Along the Tracks

Thursday, March 21, 2002
 

Is it just me, or is country music making an early comeback?



I’ll start by admitting that I’m a long-time country music fan. I was weaned on Waylon and Willie - I’ve still got several 8-tracks to prove it. I remember as a kid, sitting in the basement with an old record player, spinning my mom and dad’s collection of 45s including Buck Owens, Ray Price, Merle Haggard and Linda Ronstadt. So, as you can see, country’s always been part of the music scene for me.

On the national pop scene, however, country is “rediscovered” in cycles. Those “crossover” periods usually start with a new or fairly new artist being accepted by certain pop radio stations. Listeners to these stations enjoy the music, begin to demand more country, and soon you’ve got half a dozen country songs from several artists showing up on the pop charts. Record producers start “adjusting” the songs of some artists to make them more palatable to the pop market. That, in turn, makes them less desirable to country stations. The songs start getting less airplay there, don’t show up high on the country chart, and therefore don’t attract the attention of the pop stations. Country disappears from the charts for another cycle. These cycles vary in length from as little as about four years to as many as nine or 10.

Right now, country is in a “down” cycle, as far as the pop world is concerned. Artists like Lee Ann Womack, Faith Hill and Shania Twain, female stars of the last “up” cycle, are between albums. Artists which went “too pop” last time (that’s you, Diamond Rio and Lonestar), have disappeared from the country charts as well, at least for the time being. “New” artists like Trick Pony, Montgomery Gentry (both appeared here in Montpelier last September!) and Keith Urban are still in the “catching on” stage and probably won’t get pop airplay for another year or two.

Despite all that background, and history working against it, country music seems to be charging toward another peak in popularity, less than two years after its last flirtation with pop fans. The difference this time? The fans are way ahead of radio. The strongest argument for this is the incredible success of the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack. It won the Grammy for Album of the Year over radio favorite Alicia Keys, soul sensation india.arie, and everything band U2. It has sold over five million copies and hung around among the top 10 albums for months. People who think country is “uncool” call that album “roots music,” but don’t let them fool you - it’s country.

People who don’t give a hoot what others think is cool have been buying a few other country albums in huge numbers as well. Garth Brooks has received a limited embrace by country radio this time around, yet his new album is doing well. Alan Jackson penned THE SONG when it comes to musical reflections on September 11th - “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning” - and his calm, reassuring style has rocketed his album to the top of the pop charts. Toss in impressive sales by Tim McGraw, Allison Krauss and Brooks & Dunn, and you start to see just how popular “uncool” country really is.

All this may force the “rediscovery” of country music by pop radio. Which means, don’t be surprised if you hear some fiddle after that rap song is over. And as far as the industry is concerned, this may be a turning point for the acceptance of country in the mainstream. Radio may very well start looking for country songs to play even when the hot names don’t have anything out.

Will the cycle now be broken?


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