As one who came of age listening to and loving the songs of Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Webb Pierce, Faron Young and Carl Smith when they were still dominating the charts, I’ve often wondered why I feel such an onset of nausea each time a new act comes along with the goal of recreating their music. I know it’s not because the new artists are less skilled or passionate than their role models were. On the contrary, they’re likely to eclipse the originals on both counts. And it certainly isn’t because I feel possessive about the “old masters.” Like anyone else, I’m always happy to have my tastes revalidated.
My problem is that new tradition-based acts tend to present their clearly derivative music with such an abominable sense of self-righteousness. To hear them talk, they’re not just entertaining people, they’re introducing them to light. Since the purists apparently believe this, they show nothing but contempt toward performers who are less historically oriented than they. Worse yet, they imply by their contempt that music that echoes the past is somehow more honest, moral or authentic than music that embraces the present. It’s all quite silly, of course, but then, this can be said of most dearly held beliefs.
During a recent appearance on National Public Radio, Wayne Hancock was not content to rhapsodize about the classic honky-tonk music he writes and performs so artfully. He also felt it necessary to take a swipe at Nashville for its “formula” approach to musica charge suspiciously common among those who have either failed to get a major record deal or to keep one. In this same vein, a member of BR5-49 harrumphed to Billboard not long ago, “We’re not interested in Music Row or Opryland, which is so fake and plastic.” (This observation preceded the band’s signing to Arista Records, a company some suspect may have Music Row connections.)
Authenticity is a matter of context, not absolutes. Garth Brooks, to take just one favorite whipping boy as an example, creates music that is just as authentic to his times as Hank Williams’ music was to his own.
Sure, Music Row has its formulas. That’s because it’s a businessnot a night on the back porch. Who doesn’t know this? Is the Chamber of Commerce sending out brochures promising that anyone who seeks his fortune here will keep his sensibilities intact? As tawdry as the commercial reality of Music Row may be, I’ve never known any label or publisher to force an artist to sign a contract at gunpoint. And even though Music Row has a badand deservedreputation for crushing artists’ dreams, it continues to turn out a wide stream of songs that matter emotionally to millions of people. Isn’t that what popular music is supposed to be about?
No performer should be forced to come to Nashville and record or perform songs that he or she finds repellent; and no performer should be pressured into adopting a false, demeaning or uncomfortable image. But neither should record companies be faulted for declining to gamble significant resources on acts they don’t think will sell “as is” and who, nonetheless, refuse to adapt.
It is the height of arroganceand more than a little transparentfor an act that won’t (or can’t) “compromise” to dump on acts who work in harmony with their labels and who, in so doing, have hit records. The value of a piece of music, it seems to me, is gauged by the number of people who find it important to their livesnot by how creatively “adventurous” it is or how well it squares with an established genre.
Artists would show more class and dignity if they simply championed the music they loved instead of making gratuitous attacks on music they despise. In the long run, though, it may not matter. They’ll all end up as fodder for Heartland.
♦ Here’s the latest on Michael Barham, the singer-songwriter from Tulsa who was profiled in this column last November and whose career is being chronicled here to illustrate the steps to country stardom. As reported earlier, Barham has a songwriting deal with Warner/Chappell and for the past few months has been performing at major country music nightclubs, including the Grizzly Rose in Denver and Toolies Country in Phoenix. Before he launched his tour, Barham dismissed his old band from Tulsa and took on a new backup group from Little Rock. Toolies’ owner, Bill Bachand, said in a letter to Barham’s manager and booking agency, “Michael...has real star quality.... I want to book him as many times as I can before he hits the amphitheater bucks.”
This past week, Barham did a series of shows at Nashville’s Wildhorse Saloon. A major function of the shows was to let representatives from the major record labels see how Barham handles an audience. Thom Schuyler, senior vice president of A&R for the RCA Label Group, Mark Brown and Tracy Cox from Capitol, and Mark Sistad from Arista all came to see the singer at his late show last Friday night. It was a tight 35-minute set that yielded a 10-song blend of originals and covers.
Besides his evident writing and singing skills, Barham also has a commanding stage presence and the savvy to keep his chatter to a minimum. Brenda Cline of Artists Concepts, the singer’s management company, reports that there have already been some exploratory meetings with Warner Bros. Records. I’ll keep you posted.
♦ Red Ridge Entertainment has released The Nashville Number System, a 45-minute video that shows “how to use the numerical chart notation system that is the industry standard in Nashville.” Session musician Kerry Marx is featured on the video, demonstrating how the method works. The video is available at Tower Records and various musical instrument stores in Nashville and Murfreesboro; it’s also available through the Nashville Songwriters Association International.
♦ Magnatone Records is promoting Shelby Lynne’s “Another Chance at Love” single and video via a “Limited Edition Shelby Lynne Phone Card” that provides the media recipient with free long-distance calls.
♦ The Nashville Bluegrass Band will headline the musical segment of the eighth annual Four Rivers Folk & Bluegrass Festival, June 7-8 at the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. Also on the bill for this arts, crafts and music festival are Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings, Chris & Scott Thile, Acoustic Connection, Sons of Christ, the Country Cousins, and 139 South. Ticket and time details are available at 1-800-LBL-7077.
♦ Guitarist Doyle Dykes, whose musical bosses have ranged from Elvis Presley to Grandpa Jones, has signed to Step One Records. His first album for the label, Fingerstyle Guitar, is due out May 28. It will be marketed through both mainstream record stores and Christian music outlets.
♦ I’ve never had a day that wasn’t improved immeasurably by listening to a Randy Travis song. We need to hear more from this great stylist.
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