When they arrive in Nashville next week for the 25th Annual Country Music Awards, longtime fans George and Barbara Bush will be met with something Music Row hasn't served up in years: unbridled optimism. This spring, country music passed Top 40 as the nation's second most popular radio format (only adult contemporary plays on more stations), even as country albums racked up unprecedented sales in stores nationwide. Still haunted by a disastrous flirtation with pop crossovers in the '80s, Nashville today toasts the rise of a traditional-ish country superstar: Garth Brooks, whose third album, Ropin' the Wind
, will debut at no. 1 on the Billboard chart next week, the first country act ever to do so.
According to estimates released this week by the Recording Industry Association of America, country music accounted for 8.8 percent of the $7.5 billion consumers spent on recorded music last year, up from 6.8 percent in 1989. And Creative Artists Agency, fer godssake, opened a Nashville office this summer. "Country has hit an all-time high in popularity," declares Jo Walker-Meador, executive director of the Country Music Association since 1958. "And it's not peaked yet."
Concrete evidence of country music's unlikely resurrection came in late May. Until this year, Billboard, the industry's influential trade journal, had long tracked album sales by asking store clerks to fill out forms detailing their best-selling records by genre. This method left a lot to be desired: critics (that is, just about everyone not making Top 40 records) claimed that the clerks tended to limit country, urban, and New Age artists to the specialty charts even when they actually were outselling mainstream pop acts. Pop/rock labels in New York and Los Angeles aggressively hype their artists, and since the clerks usually weren't working with hard numbers, there was certainly reason to think that they felt the pressure.
So Billboard began compiling its charts through SoundScan, an upstate New York firm that gathers computerized barcode data from store registers as albums are purchased. The results seemed to confirm what Nashville had been saying all along: country music sales were routinely underreported. On Billboard's May 25 chart, the first from SoundScan data, an additional 15 country acts materialized in the Top 200. The Kentucky HeadHunters regained their peak position at no. 29, up from no. 36. Clint Black's latest release went from 50 to 38, Reba McEntire's from 59 to 39, Hank Williams Jr.'s from 87 to 50, Alan Jackson's from 76 to 57, The Judds' from 98 to 62, and Travis Tritt's from 152 to 70. (New Age musician Yanni, incidentally, rocketed from 104 to 41; he'd been on the charts 29 weeks.) The gains came at the expense of popsters and metalheads like Wilson Phillips, Tesla, and the Rolling Stones.
The new data have been something of a revelation to the music industry. Says Larry King, a buyer at Tower Records in Hollywood: "It's really opened up the charts. Record companies -- through promotions, aggressive merchandising, discounting, and hobnobbing and schmoozing -- used to have a degree of control over the charts. Now through scientific means you can see what the markets are really buying: they're buying country artists and rap artists. You have the rural market and the urban market breaking a coastal mindset."
"When Billboard went to SoundScan, the importance of country became obvious," says Tim DuBois, vice president of Arista/Nashville, which released its first album just 18 months ago. "The hardcore facts, as generated by computer, are that the Garth Brooks phenomenon is real, and when he brings people into stores, they buy our artists too."
The change has been so dramatic, in fact, that some wonder if SoundScan's reporting sample isn't skewed toward the Southwest and against the urban Northeast. For instance, Tower Records' 50 stores -- most of them high-volume urban outlets -- don't report to SoundScan because they aren't fully computerized. Says Lon Helton, Nashville bureau chief of Radio & Records, a radio trade journal and Billboard competitor: "No doubt country music was underreported -- the selling pressures were all for rock. But I think now SoundScan may be overreporting it to a degree."
In truth, this seems unlikely. SoundScan currently gathers data from 2,900 retail outlets across the U.S., which together generate about half of all record sales. As polling samples go, that's a large one. The data already are weighted geographically to offset potential skewing. And three of the recording industry's six major distributors -- Sony, Polygram, and BMG -- draw sales reports of their own from the SoundScan database (the Billboard charts really are something of a sideline for the company). "The scanner just takes everything," says Michael Fine, CEO of SoundScan. "In the past, I think store clerks filling out a multitude of charts put Garth Brooks at number one on the country chart and then number five on the pop chart, even when he should have been first there too. Psychologically, they thought 'Well, I've already taken care of Brooks on the country chart.' But the scanning wand isn't biased against country or urban or world music." Indeed, according to King, the addition of Tower Records to the sample -- which is under negotiation -- might even further dilute mainstream pop sales, because Tower does a disproportionate business in specialty records and catalogues.
Spiraling sales only underscore a transformation that's been going on in Nashville for some time. To many, the recent death of country icon Dottie West was weirdly emblematic. In the Nashville of old, country music was a personality-driven business in which stars like West held sway over ardent fans for decades. They made much of their money on tour (pop stars tour simply to promote their albums), and they lived in an insular world breached by few new singers -- who at any rate wound up sounding on record much like their forebears because the producers were always the same.
"A decade ago, country music was dominated by about a dozen artists who never seemed to change," says DuBois. "They used to say you could have a big hit and live the rest of your life in Texas. But lot of singers who hit Top 10 or number one five years ago can't chart right now. That's a big change." Country radio has made the difference. Increasingly, programmers are willing to take a chance on a good song -- and to reject a bad tune from one of the old warhorses. "For a long time, country was pretty stagnant," says Lisa Smith, country editor of The Garvey Report, a radio trade publication in San Francisco. "It was mainly an artist-based format, not a song-based format. No matter what some artists released, their listeners were loyal. Now it's much more competitive -- there is fabulous new talent out there. The labels went for a time not signing acts, and now they're signing 'em like crazy."
Like everything else on the planet, country's increased popularity is attributed partly to the aging of the baby boomers. The music appeals primarily to folks aged 25 and over and, according to some surveys, country stations draw more adult listeners than any other kind. "I'm not sure anybody under 29 understands a country lyric," says Helton. "You need to have been knocked around a bit."
With respect to the constant demand for new blood, country music is indeed beginning to parallel pop. Case in point: the overwhelming success of Garth Brooks, a competent, occasionally wry ("Friends In Low Places") crooner whose eponymous first album was released by Capitol Nashville in 1989. Barely three years later, he's making music history. In addition to "shipping platinum," as they say, and becoming the first country solo to debut at no. 1, Brooks' first two albums remain chart staples, ranking among the top 10 country albums and the top 50 overall. In the middle of a recession that has pinched many performers at the box office, Brooks sold out the Dallas Reunion Arena in 37 minutes flat, breaking Bruce Springsteen's record; the second show sold out in less than an hour. (The savvy Brooks, incidentally, is charging only $15 a ticket, less than the $18.50 most other country acts ask and far less than the $22.50 many rock acts earn.)
But Brooks is only one of an array of profitable "hat acts." Randy Travis and George Strait blazed the trail, but they've got lots of company now: Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Ricky Van Shelton, Hank Williams Jr., Travis Tritt, Vince Gill, and Dwight Yoakam, to name a few. No coincidence that these guys are (with notable exceptions) muscular and photogenic. Conventional wisdom among record execs in Nashville is that 70 percent of country music revenues are "driven" by women (though Arbitron says the radio audience has been evenly split for years). Moreover, music videos are now an indispensable sales tool.
By and large, hat acts hew closely to the traditional themes and sounds of country music -- an aching heart, a vaguely alcoholic mood, and a heavy foot on the steel pedal. There's a reason for this: Urban Cowboy. Just the memory of it gives most Nashville producers the hives. "They call it sloppy pop, the era after the Urban Cowboy mess," says DuBois. "Even five years ago, every record was trying to be a pop record. Now fewer artists are apologizing for being country."
Says Tony Brown, a producer and vice president at MCA Nashville who used to tour with Elvis and Emmylou Harris: "Everyone tried for so long not to look like country music. They tried to be pop. Then suddenly it was fashionable to wear hats again. Now all the new guys are dressing like old guys, and the old guys are trying to dress like new guys."
But while the hat acts are getting reacquainted with Owen Bradley's ghost, more idiomatic singers also are making significant inroads. Led by the Judds and Reba McEntire -- who is fast becoming a one-woman publishing empire a la Dolly Parton -- women are finding wide acceptance in honkey-tonks and concert halls. Too, after decades as a closed society, country is embracing talented unknowns such as Diamond Rio, Patti Loveless, Billy Dean, Kelly Willis, and Marty Brown. According to Helton, 49 acts hit the top 15 for the first time between 1986 and 1990. So far this year this year, 18 new acts have made it to the top 15. This week, even as Capitol threw a party for Brooks' no. 1 debut, three newcomers -- Doug Stone, Trisha Yearwood, and Mark Chesnutt -- were awarded gold records for debut albums. "When folks come out of the box with gold records, that's amazing," says Helton. "You need singers like Garth Brooks at the top end, but to keep it going you have to have folks at the bottom doing well, too."
"It started with male artists," says Brown, "and it's not been just one or two, as it was during Urban Cowboy. Ten or eleven male acts are now doing incredibly well. And right behind them is a surge in women artists like Carlene Carter and Lorrie Morgan, and I've never seen so many bands. So something is happening now beside just hat acts."
But success has its price. Some of the inventive singers who broke new ground in Nashville -- talents like kd lang, Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, and Chris Isaak -- wound up in a twilight zone between pop and country, approached timidly by radio stations of both formats. (Lang's problems were arguably more political than musical.) Country music still needs them: Even today, its songs too often are formulaic, their execution perfunctory and uninspired. The playlists are rife with heartache and romance, but country writers seem to have trouble with unwieldy social issues (save for the occasional patriotic outburst), with urban life, and with rage, the province of rap.
And though the audience is opening to sophisticated new singers like Mary-Chapin Carpenter, they are finding it increasingly difficult to stay on top. The country charts may soon become as volatile as the pop charts. "The business has grown much more competitive," says DuBois, "because there are many very talented people going for a piece of a pie that hasn't grown that much. They don't have the luxury of having a big hit and then coasting anymore."
In fact, many in the industry wonder if market pressures will fragment country music into several narrower formats: traditional, folk, rockabilly, and so forth. And in a town where a sense of community has always been important, where country music was essentially a family business, today's up-and-comers seem so...determined. As if they were in LA. "I'm afraid it's becoming the mirror image of pop, just not as volatile yet," says Brown. "Everyone wants to make what the New Kids On The Block make, but they want the credibility of Bonnie Raitt or Don Henley."