Within the past month, several prominent local observers have predicted dire days ahead for the country-music industry. In support of this view, they cite the unceasing deluge of new artists, the inability and unwillingness of radio to showcase many of these artists, the increasing cost of keeping an act afloat until it makes a profit, and the shortage of great songs. All these concerns seem legitimate, save the last one.
There are more new acts out there than even the most avid fan can follow. While this is good for fans who like variety, it’s bad for a business that relies on easy identification of and loyalty toward its “products.” To the degree that country music lives by radiorather than developing alternate means of exposureit may also die by it. And breaking and sustaining an artist has become an increasingly high-stakes gamble for labels, what with the huge staff overhead and the expense of outside publicists, music videos, national tours of radio stations, and, occasionally, concert tour support. Unless country’s sales can continue to outstrip its cost of doing business, there’s bound to be a downturnalthough probably not a nose-dive.
I part company with the critics at their assertion that the quality of songs is also sabotaging the industry. On the contrary, I can’t think of a time in country-music history when the songs have been better. Without doubt, today’s songs are different; they rely on different frames of reference, different imagery, and different diction. But that’s as it should be. It would be embarrassing to the art of country songwriting if humanity continued to evolve and the writers took no note of it. If “location, location, location” is the mantra for real estate, then “context, context, context” has to be the standard for any art created with an eye toward marketability. In other words, such art has a duty to take the buyer into account.
To be sure, Nashville turns out a lot of lyrical mush, but that’s nothing new. Can anyone seriously argue that such hits from country’s past as “Hey, Good Lookin’,” “Hey Joe,” or “Cuddle Buggin’ Baby” brought new understanding to the human condition or otherwise rose to the level of great poetry? And while I have yet to spend my first quarter on “Achy Breaky Heart,” I’ll argue that it’s a hell of a lot better song than the unaccountably revered “Peggy Sue.” The point is, we can summon up examples of firm and frothy music from every period.
Among recent country hits that have had something important to say and have said it memorably are Tony Arata and Wayne Tester’s heroic “The Change,” Gary Burr’s paralyzingly sad “Can’t Be Really Gone,” and Don Schlitz and Steve Seskin’s eye-opening “I Think About You.” Keith Stegall and Billy Kirsch’s “In a Perfect World,” which, alas, has not been released as a single, conveys more about regret than many a novel devoted to that subject. C. Michael Spriggs and Gary Heyde’s “The Car” is father-and-son sentiment at its most honest and unguarded. There are dozensmaybe hundredsof other songs of recent vintage that are just as revealing and moving as the ones just mentioned.
Country music has its problemsbut quality of songs isn’t one of them.
♦ What could be more endearing than country music and cartoons? On Sept. 10, Country Disney: The Best of Country Sing the Best of Disney goes on sale, and its inspired pairings should make it an instant success. The album, released by Walt Disney Records, was produced by ace songwriter Gary Burr and contains these cuts: “Kiss the Girl” (from The Little Mermaid), by Little Texas; “Part of Your World” (The Little Mermaid), by Faith Hill; “Whole New World” (Aladdin), by Colin Raye; “When You Wish Upon a Star” (Pinocchio), by Bryan White; “Colors of the Wind” (Pocahontas), by Pam Tillis; “Baby Mine” (Dumbo), by Alison Krauss; “Beauty and the Beast,” by Diamond Rio; “Someday My Prince Will Come” (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), by Tanya Tucker; “Someday” (Hunchback of Notre Dame), by Lee Roy Parnell; “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” (Toy Story), by Kathy Mattea and George Jones; “If I Never Knew You” (Pocahontas), by Shelby Lynne and Hal Ketchum; and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” (The Lion King), by Larry Stewart.
In addition to being available in regular retail record stores, the album, a Disney spokesman says, will also be in mass merchant stores, bookstores, drug chains, grocery stores, and the Disney paraphernalia outlets.
♦ A couple of weeks beck, I mentioned Star of Wonder: A Country Christmas Collection, which features 12 old and new holiday tunes from most of the acts at Arista and Career Records. Now comes Alabama’s 13-song Christmas Vol. II. Only three of the tracks are standards, while the rest of the LP will feature entirely new compositions. Among the stellar songwriters providing new material are Bill Anderson and Steve Wariner, Kostas, Alabama members Teddy Gentry and Randy Owen, Ronnie Rogers, J.P. Pennington, and Gretchen Peters. New from Warner Resound are the jazz and swing-flavored A Swingin’ Christmas and the easy-listening Colours of Christmas, both spotlighting holiday standards.
♦ A country-music concert Sept. 25 at the Ryman Auditorium will kick off five days of fund-raising activities for the T.J. Martell Foundation for Leukemia, Cancer, and AIDS Research. Artists for the show have not yet been announced. On Sept. 27, BMI will host a cocktail party for fund-raising participants. The Music Row Celebrity Tennis Tournament will take place Sept. 28 at the Brownlee O. Currey Jr. Tennis Center at Vanderbilt. Vince Gill will host the Music Row Celebrity Golf Tournament Sept. 29 at Hermitage Golf Course. And, on Sept. 30, the NationsBank Bowling Bash, Billiard Tournament, and Silent Auction will be held at Hermitage Lanes. More details are available from Crystal Caviness at 320-0055.
♦ Cathy Gurley, former vice president of creative services for Liberty Records, has reopened her public relations firm, Gurley & Co. She is also, with Gary Morris, comanaging new Atlantic Records artist Matt King. In addition, she and TV personality John Davis are doing artist development for country singer Jay Clementi. Gurley can be reached at 460-7870.
♦ George Hamilton V is currently on a 23-city swing through Poland. The tour, which began July 6 and ends Aug. 7, is being jointly promoted by Trisha Walker International and Voytek Cejrowski. In developing his European fan base, Hamilton is following a career pattern established by his father, Grand Ole Opry star George Hamilton IV. The younger Hamilton is signed to France’s Dixie Frog Records; Ghost Town, his new album for the label, is now being distributed throughout Europe.
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