Much has been said lately about plummeting music sales. Country Universe has you covered with the latest numbers. This is effecting every genre, and country is no exception. Each week the Billboard 200 album chart posts a new record low for the top-selling album. Everyone is looking for the silver lining. Shutting down massive file-sharing sites is really little victory in the long-term because these music pirates are finding new avenues to infringe copyrights even as I write this. I won’t try to kid myself that low, low record sales are anything but primarily caused by illegal downloading, but I am of the persuasion that there are other fixes than injunctions against the major culprits. Country music has been in the valley before, only to rise to glory time and time again.
Historically, when sales and listenership began to dwindle, the powers on Music Row raised up and began working to solve the problem. When the rock and roll invasion in the 1950s brought country music sales to a standstill at the end of the decade, and more and more radio stations stopped programming the music, executives and producers opted to polish the sound of the music they created.
Born to compete commercially with rock and roll, the Nashville Sound embodied the lush, string-filled sounds of pop music from a couple decades past. Artists like Brenda Lee, Glen Campbell and Bobby Bare found as much success on the pop charts as the country charts during this time. By the 1970s, when the public began to tire of the slicker side of country from the likes of Crystal Gale, Kenny Rogers and others, there came a group of renegades who decided to turn up their amplifiers and sing about gritty, real-life subject matter. We called them outlaws. Then came Urban Cowboy, practiced by most of the same artists from the pre- and post-outlaw time, was yet another incarnation of the Nashville Sound. The antidote for that overstated Urban Cowboy era was of course the New Traditionalist movement of the 80s. And then you all know the story of Garth Brooks and the 90s, when CDs were still on the shelves, and were flying off daily. We watched as country music became the popular music of the day.
Today, the biggest-selling artists remain middle-of-the road starlets like Lady Antebellum, Sugarland, Taylor Swift, and Jason Aldean. These artists have taken an adult contemporary approach, aiming their music squarely for the top 40. Lady Antebellum is the very definition of a MOR act, straddling the line between pop/rock and country, while posting impressive sales numbers.
Like Lady A, Sugarland’s sales remain strong – 4 straight platinum CDs – but they’ve done it with the same ratio of mostly influences not indigenous to Music City. Sugarland started out a very promising act in the pop-country field. Their music sparkled with life, their lyrics were smart and original, and Jennifer Nettles brought with her an attention-grabbing vocal. Their sound has evolved outside the sparkling pop-country of their first releases into the bombastic and shouted antics of The Incredible Machine. Now, like the industry that gave them a foothold, the duo seems to be in a sort of identity crisis, with no decided musical direction these days. Their lack of focus, aside from the production, is the biggest fault with their most recent album, yet consumers have rewarded their uncertainty with a million purchases.
But that’s not all there is. Lee Ann Womack has never matched the sales of her crossover mega-hit ‘I Hope You Dance’ with her acclaimed traditional releases in the past couple of years, but continues to crank out quality, country music in the traditionalist sense. Sure, there are others – Miranda Lambert and Jamey Johnson are making some inroads – but I don’t see that either of them is doing much to change the tide. Johnson can’t get on the radio with the singles from his latest album, no matter how good they are. And Lambert is swimming in a sea of pseudo-twangy pop stars. It’s still a wonder she’s made it as far as she has. I certainly root, root, root for her continued success, but I wonder if her contributions to traditional country are enough.
After two decades of pop-country at the forefront, aren’t we overdue for a change of the tide once again? I’d say we’re almost a decade behind the cycle. I can’t be the only one who’s noticed.