Once upon a time, in the not too distant past, the genre of American Country Music was dominated by the likes of George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Willie Nelson and Hanks Williams. Its reputation, warranted or unwarranted, was one of “Honky Tonk” music,with a decidedly twangy sound and relatively modest sales and touring revenue.
Within the last 15 years or so, the “Nashville Sound” has evolved into a wildly diverse environment, replete with elaborate, high budget videos, sold out stadium concert tours and multi-platinum record sales (retail sales measured in millions of units).
From Humble Beginnings
From the hills of West Virginia to the plains of Texas, County Music has always been a patchwork of styles.These sub-genres eventually coalesced in the city of Nashville, where they were bent, folded and blended into a more homogeneous style. and later young guns like George Jones steered the sound of “Hill Billy” music into a more or less recognizable sound. Nashville would ultimately become home of a formulaic standard from which producers and labels were loath to deviate. The mantras of “It ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and “We know what sells” squelched any new artist’s originality into this narrow funnel of tunes.
Eventually, the “Outlaw Movement,” spearheaded by artists such as Willie Nelson, and later Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings rebelled against the Nashville Sound and forged new paths of style and substance. To be sure, Country Music would never be the same again. Rather, it was on a new trajectory — one from which today’s superstars were eventually launched.
If one artist can be epitomized as the first true County Music megastar, it would undoubtedly be Garth Brooks. From his breakout TV special in 1991 through his over-the-top concerts and chart-busting string of number one albums, few have had impact that Garth had — in any musical genre. Never before had one artist so dominated his field for such a length of time; he literally sucked the air out of the County Music market, dominating the airwaves with his wave of raucous cowboy ramps and thoughtful ballads. By the mid nineties, Garth-mania had reached its apex, leading the way for a phalanx of me-too “Hat Acts” to be spawned by the dominant Nashville labels. Though many proved to be highly successful in their own right, none eclipsed the standards that Garth Brooks set.
Country Music comes of Age
With the advent of the Country Music Video format, especially as presented through channels such as CMT and GAC, a new, telegenic stable of artists hit the scene. Without doubt, the genre is largely video-driven, as made-for-tv award shows such as the CMT Video Awards have entered the arena. While younger offshoots of the long-running CMA Awards (the standard for the genre’s artist recognition vehicles), these somewhat self-indulgent exercises nevertheless demonstrate the popularity of County Music in today’s crowded musical landscape. It has long been said that Country Music fans are among the most devoted, loyal and enthusiastic of any genre. Few artists of any ilk can consistently fill major football stadiums and arenas as current stars such as Kenny Chesney while enjoying repeated multi-platinum album sales year after year. Safe to say, County Music is here to stay.
The only lingering question is: who will be the next superstar?