Monday, April 15, 2024

Nashville, We Have a Problem: Country in the ’90s

Not many trends or fads have the luxury of knowing exactly when they peaked and started heading back toward normal, but for country music’s boom, the pivotal moment occurred on a hot September night in 1993 when Garth Brooks tried to take his hat act to the Stadium Age and got soaked in posture and pretense.

It was halfway through the first of three sold-out concerts at the 67,000-capacity Texas Stadium. Brooks, whose life-affirming lyrics often read like a coach’s doily (“Choose to chance the rapids and dare to dance the tide”), looked utterly spooked on this night when country music history was made. He and his band Stillwater had launched into their special-effects centerpiece “The Thunder Rolls,” but instead of the intended effect of raining on the crowd water trickled from above the stage and onto the heads of band members. It was the funniest thing you ever saw, but Brooks’ horrified look seemed to echo the sentiments of “Spinal Tap’s” David St. Hubbins: “It was not fun being part of the comedy onstage.”

The cherubic, sweet-singing native of Yukon, Okla., who liked to work alongside his road crew and once signed autographs for 23 straight hours, had promised staging more spectacular than any rock act could conjure, and his fans had believed him. But even when one of the three visual effects (he also flew over the crowd, a la Peter Pan, and sang in the middle of a ring of flames) did work, they were nothing we haven’t seen from the likes of KISS, Alice Cooper and Pink Floyd. (Can you imagine a Pink Floyd show with only three special effects? The fans would demand their money back.)

Brooks said he liked to sit in the worst seat in the house before a show and ask himself “What can I do to turn on the guy sitting here?” But at the Texas Stadium shows, Brooks played to the cameras, which were taping his second NBC special, and the low sound volume seemed another concession for TV. Meanwhile, there were no video screens to help those in the hinterlands see the action. When bored third-deckers started showing their frustration, those became true nosebleed seats, as several fights erupted in “broken promiseland,” to quote the ’92 hit by Mark Chesnutt.

The shows were not country music’s Woodstock, but rather its Waterloo, as the genre’s biggest star, who’s sold an incredible 60 million albums since his 1989 debut, couldn’t deliver on his humble boasts. In his athlete-intense fury to create a brilliant blur between his main musical idols and inspirations — George Strait and KISS — Brooks forgot what it was about him that had drawn so many true country music fans. It was the songs, stupid, not all that hype about how some big, lovable cartoon cowboy (“Garthfield”?) ran all over the stage and smashed guitars and swung from ropes.

As Garth goes, so goes Nashville, where the dinnertime prayer circa 1992 was “Garth is great, Garth is good, thank you Garth for this food. Not to mention this mansion on Franklin Road.” Country music’s early ’90s glory days, when such emerging superstars as Brooks, Clint Black, Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, Wynonna, Pam Tillis, Travis Tritt and Billy Ray Cyrus ruled the airwaves and concert trails, have slowly deteriorated to the point of a new era of tolerance by country fans, but it’s more probable that they were confused by so many guys in cowboy hats named Ty, Tracy, Trace and Toby that they forgot which one solicited sex from a male police officer, then was busted for possession of methamphetamine.

After all, this is the era of the cookie-cutter cowboy and interchangeable lass o’ sass, where you’re only as good as your last single and there’s always somebody named Mark or Mindy who’s ready to step in should you stumble.

Fans have picked up on country’s new disposability, and they’re not as likely to open their wallets when the next stud muffin in hat and boots comes along. At its 1993 peak, country music accounted for 18.7 percent of all the records sold in the United States, according to figures from the Recording Industry Association of America. Last year, the market share was 14.7 percent. Even though sales seemed a robust $1.8 billion in 1996 for country recordings, that figure represents a drop of approximately $180 million from ’95. Take away the sales figures of LeAnn Rimes and Shania Twain, who are 14 and Canadian, respectively, and therefore not really part of the Nashville scene, and you’re looking at a dismal decline. Garth Brooks’ last studio album, “Fresh Horses,” sold only 4 million, and if you’re wondering how “only” got in there, consider that his average sales per album were 10 million before that.

Feeding the radio giant

“The key to success in country music is in songs that stand for something and tell the truth,” said Austin-based radio marketing consultant Rob Balon, “and I think that Nashville has gotten away from that.”

Balon’s Benchmark, a national radio consulting firm, has recently completed a study that shows a definite backlash from longtime country fans who don’t like what’s become of their favorite musical genre. “They’re tired of the `Hat of the Month Club’ and the country hunk phase,” Balon said. “Some of the rock elements of new country just aren’t acceptable to the core audience.”

Meanwhile, Balon said, the younger fans who might’ve “gone country” in ’90 and ’91, are choosing to listen to the new modern rock format instead.

One country station that has weathered the bust-ette and remains No. 1 in its market, even after slipping a few points, is Austin’s KASE, which has been No. 1 for 42 consecutive ratings periods. “We don’t use consultants to tell us what to play,” station manager Ron Rogers said when asked the station’s secret to longevity in a constantly fluctuating business. “On some stations you’ve got pop guys programming country, and the announcers are strictly time-and-temp people with nothing else to say. But rather than fall in line with all that research and analysis, we trust our own instincts about what our listeners would like to hear.”

Where country stations were playing approximately 90 percent new material at the height of the boom in ’93, the ratio between new tracks and “country gold” is now about 50-50, and KASE is right in line with that percentage. But Rogers said they don’t always play the cuts off an album that the label wants them to play.

“Nashville doesn’t always pick the best songs as singles,” he said. “Sometimes it depends on who owns the publishing, or other such considerations that our listeners don’t care about.”

To hear Rogers tell it (and as a 30-year veteran of country radio he’s worth listening to), Nashville’s gotten greedy and its stars lazy — and they’ve left radio in the lurch. “We used to get an album every year from the superstars,” he said. “Now we’ve gotta wait two years for a new Alan Jackson album, two years for a new Wynonna, and it’s going on three years since we had a new Garth Brooks album. I wrote Garth a letter basically asking him to dance with what brung him, which are the country radio stations that launched his career. And he wrote back saying that, unfortunately, there were a whole lot of people who wanted to see him in concert, and so he had to tour all the time.”

Brooks’ next album, “Seven,” comes out on Aug. 7, which is also the date of his free concert in New York’s Central Park. The show, to be filmed for a TV special, is expected to attract the largest audience to ever see a country concert. History will be made as Brooks solidifies his position as the new Neil Diamond.

Urban Cowboy II

During the early ’90s boom, they kept saying, these label heads and hit artists and radio folk, that this wasn’t going to be like the “Urban Cowboy” years, when country sold its soul to John Travolta and alienated longtime fans with a flurry of pop-flavored hits.

“We’re about building careers, not churning out hits and burning out artists,” is what MCA president Tony Brown said in 1992.

Tim DuBois, who built Arista Nashville into a powerhouse label in less than two years, was also talking high road.

“My job is to put out good albums, not to try to cash in on the latest thing,” he said in ’93. But then he openly courted pop’s penchant for the quick buck by releasing dance remixes of such songs as “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” by Brooks & Dunn, “Chatahoochee” by Alan Jackson and “Cleopatra, Queen of Denial” by Pam Tillis to the growing number of country discos, where you were as likely to hear Madonna as Wynonna, Michael Jackson as Alan Jackson and MC Hammer as M-C Carpenter (that’s Mary-Chapin).

DuBois’ marketing scheme backfired when obnoxious new Top 40-modeled country stations like KYNG (“Young Country”) in Dallas started playing the beat-enhanced versions (called “house country”) instead of the album version. And just like that, Urban Cowboy II had its very own mechanical bull. Add in the hulking, hunking presence of country’s Chippendale dancer Billy Ray Cyrus and you had the days of “Disco Duck” all over again. Country line dancing is just “The Hustle” in a rodeo shirt. You didn’t need a palm reader to know that this boom had a very short life line.

If Music Row is running scared, however, it sure didn’t seem that way on a recent visit to Nashville, my first since 1993, when I was the country music critic for the Dallas Morning News. One thing that has definitely changed are the lobbies of the major country labels. Every label I visited, from MCA to Mercury to Arista to RCA to Sony, was seemingly designed by the same fan of faux art deco. But then, futuristic antiques are appropriate for a genre of music that always has one eye on the horizon and one eye closed in reverence. Just about every lobby also had a spiral staircase.

There is a real mood of optimism, with new label heads like Ken Levitan of Rising Tide pointing to the critical and sales success of Deana Carter, plus the across-the-board appeal of LeAnn Rimes.

“I think we all learned a lot during the last couple years,” Levitan said. “Nashville was chasing a certain sound and ended up with a lot of generic-sounding records. One of the things I think is missing is the personality that country music used to have, from Waylon and Willie and the whole outlaw thing to larger-than-life artists like Dolly Parton and George Jones.”

Just as poets and punk rockers can’t visit Lawrence, Kan., without trying to hook up with William Burroughs, music critics who come to Nashville invariably seek out Tony Brown, who has that rare combination of opinions and job security. I tried to make an appointment to see Brown, the president of MCA Nashville and producer of his top acts George Strait, Wynonna, Reba McEntire and Vince Gill, but was told that he’d be busy the day I was in town and so I’d have to do the interview over the phone. But when I stopped by MCA to pick up some color slides, I ran into Brown in the lobby and he invited me into his office for a quick chat. (I don’t want to add too much more to Tony Brown’s legendary sweetheart status, but the first time I ever met him he was in the studio with Marty Brown, and he took a break and insisted on driving me to the Douglas Corner nightclub when I said that I was going to blow off a Maura O’Connell show because I didn’t know how to get there. “You’ve gotta hear this girl sing,” Brown said that day of the artist on another label.) Doing an impromptu interview is nothing much for Tony Brown, who is the most powerful man in Nashville and also its best goodwill ambassador.

“I think we hit a wall,” Brown said of country’s slight decline. “The oversaturation of so many new artists made the acts harder to tell apart. A&R departments started playing it safe, signing and developing acts that were just like the ones already out there. `Hey, this worked. Let’s try it again with this guy.’ Those trends like `hat acts’ and `country hunks’ just sound so disposable.”

Asked if he was looking to sign anyone, Brown asked if I had ever heard of Shelby Lynn’s sister, Alison Moore. Couldn’t say that I had. “Man, I saw her at the Walter Hyatt tribute on `Austin City Limits,’ and she blew me away,” he said, pointing his remote control at an enormous TV on the far side of his office. “Check this out.”

And there was Alison Moore, looking a littlelike an orphan who just came in from the storm and nothing like the sort of country stars who flourished in the boom years. “Listen to that voice! s-paid trip to Orlando, Fla., to see the band in concert. Golfing, Disney World, fancy dinners; MCA footed the entire bill (though the band will eventually pay for it out of record sales).

I met Big House’s two main songwriters, singer Monty Byrom and guitarist David Neuhauser, at their manager Al Bunetta’s office in the Row. The band was from Bakersfield, Calif., a town that has cultivated a grittier side of country since the heyday of favorite sons Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, and Byrom and Neuhauser certainly knew their old country reference points. They also claimed an affinity for the Kinks, the Who and the Neville Brothers (from Neuhauser’s hometown of New Orleans).

“We were reluctant to try to get a (record) deal in Nashville,” Byrom said. “I didn’t think they’d get us.” As it turned out, however, the band got signed after its very first gig in Nashville.

“Our guitarist Chuck Seaton had just come from Nashville before he joined the band, and he had horror stories,” Byrom said. (When Seaton and his wife moved back to Bakersfield after having to sell almost everything they owned, they vowed never to return to Nashville.) But a few labels were interested in the band after hearing the demo tape (re-released intact as the band’s debut CD), so the band had to beg Seaton’s wife to let them try. “Just give us one day,” Byrom said he asked. “OK,” Seaton’s wife relented. “You have one day.”

The food is generally lousy in Nashville, but the interviews are great, and as I hung out with Monte and David, listening to new songs they played on acoustic guitars that had once belonged to Steve Goodman (managed by Bunetta until his death from leukemia in 1984), it brought back so many memories of supercharged conversations with bands on the verge. Shawn Camp. Mark Collie. Daron Norwood. Rhonda Vincent. Joy White. Ken Mellons. David Lee Murphy. John and Audrey Williams. Back then, there was no better interview subject than an artist within a grasp of stardom, except for those who’d enjoyed massive popularity but were reduced to watching the financial fiesta from the window up above. Dolly Parton, Hank Williams Jr., George Jones, Steve Wariner and Waylon Jennings, all former No. 1 artists who felt abandoned by radio, made for great bitchy press.

`Gotta write hungry’

When I was hired as country music critic of the Morning News at the end of 1990, I considered myself a country music fan whose tastes spanned the range from Johnny Cash to Rosanne Cash. At the time, Dallas was the nation’s No. 1 market in country music, distributing 26 percent of the total country music album sales, and the daily paper, which had just swallowed its competitor the Dallas Times Herald, wanted to become the first paper outside of Nashville to hire a full-time country music critic.

Despite my lack of familiarity with the music, I had fun with the job. I could be a mean S.O.B., unlike the three-star-spewing pussycatI’ve become, because I’ve always felt that if you purposely bug your eyes out onstage for any reason, you deserve the full wrath, and country music shows generally have more eye-bugging than a Don Knotts film festival.

Looking back, I’ve gotta admit that I was out of control. In reviewing my first full year as country music critic, I declared 1992 “the year of the one-liner” and repeated some of my best barbs. Billy Ray Cyrus looked like “Mel Gibson with a ferret running up the back of his neck,” while Mary-Chapin Carpenter was “Mary-Blatant Carpetbagger.” Meanwhile, the six members of Diamond Rio “resembled the men’s room line at a Toto concert,” and I called Brooks & Dunn as I saw ’em: “Loggins and Oates.”

Not everyone approved of my skewering of country stars; every morning after a negative review, country radio announcers would see if I could take it as well as dish it out. They called me either Michael Cockroach or just plain Cork Brain and gave out my phone number at work to irate fans. The Morning News avoided using Yiddish terms, and one time a copy editor changed the phrase “dreck like Alabama” to “trash like Alabama,” changing a musical opinion into a social judgment, and when I checked my voice mail I had 73 messages. When I played them back, the consensus was split, with half of the callers wanting to kick my ass and the other half wondering exactly which two animals mated to create me.

When I found something about country music that I liked, I raved without restraint, and one of my favorites of the period was Hal Ketchum, and not just because he lived close to Austin for almost a decade. I thought, and still do, that Ketchum is a brilliant pop vocalist — the Glenn Tilbrook of country. His song “Mama Knows the Highway,” was rivaled by only “Maybe It Was Memphis” by Pam Tillis and “My Blue Angel” by Aaron Tippin as the best song to hear on the radio during the boom years. Ketchum had several Top 10 hits, including “Small Town Saturday Night,” “Sure Love,” “Past the Point of Rescue” and “Hearts Are Gonna Roll,” but when he went deeper inside and pulled out “Every Little Word,” his best album yet, he went right from country hunk to the where-are-they-now? file.

Since Ketchum is one of the most honest fellas in Nashville, or anywhere for that matter, it was important for me to get his views on what country has become, so I tracked him down in Leiper’s Fork, the superstar settlement 50 miles out of Nashville where such artists as Wynonna Judd and jazz guitarist Larry Carlton have large spreads. Ketchum, who recently split up with his wife, was staying in a gorgeously restored house once owned by painter Thomas Hart Benton, as the guest of health care millionaire Aubrey Preston.

“To some extent I flaunted that country hunk thing in the beginning,” Ketchum said, looking back on those delirious days when he was right up there with the Garths and Rebas. “But I don’t feel the least bit guilty. I don’t feel like I sold out as much as I bought in, and I was able to make a name for myself in a time frame that may never occur again.”

Ketchum isn’t bitter at all about his fall from the A Team. “The worst part about it was the pace,” he said. “I’d be woken up every morning to do interviews, and then there was all the grin-and-grip stuff to do, and I found that that after talking about myself for hours every day I started feeling the need to perpetuate my own mythology.”

A prolific songwriter, who played a song for me called “Must’ve Been Out of My Mind” that he’d finished earlier in the day, Ketchum would go months without writing a song while he chased stardom.

“After a while you forget why you started making music inthe first place,” he said. “Harlan Howard has said that you’ve gotta write hungry, but that’s what’s missing now in Nashville. It’s become possible to coast, and that’s a dangerous thing.

“It seems that every week there’s some hot new cowboy singer, who was probably singing James Taylor songs a few years ago,” Ketchum said. “And me and my buddies have a good expression whenever we see one of these formulaic new guys. We say they’re all hat and no cattle.”

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