The Siege of Nashville

It's easy to think of country music these days as a homogeneous piece of product used primarily as the soundtrack for the Tennessee Nashville Network. TNN is a blisteringly bad but wildly popular cable channel that serves as a kind of MTV for wearers of cowboy hats and Wrangler jeans. A gathering place for the luminaries of modern country, TNN is heavy on airy music and chat shows hosted by beaming, spit-slick bubbleheads such as Lorainne Crook and Charlie Chase, whose Music City Tonight redefines the smarm-and-charm aesthetic of talk television. You'll also see some truly wretched music videos, which cast their subjects in any number of cornball settings. (There is one from a few years back in which the Statler Brothers or the Oak Ridge Boys -- does it matter? -- each take turns courting a white-dressed Southern belle swaying blithely on a porch swing.) The quintessence of TNN, however, comes in their variety of line-dance programs, wherein a saloon full of stiff white people do stiff white dances to stiff white hits. They make Lawrence Welk Show reruns look like hoodoo rhythm parties broadcast from the back alleys of Bourbon Street.

Really, though, it's country radio that should take the the bulk of the blame for the music's sorry condition. Predictably programmed and lacking almost any sense of history, the format is arguably the most irresponsible of any on the airwaves. Although you'll occasionally hear some fiddles and steel guitars in a hit single, most songs have boiled down the legacy of Hank Williams into a thick, gooey soup in which novelty lyrics and sappy romantic sentiments are the main ingredients. Icons from the music's past are cast aside in favor of bland newcomers a la Bryan White and Ty England, while such mediocre talents as Reba McEntire and Alan Jackson are hailed as the queenpins and kingpins of the genre.

Occasionally, some good stuff crawls from the muck to tweak the ears of fans and station programmers. David Ball made country radio fun for a while last year with his debut hit "Thinkin' Problem," while neotraditionalist standard-bearer Marty Stuart usually gets a single or two on the air. Mostly, though, country radio has become a creative bone yard -- the place where innovative ideas go to die.

And it's been that way since the Sixties, when Nashville snubbed the rough-and-tumble likes of honky-tonkers Wynn Stewart, Buck Owens, and Merle Haggard, who responded by saying to hell with the city and created their own country hotbed in Bakersfield, California. When their songs became hits in the face of Nashville's ambivalence, the industry fathers came a'courtin', eager to bring these upstart money makers into the fold. Once there, Stewart lost his focus, while Owens became the pickin'-and-grinnin' co-host of Hee Haw, the forefather of TNN. Only Haggard, an iconoclast who eschewed country trends, managed to sustain an interesting career through the 1980s, despite Nashville's increasing indifference to his highly personal vision.

The new visions now beaming from the outskirts of Nashville will no doubt receive similar treatment, although their collective rebel spirit has stronger ties to the music's history than anything currently slopping around the country charts. This upstart music is made by an eclectic conglomeration of neotraditional songwriters and punk-rock communists, backward-glancing classicists, and roadhouse warriors. Few will ever take a seat across from Crook and Chase, and some aren't half as good as their underground supporters have claimed. Even when the music doesn't work, it at least provides relief from the incessant clatter of Nashville's hit-making machine.

The oddball artist in this hodgepodge of talent is Jim Lauderdale, a Southern California songwriter who's crafted hits for megastars such as George Strait, Vince Gill, and Patty Loveless. He's an oddball because, despite his successful track record, he can't get his own voice on the radio. Of course, it doesn't help that his voice recalls the thick-drawled delivery of country pioneers Ernest Tubb and Lefty Frizzell, which makes him an outcast among today's tepid crooners. His evocative songwriting puts a unique spin on the barroom-and-bedroom themes of traditional honky-tonk, setting him apart from the novelty-crazed tunesmiths who are better suited to write catch phrases for bumper stickers and baseball hats.

Lauderdale's first two albums -- 1991's Planet of Love and last year's Pretty Close to the Truth -- were neotrad gems full of crafty real-life parables and down-and-out laments, all set to the rhythm of a choogling hillbilly freight train. But while his songs were attracting Nashville royalty and drawing approval from rock and country critics, radio folks avoided the albums like a fresh pile of cow poop. Both are no doubt beckoning from a cut-out bin near you.

The exasperation of seeing two great albums die is tangible in "Don't Build Your World Around It," from Every Second Counts (Atlantic), Lauderdale's latest album and the most ambitious musical statement of his brief career. Actually the song offers words of caution to the lovesick, but it moonlights as a comment on Lauderdale's frustrating lack of success: "Sometimes we just can't find the clues," he sings over some rave-up instrumental backing. "We're in the same boat that's getting tossed / Part of the crowd that's gettin' lost."

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