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Nashville Scene 1998 Country In Review

Adherence to formula made for a bad year in country music--but good records still surfaced

By Michael McCall

DECEMBER 28, 1998:  In general, modern country music has rarely received its due from the national media. A few good books and insightful magazine articles on Music Row have been published, but the majority have opted for sensationalism and condescension.

This year, however, a couple of major works took a long look at the Nashville music business. Dreaming Out Loud, a fine book by Bruce Feiler, and Naked Nashville, a documentary series that aired on the Bravo Channel, offered serious, sober, often entertaining, and very enlightening studies of the local music industry. Rightly so, the picture they presented wasn't pretty. Amid the preening vanity of stars and executives, journalists discovered weak-willed performers eager to be manipulated by radio programmers, record producers, and top Music Row bosses.

Feiler's book gained the most attention for its spot-on portrayals of Garth Brooks and Wynonna Judd. But the most telling section was about Wade Hayes, who perfectly epitomizes the prototypical male country singer of the '90s: He's boyishly cute, he owns a capable voice, and he has absolutely no sense of artistry.

Through several long, well-written scenes, Feiler artfully reveals Hayes' overwhelming insecurities. In the dressing room and onstage, the singer comes across as a wallflower with little charisma and no clue about how to seize the moment or embrace the crowd. In the studio, he's even more vapid: As Hayes panics about whether he can deliver or not, Feiler shows how completely the singer relies on his producer for musical arrangements and song choices--and for the confidence and character needed to bring a song to life.

Naked Nashville explores the same dynamic, using Mindy McCready and Keith Harling as two of its primary examples. The documentary shows how McCready gets labeled a troublemaker once she starts expressing her views about her musical direction and her busy work schedule. We made you, she's told outright, so follow our direction or become the latest in a long line of artists discarded along the million-dollar trail of broken dreams.

Harling, meanwhile, represents one of the few new artists lucky enough to get his foot in the door. He did so, we learn, by proving he can write songs as formulaic and meaningless as the ones on country radio. In other words, he didn't get a break because he's distinctive or fresh or ground-breaking or terribly talented. He got an opportunity to make a major-label record because he's as safe and average as most everything else that record buyers are ignoring these days.

What both reports reveal is the Nashville music industry's absolute devotion to formula. Problem is, that formula stopped working a few years ago. No one is buying records by Hayes, Harling, or any of the other cute young guys anymore. Some of the singers' cuts are getting played on the radio, sure, but nobody cares enough to spend hard-earned cash on an entire CD.

These days, the only people selling albums in respectable numbers are those who've rebelled against Music Row, or who've used the system to their own advantage. These are the few success stories of 1998: Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, Dixie Chicks, LeAnn Rimes, Faith Hill, JoDee Messina, Trisha Yearwood. Brooks does whatever the hell he wants, obviously. Twain, after failing miserably with a typical Music Row album, hooked up with a famous rock producer and found a sound that worked. Whatever one thinks of the music she makes, it's undeniably different, sporting a fresh energy and a catchy accessibility that has captured the public's attention.

When the Dixie Chicks cut their major-label debut, they broke several long-standing rules about how records are made on Music Row. After several years of being ignored, they stuck to their guns and eventually got a chance to prove themselves. With 3 million records sold, they're the only truly successful new act to emerge since Rimes and Twain.

Rimes may be making bizarre, even suicidal career choices at this point, but like Twain, she has succeeded by working outside of Music Row; her choice of material certainly doesn't follow established formulas.

In the cases of Hill and Messina, both worked with studio professionals who were newcomers to the inner circle of Music Row producers. In each case, the artist obviously went to great lengths to try something different from what she'd done in the past. And, by defying formula, each reached new creative and commercial heights.

Yearwood, meanwhile, has matured into the artistic conscience of Music Row. Like Patty Loveless, she chooses songs because of how they touch her heart rather than how they'll do on the charts. And, like Loveless, her integrity has earned her more than respect: It has given her career longevity.

These are the lessons Music Row should take into 1999. With Brooks planning a lengthy hiatus, and with Twain and the Dixie Chicks still working older albums, many of those who've been carrying country music in the late '90s won't be around next year to keep things afloat. Brooks promises a duet album, and Tim McGraw will release his next million-seller. Beyond that, everything is a gamble, and the odds aren't in Nashville's favor. Someone better start breaking rules and taking chances--fast.

As for 1998, here are the country and Americana albums that meant the most to me:

1. The Mavericks, Trampoline (MCA) Nashville's hippest band reinvented itself, transforming the lean, cool twang of old into an impassioned form of horn-driven, string-laden, Latin-flavored pop. No Music Row album received more of an advance buzz this year; weeks before its official release, advance tapes of Trampoline were the hottest, most traded, and most talked about recording in years. Country radio, however, refused to give the quartet a chance, although they're certainly no more pop-oriented than Shania Twain or Faith Hill. Since then, The Mavericks have announced their intention to pursue a career outside of Nashville. As with Lyle Lovett, k.d. lang, Rosanne Cash, Nanci Griffith, and Steve Earle, country has missed another opportunity to broaden its ill-defined borders.

2. Vince Gill, The Key (MCA) To bare-boned yet beautifully melodic support, Gill stripped away the pop leanings of his music to concentrate on simple songs that cry with heartbreak and rapture. Again, radio programmers didn't respond well, but it was their loss: This album will likely stand as one of the crowning achievements of Gill's career, and he should be applauded for showing such nerve at a time when everyone else is acting so careful and calculating.

3. Mike Ireland and Holler, Learning How to Live (Sub Pop) Taking on everything from Bakersfield-styled honky-tonk to lush '60s country-pop, Ireland and his band managed to transform personal heartbreak into universal songs that touched an emotional chord.

4. Bad Livers, Industry and Thrift (Sugar Hill) Although this Texas-based acoustic duo remains whimsical, they've moved beyond cutting punk-bluegrass novelties into creating an original hybrid of roots music that encompasses bluegrass, swing, polka, blues, and rock. Highly entertaining.

5. Emmylou Harris, Spyboy (Eminent) On this fine live album, Harris merged the provocative tension of her moody 1996 outing, Wrecking Ball, with the gentler, more conventional style of her earlier hits.

6. Robert Earl Keen, Walking Distance (Arista) Working for the first time with coproducer Gurf Morlix--best known for his work with Lucinda Williams--Keen spins colorful, epic tales without ever sounding excessively wordy or unduly complex. At this point, he has emerged as one of the best story-song writers of the '90s.

7. Chris Knight, Chris Knight (Decca) Though uneven, Chris Knight's debut was the strongest artistic statement by a Nashville newcomer in 1998. In vivid stories of stubborn rural folk, he knows how to set a scene and capture the complex desires and insecurities shared by loners, lovers, miscreants, and regular guys.

8. Ralph Stanley and Friends, Clinch Mountain Country (Rebel) At age 71, bluegrass patriarch Ralph Stanley challenged a long list of famous guests (including Bob Dylan, Vince Gill, and Alison Krauss) to match him as he soared into his distinctive brand of stark, driving mountain music. With only a couple of exceptions, his presence brought out the best in all concerned.

9. Dwight Yoakam, Long Way Home (Reprise) After broadening his artistic scope through most of the '90s, Yoakam put his honky-tonk boots back on and kicked his way through a set of barroom songs and mournful country ballads.

10. Paul Burch and the WPA Ballclub, Wire to Wire (Checkered Past) On his second album, Burch took an artistic leap from fine country-music traditionalist to gifted musical iconoclast. A few traits carry over from his first collection: He still sports shrewd humor, melancholy wistfulness, and clever storytelling, and he still delves deeply into '40s hillbilly swing and '50s honky-tonk. But in arrangements, lyrics, and overall tone, he is now forging a more modern, more distinctly personal, and more engaging sound of his own.

The next 10: Willie Nelson, Teatro (Island); Various Artists, Real: The Tom T. Hall Project (Sire); Bobby Hicks, Fiddle Patch (Rounder); The Fly-Rite Boys, Big Sandy Presents the Fly-Rite Boys (HighTone); Gary Allan, It Would Be You (Decca); Shane Stockton, Stories I Could Tell (Decca); Blue Highway, Midnight Storm (Rebel); Salamander Crossing, Bottleneck Dreams (Signature-Sounds); Heather Myles, Highways and Honky Tonks (Rounder); Allison Moorer, Alabama Song (MCA).

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