Monday, May 25, 2009

Class of 89 - Vince Gill

In honor of the 20th anniversary of debut of Country Music Class of 89, I am writing a series of posts on each of the artists. I am including those artists who debuted in 1989 – Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Travis Tritt, and Mary Chapin Carpenter. I am also including artists – Vince Gill and Lorrie Morgan – who had their first true commercial impact in 1989.

Here is the second of today’s posts. It will be on Vince Gill.

1989 Vince Gill seemed to be a new artist like Garth, Alan, Clint, Travis, and Mary Chapin. In fact 1989 was not the year of Vince Gill’s first single on the country charts. Vince debuted in 1984, and occasionally charted songs and sold very few albums until he was dropped by RCA Nashville. Vince signed with MCA Nashville, and MCA Nashville head Tony Brown became Vince’s new producer. Together Tony Brown and Vince Gill created Vince’s break through album “When I Call Your Name”. It was the title track of that album that became Vince’s signature hit. From there Gill achieve the following:

  • In 1990 he won CMA Single and Song of Year for “When I Call Your Name”. Ironically his co-writer on the song was Tim DuBuios who was then President of the fledgling Arista Nashville which was in the process of launching the careers of Vince’s soon to be fellow superstars Alan Jackson and Brooks & Dunn.
  • In 1991 Vince won the first of his five straight (1991-1995) CMA Male Vocalist of the Year awards.
  • His 1989 “When I Call Your Name” sold 2 million copies as did its 1991 follow up “Pocket Full of Gold”.
  • In 1993 Vince won a record tying five CMA awards in one night. He also won the first of first CMA Entertainer of the Year award. He won Entertainer of the Year again in 1994.
  • Spurred on by his CMA wins and numerous top ten single, Vince’s “I Still Believe in You” sold 5 million copies and won CMA and ACM awards for Album of Year.
With his 1994 album “When Love Finds You” in the midst of selling 4 million copies Vince Gill finally made an appearance in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It was 1995 and Vince had been a successful commercial artist since 1989; yet it took six years for him to come to market which had embraced Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Reba McEntire, and Brooks & Dunn with major crowds over 18,000 plus for each of their concerts.

Vince arrived in concert with Patty Loveless opening for him. Vince was amazing. He played all this hits. He sang brilliantly. He did several excellent guitar solos. His band was first rate, and he played for longer than other artist (country or non country) I had ever seen in concert. It was a great show and the 12,000 fans there loved every minute of it.

I left convinced Vince Gill was going to be a superstar for years to come. I was wrong.
In 1996 Vince’s “High Lonesome Sound” barely sold over a million copies. His 1998 album “The Key” debut at #1 then sank, barely getting over one million in sales. In 2000 he charted his last top ten hit. Artistically Vince was still alive as his 2006 box set of all new material “These Days” proved, but commercially 2000 was the final nail in his coffin.

Why did Vince Gill fall? Gill was legendary for his kindness to fans and fellow artists. He was loved by the country music industry. In reality his kindness and industry popularity might have destroyed him. He could never say no when another artist asked for him to sing with them. Vince’s voice showed up on all kinds of songs thereby creating an overexposure of him on country radio.

His continue hosting of the CMA Awards (he hosted 10 straight years) also made him seem more like a host and comedian than a singer.

Then there were all the CMA awards he won. Vince won 18 CMA Awards, but only 4 ACM Awards. That is the biggest gap of CMA Awards to ACM Awards won of any country artist in country music history. Vince won those 18 awards in just a few years time, so it seemed like he was always winning.

Fans may have become tired of Vince being all over the radio and tired of him always winning. They made have decided Vince had his run, and it was someone else’s turn to have success.

Then there was Vince’s divorce from his wife Janis and his subsequent marriage to Christian music singer Amy Grant. Country music fans are mostly women; women who hold the male artist favorite to high standards perhaps too high of standards. They don’t like to see male artists divorce, and they especially don’t like rumors of affairs. Rightly or wrongly Vince was accused of wanting to marry Amy Grant before he had divorced his wife Janis. Fans may have turned on Vince thinking he was not the man he thought he was.

I lean to towards a combination of all the above. He was over exposed. He did seem to win awards a little too much for my liking. Women I had talked with about Vince did not like the way his marriage came undone. Plus I think Vince’s music was not good after “High Lonesome Sound”. Critics may not agree, but for me “The Key”, “Feels Like Love” and “Let’s Be Sure We Kiss Goodbye” just were not has good as “When I Call Your Name”, “Pocket Full of Gold” and such.

Whatever the reason for his downfall, from 1990 to 1995 Vince Gill only trailed Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Reba McEntire, George Strait, and Brooks & Dunn in commercial popularity, and he joined Alan Jackson, Dwight Yoakam, and Patty Loveless in producing the most artistically respected albums.

Vince Gill is also a very nice man. I have read and heard countless stories of his kindness toward others. He is also a major supporter of country music’s past and its traditions.

I think Vince Gill is great artist. I especially love his albums “Pocket Full of Gold” and “When I Call Your Name”. He may not get as much play on the radio as he used too, but he got to become the first member of the Class of 89 to be elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

I don’t know where this video is from, but it is definitely Vince Gill around the year 1990 or 1991. Patty Loveless sang background vocals on the recorded version of the song, and she makes an appearance her to accompany Vince on the live version.

Class of 89 - Clint Black

In honor of the 20th anniversary of debut of Country Music Class of 89, I am writing a series of posts on each of the artists. I am including those artists who debuted in 1989 – Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Travis Tritt, and Mary Chapin Carpenter. I am also including artists – Vince Gill and Lorrie Morgan – who had their first true commercial impact in 1989.

I am doing two posts today. This one will be on Clint Black.

In 1992 I went to a music store called Musicland to buy Mary Chapin Carpenter’s brand new album “Come On Come”. The checkout clerk told me I should take a copy of music magazine Musicland was publishing for its customers. The magazine was free, and it had a country superstar Clint Black on the cover so I took a copy.

I found the lengthy article on Clint Black fascinating. The article spent time discussing Clint’s music, but it spent most its time discussing Clint suing his record label and his messy split with his manager Bill Ham.

The article was interesting, but in retrospect the article was detailing the turning point for the worse in Clint’s career.

Bill Ham was a manager of music artists. He had discovered and shaped the career of rock superstars ZZ Top. Bill Ham discovered Clint Black, and molded him into a star.

Clint’s debut album “Killin’ Time” was a masterpiece, and is one of the greatest country music albums of all-time. Clint wrote or co-wrote all the songs on the album. The first four singles from the album went to #1. The album sold 3 million copies. Clint Black had become the Class of 89’s first star.

In 1990 Clint was name CMA and ACM Male Vocalist of the Year. Clint debut single “Better Man” was the ACM for Single of the Year. “Killin Time” would win the ACM for Album of the Year.

Clint’s second album “Put Yourself in My Shoes” was released at the end of 1990 and would spawn more hits and sell 3 million copies. As 1991 unfolded Clint Black seemed destined to fight it out with Garth Brooks for title of biggest star in country music.

Then came Clint’s lawsuit with his record label (RCA Nashville), and his split and subsequent lawsuit with manager Bill Ham. The legal wrangling delayed Clint’s third album “The Hard Way”, and cost Clint the guidance of the man, Bill Ham, who had help make him a superstar.

As 1991 came and went Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, and Travis Tritt began to build momentum, while Clint’s seemed to be slowing. Garth Brooks meanwhile was having unheard of success. Clint suddenly looked like the odd man out.

“The Hard Way” would go on to sell over 1 million copies, but by then Garth, Alan, Vince, Travis, Reba McEntire, and a new act Brooks & Dunn were selling 2, 3 million or even more copies of their albums. Clint was expected to match them. He never did. The only other multi-million selling album Clint had was his 1996 Great Hits album which sold 2 million.

Clint’s time as superstar had past. Radio kept playing his songs, but his album did not sell very well and he stopped winning major awards. His last top 10 hit was in early 2000. By then he was about to leave his record label.

Clint Black started his own record label, but it failed. Clint Black had failed too, failed to become a superstar like Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, or even Vince Gill. Was Clint’s separation from Bill Ham the reason? Not entirely. Clint’s seeming obsession with recording only songs he had written or co-written probably help too. Even the greatest singer – songwriters in country music history have recorded songs written by others. Clint could not or did not want to understand that.

I never saw Clint Black in concert. He came to the Minnesota State Fair in 1993 with Wynonna Judd on his Black and Wy Tour. He came again in roughly 1998, but by then I was uninterested in seeing him.

Don’t get me wrong I still love his “Killin Time” album and listen to it a good deal. I don’t mind “Put Yourself in My Shoes”, but the rest of his music is average at best. Radio still plays stuff from his first album and a few songs here and there from his other albums.

Clint Black will never be remembered as a legend. He is not Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks, or even Vince Gill. He will be remember as an artist who for a brief time had a great run, but for most of his career was good not great.

Here is a video of a television appearance by Clint early in this career. He is performing his debut hit “Better Man”.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Class of 89 - Travis Tritt

In honor of the 20th anniversary of debut of Country Music Class of 89, I am writing a series of posts on each of the artists. I am including those artists who debuted in 1989 – Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Travis Tritt, and Mary Chapin Carpenter. I am also including artists – Vince Gill and Lorrie Morgan – who had their first true commercial impact in 1989.

Decided to do two posting today, so here a post about Travis Tritt.

In 1994 I was a member of the K102 (the local country music radio station) Country Club. Country Club members got special perks like free concert tickets. One of the free shows I got to go to was Travis Tritt’s.

Travis was originally signed to a “singles deal” which meant he was allowed to record a single, but not a whole album. The single was then release to country radio to see if there was any interest. Travis debut single “Country Club” made it to #9, and Travis had to quickly record his debut album “Country Club” which was released in early 1990.

Like fellow Class of 89 members Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Travis found almost instant commercial success. Travis’ first three albums - “Country Club” (1990), “It’s All About to Change” (1991), and “T-R-O-U-B-L-E (1992) - sold 2, 3, and 2 million copies respectively. He had just come off a successful co-headlining tour with hot new artist Trisha Yearwood. An in November of 1994 I was about to see his first big headlining show with Joe Diffie and LeRoy Parnell opening for him.

The show itself was electrifying. Travis had a huge lighted Harley Davidson Eagle hanging over his stage. He entered the stage riding a Harley (I read the fire marshal would not actually let him ride the Harley onto the stage, so he had the Harley rigged on a track so it could be pulled in making it look like he was riding it). Travis rocked most the night, showing seemingly unlimited energy. He also did a great acoustic set of country classics and his #1 hit “Anymore” that showcase his great voice. The crowd loved every minute of it. I left the arena that night with two thoughts:

  • Travis Tritt was a gifted live performer with a great voice.
  • He as not as popular as I thought he was. There were only 9,000 people there of which I figured 3 – 4,000 thousand got in free via the K102 Country Club. That was not the kind of crowd I expected to see at a superstar artists concert. In August of 1994 I had seen Alan Jackson perform in front of over 20,000 fully paying fans. Travis thought, as did others, he was on par with Alan Jackson. He was not.

That was Travis Tritt in a nutshell. He was a gifted artist who had major success, but he never could quite get over the hump to be the superstar that his fellow early 90’s country peers Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, and Brooks & Dunn became.

Travis had risen from being an artist not deemed worthy enough to get a record deal to record a full album to an artist who had an album sell 3 million copies. Travis also was an artist who had his first four studio albums combined for 9 million in sales and his next seven albums combined for 3 million albums.
Travis Tritt won the 1991 CMA Horizon Award, but never won another major award again winning only a few minor awards like Vocal Event and such.

The edgier Travis Tritt seemed a perfect fit for his record album - Warner Brothers - that was noted for having edgier artists like Emmylou Harris, Hank Williams Jr., and Dwight Yoakam, but Travis was one of the first major stars of the early 90s’ to leave his record label.

Travis Tritt viewed himself as a rebel who spoke his mind, but it was his harsh comments about Billy Ray Cyrus and Cyrus’ mega hit “Achy Breaky Heart” that made Travis look like a bad guy. In 1990’s country music fans expected their stars, especially superstars to be upstanding, kind, and humble. Travis Tritt may have been upstanding and kind most the time, but humble was not his gig. That may have cost him.

Like Clint Black, Travis Tirtt started strong then faded into background. Travis charted top 10 singles from 1989 to early 1997. He had a brief “comeback” charting four top tens from 2000 to 2002. After 2002 Tritt never reached the top 10 again and now has been gone through three record labels. He is currently suing his last record label.

I still hear Travis Tritt’s music on the radio. Mostly it is his up-tempo stuff, but an occasional ballad can be heard. I still listen to some his early albums. They have weathered time pretty well, and though they are not great albums, they are still good.

I always thought Travis Tritt would do more than he did. He seemed so talented, but perhaps he was not made to be a superstar. He was a star who had his moment, but his rebel ways never allowed him to be an artist that appealed to the greater masses for an extended time period. In fact that may never have been his true goal. Likely we will never know.

Here’s a video of Travis Tritt performing his major hit “Here’s a Quarter (Called Someone Who Cares)” at the 1991 CMA Awards. Enjoy it now before it disappears from YouTube.

Class of 89 - Mary Chapin Carpenter

In honor of the 20th anniversary of debut of Country Music Class of 89, I am writing a series of posts on each of the artists. I am including those artists who debuted in 1989 – Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Travis Tritt, and Mary Chapin Carpenter. I am also including artists – Vince Gill and Lorrie Morgan – who had their first true commercial impact in 1989.

Today's post will about Mary Chapin Carpenter

I have seen Mary Chapin Carpenter live in concert twice. The first time was 1992 at the old Guthrie Theater where a seat in the 3rd row. Two things immediately struck me. One was she was wearing cowboy boots (she had her jeans pulled over the boots), and two she sounded different live than she did on the radio. Her voice on the radio had more power than it seemed she had live. I had never and still have never encountered an artist who sounded so much weaker in concert.

That said the evening was enjoyable. Mary Chapin (she dislikes being called Mary) seemed to be having fun, and so was the crowd. “I Feel Lucky” had just peaked on the charts and Mary Chapin closed the main part of concert with it. The crowd ate it up and after an enjoyable evening I was heading to the parking lot when I overheard a group of young people excitedly talking about how Mary Chapin’s country was just as cool as rock music. I thought to myself her is woman on the move.

Without going into a long dissertation about Mary Chapin Carpenter’s career, here are some highlights of her career:

  • Her 1989 album “State of Heart” produced 2 Top 10 hits (“Never Had It So Good”, and “Quittin’ Time”)
  • Her 1990 CMA Awards performance of “Opening Act” won her national attention.
  • “Down at the Twist and Shout” from her second album “Shooting Straight in the Dark” became a major radio hit , and her energetic performance of the song on the 1991 CMA raised her profile even more.
  • Her 1992 album “Come On Come On” produced four top ten hits and sold over 4 million copies.
  • Mary Chapin won CMA Female Vocalist of Year in both 1992 and 1993, and her profile kept rising as the “New Country Music Movement” swept forward to ever greater success.
In 1994 she scored her first #1 single with “Shut Up and Kiss Me” and her new album “Stones in the Road’ debuted at #1. Her performance of “Shut Up and Kiss Me” at the 1994 CMA awards became legendary especially after the song ended with her kissing rock music icon Little Richard on the lips. Her star never seemed to shine brighter.

I saw Mary Chapin in concert again in June of 1995. By then the bottom was falling out on her. After scoring her first #1 in 1994, she would go on to score one more top 10 hit. Her album sales dried up, and the awards stop coming. With no radio play, Mary Chapin Carpenter faded from the mainstream.

I remember seeing Mary Chapin that June night in 1995, she seemed small. Not in the physical sense, but in the sense that she could not command the arena. The Mavericks a highly respected country music group that had a brief, but great run as a band opened for Carpenter. They commanded the stage and held people’s attention. The Mavericks had no top ten hits, but the audience was drawn to this charismatic, talent group of young men who were there to entertain them. Mary Chapin could not match them and it showed.

I read later that the pressure of being Sony Nashville biggest selling act weighed Mary Chapin. She also later admitted she had battled depression.

I wonder two things about Mary Chapin Carpenter. First did she ever really what to be a superstar? I think the answer is no. In reality she was a folk singer who found an outlet for her music in the country music genre. Mary Chapin wanted to bring her guitar into a small theatre and play her slow, mellow, folk songs while occasionally mixing in a rocker or two. Big arenas, big stage shows, huge crowds, they were not for her.

The other thing I wonder about Mary Chapin Carpenter was did the fans she brought into country music stay fans of country music. The Washington DC born, Ivey League educated, Carpenter was not like other country artists. Her music was different too. She did attract people to country music. Did they stay, or did they come in, buy “Come On Come On”, hang around a while and leave? Likely many left.

By 1997 Mary Chapin Carpenter’s place in country music was gone. She made more albums, but they sold little. The only Mary Chapin songs I hear played on the radio are an occasional “Down at the Twist and Shout” or “I Feel Lucky”.

My own feelings about Mary Chapin are simple. I thought leaving that 1992 concert that she would be a superstar and I listened to her music often. However, by the time I left the 1995 concert her appeal for me was fading. It is ironic that though I own her first four albums, I have not listen to any of them for any length of time in over a decade. Why? I simply am no longer attracted to her music. Its appeal to me is lost.

Whether Mary Chapin appeals to me or not, I think you find this video of her singing “Opening Act” at the 1990 CMA’s enjoyable. Watch it now before it disappears from YouTube.