Cycles and trends don’t always come with a label attached saying something like “Country music bubble,” or “Warning: Format moving too far from its roots.” Sometimes we just assume that today is the new normal, or—as it is, so it shall be.
History, however, tells a different story. For example, in the early ‘80s country climbed on board with the glamour and glitz of the Urban Cowboy movie and for a while was living it up in a big city penthouse. But then the music started to sound like “cool whip” as I once heard CBS promo vet Joe Casey describe it. Eventually sales started sliding until the format could no longer afford the expensive, high rise lifestyle and was forced to return to its small-town roots.
Later in the decade a young traditionalist named Randy Travis led the music back into the winners circle as fans again rediscovered the force and power of country’s simple melodies and heartfelt stories. This time everyone from the big city started moving to Music Row attracted by early ’90s traditional artists like Brooks & Dunn, Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks, Clint Black and the neighborhood bulged with more than 25 major labels all after a piece of the new action. Again the format moved closer and closer to mainstream, trying to capture a bigger better deal. But by the end of the decade sales sputtered. And like Icarus who flew too close to the sun, the format’s “wings” began to melt and it returned to the earthiness which is where, some would say, it finds integrity.
Ask most any industry observer today and they will tell you country is again hot, hot hot! Look at Luke Bryan’s incredible 528k album debut a few weeks ago. But are we again moving so close to mainstream pop that we run the risk of losing our heart? Radio analyst Charlie Cook a few months ago noted on NEKST, that at the top of the country charts, “there are so many fun, uptempo aggressive songs. They’re almost all party songs, every single one…”
Then this week an article on countrymusicislove.com compiled comments from Zac Brown and Gary Allan about country music losing its “country” factor. “To me country music has always been the home for a great song,” Brown said in a radio station interview. “If I hear one more tailgate in the moonlight, daisy duke song, I’m gonna throw up. There’s songs out there on the radio right now that make me be ashamed to be even in the same format as some other artists.”
Gary Allan is quoted as recently telling Larry King in an interview, “I feel like I don’t make music for a genre anymore. I did 10, 15 years ago. But since the Clear Channels and the Cumulus’ and the big companies bought up all the chains, now it’s about a demographic. You used to be able to turn on the radio and you knew it was a country station just by listening to it. Now, you’ve got to leave it there for a second to figure it out.”
The article has garnered over 141 comments many of which start with the words “I agree.”
Are country’s cyclical moves toward and away from the mainstream simply unavoidable? Thinking long term, would the format be better advised to stay somewhere in the prosperous middle and avoid the sharp ups and downs? Is that possible? What do you think?
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