Alive and Kickin’

A year after The New York Times ran its obit, country music is stronger than ever, thanks to artists like Steve Earle, Dwight Yoakam and Randy Travis

THE SOUTH HADN’T seen a bash like this since the Confederate army melted down Scarlett’s best silverware. Soon after the Twentieth Annual Country Music Association Awards ended, more than 3000 record company execs, musicians, DJs and assorted hangers-on spread throughout several acres of Nashville’s opulent Opryland Hotel complex. Ornamented in sequined gowns and hillbilly tuxedos, they hovered around yellow hills of cheese cubes, bushels of fresh seafood and, especially, a dozen open bars. The awards party marked the pinnacle of Country Music Week — seven days of cocktails, conferences, drinks, meetings, liquor, concerts, aperitifs and awards — and everyone agreed that the mood at these gatherings was “upbeat.” But if kidney damage is a measure of optimism, tonight’s revelers were nothing short of exultant. By midnight, most of the guests regarded vertical posture as a challenge.

The CMA awards party wasn’t just a celebration. It was revenge. Only one year earlier, in the face of declining record sales and concert attendance, country music was listed in critical condition, most notably in a front-page story in The New York Times. But the 1986 CMA awards were dominated by a group of young musicians, the so-called New Traditionalists, who are resuscitating the industry. This night the country-music community had proved that it was alive and healthy. For one thing, dead people don’t drink so much Jack Daniel’s.

NINETEEN EIGHTY-six was a year of encouraging signs for country music — from the success of the Nashville Network, which climbed to the top of the cable racings while showcasing young artists, to the recent expansion of PolyGram Records’ country division, which tripled its roster in the last eight months.

The best-known country singers during the late Seventies and early Eighties — people like Kenny Rogers and Barbara Mandrell — had as much connection to traditional country music as the Osmonds did to rock & roll. But the new generation of country stars — most notably Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell and Randy Travis — care more about the music’s traditions than about hosting a network-TV series. After a bout with what Crowell condemns as “wimpiness” country music is returning to its swinging roots. The New Traditionalists have created a new crossover that appeals to a younger audience weaned on the country-flavored music of West Coast rock bands like Rank and File and Lone Justice as well as to fans of such mainstream artists as Bruce Springsteen, John Cougar Mellencamp, Bob Seger and Tom Petty.

Current record sales will not be tabulated for some time, but new artists have dominated the country charts all year long: Yoakam’s Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. was the Number One country LP for two weeks, launching two Top Five singles; Randy Travis’s three consecutive Number One singles drove his LP, Storms of Life, to Number One, where it stayed for eight weeks; and shortly after the CMA awards, Steve Earle’s Guitar Town took over the top spot. All three artists have also made surprisingly strong showings on the pop and rock charts.

Meanwhile, sales for such established C&W stars as Willie Nelson and Wayion Jennings are lagging; Johnny Cash was recently dropped by CBS after twenty-eight years on the label (he was picked up by PolyGram); Warner Bros, severed its five-year relationship with Conway Twitty; and Alabama LPs, one Nashville observer notes, “are being returned by the fucking bucket load” (though die group still managed to garner two platinum albums in 1986). As a result, record executives who were once reluctant to sign young country artists are now eager to turn the New Traditionalism into a booming trend. Rick Blackburn, senior vice-president and general manager of CBS Nashville, detects a “mandate” from the audience to provide “something new and fresh” and a resulting “definite trend” toward young artists among the country labels.

“We’re in a generational change here in country music,” says Jim Ed Norman, executive vice-president of the Warner Bros. Nashville Division. “There’s no question there can be this bandwagon of ‘Oh gosh, we’ve got to go back to traditional music because that’s where the sales are?'”

But despite these marketing considerations, there’s still a surprising lack of similarity between the musicians. Yoakam’s Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. and Crowell’s Street Language share little except a disregard for soft country music. And the variety of styles has generated some old-fashioned hillbilly feuds; it’s no secret in Nashville that Yoakam and Earle aren’t fond of one another. In the elevator of the Nashville office of MCA — Earle’s label — there’s a telling scrawl of graffiti: DWIGHT YOAKAM EATS SUSHI. Considering the motley cast behind this country renaissance, Crowell proclaims, “I don’t even know if country is the right word.”

“WHEN I came to Nashville,” Steve Earle often says during his concerts, “record companies told me to write songs that were upbeat and positive. Well, life ain’t always upbeat and positive.” Nashville’s preference for perky tunes reflects how far the city had strayed from the pioneering country laments of Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers. In the Fifties, country producers started sweetening their records with strings and choirs, especially when they discovered that the resulting music was more palatable to the pop audience. Glen Campbell and John Denver in the Sixties and Seventies typified this new form, often known as Nash Trash, as did Rogers, Mandrell and Anne Murray a few years later.

Although it didn’t break any box-office records, Urban Cowboy spurred this trend in 1980, boosting sales of Stetson hats, cowboy boots and diluted country records. “There was very little country music on that album,” Earle notes of Urban Cowboys pop-targeted soundtrack. “And it sort of redefined what country music was. Country became the new MOR.”

“It got to where country music was more acceptable in Las Vegas than it was in people’s back yards,” adds Crowell.

Like many artists, Steve Earle succumbed to the Urban Cowboy phenomenon. “I threw together a band here in Nashville for about two weeks, which was as long as I could stand it,” he recalls. “We played at this place that had one of those bull machines.” After spending a year hitchhiking around Tennessee and his native Texas, stopping to sing at grimy juke joints in between, Earle settled in Nashville with his third wife. When their son was born, Earle “just panicked. I started sitting in a room eight hours a day, writing songs. There were fifty or sixty formula songs that I co-wrote during a year period.” One of those songs, ‘When You Fall in Love’, was a Top Ten country hit for Johnny Lee. “I cashed the checks,” says Earle, “but it was the most unfulfilling experience of my life.”

Dwight Yoakam first came to Nashville in 1977, because “I assumed they were still making country music here.” Yoakam’s goal was — and still is — to revive the hard honky-tonk country of Buck Owens and Johnny Horton, but he discovered that Nashville was more interested in what he has termed “B-grade pop-schlock horseshit.”

“They said, ‘It’s too country,'” Yoakam says of Nashville’s response to his music. “‘We’re not really looking for stuff that’s quite that straight ahead. Maybe if you moved down here and we got you to co-write with some of our people…?'” Yoakam, like Earle, found his early Nashville experiences “very unfulfilling.”

When there were no sequels to Urban Cowboy, the cultural carpetbaggers who had provided country with a temporary audience emigrated toward a new trend. In 1981, country LPs accounted for fifteen percent of all retail record sales; by 1984, country’s share of the market had dropped to ten percent, representing a decrease of more than $200 million in sales.

By that time, though, Nashville had become complacent. Many country executives were still making money off radio airplay and didn’t seem to care that sales were slipping. Nashville’s incestuous business practices are “a sore subject around here,” says one artist. Although it’s the kind of thing people gossip and gripe about in bars, no one wants to be quoted about the problem because Nashville can be a very small town. So small, in fact, that record producers often have shares in publishing companies — which means they receive performance royalties from airplay and are not completely dependent on sales. Even without significant sales, a Top Ten single can be worth as much as $100,000. “So it didn’t make any difference to them whether they sold records or not,” says the artist. “It behooved them to tailor everything to radio, and fuck music that people cared enough about to go and spend their money on?”

But record-company heads in New York and Los Angeles did care. One local producer remembers attending a meeting at which a New York label president announced to the Nashville executives, “Start making money for the label, or you’re history. We don’t care how you do it. We don’t even want to know.”

“YOU KNOW who started all this?” asks Tony Brown, vice-president of A&R for MCA Records. “It was Emmylou Harris.”

Harris, a former high-school cheerleader, class valedictorian and beauty queen, was a disciple of country-rock visionary Gram Parsons. After Parsons’s death, in 1973, she toured with his old backup group, the Hot Band, covered songs by such country-influenced rockers as Robbie Robertson, John Fogerty and Neil Young and made a series of successful country-rock albums for Warner Bros. By the late Seventies, when Harris turned toward a purer strain of country music, the Hot Band included, at various times, Rodney Crowell on guitar, Tony Brown on piano, Emory Gordy on bass and Ricky Skaggs on guitar, mandolin and fiddle. All four would assume important roles in the emergence of New Traditionalism.

Like many musicians of his generation, the thirty-two-year-old Skaggs grew up listening to both country and rock on the radio. He cites the Beatles, Stones and Hollies as major influences, and as a child he appeared with such bluegrass legends as Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. In 1980, after writing the arrangements for Harris’s Roses in the Snow album, Skaggs moved to Nashville and embarked on a solo career. His first LP, Waitin’ for the Sun to Shine, was released in 1981, at the height of the Urban Cowboy madness. With its mandolins and fiddles and its bluegrass roots, the album didn’t fit in with Nashville’s slick assembly-line product. Still, by 1983 both it and Skaggs’s follow-up album, Highways & Heartaches, had gone gold.

Crowell, 36, played drums in his father’s Texas honky-tonk band until he discovered the Beatles and Dylan. Even more than Skaggs, Crowell began to synthesize rock and country on a series of solo albums he released between 1978 and 1981 and on the records he produced for his wife, Rosanne Cash. Crowell’s backup band, the Cherry Bombs, featured Brown and Gordy, the Hot Band alumni who have since become two of country’s hottest producers.

Other traditional-minded artists began to follow Skaggs and Crowell onto the country charts. Six years into a sluggish career, auburn-haired Reba McEntire started coproducing her own albums in 1984 — and quickly began to dominate the charts with what she’s called “songs for the women.” That same year, the Judds, a mother-daughter team so youthful looking they could have come from a Palmolive commercial, released their debut EP. Since then, Naomi Judd and her daughter, Wynonna, have earned two gold albums and one platinum LP. This year their close, family-style harmonies won the Judds the CMA award for the vocal group of the year, while McEntire was named Female Vocalist of the Year and Entertainer of the Year.

When singer John Anderson moved from Florida to Nashville, the local hotel lounges were the only places to welcome his honky-tonk music. In 1983, however, Anderson secured his place in country music’s new hierarchy with ‘Swingin”, which became Warner Bros. Records’ biggest-selling country single ever and which won Single of the Year from the CMA.

Like Anderson, George Strait harks back to the honky-tonk tradition. A former Texas rancher, clean and handsome enough to be courted by movie producers, Strait draws a young crowd fond of starched white shirts and crisp cowboy hats — what one artist terms “preppie cowboys.” In the last three years, five of Straits albums have gone gold.

By 1984 — the year the CMA selected the Willie Nelson-Julio Iglesias duet ‘To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before’ as Song of the Year — Skaggs, Strait, Anderson and the others were fixtures on the country charts, and the first wave of New Traditionalism was established.

EVER SINCE overloaded Okie trucks chugged out to the West Coast, California has produced a lot of country music. “People forget it’s a western state,” notes Dwight Yoakam, a proud resident of Los Angeles. “You get outside the L.A. basin or the San Francisco Bay Area, it’s all ranches and farm land.” Tennessee Ernie Ford was from the West Coast, Yoakam points out, and Buck Owens and Merle Haggard recorded in Hollywood. Country rock was conceived in California, with Buffalo Springfield and the Byrds in the Sixties and the Eagles, Poco and Linda Ronstadt in the Seventies.

When Ricky Skaggs and John Anderson began recording, Yoakam returned to Nashville. “I thought, ‘Maybe now they’re willing to listen,'” he says. But the record executives still weren’t convinced that more traditional music was the sound of the future, and Yoakam was rejected again. He took his band out to play country & western clubs in California, where, to his dismay, he was still expected to cover Kenny Rogers songs.

But in California, Yoakam discovered a clique of rock musicians who shared his reverence for such country legends as Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell. Groups like Rank and File, Blood on the Saddle, the Long Ryders and Lone Justice played hyperbolized honky-tonk, whipped by the speed and volume of punk rock. Local hellions X even formed an offshoot band, the Knitters, to sing old country classics.

Although Yoakam was encouraged by the regard these so-called cowpunk bands had for country music, he wondered whether the Mohawked audiences would take to his hillbilly whine. “I took this music to the rock & roll clubs to test the water,” he recalls, “to see if they really were serious about listening to country music. And, turns out, they were. Same kids that’ll listen to Black Flag will listen to Buck Owens.” Rock fans have a natural affinity for hard country music, Yoakam explains, “because Hank Williams was the first rock & roller. Because honky-tonk, as a form, was the white parent of rock & roll, as jump blues was the black parent.”

While Kenny Rogers’s idea of crossover involved working with Lionel Richie, Sheena Easton or Kim Carnes, country’s New Traditionalists have aligned themselves with more traditional rock & rollers. Steve Earle, for example, appeared several times this year on the East Coast with the Replacements, and he had ‘Someday’, the Guitar Town track most likely to appeal to Springsteen and Mellencamp fans, remixed as an AOR single. Crowell, who admits to having received “a good jolt” from cowpunk, recorded his most rocking album to date this year, and his ‘Let Freedom Ring’ single was shipped only to AOR radio.

Yoakam has continued to appear with rock bands, including Hüsker Dü and the Meat Puppets. But he stresses that he’s not modifying his music to reach a larger audience. At a Chicago appearance with Violent Femmes, Yoakam recalls, “they threw something at us twice, and I stopped the deal right there. You don’t throw shit at me. And I won’t come out there and kick your little sixteen-year-old ass all across the street. Fuck them if they don’t want to hear it. I don’t need some snot-nosed kid from Chicago’s North Side, whose mother dropped him off at the fucking gate, to come in there and give me a bunch of shit, because I’ve been in bars too fucking long. Me and my guitar player will kick his flicking ass, and we told the kid that.”

Although this outburst explains how Yoakam has earned a reputation as the arrogant black sheep of country music, he says he’s “a little weary of all the controversy.” On the day of the CMA awards, Yoakam tries to address “the misunderstanding people have of what we’re doing,” although a little controversy still escapes from his tightly drawn lips. Staring at his needle-nose lizard-skin boots, Yoakam explains that his passion for country music descends from his Kentucky grandparents, who taught him “the colloquial mountain tunes that gave birth to this art form called country music. So please excuse me if I become emotional about it, but I won’t apologize for it.”

Nor will Yoakam rail against country’s crossover ambitions. “There are parameters, and once you go outside of those, you aren’t doing country music anymore. You’re doing something else, which is perfectly acceptable. Just don’t call it country because we confuse the issue for that kid who’s never heard real country music. And his image of country music is something that is somehow boring and blasé. That pisses me off. In fact, that irritates me sometimes to the point of digressing to a street vernacular that’s not necessarily intelligent.”

“PURE CAPITALISM” is how one Nashville producer explains the city’s conversion to New Traditionalism. Once artists like Skaggs, Strait and the Judds started selling, and Earle, Yoakam and Travis followed suit, the record execs were quick to hop aboard the bandwagon.

MCA was one of the first labels to make a major investment in the new sound. Tony Brown, disappointed because he couldn’t lure his old friend Rodney Crowell to MCA, vowed to find “the same kind of artist” for the company and wound up signing Steve Earle. His latest protégé is Patty Loveless. The twenty-seven-year-old daughter of a Kentucky coal miner. Loveless has a voice you could only dream of. Her upcoming debut album was produced by Brown and Emory Gordy, and she already scored a country hit with ‘Lonely Days, Lonely Nights’. She also earned a rare encore in her first Grand Ole Opry appearance, singing ‘I Did’. Like many of her peers, she has sung in rock bands, experience that is obvious when she leans into Earle’s swaggering ‘Some Blue Moons Ago’ on her LP.

Lyle Lovett, a meticulous twenty-nine-year-old Texan with a gaunt chicken neck and a fuzzy pompadour, is another up-and-comer. He writes wryly understated, subtly shaded songs — like the droll kiss-off ‘God Will’ — which he often performs with just his acoustic guitar, a cellist and a conga player. The lazy, compelling evolution of his lyrics, he says, “was strictly a survival thing, to try and keep [the audience’s] attention.” But when he first came to Nashville, “people said things like ‘If you can write these songs, you can write commercial songs ‘ It was a back-handed compliment, like “You sweat less than any fat girl I ever danced with.'”

In addition to the performers already mentioned, the country charts harbor other imaginative variations on traditionalism. T. Graham Brown, a rowdy, flashy, thirty-two-year-old Georgian, mixes country and soul on his gritty debut with the ease of Ray Charles, and his current opening stint for Kenny Rogers may cause some heart attacks. With their lovely, chaste arrangements, the O’Kanes are the best of the recent Everly Brothers-influenced groups. And Southern Pacific features graduates of Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Double Brothers playing a revved-up style they call killbilly, with a repertoire that includes a Springsteen song as well as material by Tom Petty and Foreigner.

But not all of the New Traditionalists want to change country music; nor have they all been influenced by rock & roll. The most strictly traditional of the new artists, Randy Travis, remains oblivious to cowpunk. “Cowpunk as in who?” he asks. “Do they get played on country radio? I never listen to anything but country radio. Never bought any other kind of albums or tapes.” Nor will he sing anything but country. “It would be like taking some of these heavy-metal bands and listening to them do ‘Waltz Across Texas’.”

A twenty-seven-year-old North Carolinian, Travis was frying catfish and washing dishes in a local restaurant just a few months before he was crowned the year’s most promising star when he won the CMA’s Horizon Award. Travis has a great voice, but he’s no sage. Ask him about the future of country music and he’s likely to admit, “I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it.” He proudly declares that his Storms of Life debut “is not a new kind of music. Nothing new about it, I don’t think.”

THE DECLINE in [country record] sales. The New York Times concluded in September 1985, “is not just a temporary trend but the end of an era.” Although the decline may have reversed, the artistic resurgence of country music emphasizes that an era really has concluded. Despite personal and musical differences, the New Traditionalists share a critical view of country tradition, reviving and revising the past to wrest the music away from Las Vegas and forge the kind of potent, topical role country has lacked for years. The most traditional aspect of the New Traditionalism is this effort to re-establish country as a populist medium, whether through the farming odes of Ricky Skaggs and Steve Earle, Dwight Yoakam’s ‘Miner’s Prayer’ or the two Farm Aid benefits.

In the process, the New Traditionalists are losing segments of the country audience, a fact that Crowell illustrates when he talks about Rosanne Cash’s fan mail: “She’s getting letters from people who say, ‘Get rid of that monotonous African beat you’ve got in your music and give me something more classic.’ There are people [in the country audience] who don’t think intelligence is a good thing.” That reaction can be traced to what Crowell calls “corporate country,” by artists who provided a sparkle as bright and phony as a rhinestone and neglected the music’s blue-collar tradition. As a new generation of artists reclaim that heritage, they’re finding a broader audience that didn’t know how powerful country music could be.

“I’m not just getting a traditional country demographic. I’m getting kids interested in this,” says Steve Earle, who will likely cross over with more success than other country artists (in its first week on the Billboard pop chart, his Guitar Town outranked new LPs by both Pete Townshend and Joan Jett). “Dwight went out there in L.A. and these kids thought he was from Mars. They’d never heard anything like that before. I felt that way when we did the Ritz [in New York, with the Replacements]. Kids in the first five or six rows were sitting there with their mouths hanging open.”

Inspired by this response, Earle believes he can sell “2 or 3 million” copies of his album. And he’s set his sights on a new, rather untraditional audience: Def Leppard fans.

© Rob TannenbaumRolling Stone, 18 December 1986

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