When the curtain came up on the 35th annual Academy of Country Music awards last May at the Universal Amphitheatre, country icons George Strait and Alan Jackson tore into Murder on Music Row,the controversial song that bemoans the fact that "someone killed country music, cut out its heart and soul."
Academy members stood and applauded when the song ended. And then they gave their top prizes that evening to Shania Twain, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw and Lonestar, acts that are about as country as a four-course meal with Donald Trump in a French restaurant. The message to traditionalists such as Strait and Jackson was loud and clear: Nice song, passé sentiment.
But in its headstrong rush to move units and gain mass acceptance, Nashville may well be alienating the core group of fans who are most loyal to the music.
"There's been a tremendous slump all over the country," says Bill Mack, whose syndicated radio show Country Crossroads is heard on more than 800 stations. "The problem is that the radio stations play the same songs, and all the songs sound pretty much the same. The product is hurting, and the music companies and radio stations are doing a pretty good job of destroying it even more."
Adds journalist Stacy Harris, whose Stacy's Music Row Report Internet newsletter is Nashville's equivalent of The Drudge Report: "Country music has always been cyclical. Where the focus was once attaining respectability, the goal is now to find and maintain an audience that is much larger and much younger than is realistic for the format to sustain. The result is that the young audience continues to be fickle -- and therefore unpredictable -- while the older, loyal audience is turning away as it can no longer identify with either the new artists or their music."
Country's last boom/bust period came in the wake of Urban Cowboy, mechanical bulls and J. R. Ewing. Bland, middle-of-the-road ballads and rock-tinged anthems ruled the day until new traditionalists such as Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam and Strait came along in the mid- to late 1980s and reworked the genre's classic sound into new and fresh music that was still pure country.
Then Garth Brooks hit it big, and country music has never quite recovered.
Brooks's blend of pop, folk, rock and honky-tonk made him Nashville's biggest superstar, becoming the first country artist to debut a record at the top of the charts ( Ropin' the Wind in 1992).
But his mass appeal came with a price -- namely, the music. The more albums Brooks sold, the more he became obsessed with chart positions and gimmick marketing. Essentially, he has become the McDonald's of modern music, his laser focus trained not on the songs, but on the number of units sold as he edges closer and closer to the Beatles' all-time record.
"Garth Brooks might have been the best and worst thing to happen to country music in its history," says John Malone, program director for Nashville's legendary country radio station WSM-AM, originator of the Grand Ole Opry. "Record companies became so dazzled by his success that they're now focusing on developing acts that are marketable to the masses instead of looking at what's special about country music. In the process, the music has lost a lot of its identity and become so much cookie-cutter product."
Nowhere is that more evident than in the tightly formatted playlists of country radio, which seems to repeat the same 40 songs by pop-oriented acts like Twain, Hill and a dozen other interchangeable acts on a continuous loop throughout the day.
"So many of the artists sound so much alike, I don't know who's singing half the time -- and I'm a disc jockey," Mack says ruefully.
Murder on Music Row, written by bluegrass artist Larry Cordle along with Larry Shell, submits that "old Hank [Williams]wouldn't have a chance on today's radio," and that, likewise, living legends Merle Haggard and George Jones would be told to "pack up and go back home."
The song hardly exaggerates the case, since none of these artists -- even Jones, who just took home a Grammy for his most recent album -- can find any airplay on such country-hit radio stations as KZLA. The situation is so comically dire that after Johnny Cash's Unchained won the Grammy in 1998 for best country album, his record company took out a full-page advertisement in Billboard "thanking" country radio for its support. The photo with the ad (taken during Cash's legendary San Quentin concert) showed Cash defiantly giving the camera his middle finger.
"Through research, we just don't see enough of a call to play the older songs," says R.J. Curtis, program director of Los Angeles country station KZLA. "That's not to say we don't like that music. But somebody like Johnny Cash would sound too extreme next to most of the music we play."
Dallas radio personality Mark Edwards, who hosts the syndicated Country Coast To Coast program, concurs.
"We're not driving 1957 automobiles, are we?" Edwards asks. "Music changes."
But for programmers such as Mack and Malone, juxtaposing a singer like Cash with modern artists who stay true to country's traditions (the Dixie Chicks, Brooks and Dunn, Montgomery Gentry) has proved to be a winning formula.
"We also expose listeners to a lot of great new music not getting airplay on country hit radio," Malone says, citing Dolly Parton's bluegrass album and Loretta Lynn's new single Country In My Genes as examples.
Adds Mack: "We get a tremendous response to the older songs, and it's not limited to the older audience. College students call all the time to request Hank Williams."
Indeed, ratings for both WSM and Mack's program show strong support from listeners in the 25-to-54 age group, radio's most desirable demographic. The reason behind the healthy listenership isn't hard to fathom.
"Great songs, great singers," Harris says.
Just how timeless the music is can be heard in Columbia Legacy's marvellous American Milestones reissue series. The label recently remastered a second batch of classic country albums, including Willie Nelson's wistful concept collection Red Headed Stranger, Jones's 1980 landmark I Am What I Am and the complete version of Cash's San Quentin concert. This is enduring music, as vital today as when it was made decades ago. But you'll have to buy the albums to hear the songs; country hit radio won't play them.
"In this marketplace, you need songs that attract a mass audience," Curtis says. "You want the traditional country sound, but listeners don't want a format dominated by songs that are too twangy, particularly here in Los Angeles."
But even without the twang, KZLA's ratings aren't particularly stellar.
Harris says the decline of local country radio isn't surprising; the situation is occurring throughout the country.
"There are two audiences, the core country fans and then the people who couldn't name an artist until Garth Brooks came along," she says. "The record companies and radio stations are chasing the latter audience, and the real fans are being left out in the cold. And they're not happy about it, which is reflected in low ratings and poor record sales."
Will stations be able to hold on until country's next boom? Curtis, who has been with the station on and off since 1980, believes his signal will stay country; Malone thinks new artists like Brad Paisley will rejuvenate the genre's traditional sound.
Mack's optimism, though, is guarded.
"It's always taken that traditional country sound to bring the music back," he says. "But right now, nobody wants to take a chance and play the music people are asking for. A DJ at one of the FM stations in Dallas was telling me that on the weekends they play Hank Williams and Hank Snow because the station doesn't take the ratings seriously on the weekends."
" 'We get to play the music people want to hear,' this guy tells me. I told him to think about that statement, because it's that kind of backward thinking that has got us in the fix that we're in."