Sunday, May 2, 2010

A New Era in Country Music

Country artists from different eras come together to honor Alan Jackson at the CMT Giants event in 2008. Pictured are George Jones, Taylor Swift, George Strait, Denise & Alan Jackson, Hank Williams Jr. Martina McBride, Lee Ann Womack, Dierks Bentley, Miranda Lambert, and Brad Paisley.

Carrie Underwood’s back to back ACM Entertainer of the Year wins and Taylor Swift’s 2009 CMA Entertainer of the Year win confirmed what I had been thinking for the past few months, that there is new era in country music lead by co-mega stars Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift. This new era likely started its genesis some time in late 2008, but now has come into full bloom in 2010.

Below I have provided a handy guide to each country era of the last 25 odd years, and highlight some of the super-stars of those eras.

The New Traditionalist era (1984-1989)

Traditional country music made a comeback in this era, but album sales were still stagnate. Many people romanticize about this era as being the last great era of country music, but that is simply not the case. In fact during this era country music was still considered an ugly step child mocked by mainstream music media and critics. It was only after the Class of 89 pushed country music to a new level of acceptance that mainstream media and critics began to romanticize about this era’s greatness as a way to “put down” the Class of 89. It seems with the mainstream media and critics the past is always better than the present.

George Strait – Strait transcends all country music eras, but this was the era that launched him. He is the only artist in music to chart a top 10 single for 30 years straight.

Reba McEntire - She was big in the 80’s then became huge in the early 90’s. Today she looks like an aging mother, or dare we say grandmother compared to Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift, yet somehow she keeps rolling on though not a consistently as George Strait has.

Randy Travis – In 1986 he took country music by storm and may well have been this era’s biggest star, but by 1990 he already was on the fade. It was roughly a three album reign as a superstar.

The Judds – Mother Namoni and daughter Wynonna formed the hippest act of this era. People forget that the Judds were once so cool that even many non-country fans were into them. The Judds music has worn well, but the ladies themselves have spent to much time living out their personal dramas in public.

Hank Williams Jr. – Son of the greatest country singer of all-time, Hank Jr. carved out of very success solo career that spanned the 80’s. Commercial success disappeared in the 90’s, but he remains an icon.

Alabama – They were the superstars of the era before this one, but their success carried over. Others artists get more shout outs than Alabama when it comes time to talk about the legends of country music who have made an impact in the 80’s, but Alabama is more deserving than people think.

Class of 89 era (1989-1996)

The Class of 89 not only saved country music, but made it a major player in the greater entertainment world. While some believe this era’s artists (mainly Garth) started the ruin of country music, the truth is this group carried on the traditional country mantel, and never really courted pop radio. The goal of these artists was not to go and cater to pop music fans, but to lure pop music fans to country music and country music radio. In my opinion (and growing number of others) this is the greatest of the eras covered in this piece of writing.

Garth Brooks – He dominated this era. His greatest achievement was getting droves of non-country music fans to take notice of the genre. He boosted every country act’s sales by his ability to promote not only Garth, but country music as a whole.

Alan Jackson - An amazing artist whose commercial and artistic success is unparalleled. He will be the artist most remembered from this era because his body of musical work is unmatched.

Vince Gill – A gifted singer, songwriter, and guitarist who won 18 CMA Awards. Amazingly he won only 4 ACM Awards. That disparity is the largest among any artists. Why did it happen? Who knows, but what is known is Gill’s commercial success had faded by the late 90’s.

Clint Black – His first album “Killin’ Time” was great. His subsequent albums were not so great. He spent too much time wanting to record only songs he had written, and fighting with his ex-manager Bill Ham.

Travis Tritt – Another artist who started strong then faded. He should never have gotten into that feud with Billy Ray Cyrus. He also never had the songs to make good use of his great voice.

Mary Chapin Carpenter - In reality she had one truly successful album – “Come On Come On”. This album produced 4 of her 9 top ten hits and sold 4 million copies which is almost half of her total sales.

Brooks & Dunn – Ronnie Dunn has one of the greatest voices in country music history. Kix Brooks had great stage presence and energy. Both were gifted writers. 20 years of successes will come in an end in 2010 as the duo is retiring as an act.

Wynonna Judd – After her success with the Judds and her wildly successful debut album, Wynonna seemed set for a ten year run as superstar. It never happened.

Billy Ray Cyrus – One monstrous (“Achy Breaky Heart”) hit propelled him to superstardom. It also doomed his career. Luckily he had a daughter (teen pop sensation Miley Cyrus) who was able to get a job to pay the bills.

John Michael Montgomery - He was one of the least acknowledged country superstars ever. He had three straight multiplatinum selling albums and a string of hit songs, and yet no one seems to mention him among successful artists of this era. Personally I was not a big fan of his music. In fact I think it’s downright bad.

The Women Rule era (1996-2002)

This is the era when country music became country pop. Shania Twain was the first to cross over to pop music by making pop version of her country songs, Faith Hill, LeAnn Rimes, and others followed. While creating pop versions of country songs was not invented in this era, it became an epidemic. Instead of bringing pop fans to country music, the country artists morphed into pop stars and went to the pop fans on the pop fans’ terms.

Country radio however wanted to have captive audience; an audience that would listen only to country radio because that was the only place you could heard a particular artist. Once country radio realized they no longer had this with most the female superstars (Shania, Faith, LeAnn, and others) of this era, country radio shifted to artists less likely to be heard on pop radio which brought forth the Return of the Men Era.

This era marks the beginning of the end of the country music industry as a homogonous entity. No longer were country artists promoting themselves and country music as a whole, but the artists were now just promoting themselves.

Shania Twain - Twain was the master of living in both the country and pop world. Twain mixed country instruments with pop music arrangements and came away with big success. She made lots of fans and lots of enemies in the process. Twain has not released a studio album in 8 years, so it will be interesting to see what happens if or when she releases a new studio album.

Dixie Chicks - This traditional leaning trio was much loved for their music, but their outspokenness ended their hold on country music. Now considered more a pop group, the question remains where will go with their next album? The political foils (President Bush, Toby Keith, country radio) are either gone (Bush), fading (Keith), or on to other things (country radio is living large with Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift). Now 11 years after their debut, the Chicks may not find the commercial success they once had. Do they care? Who knows, but it will be interesting to see what happens.

Faith Hill – At first she seemed to be a refreshing good old gal from Mississippi, but then Hill made herself into the blonde Shania. It worked for a while then things started going wrong. In a way the country music industry seem to feel worse about Hill going pop than Twain as Twain was never seen as a part of the country music family while Hill was.

Tim McGraw - He is not a great singer, but for the most part he has mastered the art of song selection. With some exceptions McGraw has recorded and released good songs which touch people one way or another. He may never be Strait, Jackson, Brooks or Gill, but he is a cut above most male country artists

Martina McBride – She tried to remain more country than Twain and Hill, and it helped with awards and country radio play. However, it seems that her time is up. Her latest album “Shine” is tanking. McBride never sang true traditional country, and her penchant for singing “preaching” songs grew old.

LeAnn Rimes - Many expected more from Rimes. She has such a great voice, but instead of a superstar career in country music, she became a so-so country artist and a mediocre pop star.

Deana Carter - A true one album wonder. Who would have thought her career would have ended so quickly. She seemed to have it all voice, songwriting talent, and good looks.

The Return of the Men era (2002-2007)

Women 25-55 have always been a key demographic in country music radio’s listening audience. It is in this era that female 25-55 demographic became literally all encompassing. The wishes of this soccer mom audience became the command of country record labels and country radio. The soccer moms wanted good looking guys singing songs of love. An occasional funny ditty was welcomed as well.

Knowing that male artists had a harder time getting played on pop radio thereby making country radio the only place male artists could be heard, and knowing that playing male artists would keep the 25-55 female audience tuned in, country radio went male artist heavy.

George Strait, Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, Tim McGraw, and Garth Brooks were allowed to continue on, but female artists were thrown aside. This era had some good music, but the complaints of water down country music began to rise exponentially during this era. Kenny
Chesney and Rascal Flatts especially came under attack.

Also this era begins to see albums sales decline. Fans of pop music began getting their music via the Internet not on cd. Country fans lagged behind on this trend, but the trend started to take hold during this period.

Kenny Chesney - It took years for Chesney to finally hit the big time (his big break came off publicity generated from his stealing and riding a police horse at the George Strait Music Festival in the late 90’s), and it was a great run. However, trends seem to show the days of his tropical island flavored countrys seem to be coming to an end.

Toby Keith - His macho country help make him a super-star, but he spent to much time on it instead of the great ballads he use to sing.

Keith Urban - He can play guitar, sing, write, and has huge stage presence. The fact he is married to movie star Nicole Kidman only adds to his hipness, and yes likely his happiness.

Brad Paisley - He was more traditional country when he started, but Paisley seems to be in the zone right now. Like Urban he can sing, write and play guitar.

Rascal Flatts - Loved by many hated by many, RF continues to charts hits, sell records, and draw big crowds on the road. They will never garner many industry awards or respect though

Gretchen Wilson and the Muzik Manfia - The only female artist to rise during this period, Wilson redneck pride image eventually worked against her with the arrival of the more beautiful and youthful Carrie and Taylor. However, for a brief moment Wilson seemed to be the queen of country music.

The Raise of the Young Women of Country era (2008-

The soccer moms are now discovering that they have company - their daughters and sons. While other eras of country music most notably the Class of 89 era bought in the youth audience, this era seems to have made major inroads to the youth market. Give credit to Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, and Taylor Swift for this change in country music’s audience demographics.

Teenage girls see Carrie, Miranda, and Taylor as friends and role models. Teenage boys see Carrie, Miranda, and Taylor as someone they want to date and possibly marry.

Taylor Swift has shown the country music industry the new way to reach young fans is via Internet social media sites such as MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Now a presence on social media sites is a requirement for all country artists.

Surprisingly no solo male superstars have emerged since the arrival of Brad Paisley, Keith Urban back around 2000. Country audiences continue to migrate toward getting their music from the Internet, but many fans still cling to their cds.

Carrie Underwood – Winner of the wildly popular televised pop music competition “American Idol”, Underwood stormed into Nashville already a star. Her rise to mega-stardom has been marked by a surprise clinging to country music tradition. She has joined the Grand Ole Opry and espoused the music of Alan Jackson, Randy Travis, and other country legends. While many see her only as country pop singer, she seems to be lending more towards mixing traditional country with her country pop. Without a doubt Underwood is one of the most gifted singers to appear in country music in decades.

Taylor Swift – Swift is a talented singer-songwriting teenager whose writing ability is far superior to her actual singing. Her gifts don’t stop at songwriting. Her ability to understand that her fan base now communicates with each other in new way (via social media on the Internet) put her on the cutting edge of a new music marketing era.

Sugarland – This once time group is now a duo that consists of gifted lead vocals Jennifer Nettles and her male music partner Kristen Bush. Sugarland is the country version of the Eurhythmics where the lead singing female vocals comes to dominate the group. Sugarland members do not have much in the way of country music backgrounds, and their sound are definitely country-pop, but the music and personalities have engaged a country music audience.

Miranda Lambert – Her kick ass traditional country music may not get played as much as some on country radio, but it sure sells cds. She beloved by music critics and music industry professionals, and her new album Revolution was the best album released in 2009.

Lady Antebellum – Hilary Scott, Charles Kelly, and Dave Haywood form an interesting trio. Scott (daughter of country artist Linda Davis) and Kelly share lead vocals. In a way they are the country Fleetwood Mac.