Better Than Predicted 

A midyear look at the state of country music

A midyear look at the state of country music

Country music entered 2000 facing a major dilemma. Music Row had lost 25 percent of the popular-music market share since country’s mid-’90s peak, and sales and listenership were still sliding downward. Moreover, an enormous percentage of the sales came from a small handful of stars, which meant that the overall health of the industry was poor. With Shania Twain on hiatus, and with Garth Brooks and LeAnn Rimes fading fast, country record executives knew they had to shake some action fast.

As the year began, it became apparent that the route most record labels chose to take involved apple-cheeked youngsters singing a whitewashed, lightly countrified version of teeny-bopper pop. Suddenly the new-artist boulevard became choked with a parade of Baptist-bred Britney and Backstreet clones. It was as if some forecaster had decried, ”I’ve seen the future of country music, and it needs a hall pass.“

Fortunately, though, the winds don’t always blow the way the industry predicts. As we approach the midyear point, the big stories in country music so far concern a couple of grown-up women and a couple of not-so-young guys who don’t fit any prefabricated mold.

Undoubtedly, the breakthrough of 2000 belongs to Lee Ann Womack, who banked on substance and maturity with her third album, I Hope You Dance, and came up with that country-music rarity—an album embraced by fans and critics alike. Womack’s previous two albums didn’t drift anywhere near country’s Top 10, but thanks to the immediacy of the title song, I Hope You Dance hit the No. 1 spot in sales its first week out.

The year’s other great critical and creative success is Trisha Yearwood’s gutsy, soulful Real Live Woman. In both cases, the singers bravely go against the trend toward lightly rhythmic pop-country, instead creating a distinctive sound of their own. At the same time, the singers emphasize Nashville’s best attributes: strikingly individual voices, accessible yet fresh production, and an emphasis on personal, thoughtful songs that appeal to young and old alike.

As for newcomers, those making the most noticeable impact so far in 2000 aren’t the parade of teen-aimed acts, but a couple of hard-bitten guys with plenty of life experience under their belts. Eric Heatherly, who combines a rockabilly jones with country songcraft, and Clay Davidson, a redneck country-rocker with a sentimental streak, have both drawn attention with music that walks a step or two outside of the norm. So send the tutors home, at least for now. For the time being, country music remains a grownup style with cross-generational appeal.

Following a Nashville Scene custom, we welcome Fan Fair week with a list of the 10 best country albums of the year so far:

1. Willie Nelson and the Offenders, Me and the Drummer (Luck) As on Across the Borderline and Teatro, Nelson revisits some of his lesser-known older tunes and offers a few striking new originals. But where the other albums wrapped his music in modern production values, Me and the Drummer (a sequel of sorts to 1985’s Me and Paul) wraps Nelson’s distinctive touch in a timeless Texas sound. His expressive voice and guitar work dance nimbly off an amazing small combo that features Jimmy Day on steel guitar, Johnny Gimble on fiddle, Floyd Domino on piano, Johnny Bush on drums, and David Zettner on bass. Nelson sounds as good as ever—which means this is as good as modern country music gets.

2. Lee Ann Womack, I Hope You Dance (MCA) With each successive album, Womack has struck an increasingly impressive balance between country music’s traditional values and contemporary Music Row production techniques. On I Hope You Dance, she conveys the best qualities of Music Row songwriting in a manner that’s tasteful and accessible yet ripe with heartfelt emotions.

3. Rhonda Vincent, Back Home Again (Rounder) After failing to draw attention with two fine Music Row albums, Vincent returns to bluegrass with a vengeance. In a voice that combines Dolly Parton’s sweet mountain purity with Martina McBride’s full-throttled power, she presents a raging acoustic album that speaks boldly and frankly about delicate issues that have largely been bleached out of contemporary country music.

4. Neko Case and Her Boyfriends, Furnace Room Lullaby (Bloodshot) If Patsy Cline’s heart had been broken by a punk rocker, she would have sounded like Neko Case. With a blistering voice that burns down the honky-tonk and instills a wild flame in torch music, Case delivers a series of heartrending personal tunes that explore what happens when a woman loves hard and recklessly.

5. Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott, Real Time (Howdy Skies) On an explosive acoustic album, this talented duo howl and harmonize on an amazing set of songs that crisscross the blues with bluegrass, addressing love, loss, lust, and luck with a passion that occasionally gives way to humanism and whimsical wit.

6. Trisha Yearwood, Real Live Woman (MCA) Yearwood climbs another career peak with an album full of soulful revelation and restrained anger. All of her strengths take on a new luster here: She interprets songs with greater subtlety, finds new shades of expression in her dusky, powerful voice, and focuses on mature material that reflects on the turning points of a relationship.

7. Ronnie McCoury, Heartbreak Town (Rounder) The award-winning bluegrass mandolinist steps out from his father’s shadow in the Del McCoury Band to flex his strengths as a player, a songwriter, a producer, and a vocalist—proving that he’s nearly as powerful and expressive a singer as his father.

8. Jimmie Dale Gilmore, One Endless Night (Windcatcher/ Rounder) Gilmore lays down his cosmic pen to unearth the spirit in a series of songs by other writers. Sources range from fellow dust-bowl seekers (Townes Van Zandt, Walter Hyatt, Jesse Winchester) to far-ranging favorites (The Grateful Dead, Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weill). What ties them together is the way Gilmore’s otherworldly voice blurs the lines between mystic revelation and painful resolution, as if one goes hand-in-hand with the other.

9. Johnny Staats, Wires and Wood (Giant) Staats is the most exciting male mandolinist/vocalist to emerge from Nashville since the arrival of Ricky Skaggs two decades ago. A fiery picker with taste to match his talent, he offers high-speed, melodic compositions ripe with fresh ideas and down-to-earth themes.

10. Paul Williams and the Victory Trio, Old Ways and Old Paths (Rebel) Veteran bluegrass vocalist Paul Williams owns a tenor so clear-toned and powerful that he makes Vince Gill sound gruff. A former member of Jimmy Martin’s Sunny Mountain Boys, Williams along with his acoustic backing trio present a remarkable set of austere, mountain-based gospel songs so glorious that they’ll have even the most dogged nonbeliever shouting, ”Good God Almighty!“

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