By Michael McCall
DECEMBER 29, 1997: For country music in 1997, here's how it looked from the top: The genre's biggest star conducted a mutiny at the Nashville branch of his record label; the best-selling female artist created an album that made the Spice Girls sound like grad students in feminist studies; and an overnight teen sensation released an album packed with karaoke favorites and pregame anthems.
At the start of the year, Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, and LeAnn Rimes stood as the year's great money-making hopes for the Nashville music industry. As the year progressed, no one new exploded on the scene to alter that reality, a fact that aptly sums up the industry's current artistic quandary. Worse yet, as leadership figures go, Brooks, Twain, and Rimes all seem less bankable now than they did at the start of year.
Brooks released Sevens, his best album since 1991's No Fences. But, like the fickle rich kid who won't share his toys until he gets everything his way, the star refused to put out his album until the international conglomerate for which he records agreed to clean out the executive suite at Capitol Records. For years, everyone talked about what a "nice" guy Brooks was; he won't have to worry about that tag anymore. The singer's megalomaniacal moves created waves of resentment and uneasiness on Music Row that likely will return to wet his blanket in future years.
Twain used her breakthrough of two years ago to launch a clumsy leap in search of crossover success; although her latest, Come on Over, is still in its early stages, it's not likely to land her anywhere near where she wanted to go. Early response to the album has failed to meet expectations, and it's unlikely that the album will gain excitement as fans discover the lack of quality within. As for Twain's chances of crossing over to the pop market, that seems as likely as Brooks asking Scott Hendricks to produce his next album.
Rimes, meanwhile, followed up the rushed release of her second album, the hackneyed LeAnn Rimes: The Early Years, with another head-scratcher, You Light Up My Life: Inspirational Songs. Though Rimes scored a top pop hit with her version of "How Do I Live"--one of Nashville's biggest crossover hits of the '90s--it didn't seem to generate much noise along Music Row. Perhaps that's because the album is brimming with such lounge-act favorites as "The Rose," "You Light Up My Life," and "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" (as it is misspelled in the credits). To top that off, Rimes added a few gospel tunes, "God Bless America," and another mistitled ringer, "National Anthem." It's her third album in 14 months, and it begs one question: Why?
So much for the year's good news.
Other than that, Music Row appeared determined to see how much meaningless music it could pigeon-drop on the masses. Country radio stations lost listeners in droves, while the corporations that have consumed radio in recent years began changing formats in search of an audience. Country fans were left to hunt hard for something of substance, much less for anything with even a glint of excitement.
It was there to be found, for sure--people just had to look a little harder. In choosing to go against the grain, veteran performers Mark Chesnutt and Kathy Mattea released the best albums of their careers. Patty Loveless, Lee Roy Parnell, and Kim Richey also stood out with consistently strong albums. Matraca Berg returned with another outstanding collection--I just wish someone could explain why such an undeniable and accessible record isn't getting any attention from radio. Don't the programmers regularly chant, "Give us good music and we'll play it"?
Radio also ignored the best of the new faces as well. Sara Evans, The Delevantes, Dean Miller, The Kinleys, Big House, and Noel Haggard all created good, distinctive albums; so far, none has had a breakthrough hit. Had country radio responded to these albums, however, perhaps more people might have tuned in. Instead, radio continues to emphasize the blandest forms of Music Row product, most of it performed by talented youngsters with little discernible personality or character.
In the end, Music Row's ill-formed philosophy of over-grooming new talents and banking on pleasantly timid performers has proven a mistake. But too few decision-makers seem willing to confront the current status quo, and the once-mighty Music Row Titanic keeps sinking. For me, the whole Music Row process is nicely summed up in a line from "Transport Is Arranged," by the rock band Pavement: "A voice coach taught me to sing, he couldn't teach me to love." Country music needs less careful calculation and more real emotion.
The view from the bottom, however, looked much better. While the much-ballyhooed alternative-country movement had its share of trend jumpers and one-dimensional talents, it also embraced a wide swath of exciting, individualistic talents. This year hardly launched the alt-country boom that some predicted--in truth, only a microscopic contingent of hard-core fans seemed to be paying attention. And no one outside that faithful core is hearing the music, which means it remains a decidedly underground phenomenon. But for those willing to wade into the muddy field, there are a lot of good sounds worth harvesting.
So much for the bellyaching. Here's a list of albums--from mainstream country to honky-tonk to country-rock to Americana--that I'll be glad to hear again for years to come.
The Top 10
The next 10: Buddy Miller, Poison Love (HighTone); Wayne Hancock, That's What Daddy Wants (Ark21); Ricky Skaggs, Bluegrass Rules (Rounder); Jack Ingram, Livin' or Dyin' (Rising Tide); Dale Watson, I Hate These Songs (HighTone); Julie Miller, Blue Pony (HighTone); Kathy Mattea, Love Travels (Mercury); The Backsliders, Throwin' Rocks at the Moon (Mammoth/Atlantic); Patty Loveless, Long Stretch of Lonesome (Epic); Kim Richey, Bittersweet (Mercury).
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