Dressed in a red majorette uniform and snapping a riding crop against a knee-high black boot, a heavily made-up 6-foot-something person of non-specific gender marched in the bright April sun atop the Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge. Nearby were dancing girls flashing plenty of cleavage (upper and lower), a cowgirl rockin' on a wooden horse, a harem girl with vampire-chiseled teeth, a dwarf in a red 10-gallon hat and enough confetti to greet the Yankees after a World Series win. In front of the assemblage strutted new Music Row duo Big & Rich, proclaiming themselves "leaders of the freak parade."
Consisting of Nashville nightclub veteran Big Kenny and ex-Lonestar member John Rich, Big & Rich are among 30 or so major-label acts scheduled to be introduced by Music Row this year. That's quite a bottleneck of talent, especially in a genre that had grown so timid over the last decade.
Timid, however, isn't the word that describes the bulk of this year's crop. Even before Big & Rich started humping their way up the charts with the salacious new single, "Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy"which includes a rap break and draws on Kid Rock and Stevie Wonder rather than Garth Brooks or Toby Keithit was apparent that country music was ready to take chances again.
And why not? The old formulasin this case, clean-cut male hat acts and pop-driven females with bare midriffshad been run into the ground, and sales have been bottoming out for years. It takes a crisis for Music Row to gamble and begin investing again in long shots and oddballs, as it did for short periods in the '80s and '90s, when risk-taking meant signing acts ranging from The Mavericks to Shania Twain. It's time for another creative shift, and maybe that's why so many of the artists due out this year seem uncharacteristically promising.
The movement actually got underway during the last year or two. In 2003, after years of diva ascendancy, several new male acts had strong debut albums. Joe Nichols came first, a hatless traditionalist with strong material who looks more like a soap-opera star than a Texas honky-tonker. Then the talent show Nashville Star launched Buddy Jewell, the first over-40 newcomer to score a debut smash since K.T. Oslin had a surprise hit with " '80s Ladies" 16 years earlier.
In quick succession, Dierks Bentley, Jimmy Wayne and Josh Turner also charted major hits that resulted in considerable sales. None of them fit the mold. The tousle-haired Bentley succeeded with the good-time country-rock tune "What Was I Thinkin'." Wayne, a former street kid who found God and became a prison guard, proved that sensitive songs could also be smart with "Stay Gone." Turner sang an out-and-out gospel song, "Long Black Train," that preached deliverance.
All at once, the labels expect 2004 to be a year of new breakthroughs. Gretchen Wilson, a 30-year-old single mother with a colorful blue-collar history, is the first to prove them right. "Redneck Woman," her debut single, has shot up the charts with such unbridled speed that industry insiders are namechecking LeAnn Rimes, Trisha Yearwood and Faith Hill when looking for precedents.
Wilson's record relies on attitude and personality, and her success may spell the end of Music Row's recent fascination with Barbie dolls and female teens with raw talent but little experience or direction.
Almost across the board, the newcomers of 2004 have gifts and experience. Nearly all of them write their own material. Some, like Mercury's Julie Robertswhose outstanding debut hit, "Break Down Here," brings a true-life blues to modern country radiohave begun to separate themselves from the rest. Others, like Warner Bros.' Lane Turner, have a grassroots fan base and plenty of live experience.
It's not that all these new acts will be startlingly good; after all, country radio is proving that it will still embrace sexist silliness like "Good Little Girls," the wince-inducing first release by the blond male duo, Blue County. Despite such missteps, country radio still sounds fresher than it has in years, and the rash of new acts has much to do with that vitality.
Maybe now, after all the recent corporate mergers and staff bloodlettings, we're seeing where the new executive teams think country music can go. Maybe, after all the bad news, Music Row has rediscovered that innovative ideas and self-directed talents will draw people back to country music, just as it has in the past. Or maybe they just got desperate and let the freaks back in. Whatever the reason, the Music Row parade looks and sounds as if it's about to become more interesting again.
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