, such as George Strait, who still looks reasonably youthful may be able to maintain momentum . I doubt that a female performer in her 50s will be able to maintain the momentum on a consistant basis, although the occasional stray hit (such as Reba’s recent hit) may be possible.

    Too bad, at least in the case of Gene Watson, who remains the best singer on the planet. Too bad too, for young listeners who have little opportunity to actually hear Gene Watson or Narvel Felts or Tommy Cash, all of whom still perform at top-drawer levels

  3. Chad MacNeil July 8, 2010 at 1:43 pm

    Excellent article.

    It makes it more and more dis-enfranchising to those fans like myself who grow older ourselves. I try to listen to current country radio now, but I just can’t get into most of it. I stick to those artists I enjoyed when they (and me) were younger.

    I think it is just the way society is these days. My parents revered their elders, but I don’t think that’s the case nearly as much these days. So I think the way artists are “discarded” once they age a bit is just natural. Factor in all the visual representations of music we have now, and of course young people are attracted to the attractive.

    I wonder how many people would have become George Jones fans back in the 60s, before TV was quite so prevalent, had they known how physically unattractive he’s always been. I love the Possum, but he’s no George Strait from an appearance standpoint.

  4. J.R. Journey July 8, 2010 at 5:42 pm

    “It makes it more and more dis-enfranchising to those fans like myself who grow older ourselves. I try to listen to current country radio now, but I just can’t get into most of it. I stick to those artists I enjoyed when they (and me) were younger.”

    That’s really a great point. I would think – and I can even tell just from poking around on these country blogs – that there are still lots and lots of us country fans left over from the 90s boom years. And many of us were still very young (teenagers) during those years, so we’ve grown up since the hey-day of Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Shania Twain, Pam Tillis, etc. It seems so simple to me that for country music to keep the fans that the 90s turned on to the genre, the makers of the music would want to cater to those of us in the 25-40 year-old demographic. There are only a handful of songs in the top 40 these days that really deal with adult themes.

    And the audience is obviously there – we haven’t went anywhere – patiently waiting for country music to become adult music once again. I, for one, and way past thinking the youth-craze in country music has gone on long enough.

  5. Rick July 8, 2010 at 7:48 pm

    Let’s face it, the Top 40 mainstream country music establishment these days is just one big marketing machine targeted at a younger, and mostly female demographic. Don’t get me wrong, “country radio” has always been about attracting listeners to sell on air ads, but these days the marketing and promotion angles far outweigh musical quality considerations.

    The current Top 40 country scene is dominated by young newcomers because the listeners themselves are getting younger, and pop-rock country appeals to these people. The appearance of magazines like “People Country” also show mainstream country music has become part of the broader pop culture scene, where physical attractiveness is of paramount importance.

    I really don’t foresee Top 40 country radio ever turning back in a big way towards traditional country styles of the past. The people who love that music don’t listen to Top 40 radio any longer and the radio programmers mostly don’t care for that “too country” stuff. They are looking for the newest “next big thing”, and that’s likely to be more pop-rock oriented acts like Lady Antebellum.

    What bothers me most is that there are few if any over the air country radio stations that play newer tradition oriented music whether it be from long established artists (Gene Watson) or the younger set (Amber Digby, Teea Goans). (Sirius/XM doesn’t count since they require a subscription fee that severely limits listeners.) Traditional country music is following in the sad footsteps of Cowboy Music and Western Swing to become a form of mostly forgotten “niche market” music for older folks who grew up with it in terms of music sales. (Well, outside of Texas anyway…)

    Ooops, I guess my ramblings were quite a bit off target! Darn.

  6. Ben Foster July 9, 2010 at 4:11 pm

    I would say that older artists can definitely remain relevant to younger audiences. I can say that because I’m only 18, but such artists are relevant to me. Many of the country artists that I listen to are ones that are no longer having hits, but that continue to tour and record. Just like anyone else, I also wish that country radio would play better music instead of only playing what they think the listeners expect. And I’ve got to say, I’m VERY disappointed in Reba for abandoning the sincere country sound she used to have, and instead giving us a pop-country throwaway..

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