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?