As recently as 1981 . professional eclectic Elvis Costello felt the need to caution potential purchasers of his Nashville tribute set Almost Blue with an exclamatory sleeve sticker. ‘Warning,’ it squeaked. ‘this album contains country and western music. and may produce a radical reaction in narrow minded people.‘ That has all changed with the rise ofthe New Country. ALASTAIR MCKAY examines the phenomenon.
and the ad-man's equivalent ofa movement was born.
Last Christmas, just three years into the campaign. the CMA was pleased to report that ‘New Country is particularly liked by 25—34 year-olds in socio-economic groups A. B. C l.‘ Though still clearly a minority taste. the 1988—89 BPI Yearbook noted that country enjoyed a 3% market share. against. for example. a 1% cut for both jazz and blues. a significant improvement on the commercial stagnation of the preceding years.
The irony is that. musically speaking. new country does not exist as a consistent or recognisable form in its own right. Like punk. or more precisely New Wave. it is part marketing. part attitude. Listen to the most recent albums by Nanci Griffith. Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett. and you move through wispy folk or literate Springsteen-ism to jump blues. swing and downright weirdness. The silken-voiced Randy Travis. hailed by many as the first New Country superstar. while agreeably depressive. offers nothing which could not have been found in mainstream country.
At an ocean‘s distance. British observers have often pigeon-holed country as a reactionary musical form. Certainly. many ofthe music‘s leading lights have been active in
ountry music. to quote Ricky
Skaggs. ‘is a happening thing.‘ and everyone from U2 down is busy applying country stylings in the quest for that most prized ofeighties corporate rock qualities. authenticity. With UK country record sales now at twice their 1985 level. however. and the Country Music Association‘s promotional flagship. the Route 8‘) concert series. venturing outside London for the first time (with Johnny Cash. Rodney Crowell and Darden Smith all playing in Scotland. although. sadly. kd lang has cancelled her Mayfest concert). there are signs that the music‘s own new stars like Nanci Griffith. Dwight Yoakam. or Steve Earle. may at last reap the commercial fruits ofits new-found credibility.
The revival began in earnest around four years ago. in the boardroom of the industry-sponsored Country Music Association. Hoist by the twin petards of Kenny Rogers and Sydney Devine. country was not appealing to the young. upwardly-mobile music consumer. Recognising the growing number of musicians rejecting the airbrushed slickness of the Nashville sound — itself an MOR reaction to the commercial threat of 1950s rock 'n’ roll — the CMA coined the slogan ‘1)iscover New Country‘.
Republican Presidential campaigns. and a distaste for liberal values and unkempt hair has been a common bond between country musicians and their community ofsupporters.
Merle Haggard. often cited by The Proclaimers as their favourite lyricist. found two ofhis songs. ()kie From Muskogee and The Fighting Side ofMe hailed as redneck anthems. The humorous intent of ()kie. with its tongue-in-cheek anti-drug. anti-protest lyrics. should not be forgotten. though. and the blue collar conscience of Steve Earle is more firmly rooted in country that might at first be apparent.
The position of women has been less defensible. and New Country has found space in which to embrace female performers who sing of experiences far wider than the traditional doormat/victim roles beloved ofTammy and Patsy. Perhaps by the simple virtue of performing self-penned material. KT Oslin. kd lang and the excellent Rosanne Cash reﬂect values which are nearer to feminism than the Nashville norm. Less celebrated in
the UK. but no less recommended. is Reba McEntirc. voted Top Female Vocalist by the CMA for the past four years. She makes her UK debut in London on 7 May.
Headlining the event. and underscoring the difficulties posed by the New Country tag. is the re-invigorated Johnny Cash. Whatever his private excesses. Cash has never been over-indulgent musically. and it is somehow fitting that he should head a programme which is diverse enough to have little more than the motto ‘back to basics‘ in common. The real success of New Country. though. has been in taking that same message to the music‘s establishment. Excess musical fat is dropping off in the unlikeliest of places — Glen Campbell. Tammy Wynette. and even Dolly Parton. have all just completed roots-based LPs.
Alastair McKay is the Assistant Editor ofCUTMagazine.
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